Quotations on the Ethics of Belief
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

The quotations are in chronological order. I welcome additions. To keep it fairly short, I deliberately omit quotations from the books and essays we're reading for class.

  1. René Descartes, Meditations, trans. Laurence LaFleur, Bobbs-Merrill, 1964 (original 1641).
    [Fourth Meditation, p. 115]  Now, if I abstain from making a judgment upon a topic when I do not conceive it sufficiently clearly and distinctly, it is evident that I do well and am not making a mistake; but if I decide to deny or affirm it, then I am not making a proper use of my free will. And if in this situation I affirm what is not true, it is evident that I am making a mistake; and even when I judge according to the truth, it is only by chance, and I am not for that reason free of blame for misusing my freedom. For the light of nature dictates that the understanding should always know before the will makes a decision.

    [Fourth Meditation, p. 116]  For actually it is not an imperfection in God that he has given me the liberty of judging or not judging, or giving or withholding my assent, on certain matters of which he has given me no clear and distinct knowledge. It is, without doubt, an imperfection in myself not to make proper use of this liberty, and rashly to pass judgment on matters which I do not rightly understand and conceive only obscurely and confusedly.

  2. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1975 (original 1690).
    [pp. 697-698]  How a Man may know whether he be [a lover of truth] in earnest is worth enquiry: And I think there is this one unerring mark of it, viz. The not entertaining any Proposition with greater assurance than the Proofs it is built upon will warrant. Whoever goes beyond this measure of Assent, 'tis plain receives not Truth in the Love of it; loves not Truth for Truths sake, but for some other bye End. For the evidence that any Proposition is true (except such as are self-evident) lying only in the Proofs a Man has of it, whatsoever degrees of Assent he affords it beyond the degree of that Evidence, 'tis plain that all surplusage of assurance is owing to some other Affection, and not to the Love of Truth....Whatsoever Credit or Authority we give to any Proposition more than it receives from the Principles and Proofs it supports it self upon, is owing to our Inclinations that way, and is so far a Derogation from the Love of Truth as such: which as it can receive no Evidence from our Passions or Interests, so it should receive no Tincture from them.

  3. William James, from an entry in his diary for April 30, 1870, quoted by Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, "Briefer Version," Harvard University Press, 1948, p. 121.
    I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of [Charles] Renouvier's second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will —"the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts"— need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present —until next year— that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.

  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1966 (original 1886).
    [§192, pp. 104-05]  [In the history of science, as in the history Nietzsche is addressing here] it is the rash hypothesis, the fictions, the good dumb will to "believe," the lack of mistrust and patience that are developed first; our senses learn only late, and never learn entirely, to be subtle, faithful, and cautious organs of cognition.

  5. William James, "Is Life Worth Living?" from his The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Longmans, Green & Co., 1897 (reprinted, Dover, 1956).

    [p. 52]  Now, I wish to make you feel...that we have a right to believe the physical order to be only a partial order; that we have a right to supplement it by an unseen spiritual order which we assume on trust, if only thereby life may seem to us better worth living again. But as such a trust will seem to some of you sadly mystical and execrably unscientific, I must first say a word or two to weaken the veto which you may consider that science opposes to our act.

    [p. 59]  Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe; not a service, not a sally of generosity, not a scientific exploration or experiment or textbook, that may not be a mistake. It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll into the abyss. In such a case (and it belongs to an enormous class), the part of wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled. Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably perish. But believe, and again you shall be right, for you shall save yourself. You make one or the other of two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust, —both universes having been only maybes, in this particular, before you contributed your act.

    [p. 92]  Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions.

  6. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," from his The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Longmans, Green & Co., 1897 (reprinted, Dover, 1956).

    [pp. 94-95.n]  At most, the command laid upon us by science to believe nothing not yet verified by the senses is a prudential rule intended to maximize our right thinking and minimize our errors in the long run. In the particular instance we must frequently lose truth by obeying it; but on the whole we are safer if we follow it consistently, for we are sure to cover our losses with our gains. It is like those gambling and insurance rules based on probability, in which we secure ourselves against losses in detail by hedging on the long run. But this hedging philosophy requires that [that] long run should be there; and this makes it inapplicable to the question of religious faith as the latter comes home to the individual man. He plays the game of life not to escape losses, for he brings nothing with him to lose; he plays it for gains; and it is now or never with him, for the long run which exists indeed for humanity, is not there for him. Let him doubt, believe, or deny, he runs his risk, and has the natural right to choose which one it shall be.

