Believe We Can Do Some Real Good: William James’ Advice on Conspiracies, Part II

 

William James - Wikipedia

It turns out one of my favorite philosophers has some real insights on conspiracies.  (It’s weird and awesome because he never actually talks about them!)  In my last post, I explored William James’ observations on how we sometimes have to choose between (1) believing something that might be true but isn’t confirmed yet, thereby taking a risk of believing an error, and (2) not believing it, thereby avoiding any risk of error but instead taking a risk of missing out on that possible truth.

Although James is talking about the choice whether to have religious beliefs when the evidence has not yet cleared up the matter, this is also a good description of our choice of what to do with various theories about what’s going on in the world.  There may be some truth to some of the detailed claims about the evils of the people running the world, or at least some truth to some related claims, for example that they’re even more evil or more organized than we yet know. We can believe some or all of those claims, perhaps being in error, or not believe them, perhaps missing out on some truth.

But that was just the first piece of advice, and there’s one more.  We also have a responsibility to believe that those same jerks do not control everything, and that we have the ability to make things better.

William James – Does Consciousness Exist? – Peter Sjöstedt-H

To explain:

There are some powerful jerks out there who are screwing up the world.

We do not know for certain that the jerks who are screwing up the world are so powerful that we cannot effectively resist their folly.

We have an obligation to strongly resist their destructive actions.

It is nigh impossible for many of us to strongly resist if we think we have no hope of making a real difference.

So the belief that we can make a real difference is one that may be true, and one we also need to believe.

That is justification enough for believing it.

But wait–there’s more!

This is how Billy Mayes contributes to the scenery. | Billy mays, I love to laugh, Memes

If it’s true that we can make a real difference, how are we ever going to know without trying?  But if we need to believe it in order even to try, then the only way to learn is to believe.

Some people think we shouldn’t believe anything we don’t have decisive evidence for.  But some truths can only be tested by believing and acting.  A rule that tells us we should only believe what we have decisive evidence for is a rule that will prevent us from ever knowing one of those truths.  As James observes, “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”

But wait–there’s still more!

It may very well be that whether we actually can make a real difference depends on whether we believe we can.  It may be that we can only make a difference if we are sufficiently vigorous in our resistance of evil, and that our very belief that we can make a difference is what makes us sufficiently vigorous in our resistance of evil. This might be one of those situations where the facts depend on what we do, and what we do depends on what we choose to believe–like my belief that I can still finish a one-mile run in under seven minutes.

When this is how things stand–even when this is simply how things might stand–our responsibility is not solely to the evidence, which is not even fully there yet anyway.  Our responsibility is also to this priority: Be good, and do whatever is in your power to make the world a better place.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Letters of William James, Vol. I.

The lesson for anyone worried about the jerks who have big plans to screw up the world (or shall we say to “Greatly Reset” it?) is this:

Do not despair.  We still have it in our power to make some real difference by resisting their folly.  Don’t doubt that power–you have a responsibility to believe in it!  Doubt rather that the bad guys’ power is absolute!

William James’ insights are reasonable and edifying, and I am both delighted and entertained to find that they apply to conspiracy theories!  However, he was originally talking about the rationality of religious belief.  I introduce his work in videos like these two below, from his talks “The Will To Believe” and “The Sentiment of Rationality.”  (Also on Rumble.)

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  1. W Bob Member
    W Bob
    @WBob

    You don’t have to actually believe something in order to decide to act as if it’s true (or to act as if you believe it’s true), if there are significant benefits to doing so.

    I’ve always thought there are two kinds of belief: irresistible and aspirational.

    Irresistible beliefs are those which compel your assent irresistibly, to the point that you would bet large amounts of money or more on the truth of them. These are usually empirically provable propositions.

    Aspirational beliefs are things that you say you believe in, but which you probably would not bet anything of great value upon. You “believe” them because you want to. Just like Mulder’s poster “I want to believe”. You believe that you believe them, but you don’t necessarily actually believe them. Flat Eartherism, 9/11 trutherism, UFOs, and frankly many religious beliefs. Who would bet their life that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead? Or better yet, the life of someone they loved? When push comes to shove, I could probably count them on two hands. And yet all believers in that doctrine aspire to act and order their lives as if it’s true.

