I am writing this as a critique/response to an article known as The Ethics of Belief.
I am not a seasoned philosopher nor an English major. So please excuse my writing abilities and any simplistic errors I am sure to have made throughout. As Clifford might say though, I certainly am telling you what I take as truth(as best I know it) and sincerely mean well, that however, doesn't always amount to much.
Here is a link to the complete article:burger-book
The Ethics of Belief is a three part series of essays written by William Kingdon Clifford, William James, and A.J. Burger individually titled The Ethics of Belief, The Will to Believe, and An Examination of 'The Will to Believe' respectively; with each being a response essay to the essay listed before it.
For my part, I intend to read through each individual essay and respond /critique certain points brought up throughout in an attempt to either, bolster, or call into question points raised. Note:
Upon finishing with Mr. Clifford's essay and seeing the length of this response thus far, I have decided only to deal with his essay. Note:
For the ease of those who have already read the essay, I will place my summary of his essay sections in a blue font so that, if they choose, they can simply skip over my summary and go directly to my commentary.
Mr. Clifford's essay titled, The Ethics of Belief, is broken down into three subsections: The Duty of Inquiry, The Weight of Authority, and The Limits of Inference. Section by section, I will attempt to summarize his main points and argument in as concise a manner as I can while not attempting to do a disservice to his work, after which I will add my commentary, compliments, questions and concerns. One other point to make note of is that I will be addressing each section as I come to them, so it may be the case that some of my counterpoints will be addressed in latter parts of the article. That being the case, let us being.
In 'The Duty of Inquiry', Mr. Clifford provides two stories for which to ponder the question about how, what, and why we ought to believe something. The first story tells of a ship-owner who, having an old, not overly-well built ship to begin with, is considering whether or not to send his ship full of immigrants on its voyage. Though doubts had been raised about the ships seaworthiness from both others and within ship-owners own mind, he eventually saw fit to send his ship on her way sincerely believing all was well. Unfortunately the ship sank killing all those who were aboard. It then becomes Mr. Clifford's contention that the owner was surely guilty of the deaths of those aboard due to his negligent belief in his ships seaworthiness because he did not acquire this belief by honestly earning it in investigation of the evidence.
The second story tells of an island where certain members of the society there form a sub-sect for the purpose of agitating the public into joining their belief that some of the religious inhabitants had made use of unfair means to get their doctrines taught to children; accusing them of wresting the laws of their country in such a way as to remove children from the care of their natural and legal guardians; and even of stealing them away and keeping them concealed from their friends and relations. Eventually, a commission is appointed to carefully investigate into the evidence and they conclude that the accused are innocent. What's more, they found that the accused had been so on insufficient evidence while the evidence of their innocence was readily available had the accusers bothered to look. Mr. Clifford then asserts that, although they had sincerely and conscientiously believed in the charges they (the accusers) had made, they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them.
At this point Mr. Clifford launches into the meat of his argument. He concludes that the real point of contention here is not whether a belief is true or false, but whether it was reached or entertained on wrong/insufficient grounds. He goes on to say that even when a man's belief is so fixed that he cannot think otherwise, he still has a choice in regard to the action suggested by it, and so cannot escape the duty of investigating on the ground of the strength of his conviction. Not only that, but no real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character forever. For no belief held by one man, however seemingly trivial the belief, and however obscure the believer, is ever actually insignificant or without its effect on the fate of mankind. He goes on to state that every person who talks to another or every woman who teaches her children can help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog our race. And that the duty of mankind is to guard ourselves from beliefs which have been accepted on insufficient evidence as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of our town. He then reckons that if he let himself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by that mere belief; it may be true after all, or he may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts, but he cannot help holding such a belief without doing a great wrong toward Man.
There are several points of contention I have with this section as presented by Mr. Clifford. The first, and probably the most important, is that it at no point does Mr. Clifford expound upon what he considers to be sufficient evidence. He simply states that believing something on insufficient evidence is wrong. I don't think anyone would necessarily disagree with that assessment, but in the real world however, problems are not so clear cut. Evidences and data exist and are available, but we often have no clear cut means of knowing how to interpret it. From our perspective, we have a very limited ability to be sure of something in the absolute sense. It may very well be the case that I believe something to be true based on such and such evidence, and if that something turns out to actually be the case then, my belief would have been justified and the evidence sufficient. He gives no reason, nor does he even talk about, why what one man may consider insufficient may not be more than sufficient for another.
I think if I were to examine his position using a form of reductio ad absurdum we will see that without eventually suppressing his doubts, he would be left wondering if anything at all existed beyond his own mind. For example, I would wonder if Mr. Clifford would find one incident of being burnt while touching a hot stove sufficient enough reason to not touch another hot stove? Perhaps he would not and would then proceed to touch another hot stove top; again getting burnt. At this point he may still doubt this to be sufficient and launch an investigation into the properties of a hot stove and the properties of a human hand looking for some connection between them and the pain he experienced. However, at this point he may wonder about sufficiency of trusting his testing instruments and would again launch an investigation into how they actually work. This of course leads to an infinite regress until eventually he is left wondering how and why anything exists at all, at which point, he launches an investigation into a problem which seemingly cannot be solved. The point here is that at some point he must make an assumption, which, in his mind, becomes sufficient.
