“the radical question of life—the question of whether this be at bottom a moral or an unmoral universe…”1
William James never explained why he dubbed the question “whether this be at bottom” a moral universe “the radical question of life.”1 But my suspicion is that he viewed it as obvious to the point of needing none. Nevertheless, leaving it unexamined will not do for our purposes.
My Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary tells me that existentialism is “…a philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centered on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.”
The theory of the supreme question clearly conforms to the dictionary definition of existentialism. For it describes a plight that must be confronted individually in that it follows on each individual’s freedom to fundamentally define herself with respect to her moral commitments. And, as such, it describes a responsibility that no one other than each individual person can assume. Also, the absence of any intellectual preamble to faith as conceived through the theory of the supreme question makes it “an act of free will without any certain knowledge.”
William James’ radical question of life also meets that basic definition of existentialism. Some context will help make that plain. James famously analyzed the question of how to proceed when confronted with a genuine dilemma, where “genuine dilemma” presents us with options that must be decided as “an act of free will without any certain knowledge.” The essay that made his analysis famous is “The Will to Believe.” However, it is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding, if not paired with concepts taken from other writings. Accordingly, a short primer on James’ thought is in order to provide the needed context.
James defined faith as “belief in something concerning which doubt is still possible.”2 In accord with that definition he believed that faith could be philosophy made clear of its options in light of its limitations, writing that some theologies “are the most sustained efforts man’s intellect has ever made to keep living on that subtle edge of things where speech and thought expire.”3 He developed that line of thought mainly in his popular essays, several of which can be called, in his play on words, a “justification of faith.”4 The line of thought points us in the direction of what he called the “radical question of life”—a question that we shall see is clearly connected to the supreme question.5
In “The Will to Believe” James stated the thesis as follows: “Our passional natures not only may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds…”6 But an option may be “live” in the Jamesian lexicon, and thereby help establish its status as “genuine,” by merely meeting broad cultural presumptions about what beliefs are respectable options for a person’s allegiance.7 James endorsed this lax view to adhere to the reality, as he saw it, that “…for us, not insight, but the prestige of opinions is…” the passional interest that matters most often to most persons.8 But not only will a careful thinker scorn soapstone such as that as a basis for understanding faith, it positively will not help us advance to a better understanding of the supreme question.
To serve as a worthy philosophical base, the genuine option in question must first pass muster as one “that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.”9 It is to accord with that view that an earlier position was stated in this work: “No intellectual preamble can be used to make the supreme question less than an expression of faith.” That includes any calculation of the political value of making one choice over another. In fact, what one means by “value” here depends on the choice one makes regarding the supreme question—assuming the theory proves true—and thus could not apply, even if we wanted to endorse James’ lax view. Call the stricter view needed for our purposes a “philosophically genuine option” to separate it from James’ laxer general view.
With that in mind, James’ view does have much to recommend it for our purposes. To see how it illumines the very question that we are trying to understand, it will help to see that it is on the most fundamental level that James saw his idea play out. For instance, he threw a skid load of clear candidates for what one can call philosophically genuine options into “The Will to Believe.”
The world is rational through and through,--its existence is an ultimate brute fact; there is a personal God,--a personal God in inconceivable; there is an extra-mental physical world immediately known,--the mind can only know its ideas; a moral imperative exists,--obligation is only the resultant of desires, etc.10
We find his best example, however, in The Principles of Psychology. There one reads that he was committed to a free will perspective. But his commitment was made in the face of an unblinking acknowledgment that the deterministic hypothesis is just as compelling from a strictly intellectual standpoint. The following quote illustrates the gist of the option as James framed it.
