Election of William James to National Academy of Sciences

Election of William James to National Academy of Sciences

William James
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William James is elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the third psychologist to receive that honor. William James was an American philosopher whose work was instrumental in the development of Pragmatism. According to James, we should regard as "true" whatever is "expedient in the way of our thinking."

Thus, if we believe something and things turn out well, then we should regard that belief as being a true belief. In this way, James argued that all metaphysical disputes could be resolved or simply made trivial by testing the various alternative answers. Good answers would produce good results and bad answers would produce bad results. If no good results could be produced, then the dispute was likely meaningless. James wrote:

"Ideas become true just so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience."

Because it is the consequences of our beliefs that ultimately matter, he explored the argument in detail in his famous book The Will to Believe (1897).

This was written in reaction to W.K. Clifford's argument that it is morally wrong to believe anything as true which has not been demonstrated to be true.

James, in contrast, argued that it was acceptable and rational to choose to believe some propositions even though we have no reason or evidence in support of them. This was only acceptable, however, so long as there is no way to reach a rational conclusion and so long as the choice is a "vital concern."

Both arguments beg the question as to whether or not beliefs are chosen in the first place. If they are not, it cannot be argued that any of them are morally wrong — although it is still arguable that they have moral implications.

Because of that, it could be reasonable to say that unsupported beliefs are a bad idea. Eliminating such a belief would thus depend upon adopting a more skeptical method of approaching reality.

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William James

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