Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Will to Believe

Thursday May 3, 2012.

I am reading “The Will to Believe” by philosopher William James, first written at the turn of the twentieth century. I have only just started it but already an idea has gripped me that my mind can’t quite wrap itself around.

So far he has been making a logic argument for why scientists should not be afraid of having faith in spiritual matters. I will get to his ideas in a moment, but I will provide some background information first.  

There is a popular idea in the New Age community and other spiritual circles that proposes that our thoughts and beliefs “create” our realities. So, for example, if someone “believes” that they will never find a high-paying job or the love of their life, these things will never come to pass because the thought/belief “creates” the reality. Conversely, if one believes whole-heartedly that they will find a good job/spouse/etc., these things will naturally come into their lives.  (This is called “The Law of Attraction” in many circles). This is an interesting idea and has gripped many people –it’s alluring to think that to achieve all we desire, we need just believe it is possible.

I myself have struggled with this idea, as it falls short for me for many reasons. If we take the idea to its logical conclusions, it proposes that anyone in dire circumstances does not have what they desire due to a personal weakness. I have seen many people become extremely self-depreciating and unnecessarily hard on themselves because of this. This idea also implies that starving children in third world countries, for example, do not have access to better circumstances because of their belief that their state of not-having-access-to-food is something they cannot change. Clearly, even the most staunch believers in “the law of attraction” should be uncomfortable with where this idea can go if applied indiscriminately. 

 It also promotes apathy, even among members of the same community – if someone is struggling, the thought is that "it is only up to them to change their beliefs" and thus eliminate the struggle. I have seen supposed good friends act indifferently to each other’s hardships based on this principle.

Nevertheless, it has its appeals and seems to have empowered many people to believe they have the power to change their lives. 

Now, back to James. In his very first essay, he proposes an “insane logic” which has turned my scientific tendencies and commitment to empiricism a bit upside-down. He says that in everyday social interactions, we cannot act based on the scientific principles of only believing something to be true based on sufficient evidence. For example:
Do you like me or not?... Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence… ten to one your liking never comes.”
A whole train of passengers will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because… each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before anyone else backs him up. If we believed the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming… faith in a fact can help created the fact

… often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.

This has captivated me because while it seems to be, as he put it, an “insane logic”, it is indeed a logic I cannot find a loop hole in, and it puts a crack in my wholehearted embracing of the scientific method. (This, by the way, pleases me at the same time it unnerves me – if I have any purpose at all in this life I feel it is to tread the very fine line between all opposites and be a perpetual dichotomy; in this case, spirituality and science are the two things I am trying to precariously balance myself between. While in my younger years I was too deeply immersed in the former, I fear in recent years I have stumbled too far into the latter.)

In the first example, the only thing that causes even the possibility of someone else liking us is if we believe beforehand that they do, without hard evidence. As he explains, if we are cold, aloof, indifferent, until we gather enough evidence that the other likes us, the liking never comes. Belief in the unseen, unascertainable is the only thing that causes it to exist at all.

He continues to apply this logic to the existence of a God/unseen spiritual world. He did not quite take it in the direction I am about to, but it follows that, based on this logic, belief in a God is necessary for us to even hope to glimpse or experience him/her/it/etc. If we do not believe a God is possible (as a scientist), “the God will never come”. It may still be a possibility, but it is unknowable to us.

He says, therefore, that the scientific method is flawed, because by only believing what we have evidence for, we are denied the possibility of discovering things we do not already believe in.

You can see how this has (quite delightfully) tangled up my mind.


  1. And I've heard it said that science has discovered the outcome of an experiment is affected by the observer's beliefs about it.

    Also, I think most people are hopeful (hopeful not to be confused with confident) others will like them, but if they remain aloof - waiting for the evidence - the other person may interpret that as evidence to the contrary and act accordingly. Often, it just takes one person to be proactive to "break the ice" so both can feel like it was a good exchange.

    Yes scientific method works. Yes the law of attraction works. But there is a point where they both intermingle. And in fact, it's probably just the categorical boxes our minds like to create that makes them seem so different.

    1. But what I find fascinating about the logic of his argument is that it means the scientific method DOESN'T work - at least in terms of discovering NEW, UNKNOWN information - because it makes it impossible to discover information we do not already believe at least somewhat. This is the key piece that has gripped me.

    2. Actually, this would apply to the law of attraction as well - if I do not ALREADY have some belief in a God, for example, I cannot "attract" the belief of a God into my life. If I do not ALREADY have some belief that I will find my dream-mate or dream-job or whatever, these things will never come, based on the way the law of attraction is (allegedly) supposed to work.

