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The So-called Will To Believe

( Originally Published 1915 )

THE brilliant writer on psychology, whose name has been most conspicuously connected with the phrase chosen for the title to this Chapter, announced his doctrine in a paper read some twenty years ago before the Philosophical Club of Yale University. Quite naturally, it was given at the first in a comparatively undeveloped, not to say crude form. But so suggestive was the phrase that it was speedily taken up by a series of controversial essays which, while few or none of them penetrated deeply enough into the subject to effect a complete analysis, served to assist its practical applications by clearing a path between two extreme and equally untenable views. One of these views attached itself to the most extravagant form of the Pragmatism which then followed. It assisted this Pragmatism, through an appeal to the emotions and the prevailing reluctance to think profoundly and conclusively, in its attacks on so-called "Rationalism." Belief, if fervid enough in feeling, and sufficiently backed up by the wish to have things really so, and by the impression that the practical interests of men would fare better if things were really so, was made to usurp the province of intellect. To the work of clear thinking and carefully controlled argument (to refer again to the words already quoted from Mr. Balfour) a "petty rôle in human affairs" was somewhat contemptuously assigned.

In another system of philosophy—that, especially, of M. Bergson — intellect was essentially separated from so-called intuition, and the latter applauded as a distinct and superior kind of mental functioning for the attainment of truth. All these forms of the depreciation of the rationalistic, the only scientific and philosophical method of systematizing and making understandable the facts and laws of human experience, both with things and with selves, were really offspring in pretty nearly direct line of Schopenhauer's theory of "The Will to Live." For as every student knows, Schopenhauer reduced the intellect to the "petty rôle" of the tool, or slave, serving in a purely mechanical and unconscious way the purposes of the blind and unreasoning Will to Live.

This extreme style of appreciating the province, the rights, and the obligations of the "will to believe," aroused and fostered, as a matter of course, the opposite no more tenable, and perhaps little less dangerous, extreme. The latter exaggerated the claims of the positive sciences; denied the freedom of the Self in the midst, so to say, of its beliefs, whether instinctive or rational, whether of degrading credulity or of exalted faith; and, on the contrary, affirmed the right and the possibility, and even, where it admitted any such thing as a genuinely moral attitude of mind, the obligation, to live by pure intellect alone. Human beliefs, how-ever precious, ancient and practically useful, if they could not be demonstrated in geometrical fashion, or derived by strictly experimental methods under the safeguards against error which apply to the laboratories of physics, chemistry and biology, were to be at once assigned to the scrap-heap of "exploded" superstitions. On the one hand, then, we seemed seduced into a hot-house of unreasoned beliefs; on the other, driven into a desert barren of all the faiths, hitherto esteemed most precious, and found most practically useful by all humanity.

In beginning to discuss the essential morality of believing, and the relations which our faiths sustain to the free and responsible development of the Self, and to the honorable and safe con-duct of the practical life, it is important to avoid both of the untenable extremes which have just been described. Such an escape can be effected, however, only if we grasp firmly the essence of the truth embodied in the phrase, "The will to believe"; and then somewhat carefully think our way through its limitations. That there is essential truth in this way of stating the attitude of mind involved in believing, we might argue from the hoary age and respectable lineage of the statement itself. For the doctrine of the will to believe in its modern form contains nothing essentially new.

Of all the ancient writers on themes of philosophy in its application to life, if we may judge from the fragments remaining, there were few or none who combined common-sense with shrewd reflective thinking in a degree superior to the lame slave, Epictetus. In his "Discourse of Eloquence" he says: "Whether we ought to believe or disbelieve what is said; or whether, if we do believe, we ought to be moved by it, or not; what is it that decides us? Is it not the faculty of will?" And "Concerning the Academics," who refused to believe in the existence of universal truths, he declares : "Now there are two sorts of obstinacy; the one, of the intellect; the other, of the will. A man may obstinately set himself not to assent to evident truths, nor to quit the defence of contradictions. We all dread a bodily paralysis, and would make use of every contrivance to avoid it; but none of us is troubled about a paralysis of the soul." The best of the ancient Stoic doctrine, like the Christian doctrine, was essentially this: that a man's attitude of will toward the Divine Will, as the latter is expressed in all man's experiences, is what de-termines practical success in the conduct of life. If, then, we consider faith in God to be the essential of subjective religion, the will to believe becomes the ethical guaranty of a truly blessed and noble life. The faith that saves, wills as does the Divine Will.

