Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Ethics of Belief; The Ethics of Religion by William Clifford

     So I've read "The Ethics of Belief" and "The Ethics of Religion" by the fine mathematician William Clifford; I've also read "The Will to Believe" by the great William James.  William Clifford is a typical science-worshipper who says we have an obligation to believe only those things that stand the test of evidence.  While he has some excellent turns of phrase in "The Ethics of Belief", it is not that interesting on the whole.  "The Ethics of Religion" is more interesting since he is taking on religion directly and letting it rip.  I have to say I found Clifford's approach to knowledge naive and a tad boring.  I found William James to be much more interesting; this is not to say I think James is necessarily right, but he is more interesting(I will deal with William James in the next post).

     The most interesting ideas Clifford has in "The Ethics of Belief" is how our web of ideas can be infected by ideas poorly considered and believed.  Ideas have consequences, and habits of credulity has consequences on future ideas.  The notion of the web is famously elaborated in Willard Quine's essay "Two Dogmas of Empiricism".  Blackburn does deal with underdetermination later in the book, but the basic idea is that our web of ideas can be altered in a variety of ways in the presence of falsifying information.  For Clifford poor thinking causes us to accept equally poorly thought-out ideas in the future. 

     I guess I find Clifford's pious ideas, I say pious because he believes "clear" thinking is our duty to mankind and any time we believe something for unworthy reasons we are abrogating our duty to it, somewhat tiresome.  I am suspicious of my ideas:  I think they are infected with passion, error, and culturally relative assumptions I may not be able to root out.  I am more pessimistic than Clifford: I don't think there is some method of thought that will lead to true ideas about which we need not be suspicious.  I think this way lies philosophical skepticism -- and Clifford is not a philosophical skeptic.

     In "The Ethics of Religion", says, "the rightness or wrongness of belief in a doctrine depends only upon the nature of the evidence for it"(pg.26).  YAWN.  The best thing he says is:

"If men were no better than their religions, the world would be a hell indeed"(pg. 28)

That's pretty nice, really.  But then he says: "That a doctrine may lead to immoral consequences is no reason for dibelieving it."(pg. 28)  He clearly accepts the fact/value distinction in some way I don't: " is not conscience, but reason, that has to judge matters of fact"(pg.28)   He seems to think we can understand things about the nature of the universe that we really can't.

     He seems to believe that normal social relationships will lead to practical morality all by itself, even in "priestridden countries":

"Men must live together and work for common objects even in priestridden countries; and those conditions, which in the course of ages have been able to create the moral sense, cannot fail in some degree to recall it to men's minds and gradually to reinforce it"(pg. 32)

To me this is an incredibly naive position.  Here's another one:

"The goodness of men shows itself in time more powerful than the wickedness of some of their religions"(pg. 32)


He talks about loving our neighbor for their own sake vs loving our neighbor for God's sake:

"...but when we love our brother for the sake of somebody else, who is very likely to damn our brother, it very soon comes to burning him alive for his soul's health."(pg. 40)


In conclusion, I think that Clifford is a typical enlightenment style thinker who happens to live at the end of the 19th Century.   He has some nice lines, and if only his approach worked on philosophical problems we would be in business.  Science must proceed in the usual manner -- as for philosophical "truth", that is a different matter.  In this regard William James is a far more interesting thinker...


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