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William James, ThoemmesPhilosophy 302: Ethics
William James, "The Will to Believe"

Abstract: James argues that when some hypotheses of ultimate concern arise,  if we do not choose, we lose any possibility for meaningful encounters because our faith pragmatically shapes future outcomes.

Tutorial Notes based on Chapter 13, William James, "The Will to Believe," Introduction to Ethical Studies: An Open Source Reader

1. Carefully explain James's genuine option theory. In his characterization of three types of options, does James commit the fallacy of false dichotomy?

2. How can one be sure an option is momentous? Is is possible some momentous options are not evident to us at the time they occur in our lives? Is is possible for us to obtain a second chance to decide a momentous option? Can you construct necessary and sufficient conditions for an option to be a momentous one?

3. James applies his theory to morals, social relations, and religion. Are there any other dimensions of living which should be included? Why cannot the genuine option theory be applied to the scientific method? How is option theory applied to the problem of free will?

4. Is acceptance of the genuine option theory and James's thesis, itself, a momentous option in a person's life? Discuss. Would such a decision be related in any manner to the philosophy of existentialism?

5. Can you construct an example where James's thesis is false? I.e., is it possible for our passional nature to decide an option which cannot be decided on intellectual grounds and have a disastrous result?

6. Can you think of two or three different kinds of examples where "faith in a fact can help create the fact"? How would this kind of faith differ from Nietzsche's notion of truth as "irrefutable error."


1. Carefully explain James's genuine option theory. In his characterization of three types of options, does James commit the fallacy of   false dichotomy?
  1. Hypothesis is anything proposed to be believed.

    1. A live hypothesis appears to be a genuine possibility to whomever it is proposed; whereas, a dead hypothesis does not appear to be a real possibility to whom it is proposed.

    2. Whether a hypothesis is alive or dead may well largely depend upon the situations we have been exposed to in the past.

    3. E.g., to study Hegel might be a live hypothesis to a philosophy major and might be a dead hypothesis to a biology major.

  2. An Option is a person's decision among hypotheses. A living option is living, forced, and momentous.

    1. A living option in one in hypotheses are live, i.e., they are real possibilities for someone. A living option for someone reading this tutorial might well be to understand some ideas in philosophy.

    2. A forced option is a dilemma— the hypothesis cannot be avoided. I.e., for someone enrolled in this class to come to class or not is forced..

    3. A momentous option is one that is unique and may well be one's only opportunity. The choice is not trivial, but significant, because one only has one chance to do it.

 

2. How can one be sure an option is momentous? Is is possible some momentous options are not evident to us at the time they occur in our lives? Is is possible for us to obtain a second chance to decide a momentous option? Can you construct necessary and sufficient conditions for an option to be a momentous one?

 

  1. A momentous option cannot clearly defined because future opportunities cannot be known with certainty.

    1. Using James' example, one might miss the opportunity to sail with Nanson, but subsequently Nanson's ship the Fram might sink at the harbor. When Nanson decides to sail again one could seize the opportunity which seemingly was lost the first time.

    2. In any person's life, one might not be able to distinguish between momentous and non-momentous events. Some dead hypotheses are thrust upon one and become momentous options.

  2. James' thesis is "When our intellect cannot solve a genuine option, emotionally we must decide."

    1. Belief in a state of affairs can help that state of affairs come true. If one believes that one can do well, one probably will do better than if one believes one won't do well.

    2. An Esprit de corps has an effect on outcomes.

    3. Jean-Paul Sartre was influenced by this essay. Sartre points out that "not to choose" is a choice. "Half-choices such as following the crowd, our parents, or our friends, is one way we avoid responsibility for our own lives. We play it safe because if things go wrong, we can always say, "See what you made me do."

    4. Tulku in his Skillful Means tells the story of the rabbit and the lion:

      When the lion cornered the rabbit and there appeared to be no escape, the rabbit said, "You certainly have a lot of courage lion to try to catch someone who has razor-sharp ears that can cut you to pieces."

      The lion just laughed, and while he was laughing the rabbit lowered his ears, ran under him, turned, and said, "Oops, to low." The lion come to attention just as the rabbit hopped over the top of him. The rabbit said, "Oops, too high—but I think I have it just right now."


      When the rabbit tuned to face the lion again, the lion was gone.

  3. A necessary condition for a momentous option might be the circumstance where a person has the power to impose a life-changing value on what is chosen. In a trivial sense, every moment has the possibility of being momentous since it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can never be recovered. Probably, a sufficient condition for a momentous option for an individual would singular.

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3. James applies his theory to morals, social relations, and religion. Are there any other dimensions of living which should be included? Why cannot the genuine option theory be applied to the scientific method? How is option theory applied to the problem of free will?

 

  1. The genuine option theory applies only to human behavior so the theory would be relevant to most things involving psychological import.

  2. Even so, James points out that facts are irrelevant to possibilities. A genuine option cannot be known by factual inquiry.

    1. In ethics, a genuine option could be the life-changing affirmation to take charge of one's own life and to accept personal responsibility for one's choices.

    2. In social relations, a genuine option could be the life-changing affirmation to chose social service as a life's vocation.

    3. In religion, the choice of a personal religion could be a genuine option. Pascal's Wager would serve as an example.

    4. Any instance where there is a life-changing choice could be a genuine option.

  3. Scientific research programs operate pragmatically. A researcher might have only one chance to verify or confirm the outcome of an experiment because of personal risk, singular events, or huge costs.
  4. The genuine option theory is vital to the existence of free will according to James. If I believe I have free will, I will act accordingly (I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by so believing), but if I don't believe I have free will then I will be passive (I have everything to lose and nothing to gain). Belief in a "fact" can help that "fact" come true. More accurately, without our belief, the potential fact does not become possible if we are passive.

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4. Is acceptance of the genuine option theory and James's thesis, itself, a momentous option in a person's life? Discuss. Would such a decision be related in any manner to the philosophy of existentialism?

 

  1. Yes, on both counts. Somewhat surprisingly, James' reputation is greater among continental existentialists than American philosophers. Since I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by choosing proactively, I am choosing in accordance with the momentous option of taking charge of my own life.

  2. The existentialism believes in radical free will without scientific proof as does the pragmatist. The two philosophies are consistent in this regard.

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5. Can you construct an example where James's thesis is false? I.e., is it possible for our passional nature to decide an option which cannot be decided on intellectual grounds and have a disastrous result?

 

  1. Yes, of course, there are many examples where one risks everything and loses. For example, choosing to go on Sir Ernest Shackleton's fateful trip to the Antarctic where his ship was trapped and crushed by the ice.

  2. It might be "better to have loved and lost than to have not loved at all," but it's debatable whether it's better to have risked and died than to have not risked at all.

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6. Can you think of two or three different kinds of examples where "faith in a fact can help create the fact"? How would this kind of faith differ from Nietzsche's notion of truth as "irrefutable error"?

 

  1. Very often in personal psychology if we think we will fail, the chances of success are less than if we think we can succeed in a task.  Hence, many examples are available.

  2. Friedrich Nietzsche's notion of truth as "irrefutable error" is that truth is a "mobile army of metaphor" completely conventional and arbitrary. Truth, for him, is invented—truth is a fixed convention for practical purposes. One major difference with James' view is that Nietzsche sees "truth" as that which is safe, secure, staid without "sensuous power"; whereas, James sees truth as "momentous effect."

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Recommended Sources

William JamesStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: An excellent first resource for discovering James' life and writings. 

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