A Comparison of W.K Clifford and William James’s Arguments

Clifford and James Summaries of W. K. Clifford and William James’s arguments for belief | In this paper, I hope to effectively summarize W. K Clifford’s (1879) argument on the ethics of belief, followed by a summary of William James’ (1897) argument on the right to believe, and finally, provide an argument for why W. K Clifford’s (1879) argument is stronger by highlighting its strengths while simultaneously arguing against William James’ (1897) argument. According to Clifford (1879), there is an ethics to belief that makes it always wrong for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.
Clifford (1879) begins his paper by providing an illustrative analogy – one where a ship-owner is preparing to send to sea a ship filled with innocent men, women, and children. Prior to its departure, doubts had been brought to his attention regarding its condition and the possibility of a failure to complete the voyage. The ship-owner, now in a dilemma, successfully convinces himself that because the ship had weathered so many storms and successfully completed so many voyages, it was fit to believe that the ship was fit to sail.
He acquired a sincere belief that the ship would successfully complete the voyage despite its apparent faults. Eventually, the ship sank. Clifford (1879) argues that the ship-owner is responsible for the death of those innocent men and women – not only did the ship-owner ignore the doubts regarding the ship’s capabilities, but he acquired a false belief by simply stifling his doubts. Yes, he felt sure about the ship’s capabilities; but, he only acquired such a conviction by allowing himself to believe it, and not based on sufficient evidence.

