Notes on William K. Clifford's
The Ethics of Belief (1877)
Maarten Maartensz (2004)
Part I


Introduction to my Notes:

I first knew of Clifford's dictum - "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" - somewhere in the 1970ies, and immediately liked it, and thought it a slight exaggeration, but an excellent ideal.

This I still think, and so I was quite pleased to find several copies of the full text of Clifford's "Ethics of Belief" on the internet, and indeed also several copies of just the first part of it.

The text of Clifford's essay that I reproduce on my site is the full text, to which I have made 94 notes, divided over three files.

The reason to make these notes is to clarify or qualify Clifford's text, which I regard as a classic of clearheaded scientific rational thinking, and to explain such things as might be currently necessary, some 117 years after the text was originally published. 

You can read Clifford's text without my notes, or you can read my notes and click on the many links to the Text to get back to the paragraph of the original that contains my quotation that occasioned some comment.

Maarten Maartensz
Amsterdam, July 2004

Note 1: In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

Of course, the point of this introductory paragraph is in this last sentence, and the weight lies at two places: "In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction" - which were irrational and unreasonable ways of arriving at a convinction, and the last part, what the conviction thus reached practically was in aid of: "he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales".

And the general assumptions Clifford here seems to make may be stated as follows:

  • Any belief a person has may have been founded rationally and reasonably or not.
  • If a belief is founded rationally, it is consistent and based on real evidence.
  • If a belief is founded reasonably, the amount and quality of the evidence is proportionate to the importance of the belief.

The first point is a mere matter of logic, but if it is to make a real difference we must also presume that

  • normally and usually people are free to make up their own minds by gathering evidence and reasoning on the basis of that.

The second point lays briefly down what it is for a belief to be called rational: It must be consistent (for an inconsistent set of beliefs is always false) and it must be based on real evidence - statements of fact or logic that other persons can test the validity of in terms of principles that are intersubjectively and logically valid.

What "intersubjectively and logically valid" means or should mean is again a difficult question, but the underlying point is clear enough: There is no ground for intellectual agreement or disagreement between people without some agreed standards to judge statements.

The third point lays briefly down what it is for a belief to be reasonable: The evidence one has for it is proportionate to the importance one attributes to it.

Thus, if one believes that a certain belief - whatever it is - is important one should, if one holds the belief in a reasonable manner, have a lot of evidence for or against it, and if one believes a certain belief is not important one need have little evidence for it.  Text.

Note 2: What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

Here we have to make a small proviso in judging him "verily guilty of the death of those men", namely that indeed the ship went down because measures its owner could and should have taken given such knowledge as he had about the ship, but did not take, and not for reasons having nothing to do with the fact that these measures had not been taken.

There are two important claims here.

First: "the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

This is an important point because the faithful and fanatics of all beliefs, creeds and political convictions believe quite otherwise, namely that something is true and important because they strongly feel and believe it is, usually because they also believe that what they believe is true and important will serve their interests.

In brief: Neither sincerity, nor strength, nor conviction are in any way sufficient to make a belief rational. What makes a belief rational is only its logical relation to evidence. And indeed, it should be minimally such as to be more probable than not given such the evidence one has, as this would be judged by impartial rational men who are at least as intelligent and as well-informed as oneself is.

Second: "he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it."

Here I think a proviso must be made that relates to human weaknesses: One's responsibility for one's own opinions is indeed one's own, but it is also commensurate with one's intelligence and courage. Some people are just not capable of seeing certain rational inferences others see clearly, and some people just do not have the courage to entertain the convictions they reached.  Text.

Note 3: "When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that."

The reasons are, first, that in the end one acts in a here and now for such reasons as one here and now has, and this will be so for all times that follows it, regardless of however better or other those later times are informed, and second, that acts should not be judged by their outcomes, but by their reasons, for one has control over one's reasoning but not over the world, or only to such extent as one reasons truly about it and has power to act and interfere.  Text.

Note 4: "The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

Put otherwise: A belief is right or wrong not because it turns out to be true or false, but because it was reached or not by a rational argument on the basis of evidence, and because such evidence as one had gathered was reasonable in being proportionate to the importance attributed to the belief.  Text.

Note 5: "There was once an island in which some of the inhabitants professed a religion teaching neither the doctrine of original sin nor that of eternal punishment."

Here it should be remarked that W.K. Clifford lived on an island (England) where most inhabitants in fact did profess a religion teaching both the doctrine of original sin and of eternal punishment, and that he very probably believed none of it.

