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Fundamental Question

Philosophy Glossary



Fundamental Questions

by Leandro Gaitán

Many have been the questions which have always troubled men. Reality is in itself a big question mark. But there are some questions which impel us to find an urgent answer because they are not postponable due to their outmost importance in our life. In effect, all our behavior is the result of the attitude adopted towards those questions. These fundamental human questions are for William James in “The Will to Believe” essay those of a moral and of a religious order, in which he was greatly influenced by his father, a theologian.

There are several alternatives to answer each of these questions. We should be able to decide in favor of one of them, even at the risk of failing. James made a distinction between live and dead hypotheses. The difference between them lies in the fact that the former are propositions of radical importance to our life, while the latter are deprived of it. For example, it is possible to live without problems ignoring subtle disquisitions regarding optics but, on the other hand, our behavior will be strongly conditioned by the position taken towards the existence of God or to certain moral matters.

Nevertheless, when having to make such important decisions, we found that the characteristic of these matters is that they do not have an answer that can be defined as scientific. On these topics, there is not a total and objective evidence as in the scientific answers (from which we cannot assert that answers exist of such kind; not at least in every case). In this item, James agrees with his teacher Renouvier, who opposes himself to the intellectual myth attributing to passion and free will the great task of making up our own belief.

On the other hand, I am also interested in pointing out James’s attitude towards skepticism in relation to vital matters, restrictively asserting that the truth exists and that our mind’s destiny is to apprehend it. Such a position implies the acknowledgement that, even though the objective evidence constitutes undoubtedly the ambition of everybody, it is necessary to know first that such an evidence constitutes an infinitely distant ideal in our life of thought. In the vital problems, knowledge suggests opposing alternatives, i.e. ‘doubt’. But ‘doubt’ inhibits the human praxis; therefore it is vital to choose any of the hypotheses, even in danger of failing. Regarding all these questions, there is no other way out than choosing, since that is what men need to go on acting, to go on living.

The abstention of judgment, which in the religious field is known as Agnosticism, for fear of making a mistake, the option for the non-option until the answer manifests itself clearly and distinctively, can only be valid to the extent that such an abstention refers to a dead hypothesis, i.e. to non-compulsory options. But in relation to the great demands of the heart and regarding matters in which the reason of our existence takes part, such a skep-tic indifference pulls us towards a blind ally.


It is very important, in all this, to highlight the place that passions occupy for James. The attitude of abstention, which is intellectually the best choice for many peo-ple, is caused by a passion that is the starting point of the decision and it is the fear of failing. This attitude is not less passionate than that of choosing between ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, and it do not prevent the one who adopts it from being deprived of the truth. Thus, sustaining skepticism with regard to the religious hypothesis until an absolute evidence is found, is to say that the fear of failing is more appropriate than agreeing to the hope of its truth.

Passions generally influence all our opinions, but there are certain choices in which, according to James, such an influence constitutes the determining factor. On this subject, James is a subsidiary of the Pascal’s reflection about the heart. It is true that whenever there is an important option, the ideal is an intellect that judges with-out passion and is free from every favorite hypothesis. But the problem is raised when we become aware that it is not impossible to remain immutable in view of all the options until we are overwhelmed by the whole evidence.

Science can explain what exists, but only the heart allows us to contrast the values of what exists or what does not. What is more, James states that even science consults the heart when asserting categorically that abso-lute certainty about facts and the correction of false convictions represents wealth to men. From this perspective, the role played by the heart in men’s lives is a priority. It is like the foundation of all thinking, and of all election behind which there is nothing.

Therefore, it is necessary to go out to meet the possible truth (hypothesis) instead of confining one’s self into an obstinate intellectualism and dare to make a step into the abyss, since you cannot keep will at the side of the problem. Thus, facing a live hypothesis, e.g. the religious one, there are only two possible answers: ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because God exists or does not. But the one who abstains does not risk himself neither for one nor the other, so although it seems intellectually the wisest answer, this could never reach the truth. What remains is to risk one-self for ‘yes’ or for ‘no’, with equal chances to fail and to be right. Between the two options James prefers the ‘yes’, because when assessing the practical consequences of both answers, he does not hesitate in stating that making a choice for ‘yes’ is what benefits more the individual and society. Its consequences on human behavior are evidently superior.

The only idea of limiting our heart, instincts and courage, when adopting a passive attitude until our reason and senses are subdued by the evidence, is for James the most unusual idol that philosophy has ever produced. For that reason, we must be authentically empiricists, and this implies that we should acknowledge that there is not within us an organ of perfect and infallible knowledge that allows us to know all the things with lapidary objectivity.

Leandro Gaitán is an assistant professor at the Pon-tifical Catholic University of Argentina. E-mail = leandro-gaitan@terra.com.ar


Streams of William James • Volume 3 • Issue 2 • Summer 2001 Page 27


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