Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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A Will to Believe the Subconscious

On William James’ “Back Door to God”

Ernest Partridge.

The Concept of Experience.
Prof. Justus Buehler.
Columbia University, Philo. 09014x

Autumn, 1964.

A – Introduction

In reading the various philosophical works of William James, one is soon aware that he is examining the legacy of a bold, significant and seminal mind. This, of course, is a common opinion of philosophers who acknowledge their debt to the thought of James, and of commentators who measure his influence upon the philosophy of his time -- and beyond.

James' philosophy, like the universe he described, was open and in the making. His was a less precise and analytic mind than was Peirce's – but it was more literate and often more suggestive. If American pragmatism can be said to have had a founder, it was Peirce; but James produced and managed its effective debut.

However, while expressing my admiration of the flexibility and daring of James’ thought, I must. in candor, note the costs that these exacted in his philosophy – particularly, his philosophy of experience. Among the costs, I find speculative gaps that he seems to leave behind as he carries his thought forward. One finds, in his writings,
1 many exciting and provocative ideas but one looks, in vain, for clear systematic support, or even for the speculative avenues by which he arrived at these ideas.

One thus wonders if, in formulating his to “Will to Believe" James did not devise a license often to draw fundamental conclusions bereft of compelling logical, philosophical and scientific warrant. If so, then of course, those would be most apparent at the conclusion of a work of religious philosophy. I am inclined to believe that this is just what he did at the close of The Varieties of Religious Experience. This is, of course, a criticism an old as the first reading of James' essay – a criticism that enjoys an illustrious history of its own. Rather than add to it, I shall consider only James’ application of this "will" to his concluding in the final lecture of the "Varieties," that the "subconscious" is a door from man's life and nature to super-nature and, conversely, the door through which God's influence passes to influence the course of nature.

This paper, of course, can be only a tentative criticism. In evaluating the concluding lecture of so extensive a work as the "Varieties..." I must acknowledge the persistent possibility that my criticisms have, to fact, been answered somewhere in the 80% of this text that I have not yet examined. This paper is, as it were, a Jamesian hypothesis, the "cash value" of which must be later evaluated in a careful reading of the entire book and even further into James' work. This is still further reason to be humble as I prepare to criticize as formidable and subtle a mind as that of James.

B – Exposition

I shall begin with a summary of the basic points to be evaluated. James, of course, expresses his own case best, and thus will be extensively quoted in this section.

We might begin with James' distinction (appearing about halfway through his final lecture) between the subjective and objective "parts" of "the world of experience."
2 "The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner ‘state' in which the thinking comes to pass." [489] The "objective part", we are told, "may be incalculably more extensive than the subjective.” One is easily drawn here to take this as the traditional epistemological dualism of the "outer the inner" – the thing and the thought. If we assume James' thought here to be consistent with that of his essay "Does Consciousness Exist," we must conclude that this is not his intention. And, in fact, there seems to be little difficulty here in applying his suggestion in "Does Consciousness Exist" that a thought and its object might be the same thing "counted twice over." [DCE 21]. This leads to some interesting areas of discussion, but in a field already considered. Let us then note the distinction and pass on.

James then identifies four components of this inner state, which "is our very experience itself. . . a conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object
3 plus the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs." [489] It is from this subjective "inner state" that the religious impulse comes.

James also addresses himself in this lecture, to that great public issue of his time – and less so, our own – the conflict between science and religion. For our discussion we need only note a couple of points which he raises concerning this issue. His basic tactic is familiar enough: science and religion are treated as fundamentally disparate human enterprises which, in their appropriate domains, should not clash. Conflict occurs when at least one of the antagonists strays beyond its proper realm. As we continue beyond this simple point, the uniquely Jamesian outlook becomes manifest. The distinction between science and religion is explicated by nothing else than the objective and subjective parts of "the world of experience" which was cited earlier. Science describes the "outer" realm, she abstracts, conceptualizes and "catalogues her elements and records her laws indifferent as to what purpose may be shown forth by them, and constructs her theories quite careless of their bearing on human anxieties and fates.” [41l] But to do so, James insists, is to "deal only with the symbols of reality." [488-9] For reality in fact encounters us face to face in the subjective "inner" state – thus, as we encounter the world personally and privately, "we deal with realities in the completed sense of the term." It is only here "through the egoistic places" that "the axis of reality runs." [490]

James continues by pointing out that it is simple-minded folly to reject religion simply because of the factual errors held in the past by various religious traditions. Indeed, the central impart of religion is not factual at all – it is affective.

Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done. [492]

And so, "religion occupying herself with personal destinies and keeping thus in contact with the only absolute realities which we know, must necessarily play an internal part of human history. [493]

Thus it is that, while the many religious creeds display an enormous "theoretical" diversity, there is nonetheless a constancy of feeling and conduct found amongst them. "Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives." [494] Professor Leuba's remark serves us here, as well as it does James: "God is not known, he in not understood; he is used – sometimes as meat purveyor, sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend, sometimes as an object of love." [497].

We have thus arrived at the central issue: it is James' answer to the two questions, a) "is there, under all the discrepancies of the creeds, a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously?” b) "Ought we to consider the testimony true?" [498].  James answers both questions affirmatively.

In the case of the first question, he cites as the "common nucleus," a) "a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand" and, as a solution to this “uneasiness" b) "a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers."
4 [498]

But to suffer and to criticize the “wrongness" is, in some sense, to transcend it and to be "in at least possible touch with something higher, if anything higher exists."
5 And so, in this potential of self-transcendence we identify a "wrong" and a "better" part.

With this "sense of salvation" comes a consciousness

that this higher part is conterminous and continuous with a more of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck. [499]

But if we treat this merely as a feeling-state, we are dealing with a psychological, not a religious phenomenon. The second question remains: is the state an apprehension of a truth? Does this "more" exist? What is it and how does it function, and just what is the nature of this "union" with it? It is agreed, among the theologies, that the "more" exists and acts – beyond this, the agreement is shattered by creedal factions. In attempting to account for this "more", James turns now to science – that science he knew so well and to which he contributed so much, psychology. Accordingly, he believes that in the subconscious self he finds "the 'more', which psychologists may also regard as real." It is, he proposes, "exactly the mediating term required."6 [501]

Between what assumptions or beliefs is this term, “the "subconscious self,"
to "mediate?" Apparently its task is to mediate nothing less than the transition of experience, and even practical efficience, from the divine to the natural. It is through this "doorway into the subject" [503] that our varied religious experiences pass from the divine “more" into our profane conceptual apprehensions.

The idea has some simple attractions, if only for its easy metaphors. But alas, there are few arguments presented in its support. James seems only to invite us (quite candidly, we may allow) to share his faith – his "overbeliefs" – and to overlook some sizeable argumentative gaps.

In the final four pages of James' concluding lecture, the "overbeliefs" appear in rapid succession. We are now advised that the "unseen" region beyond this "doorway into the subject", "name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose. . . is not merely ideal, for it produces effects in this world." [506]

And now James chooses" to "call this higher part of the universe by the name or God." Moreover, he points out that in opening ourselves to his influence our deepest destiny in fulfilled." And how are we to accept the existence of this God? By accenting “what I may call the instinctive belief of mankind: God is real since he produces real effects." [507]

What "effects?" “We are turned into new men" and this, in turn, effects the course of natural events beyond us. Because God exists, the world must have "a natural constitution different at some point from that 'which a materialistic world would have. It must be such that different events can be expected in it, different conduct must be required..." [508]. We can accept no less from James, for if "God" is to have meaning, He must be, in James' memorable phrase, a "difference that makes a difference. Granting this, what difference? We search the final page in vain – no answer, just a final article of faith, and this significant remark: "What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith-state and the prayer-state, I know not. By his own admission, then, we must look to that "doorway" of the subconscious for warrant for the belief that religious experience is what it pretends to be: an experience of a divine "more.”

