William James: Are beliefs just mind games?


You are your worst enemy 

- and you have no choice but believe it

Introducing the troubled brilliant sick-souled man that was William James. 

Caption: "While searching for direction in his twenties, and weighed down with vocational indecision, philosophical uncertainty, nagging health problems, persistent melancholy, and worries that he would never marry, he supplied his own caption, "Here I and Sorrow Sit." Citation: [William James, self-portrait], c. The 1860s. William James Papers, bMS Am 1092.2 (55), Houghton Library, Harvard University. Courtesy of Bay James"

At the end of the day, your reality is a disaster of your own making; At least, Williams James would say.

William James was an early 1900s American Psychologist/Philosopher. He coined the term stream of consciousness and was a pioneer in the field of philosophy of mind. James was a relatively rational man who had no issues 'believing' in what some might call fairy tale ideas. When his Yale students appeared closed to spiritual beings' beliefs, he set off on a journey to experience various religious experiences, so he called it. The pragmatic philosopher asserted that our journey through life reflects the choices we make in life. These choices are genuine, and practically speaking, could not be any other choice possible.

You see, I cannot force you to believe anything you do not want to consider in the first place. If I told you Superman is real and can fly through the air and crush steel with his bare hands, would you believe me? Probably not, but not because it isn't a true statement. It would only be considered an untrue statement by you, an adult, but it could be a valid statement for a child. I could tell the child tales of Superman saving Lois Lane, sending the bad guys off in space trapped in glass, and he lived happily ever after, and that child might believe me ...up to a certain age. James claimed we 'believe' what we want to 'believe' because we choose to believe it.

In the eyes of James, a "genuine" choice, one that will not be disregarded as fanciful nonsense, must jump three hurdles:

  • be live
  • be forced
  • be momentous

Let's run through his criteria with a few fun possible 'truth' statements to see how 'plausible' the idea would be for us.

  • Anxiety is like when video game combat music is playing, but you can't find any enemies.
  • Smoking might eventually kill you, so do not smoke.
  • A different version of you exists in the minds of everyone who knows you.
  • Smartphones are probably responsible for reducing graffiti in public toilets.
  • It's not fair that coffee stains your teeth brown, but milk doesn't stain them white.
  • Making a typo in an online argument is the equivalent of voice cracking in a verbal argument.
  • Maybe dogs bring home sticks because that was bred into them over millennia of humans needing wood for fires.
  • You know you've reached adulthood when your bed is in the middle of the wall instead of in the corner.

Let's take an easy one:

Smoking might eventually kill you, so do not smoke.

First, is it live? 

Reading that statement, does it have an emotional appeal to me? Leave reason aside. Using only your gut intuition and emotions, does the idea even appeal to you. or is it a dead option? If it is a dead option, we can move on to the next statement on the list. Something that could kill me piques my interest and appeals to me on an emotional level. So, we will continue.

Second, is it forced?

A forced statement is something that is one or the another. Either die from smoking or not die from smoking. Hmmm, if those are my only two options, I am forced to pick not dying because the idea of dying is not an emotional option for me. (This presents "sort of" a false dichotomy in that we must assume no other options are present. But we will not dive down that hole just yet.)

Third, is the option momentous or trivial? 

Dying is not trivial to me. Therefore the statement is momentous and consequently requires my attention. Usually, to be momentous, the option could change your life. So, in reality, all choices can be both momentous or trivial, depending on your frame of mind. (Although, your frame of mind is the heart of James' thesis statements on belief formation.)

Looking over this exercise, it's clear, "Smoking might eventually kill you, so do not smoke." is plausible to me, and I have no choice but believe it

James reaffirms that I cannot choose my beliefs. In fact, no one chooses their own beliefs; they have them. I can't convince you to believe otherwise.

You play with the statements now. 

Take one of the statements above and run through the series. Try to conclude 'why' you believe it or not.

Then, after you have taken one of the fun statements, try the mother of all statements and work your way through it:

"James argues that one does not choose one's beliefs, but one just has them." The Meaning of Truth, by William James

RIP William . . . . .

"The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can survive the best of us." --William James, "Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord" (1903)

Kelly Perez, Adjunct Professor