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Professor James delivered a most interesting lecture before the Graduate Philosophical Club in Upper Dane last evening, taking as his subject "The Will to Believe."
He began by defining a few technical terms. In the first place we must consider as a hypothesis anything proposed to our belief. Option is the decision between two hypotheses.
When we look at some things it seems as if out volition could do anything. But we cannot force ourselves to believe that other things are true. We cannot, whatever we do, bring ourselves to really believe that one dollar is one hundred dollars. We feel in cases of this kind that there must be some tendency to believe. Paschal advocated belief in God because, as he said, if the belief were true there was infinite gain; if false, the loss was nothing. On the other hand, scientists think that nothing should be believed until it is proved.
But we believe many things without any rational reason. Our faith is usually faith in others'faith. Our belief in truth itself is of this nature. Our needs and volition may decide an option whenever it is a genuine option which cannot be decided on intellectual grounds.
We here assume that there is such a thing as truth. There are two dogmas-absolutism and empiricism. The absolutists say that we can know when we know truth; the empiricists believe that we cannot know when we have grasped the truth. If a thing admits of no doubt it is because the intellect is illumined beyond question. We all feel that of some things we are certain. To this extent we are absolutists. Since we are absolutists by nature, we should believe the empiricist theory, and go on this basis. For nothing has ever been accepted as certain until it has been denied as false and proved true.
Our willing nature does influence us in our belief. But, remembering that in our dealings with nature we are not makers but recorders of truth, we should seek to avoid error and seek for truth. We must weigh reasons with an indifferent mind; for the best investigator is one who is impartial.
But in moal questions we must consult not only our reason but our hearts. In such cases it would be absurd to bar out our wills. The simple question of the existence of moral truth cannot be answered by pure intellect. Moral skepticism can no more be refuted by logic than can intellectual skepticism.
There is a class of questions of fact, such as the relations existing between man and man. Whether you like a man or not depends on that man's assuming that you will like him and meeting you half-way. In this relation faith based on desire is absolutely necessary.
We come now to the greater question of religious belief. The very essence of religion is to propose to us, first, that the best things are the more eternal; second, that we are better off by believing this truth. In case both branches of this hypotheses are true, we are supposed to gain a certain good by belief. If we avoid the issue, we lose the good. The sceptic says, "Better risk loss of truth than chance of error." But we have no evidence that dupery through hope is worse than dupery through error. A sceptic, by requiring absolute proof before he believes, may cut himself off from all future good. We have a right to believe any hypothesis live enough to tempt the will.
Professor James will deliver this same lecture on Friday evening at New Haven, before the Yale Philosophical Club.
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