Saturday, 31 December 2011

Clifford and Faith

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. So says W. K. Clifford  in The Ethics of Belief (1877). Does he make the case for this very strong condemnation of faith, and endorsement of empiricism? Sadly, I think not, but along the way he makes powerful points toward this view, and against faith.

He starts his article with a story of a shipowner about to send his ship full of emigrants across the oceans. The seaworthiness of his ageing boat is doubted, but he banishes these doubts and, with a light heart, sees off the passengers and crew, who perish mid-ocean while he picks up the insurance money. Clifford considers the shipowner truly responsible for the deaths, but cites the reason for this guilt that ‘he had no right to believe on such evidence [that the ship was seaworthy] as was before him’. For Clifford it follows then that even if the ship had not sunk the shipowner is still guilty of this wrong, of believing on insufficient evidence. He cites another example, where serious charges are made against a group of professors by agitators who fail to verify the charges. He considers the agitators guilty, whether or not the charges are true, because they entertained their beliefs on inadequate grounds.

Clifford allows that a belief doesn’t inevitably lead to a particular action, and that a person may still investigate what is the right course of action. But he considers beliefs have such influence on actions that the two cannot be separated. He notes that no belief is worthy of the name that doesn’t affect our actions in some way, either now or at some future date. Layers of belief build to form a matrix that is implacably interknit, forever affecting our character. He goes on to observe that no belief is a purely private matter, and that inevitably we bear a burden in the fashioning of beliefs for posterity.

In the final paragraphs of the first section, The Duty of Inquiry, Clifford says the people in his examples are wrong because ‘in both these cases the belief held by one man was of great importance to other men’. Since  this is the reason for their guilt and, further, because all beliefs are public and affect mankind, we have a duty to investigate all our beliefs. This not only applies to those in power or authority, but also to ‘[e]very rustic’ and ‘[e]very hard-worked wife’. A belief based on insufficient evidence ‘is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind’. An atmosphere of credulity becomes permanent, and credulity betrays our 'duty to mankind'. I see this as an appeal to the common good of humanity, a concern for human civilisation. So his argument goes something like this:

Premise 1
Human civilisation is good.
Premise 2
Actions that harm people are anathema to human civilisation.
Conclusion 1
We should avoid actions that harm people.
Premise 3
Actions are inseparably linked to underlying beliefs.
Premise 4
Sufficient evidence leads to correct beliefs.
Premise 5
Without correct beliefs our actions may unwittingly cause harm.
Premise 6
Our beliefs form a matrix such that any incorrect beliefs corrupt it.
Premise 7
Everyone’s beliefs have an effect on the body of belief passed down to posterity and civilisation.
Conclusion 2
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

P1 is implicit throughout, and I think most people would accept it (including the religious) although it is not axiomatic. However:

1.       If universal fallibilism is true and we do not know, and maybe cannot know, every last foundational fact, and grounding axioms are unavailable, this would invalidate our matrix of beliefs, per Clifford. So his standard may be unattainable. 
2.       Beliefs born from values, such as P1, may put them beyond evidence other than the presence of those values in humans. If so, believing P1 corrupts Clifford’s own matrix of beliefs.

Allowing the argument for now, how does Clifford view religious faith? He barely alludes to faith, and it’s not homogenous, so what was his target? In an article in April 2011, The New Statesman asked some notables to explain their faith, and this supplies some illustrative quotes:

First, astronomer and creationist Hugh Ross says ‘The accumulating evidence [from research] continues to point compellingly towards the God of the Bible’. He is convinced by the evidence, having moved from a secular upbringing to belief.

Secondly, biologist Kenneth Miller:
Now, I certainly do not "know" that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason religious belief is called "faith", and not "certainty". But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science...
Finally, Cherie Blair: ‘It's been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.’ Her belief cannot be explained but she thinks her feelings provide a route to knowledge.

