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"The Sufficiency of Hope"

January 2007

José M. Zuniga
Like most people, I look forward to each December, not so much because of the holiday season (which each year becomes increasingly fraught with commercially induced stress and, at least in recent years, subject to global warming [no snow again this year in Chicago!]), but because of the time it affords me to catch up with old acquaintances and friends, as well as a stack of books collecting dust on my nightstand. One such book was American philosopher James Muyskens' "The Sufficiency of Hope,"1 which was given to me by a new friend I made during a trip to Botswana last year. While not the type of book I would normally read on an overcast Saturday lying on the couch, I was intrigued enough to read the book from cover to cover because of its pertinence, not only for the professional theorist, but also for those of us who regularly attempt to reconcile our convictions with contemporary philosophy.

Muyskens posits that most people hope the world is the way they believe it is. That is, most people hope that their view of the world is right. They usually do not hope for the truth about things to be much better than what they suppose it is. Sometimes this hope is a factor in causing the belief; sometimes this hope stems from the desire to be right about our belief; and in some cases this hope may follow the belief (i.e., we become accustomed to a particular view of the world and finally come to prefer that view). It seems that most people, especially most philosophers, would rather be perceived to be right than have the world turn out to be even different than their theories allow. They might not admit this outright, but one sees in their writings no signs that they hope they are wrong, and that the world is, in the case of those with a cynical perspective, better than they have supposed. You rarely hear them say: "This is a somewhat grim view I have proposed, and I hope very much that I am wrong, but I am driven to this view by solid considerations." The late British philosopher A.J. Ayer is reported to have said shortly before his death that he certainly "hoped in" the finality of death, in spite of having had a "near-death experience," which "slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death... will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be."2 [He reversed himself a few days later, saying that, "What I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude toward that belief."2]

But what about those people who hope the world is a better place than their theories permit? I have always been curious to know how many agnostics, for example, are regretful that the existence of God is not supported by historical or scientific evidence, and how many permit themselves to hope for God's existence (and to what degree they do so). Also, are there people who believe in God who are more or less sorry that he exists? Certainly many people who believe in God fear that their thoughts and acts put them in danger of his wrath or, heaven forbid, eternal damnation.

There have always been people who believe that there is inadequate evidence for "supernature," whether in the form of a specific God or some vague notion of an afterlife. Supposing there is indeed little evidence for God, this raises an intriguing question: Would there be anything epistemologically aberrant in permitting oneself, while not believing in God's existence, to hope for it? In "The Sufficiency of Hope," Muyskens makes the curious argument that such hope is not only epistemologically permissible, but that an agnostic may actually be a sincere adherent to a specific religious faith -- whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or other -- based upon this hope. According to Muyskens, an agnostic who honestly does not believe there is enough evidence of God's existence or inexistence to make a judgment either way, is entitled to do two things: 1) he can hope his religion (e.g., Christianity) is true; and 2) he can be a Christian -- a full-fledged, praying, worshiping Christian -- based merely upon his hope and without "believing" in God in the usual sense of the term "believing." This is a strange but important thesis. In this instance, an agnostic Christian says, I do not know if God exists; I neither believe nor disbelieve in his existence, but I do hope he exists, and I will pray to him in the hope that he exists. Muyskens argues that faith has always meant something like this. It has always meant we cannot know; and when people say they believe without knowing, this means, in effect, they are hoping, or at least this is what it should mean.

I would argue it is no different in principle -- and really is strikingly similar in many ways -- to a person speaking long and tenderly to a loved one in a coma. We do not know or have much evidence that a comatose individual is hearing us, but sometimes we hope he or she can, and sometimes people live out that hope by acting on it with a determined resolution. Not only does this acting out of hope give comfort, but there is a chance the hope is being fulfilled, that is, that words are reaching the mind for which they are intended. This is like praying, so at least Muyskens suggests.

