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Epistemology: The Will to Believe

Tom asks whether it is moral to believe something even when you have no evidence that it is true. He discusses a classic debate on that subject, between philosophers William James and William Clifford.

Speaker: Dr. Thomas Donaldson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University.
Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

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  • leaf green style avatar for user Ser Hodor Clegane
    Hi, thanks for sharing this video, it was very thorough and for the most part, neutral. However, I'd like to give my input as a religiously secular individual.

    I'm going to have to say that choosing faith over evidence because of "potential gains" still sounds a bit fallacious to me. It's a position that's very similar to Pascal's Wager, which states that a rational person should believe in God because of the consequences that would occur if he didn't, and the eternal rewards that he would be given if he did. However, when you "will" yourself to believe in something because of potential benefits, you still have to risk the consequences that would occur should contradictory belief hold true.

    It also begs the question, because you're using faith to justify faith. When you simplify what the video went over at the end, what you have is this:

    "Some people find it rational to believe in x lacking evidence, because they believe without evidence that x will lead to y."
    (6 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Valentine
    How did Clifford jump from the shipowner's stalwart belief with little-to-no evidence being immoral, to casting such aspirations over all beliefs which are supported by little-to-no evidence?
    For example, how could he justify calling belief in, say, the universe being inside the belly of a giant frog to be immoral? There is absolutely no evidence that says that the universe is in the belly of a giant frog, but if someone wants to believe that, I don't see how it could possibly hurt or inconvenience anyone else.
    It just seems like a fairly large leap to make and I'm wondering if perhaps there are more nuances to his argument than the speaker was covering in this video.
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user admin
      There are definitely more nuances to Clifford's position. And of course, there are others who have taken Clifford's position and modified it to address certain objections. This was merely meant to be an introductory lecture to get one thinking about these questions and the various positions. A good place to continue the inquiry is: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/. It goes a bit deeper into Clifford's position there and offers even more links if you want to continue the inquiry further.
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user José Capablanca
    The 'ethics' of belief is an interesting subject. When should you believe something? However the relevant 'should' here is not moral. It isn't immoral to believe one thousand years ago there were unicorns, although I don't think you should believe it if you are a responsible epistemic agent (someone that wants to acquire knowledge about the world). This is important because it shows us that beliefs are subject to norms. If you have very good evidence for something, you ought to believe it. The 'ought' relevant in this case however might not be moral, since the truth or falsity of proposition that is being considered might be harmless for everyone and believing it or not might not violate anyone's ethical duties and obligations. The 'ought' relevant here is epistemic (e.g. how does someone interested in the truth of some matter behave responsibly?)! And that is something the video, although otherwise good, might have been clearer..

    In particular, the example presented seems to me to be a case where a pragmatic norm is overriding an epistemic norm. Which is to say, as a responsible inquirer trying to figure out what reality is like you shouldn't believe that your date likes you. However, the costs for your well being and self-interest and for the success of the date are too high if you don't believe it, therefore a pragmatic norm ('You should do/believe something if it is, all things considered, in your self-interest') in this case might override the epistemic norm 'Believe something only if you have appropriate evidence'. This means that the Jamesian example doesn't work because Clifford is clearly concerned with the appropriate epistemic norm for appropriate belief formation.

    Another example:

    An alien abducts you and has a machine where he can test whether you believe something or not. If you don't believe that God exists, the alien will kill all the earthlings except yourself. However, you are an ardent atheist and you examined the case for and against God and after careful consideration of every argument you stand resolutely on the atheist side. Should you try to forego every piece of evidence and belief in God? The answer seems yes, because the human race depends on your action. However, as a good searcher of the truth (epistemic agent) about the world you shouldn't since you are pretty sure the belief in question doesn't accurately represent things. So although you should, this is because a moral norm 'Save the human race' overrides the epistemic norm 'don't believe without evidence'.
    (6 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ari Mendelson
    They say that "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." Doesn't it also make sense to look at this through a different lens. Namely, the will NOT to believe? The Will to reject?

    Paul Vitz discusses how he believes some people come to atheism: through disappointment with their fathers. Leaving aside the the specific merits of Vitz's argument, I do think Vitz has a point in his assertion that there are some who are very much motivated to DISbelieve. Maybe somebody is angry (at G-d, religious society, or what have you). Some people follow the intellectual fashion for rejecting religion. Some people may simply be genetically (or otherwise biologically) predisposed to reject faith. Some people might enjoy feelings of intellectual superiority or status or in another context, being a renegade. All of this and more might produce a will to DISBELIEVE.

    Doesn't it also make sense to frame the question this way? Doesn't the way we frame a question have a profound effect on what conclusions we ultimately reach? Is it truly fair only to frame the question as the will to believe?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user scifun
      One could argue the will to believe, that one wants to believe due to the fact that one's parents believe as do all one's friends and that if one does not, one would be mad or outcast. It is true that some atheists are so because life went horribly wrong. It's not morally wrong to or to not believe, as long as that belief or lack of does not harm the self or others. As you said, there are multiple reasons to disbelieve.
      Agreed, the way we frame questions does have an effect on the answers. He posed the question of morality of believing, but that is surely the wrong question. It's not about morals, right and wrong and being either. It's about opinion, about the self and what is best suited and least harmful to it and others. Is it harmful to believe? It depends on the person. A blanket one-size-fits-all answer in this case is impossible, due to the uniqueness of all people.
      Is it fair to frame as the will to believe? No. So the best question to ask would in fact be: Is it harmful to believe and is it harmful to not?
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Craig Richer
    At , the narrator - after telling the story of one side of the argument - does not tell the counterargument from the person arguing against that very story. Instead, his argument (however bad it may be (I have yet to hear it)) is replaced by one that directly supports the first side by making the second side sound foolish.

    I will never know if the first side had a good argument, because the narrator has tainted it to what can only be assumed to be a personal or affiliated preference.

    From the last series of videos, this is like playing tug of war but changing the starting point of the other team to where they will automatically loose. It 'begs the question' and is thus an informal fallacy.

    What was I supposed to learn from this video if the controller of the information does not abide by the the ground rules set forth in the previous videos?
    (4 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user J.S.Locklear #thinkmore
    At the narrator states that it is "wrong to believe that God exists". He is saying that, but he is not backing himself up. That makes no sense if he wants to get you to swallow that, even though there is an INCREDIBLE world and universe , and there are INCREDIBLY complex things(a human brain, for example), the whole world is a random chance!
    (4 votes)
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    • purple pi teal style avatar for user Maria
      I think it's just a controversial way of starting off the video. I think it would have been better to say 'it's wrong to believe the unicorns exist,' rather than choosing God (solely to avoid conflict), but he didn't.
      Either way, the video isn't so much about whether or not God is real, but whether or it it's morally ok to believe in something you know isn't true.
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Christian Laube
    I have two problems with this video.
    one is how can you will yourself into believing something. I migth choose not to look to closely at things that migth destroy my belief, like not go checking down at the bottom if the ship is leaking. But if i make that decision does that not allready mean that i really no longer belive the ship is seaworthy?
    The other is alltough in principle i think you should only believe things for which you got evidence, i think nobody could live his life like that, you would have to spend all your time checking facts and have no time left to do anything else. So don't we all have to sometimes just believe without having the evidence?
    (1 vote)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user David Keresh
    Who is this James guy they speak of at ? Is he a real person?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user tuannb1997
    The only statement in which you can use the word ALWAYS is: Arguments with the word "ALWAYS" are ALWAYS easily broken with just one exapmle ! As far as I'm concerned, Beliefs without sufficient evidence is IMMORAL when that Belief negatively affects several involved individuals - their sake is at risk because of your false faith in the wrong thing - but might be MORAL when you yourself is the only subject to it's influence. As James stated, with value judgement we may decide, for ourselves, whether to keep up believing in something that we can't even prove to be true. But if my statement is true, then are the Crusades by Chritian believers in history examples of Clifford's argument ? Beliefs without sufficient evidence led to tragic consequences ?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user David Nutting
    The shipowner had (at least) 3 choices:
    1. Believe the ship was not safe
    2. Believe the ship was safe
    3. Admit that he did not know whether it was safe

    IF he had any doubts about the ship's safety beforehand
    AND those doubts were based on even the slimmest evidence
    AND there was no evidence at all that the ship was safe
    THEN a belief that the ship was safe would be contrary to the available evidence - and therefore, in some sense (see the previous video) not justified

    Consider 5 scenarios for the ship
    1. It will sail on a pleasure cruise with 100 people on board including the shipowner
    2. It will sail on a pleasure cruise with 100 people on board but without the shipowner
    3. It will sail with 100 people on board but without the shipowner on a mission to rescue 10 people stranded on an island in imminent danger of starvation
    4. It will sail on a pleasure cruise with only the shipowner on board
    5. It's an autonomous vessel that will sail with nobody on board

    In which of these cases would allowing the vessel to sail believing it was safe, given the evidence outlined above, be immoral?