    [pp. 96-97]  Now I wish to show what to my knowledge has never been clearly pointed out, that belief (as measured by action) not only does and must continually outstrip scientific evidence, but that there is a certain class of truths of whose reality belief is a factor as well as a confessor; and that as regards this class of truths faith is not only licit and pertinent, but essential and indisputable. The truths cannot become true till our faith has made them so.

    Suppose, for example, that I am climbing in the Alps, and have had the ill-luck to work myself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Being without similar experience, I have no evidence of my ability to perform it successfully; but hope and confidence in myself make me sure I shall not miss my aim, and nerve my feet to execute what without those subjective emotions would perhaps have been impossible. But suppose that, on the contrary, the emotions of fear and mistrust preponderate; or suppose that, having just read the Ethics of Belief, I feel it would be sinful to act upon an assumption unverified by previous experience, —why, then I shall hesitate so long that at last, exhausted and trembling, and launching myself in a moment of despair, I miss my foothold and roll into the abyss. In this case (and it is one of an immense class) the part of wisdom clearly is to believe what one desires; for the belief is one of the indispensable preliminary conditions of the realization of its object. There are then cases where faith creates its own verification. Believe, and you shall be right, for you shall save yourself; doubt, and you shall again be right, for you shall perish. The only difference is that to believe is greatly to your advantage.

    The future movements of the stars or the facts of past history are determined now once for all, whether I like them or not. They are given irrespective of my wishes, and in all that concerns truths like these subjective preference should have no part; it can only obscure the judgment. But in every fact into which there enters an element of personal contribution on my part, as soon as this personal contribution demands a certain degree of subjective energy which, in its turn, calls for a certain amount of faith in the result, —so that, after all, the future fact is conditioned by my present faith in it, —how trebly asinine would it be for me to deny myself the use of the subjective method, the method of belief based on desire!

    [p. 103]  Wherever the facts to be formulated contain such a contribution [from the believer], we may logically, legitimately, and inexpugnably [sic] believe what we desire. The belief creates the verification. The thought becomes literally father to the fact, as the wish was father to the thought. [Footnote at 103.n:] Observe that in all this not a word has been said of free-will. It all applies as well to a pre-determined as to an indeterminate universe.

    [pp. 108-09]  The world may in fact be likened unto a lock, whose inward nature, moral or unmoral, will never reveal itself to our simply expectant gaze. The positivists, forbidding us to make any assumptions regarding it, condemn us to eternal ignorance, for the 'evidence' which they wait for can never come so long as we are passive. But nature has put into our hands two keys, by which we may test the lock. If we try the moral key and it fits, it is a moral lock. If we try the unmoral key and it fits, it is an unmoral lock. I cannot possibly conceive of any other sort of 'evidence' or 'proof' than this. It is quite true that the co-operation of generations is needed to educe it. But in these matters the solidarity (so-called) of the human race is a patent fact. The essential thing to notice is that our active preference is a legitimate part of the game, —that it is our plain business as men to try one of the keys, and the one in which we most confide. If then the proof exist not till I have acted, and I must needs in acting run the risk of being wrong, how can the popular science professors be right in objurgating in me as infamous a 'credulity' which the strict logic of the situation requires? If this really be a moral universe; if by my acts I be a factor of its destinies; if to believe where I may doubt be itself a moral act analogous to voting for a side not yet sure to win, — by what right shall they close in upon me and steadily negate the deepest conceivable function of my being by their preposterous command that I shall stir neither hand nor foot, but remain balancing myself in eternal and insoluble doubt? Why, doubt itself is a decision of the widest practical reach, if only because we may miss by doubting what goods we might be gaining by espousing the winning side. But more than that! it is often practically impossible to distinguish doubt from dogmatic negation. If I refuse to stop a murder because I am in doubt whether it be not justifiable homicide, I am virtually abetting the crime. If I refuse to bale [sic] out a boat because I am in doubt whether my efforts will keep her afloat, I am really helping to sink her. If in the mountain precipice I doubt my right to risk a leap, I actively connive at my destruction. He who commands himself not to be credulous of God, of duty, of freedom, of immortality, may again and again be indistinguishable from him who dogmatically denies them. Scepticism in moral matters is an active ally of immorality. Who is not for is against. The universe will have no neutrals in these questions. In theory as in practice, dodge or hedge, or talk as we like about wise scepticism, we are really doing volunteer military service for one side or the other.

