James believed that belief in God could be contemplated in terms of "live and dead hypotheses" (James 2010). He argues that when one is trying to find an argument for God existing or God not existing, we must consider three things: 1) Living or dead 2) Forced or unavoidable; and, 3) Momentous or trivial. He says, "and for our purposes we may call an option a genuine option when it is of the forced, living, and momentous kind" (2010). For James, a living option is when there are two hypotheses that are "live ones" (2010). He says that if he were to say that someone should become a theosophist or a Mohammedan, the option is probably dead since for that person both hypotheses seem dead. Though if he were to tell a person to be agnostic or be Christian, the person is trained in some way to a follow a certain belief (2010).
The next example he gives is to tell a person to either go outside with an umbrella or don't. There is not a "genuine option, for it is not forced" (James 2010). The person could choose to not go outside at all. Along those same lines, if he told a person, "love me or hate me," "call my theory true or call it false," there is an option that is avoidable since the person could remain indifferent (2010). However, if he were to say, "accept this truth or go without it" (2010), the option is forced because one cannot do anything else. "Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind" (2010).
Lastly, he explains the difference between momentous and trivial. He says that an option is momentous when a person has the chance to do something that is unique. "He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed" (James 2010). The option is trivial when the opportunity isn't all that unique or when the stakes are not that significant, or if the decision is reversible (2010).
James believes that people can choose to believe in something or they can choose not to believe, or they even choose to wait to believe in something, but in choosing one of these things, they are essentially choosing their own fate. James was an adamant believer in free will. He thought that by changing our thoughts, we could essentially change our lives. While he believed in free will though, he also couldn't help but see that people who believed in determinism had a very strong argument. Because of this, his arguments on determinism weren't really that powerful. Rather, his argument for free will was very powerful. This is the way in which he showed where his beliefs lay. Free will for James was simply more rational than determinism. It was also a much more positive way to see life and the universe at large. Because of the fact that he was a pragmatist as well, his views on morality lay in the idea that we should act in the ways that make sense to us as individuals. There wasn't a strong argument made by James it seems when it comes to free will either. He simply tells his audience what he believes and why he believes it (free will because it is more optimistic and he can make sense of his life that way). His belief in free will plays into his ideas on ethics because it all comes down to people deciding how they want to act, who they want to be in the world, and all this comes down to rational reasoning.
James essentially believed that any true belief is one that is useful to the believer. Truth is that which works in the way of belief. "True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistently, stability and flowing human intercourse" but "all true process must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere" (James 1907). This means that the value of truth relies upon its usefulness to the person who holds it and this was the whole idea behind pragmatism (Cryer 2010).
When it comes to free will vs. determinism, Hume thought that there wasn't any single action that could be deemed random. He thought that everything that we (humans) do is dictated by the way we were raised as well as our psyches -- but only to a certain extent. He went back to his cause and effect theories by saying that there is quite a strong cause and effect relationship between nature and our own actions. In essence, he is saying that people are predictable and that people don't often stray from their predictability, which is what takes away our free will and makes determinism a very valid argument.
When it comes to ethics, Hume believed that these came from utility as opposed to God's will. These are things that cannot be found in a scientific way. There are some things that people choose to do and there are some things that people don't choose to do and those are always different depending on the individual. What is right for one person may not be right for another. Our ethics have to do with our own ideas about what we think is right not only for ourselves but for the rest of mankind. He believed that people do, overall, tend to sympathize with others and that we are made this way.
Hume was also of the belief that reason does not play a part in our ethical decision -- that is, we don't reason when it comes to deciding what we are going to do or not do. He thought that humans reacted or acted according to their passions. Reason is not what motivates people to act.
While Hume and James varied on many of their theories regarding ethics, God, free will and determinism, they are two philosophers that are oftentimes compared and contrasted by philosophers. Both philosophers have changed the way that individuals view themselves, their "selves," the way the view the existence of God and evil, as well as the purpose of man in the world. Are we here for a reason and can we guide our lives? Or is everything predetermined? While they varied in their theories on these topics, both have compelling arguments for the student of philosophy.
Cryer, a.B. (2010). "William James explained." Everything explained. Accessed on January 25, 2011: http://everything.explained.at/William_James/#Ref-5
Damasio, a. (2010). Self comes to mind: constructing the conscious brain. Pantheon; 1st edition.
James, W. (1907). "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth." Lecture 6 in Pragmatism: A New
Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longman Green and Co>
James, W. (2010). The will to believe: and other essays in popular philosophy. Nabu Press.