Prohibition of Religious Ambiguity

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William James’s Argument
William James argues that agnosticism is not a valid choice to make. He opens his argument with the conjecture that “voluntarily adopted faith” abides by philosophical lawfulness (74). He builds from this by defining a hypothesis as “anything that may be proposed to...belief” and it may be either live or dead in quality. A life hypothesis is one that appeals as a real possibility. The quality of being live or dead is not an “intrinsic property.” Instead, they are “relations to the individual thinker; measured by...willingness to act.” James defines an option as a decision between two hypotheses which may be 1) living or dead, 2) forced or avoidable, and 3) momentous or trivial (75). An option may be genuine if it is live, forced, and momentous. James’s next move is to show that scientific questions are “trivial options” with dead hypotheses and are avoidable, unlike the religious question. He shows this by questioning whether or not it matters if we have particular scientific theories or scientific beliefs. He conjectures that it “makes no difference” in these instances. James summarizes:
Science says things are; morality says some things are better than other things; and religion says...1) the best things are the more eternal things,...and 2) we are better off even now if we believe [1] (76).
James suggests that the religious hypothesis is forced and momentous; therefore, for those who religion is a live hypothesis, it is a genuine option. Hence, James concludes that he cannot accept “the agnostic rules for truthseeking” because any “rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent [us] from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule” (77). U...

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...onal decision; --just like deciding yes or no,-- and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth” (75). Hence, every individual’s hand is forced in making a decision regarding the religious hypothesis. One must either believe in the eternal or believe in the temporal because there is no in between option. According to James, if and when someone identifies with an agnostic philosophy, he or she is not choosing ambiguity, he or she is ultimately choosing disbelief of the religious hypothesis and will be subject to the same consequences of disbelief if the religious hypothesis is sound. Therefore, according to James’s argument, agnosticism is not philosophically lawful.

Works Cited

James, W. (1896). “The Will to Believe.” In G. L. Bowie, M. W. Michaels, and R. C. Solomon (Eds.), Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (74-78). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.
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