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William James, The Will to Believe - Essay Example

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William James, The Will to Believe

Only a genuine option is relevant. James creates a three-part test for determining whether an option is, in fact, genuine. This three-part test requires that an option be living, forced, and momentous in order to be genuine.
As an initial matter, there must be two alternatives. To be genuine, the option must be living. This means that the individual in question will consider seriously each of the alternatives. It must be possible that he will choose either of the options. In this respect, the genuine option becomes extraordinarily individualistic. The test is not applied to groups, whether large or small, but to the smallest possible unit. The test is applied to the decision-maker. This has significant implications. An option may be living for one person but not for another. In a very basic way, the person must be thoughtful, open-minded, and undecided for the option to be living. Assuming that the option is living, the second part of the test requires that an option must be forced.
The forced element demands that an alternative be chosen. There can be no hedging. There can be no qualifications of the choice. There is a sense of completeness and irrevocability demanded by this element of the genuine option. You have faith or you do not have faith. You like a person or you do not like a person. There is, in short, a conflict and it must be resolved.

The final part of the test concerns the uniqueness of the option. James refers to this as the momentous option. In his view, this option presents itself as a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. To be momentous, the option must transcend trivial issues. The option must involve truly significant matters, the decision must be irrevocable, and the decision must be unique. This limits the discussion to very fundamental issues, such as deeply moral questions, religious questions, and personal relations.

In the final analysis, James argues that the question of religious faith is a genuine option because the question satisfies the three-part test. When confronted with the question of religious faith, the option may very well be living to many individuals. The individual may consider both alternatives, to have faith or not to have faith, very seriously. Faith is forced in the sense that, after considering the question, a choice must be made. You do not have faith in salvation without a corresponding faith in hell. Finally, this question of religious faith is a momentous decision. The notion of God is hardly trivial. The notions of salvation and eternal damnation are quite significant. How an individual defines his existence, and leads his life, can be fundamentally affected by this decision.

Is this type of religious faith then a rational faith James believes that religious faith, as qualified by the genuine option approach, is rational. Again, his framework relies heavily on the concept of circumstance and individuality. The need for absolute evidence is tangential. This rationale is justified by reference to what he calls our passional nature.

Our passions motivate us to act. They are not objective. They are specific to each individual. We are all possessed of ...Show more

Summary

William James, in "The Will to Believe", argues that absolute proof, in the empirical sense, is not a prerequisite of religious faith. There are situations or moments when absolute evidence is inaccessible or unknown. There are moments when emotions conflict strongly in an environment of imperfect knowledge…
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