(Download William James' original essay here).
The argument states that belief can be seen in terms of what are called "live and dead hypotheses". For example, the hypothesis that life exists on other planets might be totally uninteresting to a businessman whose time was eaten up by running his organisation; a NASA scientist, on the other hand, would most likely be very interested.
So, in choosing between two hypotheses or options - such as "God exists" and "God does not exist" - it is argued that we must consider three things:
1. Is the option forced? When a choice can be avoided it is not necessary to make a decision. If, for instance, I have to choose whether to live or die, the option is forced - there is no third alternative. However, if I have to choose whether to go for a walk or to watch TV, there are probably many other options - such as reading a book or playing cards.
2. Is the option living? If one or both of my choices are uninteresting or impossible, then the option can be said to be dead. Should I become Prince of Thailand, meet Einstein or fly to the moon? These options are less likely to be living if achieving them is very unlikely, impossible or absurd. Furthermore, if I am not particularly interested in any of the options, then my heart is not in the choice.
3. Is the option momentous? Certain choices may present themselves once in a lifetime or only under very special circumstances. Other options may involve making a drastic change in one's life - such as marriage, having children, running away from home, etc. If a choice is easily undone, or has little effect, then it cannot be said to be momentous.
Furthermore, the two things that dictate how we form our beliefs are:
1. Our desire to know the truth.
2. Our fear of falling into error.
Whilst the first principle leads us to formulate hypotheses,
the second keeps us from asserting to beliefs which do not appear absolutely
certain.These two drives are seen as so ingrained in human nature as to be