  2. Ana, thanks for your blog.

    The question that seems to arise from James’s comments about beliefs (as you present them) is whether flat out non-belief about certain things that are peculiarly human is even possible. We can get along not embracing this or that specific (and stark) belief, such as ‘he likes me’ or ‘he does not like me.’ To hold either belief short of some reason seems at the very least imprudent. Fortunately one does not need any such strong belief to get on with life but neither does one need to forgo belief altogether. Do we not entertain other shades or modes of belief? It is possible he likes me. I want him to like me and after all he might. He may come to like me at some point, especially if I behave in a likeable manner. These are all beliefs of a kind. But they avoid describing or denying statements of possible fact that simply may not apply ever or at a given time. Liking you is not either/or. He may be indifferent at the moment, or uncertain. Or he may like you more than you could believe even if you tried.

    The problem you and James are addressing is the default skepticism of an unthinking empiricism. The problem here is that facts are abstracted from the tapestry of life that would prove them, and subjected to criteria that are arbitrary or contingent on the (often equally abstract) interests of the observer. But the method of science is not the method of life. I would contend that life has something to teach science here, more than science has to teach life.

    As for the “law of attraction” the danger is that people often understand this in a way that subtly conforms to scientific abstractionism, or perhaps more directly to the widespread philosophical belief that ‘perception is reality,’ an idea that in the right hands has become terrifying and in the wrong maybe dangerous. (It may not seem that way to us only because it was re-formulated in the 18th century by a philosopher whose genius made it palatable—though his intention was ironically to solve the problem of how scientific knowledge is possible, not to engage in esoterics.)

    ‘If I believe x, it is as good as a cause for x.’ Well short of calling this what it is, I agree that crazy beliefs have created a crazy world, but if it worked in this way the world would be far crazier than it actually is. The trouble is that belief does not work according to the will in the sense that I will my arm to rise just because I want to make a point about how I can will to raise my arm. In the course of life I will to raise my arm for all kinds of reasons that make up a small part of the trajectory of a life in which I believe. The ‘law’ has more to do with the latter than with either isolated will-acts or will-acts of isolated belief. Along the same lines, if a person is going to believe an esoteric doctrine they need to understand and believe all of it. They need to know that some people have spiritually accepted certain infirmities and tendencies that are going to produce attributes with strong potentials for sickness, poverty and even suicide. They do this for the sake of those who may mock them for being weak of belief.

    It is good to see someone wrestling with these questions, Ana. It will not be in vain.

    1. In the example from your first paragraph, I don't make a distinction between different "shades" of belief, as you put it - I can either believe that the other has a predisposition towards liking me, or that he does not - I suppose there are finer grades in there, but all of them are a belief equally as strong as the next, and all of them will influence how I act towards the other, which will influence how he acts towards me... etc. I guess the point I was trying to make (or that it seemed to me James was trying to make) is that if we DON'T believe in something, it cannot possibly come to be. If I believe wholeheartedly that someone will never come to like me, it will certainly never come to pass, for I would then never put in the effort towards doing things that would make him come to like me, and in doing so, naturally bring about the very thing I believe in.

      A scientist who does not believe the earth can possibly go around the sun will never spend any energy looking into this hypothesis, and thus never discover it.

    2. I know that you do not refer to what I am calling shades of belief; my point would be that they nevertheless exist and operate in life and are crucial to YOUR point. Your own reference to a “predisposition” in the other is an example of how you might shade your belief. The point of the metaphor is that the belief modally shades its own attitude to its object to reflect the living experience surrounding it. That the other has or has not a predisposition towards you may be a fact, but a predisposition itself is not a fact of actuality, but about potentials or inclinations towards possible future states—these are the ‘shadings’ in this case. They are not I think as equally “strong” in a logical sense as a statement of actual fact, or a predictive statement about what necessarily has to happen.

      I can agree that a strong assertion of definite fact might be willful. But would willing a belief of fact make its realization any more certain? It seems to me such a belief could just as easily lead to presumptions that might well turn the above object of your affection against you. For example, if you believe he likes you, you might also believe he really wants to drive you to the airport.

      But more deeply, I would question whether such a belief can be simply and authentically willed in abstraction of all the conditions of life (evidence) that would make the belief in some sense rational. However, a negative belief--believing that something is not true or possible where there is no evidence to support this negation—might be another matter.

