OK, I just wrote a paper for my summer class and unlike all those damn history papers I spent the last four years writing, this one took just under two hours. And that included watching a TV commercial on youtube about 14 times (I was critiquing it). So, I've got my writing brain revved up and extra time.
My favorite class of all of them (there are 2 or 3 other contenders but this one is it) was History 302: History of American Thought, 1859 to the present. As you might guess from the title this class dealt with American philosophy.
So what is American philosophy? Lots of things, no doubt. This course begins with 1859, not 1620 or 1776, or 1789. Why 1859? John Brown? The looming Civil War? Nope. Charles Darwin. A Brit? Yup. Why? Well, a lot of our ideas and ideal came from England, right? Still, that's not really the point. We started with Darwin (1859 was the publication date of his On the Origin of Species) because, basically, Darwin changed everything. Origin of Species affected a lot more than just how we looked at evolutionary biology. Darwinism implied that there was no real need for a "God" explanation of the Universe (something that had been evolving for a while, as Geologists and Paleontologists had already thrown serious doubt into the Biblical time line).
If God didn't create us, if there was in fact no "Creation" at all, just long, slow evolution, then how do we know that there even IS a God? We don't, right? That was always the basis for the belief; how ELSE could we have gotten here? Bit by bit, over the years, science had answered many of the questions that had once been considered unanswerable, except by "God did it." Certainly people could still argue that God created the universe and the earth, and life on earth, just as lower forms, knowing all along that eventually the human race would result. Kind of chips away at the Bible as absolutely true, though, as Genesis pretty specifically refers to God making Adam as a fully realized human being.
Anyway, the point of the class, then, was how did this new idea, or set of ideas, influence American philosophy. Basically, if there is no God (still an "if") from where do morals or ethics derive? People had been taught for ages that we shouldn't kill, or steal, because God has handed down laws forbidding it, and God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, etc. If there is no God, then ... ?
We read three pieces by William James http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James, including (we'll get to the others, too) The Will to Believe (1897). In this piece James argues that whether or not there is a God, which might well be unanswerable, it is beneficial to behave in such a way as to win the approval of an ultimate judge. This goes well beyond Pascal's Wager, which he dismisses early in the piece as being "worse than silly, vile." James's point isn't just that we need to guard against future punishment by a supreme being but that living as if one's life matters, as if being "good" has value, leads to positive outcomes in this world. He will have more friends, he will be considered trustworthy, people will treat him with respect.
He also makes the strongest case I have ever heard or read for "believing" in spite of a shortage of hard evidence. Frequently in life, he writes, we must decide between two options when we would really like more information. So we decide; we do the best we can with what we have. Why should the matter of belief in "God" be different. It is no different, he says. Even the agnostic makes a decision. One either believes or one does not, there is no third option. If one does not believe, he has decided, based upon this same shortage of evidence he points to when confronting the believer. The argument that the agnostic is awaiting further information is a specious one, he says. No more information is likely to come. Meanwhile, the agnostic is still living his life based on his non-belief, as the believer is living his, based on his belief. There is no call for the agnostic to feel superior, he has done the exact same thing as the believer by choosing option B.
Read it for yourself, if you like: http://educ.jmu.edu/~omearawm/ph101willtobelieve.html
In this piece James touches on the idea od universal truth, an idea which he develops further in our next piece.