On the Twin Forces of Hope and Skepticism
Finding the Strength to Resist in William James and Bertrand Russell
“I don’t believe human beings are built—emotionally, psychologically, neurologically—to absorb the volume of information we are exposed to in an average day on Facebook,” my friend recently wrote. “Especially when so much of it consists of brutality.”
He’s far from alone: that posting got 68 “likes” and 17 comments, and I’m seeing a lot more like it. Even my most resilient friends are punch-drunk from the brutal headlines—a new nuclear arms race, a seizure of power by Republicans in North Carolina, awful plans efforts to destroy Medicare and Social Security, just to name a few. Dour conversations are all too easy to come by. It’s more and more a given that the next four years are going to be a regressive time of destruction, fraud, and suffering.
This malaise is spilling over into our creative work. Online and off, good friends are confessing that writing right now feels pointless. For my own part, I maintain my work schedule, but it often feels hollow, just a sideshow as I helplessly watch this nation that I love being pillaged. All this, and we haven’t even inaugurated Donald Trump President yet.
Malaise is a completely appropriate reaction to the disempowerment and uncertainty we’re all experiencing. But while it may be appropriate, it’s not going to help us get on with our important work. The world may have shifted beneath our feet, but we still need to write, edit, produce, read, sell, and share great literature. And we—the voting majority—need to fight to take our country back.
So these days I’m looking for every last way I can to inspire myself. One book that I’m turning to a lot—a book that has always picked me back up amid setbacks—is William James’s all-American classic The Will to Believe.
William James (brother of the famous novelist Henry) was one of America’s major philosophers. He’s often called the “Father of American psychology,” a man who talked about the “unconscious” mind years before Freud. He’s one of a handful of American philosophers grouped under the term “Pragmatists”—their work is generally recognized as our nation’s major contribution to the Western philosophical tradition.
The Pragmatists were mostly born around 1840, meaning they came of age during our horrible Civil War. These were people who not only witnessed the most divisive and destructive stage of American political life—their identities as human beings were completely shaped by it. In fact, the great pragmatist Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes fought and nearly died in the Civil War. Among others, the public intellectual Louis Menand has argued that Pragmatist philosophy was a response to this epochal struggle that split America in two, physically devastated much of the country, and killed more Americans than any other war.
And yet, from that war came a philosophy of modernism, progress, and belief. The Pragmatist John Dewey was a major educational reformer and a proponent of civil society. His strongly progressive voice advocated for universal suffrage and an educational system that taught children to be free-thinking citizens. As a Supreme Court Justice, Holmes was key in paving the way for the New Deal and upholding free speech.
William James was the weirdo of the Pragmatists. He took mind-altering substances in a quest for insight (particularly enjoying nitrous oxide). His classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience took a holistic view of religion and chronicled the many forms “mystical experience” could take, looking at it as a personal endeavor well outside the boundaries of organized religion. And he also wrote a serious philosophical argument for the immortality of the human soul. In all of these cases, James’s work is still read today because his rigorous, down-to-earth arguments have proven formidable challenges for even the best philosophical minds that followed him.
James’s single most famous piece, his essay “The Will to Believe,” is a remarkably strong case for why you should choose belief over skepticism. For anyone currently doubting the point of continuing, you must read this. (Though James is talking specifically about religious belief, his arguments work equally well for belief in other things—say, for instance, the viability of art and politics in a remarkably dark period.) The full argument of “The Will to Believe” is intricate and fascinating, and I encourage you to see it for yourself.
The crucial part of James’s argument is that in order to acquire proof of a belief, you must first be willing to believe in it. Quite simply, you’ll never believe in something if you don’t want to. Surely James is right: as we’ve seen countless times with questions like global warming, evolution—or even whether Donald Trump received more popular votes than Hillary Clinton—all the facts in the world are powerless if a mind doesn’t want to believe in them. James notes that this is equally true regardless of whether we are talking about the existence of God or a scientific theory. Even Einstein himself would have never proven his theory of relativity if he didn’t have faith in it before he could obtain hard scientific evidence. As James so elegantly puts it, “if your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.”
I find in these simple words a profound reason to continuing striving and believing in my work in these cold days. If I give up my belief that America can right itself and resume its progress, I will surely never see all the good things currently happening here: a $12+ minimum wage in four new states, the decriminalization of marijuana in many more, California vowing to launch its own damn satellites to continue the fight against climate change, a post-election flood of donations to groups that will fight Trump, and a resurgent independent bookstore scene that has grown by over 30 percent since 2009, alongside continued growth in book sales in 2016.