The most that any argument can do for determinism is to make it a clear and seductive conception, which a man is foolish not to espouse, so long as he stands by the great scientific postulate that the world must be one unbroken fact, and that prediction of all things without exception must be ideally, even if not actually, possible. It is a moral postulate about the Universe, the postulate that what ought to be can be, and that bad acts cannot be fated, but that good ones must be possible in their place, which would lead one to espouse the contrary view. But when scientific and moral postulates war thus with each other and objective proof is not to be had, the only course is voluntary choice, for skepticism itself, if systematic, is also a choice. If, meanwhile, the will be undetermined, it would seem only fitting that the belief in its indeterminism should be voluntarily chosen from amongst other possible beliefs.11
Commenting on this dilemma, James wrote, “Will you or won’t you have it so is the most probing question we are ever asked… We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things!”12 Here, then, is a clear example of philosophy made clear of its options in light of its limitations, and faith is philosophically rigorous in such a case precisely because it is “living on that subtle edge…where speech and though expire.”13 (In passing we can note that if James was correct with this view, we have another sort of explanation for Jesus’ silence: His “dumb response” would constitute the “deepest organ of communication” in representing the Supreme Answer.)
Yet the present example is not the best example of a philosophically genuine option, if best means most profound. James saved his superlative status for “the radical question of life—the question of whether this be at bottom a moral or an immoral universe.”14 For the radical question addresses the moral assumptions attendant to having free will. First, assuming free will, to what extent is the possibility of having a moral perspective relevant to the world? For, if our universe is not fundamentally amenable to moral perspectives, amoral perspectives are the deepest and most crucial ones. In such a world, free will and the moral responsibility that goes with it are ultimately subject to the dictates of a world which does not honor moral striving. The question of free will and the moral perspectives that follow upon it, then, point in the direction of James’ “radical question of life…”
A nexus of questions determine which meaning we ascribe to our humanity. If we are free and morally aware, we are responsible for our choices in light of our moral perspectives. So, are we free and morally aware? If so, we can be held responsible as moral beings to the extent that our moral perspectives are amenable with the deepest and most crucial considerations relevant at any point in time. So, do our moral insights form the deepest and most crucial of considerations? If so, we ought to sacrifice other values to our moral values. So, is it worth sacrificing other values to our moral values?
Here we see the need for the example Jesus set forth at his trial. Jesus as God choosing the paradigmatic example of sacrifice answers all of these questions; the message of the cross as “the truth” means that the answer to James’ “radical question of life” is “Yes!” And it means that we answer all other questions concerning our primary values as human beings from the perspective of that “Yes!” the truth purportedly represented by the message of the cross. For the message of the cross becomes the deepest and most crucial consideration for us as human beings by virtue of the status of Jesus’ example as a divine revelation about the meaning of our humanity and the nature of Supreme Being.
In Pilate’s deliberations we see a man depicting how these questions work their way into our lives. Clearly, he decided that the perspective of conscience in Jesus’ trial was not the deepest and most crucial one. Instead he chose to protect his self-interest as determined by whether or not his allegiance to
By way of contrast, Jesus’ willing sacrifice in depiction of the truth about God serves as a resounding Yes! to the radical question of life. And so we see that, from William James’ perspective, it is right for Christians to claim that Jesus is the truth. For he represents the deepest, most radical truth possible for human beings as human beings, when that truth is approached through the meaning of the message of the cross. And the message of the cross—God’s paradigmatic sacrificing of himself for the sake of humanity—tells us that, at bottom, the moral considerations that anchor our nature as free moral agents are the deepest and most crucial ones. Hence, they are worth the sacrifices that will sometimes go along with choosing them. In that way, then, the message of the cross serves as a “Yes!” both to the supreme question and to James’ “radical question of life.”
1. William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 103.
2. Ibid, p. 90.
3. William James, “Reflex Action and Theism,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 122.
4. William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 3.
5. “The Sentiment of Rationality,” p. 103.
6. “The Will to Believe,” p. 11.
7. Ibid, p. 3.
8. Ibid, p. 11.
10. Ibid, p. 16.
11. William James, The Principles of Psychology, Volume 2 (Dover, New York, 1950) p. 573.
12. Ibid, p. 579.
13. “Reflex Action and Theism,” p. 122.
14. “The Sentiment of Rationality,” p. 90.