Faith and Truth

The American philosopher William James argued in his essay “The Will to Believe”  that there were circumstances under which it was not only permissible to respond to the problem of uncertainty by making a leap of faith, it was necessary to do so lest one lose the truth by not making a decision.

Most scientific questions, James argued, were not the sort of momentous issues that required an immediate decision.  One could step back, evaluate numerous hypotheses, engage in lengthy testing of such hypotheses, and make tentative, uncertain conclusions that would ultimately be subject to additional testing.  However, outside the laboratory, real-world issues often required decisions to be made on the spot despite a high degree of uncertainty, and not making a decisional commitment ran the same risk of losing the truth as making an erroneous decision.  Discovering truth, wrote James, is not the same as avoiding error, and one who is devoted wholeheartedly to the latter will be apt to make little progress in gaining the truth.

In James’s view, we live in a dynamic universe, not a static universe, and our decisions in themselves affect the likelihood of certain events becoming true.  In matters of love, friendship, career, and morals, the person who holds back from making a decision for fear of being wrong will lose opportunities for affecting the future in a positive fashion.  Anyone who looks back honestly on one’s life can surely admit to lost opportunities of this type.  As James wrote, “[f]aith in a fact can help create the fact.”

Now of course there are many counterexamples of people who have suffered serious loss, injury, and death because they made an unjustified leap of faith.  So one has to carefully consider the possible consequences of being wrong.  But many times, the most negative consequences of making a leap of faith are merely the same type of rejection or failure that would occur if one did not make a decisional commitment at all.

There is a role for skepticism in reason, a very large role, but there are circumstances in which excessive skepticism can lead to a paralysis of the will, leading to certain loss.  Skepticism and faith have to be held in balance, with skepticism applied primarily to low-impact issues not requiring an immediate decision.

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