  7. William James, "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," from his The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Longmans, Green & Co., 1897 (reprinted, Dover, 1956).

    [p. 211]  The deepest difference, practically, in the moral life of man is the difference between the easy-going and the strenuous mood. When in the easy-going mood the shrinking from present ill is our ruling consideration. The strenuous mood, on the contrary, makes us quite indifferent to present ill, if only the greater ideal can be attained.

    [p. 212]  [I]n a merely human world without a God, the appeal to our moral energy falls short of its maximal stimulating power. Life, to be sure, is even in such a world a genuinely ethical symphony; but it is played in the compass of a couple of poor octaves, and the infinite scale of values fails to open up.

    [p. 213]  The capacity of the strenuous mood lies so deep down among our natural human possibilities that even if there were no metaphysical or traditional grounds for believing in a God, men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest.

    [p. 214]  In the interests of our own ideal of systematically unified moral truth, therefore, we, as would-be philosophers, must postulate a divine thinker, and pray for the victory of the religious cause. Meanwhile, exactly what the thought of the infinite thinker may be is hidden from us even were we sure of his existence; so that our postulation of him after all serves only to let loose in us the strenuous mood.

  8. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Collier-Macmillan, 1961 (original 1900-02), p. 176.

    Revert, then, for a moment more to the psychology of self-surrender.

    When you find a man living on the ragged edge of his consciousness, pent in to his sin and want and incompleteness, and consequently inconsolable, and then simply tell him that all is well with him, that he must stop his worry, break with his discontent, and give up his anxiety, you seem to him to come with pure absurdities. The only positive consciousness he has tells him that all is not well, and the better way you offer sounds simply as if you proposed to him to assert cold-blooded falsehoods. "The will to believe" cannot be stretched as far as that. We can make ourselves more faithful to a belief of which we have the rudiments, but we cannot create a belief out of whole cloth when our perception actively assures us of its opposite. The better mind proposed to us comes in that case in the form of a pure negation of the only mind we have, and we cannot actively will a pure negation.

  9. William James, in a letter to "an English critic" [probably L.H. Hobhouse] in 1904. Reprinted as a footnote to his essay, "The Will to Believe," in C. M. Bakewell (ed.), William James: Selected Papers on Philosophy, E. P. Dutton and Co., 1917, p. 99.

    [This essay] should have been called by the less unlucky title, The Right to Believe....My essay hedged the licence to indulge in private over-beliefs with so many restrictions and signboards of danger that the outlet was narrow enough. It made of tolerance the essence of the situation; it defined the permissible cases; it treated the faith-attitude as a necessity for individuals, because the total 'evidence,' which only the race can draw, has to include their experiments among its data. It tended to show only that faith could not be absolutely vetoed, as certain champions of 'science' (Clifford, Huxley, etc.) had claimed it ought to be. It was a function that might lead, and probably does lead, to a wider world....

    I cry to Heaven to tell me of what insane root my 'leading contemporaries' have eaten, that they are so smitten with blindness as to the meaning of printed texts. Or are we others absolutely incapable of making our meaning clear? I imagine that there is neither insane root nor unclear writing, but that in these matters each man writes from out of a field of consciousness of which the Bogey in the background is the chief object. Your bogey is superstition; my bogey is dessication; and each, for his contrast-effect, clutches at any text that can be used to represent the enemy, regardless of exegetical proprieties. In my essay the evil shape was a vision of 'Science' in the form of abstraction, priggishness, and sawdust, lording it over all. Take the sterilist scientific prig and cad you know, compare him with the richest religious intellect you know, and you would not, any more than I would, give the former the exclusive right of way.

