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Clifford's Thesis

Wallstreetatheist
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10/3/2013 5:52:01 AM
Posted: 3 years ago
In his 1877 paper, "The Ethics of Belief," William Kingdon Clifford asserted that, "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." (hereafter referred to as, "Clifford's thesis")

I would argue that Clifford's thesis is false. It had the burden of proof on it (meaning it should've been considered false unless proven true) and that burden was not met. As I will argue, it may even be self-defeating. Clifford attempts to justify his idea with examples in the basic form of the story of a negligent shipowner who let his ship set sail despite not having checked it for seaworthiness. The ship sank. This seems wrong, so Clifford suggests that the reason it is wrong is because of his general moral principle about belief: that the shipowner was morally wrong to believe the ship was seaworthy when his evidence was insufficient, which it was because he hadn't checked.

The conclusion of Clifford's thesis does not follow from the premise of the shipowner being in the wrong. There are plenty of other explanations for why the shipowner could've been in the wrong, such as the shipowner having offended against the classic, Aristotelian cardinal virtue of Prudence. That is something we don't need Clifford to tell us about.

it is inappropriate to consider Clifford's thesis out of it's historical and sociopolitical context. Clifford is not merely articulating an ideologically neutral epistemological (concerning knowledge) principle of common sense, (like, "You generally ought to have reasons for the stuff you say") nor even a merely ethical (concerning right and wrong) doctrine. (like, "Randomly stabbing other people in the face for no reason is wrong.") An honest interpretation of his essay reveals that he is overtly attacking religious faith, specifically the doctrines of Christianity, (because he is writing for 19th century England) that he is defending atheism and that this anti-religious application of what has been called "Clifford's thesis" is his main conclusion, without which he would not have written the piece. He is not really concerned about unsafe ships any more than references to plants in the Song of Solomon are concerned with literal orchards or gardens.
Clifford attacks Islam and Buddhism explicitly in the text, although it should be clear to everyone from the time and place he was writing that his real target was the Christian beliefs of his own society. In my opinion, this should be so obvious from having read the essay that it could not reasonably be denied. At least not with a straight face.

An examination of the historical and sociopolitical context is relevant because it is demanded by Clifford's own essay, where he asserts that, "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."

This would apply to all beliefs, so it must also necessarily apply to Clifford's own beliefs, including the beliefs (like Clifford's thesis) which he asserts in, "The Ethics of Belief." Therefore, according to Clifford's analysis, Clifford's thesis itself is also nothing more than a product of the general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. (making it, "Society's thesis.") But if this is the case, then the origin of his own idea lies in something other than sufficient evidence. At no point would his account of the origins of all beliefs connect with the evidence for any belief. Clifford's belief about beliefs together with his thesis would thus refute all beliefs, including itself, like a logical black hole, landing us in a nihilistic skepticism. (rejection of all claims of knowledge or even justified belief)

I think the real key issue to interpreting, "The Ethics of Belief" is not what Clifford means by, "wrong", as some assert. It is abundantly clear from the text that he means a moral "wrong" as in evildoing, not an epistemological "wrong" as in getting a wrong answer. However, what is more important than that is what Clifford means by "evidence."

Clifford writes, "No evidence ". can justify us in believing the truth of a statement which is contrary to, or outside of, the uniformity of nature." This seems to not be a conclusion that was reached on the basis of evidence, which would seem to make it wrong to believe in, according to Clifford's thesis. Clifford explicitly admits this uniformity is an assumption and does not argue in favor of it. That status of assumption without argument makes it what philosophers call an a priori (coming before experience) claim, not a posteriori (coming after experience) claim.

This a priori assumption is not in any sense neutral or uncontested. It was not chosen on general principle to just happen to turn out after the fact that it contradicts people's religious beliefs: It is itself concerned with precisely that which atheists disagree with the vast majority of mankind about and was formulated in order to refute people's religious beliefs. That means it was formed on the basis of prejudice, not evidence, again making it wrong to believe under it's own standard.

In philosophy, the term for the assumption is "naturalism" as opposed to "supernaturalism." (belief in the possibility of miracles: events from beyond or apart from the uniformity of nature) What Clifford has essentially said here is that, "Supernaturalism is false because naturalism is true, and naturalism is true because we are assuming it a priori without argument." This shows that his so-called principle is not in any superior position epistemically than any faith-based view which could say the same about supernaturalism being true and naturalism being false with presumably equal or even superior dogmatic fervor.

This is not helped much by his attempt to reduce the claim of the uniformity of nature from applying universally (to everywhere at all times) to applying only to human affairs by adding the conditional phrase, "so far as we are concerned" because this distinction makes no practical difference. Clifford has made the uniformity of nature into a dogma (a belief that is not open to question) in regard to human affairs just as David Hume did in regard to the whole Universe. Many of the same conceptual difficulties would justify dissent from his view as Hume's.

The book to get on this debate between naturalism and supernaturalism would be "Miracles: A Preliminary Study" (2nd Edition, 1960) by C. S. Lewis. Lewis spends a good deal of his book defining the terms in a tightly logical enough fashion so as to enable the debate to usefully take place.

Let me know what you think.
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themohawkninja
Posts: 816
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10/9/2013 9:30:54 PM
Posted: 3 years ago
Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be calling Clifford a hypocrite, rather than actually critiquing the logic of the paper. Secondly...

Clifford writes, "No evidence ". can justify us in believing the truth of a statement which is contrary to, or outside of, the uniformity of nature." This seems to not be a conclusion that was reached on the basis of evidence, which would seem to make it wrong to believe in, according to Clifford's thesis. Clifford explicitly admits this uniformity is an assumption and does not argue in favor of it. That status of assumption without argument makes it what philosophers call an a priori (coming before experience) claim, not a posteriori (coming after experience) claim.


The conclusion is in a sense based off evidence. I can observe the uniformity of nature (minus the past) by observations, and the past has been written in history, so would that not count as evidence?
"Morals are simply a limit to man's potential."~Myself

Political correctness is like saying you can't have a steak, because a baby can't eat one ~Unknown
Sidewalker
Posts: 3,713
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10/16/2013 4:59:02 AM
Posted: 3 years ago
I see three main problems with Clifford's thesis.

1) There is no evidence that it is true, so it is self refuting.

2) It creates an infinite regress of justification such that in the end, it never comes to an end, so nothing is justified and you can't believe anything.

3) It gives you no reason to get out of bed in the morning and pretty much assures nothing can ever get accomplished. A positive attitude is critical to success at anything, you can't do anything new if you don't believe you can. The woman that recently swam to Cuba, the evidence was such that she should have quit trying a long time ago.

Clifford's thesis is bad logic, it is self refuting and in the end, nothing is justified, including Clifford's thesis.

The fact is that beliefs are unjustified, that's why they are beliefs, and if you must choose an unjustified belief, Clifford's is the worst one of all to choose because it says that effort is unjustified, nothing is ever accomplished, and you are in a bad mood all the time.

If you want to arbitrarily pick an unjustified belief, then I would suggest the belief that you would be better off if you send me all of your money, then at least I'd be in a good mood.

I for one, choose to believe that all of you are going to send me your money. Woo hoo!
"It is one of the commonest of mistakes to consider that the limit of our power of perception is also the limit of all there is to perceive." " C. W. Leadbeater
themohawkninja
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10/20/2013 9:23:29 AM
Posted: 3 years ago
At 10/16/2013 4:59:02 AM, Sidewalker wrote:
I see three main problems with Clifford's thesis.

1) There is no evidence that it is true, so it is self refuting.

2) It creates an infinite regress of justification such that in the end, it never comes to an end, so nothing is justified and you can't believe anything.

3) It gives you no reason to get out of bed in the morning and pretty much assures nothing can ever get accomplished. A positive attitude is critical to success at anything, you can't do anything new if you don't believe you can. The woman that recently swam to Cuba, the evidence was such that she should have quit trying a long time ago.


It while it may be far from perfect, it is worded in such a way that keeps it from being self-refuted, and that is the term "insufficient", which is up for interpretation. To the women swimming to Cuba, she probably felt that there was sufficient evidence to partake in the journey, or else she either wouldn't have done it, or had some sort of death wish.
"Morals are simply a limit to man's potential."~Myself

Political correctness is like saying you can't have a steak, because a baby can't eat one ~Unknown