Blog: The Will To Believe - 2015-06-06
William James observed that ultimately philosophy does not shape needs and wants. Rather, needs and wants mold philosophy. Some consider this idea counter-intuitive. Others demean it as a convenient justification against common notions of morality. Detractors of James argue that philosophy exists only to keep needs and wants focused in the right direction. The argument is not without merit. At the same time it begs the question, who determines the right direction? It appears to be a dismissal of the view that individuals are capable of exercising free will. It assumes people are intrinsically incapable of deciding for themselves what the right direction or correct purpose is in life. It also assumes that the proponents of a given philosophy know better. When that attitude prevails control of thought and behavior can be considered not only acceptable but necessary.
When philosophy (religious or secular) is considered senior to free will, all manner of control mechanism comes with it, both covert and overt. It is inevitable. It is evident in religion and in secular circles. The anti-religious set is not immune. It too follows philosophies, whether organized, acknowledged, denied or not. As much as many secular humanists like to denigrate religionists as a form of thought police, they can be just as authoritarian and intolerant as those they sharply criticize. Sometimes they are not so easy to identify. That is because they have adopted the language of logic and science to assume the high ground of reason from which to rail against intuitive-based mysticism and mythology attendant to religion. All the while, much of their 'science' is firmly grounded in beliefs (see e.g., Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'). Ironically, one of the earliest and clearest observations of that kettle-pot legerdemain was detailed in William James' 1896 essay "The Will To Believe."
I think James' observation about what drives philosophy was insightful. It seems that at the end of the day, one traffics in reason ( including secularism), mysticism (including religion) or a combination of both as one's needs and wants (free will) dictate.