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Notes on Peter van Inwagen's Critique of Clifford's The Ethics of Belief

Notes: Van Inwagen’s “Is it Wrong Always, Everywhere, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence?”


-Clifford’s Principle: It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on
insufficient evidence.

-‘Sufficient evidence’: by ‘sufficient evidence’ philosophers commonly take Clifford to mean ‘evidence that would persuade any reasonable person who is capable of assessing it’.

-Some philosophers have used the following argument against religious belief that relies on Clifford’s Principle:

1) No one is justified in believing any proposition unless they have sufficient evidence.
2) No one has sufficient evidence for the proposition that God exists.
3) Therefore, no one is justified in believing that God exists.

-The argument is valid, but is it sound?

-Some context:
-When philosophers advance this argument, they don’t usually mean to imply that there are no valid arguments for the existence of a god when they say that “there isn’t sufficient evidence”.
-There are of course plenty of those
-Rather, they usually mean to imply that the arguments and evidence offered on behalf of belief in a god wouldn’t convince all rational people who are able to properly assess them.

Van Inwagen:
-Van Inwagen thinks that this is true enough – the arguments and evidence for the existence of a god wouldn’t convince all such people
-However, he thinks that it’s a ridiculous standard of evidence.
-Because if we construe ‘sufficient evidence’ in this way – i.e., if we construe sufficient’ evidence’ as just publicly accessible evidence that would convince any rational person capable of understanding and properly assessing it, then no one has sufficient evidence for most of what they believe.

-Van Inwagen’s main conclusion: Clifford’s Thesis can’t reasonably be used to show that religious belief is immoral or unjustified.

-Note: Van Inwagen agrees with Clifford that there is a real sense in which religious beliefs – indeed any beliefs – shouldn’t be held without sufficient evidence. It’s just that he thinks that Clifford’s standards for what counts as sufficient evidence are absurd.

A closer look at the paper:

Part I:
-Pick any significant subject matter (e.g., philosophy, politics, history, the sciences, etc). There are equally intelligent experts on that subject matter who are aware of all the relevant evidence and distinctions, and hold to the highest intellectual standards, and yet who completely disagree about which way the evidence points.

-But if so, then how can any of them claim to be justified in their beliefs?

-After all, the evidence that they have doesn’t persuade other people who have the requisite intelligence, skills and standards for properly evaluating the evidence

-And yet, when they do evaluate it, they remain unconvinced

-But if so, then that would seem to show that the evidence for that belief is insufficient to justify it

-Van Inwagen’s preferred answer:

-sometimes one of the disputants enjoys some sort of insight into the evidence on a particular issue that others lack.

-The insight is incommunicable, for each person in the relevant debate has communicated to the others all of the evidence that they can

-This insight into the evidence is what justifies them in their beliefs

-However, even if this account is incorrect, there must be some correct answer

-For the alternative is a strong form of skepticism about most of our beliefs, and that is implausible

-Van Inwagen’s notion of skepticism: “Philosophical skeptics are people who…have listened to many philosophical options but take none of them, people who have listened to many philosophical debates but have never once declared a winner.”

-Sub-conclusion: everyone has a large number of beliefs that violate Clifford’s Principle; so either we’re all immoral and unjustified in having these beliefs, or Clifford’s Principle is false.

Part II:

Van Inwagen’s basic argument:
1) Either sufficient evidence is just public evidence that would persuade any rational person who is able to properly assess it, or it can include other things, such as an incommunicable insight into the publicly available evidence.
2 If sufficient evidence is just public evidence, then no one lives up to Clifford’s Principle with respect to most of their beliefs (e.g., philosophical, political, historical, scientific, etc.), in which case it’s hypocritical to attack religious believers for failing to live up to it.
3) If sufficient evidence can include other things, such as an incommunicable insight into the publicly available evidence, then we have no reason to think that religious belief can’t be justified.
4) Therefore, either it’s hypocritical to attack religious believers by failing to live up to Clifford’s Principle, or we have no reason to think that religious belief can’t be justified. (From 1-3)


-Clifford seems to be correct in thinking that we have an obligation to base our beliefs on sufficient evidence. For he’s right that our beliefs have an unavoidable impact on ourselves and others, and this impact can be harmful when the belief in question is false. Thus, groundless belief – even groundless belief in a god -- looks to be irresponsible.

-However, he seems to be incorrect in thinking that evidence has to be of such a quality that it persuades every rational person if it is to be sufficient. For people are only responsible for what it is in their power to do, and it isn’t in their power to have conclusive evidence for their beliefs on all of the sorts of topics that are required for a decent human life (the human cognitive makeup is too feeble to do so).


Dewey Cox said…
What's up EA.

This topic has been on my mind. Why do reasonably informed and rational people look at the same evidence and say it points in different directions?

Anyway, just wanted to see if I could post successfully on your blog.
exapologist said…
Hey Dewey,

I imagine there are many factors (e.g., people come to a given topic with differing sets of evidence, and this affects one's assessment of that topic; perhaps G.E. Moore was onto something with his distinction between having and being able to give one's reasons; etc.). One of these days, I'm going to wade into the literature on the epistemology of disagreement.

What do you think of van Inwagen's take on this?
Dewey Cox said…
I don't know anything about Clifford, but Inwagen seems right, as I understand him, in saying that C's standards would leave us unable to believe much of anything.

My question is: when people disagree on a topic which must have only one true answer (e.g. god or no god?), how de we know who has the special insight?

Of course I've read only your outline of Inwagen's critique, so I may be getting it wrong.
Dewey Cox said…
I should say, I don't know much about Clifford, only what I've read from your post.
exapologist said…
My question is: when people disagree on a topic which must have only one true answer (e.g. god or no god?), how de we know who has the special insight?

Who says we do? :-)

It's tough to say. I imagine that a "seeming evidentialist" (to use an expression from Connee and Feldman) would probably say that, well, they can't be sure. However, it seems to the people that have the insight that they're right, and the way things seem is defeasible, prima facie justification for how things are. So at least they're justified -- perhaps both in the epistemic sense and in the deontological sense -- in believing they know they're right.

What do you think?
exapologist said…
John Locke argued that even if it's not in my power to become certain of the truth, at least it's in my power perform my duty of proportioning my beliefs to the evidence I have.
Dewey Cox said…
So at least they're justified -- perhaps both in the epistemic sense and in the deontological sense -- in believing they know they're right.

I agree. If I have done all I am capable of to get at the truth of a matter, what more can be asked? Let me add that I should be very careful to be sure that I have done my best, and after I have decided on an issue, I should remain receptive to new evidence or arguments (which seems difficult to do).

I also should have respect for those who disagree and not presume to accuse them of being epistemically lazy (chestnuts) or anything like that because after all, they may have some "special insight" which I lack.

By the way, keep reading books and papers and summarizing them for us. That works out well.
Dewey Cox said…
Sometimes when I read previous posts back, they look like someone else wrote them. I could have said that better, but.. ah well.
exapologist said…
Are my posts getting better or worse? ;-)

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