  10. William James, Pragmatism, World Publishing Co., 1970 (original 1907), p. 19.

    The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world's character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and 'not in it,' in the philosophic business, even though they may far excel him in dialectical ability.

    Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned.

  11. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1936 (original 1929).

    [p. 101]  [W]hen the empirical investigator glories in his refusal to go beyond the specialized observation dictated by the traditions of his discipline, be they ever so inclusive, he is making a virtue out of a defense mechanism which insures him against questioning his presuppositions.

  12. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, new ed., 1989.

    [p. 198]  Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.

    Blind faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshiping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die —on the cross, at the stake, skewered on a Crusader's sword, shot in a Beirut street, or blown up in a bar in Belfast. Memes for blind faith have their own ruthless ways of propagating themselves. This is true of patriotic and political as well as religious blind faith.

    [pp. 330-31, endnote to the excerpt above]  I have had the predictable spate of letters from faith's victims [since the first edition of this book appeared in 1976], protesting about my criticisms of it. Faith is such a successful brainwasher in its own favour, especially a brainwasher of children, that it is hard to break its hold. But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something —it doesn't matter what— in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway. It is this that makes the often-parroted claim that 'evolution itself is a matter of faith' so silly. People believe in evolution not because they arbitrarily want to believe it but because of overwhelming, publicly available evidence.

    I said 'it doesn't matter what' the faithful believe, which suggests that people have faith in entirely daft, arbitrary things, like the electric monk in Douglas Adams's delightful Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. He was purpose-built to do your believing for you, and very successful at it. On the day that we meet him he unshakeably believes, against all the evidence, that everything in the world is pink. I don't want to argue that the things in which a particular individual has faith are necessarily daft. They may or may not be. The point is that there is no way of deciding whether they are, and no way of preferring one article of faith over another, because evidence is explicitly eschewed. Indeed the fact that true faith doesn't need evidence is held up as its greatest virtue; this was the point of my quoting the story of Doubting Thomas, the only really admirable member of the twelve apostles.

    Faith cannot move mountains (though generations of children are solemnly told the contrary and believe it). But it is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness. It leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and die for it without the need for further justification. Keith Henson has coined the name 'memeoids' for 'victims that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential....You see lots of these people on the evening news from such places as Belfast and Beirut.' Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings. It even immunizes them against fear, if they honestly believe that a martyr's death will send them straight to heaven. What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb.

  13. Bertrand Russell, "Free Thought and Official Propaganda," from his collection of essays, The Will to Doubt, Philosophical Library, 1958, pp. 22-23.

    We have had in recent years a brilliant example of the scientific temper of mind in the theory of relativity and its reception by the world. Einstein, a German-Swiss-Jew pacifist, was appointed to a research professorship by the German Government in the early days of the 1914-18 war; his predictions were verified by an English expedition which observed the eclipse of 1919, very soon after the Armistice. This theory upsets the whole theoretical framework of traditional physics; it is almost as damaging to orthodox dynamics as Darwin was to Genesis. Yet physicists everywhere have shown complete readiness to accept his theory as soon as it appeared that the evidence was in its favour. But none of them, least of all Einstein himself, would claim that he has said the last word. He has not built a monument of infallible dogma to stand for all time. There are difficulties he cannot solve; his doctrines will have to be modified in their turn as they have modified Newton's. This critical undogmatic receptiveness is the true attitude of science.

    What would have happened if Einstein had advanced something equally new in the sphere of religion or politics? English people would have found elements of Prussianism in his theory; anti-Semites would have regarded it as a Zionist plot; nationalists in all countries would have found it tainted by lily-livered pacifism, and proclaimed it a mere dodge for escaping military service. All the old-fashioned professors would have approached Scotland Yard to get the importation of his writings prohibited. Teachers favourable to him would have been dismissed. He, meantime, would have captured the Government of some backward country, where it would have become illegal to teach anything except his doctrine, which would have grown into a mysterious dogma not understood by anybody. Ultimately the truth or falsehood of his doctrine would be decided on the battlefield, without the collection of any fresh evidence for or against it. This method is the logical outcome of William James's will to believe.

    What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is its exact opposite.

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Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374.
peters@earlham.edu. Copyright © 1999-2002, Peter Suber.