According to Muyskens, ordinary believers who fully believe in the existence of God are living in "epistemological sin." Based upon his interpretation, there is not enough evidence to warrant actual belief. Only hope is warranted. Ideally, then, there would be millions and millions of Christians (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others), not one of whom believed in the existence of God (or Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, or Shakti) or the afterlife, but all praying and worshipping, preaching and serving, all in the hope that God is there, but never lapsing into actual belief. Such a person might weep with joy at the great mercy God had shown to him in his life, provided he did not actually think God had done it, but in the hope that God had done it. No doubt many of these people would occasionally feel a temptation to think, "Sometimes I feel so sure it is all true." or "Yes, that happens. But be strong and resist the temptation; it is very wrong to believe without sufficient evidence." (Or is it possible that we can be permitted to enjoy the feeling of conviction provided we abstain from actual belief? "I feel sure it is true, but of course I neither know nor believe such a thing.")

Essentially, Muyskens' position is that when certain conditions exist, we have a right to hope for things which we do not know to be true, and which we have no right to affirm are true or to believe are true, or even to have faith in (except insofar as faith is understood as hope). He argues that religious faith is best understood as a kind of legitimate hope rather than an unsupported and illegitimate belief. The conditions that characterize legitimate, permissible hope include: 1) that which is hoped for must at least be possible; 2) we can rightly hope only for good things, not for evil things; 3) we naturally only hope for things we believe to be in our real interest; and 4) if that for which we hope pre-supposes other things, those things should be supported by evidence. Notice we do not need a preponderance of evidence of that for which we only hope, but background beliefs involved in the hope must themselves be supported by evidence. (I am not clear why these background conditions cannot, in and of themselves, be hoped for, and I suppose they can be, provided one is conscious that they too are merely hopes and provided they also meet these conditions.)

Muyskens argues further that hope is a matter of degrees. Strong hopes are a function of two factors: the strength of our desire, and the strength of the evidence. For example, a person may strongly hope for the survival of a loved one even if the chances appear dim -- or in the case of the global AIDS pandemic, you and I may strongly hope for the survival of those most vulnerable, even if the odds of success are stacked against our collective efforts to save and protect them. If support by evidence becomes preponderant, our hope may become belief. But intensity of desire alone would never justify this transformation of hope into belief, for which strength of evidence is required. In addition, there are cases where we have a duty to hope, and other cases where hope is justified by its possible self-fulfilling nature. In other words, the right to believe becomes more defensible when discussed in terms of the right to hope.

What are we to make of Muyskens' theory? Three weeks after reading his book -- and a number of deep conversations later -- I would put the case this way, without delving too far into my own religious beliefs. The world we live in may easily be interpreted in either a natural or a supernatural way. Looked at in one way, the world can be interpreted as an endlessly complex machine. Looked at in another way, the world can, with equal coherence, be interpreted as God's creation. Either way, we are forced to believe in the existence of the outside world (that which we observe from our narrow, internal worldview), as well as the reality of yesterday and the likelihood of tomorrow.

As I launch into my professional and personal endeavors for 2007, and having re-read the concluding chapter of Muyskens' book during a break from writing this Report from the President, I have to ask myself whether he is right when he says that hope is all we can legitimately have. In stressing hope, he is very close to putting his finger on a pivotal consideration. We have many alternatives other than believing and disbelieving something. Muyskens observes the importance of hope as an alternative to belief. But there are other alternatives to belief. Besides hope there is also adopting a policy, taking a stance, and making up one's mind, which need only rely on desire, not hope or faith. I think it likely that all these are much closer to what we have meant by faith than hope; hope being too weak a word. In a rich language such as English, and in all languages, near-synonyms of belief can express complex variations on the theme. Hope is a second cousin of belief; a different idea, but in the same extended family. Similarly for such concepts as supposing, positing, knowing, wishing, and/or trusting, it is unlikely that the meaning of these words can ever be precisely pinned down because the meaning varies in countless subtle ways with the context in which the word appears.