Hugh Ross’s ‘faith’ barely conforms to the popular definition. Clifford might argue over Ross's evidence, but he wouldn’t blame him for his investigations. Clifford doesn’t explore what constitutes sufficient evidence, nor does he consider the difficulties of establishing the facts of a matter based on evidence. Peter Van Inwagen, in a 1996 piece contra Clifford, observes that intelligent political opinion is sharply divided despite exposure to the same evidence, and it’s the same for many philosophical controversies. If intelligent people with a full grasp of the evidence have different beliefs, this casts doubt on the extent to which evidence leads to truth. Maybe Clifford just asks that believers make best efforts to confirm their beliefs, not that they should all agree? But Clifford implies that evidence leads to correct beliefs (P4). Opinions could justifiably vary when they reflect different values, or different presuppositions, and this shows his premise is wrong. However, where faith makes claims about an objective reality, contradictory conclusions point to an invalid mechanism for uncovering that reality. Van Inwagen makes good objections to Clifford’s conclusion, if not his drift.

Miller’s faith is closer to Clifford’s view of faith. He places his belief beyond scientific enquiry (‘What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone's, can meet a scientific test.’) Nevertheless, by claiming it’s ‘congruent with science’ he hints at reasons for believing.

Miller draws a distinction between knowing and believing. When I move house, I will generally assume that my new neighbours are harmless and benevolent – I might ask about them but I wouldn’t make exhaustive enquiries to confirm the fact. It’s rare that one would know such a thing. Is this wrong? Or I might believe the local hospital is in Brown Street, but not necessarily know it. Would that be wrong? As William James points out in The Will to Believe (1896), we are all ‘chock-full’ of such beliefs. There are prudential reasons for ensuring we know the truth in these two examples, but it’s not clear there is a moral duty, which is Clifford’s charge. However, if someone with a serious injury approaches us and asks for directions to the hospital, we would feel a moral duty to ensure our knowledge is well-grounded, in case the hospital was in Green Street, on the other side of town to Brown. Here there does seem to be a moral element in addition to a prudential one, because of the strength of our beliefs and the potential consequences of being wrong. Clifford does not consider the strength of our beliefs, and the benefit of the doubt we afford many day-to-day beliefs built into our culture because of their trivial consequences. This supports Clifford’s premise that such ‘community’ beliefs are significant to the body politic, but it shows that we cannot operate without presuming many of them. So, while a moral basis for justifying some beliefs seems imperative, it cannot apply to all beliefs, contra P6. James’s pragmatism wins out.

The existence of scientists like Miller is an empirical strike against P3, since he acts scientifically without his faith affecting him. Clifford might respond that Miller’s work is tainted by his faith in some way, but if Miller’s work has been subject to the full rigour of scientific confirmation, this is hard to maintain. Or he might point to Miller’s views poisoning the well of knowledge for ‘mankind’, increasing their credulity. But if we have Miller as an example of someone who can partition his science and credulity, we have no reason to believe that others cannot either.

Blair’s claim to know something without explanation is a prime target for Clifford. James, contra Clifford, argues for the probity of our ‘passional nature’ deciding our beliefs where there are no intellectual grounds, which appears to be Blair’s contention. James argues that choosing between faith and non-belief is a genuine option that faces us, because it’s:

1.       Living; both options are a possibility
2.       Forced; the choice cannot be avoided, and
3.       Momentous; the options are not trivial and the stakes are high.

James's example for the living option is:
If I say to you: "Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan," it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: " Be an agnostic or be Christian," it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.
But by dismissing being a ‘mahomedan’ as a dead option, James’s case for faith collapses, since it exposes the false dichotomy he presents, between agnosticism and Christianity. There are many, probably countless, possibilities other than those that he considers live. Nevertheless, Clifford should have considered similar qualifications to those James discusses, since the urgency of some actions and their momentousness bears on the morality of how our beliefs are adopted, whereas the presence of many trivial unevidenced beliefs cannot be fatal to our moral character.

So values may be held with no more justification than their brute presence in our natures. The Millers and Blairs of the world appeal to such values and presuppositions to justify their faith, as does Clifford in his argument, and as we all must at bottom. Furthermore, Clifford sets an unattainable standard, if universal fallibilism is true. He could moderate his claim and make it more defensible. I think a powerful case could be made to show that beliefs that are held recklessly are always wrong. Or, just as Hume said ‘a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’, one could claim that a wise, and good, man should proportion investigations into his beliefs according to a reasonable assessment of their potential for harm (or something snappier!). Or a case could be made that it’s immoral to say one’s beliefs are beyond scientific tests, as Miller does, because it places them outside objective democratic enquiry (if that’s what it does).

In the end, sadly, Clifford himself goes too far, and fails to offer a convincing view of religious faith.


Brown, S. (2002) Destiny, Purpose and Faith , Milton Keynes, The Open University


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