A few – a very few – of the loose ends left at the close of his final lecture are revisited by James in the "postscript" which immediately follows. In it, he admits himself to be a "super-naturalist" of the "crass, piecemeal" variety. That is to say, he affirms that there exists an ideal world which does, in fact, have commerce with the natural world. This much, of course, is clear from the preceding. But this "communion" of super-nature with nature is not necessarily direct – the established laws of physical nature need not be interrupted by divine fiat for God to have significant effects upon the world. God's will may be done through the mediation of the "doorway" to the mind and thus, through the conduct of man. Man, accordingly, may serve as an instrument of God's work.

These final pages of the "Varieties..." can prove exasperating to the analytic mind. As one follows James' thoughtful exposition of religious belief and feeling, and of the relationship of the scientific enterprise to these, one approaches the end with a sense of much work yet to be done. It is as if we are watching a trailing football team move down the field in the final minutes of the game. An the time runs out the plays become desperate and the passes wild. The author, I fear, did not take the space or employ the means to save his final conclusions,

His candid admission, near the close, of his reliance upon "overbelief" (i.e. faith) and "hypothesis" was commendable. But still his conclusions remained unsupported. We might suppose that James' warrant for those bold conclusions was nothing less than an exercise of his "Will to Believe," although he did not say as much (except implicitly in the final two pages).

C – Criticism.

Let us examine, now, a few of the speculative leaps that James took near the end of his lecture.8

"Under all the discrepancies of the creeds, [is there] a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously" [497-81] Yes, James replies, and he lists the sense that "there is something wrong about us" and that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers." Aside from the question-begging adjective "higher'', there seems to be no necessarily religious content to this "common nucleus." One might enumerate – and beyond that, devise – many world-views that are quite naturalistic and which, even so, are quite consistent with this formula. Does this then mean that "the religious sense" as defined here is nothing more than a desire to become – to be what one is not? God, the Divine, Super-Nature – these simply need not be entailed here. We certainly would expect James to have a more restricted meaning. for the term "religious” – and soon beyond this passage, we fine that he does.

Of course, James proposes to point out here a "common nucleus" of religious sense. He does not pretend that this nucleus is also restricted to religious experience. Even so, the illuminating qualification, setting this "nucleus" apart from the secular outlook does not appear – and his "common nucleus," alas, seems to be “a difference that is no difference.”

Once the "more" that is "continuous with experience" has been introduced and identified with the "subjective self” of psychology, James attempts to give it theological import as well. The attempt is startling. With this new basis, he believes, "the theologian's contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances and to suggest to the subject an external control." [503] Note the shift here: the "appearances" and “suggestion" of external control are, in fact, taken to be vindications of the existence of an "external power. " James has not, heretofore, established the infallibility of the subjective hunch. Lacking that, this leap falls short.

"The unseen region beyond our subconscious "door" "is not merely ideal, for it produces effects in the world." And "that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophical excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal." The next step is sizeable: "God is real since he produces real effects." [506-6]

What, indeed, are these "effects"? Nothing else than some aspect of our "finite personalities." But what are the personality differences that distinguish a divine cause from mundane cause of a trait. Until this is defined, the difference (again) makes no difference.

Consider another related difficulty: Trace amounts of lysergic acid (LSD) in the bloodstream will produce any number of hallucinations – but it is the LSD, not the (say) an imagined monster that is real. Might not the religious experience also be an endocrine disturbance? In his first lecture in "Varieties" James presents a telling refutation to arguments that religious experience is "merely" physiological dysfunction, and of no other significance (he calls this theory "medical materialism"). [14]. But this scarcely excuses him from assuming the burden of demonstrating that the "real" cause of a "real religious experience" is truly something divinely more. There is often a super-abundance of naturalistic explanations of a "religious experience" to exhaust before we look behind James' “door” in search of our explanation.

After granting us "no philosophical excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal” (see previous section), we are led, without pause, to the remark

God is the natural appellation, for us Christians at least, for the supreme reality, so I will call this higher part of the universe by the name of God. We and God have business with each other; and in opening ourselves to his influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled. [507].

James has described, at length, a phenomenon which he is alleges is "behind" our consciousness and, in turn, our sub-conscious. He is, of course, quite free to stipulate any name for it, new or old. He has heretofore called it the "more" the "mystical world" etc. However, by bringing in the word "God", he of course is able to carry in a great deal of connotative baggage – and this is precisely what happens. The “more," as God, is now conceived (without supporting argument offered) as personal, parental, demanding, etc. However, some large problems remain; e.g. when we are invited to "fulfill" God's demands what, in fact, is our course? Does this mean that we should follow subconscious impulse? But might not a subjective impulse be diabolical? One need not read far into the psychoanalytic literature to find evidence of some rather ungodly subconscious impulses in that dark region of the mind. How are we to recognize "God’s demands” much less obey them? Once again we ask "what is the difference that makes the difference?"

In the opening lecture of the "Varieties," James suggests (as an answer to this challenge...) that "immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria" of the validity of religious experience. [19] But the second and third criteria (and possibly the first) remove our attention from the realm of the "more" back to the arena of the natural world. And so "God's demands" must apparently prove their own "cash value" alongside the demands of the business of life-as-usual.

The previous, of course, may be merely a pointless analytic exercise. Did not James admit that he was merely presenting hypotheses – "overbeliefs" beyond the "nucleus" of religious experience that he had presented earlier? Why, then, should he be belabored for failing to provide solid support for his "overbeliefs? The answer is simple enough: we expect this of philosophical writing. The philosopher need not employ our own criteria of evidence, meaning and inference, but certainly he must use his own. James, of course, does not devise elegant logical structures to support his arguments, nor does he rest his conclusions upon an aggregation of empirical facts – he is just not that kind of philosopher. But where, then, is the pragmatic warrant for his conclusions? What practical consequences are adduced from which we may determine meaning and draw support for his views. What “difference" does it all make?

Perhaps we have here a "forced, living and momentous” option – and one regarding which there is no available evidence or consequence to settle the matter, one way or another. In short, perhaps James has the “right" to apply, in this case, his “Will to Believe." This is, I suspect, James' best defense. Nevertheless, I do not believe it adequate – not while so many heirs of Freud and his school continue to defend and apply their thoroughly naturalistic conception of the subconscious (a quite lively rival to James' theory). The question of the import and validity of religious experience is indeed "live," “momentous,” and perhaps even “unavoidable" – but it is also open to examination and clarification. We have a right and an opportunity to investigate the hypothesis raised, by James. While we have these, we should not be content to will a belief that we may find God through the back door of our subconscious.

Ernest Partridge
January, 1965


1. In this case, The Varieties of Religious Experience; "The Will to Believe;" Radical Empiricism; What Philosophy Means. In this paper, references to The Varieties of Religious Experience will be designated in brackets by page number only.

2. "The world of our experience" he explains, always consists, in part of an objective realm. Yet (later in this paragraph) we are advised that the subjective part ("the inner state") "is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one." [489]  How therefore might there be any ''outer" part of experience remaining unless it is the same thing "counted twice." But again, in this direction lies digression.

3. A suggestion here of Whitehead’s "concern" of subject for object. Adventure of Ideas, Mentor, l78-9.

4. In "The Will to Believe" James notes a somewhat different "nucleus" of religious faith; a) "the best things are the more eternal things; . b) we are better off even now if we believe [the] first affirmation to be true." [25-6].

5. Note here that a new adjective, "higher," is introduced here with a modest skeptical qualification – a qualification which is immediately thereafter dropped.

6. Of course, we may well wonder why he now considers it appropriate to introduce this "scientific" analysis to his account of religious experience, after previously judging science to be a thing quite apart from religion. [cf. §6] I find no great difficulty here. Presumably he offers us, in these lectures, not religious experience itself (an "inner state"), but rather a conceptual understanding of religious experience. Of course the question remains whether or not religious experience, as he defines it, can be thus approached conceptually – “ from the outside" as it were.

7. Albeit James does not clearly acknowledge this until we pass beyond this lecture to his "Postscript."

8. Once more, I must admit the possibility that these gaps may, in fact, have been bridged earlier in the book.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .