Clifford’s Ethics of Belief is the evidentialism we need in these denialist times

William Clifford

William Clifford (1845 – 1879) was a mathematician by day, and wrote philosophy by night (sadly, he died age 33, from what doctors at the time believed was overwork). He is known for his contributions to geometric algebra, anticipating Einstein’s general relativity, he elaborated an elliptic space geometry as non-Euclidean geometric space.

Among philosophers William Clifford is chiefly known for his essay “The Ethics of Beliefs” (The Contemporary Review, Dec 1, 1876, vol 29). We know this essay mostly through the lens of the pragmatist philosopher William James, who criticized Clifford and particularly the following summary of his position (which Clifford himself formulated)

“it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Clifford, Ethics of Belief

In the philosophy classroom, one can easily conclude, based on the reading of James, that Clifford is unrealistic and just plain wrong in his evidentialism, hence that he’s not worth engaging with.

Evidentialism is the view that you need to let your beliefs be guided and constrained by evidence. There are stronger and weaker versions of evidentialism. A strong version is Clifford’s Principle (that it’s wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence). Weaker versions say that one should be willing to revise one’s beliefs in the face of contrary evidence, or that being open to evidence is excellent-making and admirable. I think Clifford’s own arguments support weaker version of evidentialism, and will get to this later.

Here I want to look at and evaluate what Clifford wrote. Reading Clifford with fresh eyes, we can see how Clifford foresaw the destructive force of people believing what is most convenient to them, wishfully thinking, believing without any evidence, not cross-checking sources, and how this not only harms themselves but also their wider society.

The essay starts with the thought experiment of a ship-owner who sends out an old, defective ship with passengers on a transatlantic voyage. He lulls himself into believing the ship is fine and then “he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.” You can listen to a beautifully narrated version of this thought experiment in the game The Witness here,

His second case is about agitators who spread lies about a group of religious people who don’t believe in original sin, who “published grave accusations against them”. The agitators’ accusations were baseless. They were doing harm because these accusations were not based in fact but in their passions and prejudices.

Clifford argues that we have duties to form our beliefs on the basis of evidence, not only for our own personal sakes, also because of their effects on others.

No one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives are 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; 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 posterityp will live.

Clifford, Ethics of Belief

Clifford emphasized the importance of epistemic duties we have to members of our community, denying the kind of rugged individualism we now so often see in discourse on people’s beliefs, as in the commonly held view that people have a right to believe whatever they want.

No, says Clifford, not only experts, even common people cannot just believe whatever they want. In an apt analogy for today, Clifford compares the spread of fake news, bullshit, and other untruths that we find alluring to the spread of a pestilence:

that duty is to guard ourselves from such [false] 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 bringing a plague upon his family and his neighbours?

Clifford, Ethics of Belief

We have a duty to be well-informed by the evidence not only to ourselves and our own character (Clifford thinks that if you believe based on your passions and wishful thinking, it will infect your character, an interesting anticipation of what later would become virtue epistemology). We also have that duty to other people. The duty is not only for experts and people with a big platform. As he cautions

Every rustic ..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.

Clifford, Ethics of Belief

A theme throughout Ethics of Belief is that a society which is based on true beliefs and where citizens hold truth in high regard is cohesive, a society where people believe on whims and based on what’s convenient and disregard truth is in danger of fracturing and descending into echo chambers.

Evidentialism is hard, and Clifford fully acknowledges this. William James thought it was impossible to be an evidentialist, because some ideas are just unthinkable–not live options–for us. However, for Clifford, evidentialism is a hard but live option. It leaves us vulnerable, because we might have to give up beliefs we deeply care about if the relevant evidence we receive changes

It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out of it is 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. We feel much happier and more secure when we think we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens, than when we have lost our way and do not know where to turn.

Clifford, Ethics of Belief

In his discussion of the sternness of evidentialism, Clifford sounds like a pragmatist such as C.S. Peirce, who likewise argued that belief is the happy default state which we turn to, and that doubt is an unpleasant state that pushes us to action and to reconsider.

But doubt we must, if we do our epistemic duties. I am much taken by Clifford’s discussion of vulnerability of not pretending to have all the answers and being a doubter. Clifford continues “It is the sense of power attached to a sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of believing, and afraid of doubting.”

However, while Clifford says that knowledge that is properly founded is a great and cherished good, believing on the basis of insufficient evidence is a stolen pleasure. When we believe properly, conversely, we also contribute to beliefs as a public good: “For then we may justly feel that it [knowledge] is common property, and holds good for others as well as for ourselves”.

Just like badly founded beliefs have personal and broader societal harms, well-founded beliefs have broader benefits.

How about tradition? Should we question that too? Clifford answers this “is not only possible and right, but our bounden duty; that the main purpose of the tradition itself is to supply us with the means of asking questions, of testing and inquiring into things.”

We should never take anything for granted. Here, again Clifford reminds me of pragmatists such as Jane Addams and John Dewey.

The essay ends with some not very satisfactory comments on what we should do with scientific knowledge, where we don’t have access to the (direct, first-order) evidence itself. We would need to wait until authors such as David Christensen with discussions of higher-order evidence (evidence from experts) to tackle such difficulties.

I write this reflection on Clifford in the midst of a pandemic, where many people in my state (Missouri) are getting sick because of widespread misinformation about the coronavirus and the vaccines that are available. Evidentialism looks attractive in a world where people peddle conspiracy theories.

Clearly, Clifford’s principle (it is wrong, always everywhere…) is too strong. But we can endorse weaker evidentialist principles where doing your minimal homework with regard to important and salient beliefs (e.g., about disease) is a duty that falls on everyone, and where it is admirable and commendable to make oneself vulnerable to doubt.

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