The Will to Believe and the Duty to Know
discussion of vital issues in our day comes to a deadlock where
the parties agree that further arguing is useless because the realm
of unproven beliefs has been entered. At this point the adherent of a
“scientific” world conception becomes indulgent; he generously
grants to everybody the “right to believe.” The adherent of
religious teachings is equally satisfied; he has “always held that
nobody can live without unshakeable though unproven tenets.” Both
agree that the sphere of beliefs is safe against proof and disproof.
If they continue their discussion it consists solely in a benevolent
comparison of private opinions.
disputations there used to be a similar armistice. It was an armistice,
not between science and opinion, but between human knowledge and divine
revelation. Mankind's consciousness has changed, but the idea of a frontier
still looms large. The ancient hostility has mellowed to an amicable
neighborliness; and the frontier no longer divides individuals but runs
right through the soul of every person who seeks truth.
All who acquiesce in this
situation overlook that there was a more ancient phase of knowledge to
which there was no such limit. This is why Spiritual Science must insist
on a careful study of this ancient “pre-scientific”
consciousness. There was in those days only a single kind of cognition
based on direct supersensible experience. Both scientific knowledge
and religious teachings have their origin in this supersensible experience.
The ancient priests were the scientists of their time.
this is so often overlooked let us consider here a very concrete
example. Everybody knows that the ancient Egyptians used to store great
quantities of grain. But few people realize that they had to protect
their granaries against certain pests. Investigators have found that
this was done by mixing finely powdered sand with the crop. As modern
experiments have shown, this powder kills the insects by clogging their
breathing tubes. Needless to say the Egyptians did not arrive at this
method by blind trial. There is little doubt that it came to them from
the wisdom of their priests, as all other knowledge of that time. The
Egyptians themselves said so, in fact, and we have no right to assume
that they wanted to mystify their contemporaries. Thus the knowledge
of how to combat pests was part of that same “temple-lore”
which also made known the will of the gods. Only when we realize the
all-inclusive character of such priestly knowledge do we begin to
understand the supreme role which supersensible wisdom played in the
whole scope of pre-Christian cultures.
does not detract in the least from the dignity of ancient temple
knowledge that along-side of loftier things it could convey instructions
which seem to border on the trivial. Yet to call them trivial is mere
sentimentality. For the ancients, the storing of grain was just as sacred
an act as worshipping and imploring the gods. The temples could tell
them how to do both the one and the other. Moreover in those days the
common man himself evidently still retained some glimpses of direct
spiritual insight, which the trained priest possessed in full measure.
So there was no need blindly to believe him.
belief did not arise until supersensible experience faded from
the reach of the people at large, and temple lore itself, therefore, had
to undergo a change. The necessity arose to embody the “divine”
part of this lore in doctrines. We can follow the rising necessity for
ever more rigid formulations through late antiquity right down to the
medieval centuries. The wording of divine formula' had now to be adapted
to an age deprived of direct insight into things divine. Means had to
be found to secure the concealed spirit-content of the dogmas against
the interference of remnants of vision which had become unreliable.
At the same time, the knowledge of earthly (natural) things had to be
made independent of vision. It had to be based on the exclusive use
of the bodily senses and the intellect which thus came into its own.
age the division has become an irreconcilable contrast. The churches,
which guard the “tenets”, are not interested in even hinting
at the original direct experience embodied in the dogma. The believer
rightly feels that he cannot approach the religious content with his
ordinary experience, and therefore accepts the dogma as inexplicable
and holy, and he tries to embrace it by mere faith, which has come to
mean blind belief. But faith carries him into a sphere where intelligent
knowledge cannot follow.