I am also moved by James’s argument that our belief is often a necessary ingredient in making things true: if we don’t believe things will get better, they surely won’t. Putting forth an example of just such a case, he writes:
Do you like me or not? . . . Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you halfway, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have done something apt . . . ten to one your liking never comes. . . . The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth’s existence; and so it is in innumerable cases of other sorts.
This is particularly true in the case of art and politics, which require us to strive in defiance of an unresponsive world. Those who stand aloof waiting for some indication to proceed never get very far—it is only the believers who will join forces to fight for what they want. As James later asks, “Can we . . . always wait with impunity till the coercive evidence shall have arrived?”
No, we cannot. And, in fact, there is a great cost in such skepticism: “We may wait if we will,” James writes, “but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed.” I love the simplicity of this insight, the elegance: there is a cost to doubting ourselves—the lost opportunities that come from not even trying—and this cost is often much graver than the cost of believing in error. As James puts it elsewhere, “what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?”
James ends the essay by quoting a few simple words: “Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.” These could make a good motto for us all right now, and I encourage you to take these simple words to heart. But my intuition tells me—careful skeptics that you are—that some of you will need a little more convincing. After all, blind faith can be a terrible thing.
So, lest you think I am advocating dogmatism when I quote William James at you, let me offer some of the healthy skepticism of the great pacifist and Nobel Prize–winning philosopher Bertrand Russell. The two of them naturally go together: if William James will make the best possible case for belief, Russell will counter it with the best reasons to maintain one’s skepticism. In his classic work Free Thought and Official Propaganda, Russell throws some harsh words at those whose belief in themselves is a little too strong:
In religion and politics . . . everybody considers it de rigueur to have a dogmatic opinion, to be backed up by inflicting starvation, prison, and war, and to be carefully guarded from argumentative competition with any different opinion. If only men could be brought into a tentatively agnostic frame of mind about these matters, nine-tenths of the evils of the modern world would be cured. War would become impossible, because each side would realize that both sides must be in the wrong. Persecution would cease. Education would aim at expanding the mind, not at narrowing it. Men would be chosen for jobs on account of fitness to do the work, not because they flattered the irrational dogmas of those in power.
I firstly offer these words because this is what I want very much right now for America: that we are able to bring ourselves into a “tentatively agnostic frame of mind” where we can find the common ground to solve our problems. I secondly offer them because I find them inspiring and accurate. Only tyrants are correct 100% of the time; it is important to cherish our beliefs, but we must also be ready to admit when we are in the wrong. Such tolerance, open-mindedness, and compromise has made America great, and I do believe that coalitions built on these principles—and not the close-minded dogmatism of hate and division—will prove to triumph and endure in the long run.
Let me close with Russell’s words about how we should bring about a world filled with free-thinking, healthily skeptical believers. They are not ideas that will sound strange to your ears. Russell argues for the importance of good education that teaches students to think for themselves—not an education that simply teaches them to be a cog in the machine. He also advocates for a meritocratic world that encourages us to use those critical thinking skills—not a world in which one is advanced for simply parroting the decrees of those in power.
So how do we achieve this world?
It must be done by generating an enlightened public opinion. And an enlightened public opinion can only be generated by the efforts of those who desire that it should exist.
A fitting conclusion—it sounds to my ears like precisely the common ground between James and Russell, the overlap between the believer and the skeptic. Russell says that our ideal world will only come about through the efforts of “those who desire that it should exist,” and James says that the “desire for a certain kind of truth . . . brings about that special truth’s existence.” In both cases, you have to want it before you can have it. So I say to you all today, desire the best world. Get to work, have faith in your efforts. Collaborate, see your common interests, chase away despair with your better beliefs.
And here is a great place to start: Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. Congressional staffers who watched the Tea Party frustrate Obama’s agenda for six years have put together a guide for using those exact same organizational principles to resist Trump. Notably, they also take care to explain why we are not the Tea Party, and how to avoid falling into such dogmatism and divisiveness while still using these practical methods to obtain legislative victories. For anyone wanting concrete steps that you can begin taking right this second to fight back, this is essential reading.
Books to Inspire Your Belief and to Help You Take Action
The Will to Believe, Human Immortality, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy by William James
Free Thought and Official Propaganda by Bertrand Russell
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand
Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt
The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman