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(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