    • #1
  2. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    W Bob (View Comment):
    Who would bet their life that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead?

    I would.

    12 apostles and more did.

    A long stream of martyrs did.

    • #2
  3. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    W Bob (View Comment):
    You don’t have to actually believe something in order to decide to act as if it’s true (or to act as if you believe it’s true), if there are significant benefits to doing so.

    Correct, for many beliefs.

    Not for all beliefs. James addresses this meticulously. I address it briefly in the post above.

    • #3
  4. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    It is nigh impossible for many of us to strongly resist if we think we have no hope of making a real difference.

    So the belief that we can make a real difference is one that may be true, and one we also need to believe.

    This is at the root of many disagreements here on Ricochet. Because for many of us (it would seem) “strong resistance” is only possible if the direness of the situation is truly understood (believed?); for others, that’s black-pill defeatism.

    That is, to meet this priority:

    Be good, and do whatever is in your power to make the world a better place.

    it may be necessary (for some) to really tone down the “we can [still] make a real difference”, lest that dissuade one from taking action: after all, things aren’t so bad as all that, so perhaps someone else will step up, and perhaps I’ll do it tomorrow, instead. 

    • #4
  5. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    genferei (View Comment):

    It is nigh impossible for many of us to strongly resist if we think we have no hope of making a real difference.

    So the belief that we can make a real difference is one that may be true, and one we also need to believe.

    This is at the root of many disagreements here on Ricochet. Because for many of us (it would seem) “strong resistance” is only possible if the direness of the situation is truly understood (believed?); for others, that’s black-pill defeatism.

    That is, to meet this priority:

    Be good, and do whatever is in your power to make the world a better place.

    it may be necessary (for some) to really tone down the “we can [still] make a real difference”, lest that dissuade one from taking action: after all, things aren’t so bad as all that, so perhaps someone else will step up, and perhaps I’ll do it tomorrow, instead.

    Well said.

    I used to believe that I was in trouble with every upcoming exam. That belief motivated me to study hard, with the result that the belief was false.  Despite being eventually made false by my very believing it and despite not even being well supported by the evidence, I think believing it was the right thing to do!

    If someone’s personality works better fighting a cause he truly believes is lost, or if some type of moral laziness sets in when he thinks the situation isn’t too dire, then this post and some of the details of James’ insights are not for him.

    • #5
  6. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Two things: one is that there is proof that God IS and He provides it himself.  The other is that there are more options than (1) believing, and (2) anything other than believing.  There is the opposite of believing, which is not not-believing but rather positive disbelief.  There are scads of intermediary positions, as exposed by the man who said, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

    And Jesus who said “For I assure you: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”  But I’ve never heard of any believers who demonstrated such belief.

    • #6
  7. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Two things: one is that there is proof that God IS and He provides it himself.

    Agreed.  This particular analysis of religion by James only matters if there isn’t convincing evidence.  He doesn’t say there actually is none.  (Whether there is took another book, written later.)

    The other is that there are more options than (1) believing, and (2) anything other than believing. There is the opposite of believing, which is not not-believing but rather positive disbelief. There are scads of intermediary positions, as exposed by the man who said, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

    And Jesus who said “For I assure you: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” But I’ve never heard of any believers who demonstrated such belief.

    Yes.

    The two-options analysis only applies to choices where there really are just two options, like “Either have at least one religious belief, or don’t.”  Or “Either be baptized in the name of G-d the Father, G-d the Son, and G-d the Holy Spirit, or don’t.”

    • #7
  8. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    I’m not familiar with “The Will to Believe” and “The Sentiment of Rationality” specifically but I read “The Varieties of Religious Experience” in 1999. I don’t remember a lot of it off the top of my head but I seem to recall it touching on a lot of these themes. I remember disagreeing with some of it then and may disagree with him more now but it was quite influential back then in pushing me back towards religion. I’ll have to watch your videos.

    • #8
  9. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Chris Hutchinson (View Comment):
    I’ll have to watch your videos.

    I’d be honored.