Another such example is that that a trusted friend may tell me that Quito is the capital of Ecuador. Should I find this statement to be sufficient? Perhaps not. Perhaps I should take it upon myself to check my local library. Again I find that the books there concur with my friend. Maybe I still have some doubt and I book a trip to Ecuador. Of course I'm left to wonder if the plane actually took me to Ecuador, but that aside for the moment, assume I reach a city with a sign that reads Quito, under which is written, The Capital of Ecuador. Maybe I still have my doubts and I begin asking the locals what town, country, and what is the capital. The all reply, Quito, Ecuador, and Quito. Perhaps I have my doubts and I begin checking into their backgrounds and find some of them to be quite reputable people based on those I asked. But perhaps I ought to look into those peoples backgrounds too. This problem continues on into infinity. At what point did the evidence become sufficient? For one person, knowing a trusted friend said it might be sufficient, while others might have needed much more to varying levels. So just what does Mr. Clifford think about the sufficiency?
Clifford states that when a man's belief is so fixed that he cannot think otherwise, he still has a choice in regard to the action suggested by it, and so cannot escape the duty of investigating on the ground of the strength of his conviction. And I agree that such a proposition would hold true if the individual has come to his belief for no reason, but at some point one must believe in one's assessment of sufficiency. Now obviously one can always look to others for confirmation but what is one to do when one has examined a body of work or an experience and found the result to be sufficient while others have not? Should one reluctantly defer to his peers? I should hope not.
Next, I think Clifford has a general position which can be stated as such: One ought to always go with the odds, and if one does not, one is necessarily wrong regardless of whether one is proven right or wrong. That being the case, I strenuously disagree. The point I think he misses is that there is a stark difference between odds and guarantees. The reason things are odds and not guarantees is because they have the potential to be incorrect. Not only that but odds are nothing more than a group of peoples assessment of what they think is sufficient for believing something to be the case, nothing more. But this says nothing about what is actually sufficient. It may be the case that what that group finds as sufficient evidence is quite unreasonable or just flat out insufficient.
Science, typically, collects data, raw data and only later do scientists try and interpret what the data is suggesting. At that point there is usually some 'leading' theory but there is usually a few less accepted but equally possible theories. The point here being, that sufficient evidence exists such that it is not unreasonable for a person to believe theory A vs. theory B given what one considers reasonable. This goes with life a person as well. If everyone always went with the odds then we would not even have professional sports games at all. We'd just have a bunch of teams that exist on paper and nothing more. Since the odds are that one team would beat another team there is no reason to play the game. I keep coming back to the quote I heard one time which I think is very pertinent to this entire discussion, that being, the guy who says it can't be done is always interrupted by the one who just did it. Underdogs win all the time, people regularly win the power ball, guys regularly end up with women way out of their league.
Also, I think Clifford completely dismisses and in fact condemns the idea of human intuition in the sense of hunches and anticipation. Think about how many cases have been solved due to a ''hunch'' by a seasoned investigator; Clifford's argument seems to be that such an investigator is necessarily wrong, yet he completely misses the point that a hunch from a seasoned investigator is not typically a blind stab in the dark, but is a skill which is developed through the investigator's life experiences, dealings with other criminals and similar cases, and just everything that make up him as an individual. Now Clifford might contend that perhaps there is sufficient evidence for the seasoned investigators hunch, but if I were to make the exact same hunch given the exact same evidence, it would be insufficient and I just don't see that. The evidence is there, it may not be clear to everyone, but sufficiency, to me, seems to be quite a subjective notion. I may not think the evidence suffices the investigators hunch, yet it may very well be the case, that it is abundantly sufficient.
One other issue Clifford attempts to bring up is this notion that allowing people to harbor believes which we think that they hold for insufficient reasons is so corrosive as to ruin the entire fabric of mankind as we know it. I have to laugh because I see his concern in about the same light as I see Zeno's paradox as a real concern to my getting to my car. It sounds all well and good but clearly mankind has not suffered irrevocably from peoples beliefs up to this point and ultimately it returns back to the individuals themselves. Without disagreements progress, true progress, could not be made in the first place, as life would be one big back-patting episode. Indeed I think such intolerance, lack of diversity and lack of faith would ultimately lead to the very unraveling of society Clifford seems to think harboring minority views would bring.
At the end of the day, there is one indisputable fact which is clearly overlooked by Mr. Clifford. And that is that he cannot, nor does he attempt to, define what constitutes sufficient evidence. Does going with the odds mean that there is insufficient evidence for a long shot? Maybe, maybe not. For the one who believes in that long shot, I think he would vehemently contend that the evidence is plenty sufficient that he is right and wonders why we don't see it.
