American Philosophy

William James

What were William James’ theories concerning religion and free will?

James thought that whether or not to believe in God, or to believe that we have free will and that there are objective values, cannot be decided neutrally by an appeal to facts. The facts in such matters are inconclusive, and a neutral intellectual position does not address the importance to us of whether or not God exists, or if we have free will, or whether there are objective values. Because our beliefs in such matters will make a difference in our lives and those of others, we must “will to believe” that God exists, that we have free will, and that there are objective values. In the case of free will, to motivate ourselves toward actions that are unpleasant, we should think about their positive consequences. James’ offered an example of this: when one is reluctant to arise from bed on a cold morning, if one thinks about what one will do that day the necessary physical motion becomes almost automatic.


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