February 21, 2007

The ethics of belief - II

[This is a continuation of my examination of an essay by William Clifford called The Ethics of Belief.]

Obviously the most important reason for looking closely at this essay is the way it synthesizes ideas that we can use to reflect upon the current controversy over how best to approach religion (and the religious) within the context of the defense of science. But as I said in my first post, I am also quite taken with how Clifford writes. Consider this passage (from Pt. I. The Duty of Inquiry), first for its graceful articulation, then for its content.
Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decision of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves but for humanity. It is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning. Then it helps to bind men together and to strengthen and direct their common action. It is desecreated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer; to add a tinsel splendour to the plain straight road of our life and display a bright mirage beyond it; or even to drown the common sorrows of our kind by a self-deception which allows them not only to cast down, but also to degrade us. Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his beliefs with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.
Seldom have I so enjoyed the reading of something so diametrically opposed to my own view - "Belief, that sacred faculty..." Wonderful stuff.

But, I think, hopelessly flawed. As I said at the end of the previous post, I am uncomfortable with absolutes. The problem with zealotry, even in service of honorable causes, is that it often blinds the eyes to those subtleties that can tip the scales when the balance between positive and negative, valuable and useless, even good and bad, is unclear. Clifford, in my opinion, makes this mistake all throughout his essay, but especially here in Pt. I.

By what evidence or logic might we say that belief is "not for ourselves but for humanity?" This is a case of special pleading, of setting a premise such that the rest of the argument will flow without sufficient care for the legitimacy of the premise itself. It is not reasonable, either from a biological, moral, or societal view to suggest that belief is "not for ourselves but for humanity." I don't mean to say that belief doesn't in some cases have ramifications for humanity, I mean to say that those beliefs that do may be considered categorically separable from other kinds of belief. All belief is not of a piece, as Clifford suggests (such that his uncompromising conclusions may be supported). Some beliefs are minor conceits, some pleasant trivialities just for ourselves. Beliefs can be, and often are, harmless in the larger context of the human condition.

Yes, belief "helps to bind men together" (nor is it a requirement for this condition that such beliefs are "true"). And in the case that they do so to the betterment of man, even when based upon inadequate knowledge, how can this be fairly judged a desecration or a degradation? This is a wild over-reaction.

The last line of the above paragraph is positively liturgical - "...lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away." Such unrelenting certainty is disturbing in one who protests the irrationality of unevidenced belief.

Clifford begins his conclusion of Pt. I,
To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
Then follows shortly thereafter with this strikingly ironic (perhaps even contradictory) observation,
Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is not to be made once for all, and then taken as finally settled. It is never lawful to stifle a doubt; for either it can be honestly answered by means of the inquiry already made, or else it proves that the inquiry was not complete.
He finishes with an absolutely unrealistic admonition,
"But," says one, "I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments."

Then he should have no time to believe.
Maybe so, but that is not how the real world works. We can argue about these things in the ideal, but of what use it that for the issue of belief? In a utopia, this would be, whether to one result or the other, a settled question.


Blogger BOBB said...

not exactly thrash
you waste your time on clifford - and mine

2:49 PM  

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