§ 2. General Conditions of Belief. — There are two main points of view from which the problem of belief must be approached. It is at once a condition of activity, and conditioned by activity.
"The relation of belief to activity," says Bain, "is expressed by saying that 'what we believe we act on.' "* This may seem to be a statement rather of a consequence than of a condition of belief. But a closer scrutiny will show that the criticism is superficial. Just because belief is a condition of activity, activity must be a condition of belief. To strive after an end is to strive after the means necessary for its attainment. Hence in striving after an end, we strive after the belief which alone makes action with a view to that end a psychological possibility. Thus practical and theoretical needs play an essential part in determining what we shall and shall not believe. This holds good in the pursuit of theoretical as well as of practical ends. The man of science, eager to advance knowledge, for the sake of advancing knowledge, clings to working hypotheses; he clings to them because they are useful to him. He is apt to meet criticism by urging that no one ought to pull down a man's house until he has himself constructed a better. Whether the end aimed at be a practical result or an increase of knowledge, in both cases the mind presses forward towards its mark as best it may, shaping those beliefs, and clinging to those beliefs, which are most helpful to it, and passing by those alternatives which would hamper and paralyse its activity.
* Mental and Moral Science (1872), p. 372.
The activity which is concerned with the increase of knowledge is in order of development subsequent to the activity which directly pursues practical ends. The ideal construction which is directly subservient to action brings into being a connected system of ideas concerning the world and the Self. Theoretical activity consists in further development of this same system of ideas without direct reference to practical results. It is no free play of the imagination, but consists in the formation of beliefs, just because it is the further development of a preformed system of beliefs. The conditions and limitations of this system as a whole apply to all enlargements of it. It excludes or refuses to include all merely imaginary combinations.
Let us now turn to the other side of the question. Belief is not only conditioned by mental activity, but also involves restriction of mental activity. Objective coercion is of the very essence of belief. Whatever influence subjective needs as such may have in determining belief, they can never be the sole factor. In framing a belief, we endeavour to represent real existence as it is in its own nature, independently of our own individual consciousness. Where we feel that it is purely a matter of our own arbitrary choice whether we shall think of A as B or as notB, there is no belief or disbelief. There is a state of doubt when this freedom of choice is accompanied by an effort to find something not ourselves which shall determine us one way or the other, so that we shall be able to arrive at a belief. There is a mere play of imagination when this endeavour to arrive at a belief is absent. For actual belief or disbelief, some restriction of subjective freedom is necessary. Thus belief is at once dependent on activity and on limitation of activity. There is no contradiction; on the contrary, the two points of view ultimately coincide. Belief depends on subjective tendencies, just because these tendencies cannot work themselves out without it. Ends can only be realised by the use of means; but in order to use means, we must have some belief in their efficacy; hence the impulse to pursue an end is also an impulse to form beliefs which will make action for the attainment of the end possible. But it is not within the range of our arbitrary selection to determine what means will lead up to a given end, and what will not. This depends on the nature of the real world in which we live. There must therefore in the framing of a belief be always some endeavour to conform to conditions other than, and independent of, our own subjective tendencies. Our inability to attain ends otherwise than through certain means constitutes a restriction of mental activity within more or less definite channels. If wishing were identical with having, our freedom would be absolute, and there would be no such thing as belief. The nature of the steps which will issue in a certain result are fixed independently of us. In devising means to an end, we are not free to make what mental combinations we will. Our thinking, to be effective, cannot be free; we can no more attain our ends without submitting to control independent of our wish or will, than we can walk independently of the resistance of the ground on which we tread.