In all modern literature, at least of the philosophical type, it is in the treatment of "Faith" by Fichte in the Third book of his "The Des-tiny of Man," that we find the loftiest and most courageous defence of this attitude toward truth and reality, of the free will of man. "Shall I refuse," he asks, "obedience to that Inward Voice? I will not do it. I will choose voluntarily the destination which the impulse imputes to me. And I will grasp, together with this determination, the thought of its reality and truth, and of the reality of all that it pre-supposes. I will hold to the view-point of natural thinking, which this impulse assigns to me, and renounce all those morbid speculations and refinements of the understanding which alone could make me doubt its truth. I understand Thee now, Sublime Spirit! . . . I have found the organ with which I grasp this reality and with it, probably, all other reality. Knowledge is not that organ. No knowledge can prove and demonstrate itself. Every knowledge presupposes a higher as its foundation; and this upward process has no end. It is Faith, that voluntary reposing in the view which naturally presents itself, because it is the only one by which we can fulfil our destination — this it is that first gives assent to knowledge, and exalts to certainty and conviction what might otherwise be mere illusion. It is not knowledge, but a determination of the will to let knowledge pass for valid. I hold fast, then, forever to this expression. It is not mere difference of terms, but a real deep-grounded distinction, exercising a very important influence on my whole mental disposition. All my conviction is only faith, and is derived from a disposition of the mind, not from the understanding."

In order to appreciate the essential truth which is in all the protestations, both ancient and modern, of the dependence of one's beliefs and faiths on that active attitude toward them which we call the will, and as well the legitimate claims to right and obligation, and to a large practical utility, which this attitude involves, we must clear our minds of the false contrasts and oppositions that are so often involved in the language employed by the disputants on the different sides. Stated in a broad and general way, the truth is involved in an undoubted fact of experience. The beliefs and faiths of mankind, whether of the scientific, social, moral or religious sort, are not just passively received and passively continued in the possession of our minds and in the control of our lives. We are not altogether slavishly obsessed by our beliefs. They depend, in some degree atleast on our attitude toward them as being ourselves free wills, — wishing, desiring,- hoping, choosing, and acting according to these wishes, desires, hopes, and choices.

But especially must it be made clear that our rational natures issue imperious and unceasing demands upon us to bring our wishes, desires, hopes, and choices into accord with reason, and with the facts of reality, and with the obligations of morally right conduct. Hence, we, in some sort, essay as wills to determine what our beliefs and faiths shall be, and as to how they shall shape themselves in their assumption to take control of our lives. But this freedom, like all human freedom, is more or less strictly limited, dependent upon heredity, environment, habit, and the thousands of varying degrees and shades in combination of those restrictive forces which condition the development of the infinite individuality of personal life.

Nor are the conditions, that limit and vary the amount and kind of freedom in different persons, making the will to believe much more rational and efficient in some cases than in others, determined wholly by the individual peculiarities of these different persons. They are also quite as strictly, and in a valuable way, determined by the beliefs and faiths themselves. For there are some beliefs which almost any man can easily learn to throw off ; or, on the contrary, learn to accept by an act of will. And of these there are not a few which it is well worth one's while to throw off; or, on the other hand, highly desirable promptly to accept. But there are other beliefs and faiths which the strongest and best disciplined wills can scarcely, by possible stress of effort, dispense with, or treat as of no account; and woe to the man who voluntarily succeeds in suppressing or obscuring them. There are still others, hitherto deep-seated in the minds of the race, that seem destined to profound modification, if not to final dissolution.

