Notes on Clifford's Famous Paper, "The Ethics of Belief"

Notes on Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief”

1. Thesis: It’s immoral to either form a new belief without sufficient evidence, or to sustain an existing belief by deliberately ignoring doubts and avoiding honest investigation.

2. First Argument: Four Cases
2.1 1st Ship owner case: A ship-owner sincerely believes his ship is seaworthy without sufficient evidence – indeed, against the evidence -- and acts on that belief, and the belief turns out to be false.
2.1.1Verdict: blameworthy
2.1.2 He had no right to believe it, since his evidence didn’t support it

2.2 2nd Ship owner case: Same as before, except the belief turns out to be true:
2.2.1 Verdict: still blameworthy
2.2.2 The rightness or wrongness of holding a belief doesn’t depend on its truth or falsity, but on how one came to believe it.
2.2.3 But in this case, he came to believe it without good evidence, and that’s what makes his believing it immoral

2.3 1st Persecution case: A group of citizens come to sincerely believe, without sufficient evidence, (unsubstantiated rumors) that a religious group in their certain country illicitly indoctrinated children with certain unpopular religious beliefs (denial of original sin and eternal punishment). The citizens act on that belief and persecute the religious group, but the belief turns out to be false. A commission was formed to look into the allegations. The evidence discovered clearly showed that the religious group was innocent of the charge. The group of persecutors could’ve easily discovered this if they had looked into it, but they chose not to. Verdict: Blameworthy The rest of the citizens came to see the persecutors as unreasonable and untrustworthy

2.4 2nd Persecution case: Same as before, except that in this case the belief turns out to be true: Verdict: Still blameworthy

2.5 The underlying point: It’s wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence.

3. Objection:
3.1 The illustrations don’t show that’s it’s wrong to believe without sufficient evidence.
3.2 Rather, what they show is that it’s wrong to act on a belief that has insufficient evidence.

4. Reply: it’s impossible to compartmentalize beliefs so that they don’t affect one’s actions – or at least so that they don’t affect others in some way or other
4.1 Once you believe something, your ability is diminished to fairly evaluate evidence that has the potential to undermine that belief.
4.2 Each new belief influences one’s total system of beliefs to some extent, and one’s actions are based on this system of beliefs
4.3 Beliefs are not private, but are public property, and serve as the basis of human action.
4.3.1 from the beginning of human history until now, human beings have collectively generated a huge network of beliefs about the world
4.3.2 these are constantly added to, either by careful investigation and testing, or by irresponsible acceptance
4.3.3 they are transmitted to others and handed down from generation to generation
4.3.4 the human community bases their actions and lives on this network of beliefs
4.3.5 thus, communicating an unjustified belief results in it being added it to the publicly held network of beliefs, in which case it can have potentially harmful effects on others if they act on it

5. Every belief must be based on sufficient evidence
5.1 No belief exists for the good of any particular individual alone, but for the sake of the public good
5.2 They all contribute to the common network of beliefs
5.3 Thus, they all contribute to binding humans together and directing their cooperative actions
5.4 But if so, then every belief, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can have an impact on the lives of others

6. Every person has this duty to believe only upon sufficient evidence
6.1 Every person has the power to either diminish or strengthen harmful superstitions in the home, among friends, or at work by what they say
6.2 But if so, then each person is morally responsible for the beliefs that form the basis of what they say to others

7. Second Argument: Unjustified Beliefs Can Harm Others Due To Their Content:
7. 1 Beliefs determine our ability to predict, control, and navigate our way in the world
7.1.1 When they are true, they enhance our ability to do these things
7.1.2 When they are false, they diminish our ability to do these things
7.2 Beliefs have two features that give them the power to potentially shape the behavior and character of the whole human race
7.2.1 Beliefs have the power to alter human behavior and character, individually and collectively
7.2.2 Once a belief resides in one person, it can be transmitted to others through communication and thereby affect their behavior and character
7.3 Thus, beliefs – the public network of beliefs – have a huge impact on the lives of human beings
7.4 Given this picture of the nature and power of beliefs, and thus their impact on human lives, it’s easy to appreciate why it’s important to form beliefs responsibly

8. Third Argument: Consistently Believing Things Without Sufficient Evidence Harms People By Making Them Gullible
8.1Your gullibility is harmful to others
8.1.1 you send the message to others that evidence doesn’t matter
8.1.2 Historically, this leads to a return to savagery
8.1.3 think of the Jim Jones case, the Heaven’s Gate case, The Salem Witch Trials, etc.
8.2 Your gullibility is harmful to yourself
8.2.1 if you don’t care about truth, then others will take advantage of this
8.2.2 think of the scams that tens of thousands of people get sucked into every year

9. Application: Morally Irresponsible Religious Belief

10. Objection: Most people don’t have time to inquire into the evidence regarding their religious beliefs.

11. Reply: “Then he should have no time to believe”.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to know your opinions of Plantinga's and William James' critiques.

exapologist said...