I quote from the article on Clifford on the excellent site on mathematicians by St. Andrews University: 

Macfarlane (..) tells us that

he was eccentric in appearance, habits and opinions.   Text.

Note 6: "For although they had sincerely and conscientiously believed in the charges they had made, yet they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them. Their sincere convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient inquiring, were stolen by listening to the voice of prejudice and passion."

Put otherwise: There is a right to believe - but it is strongly dependent on patient, rational inquiry, and easily disqualified by passion or prejudice.  Text. 

Note 7: "Let us vary this case also, and suppose, other things remaining as before, that a still more accurate investigation proved the accused to have been really guilty. Would this make any difference in the guilt of the accusers? Clearly not; the question is not whether their belief was true or false, but whether they entertained it on wrong grounds."

This involves the same reasoning as in Note 4.  Text.

Note 8: "And they might be believed, but they would not thereby become honourable men. They would not be innocent, they would only be not found out."

It seems fair and relevant to remark that this is the situation in which most politicians and priests are: What such men claim is rarely rational and reasonable, and usually manufactured either by wishful thinking or deceit.  Text.

Note 9: "Every one of them, if he chose to examine himself in foro conscientiae, would know that he had acquired and nourished a belief, when he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him; and therein he would know that he had done a wrong thing."

This I doubt in general, though it is true for rational and reasonable men. But then many men have strong beliefs that dispose them to disregard evidence.

For one example, not being a Catholic I believe the pope is mistaken on many matters of faith he believes he is right about. But I also believe that he will not see many matters as I do until and unless he gives up Catholicism. And conversely, the pope will think similarly about unbelievers like me.

For another example, there are quite a large number of personal judgments that are both important to oneself and not merely judged by one's standards of rationality and reason, and these concern such matters as whom one loves, what one likes, and what one's personal ends are.

These matters seem to be more a matter of personal desire than of personal belief, though it is also true that personal desires when combined with beliefs about the reality the desires are meant to be realized in can be both tested by testing the beliefs they are combined with, and can be tested as to whether they are practicable and have a tendency to succeed when practised.  Text.

Note 10: "It may be said, however, that in both these supposed cases it is not the belief which is judged to be wrong, but the action following upon it."

Here is a somewhat subtle point that Clifford will try to settle by insisting that a person's actions and a person's beliefs are intertwined much like effect and cause:

  • What one consciously and deliberately does and does not do depends on what one believes that will - probably - result from one's acts, and this in turn depends on what one believes in general about one's situation and place in it.  Text.  

Note 11: "In the first place, let us admit that, so far as it goes, this view of the case is right and necessary; right, because even when a man's belief is so fixed that he cannot think otherwise, he still has a choice in the action suggested by it, and so cannot escape the duty of investigating on the ground of the strength of his convictions; and necessary, because those who are not yet capable of controlling their feelings and thoughts must have a plain rule dealing with overt acts."

This refers to the point made and quoted in Note 10, and involves the relations between belief and action. As I pointed out there, I agree that one's acts and one's beliefs interdepend, in the sense that one will tend to try to do what one believes serves one's interests and one will tend not to try to do what one believes does not serve one's interests, but it seems also to me that there is a faculty of willing or deciding that intermediates between one's beliefs and desires on the one hand, and one's actions on the other hand.

The reason to assume such a faculty of willing or deciding, that operates independently of the faculties of believing and desiring, though informed by them, rather like a judge is supposed to be independent from the prosecution and defense, but informed by them, is that experience teaches that one always, if perhaps perversely or against one's own interests as one conceives of these, may decide to try to do the less probable than the more probable or the less desirable rather than the more desirable.    Text.

Note 12: "But this being premised as necessary, it becomes clear that it is not sufficient, and that our previous judgment is required to supplement it. For it is not possible so to sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other. No man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty."

Yes, but here the point I made in Note 9 enters. It may be made in general terms as follows:

It seems a plain matter of fact that the vast majority of men is not able or not willing to judge quite a few matters without bias, and fairly, completely, rationally and reasonably. And these are especially those matters about which they have strong religious or political prejudices, or in which they have a strong personal interest.  Text.

Note 13: "Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it."

This sounds much like Peirce, who made a similar point three years earlier than Clifford did, in "How to make out ideas clear".

Even so, it seems a slight exaggeration, in that everybody may have beliefs about remote things - the backside of the moon, the state of the world in 500 years, the teachings of faiths one anyway disbelieves - that may have little or no influence on one's acts.

But in general the relation between acts and beliefs seems to be as sketched in Notes 10 and 11.   Text.

Note 14: "He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole."