    For me, the categorical position that a belief in the safety of the ship in these circumstances is always immoral is unsustainable. But the "risk" argument needs very careful thought. It isn't just about the chances of the belief being right or wrong. Yes, it is about balancing one possible view against another. But you have to consider all the possible belief choices. And the weight of evidence (or lack of it) for and against each of them. And the possible consequences of actions based on them. Including who those choices might affect.

    Of the scenarios outlined, it is only 2. that I would almost certainly classify as immoral. 1. might well be immoral (but might not if all 100 passengers were fully informed and still demanded that the vessel sail). 3. almost certainly not (unless an alternative means of rescue was available). 4. probably not (unless you consider risks to possible rescuers of the shipowner if the ship sank). 5. probably not (unless, perhaps, the economic cost of the loss of a valuable ship was significant).

    Put this in the context of safety of modern passenger aircraft. Would some minimal evidence (for example, that the plane operated normally on its last flight) and absence of any evidence of any problems, be sufficient to justify it flying again without any further evidence of its safety? If on this basis the pilot omitted the pre-flight checks, believing that the plane was safe be justifiable?

    What about corporate responsibility? Was any individual in NASA acting immorally in believing the Challenger Space Shuttle was safe? If not, could NASA have been acting immorally in arriving at a corporate belief that it was safe?

    Is one problem here that we need to admit degrees of morality / immorality?

    My conclusions:
    There are usually many options for what you believe or admit you don't know
    These things are rarely, if ever, black and white
    You need to look at all the evidence or lack of it
    Sometimes you need to be prepared to gather additional evidence
    Consequences matter and you need to look at all the potential outcomes
    Especially who is affected by any actions
    Aspects such as economics matter because they have indirect consequences elsewhere

    If that's what is meant by weighing up the risks, then, in my view, the moral approach is to weigh up the risks before deciding what to believe / how to act.
    (2 votes)
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Video transcript