Clifford (1879) also argues that in the event the ship had not sank and had completed the voyage, the ship-owner “would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out. ” (498) In essence, Clifford (1879) argues that the outcome has no effect since the origin of his belief was flawed and based on whims rather than evidence. In another analogy where a group of men are accused for manipulating children, Clifford (1879) argues that those who accused the innocence of the men based on self-propagated beliefs are not “honourable men,” (499) regardless of whether the accused were guilty.
He illustrated the ideology that no accusation can be made unless there is sufficient evidence to supplement it; if sufficient evidence cannot be found, then the individual loses the right to believe that certain belief, as he will harm himself and humanity. Clifford (1879) argues it is right and necessary to examine evidence on both sides of any belief with patience and care. Right, because when a man is so consumed by a belief so as to not entertain other grounds, he can still choose the action stemming from that belief – thus, he has a duty to investigate “on the ground of the strength of his convictions. (499) And necessary, because those who become consumed by their self-sponsored beliefs must have a rule to deal with actions stemming from those beliefs. Clifford (1879) argues no one belief is isolated from the action that follows, and no belief is ever truly insignificant. No individual can judge the validity of his beliefs in an unbiased manner; thus, the actions following beliefs, regardless of being true or false, can have strong implications on our future if not corrected now. Clifford (1879) argues it is essential to continuously judge our beliefs and validate them based on sufficient evidence.
Finally, Clifford (1879) argues our beliefs are not personal property; rather, “our words, our phrases and processes and modes of thought are common property. Belief… is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity. ” (500) Because our actions – which stem from our beliefs – affect those around us, Clifford (1879) deems it a universal duty to constantly doubt our closely held beliefs. Although “we naturally do not like to find that we are really ignorant and powerless,” (500) Clifford argues it would be a crime and a sin on humanity to acquire a sense of power when the belief has not been sufficiently investigated and earned.
Clifford (1879) is a strong proponent of proof-based beliefs and of the continuous criticism of beliefs held backed by loose evidence. In order to advance as a fair and just society, our beliefs must be evaluated and supported by evidence which is fair and just, and not by apparent truisms which satisfy our personal power struggles, insecurities, and lack of interest. William James (1897), on the other hand, attempts to define the permissible cases in which it is intellectually respectable to believe without sufficient evidence.
James (1897) begins by providing three criterion for judging beliefs: either beliefs are 1) living or dead; 2) forced or avoidable; or 3) momentous or trivial. A live hypothesis is one where the hypothesis appeals to the existing beliefs of the individual; a forced hypothesis is one where one must choose between alternatives, and cannot proceed without doing so; and finally, a momentous hypothesis is one where there is a lot at stake and/or when the decision is irreversible. James(1897) argues that certain actions and convictions need pre-existing beliefs which do not require sufficient evidence.
He uses Pascal’s Wager as an example – James (1897) argues Pascal’s Wager may force individuals in choosing to either believe in God or not, regardless of there being sufficient evidence to prove the existence of the former or latter. However, James (1897) argues that different propositions hold varying meanings and importance to different individuals; it is individuals’ pre-existing beliefs which form future beliefs once further information is received. James (1897) acknowledges the fact that many beliefs are pre-supposed and without sufficient evidence.
To challenge Clifford (1879), he says “our belief in truth itself… that there is a truth… what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire,” (505) effectively questioning Clifford’s (1879) double-standard; if Clifford (1879) requires sufficient evidence for beliefs, where is the sufficient evidence to support the belief of truth held by scientists and philosophers alike? Then, James (1897) extends the argument to say we want to have a truth – it is our will which pushes us to believe in a truth and “puts us in a continually better and better position towards it. (505) In discussing telepathy, James claims scientists do not want to consider the evidence for telepathy because “they think… that even if such a thing were true, scientists ought to band together to keep it suppressed… It would undo the uniformity of Nature and all sorts of other things without which scientists cannot carry on their pursuits. ” (505) James argues that “[the] very law which the logicians impose upon us… is based on nothing but their own natural wish to exclude all elements for which they… an find no use. ” (506) Thus, James effectively argues that even the scientists’ passionate convictions and prejudices form their beliefs, as we see in the case of telepathic research. Finally, in this section, James (1897) argues such behaviour re-inforces Pascal’s Wager – a pre-existing belief can generate further beliefs, and that logic alone is not enough. Then, James (1897) takes two approaches in looking at the “duties” in matters of opinion – that we must know the truth, and we must avoid error.
James (1897) argues it is impractical and unrealistic to know the truth while simultaneously avoiding error; “it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B,” (506) says James (1897). Then, James (1897) argues that the risk of being wrong or in error is trivial compared to the possibility of stumbling upon real knowledge and of “indefinitely guessing true. ” (506) In his opinion, it is better to continue to guess or hope for the truth than to continuously deny certain beliefs until sufficient evidence surfaces.
He believes it is better to be light-hearted in the regard of accepting certain beliefs than to constantly question and doubt. James (1897) argues that in most matters, the decision to choose between various options is not so momentous and urgent that a false belief to act on is better than no belief at all. He says “seldom is there any such a hurry… that the risks of being duped by believed a premature theory need be faced. ” (507) James (1897) then goes on to state that modern science’s “nervousness” and yearning to technically verifying the truth may “cease her to care for truth by itself at all. (507) In extending this argument, he states that although technical evidence is strong and important, human passions are stronger. He then poses his final question – that of weighing the perils and benefits of waiting with “impunity” until the sufficient evidence is found. In essence, he asks if there are forced options in man’s already speculative questions, and whether it is wise to continue to wait until “sufficient” evidence arrives. In leading up to his conclusion, James (1897) argues that the desire for a certain truth can help bring about its existence; so, desire or the will to discover a fact can help create the fact.
He infers this to mean that the beliefs conjured and held by our passionate minds may prove to be instrumental in providing the sufficient evidence to justify those beliefs. In conclusion, James (1897) argues that because religion is forced and momentous, we cannot remain skeptical and continue to wait, as we will lose the good provided by religion if we continue to wait in the same fashion that we choose to disbelieve in the first place – James (1897) argues that it is better to risk the chance of error than the loss of truth.
Finally, James (1897) argues that to believe in religion or God with the notion of being right is the prerogative of the individual and is undertaken at his own risk – if the individual wishes to put himself in the best position possible to enjoy the fruits of the after-life, then society and/or science’s imposed rules and laws of requiring “sufficient evidence” for the verification of that God or religion is unjustified. It is the individual’s personal decision and he alone assumes the risk – as such, his right must be respected.
James argues that individuals have a right to believe without sufficient evidence so long as the belief is live, momentous and is forced. He argues that it is impractical to continue to wait for sufficient evidence to surface while the chance to believe gradually dissipates. Now that I have summarized Clifford (1879) and James’s (1897) articles, I would like to elaborate further as to why Clifford’s (1879) argument is stronger than James’s (1897) in the area of religious belief.
In his article, James (1897) made a number of references to the apparently frivolous actions of scientists and their narcissistic habits of “waiting” for sufficient evidence. However, his rendition of live hypotheses still does not give sufficient reason to believe in a certain belief without first establishing a basis for its verification. First, in any experiment, “sufficient evidence” is to be based on objective proof which can reasonably prove that the latter cannot hold truer than the former. However, when beliefs are formed based on passion and human emotion, how can one achieve any objectivity?
How can there be fair grounds for comparison? How can one individual, who, in his own right, is passionately convinced of his belief – based on nothing more than emotion – convince the other that his belief is superior when the other individual believes on the same token? Second, James (1897) continually criticizes scientists for their ways and states science’s search for “technical verification” is a shun for the truth; however, would modern science have discovered the cure of diseases and made significant inroads in the field of medical research had it stuck with one belief and not explored other avenues of growth?
Is it, then, morally right to continue to hold certain medical hypotheses valid while simultaneously rejecting other possibilities when such an act could concern the lives of millions? Should there not be room for a reasonable amount of doubt and criticisms within one’s beliefs to continually improve, rather than degrade, as James (1897) suggests? Yes, James suggests that evidence should be required when the matter at hand is a significant one – but who can be a fair judge on the magnanimity of such a topic?
Thus, although it may be tedious and inconvenient to continually question and doubt one’s basis for belief, it is necessary and categorically the right thing to do. We owe it to ourselves and to mankind to be honest with one another, and not believe just to satiate our personal thirst for power. Finally, James (1897) asks that those who believe – regardless of whether they have evidence or not – must be left alone and have the right to “live and let live. ” I vehemently disagree.
As Clifford (1879) suggested, beliefs turn into actions, and by the time we realize the action undertaken was an immoral one, it is usually too late. We are all connected – any thoughts in my mind, or yours, can affect others in an infinite number of ways. As James (1897) stated, most everyday beliefs will not affect others drastically; however, there is a fraction of beliefs which can turn actions affecting many people or any one person in profound ways, either negatively or positively.
In such a scenario, do we want to leave open the possibility of unfounded beliefs adversely affecting some person’s life? Do we want to run the risk of hurting a loved one and/or our reputations because we were too lazy or did not find the issue momentous or live enough to gather sufficient evidence for a belief? Thus, although Clifford’s (1879) proposition may seem, again, tedious or time-consuming, it is the only way of ensuring we close the cracks and do our best to ensure a fair society.
After all, in the presumption of innocence, our legal system works in a similar way – the legal system ensures every accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty, regardless the magnitude of the verdict, because it knows the implications of sending an innocent man to prison. Thus, every belief by the prosecution and defence must be backed by sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. After analyzing the summaries of the respective philosophers – W. K.
Clifford (1879) and William James (1897) – I hope it has become evident that sufficient evidence to support beliefs is not only right and necessary for us, but for humanity as a whole. As a society, we cannot shun substantive, technical evidence because we are satisfied with our pre-existing beliefs. To advance as a society, it is our universal duty to continually question our beliefs and search for sufficient evidence in forming our new beliefs. References Pojman, Louis, & Rea, Michael. (2012). Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Boston: Clark Baxter.

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