Who to Believe: Clifford or James?

W.K. Clifford attacks pragmatic justification for the relationship between evidence and belief in his work The Ethics of Belief. Using an example of a ship-owner who knowingly sends out a ship that had faulty mechanics and eventually sank, Clifford drives home the point that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. He says:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. 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.

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.

For the philosopher, evidence precedes belief which should precede action. Despite the amount of sincerity one has, he or she should never do things using pragmatic justification. The man or woman has the obligation to believe things only if there is sufficient and tangible evidence for that belief. Every time one believes something on insufficient evidence, he or she believes wrong things which are harmful for others within society and the habit of testing and inquiring into things is eventually lost. We will, as a people, sink into savagery.

Responding to Clifford, William James wrote The Will to Believe in which he argues that it is unlivable to work off of Clifford’s epistemology. Life would be greatly impoverished if one did so. It is unlivable because in everyday life, the evidence for important propositions is often unclear or temporary lacking. James argues we make many mundane decisions on a daily basis that are not based upon a multitude of “sufficient” evidence. People make many judgment calls based upon more than logic and reason. James distinguishes two types of hypothesis within his work: live hypothesis (one that is a real possibility to be believed) and a dead hypothesis (one that does not count to be believed).  One should let his or her passions come into play if it is a genuine option and a live hypothesis. Ultimately, if one does not make the necessary leap of faith throughout their life, they run the risk of possibly losing the truth. By believing, there is much to be gained.

At first glance, I tend to be stuck in the middle when it comes to which philosopher I agree with more. I appreciate Clifford’s desire that people believe things based upon sufficient evidence but it really begs the question. What counts as sufficient evidence for each person? Furthermore, what sufficient evidence does Clifford have for his statement that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence? I sense a hint of anti-religion sentiments reading Clifford that I do not resonate with. William James seems to make some interesting statements as well. I agree with him that not all matters should be decided with nothing but pure intellect. The passions should have a role in making decisions. However, I think James’ system could get out of hand. What determines whether or not something is a valid, live hypothesis? It seems that this could be person-sensitive which could lead to relativity. People could end up doing crazy things as long as it was a live hypothesis to them. I think both philosophers would reject believing anything and everything based upon blind faith. I wish there was a way to blend both philosophies into some sort of collage where the good in both systems could be taken into consideration. I do not want to lose the truth but I also do not want to believe something without good reason.


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