    (I haven’t done Varieties. But for some reason I recently did a long series on a later work, A Pluralistic Universe.  Weird and awesome stuff.  Not exactly my own orthodox Christianity, but the differences are awfully subtle.)

    • #9
  10. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    W Bob (View Comment):
    Who would bet their life that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead?

    I would.

    12 apostles and more did.

    A long stream of martyrs did.

    About 1/3 of the world population currently alive, maybe more….

    • #10
  11. W Bob Member
    W Bob
    @WBob

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    W Bob (View Comment):
    Who would bet their life that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead?

    I would.

    12 apostles and more did.

    A long stream of martyrs did.

    Actually I think for pre modern people, you’re right. Most of them would have no problem betting that this happened. Certainly if they were forced to bet their life on it, they would bet that it really happened. For pre modern people, the distinction between irresistible beliefs and aspirational ones may not have really existed. 

    If a modern person were forced to bet their life on it though, even a believer, I still think most would bet no. This doesn’t mean they don’t believe or that they’re hypocrites. It means their belief is more aspirational than irresistible. It means that they think it really might have happened, and they hope it did, but if they have to choose the answer that most likely will not make them die, the answer has to be no. 

    As you said above:

    Some people think we shouldn’t believe anything we don’t have decisive evidence for.  But some truths can only be tested by believing and acting.  A rule that tells us we should only believe what we have decisive evidence for is a rule that will prevent us from ever knowing one of those truths.  As James observes, “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”

    People can “believe”, in a way, what they don’t have decisive evidence for. But if they don’t have decisive evidence for it, they’re not likely to bet anything big on it, especially their life. 

    • #11
  12. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    W Bob (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    W Bob (View Comment):
    Who would bet their life that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead?

    I would.

    12 apostles and more did.

    A long stream of martyrs did.

    Actually I think for pre modern people, you’re right. Most of them would have no problem betting that this happened. Certainly if they were forced to bet their life on it, they would bet that it really happened. For pre modern people, the distinction between irresistible beliefs and aspirational ones may not have really existed.

    If a modern person were forced to bet their life on it though, even a believer, I still think most would bet no.

    Yes, we would.

    . . .

    People can “believe”, in a way, what they don’t have decisive evidence for. But if they don’t have decisive evidence for it, they’re not likely to bet anything big on it, especially their life.

    As Flicker mentioned, this doesn’t even describe many believers.

    • #12
  13. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Saint Augustine:

    To explain:

    There are some powerful jerks out there who are screwing up the world.

    We do not know for certain that the jerks who are screwing up the world are so powerful that we cannot effectively resist their folly.

    We have an obligation to strongly resist their destructive actions.

    It is nigh impossible for many of us to strongly resist if we think we have no hope of making a real difference.

    So the belief that we can make a real difference is one that may be true, and one we also need to believe.

    That is justification enough for believing it.

    Is this presented as a rational argument?  Because it doesn’t demonstrate anything logically, as far as I can tell.

    If it’s presented as rhetoric or a rationale, it may be effective.  Not for me, really, but maybe for some people.  Maybe if they don’t think about it very carefully.

    Among other flaws, this argument does not consider any possible cost to “resisting” the “destructive actions” of the “powerful jerks.”  Might not rationality imply some sort of cost-benefit analysis?

    There are also assertions here that are not obviously true.  “We have an obligation to resist their destructive actions.”  Why?  Is that an axiom?  If so, why should be believe that it’s true?  Didn’t Jesus say something like “resist not evil”?  (I admit that it is a difficult statement to interpret properly, but He said it, and this suggests that sometimes, at least, we ought not to be resisting.)

    St. A, I appreciate your efforts at explaining philosophy.  My own self-appointed task is to point out the deficiencies in the theories of philosophers.  After many years, I’ve concluded that they’re really not worth the attention.

    I think that the illusion of rationality is very destructive.

    • #13
  14. W Bob Member
    W Bob
    @WBob

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    W Bob (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    W Bob (View Comment):
    Who would bet their life that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead?

    I would.

    12 apostles and more did.

    A long stream of martyrs did.

