4 FEBRUARY 1882, Page 10


MR. WILFRID WARD, in an extremely thoughtful and able dialogue on "The Wish to Believe," which appears in the new number of the Nineteenth Century, maintains that it is very far from true that in the case of any serious belief, the wish is father to the thought. On the contrary, he holds,—or at least the chief interlocutor in the dialogue, whom we take to be the spokesman of the author, holds,—that the more we wish to believe in anything which it is of the first importance to us to find true, the less importance do we attach to our own wishes as affecting the truth, nay, the more jealously do we guard ourselves against being misled by these wishes. When, on the other hand, it is not of any critical importance to us to know the truth, when it is of much more importance to us to be able to indulge comfortably a dream of our own as if it were the truth, than to know what is truth, and what is not, then Mr. Wilfrid Ward holds that the wish is often father to the thought. For example,—the example is ours, not his, we will give his own example directly,—a man -finds that his hereditary religions creed is an obstacle in his way in some important concern of life. It hinders his chance of marrying the wife on whom his heart is set, or it hinders his chance of moving in the social circles in which it is his ambition to move. If this be his only reason for being well inclined to reconsider his faith, and see the error of his ways, and, indeed, to adopt, if he can, the creed which will aid his snit, or help him in his social aspirations, it is very likely that the wish will be father to the thought of a change of belief. What he really desires is not to know the actual truth, but to be able to take up a certain attitude of mind without conscious insincerity,—that is, to have sufficient to say for it to render this attitude of mind tolerably consistent with self-respect. And in that case, the wish not so much to believe, as to entertain a view that may do duty for belief, will probably render it very easy to entertain that view, and will hoodwink the mind to the fact that this view is not in any strict sense a belief at all, but is only such an equivalent for it as the mental and moral proprieties require. But, if, on the contrary, the man's one desire is to be sure that what he believes corresponds to reality—that by believing it he will not be living in a fool's paradise of hope, but will know the truth about the highest end of life, and about the great hereafter, then the desire to believe this or that, will not in the least help him to the belief, unless he can find evidence that is to his mind demonstrative that the belief is true. So far from being able to hoodwink himself by any juggle between his wish and the reality, he will find it all the more difficult to believe as really true what he wishes to find true ; his strong wish will make him all the more unable to be credulous in the matter. The very strength of his wish will render him nervously sensitive to the weakness of the evidence for what he wishes to believe, where it is weak, and to the strength of the opposite case, where it is strong; he will be in the condition of mind of the father or mother who is listening to a consultation of physicians on the crisis through which a beloved child is passing. He will hear what can be said on the side of hope with hungry avidity, but he will hear what can be said on the side of despair with at least an equal passion of appreciation of its significance and terror. He will be almost overwhelmingly afraid to hope; he will dwell even more intensely than he ought on the grounds of fear ; and he will be in the end much slower than the physician himself to anticipate recovery. Such we understand to be Mr. Wilfrid Ward's view of the relation of the wish to believe, to actual and genuine belief. And now we will give his own illustration of the connection between the two :— "'Then,' said Darlington, slowly, as I understand you, you hold that where there is a real anxiety and wish about the thing—an honest desire for the truth of the thing, and not merely for the pleasure of the thought—that desire makes you less ready rather than more ready to believe." Precisely,' said Walton ; a shallow, self- deceitful thought, called only by a misnomer "belief," may well enough be the result of wishing to believe ; but true conviction never. I remember well a lady of my acquaintance who used to think her nephew a perfect paragon of perfection, and far the cleverest man at his college at Oxford. She sucked in eagerly all the civil things that people said in his favour, and systematically disbelieved less flattering reports. Here was one sort of belief. It arose from her wish—bat her wish for what ? That her nephew should really be the cleverest and most successful man I" 'I suppose so,' said Ashley, unguardedly. Not entirely so, I think,' said Walton ; but mainly from her wish for the satisfaction of 'thinking that he was so. The actual fact was of secondary importance to her ; but it is of primary im- portance to him who wants a real and deep conviction. I remember, too, in that very case that the truth of this was evidenced in a most amusing manner when this brilliant nephew was trying for a fellow- ship which was of some consequence to him. She paid far more attention to and was rendered far more anxious by arguments against the probability of his success, and seemed very doubtful as to the result—quite prepared for his failure • and why P Because here it was the fact of his success which was olmoment, and not the pleasure of her own subjective impression.'" - And again, Mr. Wilfrid Ward illustrates the same conception of the relation between the wish to have a decent excuse for believing, on the one hand, and the earnest wish to believe, if it be possible to believe truly, on the other, by a second hypothesis which may seem to some to cast an even stronger light on the discussion :— " Well,' said Walton, I have been trying while you were talking to see the essential distinction between the cases that have been cited on both sides. I think I can point it out by an example which has occurred to me, which I think you will admit to be true to nature. There are two very different states of.mind—amdety that something should be really true, and the wish to have the pleasure of believing something. Here are two pictures. First take some lazy, comfort. loving, and selfish man. He is walking with a companion on a sea- beach. No one is visible near him. Suddenly he hears what he takes to be the shriek of a drowning man, beyond some rocks at the end of the beach. His companion thinks it is only children at play. The rocks are hard to climb, and at some distance off. The man is readily persuaded that it is only children at play, and that there is no call on him to climb the rocks, or assist anybody. There is one atti- tude of mind—one picture. Now for .another. An affectionate mother is placed in exactly the same circumstances as my lazy man. She thinks she recognises in the shriek her son's voice. Her com- panion says it is only children at play ; but this does not satisfy her. She entreats him to help her to climb the rocks, and they arrive just in time to rescue her son—for it is her son—from drowning. Now, surely you won't deny that the mother would be far more desirous to be convinced that her son was not drowning than the lazy man in the parallel case ; yet her wish, far from making her believe it, only 'makes her take all the more pains to satisfy herself as to the true state of the case. Genuine conviction that the fact is Really as she hoped is what she wants ; and wishing for it does not help her a bit to get it. Our other friend, on the contrary, was not really and truly anxious to ascertain the fact. He wished to banish an unpleasant idea from his mind. I do not think he was truly or deeply convinced that there was no call on him to climb the rocks. He was not anxious to be convinced that there was no call ; he only cared to think that there was none. He did not care to adjust his mind to the fact at all ; he only wished to have a comfortable idea, and to banish an un- comfortable suspicion. He was not anxious that the fact should be as he wished ; if he had been, he would have used every means to ascertain whether it were so or not.'" We hold that Mr. Wilfrid Ward is substantially right in the very important distinction here drawn. In other words, we are quite willing to admit that the earnest desire to believe in a particular state of facts of vast importance to the person entertaining that desire, does not usually tend to make men