In order to bring our beliefs into the realm of morality, and so to give chance for a satisfactory answer to the practical question, What should I, in fact, believe? two things are indispensable. The attempt must be made to estimate these beliefs in the light of their claim to be reasonable; and the influence of the active and self-controlling Self must be thrown into the scale on the side of their reasonableness. What constitutes the "reasonableness" of any particular belief or faith is a problem which deserves the most careful consideration. It is enough at present to say, that the satisfaction which belief affords to certain affections and emotions, and the usefulness which certain beliefs have in prompting the worthier interests of a practical sort, while not the only marks of rational significance, are by no means the least worthy of recognition and of influence in determining the wisdom of the choice.

It is the province of intellect to work at the task of exploring and estimating the reasonableness of our beliefs scientific and social, and of our ethical and religious faiths. In this task it — to speak figuratively — employs will; more properly expressed, it is itself active intellect, willing and self-directing mind. The results of its work impose upon the person a more distinctly moral kind of activity; this consists in the choice of the worthier, because more reasonable, among our beliefs, and in the cultivation of the habits of thought and conduct which place these beliefs in the control of the practical life. Thus in every form of science, all the powers of accurate observation, keen analysis, experimental testing, and logical inference, are employed to discover, so far as is possible, what one of two contrasted or conflicting beliefs is most reasonable. The decision is apt to be governed by only varying degrees of probability; but it binds the mind to a choice which has a certain measure of moral significance. So, also, among the obscure and seemingly confused and conflicting instincts, blindly motived tendencies, and beliefs or personal faiths, which so largely regulate human social intercourse, and which make it to be the complicated and largely inexplicable thing that it really is, the intelligence of the students of human nature (and to this class of students every human being is in some sort forced to belong) is from time to time making distinctions as to their correspondence with the realities of the physical World and with the interests of the developing race. Thus these beliefs and faiths are made more obviously reasonable, or else, being convicted of too large a measure of unreason are rendered fit to be cast out and be burned, like the chaff which has been separated out of the wheat.

It is, however, in respect of its moral and religious beliefs and faiths, that the race has always enlisted the most highly imaginative, conscientiously logical, and strenuously devoted work of the inquiring and critical mind. Out of the effort to render these beliefs and faiths more reasonable, all the ethics, the theology, the philosophy, and much of the literature and art of humanity, has derived its motives and directed its course. That the intellect of the race has not as yet reduced them to the terms of exact knowledge is neither to the discredit of the intellect nor of the beliefs and faiths them-selves. If the failure illustrates the limitations — but by no means, the "petty rôle"— of the one, it does not demonstrate, or even credibly suggest, the unreasonableness of the other. For while morality and religion cannot afford to flout at the demands of intellect to make themselves more clear and apprehensible, if not more certainly matters of demonstration, their very nature renders them essentially unassailable by the destructive work of all rationalistic methods. These spheres of human experience are obligated to offer to the mind who has the righteous "will to believe" an ever brightening aspect of "sweet reasonableness." In morals and religion, Faith and Reason must be united by an act of Will.

But just as the will to believe must, on the one hand, be deferential to the reasonableness of its object, so on the other hand, must it purify itself from all admixture of base motives, if it aims at the approval of moral consciousness. Not to regard the reasonableness of the belief to which the will is asked to attach itself, is to run the peril of an immoral choice. But he who wills to believe this rather than that, simply because this rather than that would more effectively serve his selfish ends, has already succumbed to the temptation which is the chief peril of all immorality. Disregard of sound reasons, issuing in the irrational or unreflective will to believe, is morally illegitimate will. It is will contributing to erroneous and practically misleading belief. But the will to believe, which is determined by greed, lust, partisanship, or other selfish considerations, is the very opposite of that good will in which the essence of goodness has so often been made to consist.