meanwhile, the power of sense experience developed in inverse proportion
to the fading of clairvoyance. It is quite natural that sense-supported
inquiry should limit itself to objects and laws of the sphere accessible
to the senses. It should not be assumed, however, that supersensible
experience as such could not help to clarify also problems arising from
sensible experience. It is here that modern spiritual science comes
in as a tool of supreme importance. Yet the claim of monopoly for sense
bound science is an understandable over-statement. It springs from a
justified pride of man in his manifestly increasing empirical potencies,
a pride which is again and again enkindled by the spectacular success
of such practical empirical efforts.
career of “science”, as it has come to be understood today,
is due not to some wicked inclination arising out of nowhere, but to
the appeal it has to the intelligence. This science succeeds in making
its objects ever better understood, while at the same time the religious
dogma is admittedly understood less and less. Lucidity stands over against
growing obscurity. There is a shift of confidence from the unintelligible
to the intelligible. It becomes ever more uncertain how the claim of
religious “truth” can conform to the rigorous standards of
testable knowledge. The convictions of the faithful, and even the blood
of the martyrs, can no longer prove a valid content, but only testify to
the overwhelming strength of an irrational
“Will to Believe”.
the deeper reason for this “shift of confidence” from dogma
to intelligible experience? It has often been said that it was a lapse
into apostasy. But let us see the positive and creative side in the
process. Then it appears to us as a change in demands concerning the way
in which truth is acquired and transmitted. In acquiring and transmitting
truth, science gives an impression of playing with open cards. It can
convey the impression that its truths are found by well-defined methods
which every layman can understand at least in principle. There is no
mystification about the manner of “truth-getting”. No
back-reference to a past authority, nor to the uncontrollable and
indescribable “experience” of the select; but instead a
generous expounding of the steps taken to secure observation and an open
discussion of the conclusions drawn from it. Thus everybody can get, at
least theoretically, an impression of “how it is done”; he
can understand the demonstrable relationship of things observed. Since
other and more ancient ways of securing knowledge are forgotten and the
corresponding faculties extinct, the ways of science guarantee fair play
with the learner's urge to know. He is not asked to believe but to see
for himself. So when the student is told at some turning point of his
study that certainty is to be found only in a restricted
field and that therefore other fields have to be excluded, he is ready
to make the sacrifice. He willingly abandons his time-honored hope to
see truths established in fields lying beyond the scope of reliable
investigation. No matter how strong his urge may have been to have other
questions answered too, he resigns, and does so with the feeling that
the sacrifice is a matter of honesty and sobriety.
is the gain which makes all loss fade into negligibility. Giving
up the passive security of faith means nothing when compared with the
gain in self-respect of the responsible knower. Even the constant threats
of the sponsors of old beliefs that the apostasy must end in failure
can no longer impress him. He embraces an empiricism whose soundness
he feels in his very heart; the opening of ever new fields for knowledge
inspires him with a confidence in the new way of knowing. Soon this
way appears to him as the only possible one; and the reiterated assertions
of the dogmatist cannot tell him otherwise. “Spiritual truth”
remains an empty claim; for its content is not “checkable”.
defenders of dogma can do only one thing to secure a half-way respectable
position. They must retire behind the dividing line which Kant has offered
as inviolable. Has he not said that he must limit knowledge in order to
make room for faith? Well, here was their chance. The nineteenth century
did not essentially alter the situation. As we said at the beginning it
merely uses “opinion” instead of “faith”. Private
opinion need not be backed by authority. It can stand alone, self-conscious
* * *
this situation into which Rudolf Steiner's work was consciously
introduced, If we are to understand its main purpose we must first realize
what a powerful influence the Kantian “limit” has exercised
even upon the promoters of modern science. By a strange irony of history
the dogma of the “dividing line” became a tenet of science
itself; a dogma held with no less eagerness than any church dogma in
the past was held — on the other side of the established gap. Wide
circles of our well educated contemporaries still look upon Kant as the
one who has secured faith against the arrogance of empirical science.
at this situation in our days, we cannot help but feel it to
be a self-entrenchment of the soul. It is a kind of defense-mentality
in the field of cognition; a conviction that eternal security can be
found behind seemingly unconquerable defences.
the military field, we know since 1940 what a disastrous error lurked
in the Maginot mentality. In the field of cognition the illusion of
unconquerable defences still survives, without an inkling in many supposed
knowers that their attitude is doomed and spreads inevitable doom.
give up the mental Maginot-attitude is the main challenge which
Rudolf Steiner's work known as anthroposophy, puts forth in our days.
