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Depiction of Faith by W. K. Clifford and William James

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The Compatibility of Faith and Reason

When comparing the two selections by W.K. Clifford and William James on the compatibility of faith and reason, I feel that both arguments make very valid points. However I do think, after careful reading and based on my own experience, that William James has the stronger argument.

William James The Will to Believe claims that Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds. James contention is that under certain circumstances, it is perfectly legal for a person to go ahead and believe something for which scientific evidence is lacking. To do so is not unreasonable. This argument makes itself useful in the religious hypothesis for the existence of God. James, himself, believed that there is a Greater Consciousness than that of human beings to which we are connected. Among other things, this Greater Consciousness cares about and preserves many of the things that we hold dear to us like love, truth, and justice. This is done so that the values possessed by these things continue to exist in the world rather than perishing with us when we die. James contention in this regard was that his beliefs on this matter were perfectly legal even though there is currently no scientific evidence for the existence of a Greater Consciousness. He claimed that If we had an infallible intellect with its objective certitudes then going ahead and believing something without scientific evidence would not be legal. However that is certainly not the case, so it is our intellectual duty to regulate what we believe through science, according to James. Going back to the argument for the existence of God, because the existence of God is not a matter of scientific fact why should we suspend our belief in God?

James believed that modern science is a sort of organized nervousness. The tests that we put theories through before accepting them as the truth serve one sort of human interest our fear of being mistaken, or being taken by surprise by the course of events. Another way of avoiding that is through our constant hope of discovering new things. According to James, by reason of these different sets of interests, we are under no obligation to suspend belief in God just because to date, Gods existence has not been proven by modern science. It is a matter of which set of interests we choose to take priority of concerning the hypothesis that God exists: (a) out of our fear of being mistaken or out of (b) our hope of being right. The person who conforms to their hope of Gods existence is just as reasonable as the person who gives in to their fear that there may not be a God at all.

Some of James argument has been used recently by Pope John Paul II. In his Reflections on Fides et Ratio, the Pope claims that humans are seekers of truth. And during that quest, reason cannot sustain one alone. Whether it is a question of the truths of immediate experience or of scientific truth, of carefully developed philosophical thought or of an existentially lived idea, the search for truth is always accompanied by an act of faith. In fact, as social beings, humans are incapable of verifying and ascertaining everything alone; at every level one must put enlightened trust in the testimony of others and in ones cultural tradition. As a seeker of truth, man is, by that very reason, the one who lives by belief.

However, having said that, knowledge through belief – without personal evidence of truth, seems to be imperfect knowledge. But in other respects, what knowledge is ascertained through self-sufficient means? Do we not put our trust in interpersonal relationships and believe, without much evidence, certain things and take them to be the truth? Especially when it is a question of the essential truths of life which concern the person’s inner depths. Nevertheless, the trust one places in the other person must not be blind. If one has reason to believe that he might be deceiving himself or deceiving me, I must make the few limited verifications accessible to me from the outside, by cross-checking, for example, with other sources of information. To be worthy of our reason as well as of the other person’s freedom, “trust” must be enlightened, and, basing itself on “reasons to believe”, it must also be rational. Consequently, the human quest for truth not only seeks the realization of limited truths and immediately useful truths; it also strives for an absolute truth, which is accessible by thought. Since it is vital for human existence, this ultimate truth will be reached, not only by pure reason, but also by enlightened trust in the testimony of others. Reason itself is not self-sufficient and needs certain trust, if it is to succeed in its search. (Reflections on the Holy Fathers Encyclical Fides et Ratio, Bishop Andre-Mutien Leornard)

According to W.K. Clifford in The Ethics of Belief, we violate our moral duties if we obtain beliefs where the evidence is insufficient. (Pojman, 91) This implies that it is not warranted to have a full religious belief, unless there is persuasive evidence for it. The content of religious experience has been requisitioned not to count as evidence. Religious beliefs do not seem to be self-evident. So the only available evidence would be a non-religious supposition, from which the religious beliefs are implied. Therefore, the only way of deciding whether the religious beliefs are warranted would be to examine various arguments with the non-religious beliefs as premises and the religious beliefs as conclusions. (J. Weseley Robbins, Indiana University)

According to Clifford, if the known arguments for Gods existence, including any arguments from religious experience, are at best probable ones, no one would be warranted in having full belief that there is a God. And the same holds for other beliefs. Clifford claims that It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. We are committing a great sin. Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. (Pojman, 95)

I think this is true for certain things but it is to strict when applied to others. For example, we cannot see what is going on at the bottom of the ocean. Is it wrong for us to believe that there is marine life down there? I have never been to the moon, does that mean that it is a sin for me to believe that it is not really made of cheese. I would have no way of knowing or completely trusting the evidence before me unless I, myself, went to the moon.

Also, another thing that I found a bit confusing about Cliffords argument is the use of the seemingly religious language. For example, his use of the words moral and sin. One would think that, in order to believe in Cliffords argument one would have to be an atheist so why use such language?

On the other hand, in defense of Clifford, we implicitly rely upon evidentialist principles in many different areas of enquiry. It is the basis of our justice system (or we like to think that it is that way) and it does make a lot of sense to only believe in something when you are supplied with sufficient evidence.

In conclusion, Id like to say that both of these selections were very convincing. I have always used both faith and reason to arrive at certain personal truths and for that reason I was more convinced by William James. I believe that faith and reason go hand in hand and one without the other is useless.

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Depiction of Faith by W. K. Clifford and William James. (2019, August 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 21, 2022, from
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Depiction of Faith by W. K. Clifford and William James. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 Jan. 2022].
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