That what men wish to be true, they are, other things being equal, inclined to believe is true, is a practical conclusion which has been consecrated and enforced by much experience. To be sure, there are temperaments which, especially when they have been chastened by much disappointing experience, have come to believe that what they wish to believe is, for that very absurd reason, all the less entitled to be believed as true. But setting aside these melancholy cases, it is notable, especially among the youthful and among all conspicuously hopeful souls, that their beliefs are very much influenced to turn in the direction of their wishes. The wish influences the belief, however, through the will, if indeed it influences it at all. There are several ways in which this influence may be exerted. In one or more of these ways this influence is actually exerted. For example: What one wishes to believe, to the arguments for that one wills to give attention. On the contrary, one wills to give less attention to the opposite belief, or to withdraw the attention altogether from it. Especially in matters of morals and religion, a vast multitude of men will not take their reasonableness into serious consideration; either because they do not wish certain beliefs to be true, or because they have already established their beliefs according to opposing tendencies. For not to wish at all, may lead to as unsatisfactory choices of one's faiths as to wish too violently, or to be guided by wishes that are selfish and prejudiced.

The influences of current opinion are also most powerful over the will to believe. To believe differently from the great majority, — and this especially in important matters having moral or religious import, — puts a more or less definite strain from the feeling of responsibility upon the will to believe. This is precisely as it should be. For it is common opinion about matters, which have not as yet become, and perhaps never can become, matters of knowledge, that constitutes the chiefest and most valuable bond uniting any community in a social way, and binding the entire race into a spiritual unity. But the demands of reasonableness, although the wide-spread and persistence of beliefs is not the least important proof of reasonableness, are for the freedom of the will to believe, more commanding and more righteous, than the mere opinions of the most overwhelming majority. And history is full of instances where the faiths of a few, who appealed to the reasonableness of these faiths, came at the last to triumph over the beliefs unreasoningly prevalent among the majority.

Some fruitful thoughts concerning the nature and province of the will in believing, flow from the fact that certain human beliefs arrange themselves in pairs, both of which cannot be true, but one of which must be true. This fact seems to force upon every thoughtful mind the necessity of a choice. And it must be a choice of beliefs rather than of knowledges; because the evidence is by no means conclusive — and in some instances, it is not even get-at-able — in either direction. In the region of abstract thought, this fact was much exploited by Sir William Hamilton in his "Law of the Conditioned"; by Dean Mansel in his "Limits of Religious Thought"; and by Mr. Spencer in his attempt to reconcile science and religion on the basis that the Power believed in as manifesting itself in all the phenomena is essentially the "Unknowable." Something of the same sort has been more recently done by Mr. Bradley in his brilliant exposition and criticism of human beliefs as appertaining to "Appearance and Reality." For instance — to take our illustration from the first mentioned of these authors: Space must be conceived of, if conceived of at all, as either in reality infinite or in reality conditioned or limited. But we cannot imagine, much less know it in either way. Our knowledge, therefore, moves along a sort of middle line, in neither one of the two extremes of which can we believe, for impossibility of imagination limits such belief; but one of which we must consider to be really true. In religion, according to Dean Mansel's now almost forgotten book, our principal faiths with regard to the being of God are of essentially the same sort, so far as the grounds on which they repose are concerned. For ends of practical good, we choose between contradictories, neither of which is capable of being reasonable according to the demands for satisfaction of either intellect or imagination.