The dubious armistice between knowledge and faith, it says, must come
to an end. This does not mean the reopening of the old hostility, but a
finding of common terms for reliable knowledge of whatever
“field”. It means the rehabilitation of cognition in the
realm beyond sense experience.
* * *
characterized the spiritual situation into which modern supersensible
knowledge entered when it was first founded. This was toward the end
of the nineteenth century, and in Europe. Let us now trace what this
situation has become today, in the Western world. No doubt we shall
have to modify our description.
the first place, the contrast between faith and knowledge, in America,
much more than in Europe, has mellowed to a neighborly relation between
science and private opinion. Yet the division, though gently propounded,
is no less distinct. There spreads on the one hand, the realm of the
strictly knowable, with its well defined methods with which everybody,
scientist or not, willingly complies; on the other hand, the still vast
space for personal opinion where everybody can believe whatever he wants.
In the one region standard methods must be adhered to, if the searcher
for knowledge wants to be taken seriously; in the other region he enjoys
complete liberty, because of the supposed lack of reliable methods to
is a firmly entrenched dogma in this country that where science
becomes incompetent the unlimited “right to believe” begins.
This right is felt to be as “inalienable” as any other right
in a democracy. Whoever wishes to speak of things outside the grasp
of sense experience can claim this right. One may believe in the existence
of supersensible worlds for no other reason than that one likes to do
would be good to realize where this attitude leads when followed
up to its extreme, Let us discard lofty language and tender politeness.
What do we grant with this right to believe? We grant the believer the
liberty to be as unreasonable as he likes. A straight line leads from the
respectable “freedom of worship” to the much less respectable
liberty to make a fool of oneself in all spiritual matters.
In the second
place, the situation becomes even more difficult through the extension in
America of the formula concerning the “Will to Believe”
from religious issues to basic assumptions of science itself. It was
William James who suggested that fundamental conceptions concerning the
structure of reality are adopted by scientists in no other way than are
the beliefs of the religious person. This seems to indicate that beneath
the layer of responsible judgment there is in every case a substratum
of beliefs which is usually unobserved, or admitted only with hesitation.
Before knowing begins, so the argument runs, certain “options”
have already taken place. These options are embraced by the will. They
are rooted in an unalterable “will to believe”.
not want here to belittle William James' philosophical achievements,
to which we have done justice elsewhere.
[See note 1]
What matters here is the profound impression which he left with the
educated public in this country. The slogan of the “will to
believe” is inevitably met with in discussions on spiritual
questions. Defenders of religious faiths quote this slogan with the same
ardor with which their forerunners, a few generations ago, quoted Kant's
dictum on how room has to be made for faith by restricting knowledge.
Indeed, James has done for the Western world in our time (whether he
intended it or not) what Kant did for the Europe of the nineteenth
century. Both saved faith and belief from the threat of expanding
knowledge by giving them a sanctuary in man's subjectivity.
is felt, too, wherever one tries to call attention to supersensible
knowledge in the sense of Rudolf Steiner. The most important point about
anthroposophy, the reliability of its research, is least of all understood.
Almost every person who first meets with anthroposophy takes it for
granted that it is just a belief, at best a more or less interesting
guesswork. And since everybody is entitled to have his own guess, why
should one seriously study anybody else's? I have heard of an intelligent
person in this country who began to read Rudolf Steiner's
“Occult Science, an Outline”
(obviously skipping the introductory pages
which might have cured his error) and soon put the book down with the
words: “Why read this? I could write such a book myself. My guess
is as good as his. ...”
are many such persons in the English speaking world. We have shown how
their attitude is historically understandable. Nevertheless, this attitude
has developed into a serious obstacle for the progress of knowledge.
