Thursday, July 7, 2011

Truth: A Guide, by Simon Blackburn, William Clifford vs William James

     In Chapter 1, Blackburn sets up the oppositon in views between William Clifford and William James; specifically starting with Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief" and William James' famous response, "The Will to Believe".  Blackburn comes down pretty hard on the side of William Clifford.  Blackburn, I think, will use this to establish his core positions against relativism:

     "And, of course, Clifford is right.  Someone sitting on a completely unreasonable belief is sitting on a time bomb.  The apparently harmless, idiosyncratic belief of the Catholic Church tht one thing may have the substance of another, although it displays absolutely none of its empirical qualities, prepares people for the view that some people are agents of Satan in disguisem which in turn makes it reasonable to destroy them.  Clifford also emphasizes our social duty,  Our beliefs help to create the world in which our descendants will live.  Making ourselves gullible or credulous, we lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them, and that means 'sinking back into savagery'"(pp. 5-6)

 I am reminded here of the breathless books that came out in the late '90s by people like Carl Sagan(see The Demon-Haunted World) who felt that science was being over-run by new age wack-jobs.  As a former philosophy graduate student and university teacher, I can see why there was this concern.  During the '90s I used to hear all kinds of wacky things from my philosophical colleagues against ideas like rigor(it's phallogocentric).  Mind you, not everything these folks said was completely crazy.  It seemed to calm down a little bit as the decade went on; note that Blackburn does take on the "science wars" later in the book, so I will hold my fire until then.

     Against the view articulated above, Blackburn sets William James' and quotes him at length; here is an excerpt of the quotation:

"Better risk loss of truth than chance of error, -- that is your faith-vetoer's exact position.  He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is, he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field.... It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law....Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope[of truth] is so much worse than dupery through fear[of error]" (Blackburn pg. 12).

Blackburn responds:
"...there is the privatization[of belief].  There is silence about what Clifford sees as the dire consequences of the social habit  of irrational conviction. ... And Jamse is wrong.  Refusal to believe something is not a kind of faith"(pp. 12-13)

By the privatization of belief Blackburn is referring to the idea that if we accept James' view that belief is a matter of passion to believe, then what one believes becomes personal preference rather than the result of universally definable norms of evidence. 

     Well, the good news here is that I now have copies of Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief", "The Ethics of Religion", and James' "Will to Believe".  So, before proceeding further into chapter 1, and despite the rather convincing case Blackburn makes against James at this point, I am going to stop, read both Clifford and James, see which one I like better, and then proceed through Blackburn's book.  I'm not going to just accept Blackburn's gloss on everything; I think Blackburn would approve.

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