Introduction to Philosophy 1101
In the film, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins presents a view held by many, that religious belief is irrational because it cannot be grounded in empirical evidence. In writings years earlier, William James responds directly to this argument. James offers a different view of the concept of faith. He states that when we have a genuine option that cannot be decided solely on intellectual grounds, our passional nature must be allowed to rule. In this essay, I will argue against Richard Dawkins argument that faith is irrational. I will support James’ claim that pure logic doesn't dictate our beliefs—in fact, we are passionate beings with faith in things that may not seem rational, but are, after all, entirely sensible. Richard Dawkins argues that because God cannot be proven through research and science, He simply does not exist. William James argues directly against this—even as a scientific and logical philosopher. He believes that although many things can be proved through science, there are some concepts that have limits beyond which we can root in the sentiment of rationality.
In his paper, The Will to Believe, James makes his famous distinctions concerning options. He claims we all have options for belief, and he breaks them down into three categories. The option, or any proposed belief, can be either “living or dead.” If an option is dead, then it is completely unappealing to us—reasons and judgment do not matter in dead options. If someone asks me if I believe in Judaism, I will have nothing to base my answer off of. But if someone asks me if I believe in God, I can give reason, I can judge my decision based on science or critical thinking, or even belief. Therefore, an option of belief must be living.
The second category is “forced vs. avoidable.” It’s pretty clear what this means. An avoidable decision is whether you are going to have a family in 10 years—you do not know, you must wait and see. A forced decision is one that must be made at that point in time. Will you go to the grocery store with your mom? This is a forced option; an answer must be given. The decision of faith is forced—you believe or you do not believe.
The last category is “trivial or momentous.” A trivial option is one where making a wrong decision does not matter much in the grand scheme of things. Should I wear brown shoes or black shoes today? If my outfit is a little mix-matched, it is not the end of the world. A momentous option is one in which a wrong decision carries huge consequences. Give me all of your money or die, is definitely a momentous decision to all of us. These three categories of options make up the genuine option. The genuine option is one that is living, forced, and momentous. James uses this background information to construct his main argument: when one cannot use one’s own intellect to solve a genuine option, one must emotionally decide. This is where his concept of faith is born. When we cannot rely on science or logic to make a life changing decision, we must look inside ourselves. The most important answers to questions do not lie in textbooks, they lie in our hearts. When we are deciding what to believe in respect to religion, we must inspect ourselves—our emotions, our passions, our faith.
In response to all of James’ argument, Dawkins would be skeptic. He would still question faith because it cannot be rooted in evidence. James, in his view of skepticism, would say that skepticism is not avoiding the option of faith; rather it is an option in of itself. It is choosing…