Truth-getting is an enterprise which involves the full responsibility
of the seeker. This responsibility does not lessen when the boundaries of
sense observation are crossed. On the contrary, it increases immeasurably.
An important change in attitude is therefore necessary. The Will to
Believe, supposedly based upon a right to believe, must be replaced
by a keenly felt Duty to Know.
* * *
realizes the difficulty of such a transition.
It asks the student to join the quest for a standard by which truth can
be measured, whether it be in the realm of the senses or not. Fortunately,
there is an agreement among those who feel the pulse beat of the modern
age, that this standard can not be a body of statements of what is true
and what is not. This would be a relapse into dogmatism. We cannot proceed
as people did in the middle ages, where every new claimed truth had
to be checked against a number of sentences previously laid down. It
is not done this way in our days, certainly not in science. Every new
discovery can necessitate the revision of concepts held valid before
it was made. What is lasting is not the acknowledged concepts but the
way of attaining them. And even the method of truth-getting may have
to be altered in view of new phenomena and replaced by a more adequate
adheres to this sort of standard. It does not, therefore, offer a body
of sentences or statements to be subscribed to. However overwhelming the
wealth of new findings contained in Rudolf Steiner's books and lectures,
it is not the findings which matter first of all. It is the existence of
new faculties in man. These faculties are demonstrated, not theoretically,
but in the full life of their application.
a point where it becomes evident that anthroposophy is in keeping with
the best scientific heritage. The great thing about anthroposophy is
that it is not just a new teaching or doctrine, but that it appeals to,
and develops, faculties waiting to be awakened. Science, when it came to
replace older ways of truth-getting, did the same thing. Its success was
due not so much to the new information it brought to post-medieval
man, but to the training it gave to his nascent capacities. In this
sense, anthroposophy fulfills a modern demand. It is “timely”.
Yet it cannot flatter any prejudice for this very reason. Least of all
does it flatter those who want to belong to the “elect”.
it is modern in the following respect. The faculties it appeals to are
present potentially in every searcher after knowledge. This is clear
from the very first sentence in the book
“Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment”:
“There slumber in every human being faculties by means of which
he can acquire for himself a knowledge of higher worlds”.
In this first sentence the words “every”
and “for himself” stand out significantly. They are sometimes
overlooked by students when they first read the sentence. (Yet I daresay
they are never overlooked by those “sponsors of the past”
who look askance at the new spiritual impulse contained in this message.)
The message breathes confidence in man's growing capabilities.
capabilities, it is true, are in a slumbering state in man today. There
is only one way to awaken them; one must use them. Before being used
they are only potentially present. But this is a discovery which the
beginner can soon make; he comes to know of the presence of his slumbering
organs in the same way as a child discovers that it has limbs, by trying
to put them to use. Anthroposophical study in its beginning is an attempt
to stand up and walk spiritually.
This experience is indeed
as concrete and many sided as physical motion. It involves an ever more
intimate acquaintance with difficulties and with the means of grappling
with them. The very fact, however, that these faculties arise from use is
already an experience of a purely spiritual kind. With every new attempt
to understand a single paragraph in an anthroposophical book, or lecture,
or essay the human being finds himself factually changed, — not
transported into any strange condition of mind, abruptly and without
understanding, but in possession of judgment and responsibility as before.
There is even a greater clarity of mind and an additional amount of
responsibility. The difference is clearly perceptible. It is like breathing
in the strong, pure air of a mountain top after having spent some time
in a stuffy room. The student learns to live now with certain facts
of which previously he would have been afraid, or which he would have
rejected as antipathetic.
another sign that his new experience has nothing to do with personal
bias or so-called wishful thinking. The student learns to live with
facts whether he likes them or not; and many of them he does not like
at all. He has simply to “envisage” them, and this requires
example is the way in which the student can learn to live with the idea
of reincarnation of the human spirit. Naturally, he is not asked to
believe that reincarnation is a fact. But instead, he is invited to
weigh in thinking certain arguments which make it appear reasonable.
