Science, Religion, and “The Will to Believe"

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Do the same epistemic standards govern scientific and religious belief? Or should science and religion operate in completely independent epistemic spheres? Commentators have recently been divided on William James’s answer to this question. One side depicts “The Will to Believe” as offering a separate-spheres defense of religious belief in the manner of Galileo. The other contends that “The Will to Believe” seeks to loosen the usual epistemic standards so that religious and scientific beliefs can both be justified by a unitary set of evidentiary rules. I argue that James did build a unitary epistemology but not by loosening cognitive standards. In his psychological research, he had adopted the Comtian view that hypotheses and regulative assumptions play a crucial role in the context of discovery even though they must be provisionally adopted before they can be supported by evidence. “The Will to Believe” relies on this methodological point to achieve a therapeutic goal—to convince despairing Victorians that religious faith can be reconciled with a scientific epistemology. James argues that the prospective theist is in the same epistemic situation with respect to the “religious hypothesis” as the scientist working in the context of discovery.
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