Put otherwise: Whatever specific belief one has at any moment depends on all one's beliefs on that moment. The reason is that it might and indeed would be different if some of ones other beliefs that entered into this particular belief were different - and the same holds again for these other beliefs.  

However, it does not depend on all one's beliefs to the same extent nor in the same way: If one is rational the influence of one belief on another will depend on whether or not both are implied by some theory one holds, and on the probabilistic degree of relevance of the one belief to the other, which is a measure of the difference the truth of the one makes to the probability of the other.   Text.

Note 15: "No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, i 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 for ever."

The reason was given in Note 14, including the qualification that not all beliefs one has at any moment are equally relevant to any specific belief one has at that moment.    Text.

Note 16: "And no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives our guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork."

No, not quite. For one thing, I don't believe that "no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone" and I also don't believe that "Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property".

As to the first point I don't believe:

Consider one man's love for his wife, and suppose it to be sincere, great, romantic, and an inspiration for him to do many things I hold good and admirable. Should it matter to me that I don't love his wife in the same way as he does, and that I therefore don't feel inspired like he does?

In short: This seems to me a good example of personal tastes, preferences and beliefs that are fairly considered to be personal and one which is best considered private - always in so far as these private beliefs do not seriously and evidently effect the chances for health and happiness of others.

As to the second point I don't believe:

One lives in society in order to further one's own and other's chances on health and happiness by cooperation, and this entails quite a few duties and rights - but not such as to make one's acts, or words, or ideas "common property".  Text.

Note 17: "Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live."

I agree with the sentiment, but feel it is here a bit exaggerated. However, what seems true is that this privilege and this responsiblity are both more or less proportionate to one's talents.   Text.

Note 18: "In the two supposed cases which have been considered, it has been judged wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation. The reason of this judgment is not far to seek: it is that in both these cases the belief held by one man was of great importance to other men. But forasmuch as 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, we have no choice but to extend our judgment to all cases of belief whatever."

With provisos, to be sure:

Whether you believe the soup is better with a little more salt, or that your shoes are nicer than mine, seems less important than your beliefs about physics or politics - and if you are not a person of great intelligence who has given himself much trouble to make your opinions about physics or politics rational and reasonable, then I may act wisely about your beliefs concerning physics or politics, while holding them of more importance than those you hold about your soup or my shoes, by not giving much attention to them.

In short: Not all beliefs of all persons are equally important or relevant, and there is a considerable amount of personal opinions and tastes that are best considered private in most circumstances, indeed because, whatever they are, they will not materially influence the chances of most or all other men for health and happiness.  Text.

Note 19: "Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves but for humanity."

Here lie two fundamental points of principle: First: Is it belief that prompts the decisions of our will? And second: Are our beliefs for humanity but not for ourselves?

As to what prompts the decisions of our will:

I do not believe one's beliefs "prompt" these, but I do believe one's beliefs guide and constrain one's decisions - which are prompted by one's will, which is a separate faculty apart and independent from one's beliefs, as is shown by the fact that one can always, possibly perversely, decide and will to act counter to what one believes is right.

As to whether our beliefs are for humanity or ourselves:

It seems to me our beliefs are important to others to the extent that we could and should rationally have known that they are relevant to another's chances of harm or happiness, but that quite often we cannot rationally know so, and also that each of us both lives in his or her own private version of the world we all live in, and has a freedom to act and believe, and acts and believes both for his own interests and those of others.

But it is easy to be seduced into totalitarianism, and so - with the evidence about totalitarianism in the 20th Century - I am a little careful with claims of acts supposedly "not for ourselves but for humanity"   Text.

Note 20: "Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his beliefs with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away."

The problem is that - as the world tends to be - generally one's fellows will not praise one because one is rational and reasonable but because one is like them and one supports their prejudices.

So I would like to rephrase this as: Whoso would deserve a rational and reasonable self-respect, etc.  Text

Note 21: "It is not only the leader of men, statesmen, philosopher, or poet, that owes this bounden duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her children beliefs which shall knit society together, or rend it in pieces. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe."

Again, this seems to me a little exaggerated. One may fairly require of all men and women that they be rational and reasonable in all their beliefs and acts - but one should know the capacities of all men and women to be so vary a lot, and that one should in general require and expect no more than another is capable of.

Another relevant consideration, apart from ability and opportunity, is that one often is pressed for time, and forced to make choices, and indeed forced to make these choices also in far less ideal, quiet and unconstrained circumstances than one believes their importance merits.