(Intro music) Hi, I'm Tom Donaldson[br]and I'm a junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Today I'm going to talk[br]about the will to believe. I'd like to talk about a simple argument[br]for the conclusion that it's wrong. to believe that God[br]exists. It goes like this. First premise: There is no[br]evidence that God exists. Second premise: If there is no evidence that God exists, it's wrong[br]to believe that he does. So, conclusion: It's wrong[br]to believe that God exists. Now obviously, the first[br]premise of this argument is highly controversial. Lots of people think that they have[br]evidence that God exists. Evidence from prayer, evidence[br]from scripture, and so on. But I'd like to put that[br]question to one side for today, important though it is, and[br]instead I want to talk about the second premise of the argument. So I want to discuss whether,[br]assuming that there's no evidence for God's existence, it's wrong to believe that he exists. Well, there was a famous[br]interchange on this topic in the 19th century which[br]I'd like to talk about. In the one corner,[br]William Kingdon Clifford argued that belief without[br]evidence is immoral. And the other corner,[br]William James defended the view that it is sometimes OK to believe without evidence. Let's start with Clifford. He was born in 1845 in England. He was a mathematician. He died when he was only[br]33, but in his short life, he proved some important[br]results in geometry and algebra. He was also a very impressive gymnast. He could do one arm pull-ups. His most famous stunt[br]was that once, on a dare, he climbed the church spire and hung upside down from the weather cock. As a young man he was devout. But later in his life, he lost his faith and became a critic of religion. His most famous essay on the topic was "The Ethics of Belief," which[br]I'm about to summarize now. The essay starts with a[br]story, which I'll repeat. There's a guy who owns a ferry. And the ferry is rather old,[br]so the guy begins to worry that the ship's no longer seaworthy. However, he's very worried[br]about the repair costs and so he stifles all of these doubts, he pushes them aside, and he[br]manages to convince himself that the ship is actually in[br]perfectly good working order. So, as the ship leaves the harbor, he has no worries in[br]his mind, he's convinced that the ship is in good condition. However, he's wrong. The ship is actually not seaworthy, and on its voyage it sinks, taking all the passengers[br]and crew with it. OK, that's the story. Clifford said that the[br]shipowner is responsible for the deaths of the people on the ferry. It's his fault that they all died. "He shouldn't have stifled his doubts about the seaworthiness[br]of the ship," Clifford said. The man's belief that the ship was[br]in good condition wasn't justified, he shouldn't have believed[br]this without evidence. Clifford used his story to motivate a very general conclusion. "It's wrong," he said, "always,[br]everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon[br]insufficient evidence." Having reached this conclusion, Clifford applied his principle[br]to the case of religious belief. "Imagining a religious man who stifles doubts about his faith," he wrote, with all the pomposity[br]of a Victorian moralist, "the life of that man is one[br]long sin against mankind." OK, so now let's talk[br]about William James. James was born at about[br]the same time as Clifford, but he lived on the other side of the[br]Atlantic, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He's best known as a psychologist.[br]He founded the world's first psychological laboratory in 1875. As a young man, he suffered from terrible bouts of depression. He described one of these in his book, The[br]Varieties of Religious Experience. In this instance, the[br]depression was triggered by a trip to an asylum, where he saw an epileptic in a very poor[br]state of mental health. He wrote, "That shape am[br]I, I felt potentially. "Nothing that I possess can defend me "against that fate, if the hour for it "should strike for me[br]as it struck for him. "There was such a horror of him, "and such a perception of my own "merely momentary discrepancy from him, "that it was as if something[br]hitherto solid within "my breast gave way entirely and I became "a mass of quivering fear. "After this, the universe was[br]changed for me altogether. "I awoke morning after[br]morning with a horrible dread "at the pit of my[br]stomach, and with a sense "of the insecurity of life[br]that I never knew before. "For months, I was unable[br]to go out into the dark alone." James tells us there was[br]only his religious faith that allowed him to[br]handle this depression. He maintained his religious belief in large part for this reason. He needed it to help him cope. Clifford no doubt would[br]have thought this immoral. But James wanted to defend[br]his religious beliefs from Clifford's attack. He did so in a famous paper[br]called "The Will to Believe." Clifford used the story of the ship owner to support the claim[br]that it's always wrong to believe with insufficient evidence. James had his own stories,[br]which he used to argue that it's sometimes OK to[br]believe without evidence. I'm not going to repeat James's stories. Instead, I'll tell you one of my own, which is Jamesian in spirit. Now let's imagine a guy, call him Rupert. Rupert's got a date tonight and he's shy. He knows from past experience[br]that he's very likely to be paralyzed by[br]embarrassment over dinner. He'll stutter and stumble his[br]way through the conversation. There'll be long, awkward silences. He'll crack jokes that don't make sense and when he tries to compliment his date,[br]he'll misjudge it and sound creepy. He knows of only one way[br]to avoid the problem. He doesn't have any reason to[br]think that his date likes him, but he knows that if[br]he can convince himself that she does, the[br]evening will go smoothly. He'll be more relaxed,[br]and so the conversation will be pleasant and they'll[br]both have a good evening. In this case, it would[br]seem to be a good idea for Rupert to make himself believe that his date likes him if he can. At least, it doesn't seem that it would be wrong for Rupert to do this. It doesn't seem that if Rupert were to do[br]this, he would, in Clifford's words, "catch a stain which can[br]never be wiped away." James used stories like this to cast doubt on Clifford's claim that it's always wrong[br]to believe on insufficient evidence. He then presented an[br]alternative way of thinking about what one should[br]believe in situations where the evidence is inconclusive. According to James, it's[br]all about managing risk. Whenever you form a belief,[br]you risk believing a falsehood. But if you refrain from forming a belief, you risk missing out on a truth. According to James, you should[br]decide whether to believe by weighing these two[br]risks against each other. In particular, James[br]thought, it makes sense for some people to believe in God, even in the absence of evidence, simply because the potential gains from the belief are so large. Subtitles by the Amara.org community