What does the 26th year of our global battle against HIV/AIDS hold? I can well imagine an individual saying: "If you ask me if I believe good will exists to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, or if I believe in human charity to mitigate the suffering of millions ravaged by HIV disease, I cannot give you a straightforward answer. I believe good will exists, and I believe in human charity. In fact, I am confident, even if at times reality shakes my confidence. Sometimes I am doubtful of the truth of certain aspects of our individual and collective response to the devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS (not to mention poverty, hunger, other diseases, and social upheaval). And, sometimes it is not so much the truth of the matter that is in question as how it ought to be understood. But if I am forced to average out all those times and give you the sort of general answer the question merits, I would have to answer that I hope it is all true; I am supposing for practical purposes that it is true; and in some sense I think it is true."

In preparing for my decade anniversary as President/CEO of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC), I also wonder whether one could enjoy a feeling of conviction without believing 100% that the unlikely is possible. A policeman or prosecutor may feel quite sure that an individual committed a crime, but of course neither the policeman nor the prosecutor may proceed legally against that individual on that basis alone. They may pursue leads connected with the crime based upon their gut feelings, and lacking any other leads this would appear unobjectionable. I may feel sure that the concept of certifying every HIV/AIDS-treating physician in the world is of the utmost importance, and could well alter the practice of HIV medicine forever. There may be scarce objective evidence for this belief, but I can see no reason why I should not indulge my feeling and give way to actual belief. Is this always and everywhere epistemologically faulty? Is it any different, in principle, than believing that a creative "spirit" lies behind the material universe?

I believe that hope, supposing, accepting, taking a stance, and making up one's mind are not gradations of but indeed close variations on belief. Why should people resist this temptation to let a stance or hope shade over into belief? In my mind, the degree to which this temptation ought to be resisted is highly exaggerated. The plea for caution is usually based upon the danger of believing with insufficient evidence, or, worse, self-deception. Certainly we cannot approve of self-deception, wishful thinking, Pollyanna-ishness, or believing falsehoods. These are the dangers which fascinate Muyskens, and which have preoccupied all the tough-minded thinkers of our philosophical tradition. But a resolute, clear-eyed individual who understands the risks, but has made up his mind to suppose for practical purposes, to hope for, and have some confidence, in the final meaningfulness of the universe, the final triumph of justice, human perfectibility -- to name but a few "idealistic" beliefs -- is hardly to be compared to a compulsive neurotic who fiercely and passionately ignores, for example, all signs that he is an alcoholic and frantically rejects the entreaties of others to help himself.

We could argue that error must be shunned; that a great source of error is our tendency to believe pleasant things without sufficient evidence; that a hard-nosed, realistic, scientific assessment of the human condition presents us with no good reason for accepting an idealized interpretation of the world. We could therefore conclude that the basic reason so many people do accept such an interpretation has to do with wishful thinking. With exactly as much reason, however, we could conclude the precise opposite. Most people think too small. We know that people are capable of far more than they often imagine themselves to be. We know that the slings and arrows of fortune that browbeat and discourage people, conspire to lower our hopes and expectations. If we had a more lively appreciation of our own potential (individual and collective), if hope were alive and strong in us all, if we dared to dream great dreams, most the world could live at a level far above what is presently supposed. A hard world discourages people. People are more prone to qualms, mistrust, and doubt than they are to excessive optimism. It is our doubts that hold us back, not our dreams, visions, and hopes.

As we continue our struggle against those forces that degrade the human condition, I hope that we will shun excessive fear of error, undue caution, and unwarranted suspicion; and that we will avoid interpreting our world in a pessimistic, skeptical, and mistrustful way which leads to a self-fulfilling undervaluation of our potential. Indeed, it is this pessimistic and mistrustful vision that leads us to suspect our common humanity, be contemptuous of mankind's common sense, and mistrust mankind's general tendency toward improving the human condition.

José M. Zuniga is President/CEO of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care, and Editor-in-Chief of the IAPAC Monthly.


  1. Muyskens JL. The Sufficiency of Hope. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979.

  2. MacDonald GF. Alfred Jules Ayres. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. E-published May 7, 2005. Accessed January 20, 2006, at

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This article was provided by International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care. It is a part of the publication IAPAC Monthly.