Finally, if indeed most men and women live lifes constrained by all manner of pressures and difficulties, it seems more just to require them to be reasonable - to treat others fairly, justly and kindly - and try to be happy, since most misdeeds are committed by unhappy people, rather than that they try to be rational, since this last demand requires much in the way of intelligence, opportunity and effort. And it is easier, usually, to be reasonable than to be rational, just as it is usually easier to be kind than clever.  Text

Note 22: "It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out of itis often a very bitter thing. It leaves us bare and powerless where we thought that we were safe and strong. To know all about anything is to know how to deal with it under all circumstances."

It may be fairly doubted that it is humanly possible "To know all about anything": All human knowledge is partial, schematic, incomplete, abstracted from much circumstantial detail, and based on guess-work.

Also, it is a good moral principle that "non posse nemo obligatur": What is not possible cannot be a duty to anyone. (And this also concerns rational thinking.)  Text.

Note 23: "But if the belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. Not only does it deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of power which we do not really possess, but it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind."

I suppose one reason for Clifford to write "sinful" is to relate it not to one's supposed duties to God but to one's "duty to mankind".  Text  

Note 24: "That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from pestilence, which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town. What would be thought of one who, for the sake of a sweet fruit, should deliberately run the risk of delivering a plague upon his family and his neighbours?"

What one could think of is the parallel with the Bible and original sin. Apart from that, what one should think of, knowing a little of the history of the 20th C, is of fascism, communism and other forms of mental and dictatorial pestilence, which indeed in the end depended on the individual choices of individual men and women.  Text.

Note 25: "And, as in other such cases, it is not the risk only which has to be considered; for a bad action is always bad at the time when it is done, no matter what happens afterwards. Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence."

And the reason is that "Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons" we make ourselves believe something that is unreasonable and may influence our other beliefs.   Text.

Note 26: "We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide. But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent."

Let's first note what it is, among other things, that "We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to": The millions of iniquities, wasted lifes, persecutions and murders in the name of some irrational political creed like fascism or communism, or in the name of some irrational religious creed like Christianity or Mohammedanism.

To all this and much more Voltaire's dictum strongly applies:   "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities." commit atrocities."

And let's note what Clifford claims is ultimately the foundation of these many human horrors and actrocities: "the credulous character" - of the sincere followers, the faithful servants, the willing conformists that actually committed the crimes of fascism, communism, Christianity, or Mohammedanism.  Text.

Note 27: "If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done from the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves, for then it must cease to be society. This is why we ought not to do evil, that good may come; for at any rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made wicked thereby."

This may sound a little Victorian, but the underlying reasoning is correct: Both to steal and to believe something on unworthy evidence is immoral and demoralizes those who commit these deeds. And indeed, what demoralizes when one believes things on unworthy evidence is precisely that wherever this is not due to stupidity it is based on dishonesty.    Text

Note 28: "In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery."

What Clifford is claiming here may be otherwise put thus: Western societies since the Renaissance and Galileo have been factually based on science and the technology this enabled, and they owed their advantages over other types of societies - such as e.g. better ships and better guns in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries - to science.

And science in the end is based on the spirit of free enquiry, free discussion, logical reasoning and empirical experimentation. Therefore, indeed it is a danger to a society thus dependent on science to "become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them".   Text

Note 29: "The harm which is done by credulity in a man is not confined to the fostering of a credulous character in others, and consequent support of false beliefs. Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me. Men speak the truth of one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other's mind; but how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I believe thing because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant?"

See first Note 28. I agree with Clifford, but also must note that what he argued for and I agree with - say: the fundamental social and human importance of belief founded on rational reasoning and empirical investigation in a climate of free inquiry and discussion - is something that seems fit, in actual empirical fact, to a minority of men and women, namely mostly those who are scientists or whose outlook is scientific.

And unfortunately so far in any normal society this type of human being - say: the rational kind - has been in a minority, even though it is a minority from which most contributors to science and civilization issued.    Text.

Note 30: "Will he not learn to cry, "Peace," to me, when there is no peace? By such a course I shall surround myself with a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I must live. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive."

Indeed - but as I remarked in Note 29 it seems to me an indubitable fact that the vast majority of men and women everywhere and always seem to have much preferred to live in "a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud", in a "cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies" - and one reason was that the vast majority of their neighbours likewise much preferred this, and were willing to force anyone who dared deviate from the social norms and practices back into conformity, or into a madhouse or a grave.   Text.

Note 31: "The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and it is no marvel if he should become even as they are."  

Yes indeed - but let us be honest and clearminded enough to admit that the "credulous man" so far always and everywhere formed the majority, and was proud to be credulous, and quite willing to persecute anyone who was not.

