Will to Believe

Let’s look at the objection many agnostics make to belief in God: “If I don’t know, I don’t know.  Nor do you.  One believes because he wants to believe, that’s all.”  Even if this were a completely viable position to take, it wouldn’t support a stance of perpetual agnosticism, as we shall see.

Williams James was an American philosopher of the 19th century who is credited with a form of pragmatism.  The idea (somewhat simplified) is that one can choose to believe, and then believe.  One chooses a belief that “works,” and then, having chosen, shores up that belief with various additions to understanding which may serve to undergird that belief already chosen.

Consider Blaise Pascal, in this context. Pascal is famous for what has come to be known as “Pascal’s wager.”  Simplified to a form that does not do Pascal full justice, it is the proposition that one chooses to believe or not, and in choosing, should take into account the consequence of each alternative.  This is a form of choosing what “works.”  If there is a God as asserted by Christianity, and one believes, then heaven is his reward.  If there is a God and one chooses not to believe, hell is his “reward.”  If there is no God, then it is immaterial whether one believes or not.  Oblivion is what follows this life, either way.  So Pascal’s wager would suggest as a betting proposition that belief in God makes the most sense.  There will be heaven or oblivion, if one believes; hell or oblivion, if he does not.

This simplified form of Pascal’s wager has been derided by atheists, of course, but it is criticized most vehemently by agnostics.  The criticism is that belief should be a matter of persuasion, not predisposition.  It should be supported by evidence, not by a priori commitment.  Putting aside questions of the quality of evidence, the agnostic criticism that a belief should be supported by evidence has intuitive traction.  So why isn’t the agnostic criticism correct?   How can one form any belief, including belief in God, without evidence?

The short answer is that we can’t, but the more complete answer is that we are never actually in a position of having truly no evidence.  Existence itself is evidence—the existence of ourselves and everything and everyone around us.  On the question whether there is a God, merely having the ability to entertain the question is itself some evidence.

Obviously people draw different conclusions from that kind of base-line evidence.  For sake of argument, however, let’s imagine that there were no evidence at all.  Would that mean one should disbelieve the claims of Christianity?

Proposition: we exercise a Jamesian “will to believe” by rejecting theism.  This is true simply by virtue of theism being as basic a belief as atheism, as Alvin Plantinga convincingly explains.  If we adopt atheism instead of theism, on grounds of lack of evidence, we necessarily do so because of a will to believe naturalism:  that reality is confined to matter in motion.

Or put another way, a “will to believe” in God is no different than a “will to believe” atheism.  The thing believed before evaluating evidence is not limited to the God proposition.  It also includes the atheist proposition.

If, therefore, someone says “I don’t believe in God because I can’t just decide to believe in God,” they would do well to inquire whether they reject belief in God only because they’ve just decided in advance of receiving evidence that there is no God.  The “will to believe” goes both ways.

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