in general more credulous of that belief. It has that effect on what are called sanguine or optimistic men,—that is, on men of a special temperament, who are in the habit of confounding their eager wishes with their confident expectations. On the other hand, it has the opposite effect on men of the pessimistic turn of mind, who are in the habit of thinking that what they very earnestly hope for, is hardly possible. But on mankind in general, on men whose temperament is neither specially san- guine, nor specially the reverse, we agree with Mr. Wilfrid Ward that the keener the desire, the less disposed we are, as a rule, to mistake the mere desire for evidence of the thing desired.

But this conclusion, valuable and important as it is, does not by any means exhaust the question as to what the total influence of a desire to believe, on the actual state of human belief, is. And some further light on this subject may, we think, be arrived at, by asking what the causes are by virtue of which optimists are made credulous of the things they hope, and pessimists are made credulous of the things they fear. We believe that, in the main, optimists become optimists through the habit of fixing their attention much more vividly and steadily on those tenden- cies which indicate the result they desire to believe in, than they fix them on the causes which tend to bring about the disappointment of their hopes ; and that pessimists become pessimists by the habit of vividly dwelling on the causes which tend to produce the events which they fear, and passing over, comparatively speaking, those which are of better omen. And the same thing happens, though from other causes, in the case of persons of average temperament. Wherever a man who is neither optimist nor pessimist in ordinary affairs knows very much more of the medics operandi of the set of causes leading to one result, than he does of those leading to an opposite result, he is almost sure to exaggerate the chances of the result with the approaches to which he is so much more familiar than he is with the approaches to the opposite result. Take the case of two tolerably equal players at chess, neither of them particularly inclined to expect what they wish for, or to anticipate what they fear. Each of them, how- ever, knows his own plans and his own strategy much better than he can possibly know those of his antagonist; and the re- sult is that, however strongly experience may asseverate that till the game is really won his antagonist has just as good a chance as he, you will, on interrogating them, almost always find that each player believes himself to have the advantage, long before he really has gained any advantage worth the name. It is an illusion due to having preoccupied your imagination with all the modes by which you may gain the victory, and having failed to appreciate equally,—because you had no equal insight into your adversary's plans,—the modes by which you may be crushed. Of course, even in such a case as this, temperament tells. A sanguine player will be much more completely occu- pied with his own plans for victory than a timid player,—and consequently, he will be even more sure that he has got a definite advantage, when he has got nothing of the kind, than• a timid player. But even the timid player will often be found to have over-calculated his chances of success, not from any predisposition so to do (for his predisposition is the other way), but because his mind is much more occupied with the avenues which would lead to success, than it is with the avenues that would lead to failure. Indeed, we are strongly disposed to believe that what is called a cheerful or sanguine temperament does not really affect at all the estimates formed of particular evidence ; but that what it does affect is the choice of the evidence to which special attention is paid, and the choice of the evidence which is allowed to fall into the shadow. A sanguine man will see the weakness of a weak case as well as another, but his mind dwells more constantly and vividly on the strong evidence which favours the belief he wishes to entertain, and less constantly and vividly on the strong evidence against that belief, while in the mind of a timid and fearful man just the reverse takes place, and so it comes to pass that the mind of each is disproportionately influenced by the kind of evidence on which it has most anxiously dwelt. Even with people who are neither sanguine nor fearful, the same kind of thing happens, wherever there are other circum- stances helping them to master one side of a case, and to keep the other hidden from them. And on the whole, we should say -that any man who has forced his mind to weigh carefully all that is advanced against a belief that he wishes to entertain, and is still satisfied that that belief is true, need not fear that the wish is, in his case, father to the belleE With a certain kind of mind, the wish to believe is just as likely to be father to a disbelief ; and in any case, the way in which the wish biases towards belief is, we take it, not a direct way, but depends on securing an amount of attention to one side of the case disproportionate to that which is given to the other side of the case.