William James' "The Will to Believe" was written in response to an essay on religious belief by William Kingdon Clifford. It is worth noting that James himself was a distinguished scholar, and sometime experimenter, on spiritual beliefs, and the author of a capacious and open-minded study of the subject entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience. Clifford provoked a response from James clearly because Clifford's approach is primarily an ethical one: as Clifford states, "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." (James 8). Clifford believes that it is a moral obligation to refuse any belief that lacks sufficient evidence, because in his account belief may behave almost like a virus: Clifford argues that it is a "duty…to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town." (James 8). Clifford adds that if a "belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence" then "the pleasure is a stolen one"(James 8). In other words, even accepting belief on the basis of its utility is wrong. But the issue of utility is the foremost one in James' approach: James' philosophy of Pragmatism is one that holds, to a certain extent, that things are true insofar as they are useful.
Before examining James' argument in greater depth, it is worth giving a short account of Pragmatism itself, to understand its approach to the question of truth. Jamesian Pragmatism seeks to occupy a middle ground between overly skeptical empiricism and out-of-touch idealism -- the basic question, for James, is what he would elsewhere refer to as "the cash value of an idea," a somewhat winkingly vulgar shorthand for describing its real-world utility. We may illustrate James' stance somewhat simply with reference to the daily horoscope that one may read in a newspaper or online. Is a horoscope true? Obviously in the most literal sense it cannot be: there is seldom a horoscope published in the morning newspaper which predicts that every Capricorn will be run over by a truck later that afternoon. But the Jamesian or pragmatic view is that, if reading your horoscope in the morning in some way allows you to get a handle on your day, then the horoscope is indeed true to the extent that it provides utility. To that extent, the truth of the horoscope is established in practice -- as opposed to a remorseless skepticism which automatically wipes away any chance that the horoscope could possess something resembling truth, the mind instead is open to the possibility that there might be something true about it, and there is something true about it insofar as it provides some form of utility. The important thing, however, is that the horoscope needs to be a live possibility for the believer -- we may assume that the presence of horoscopes in daily newspapers indicates that, for a large number of people, it is, and thus horoscopes do not fall into that category to which James relegates things like belief in theosophy or the Mahdi, which were presumably not live possibilities for his contemporary readers.
Obviously the larger question is not one of horoscopes but of God. Historically speaking, James's willingness to consider the possibility of some truth about religion -- if not indeed some religious truth -- as being true of all religions is a way of keeping the religious status quo alive, in the late nineteenth century when traditional Christianity found itself under challenge mainly from scientific discovery. The simple fact is that -- if one cannot approach the study of religious belief from the standpoint of a believer, or a potential believer, then one is not going to be talking about any religious experience -- even one as basic as religious belief -- except as it is studied from the outside in, as it were. One may suspect that James is so enthusiastic about the privileged truth-claim that should be accorded to a possible religious experience because he himself may have had one, or hopes to have one: James writes as one who may very well have prayed himself, or would at least be curious to make the sincere attempt to do so, if possible. To use terms James himself employs in "The Will to Believe," religion remains a living possibility in his writings. This is another element of the pragmatic utility, however: to return to the idea of a daily horoscope, it cannot provide any truth or utility if it is not a living possibility to the person reading it, or "live enough to tempt our will" as James puts it (James 29). But this tends to be the case with anyone who does read a horoscope -- for James, inquiry to a certain degree presupposes interest. The notion of someone reading a horoscope every morning just to be reminded that, in empirical terms, horoscopes are generally meaningless bullshit is overall unlikely. Those people who read their horoscope are the ones to whom, in some way, it offers a living possibility of meaning -- and James wishes to validate that meaning by understanding the act as defined largely by its utility. One might complain, as Clifford does, that this allows a person to form beliefs in defiance of the evidence -- but for James, the matter of what constitutes evidence is changed. It would, for example, delight William James to learn that, over a century after his death, empirical science has shown that people who believe in God and regularly attend church have, on average, better health and a much longer lifespan than non-believers. This utility would, for James, justify religious belief as being somehow true, even if its individual truth-claims would not withstand scientific scrutiny.
James argues against Clifford's ethics of belief explicitly when he defines his "will to believe." As James himself puts it, in his most radical statement against Clifford's views, "we have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will…the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve." (James 29). James's assertion of this right comes from what he judges as a necessity in man's emotional make-up, or "passional nature." James summarizes his argument against Clifford on this basis fairly succinctly:
The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, 'Do not decide, but leave the question open' is itself a passional decision...(James 11)
In short, since the existence of God or an afterlife are not to be "decided on intellectual grounds" to refuse to believe on the grounds of insufficient evidence is beside the point. Something in the human "passional nature" or "will" finds belief to be necessary.
When it comes to belief in God, however, James does not consider the evidence to be, as Clifford would have it, conclusive. As James himself puts it: "if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell." (James 30). In other words, belief in God is either a living possibility to a man, or it isn't -- but if it is a living possibility, then a man ought not heed Clifford's scruples in professing that belief. James recognizes that Clifford's approach is hidebound by a small-minded rationalism, fussing over evidence. For example, James comes at the question as a pragmatist, with…