      But does this not turn us from a consideration of beliefs about the world to beliefs about ourselves? If someone believes something is untrue that clearly is true then one is deluded. Perhaps the truth of something is too painful to deal with. The scientist not believing in the possibility of the sun going around the earth is not at bottom a belief about astronomy, it is about him and his attitudes and fears. But if he did not have these attitudes and fears, why would he need his will to believe in the possibility of something a scientist would have at least some reason to consider?

      Objects of belief that are true do not require a willingness to believe them in lieu of or in spite of all evidence, but an openness to the truth which is to some degree present to the believer. This brings us back to the shades of belief. These represent openness to this presence. One should not be more open than the disclosure of truth warrants lest one becomes deluded. So, one believes first in possibilities and dispositions, etc.

      Let’s return to your initial shaded belief. To say, ‘I believe he is PREDISPOSED to like me’ could mean to you any number of things: ‘I think he wants to like me,’ or ‘at least I don’t put him off’ or ‘he will be able to like me if he finds no reason not to when he gets to know me,’ or ‘people always like me when they first meet me,’ or ‘he seemed to like me when we met the second time,’ etc. These are really in part implied introspective judgments as well as objective ones. In this case they may reflect prudent and measured awareness of what you really know about this person’s feelings, and they may reflect an attitude of lowered self-esteem.

      The question finally arises, can one really will to believe that one has lower or higher self-worth? Or is this something one must realize in another way? Is such a belief produced or acquired? Put another way, is consciousness a product or state of the will or is it more about awareness of the true nature of one’s self?

    3. I know I shouldn't reply because this will go on forever, but with each reply I'm only focusing on one minute point so as to keep it a relatively manageable comment. You say about the scientist, "But if he did not have these attitudes and fears, why would he need his will to believe in the possibility of something a scientist would have at least some reason to consider?"

      I guess I used a poor example. I meant to say that if a scientist (or anyone) doesn't actually have ANY reason to consider something, then he will never ever discover it. Say, for example, the truth of our universe, Earth included, was that it was contained in a small backpack riding atop the back of a turtle (bear with me). If that was the real truth (and it very well could be), how would we ever know unless we first imagined it? Unless we first said "what if our universe is really in a backpack strapped to a turtle?" -- or something else as fantastical. Most discoveries start off with a hypothesis - meaning someone, somewhere, has already imagined the real truth and believes it to be so. No one would go off and test my backpack-on-a-turtle hypothesis; look for evidence of it, etc., because it not many would think it a plausible hypothesis. But say it WERE the real truth of the universe - would this believe of ours that it could not possible be true, not prevent us from discovering it?

      (Of course, many scientific discoveries are made completely accidentally without someone first imagining it as hypothesis so my argument isn't completely without holes; it is possible in theory that we could find evidence of our riding on a turtle's back quite accidentally and arrive at the truth that way -- but that would be highly unlikely, and not real science at all.

      My real point is this - what truths lay completely hidden from us forever simply because we cannot even imagine what they might be or what signs to look for?

    4. Here I think is where the problem lies. James was trying to save human meanings from a science that was hypothesizing the objective truth of inhuman understandings of nature, the endless motion of particles in the void, without returning to gods, turtle backs and other myths. Against the powerful objective vision of science he was led to an assertion of subjectivity as the source of human understandings. Unfortunately what one finds there when one is trying to be rational or quasi-scientific are the faculties or attributes of mind—belief, imagination, etc. Unfortunately, these attributes which occur in the mode of the poetic take us away from reality, not closer to it. We become less concerned with trying to think things as they are and more concerned with how we ‘find ourselves,’ our subjectivities, thinking things. We find ourselves having beliefs and opinions, but grounded in—what? Eventually our minds become cut off from the everyday consciousness of human meanings we were trying to save.

      As you do, as modern thought does, James tends to emancipate the will, the faculty of belief, and even the imagination—ostensibly for the sake of science, or genuine knowledge. Do you see a contradiction, and a danger? What is to stop the ungrounded products of these mental powers from replacing a sense of reality?

      I know that you probably seek a more creative science, and a more creative response to our problems. I simply deny that this kind of subjectivism is the way.

      You have shifted from the will to believe to the will to imagine. Next stop: the will to believe what you will to imagine. And finally: the will to act on the will to believe what you will to imagine. This is the territory of 9/11, the Montreal massacre, Columbine, the Unibomber, and countless other expressions of delusion, including an endless sea of ungrounded opinion in the twitterverse and elsewhere.