Friday, January 27, 2012

William James and the will to believe: "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902)

William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) is a bold, brilliant, and justly famous attempt to reconcile science and religion—or perhaps I should say, to prevent these two different forms of human experience from turning into two mutually hostile, incompatible, and irreconcilable 'cultures.' As we can see now, it was already too late, at the beginning of the 20th century, for such an enterprise to succeed—if it ever could have—but James thought the attempt should be made; he had too much invested in both sides to sit back and watch them fight it out. It was, as he must have known, a fight that could only make religion intellectually if not spiritually irrelevant and force believers into various forms of intellectual dishonesty.

I shall try to show how and where this attempt goes awry.  

First and most obviously, he failed to examine his own methodological assumptions as a philosopher and scientist. It does not seem to have occurred to him that, by treating religious experience as a "psychological phenomenon", he had already undermined the claim his book is based on: that religion is is not only as fundamental to the lives of human beings as language or music or art, or love or laughter or tears—that religion is part of what makes us human (which is not as reassuring as it sounds)—but that some people at least have really had direct, first-hand experience of divinity. Nor does he seem to have noticed that most of the accounts he cites of such direct, first-hand experience predate the modern era.

Nevertheless, James's book is a heroic attempt—at about the last possible moment in modern history when such an attempt could be made in all honesty by a first-class philosopher and scientist—to keep God alive in a world that seemed increasingly inclined to get along without him (it? her?). What I find particularly interesting is James's struggle to stick up for the truth, not of religious doctrine as embodied in particular religions, but for the sort of mystical experiences that organized religion, of any kind, tends to distrust. Here, he seems to be saying, is where or how divinity makes itself known or felt; here is where the rubber meets the road.

This creates a problem for James since, as near as I can tell, he had never had such an experience. The most he can do, therefore, is argue for the validity and importance of religious feelings. How do we know that the scientific worldview is inadequate? How do we know that the mystical experiences James has been describing are as true in their own way as the modern scientific worldview is in its? Because our feelings tell us so. As you might expect, an argument of this kind—facts on one side, feelings and the will to believe on the other—cannot be pursued without its having a dramatically disabling effect on James's style.

Here is the scientific James, presenting clearly and elegantly our world with its various religions and the universe of which it is a part; it is a view of religion and the world that he dislikes but is too honest to ignore:

There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism . . . . This view is so widespread at the present day that I must consider it with some explicitness before I pass to my own conclusions . . . .  The pivot round which the religious life, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest in the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism. . . . Religious thought is carried on in terms of personality, this being in the world of religion, the one fundamental fact. Today, quite as much as at any previous age, the religious individual tells you that the divine meets him on the basis of his personal concerns.

Science, on the other hand, has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view. She catalogues her elements and records her laws indifferent as to what purpose may be shown forth by them, and constructs her theories quite careless of their bearings on human anxieties and fates. Though the scientist may individually nourish a religion, and be a theist in his irresponsible hours, the days are over when it could be said that for Science herself the heavens declare the glory of god and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Our solar system, with its harmonies, is seen now as but one passing phase of a certain sort of moving equilibrium in the heavens, realized by a local accident in an appalling wilderness of worlds where no life can exist. In a span of time which as a cosmic interval will count but as an hour, it will have ceased to be. The Darwinian notion of chance production, and subsequent destruction, speedy or deferred, applies to the largest as well as the smallest facts. It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the driftings of the cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or the particular scale, anything but a kind of aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result. Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes, as the scientific mind now follows them, she appears to cancel herself. The books of natural theology which satisfied the intellects of our grandfathers seem to us quite grotesque, representing, as they did, a god who conformed the largest things of nature to the paltriest of human wants. (pp. 480-483, in the Modern Library Edition)

Now THAT was deeply felt by a man who had made no merely casual study of modern physics,  astronomy, and biology. A little more than 100 years later, the world and the universe looks the same—to those at least who have been paying attention. Yet so powerful was James's own will to believe that he was willing to throw everything he knew about science into the dust bin of history:

In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow, and I can now state my reasons in comparatively few words. That reason is that, so long as as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. I think I can easily make clear what I mean by these words.

The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner "state" in which the thinking comes to pass. What we think of may be enormous—the cosmic times and spaces, for example—whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of the mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inward state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one. A conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus the sense of self to whom the attitude belongs—such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the "object" is when taken alone. It is a full fact, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong; the motor currents of the world run through the like of it; it is on the line connecting real events with real events. That unsharable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune's wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made-up. (pp. 488-90)

Now compare the scientific account of the world and its place in the universe, which James presents in the paragraphs I have quoted, beginning with the phrase, There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism . . . with the paragraphs above beginning with the words, In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow . . . and ask yourself if James succeeds in making his meaning clear ("I think I can easily make clear what I mean by these words.")

I think James's confidence in that last sentence is unjustified: not only do the convolutions of his argument in defense of feeling stand in marked contrast to the clarity with which he presents the scientific world view he wants to reject, but the more closely I scrutinize that argument, the more certain I become that James is merely begging the question. Take another look at his reasons for regarding the scientific attitude as "shallow:" "so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term." Here James is assuming as a self-evident truth the very thing he intends to demonstrate. And that, in general, is how he proceeds throughout the curious argument that follows.

And so the great unifying truth about religious experience constantly eludes him. How could it have been otherwise?

1 comment:

  1. James was unable to separate religion from faith. Religion is beautiful as long as we question it. Jacob questioned religion, up to a point, and wrestled with God. He was renamed "Israel," which means "wrestled God." Faith is the most serious problem facing the world. It needn't be religious. Marxism is a faith, since it looks forward to the day when everybody will think alike and so the state will wither away. Marxism is alive and well in North Korea, a country that is Iran's best friend, since both states are committed to blind faith.