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Sometimes, we face unavoidable decisions without the hard data to prove one choice superior to another. In such cases, since we cannot decide on purely intellectual grounds, we must choose on another basis — if only on hunches, feelings and hope for the best. It’s not ideal, perhaps. But that’s life.
American philosopher Stephen Davis offers a striking illustration in his 1997 book “God, Reason and Theistic Proofs”:
Imagine, he writes, that, “while entering a steep downgrade, a truck driver suddenly discovers that her brakes have failed. The truck is starting to pick up speed and the driver sees that soon she will be in danger. The driver is faced with a choice: She can either immediately jump from the truck, risking bruises and broken bones while escaping the greater danger of a possible crash farther down the hill. Or she can remain in the truck, risking a crash but hoping eventually to guide it down the hill to a level spot. But the driver does not know how long the downgrade is; she cannot see where it ends and this stretch of road is new to her.”
The evidence is ambiguous, her life is at stake and no third option exists.
Of course, Davis isn’t really writing about truck drivers and failed brakes. His discussion draws upon the thinking of the great Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James (d. 1910), and both are actually discussing how to live our lives, a question that — since our lives must be lived — we cannot avoid. How should a religious skeptic answer it, pending personal revelation?
“Religion,” James writes in his classic 1896 essay “The Will to Believe,” “offers itself as a momentous option. We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our non-belief, a certain vital good. Secondly, religion is a forced option, so far as that good goes. We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve.”
“Scepticism,” writes James, “is not avoidance of option; it is option of a certain particular kind of risk. Better risk loss of truth than chance of error — that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion is found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law.”
But, he asks, “What proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof.”
“In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. … If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken.
“Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still, we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road, we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”
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