With regard to all such beliefs as the fore-going, when considered as a basis for practical morality or religion, not to say as affording any clue to a reasonable ground for either science or philosophy, or even for successful guessing or "trowing," one thing is enough to say. The substance of them resolves itself at once into nothing better than vaporous abstractions, to which no thing in reality corresponds. Or, even if this be not so, they do not afford grounds or guardians of belief or faith of any sort. They end in an agnosticism so profound that it cannot even state itself in terms intelligible to human minds without involving itself in hopeless absurdity. If the contradictory conclusions derived from these abstractions were applicable to real things and actual transactions and relations, there could be neither knowledge nor belief, statable or defensible. We may prove that the space and time between the swiftly running Achilles and the slowly moving tortoise, or between the bow-string and the target when the flying arrow sets out for its mark, are capable of division and subdivision ad indefinitum, in a never-ending series of "little zeros" of diminishing numerical value. But we cannot be asked to believe that Achilles cannot actually overtake the tortoise, or the arrow reach its mark; for we know that both events are not only possible but sure to take place; and we can tell to within the fraction of a second how much time they will require for their actualizing. Neither can we be asked to choose between a God who is "The Infinite," or "The Absolute," and a man-like deity who lacks even as much of freedom, and dignity of power, and excellence of wisdom, as we know ourselves capable of attaining. In general, we cannot be asked to will to believe in the applicability to reality of either one of two incompatible and equally inconceivable abstractions. Incompatible abstractions have no right to determine or to limit either our knowledge or our faith with regard to experienced realities.

Besides these contrasted or contradictory abstractions, with regard to which the attitude of indifference or of complete agnosticism is the only rational one, there are other "pairs of beliefs," where it is desirable or imperative that the will to believe should grasp firmly one of the two. For such beliefs, there are reasons on one side, and reasons on the other and opposite side. Yet, only one of the two must represent the truth of reality. Perhaps we despair of sure knowledge as to which of the two beliefs is really true. But for purposes of understanding the world, or safe-conducting of the practical life, we feel bound to make a sort of choice between the two. Of such beliefs, many are comparatively trivial, while others belong to the most profound and influential of all similar attitudes of mind.

As lying at the foundations and defining the goal of all science, there are two contrasted if not opposite views of the cognizable complex of things and souls, of what science calls "Nature," philosophy sometimes calls "The Being of the World," and poetry "The Cosmos," or some other imaginative term. On the one hand, this complex may be believed in as in reality nothing more than what the positive sciences know it to be, — namely, a mechanism of motions of visible and tangible masses and molecules, related in an imaginary time and space, in ways approximately corresponding to mathematical formulas. And to some minds this belief presents many evidences in favor of its rationality. Indeed, if we check our inquiry at certain fixed limits, deny our imagination its higher flights, repress some of our intellectual aspirations and other emotions, this belief would seem to have the greater weight of evidence in its favor. On the other hand, there is the opposed belief, which sees Mind and Will and other spiritual characteristics, even of the ethical order, underlying, interpenetrating, and controlling all the mechanism. This is the faith in a world of reason as the only real and satisfactory explanation of the world of sense. Those who hold this faith claim — and with good show of practical fruits — that it is really much the more satisfactory to the rational sentiments and ethical needs of humanity. We do not say that every student of the world from the scientific point of view must choose between these two conflicting beliefs; for by no means every so-called "scientist" feels the compulsion to use his powers of reflective thinking, and attain the faiths that follow, to any high degree. But we do think that any one who reflects upon the knowledge of things visible as urging the mind to the belief in the invisible, will finally see the propriety and the utility of making this choice.

So, too, in the realms of the social, the moral, and the religious concerns of humanity, there are pairs of important and comprehensive but rival beliefs, between which it is highly desirable, if not quite imperative, that every thoughtful man should make a choice. Such are the beliefs of Pessimism and Optimism in the interpretation of history, of Idealism and Utilitarianism in ethics, of Theism and Atheism or Agnosticism in religion.