Further he is made to see that certain subtleties of human development
are best explained when we assume that the spirit-core of man comes
back to successive embodiments after intermittent sojourns in a purely
[See note 2]
The student soon feels the
value of such a wholly detached weighing of facts. He also recognizes
that a premature acceptance for reasons of personal bias, or a rejection
for reasons of antipathy, does not help him in the least. Indeed, after
a superficial initial thrill which the idea may provide, he may find
that in his deeper soul strata he is averse to it. The reason is that
every serious consideration of reincarnation requires him to face his
own moral entity. There is, however, a part of every one of us which
hates to be told the truth.
who is ready to face the depressing reality of his own shortcomings
together with the need for coming back to earth for subsequent lives
can be said to begin to live with this idea. One who has accomplished
this now has an intimation of what requirements spiritual truth lays
upon the knower. He realizes that the attacks of his likes and dislikes
will be repeated; but they will not be able to unsettle his clear judgment.
Quite the contrary, they will reveal to him the particular region in
which likes and dislikes arise, — which is very different from
that region in which the duty to know resides. So the impact of bias,
far from clouding his integrity, actually sharpens his self-knowledge
by showing him what is not his real self.
is given here not because of the problem it touches upon but because
of the atmosphere within which the solution is approached. This new
kind of knowledge can alone thrive in an atmosphere of objectivity in
no lesser sense than that accepted as indispensible for every scientific
inquiry. The necessity of a disengagement from sympathies and antipathies
is even more imperative just because man's subjectivity becomes engaged
so much more easily than in an ordinary scientific problem. Where prejudice
is more apt to interfere extraordinary efforts must be made to keep
for supersensible knowledge moves in a region where a hidden “Will
to Believe” can only be regarded as an enemy. The attacks of this
enemy are subtle, and they are renewed under ever fresh disguises. Each
individual act of knowledge has to reckon with them. There is no permanent
safeguard. The unselfish acceptance of supersensible truth cannot be
theoretically secured. It can only be practically learned.
in the case of each particular spiritual scientific problem the student
can make sure whether or not he has achieved the required degree of
“disinterested interest”. He can test his readiness to form
a new concept which is destined to cover facts not previously envisaged
as belonging to one another. This is a spiritual adventure well worth
being undertaken. It has a particular thrill. It involves a risk. Besides,
it provides a peculiar sort of satisfaction. In short it has all the
features of a testing trial. An example of such a test can he taken
from Rudolf Steiner's book
“The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity”,
always keeping in mind that it is separated from the larger context
in which it stands. The book invites the reader to discover the spiritual
fact of human freedom. It shows first where this fact can not be observed.
Then it goes on to show that man is able to conceive of a deed in the
same way as an inventor conceives of a new technical idea, or a great
discoverer hits upon a new concept in the field of science. The same
basic faculty is at work in three different directions. Rudolf Steiner
calls it intuition. We could call it, for our purpose, an ability of
concept-finding. In the sense of this book, the highest achievement
in the moral sphere is a sort of concept-finding, — the finding
of a concept to cover facts not yet existent, because they are yet
to be produced.
a proposition brought into a short formula and expressed in words of
our own. “A concept of the cognitional order gathers up hitherto
disconnected facts into a whole not seen before. A moral concept can
produce new facts which were not existent before”.