Hi John,

Wow -- what a big question! I can't answer your question completely in one comment, but let me at least get the ball rolling.

First, some preliminary comments:

1)I was an acolyte of Plantinga after I was one of Moreland and Craig. I've read a bunch of his stuff (Faith and Rationality, God and Other Minds, God, Freedom and Evil, Does God Have a Nature?, and all three volumes of his trilogy on epistemic warrant, as well as dozens of his papers on religious epistemology, science and religion, etc.).

2) I've also gone out to dinner with him after he gave a talk at the university where I teach. He's incredibly brilliant, funny -- the life of the party.

3) I've read a bunch of critiques of his work. Probably the best is theistic philosopher James Sennett's book, Modality, Probability, and Rationality.

4) As with Moreland and Craig's works, I've used Plantinga's writings and arguments in undergraduate and graduate philosophy papers (perhaps I'll post some later). I used to agree with him that belief in God is properly basic.

With that said, I no longer think that either his internalist or his externalist epistemological theories are very plausible. This isn't to say that there is much that is good in his work! :)

My main two criticisms are these:

(i) He has taken the particularism of G.E. Moore and Roderick Chisholm (and perhaps Reid), and pushed the limits of basic beliefs beyond plausibility.

(ii) Even if we grant that he's right that Christian belief can be properly basic, that belief has an undefeated rebutting defeater (to borrow some jargon from Plantinga) in terms of Jesus' failed eschatological predictions.

I'll post on your specific questions when I get a chance. In the meantime, here is an analytical outline on Rowe's chapter on faith and reason in his newest version of his philosophy of religion textbook. It's a critical discussion of Aquinas, Clifford, James and Plantinga on faith and reason. He has some interesting criticisms of James and Plantinga that I think you might find enjoyable.



Notes on Rowe, Ch. 6 – “Faith and Reason”

0. Preliminaries:

0.1 So far, we’ve focused our discussion on the issue of whether there is a rational basis for belief in the god of classical theism.

0.2 This discussion has presupposed two ideas

0.2.1 religious beliefs should be evaluated “in the court of reason”

0.2.2 religious beliefs will find favor in this “court” only if they are supported by sufficient evidence

0.3 But a number of people have criticized these two assumptions

0.3.1 against the first assumption: religious beliefs should be accepted by faith, and not by reason must be (a) a free choice, and (b) one that requires unconditional acceptance and commitment But if faith were based on reason, then it would be either based on evidence that proves the truth of the relevant religion, or evidence that makes it probable. if faith were based on evidence that proves the truth of the religion, then we are no longer free to accept or reject that religion (since proofs rationally compel belief) On the other hand, if faith were based on an argument that makes the truth of the religion probable, then unconditional acceptance of and commitment to that religion would be ridiculous. therefore, either way, faith shouldn’t be based on reason.

0.3.2 against the second assumption: some beliefs are rational without argument

0.4 These points reveal the need to explore the relationship between faith and reason:

0.4.1 we need to explore the nature of faith to see whether it’s a rationally acceptable basis for a religious form of theism

0.4.2 we need to explore whether theism is among the beliefs that are rational without argument

1. Exploring the First Question: The Nature of Faith, and its Relationship to Reason

1.1 Aquinas’ account

1.1.1 Faith is the cognitive state between knowledge and opinion Knowledge is a firm and sure cognitive state of assent to a belief that’s compelled by the evidence, and therefore isn’t free. Opinion is a less-than-firm cognitive state of assent to a belief that’s not compelled by the evidence, and is therefore free Faith is a firm and sure cognitive state of assent to a belief that’s not compelled by the evidence, and is therefore free.

