William James and the rationality of possibility

Abstract

William James's "The Dilemma of Determinism" essay, delivered and published in 1884, concerns the competing doctrines of determinism and free will. In the essay, James suggests compelling reasons why it is more rational to believe in free will than it is to believe in determinism. In this thesis, I contend that not only does "The Dilemma of Determinism" offer a coherent and forceful argument for the rationality of belief in free will, but it also contains rich insights into James's moral and religious philosophies. Consideration of 1891's "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," for instance, finds James's sentiment that the moral life is only pertinent if the future of the universe is thought to be in the hands of the moral agent. Similarly, consideration of 1896's "The Will to Believe" shows that adoption of religious belief in the absence of scientifically coercive evidence stems naturally from the position taken by James with regard to belief in free will in "The Dilemma of Determinism." Offering several other similar instances, I conclude that James's moral and religious thought is viewed more clearly through the revealing lenses of "The Dilemma of Determinism."

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Mathew A. Foust
Appalachian State University

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