Here are a few relevant statistics about the late 20th century, more than 100 years after Clifford wrote:

"The scientific world view is very rare. My guess is that at least 99% of all currently living human adults have a non-scientific world view and way of thinking. Most people probably base their lives on religion and/or magic. (..) let me amuse the reader by mentioning some results a Gallup investigation conducted in the U.S. in 1978 produced. According to it, 57% of all Americans believe in ufos, 54% in angels, 51% in ESP, 39% in devils, 37% in precognition, 29% in astrology, 24% in clairvoyance, and (only!) 11% in ghosts." (pag. 226 van R. Tuomela, "Science, Action, and Reality", D. Reidel Pub. Comp. 1985, ISBN 90-277-2098-3.)

And let's also note that 2500 years before Clifford wrote the Buddha already noticed this: "Stupidity and egoism are the roots of all vice".   Text.

Note 32: "To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."  

And here we have arrived at Clifford's dictum, which deserves to be cast in stone above the entries of all schools and universities, even if it is too demanding an ideal to practice always, like most ideals, and because it is at least an ideal of rationality and reason, and not of faith or politics.  

Also, it is not hard to indicate the fair exceptions to his rule:

  • Those beliefs that when acted upon have consequences that are limited to oneself
  • Those beliefs that are based on personal preferences
  • Those beliefs that are forced by circumstances

I am imprecize here, but this cannot be avoided. Here are a few precisifications:

The beliefs with consequences limited to oneself are excepted just because and to the extent one is oneself the only possible victim of one's false beliefs. The beliefs based on personal preferences are excepted because one's likes and dislikes are not only and often not much dependent on one's beliefs, while in any case what is not excepted are the plans and proposals motivated by one's likes and dislikes, for these are beliefs like other beliefs, and require rational scrutinity by oneself and others. And the beliefs forced by circumstances mostly have to do with time-pressures and insufficient information: Here and now one must - for example - either operate the patient or wait for more information with the chance that the patient dies.

And in any case: Though there are exceptions to Clifford's dictum, and though the principles it embodies are ideal rather than always practicable, the exceptions are exceptions only, and ought to be rationally argued when made an exception.

Apart from this: "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

And to supplement this with a positive injunction:

      It is always right to try to think rationally and try to act reasonably.   Text.

Note 33: "If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it--the life of that man is one long sin against mankind"

Obviously, as quite a few others of Clifford's remarks, this is directed against religion as it is normally believed and practised. And indeed, most faithful believers of most religions have tended to be believe it is "impious (to ask) those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it--the life of that man is one long sin against mankind" and thus have insisted that people led lifes that were, according to Clifford's standards, "one long sin against mankind". 

But then Clifford is right that religion as it is normally practised and believed is not compatible with rationality, science or indeed the ideal of only trying to believe what is worthy of belief in a rational sense.  Text.

Note 34:

A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determine, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.

This is from Milton, but it means little more than that followers and conformists have handed over their own judgments to their leaders or role-models, have ceased to judge for themselves, and therefore can not be relied upon as independent witnesses or thinkers, and run the same cognitive risks as those they imitate.   Text.

Note 35:

He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end loving himself better than all. 

This is from Coleridge, and it should be added that the vast majority of virtually all religious and political creeds love their own creed, their own leaders, and their own group far better than truth or rationality or indeed morals, for here also fits a very pertinent quotation from Orwell, with my stresses:

"Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no outrage - torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonments without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians, which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side." (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol 3, p. 419, written in May 1945.)

Unfortunately, so far in human history rational and reasonable men and women have been in a small minority - though it was the minority that elevated all of mankind from bestiality and primitiveness, and that discovered or invented science and civilization, and handed it through to posterity.   Text.

Note 36:  "Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is not to be made once for all, and then taken as finally settled. It is never lawful to stifle a doubt; for either it can be honestly answered by means of the inquiry already made, or else it proves that the inquiry was not complete."

Precisely, except that I would have said "moral" or "rational" rather than "lawful". And again Clifford seems to be in part argueing against the religiously faithful of his time, for these held the opposite doctrine mostly.    Text.

Note 37: " "But," says one, "I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments."

Then he should have no time to believe."

Perhaps so - but he may have little choice in believing as he does, being placed as he is. So what's more relevant and important:

You may believe as you please - indeed, you will tend to do so anwyay - but you may not act upon such non-rationally founded beliefs as are important to the chances of health or happiness of others, nor may you insist that your beliefs are more important than the trouble you have given yourself to give them a rational foundation. Mere faith is not enough, especially not where it effects the chances of others.    Text.




last update:25 Jan 2012