Reflections on James and God 1-18-10

We have been discussing God and ideas about Him/Her/It this past week. In this post i want to summarize what William James says about God and belief.  James's purpose is to justify faith. This is a play on the Reformation idea, associated with Martin Luther, that individuals are justified, that is freed from sin and saved, by their faith in God and not through the agency of any of their actions.
So, in the past people wanted to be justified, or saved, by faith. But today ( and 'today' for James was 1900) people no longer think about whether they are saved, but rather about whether they should worry about having faith at all. Today it is not people who need justification, but faith itself, the act of believing in God or some higher power.
There is a background to James's project. He was writing against a guy named Clifford, who had written a very influential article arguing that no one should believe anything that they could not back up with hard, publicly testable evidence. Since James was delivering his talk to a group of skeptical college undergraduates who had been influenced by Clifford and who most likely found it fashionable to make fun of people who had "blind" faith, his job was to argue that having faith is intellectually respectable even for smart, snotty undergrads. So, in a sense he is writing right into your lives, only a century later.
We should however assess, a little, the difference that intervening century has made. It seems to have provided a lot of reasons to be even more skeptical about the idea that we are being watched over by a loving, caring God. Two world wars that together cost more than 50 million lives; the Nazi Holocaust that killed more than 5 million Jews; genocide in Turkey, Rwanda, Cambodia; the slaughter of millions in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China, and so on and on, including our military involvements in Viet-nam, Iraq and Afghanistan. All these suggest that if there is a God and He loves us and watches over us, either something diverted His attention in the 20th century, orHis role is not to directly intervene in problems that humans create. But such unjustified killing, the killing of civilians, of children, seems to suggest that there is a problem in bland reassurances about God's goodness and caring. In a world in which fullbacks and wide receivers regularly point to Heaven and thank Jesus when they score a touchdown, and celebrity awards winners, major criminals and others call on Jesus' name and thank Him for his help, and when jihadists argue that they kill in the name of a loving God, we have plenty of evidence that believers, especially, do believe that God has the power to intervene in human affairs. So if God helps us win games, and we thank Him, couldn't he also save Jews or Cambodians from slaughter?
Something to think about.
But this is not the line of country James wants to explore. He says nothing about what I just wrote, which is called the problem of evil. No; he is interested in how having faith works to make one's life better, not in pursuing arguments about whether the way the world works and our idea are consistent one with another. James's interest is purely pragmatic: that is, can he make the argument that believing in God, or something, works better in our daily life, than not believing in anything?
Well, the first consideration for this argument is whether we have any reason to take the God proposal seriously. One of the implicit premisses, on which the argument largely rests, is that the God proposal is a live hypothesis, that is, a plausible theory or claim about the world. It might or could be true; the problem we have is that there seems to be as much evidence against the truth of the claim as there is for it. Without going into detail here - we will, in a bit - suffice to say that there are well-developed arguments for and against God's existence and caring, and that as Kant pointed out, none of these, pro or con, in entirely conclusive. Each set persuades some people but no argument persuades everyone.
James's idea here is that in the absence of decisive proof we have a moral obligation to ourselves to decide, by willing it, between important alternatives. And what should guide our decision is the consideration of whether believing or not believing will do us more good.
The issue is a little more complex than this. James first mentions a whole class of beliefs whose truth does not yet exist, one way or another. He cites making someone like you, or building a community by the sheer will of its members, as examples in which, in the absence of any truth about either the relationship or the community, we make either the relationship or the community come into being through our own efforts.
Here, it is not that there is a question for which the evidence pro and con is not decisive. In the relationship and community cases there is no relationship or  community before we will either into existence. For example, Johnston would not exist, or continue to exist, unless people there kept willing it to by participating in contract negotiations and community meetings. Same is true for the University as a living academic community. Its existence, and the truth that there is such a place as either Johnston or the University, are functions of people willing them into existence and willing that they should continue to exist.
James wants to argue here that the world is not made up of pre-determined truths to which we must simply acquiesce. He is suggesting that for our own good we can make new truths and will them both into existence and into continuing to exist.
On this issue I think he is right and has an interesting and useful point to make about how we can create some of the meaning of our lives through our own willing.
But there are two serious limitations to this claim: first, there seems in general to be a limit to what we can will to be true and we need to be aware of, and respect, this limit. for example if I really want you to like me and want to will a mutually satisfying relationship into being, I cannot, either legally or reasonably, expect to do so if you have absolutely no interest and/or by texting you 300 times a day or sitting outside your house in my car until 3 am every night. That is called stalking and all I am willing into existence in this case is some serious trouble with the law. Or, I can will a community into existence and continued life if and only if other people will the same thing at a fairly intense level. If no one wants to join my club there won't be one.
The second limitation to James's approach is that he tries to make a rough parallel between the foregoing instances, in which we will a value into being, and the religious situation in which we will a belief into existence. There is a crucial distinction between relationships and communities on one hand and beliefs on the other: the relationship was not there before, and so it and my belief in it are created simultaneously. The belief, on the other hand, is an assent of my will to something that pre-existed my assent. I do not bring God into existence by willing that He be. I can create a love that was not there before. I cannot reasonably create a God, or a ten dollar bill, or a wombat, simply by willing it into existence.
And James is not really proposing that we do this. The key here is the evidence. If we have a 50-50 chance, give the evidence, of there being something like God already there to whose existence we can assent, then, says James, we can create the belief, not the God, by assenting to the idea that it is true, even though the evidence is 50-50.