1.1.2 two categories of divine truth: those that are demonstrable by reason, and those that aren’t Truths about the divine demonstrable by reason that God exists that God created the world that God is good etc. Truths about the divine not demonstrable by reason: (include) beliefs required for salvation this allows saving faith to be free and worthy of merit and this, in turn, makes it appropriate for God to reward faith

1.1.3 as it turns out, however, most religious believers have to accept by faith the divine truths demonstrable by reason most people don’t have the time and training required to study and learn the arguments for these truths and even if they did, most of them don’t have the ability required to grasp these arguments however, those who learn of these truths by reason cannot accept them by faith, and are thus not freely assented to by such people

1.1.4 although faith is different from reason, faith requires reason faith should only assent to propositions revealed by God but how do we tell whether such a proposition is a part of God’s revelation? this is where reason comes in. Reason guides faith by determining which truths have been revealed by God careful! Reason can’t show that such propositions are true. rather, it can only indicate that such propositions are revealed by God and reason can’t prove that they’re revealed by God; rather, they can only show that this with some degree of probability (thus leaving room for free will to assent to them). Arguments for revelation include: arguments based on fulfilled prophecy the argument from the success of the Church the argument from miracles

1.1.5 in the afterlife, all divine truths will be the object of knowledge, and not faith

1.1.6 Criticisms: Can reason really demonstrate God’s existence? (Think of the arguments for theism we’ve considered, and the criticisms of them.) it makes faith dependent upon whether reason can indicate that a religious text is from God. (This seems all the more troubling if reason can’t first demonstrate whether a god exists at all)

1.2 Clifford’s account

1.2.1 Clifford’s Thesis: “It’s wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

1.2.2 the case for Clifford’s Thesis: the Shipowner illustration: a ship-owner talked himself into believing that his ship was seaworthy without sufficient evidence unfortunately, the ship sunk, and all of those on the ship drowned. the ship-owner was blameworthy for his belief we would still think he was blameworthy even if the ship didn’t sink, since his guilt is due to the way he formed his belief, and not its consequences

1.2.3 Criticism of the Shipowner illustration the case doesn’t show that it’s wrong to believe without sufficient evidence rather, it only shows that it’s wrong to act on beliefs that lack sufficient evidence.

1.2.4 Clifford’s first reply: the criticism falsely assumes that it’s possible to compartmentalize belief so as to prevent its consequences in action but it’s not possible; beliefs are intimately tied to our actions, and thus inevitably influence them

1.2.5 Clifford’s second reply: belief without evidence also has indirect effects that are harmful they make the believer credulous, and susceptible to deception and other types of harm by putting up with unsupported claims, one contributes to a lack of intellectual standards in one’s community, reverting back to a regressive state of superstition, savagery and primitivism that took humans millennia to overcome

1.2.6 Therefore, ethically permissible belief/faith must be based on reason, where this is spelled out in terms of sufficient evidence

1.2.7 criticisms: see James’ argument for his own view below

1.3 James’ account:

1.3.1 Setup: reason, the passions, and belief James thinks that there are two causes of belief: reason and the passions reason evaluates the evidence for and against a proposition, and directs the will either to believe, disbelieve, or suspend judgment, in conformity with the evidence the passions = everything else that can lead us to believe or disbelieve something (e.g., desires and preferences) traditionally, philosophers have argued that one should suppress the passions and listen to reason alone when it comes to belief Clifford is clearly within this tradition James agrees with it up to a point, viz., when it comes to beliefs for which the evidence points one way or the other however, he disagrees when it comes to beliefs for which the evidence doesn’t point one way or the other (plus some other qualifications, to be spelled out below)

1.3.2 choosing to believe an option is permissible without sufficient evidence iff it’s undecidable, live, momentous, and forced a proposition is undecidable if the evidence for the proposition is either counterbalanced, or there is just no known relevant evidence either way (if there is at least just a little more evidence for one side of the debate than there is for the other side, then it’s decidable) a choice to believe is live for someone if both hypotheses are appealing and are seen by them as real possibilities for their life (if not, the choice is dead to you) a choice to believe is momentous if your decision isn’t easily reversible, something of importance depends on whether you make the right choice, and you may not have a chance to choose again at a later time (if not, the choice is trivial) a choice to believe is forced if suspending judgment has the same consequences of choosing to disbelieve it (if not, the choice is avoidable

1.3.3 Careful! James agrees with Clifford that it’s never permissible to believe something if there is evidence against the proposition, and no good evidence for it. also, he thinks it’s impermissible to believe an undecidable proposition if it’s dead, trivial, or avoidable