The point for me has never been to question whether believing something without sufficient evidence is wrong or not. I think a case can and has certainly been made for that, but the important point to me is attempting to extend your beliefs beyond yourself and your own doubts to call into question another person's interpretation of the evidence. Not in the sense that questioning them is wrong, but in the sense in concluding they are just plain wrong. In fact, I wonder why Clifford, clearly quite conservative with doling out belief or disbelief in a notion, would go so far as to say this rather than conclude, while everything the other person says may be true, at this time, based on my understanding of the evidence, I cannot in good conscious, concur with your conclusion as the evidence does not prove sufficient for me.
In the next section, Clifford attempts to address some of my concerns but I intend to demonstrate that he not only fails, but actually begins espousing several arguments which, I think, undermine and ultimately defeat his own arguments up to this point.
In 'The Weight of Authority', Mr. Clifford sets the stage by addressing my concern about his position leading to paralysis by analysis, as it were, asking, "are we then to become universal skeptics, doubting everything, afraid always to put one foot before the other until we have personally tested the firmness of the road? Are we to deprive ourselves of the help and guidance of the vast body of knowledge which is daily growing upon the world, because neither we nor any other one person can possibly test a hundredth part of it by immediate experiment or observation, and because it would not be completely proved if we did?" His general point being, certainly not, as we can believe an authority when he tells us something within his means to know. He then begins expressing his general thoughts on under what circumstances it is lawful to believe on the testimony of others and why. One point to note thus far is his statement that "there are many cases in which it is our duty to act upon probabilities, although the evidence is not such as to justify present belief;"
Clifford contends that there are two reasons a man may say something unworthy of belief. Those being, he may say that which is untrue either knowingly or unknowingly. If he says it knowingly, then he is lying and his moral character is to blame; if he should say something untrue unknowingly, then he is either ignorant or mistaken, and it is only his knowledge or his judgment which is in fault. That being the case, Clifford says that in order that we may have the right to accept his testimony as ground for believing what he says, we must have reasonable grounds for trusting his veracity, that he is really trying to speak the truth so far as he knows it; his knowledge, that he has had opportunities of knowing the truth about this matter; and his judgment, that he has made proper use of those opportunities in coming to the conclusion which he affirms.
At this point Clifford breaks into two examples that illustrate his point. The first is of a Muslim man. He says a Muslim will tell us that the character of his Prophet was so noble and majestic that it commands the reverence even of those who do not believe in his mission. So admirable was his moral teaching, so wisely put together the great social machine which he created, that his precepts have not only been accepted by a great portion of mankind, but have actually been obeyed. But, Clifford says, but this testimony(of Mohammad) rests on the most awful of foundations, the revelation of heaven itself; for was he not visited by the angel Gabriel, as he fasted and prayed in his desert cave, and allowed to enter into the blessed fields of Paradise?
So what should we say to this Muslim? Clifford says this, the character of Mohammed is excellent evidence that he was honest and spoke the truth so far as he knew it; but it is no evidence at all that he knew what the truth was. He says that if he were in Mohammed's place and the visitor were in fact a real, and for a long time gave him information which was found to be trustworthy, this would indeed be good ground for trusting him in the future as to such matters as fall within human powers of verification; but it would not be ground for trusting his testimony as to any other matters. He goes on to say that even if my supposed visitor had given me such information, subsequently verified by me, as proved him to have means of knowledge about verifiable matters far exceeding my own; this would not justify me in believing what he said about matters that are not at present capable of verification by man.
He then says the Muslim may reply that the acceptance of Islam as a system is just that action which is prompted by belief in the mission of the Prophet, and which will serve for a test of its truth. To which Clifford responds, what has really been verified is not at all the supernatural character of the Prophet's mission, or the trustworthiness of his authority in matters which we ourselves cannot test, but only his practical wisdom in certain very mundane things.
The second is of the followers of the Buddha. He notes how Buddha says there is no God and Mohammed says that there is. Both cannot be infallibly inspired; one or the other must have been the victim of a delusion, and thought he knew that which he really did not know.
Next he says that if a chemist were to tell him that a certain substance can be made by putting together other substances in certain proportions and subjecting them to a known process, then he is justified in believing this unless he knows something against the chemist's character or judgment. The reason he says this is because the man is a professional in a field which tends to encourage veracity and honest pursuit of the truth, and to produce a dislike for hasty conclusions. Clifford says that he can believe that the chemist knows the truth of what he is saying because he(Clifford) can be made to understand the methods and processes used such that, without ceasing to be man, he could potentially verify the chemists statement, though he may never actually verify it. He says the chemist's authority is valid because there are those who question it and verify it.
I wrote this before reading William James' response essay and I must say I found it both interesting and eerie that he and I had very similar opinions and analogies about certain things. Note:
This thread is basically a spillover from the discussion that took place between Post #27 to about Post #62 of this thread: http://www.philosophyforum.com/lounge/general-discussion/8865-what-do-you-think-other-members-forum-7.html