James says not only that we can do this but that we must, if there is further evidence that doing so will make our lives better in the sense of less anxious, happier and perhaps even more productive. What he hates is the idea of vigorous young people, filled with intelligence and energy, living slacker lives because they are in the grip of a pessimism born out of lack of faith.
But now we come to the second limitation. Just how plausible does the God hypothesis have to be before we have the moral obligation to will it into existence as a belief? And, even if we find it 50-50 plausible, can't we reject it, embrace skepticism or indifference (the more usual move), and still live a consequential life?
This is really two limitations/questions: first, how do we measure the plausibility of s contested hypothesis? Second, can we live good lives and reject belief?
As to the first question, James, being a pretty smart guy, immediately covers his philosophical nether parts and makes it easier on us by redefining "God" to make the claim that He exists much more palatable. He defines God as follows:
(p. 384)
"... religion says essentially two things.
First, she says that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the last word. 'Perfection is eternal.' , . . . , an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be verified . . . .
The second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true."
So there are two claims: first that there something eternal and that whatever it is it is best. Second, that if we belief that there is such a thing we are better off right now, whether we get rewarded for believing this or not. 
Now notice what James has done. He admits that this claim cannot be proven by science, but on the other hand he makes the claim so vague and general -- there is something eternal, or somethings eternal -- that willing to believe it is nowhere near so demanding as believing for example that there is no god but Allah or that Yahweh covenanted with His people on Mt. Sinai or that Jesus is the son of God and the second member of the Trinity. Willing to believe any of those more detailed formulations uses more metaphysical calories than agreeing that there are some eternal things, gender, intentions, and history left blank. 
So, James makes it easy, or relatively so. Believing something this vague and benign will hardly lead one to picket at abortion clinics or put bombs in one's underwear or claim territory from people who own it because God wants the claimants to have it. Vague, benign beliefs are easy to assert, and James knows this.
Such beliefs are also most restful. Thinking in the vaguest possible way that things in general will work out is far less stressful and requires far less argument than having to prove that every early childhood cancer and every Haitian earthquake make some sort of sense as part of the plan of a personal deity.
But here is the issue: is any such belief at all plausible?
Some philosophers and some scientists scoff at the idea, claiming that there is no plausible evidence at all for the existence of anything eternal, except perhaps the universe (or multiverse) itself.  James's claim that the case is debatable, that there is about as much evidence for God as against, is just not true. There is no evidence, these guys claim, in any scientific theory to warrant a belief in any sort of eternal power.
we will debate this as we go along.
A more insidious because more sophisticated argument goes like this: Some of our present-day professional God debunkers (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Bill Maher) will argue that any such belief leads down a slippery slope. Once you let in any belief at all you, or if not you, then someone else who believes,  will inevitably someday want to claim that God wants X or Y in particular - an Islamic society, a society without gay marriage, a society without Palestinians - and that he or she has been chosen as the agent for making X or Y come true in the world no matter what everyone else wants or believes. According to these writers religious belief and especially Western beliefs in a personal God inexorably lead to bad behavior ranging from prejudice and unkindness all the way up through mass murder. 
Yet another argument is even more sophisticated and turns on the idea of how language works. To say 'God' generally means to postulate the real existence of something, some real thing, either in or outside the universe, and often something with what resembles a human intelligence and will. Now even conceiving of this thing that we have no trouble naming is the issue. 
What exactly can we be talking about when we refer to something eternal, perfect, outside space and time, who knows all and can do all? How can we even think of what such a thing would be like since every idea we have is necessarily limited by our existence in space and time among things that all have limits? What is a being without a body? What does it or could it mean to be outside time? Can we even think this being, or just come up with a name? 
There is a response which we will study at greater length later, which is that of course if there is a God He cannot have a mind or be outside anything, because these are all obvious ascriptions of human characteristics to something unthinkable. He must, to be God, be completely unthinkable and we cannot say anything reasonable about Him but must simply affirm the reality of His existence. But of this more later.
Second big question: do we really need God to feel better about our lives? Even since 1900 we have made huge advances in accumulating man-made objects that will make us happy. Automobiles, airplanes, telephones, radios, televisions, computers, the internet, cell phones, smart phones, ereaders, antibiotics, statins, and on and on. In 1900 the average American male had a life expectancy of 50 at birth. In 2010, according to my iPhone, the American male had a life expectancy of 75.6 at birth, an increase, in 100-odd years, of just over 50% -not because God intervened but because humans got smarter. Today we have, in our daily livers, so many gadgets and vehicles and foods and all manner of other things that living as an upper middle class white/Asian American or EU citizen means living pretty close to how traditional cultures described Heaven -- only Heaven has no YouTube or FaceBook or SuperBowl, etc. So one could argue that, since life for the luckiest people us getting better and better, those people at least have a proportionally smaller need for God than do the poor and oppressed. This seems to be borne out by statistics: religion flourishes in developing countries, is all but dead in rich Europe and Japan, and lives on, somewhat anomalously, in a United States that embraces a very this-worldly brand of Christianity that might oppose gay marriage but that never seems to oppose or get in the way of the latest banking or land development deal. 
So, religion's capacity and need to make us feel better is diminishing, or appears to be, and when we are religious it seems often to follow James's pattern closely: we will to believe in a God whose existence makes us feel better about ourselves, without asking us to purchase this better feeling with any uncomfortable or expensive religious commitments. Essentially, religion for Americans is a cheap insurance policy against meaninglessness, should they need that. 

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