1.3.4 Applying the theory of permissible belief to religious belief Undecidable? Many theists think it is decidable, and in favor of theism many atheists think it is decidable, and in favor of atheism if either of these two camps is right, then James’ theory doesn’t apply – it can’t be used as a basis for theistic belief however, the agnostics may well be right that the evidence is too ambiguous to indicate a conclusion about theism either way Live? many in the West feel that religious forms of theism (e.g., Christianity) are live options to them – not ruled out by the evidence, and they could see a religious life as a real possibility for them the same goes for atheism thus, for such people, religious forms of theism are live options Momentous? if religious forms of theism offer great and unique benefits even if it’s false, then religious theistic belief is momentous on the other hand, it’s less clear that theistic religious belief is momentous in the other two senses do you really have just one chance to accept it? are initial decisions really irreversible once you make them? Forced? if its unique benefits only exist if religious theism is true, then it’s not forced in James’ sense for if theism is false, then there are no great goods to be lost and horrible suffering to be endured if we either reject it or suspend judgment still, we can modify his account to allow for this conditional kind of a forced option

1.3.5 James’ argument for the permissibility of religious belief There are three possible belief policies one can adopt with respect to theism: the theist: risking error for a chance at truth and a vital good the agnostic: risking a loss of truth and a loss of a vital good for the certainty of avoiding error the atheist: risking error and the loss of a vital good for a chance at truth But all three policies are undecidable, and choosing one of the policies is live, momentous, and forced Clifford’s mistake was to think that the agnostic’s policy is the only rational option but we’ve just seen that each option is on a par with the others Therefore, although there is no duty to choose to believe, one is in one’s rights in doing so, if one so chooses (key quotes, p. 103)

1.3.6 Rowe’s criticisms: it seems that choosing among the three belief policies is decidable on rational grounds. Indeed, James himself appears to be offering reasons for preferring the theistic belief policy James mischaracterizes Clifford’s agnosticism -- Clifford does offer reasons to prefer the agnostic’s policy it can lead to harmful actions to oneself or others it can weaken the precious yet fragile individual and social habit of demanding evidence for beliefs, which, if lost, can lead back to a descent into the age of superstition and savagery so, if James is to vindicate his account of permissible yet rationally groundless belief, he must show either that (a) such belief won’t weaken the habit, or (b) that the risk of weakening the habit is outweighed by the possible good from theistic belief

2. Exploring the Second Question: Can Theism Be Rational Without Argument?

2.1 Plantinga’s account
2.1.1 setup: the need for basic beliefs: the Regress Argument non-basic vs. basic beliefs non-basic beliefs are beliefs based on arguments basic beliefs are believed without being based on propositional evidence; rather, they’re occasioned by certain sorts of “belief-triggering” experiences improper vs. properly basic beliefs an improperly basic belief isn’t produced by triggering-conditions that would make the belief appropriate a properly basic belief is produced by triggering- conditions that would make the belief appropriate examples of properly basic beliefs: that there are other minds, that material objects exist, and that there is a past why Plantinga says that properly basic beliefs are rational “without evidence or argument”: because he construes evidence and argument as propositional evidence, as opposed to (for example) evidence provided by being directly aware of something just because a belief is properly basic, it doesn’t mean that it’s immune from criticism; it can be neutralized or rebutted by defeaters (recall our discussion of religious experience)
2.1.2 Plantinga’s thesis: belief in God is properly basic Plantinga grants that religious experiences count as properly basic theistic beliefs however, he also thinks that there is a much wider range of triggering-conditions for properly basic theistic belief reading the Bible and thereby believing that God is talking to you through it looking at the starry night sky and thereby believing that “God made all of this” having a sense of guilt and thereby believing that “God disapproves of what I’ve done” etc. again, like other properly basic beliefs, theistic basic beliefs are open to defeat in principle; however, they are rational unless or until such defeaters are given
2.2 Rowe’s assessment of Plantinga’s account
2.2.1 clearly there are cases in which belief in God is properly basic, e.g., a child raised in a community of devout believers who are constantly told by them that God is good, looks out for their needs, etc.
2.2.2 however belief in God is not properly basic for sophisticated Western theists; for they are aware of a number of defeaters to theistic belief that knock it out of its properly basic status (e.g., the problem of evil, religious diversity, contemporary psychological explanations for religious belief, the success of the sciences to explain natural phenomena, etc.)
2.2.3 Plantinga’s examples of “widely realized” triggering-conditions for theistic belief might render such belief properly basic, but no more so than the “widely realized” triggering-conditions for properly basic belief in Santa Claus (cf. his example of the 14-year old theist in a community of believers)
2.2.4 Plantinga must explain why, given his thesis about the wide variety of triggering-conditions for theistic belief, there are so many people who never achieve properly basic belief in a theistic God – and why many have properly basic belief in non-theistic divine beings