    Actually I think for pre modern people, you’re right. Most of them would have no problem betting that this happened. Certainly if they were forced to bet their life on it, they would bet that it really happened. For pre modern people, the distinction between irresistible beliefs and aspirational ones may not have really existed.

    If a modern person were forced to bet their life on it though, even a believer, I still think most would bet no.

    Yes, we would.

    . . .

    People can “believe”, in a way, what they don’t have decisive evidence for. But if they don’t have decisive evidence for it, they’re not likely to bet anything big on it, especially their life.

    As Flicker mentioned, this doesn’t even describe many believers.

    To be clear, I’m not talking about a persecution or martyrdom situation where you’re being asked to renounce your beliefs on pain of death. In that situation we all like to believe we would refuse to renounce them even if we had serious doubts. 

    • #14
  15. Not a Gubmint Spy Member
    Not a Gubmint Spy
    @OldDanRhody

    Saint Augustine: Some people think we shouldn’t believe anything we don’t have decisive evidence for.  

    “Seeing is believing.”

    But some truths can only be tested by believing and acting.  A rule that tells us we should only believe what we have decisive evidence for is a rule that will prevent us from ever knowing one of those truths

    “Believing is seeing.”

    • #15
  16. HeavyWater Reagan
    HeavyWater
    @HeavyWater

    Sometimes even when someone’s beliefs are demonstrated to be untrue, the person will double down on their beliefs.  This happened to much of the Millerite movement after the Great Disappointment.  

    • #16
  17. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine:

    To explain:

    There are some powerful jerks out there who are screwing up the world.

    We do not know for certain that the jerks who are screwing up the world are so powerful that we cannot effectively resist their folly.

    We have an obligation to strongly resist their destructive actions.

    It is nigh impossible for many of us to strongly resist if we think we have no hope of making a real difference.

    So the belief that we can make a real difference is one that may be true, and one we also need to believe.

    That is justification enough for believing it.

    Is this presented as a rational argument? Because it doesn’t demonstrate anything logically, as far as I can tell.

    Yes.

    Not an argument that it’s true, mind. But an argument that we should believe it.

    If it’s presented as rhetoric or a rationale, it may be effective. Not for me, really, but maybe for some people. Maybe if they don’t think about it very carefully.

    Among other flaws, this argument does not consider any possible cost to “resisting” the “destructive actions” of the “powerful jerks.” Might not rationality imply some sort of cost-benefit analysis?

    You’re missing the point of the argument’s moral premise.

    What you have there is some possible objection to the premise, nothing more. It’s not a weakness in the argument itself–i.e., it’s not relevant to whether the premises do a good job supporting the conclusion.

    There are also assertions here that are not obviously true. “We have an obligation to resist their destructive actions.” Why?

    Because it’s the right thing to do.

    Is that an axiom? If so, why should be believe that it’s true? Didn’t Jesus say something like “resist not evil”? (I admit that it is a difficult statement to interpret properly, but He said it, and this suggests that sometimes, at least, we ought not to be resisting.)

    Chapter and verse?

    St. A, I appreciate your efforts at explaining philosophy. My own self-appointed task is to point out the deficiencies in the theories of philosophers. After many years, I’ve concluded that they’re really not worth the attention.

    As a general rule, people who talk like that don’t understand the philosophers yet. They’re disagreeing with their own misunderstandings of what the philosophers say.

    • #17
  18. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    W Bob (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    W Bob (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    W Bob (View Comment):
    Who would bet their life that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead?

    I would.

    12 apostles and more did.

    A long stream of martyrs did.

    Actually I think for pre modern people, you’re right. Most of them would have no problem betting that this happened. Certainly if they were forced to bet their life on it, they would bet that it really happened. For pre modern people, the distinction between irresistible beliefs and aspirational ones may not have really existed.

    If a modern person were forced to bet their life on it though, even a believer, I still think most would bet no.

    Yes, we would.

    . . .

    People can “believe”, in a way, what they don’t have decisive evidence for. But if they don’t have decisive evidence for it, they’re not likely to bet anything big on it, especially their life.

    As Flicker mentioned, this doesn’t even describe many believers.

