Sunday, October 24, 2004

Wish-Fulfillment or Inducement to Strenuous Living?

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), The Future of an Illusion:

It would indeed be very nice if there were a God, who was both creator of the world and a benevolent providence, if there were a moral world order and a future life. But at the same time it is very odd that this is all just as we should wish it for ourselves.

William James (1842-1910), "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life":

The capacity of the strenuous mood lies so deep down among our natural human possibilities that even if there were no metaphysical or traditional grounds for believing in a God, men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest.

Both of these passages support the view that God is a posit, a postulate, a projection. But there is a striking difference. Freud, seeing the origin of the God-projection in weakness, takes this as discrediting the God-idea. Having its genesis in our neediness, the God-idea is false. James, however, viewing the God-idea as an expression of our robustness, takes this fact as a verification of the idea of God.

Of course, there are two different notions of truth in play. I don’t know that Freud ever discussed theories of truth, but I’d guess he is a correspondence-theorist: an idea is true if it corresponds to reality. But James is a pragmatist: an idea is true if it works, if it is something good for us to believe in the long run. For James, we get more out of the game of existence when we believe in God and all that entails: a moral world order that places an ethical demand on us; an ultimate explanation of why anything exists and why we exist; a final guarantor of the veridicality of our ideas; a provider of sense and purpose; a repository of hope. Believing in God, we live better, richer, fuller lives; we wring from existence its "keenest possibilities of zest."

To resolve the debate between Freud and James one would have to get clear about the nature of truth and it connection to human flourishing. The problems are deep and perhaps insoluble. But that doesn’t stop them from being fascinating and worth pursuing.