Every person able to
think clearly can see that the two parts of this proposition are alike
in all respects save one, namely that the facts are “done”
in the one case, and “to be done” in the other. This means
independent of the doer, and dependent on the doer, respectively.
the thinker can form such a concept without any interfering sympathies
or antipathies. He can feel the unbiased mood which here pervades the
act of conceiving. It does not make any difference to him whether or
not deeds of the kind described have ever been done or not. He simply
can agree that if such deeds should exist they would depend completely
upon the intuition of the doer and would have to be called his free
creation in the same sense in which a technical invention is produced
freely. (The book, in its later parts, shows that such deeds do exist;
but this does not concern us here).
scientific concepts must be formed with the same equanimity as the thinker
possesses in this example. This is why Rudolf Steiner could say that
a deliberate study of the thought forms used in the book
“The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity”
was an excellent preparation for spiritual
scientific studies. We can add here that unbiased concept-formation
is an excellent antidote against the bad habit of wishful thinking.
At the same time such exercise does not in the least detract from the
humanity of the thinker. It does not make him heartless. On the contrary,
it gives him a chance to let his full human interest stream into the
effort at forming a thought which he never conceived of before. He feels,
if for the first time, that there is a satisfaction deeper than that
which arises from finding things as they please him. He is ready now
to cope with facts whether they be welcome or not.
made it a point to present everything he had to say in an atmosphere
where the “disinterested interest” of the student is called
upon. Thinking over the results of spiritual scientific research the
student can examine them in the light of responsible scrutiny. Not that
he is already able to investigate the facts on his own accord, but he
can view them and make them a part of his interest just as he does quite
naturally with facts of the traditional sciences. His study thus becomes
a continuous education of his sense for facing truth.
it becomes evident in which sense anthroposophy is a modern striving
and how it deliberately keeps the continuity with the modern scientific
heritage. Wherever science has deserved its name it has been an educator
for coping with truth in the light of an objective interest and
irrespective of personal bias. Anthroposophy bears the same unmistakable
of a Duty to Know for a Will to Believe as a consequence of a sound
scientific attitude in anthroposophy can be recognized from yet another
angle. Since the student can abide by his objective interest when he
passes from ordinary scientific to spiritual scientific studies, there
is no sudden and violent change, no violent irruption which breaks in
upon and unbalances his soul life. He is not subject to a conversion.
He does not become a believer. Mere belief is overcome. Anthroposophy
regards the freedom to accept truth as inviolable ground in man.
there is a change in the student. But this change resides in the learning
process itself, Not the texture of the student's personality is upset,
but new modes of perception are gradually acquired. The learner becomes
aware that he is able to observe things which were previously overlooked
because his organs were not subtle enough. It is as if the very concepts
which he first formed only tentatively and as it were on probation,
acted as so many illuminating searchlights. Things within his field
of experience reveal themselves in a new context; they tell a story
not heard before. But the student remains throughout all the changes due
to accruing new capacities the “same” person. He recognizes,
just as before and even more so, his responsibility. His personality
is extended, but never replaced or given up.
has been converted does not know what has happened to him. He praises
his change as the work of God and never questions that it was a change
for the better. He is satisfied with having “thrown off the old
Adam” and enthusiastically embraces the new core of personality
which has been implanted within him. Henceforth he is given over to
the impelling power which moves him. The responsibility is no longer
his. He has become a tool. He has no doubt that it is God who makes
use of him.
to this, the student of spiritual knowledge has experienced every phase
of the change in his capacities. He remains in possession of his previous
power of judgment only with an increasing range. The concepts he has
responsibly acquired act as so many fact-finders, but it is he who finds
the new facts. He is ready to stand new tests in the form of further
non-flattering discoveries. Whatever the consequences for himself, he
will pursue his path.
to Know, as duty, shows him a stern face. But the knowledge conveyed
by spiritual striving makes him more human.
Note 1. “Tim Quest for
Reality in William James and Rudolf Steiner.” The Forerunner,
Note 2. Cf. Rudolf Steiner:
“Theosophy, Introduction into Supersensible World Knowledge and Human Destination”,
Chapter on Reincarnation.