It is scarcely necessary to illustrate the important part which the choice of beliefs plays in the daily conduct of every human life, - especially so far as every life is conducted with some regard for the consequences of conduct in more or less full view. In business, men face such calls upon the will to believe every day of their lives. Shall this customer be trusted, or not? Shall this opportunity for investment be accepted or rejected? Shall this signature be believed to be genuine, or a forgery? Which of two diseases shall the physician believe to be indicated by the symptoms of the patient? And which of the two physicians, who diagnose the disease differently, shall the patient believe? A choice must be made between two beliefs, and the evidence for either is far from being clear. In some cases, indeed, it seems a sort of "toss-up" which way the will to believe should turn. In other cases we try, with more or less success, to convince ourselves that the evidence inclines, at least slightly, in favor of one or the other of the two beliefs. We de-sire to avoid the appearance of having chosen unreasonably or on grounds of mere caprice.

It seems, then, that the very nature of human beliefs, both as attitudes of mind and as related in reality to the objects of these beliefs, makes them dependent in a measure on human wills. They are attitudes of the Self, involving emotional stirrings, sentimental satisfactions, important practical needs; but they also make demands upon the activities of imagination, intellect, intuitive insight and calculated pre-science as to probable results. They thus urge and stimulate that self-control which is the most precious divine gift to the spirit of man. And being measurably subject to self-control in the interests of their own reasonableness and use-fulness, they are moral as well as mental affairs. We may not, therefore, raise the question, "What should I believe?" — without the plain implication that our beliefs are no unimportant part of our equipment for the upright life. Not only does action depend on wish and desire in a sort of mechanical and half-physical way; but belief depends on choice in a manner corresponding to the rights and interests of the free spirit in man. The morality of the exercise of our will to believe, upon our accepted or rejected beliefs and faiths, is a sort of variable coefficient of our power to render them in harmony with the conclusions of the intellect and the higher interests of life. In the attempt to do this, however, we must never fail to remember certain essential differences between knowledge and even the most reasonable and well-founded beliefs. We must never forget that the good and wise man lives by his faiths even more than by the things which he surely knows and can state in acceptable scientific terms, —thus impressing them irresistibly upon his fellow men.

The practical import of the true doctrine of the will to believe is to put every man on his guard toward the subject of his beliefs. The attitude of mind, to which we give this somewhat obscure and mystical title, should not be left to caprice or to hap-hazard, so to say. It is an enormously important thing for any individual, what his beliefs and non-beliefs really are. We are obligated to a careful selection among our beliefs. As capable of developing a modicum, if not a high grade of moral freedom, we have the permission of nature and of society to make this selection. We have the permission of nature; this permission is embodied in the very gift of moral freedom. We can, as a matter of fact, have something to say as to what we shall believe; and as to what degree of the confidence of belief we shall put into this or that matter soliciting belief. In no other sphere of our activity is society so much obliged to let us alone, whether it wishes to or not, as in the matter of our beliefs. Society is, indeed, like many of our individual acquaintances, often troublesomely curious, either in a friendly or a hostile way, to control our beliefs. But try as hard as it may, unless we will, it cannot compel them. More than any other part of our experience and our development, our beliefs and our faiths remain as we will to have them. This incomparable freedom of belief is, however, no safeguard against an intolerable and degrading bondage to belief. It is, on the other hand, an exhortation to choose the best — the most reasonable and worthy and practically serviceable of beliefs.

Without this will to believe, in matters involving moral and religious truths, no man's path could be made tolerably clear, either for this life, or as to the life beyond this, — whether there be any such life, its nature, its issues, its awards. For as to these things, the intuitive vision of faith must take the place of the vision of the senses and of the unbiased calculations of science. "To see! to see!" says Conrad, "this is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity. To have his path made clear for him is the aspiration of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous existence." The path along which our ideals are made clear is the path of faith. Will is the helmsman, and reason the compass, which must lay the course when no harbor is in view to sense.

To gain this vision of the "path made clear," however, one must never throw the weight of , the will on the side of the wish, if the wish is selfish, partisan, or nconsiderate. The will-to-believe what is true is the only rational and safe kind of the will-to-believe. The moral principle regulating the maxim is — not, that is true which we will to believe true; but our steadfast will must be to believe what has most seeming really to be true.

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