    To be clear, I’m not talking about a persecution or martyrdom situation where you’re being asked to renounce your beliefs on pain of death. In that situation we all like to believe we would refuse to renounce them even if we had serious doubts.

    What exactly are you talking about?

    • #18
  19. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    HeavyWater (View Comment):

    Sometimes even when someone’s beliefs are demonstrated to be untrue, the person will double down on their beliefs. This happened to much of the Millerite movement after the Great Disappointment.

    Ok.

    What’s your point?

    • #19
  20. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Chris Hutchinson (View Comment):
    I’ll have to watch your videos.

    I’d be honored.

    (I haven’t done Varieties. But for some reason I recently did a long series on a later work, A Pluralistic Universe. Weird and awesome stuff. Not exactly my own orthodox Christianity, but the differences are awfully subtle.)

    I started watching your video on “The Sentiment of Rationality” video. If you do one on Varieties I’ll definitely watch it so I could try to recall its main assertions. I only read it because it was on a list circulating at the time of Top 100 nonfiction books smart people should read (It was #2 after “The Education of Henry Adams.” I suppose I thought much higher of myself in my mid-20s. I think I remember disagreeing with James as much as I agreed. I think. I think a lot of it didn’t sit right with me but nudged me toward my current beliefs.

    • #20
  21. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    St. A, I appreciate your efforts at explaining philosophy. My own self-appointed task is to point out the deficiencies in the theories of philosophers. After many years, I’ve concluded that they’re really not worth the attention.

    As a general rule, people who talk like that don’t understand the philosophers yet. They’re disagreeing with their own misunderstandings of what the philosophers say.

    Hmmm… I wonder if this is an example of that “philosophical dilemma” you mention with two distinct needs around 19:15-25:00 of your “Sentiment of Rationality” video. I personally would probably lean towards the need for simplicity while not necessarily concluding there’s no value in the other.

    • #21
  22. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Chris Hutchinson (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    St. A, I appreciate your efforts at explaining philosophy. My own self-appointed task is to point out the deficiencies in the theories of philosophers. After many years, I’ve concluded that they’re really not worth the attention.

    As a general rule, people who talk like that don’t understand the philosophers yet. They’re disagreeing with their own misunderstandings of what the philosophers say.

    Hmmm… I wonder if this is an example of that “philosophical dilemma” you mention with two distinct needs around 19:15-25:00 of your “Sentiment of Rationality” video. I personally would probably lean towards the need for simplicity while not necessarily concluding there’s no value in the other.

    I doubt it’s an example of the same thing.

    But there is much I do not know or do not understand.

    • #22
  23. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    St. A, I appreciate your efforts at explaining philosophy. My own self-appointed task is to point out the deficiencies in the theories of philosophers. After many years, I’ve concluded that they’re really not worth the attention.

    As a general rule, people who talk like that don’t understand the philosophers yet. They’re disagreeing with their own misunderstandings of what the philosophers say.

    For the record, I’ve done this myself many times.

    • #23
  24. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    W Bob (View Comment):

    To be clear, I’m not talking about a persecution or martyrdom situation where you’re being asked to renounce your beliefs on pain of death. In that situation we all like to believe we would refuse to renounce them even if we had serious doubts.

    Yes, even criminals and killers (at first I wrote Hell’s Angels but that may be pejorative to Hell’s Angels, I don’t know) might not submit to renouncing anything or pledging allegiance to anything even if their lives depended on it, just because they refuse to be coerced.  But I was not particularly talking about this obvious coercion that testifies to something else going on.

    But also, I drive my car at fifty miles per hour and never give a single thought to my brakes not working.  (If I did I probably would never drive at the speed at which a crash or bailing out would be fatal.)  This is a functional form of absolute belief, or betting your life on it.  Living my life toward God (or not) is this same kind of belief.  I (however crudely) trust my God’s character, and words, and works with my life.

    • #24
  25. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Saint Augustine: It turns out one of my favorite philosophers has some real insights on conspiracies.  (It’s weird and awesome because he never actually talks about them!) 

    Of course. Conspiracies don’t work if the people in them talk about them.

    • #25
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