Should our beliefs ever run ahead of the evidence? Or, does empiricism -- believing only what actual evidence supports -- rule the day?
Please consider this before reading the rest of the post -- I want you to know what you think before continuing to see if James' views influence you in any way.
William James argued for "precursive faith".
Tom Morris (Philosophy for Dummies [i.e., "me"]) characterizes James' view: "We need to move forward with an openness of mind, and even the first glimmerings of a positive conviction, in order to discover some truths.... Sometimes something like the positive state of belief, however tentative, helps to create a situation in which evidence is more likely to be forthcoming."
I agree with this; and something like this was at work when I first tentatively dared to postulate God might in fact exist. It was more an intuition, a hunch based on my aspirations as a human being for meaning, purpose, and immortality (as well as a hunch of moral accountability) -- maybe these longings of a young heart had been put there for a reason!
James' view countered the strict empiricism of W.K. Clifford, who had insisted it was wrong ever to allow our beliefs to go beyond what evidence could demonstrate. Something like this is clearly at work in the Darwin vs. Jesus wars. Atheists say that natural laws, etc. stop well short of "proving" (in some kind of mathematical/empirical way) that God exists; therefore there is no rational basis for believing he does.
James used the example of sports endeavor. How do you know before you are the first person to climb Mount Everest, that a) it is climbable, and b) you are able to do it? You don't. Past accomplishments will never be sufficient for you to form the belief that it is climbable and you're the man to do it. You don't know it's possible. Is it nevertheless rational, then, to believe that it is?
"James came to realize that what sets champions apart is their ability to engage in precursive faith and launch out with belief that runs ahead of the available evidence, believing in themselves up front."
In the case of the existence of God, sometimes you have to hypothesize that he does exist, and see where that leads. In my case, it lead to the feet of Christ and my confession of him as Lord.
I've never looked back.