March 6, 2007

The ethics of belief - III

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

Backstory moment: This look at Clifford's piece came about as a result of email I received in response to an article in which I suggested that Faith, even if we accept it to be an irrational act, need not always be considered a mistake. The reader asserted that he took the opposite position and offered the Clifford piece in support. Posts I and II dealt with Part 1. (The duty of inquiry) of the essay.]

Parts 2. (The weight of authority) and 3. (The limits of inference) of Clifford's essay offer, to my mind at least, little with which to concern oneself, at least as regards a discussion of whether unconfirmed belief (Faith) is irrevocably wrong.

His summation of these two sections comes at the end of the essay:
We may believe what goes beyond our experience, only when it is inferred from that experience by the assumption that what we do not know is like what we know.

We may believe the statement of another person, when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth so far as he knows it.
There is nothing controversial here from our perspective. This is all common sense. But the next, and last, line then returns to the thrust of his first section:
It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence; and where it is presumption to doubt and to investigate, there it is worse than presumption to believe.
If offered merely as guidance, rather than a blanket proscription, this advice would serve critical thought. But Clifford instead gives us a commandment, and as such serves only to confuse issues. He makes clear throughout the essay that he is not simply speaking of metaphysical concepts, he means to broaden the context of his comments to the most meager of ideas. As a consequence it is not possible to defend his position on the grounds of narrowly defined categories.

And so we can note in response that there are many situations in which it may be morally necessary to act on a belief based upon the evidence available, regardless of its sufficiency. Consider a situation in which one man is beating another in an alley. One of them is crying for help. It is possible that the man doing the pleading could, in fact, have been the criminal initiator of the conflict, perhaps he even has a hidden weapon. In intervening we might actually enable his access to the weapon and in so doing embolden either his damage to us or his eventual escape and damage to another. Do we act upon the impulse to help the apparent victim, or not? Most would assert we should help.

A less dramatic, but perhaps more far-reaching, example is that of a family man who manages to live a positive, productive life because of the direct influence of the Faith he holds. It's not relevant to observe that he is capable of living this way without his Faith, the important point is that he believes it to be necessary. If what propagates from this man's behavior is an example of socially aware and acceptable behavior for his kids who then offer the same example to their kids is it not reasonable to conclude that this man has been an influence for good in his society? If so, then Clifford is again incorrect to phrase his message in absolutes. Insufficiently evidenced belief (Faith) may be a naive model of reality, but it is not always wrong in the broader sense Clifford, and others, wish to suggest.

There is an important point that I believe is missed by those who suggest that religion is wrong (even when it acts for good or neutral) in that it smoothes the way, keeps the ground fertile as it were, for more extreme forms of irrationality. What they are arguing ignores historical contingency. They may well be correct in noting that, in the ideal, the world would be a better place without Faith. But for these desires to become reality requires practical application. There must be a way to get from here to there.

Perhaps some of the more limited, more, shall we say, sophisticated forms of religion and religion-like spirituality are the vehicle for taking us to a world without irrationality. If we allow their legitimacy within that context, we encourage movement in the direction we want. If we issue blanket statements about the foolishness of Faith we diminish the effect of these limited forms and encourage the rise of more strident religion.

To me the former approach is the best of all worlds - it's the right strategy taken for the right reasons.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

At your suggestion I got a copy of Clifford's essay. He wrote powerfully and I appreciate your thoughtful analysis and discussion.
I, too, am suspicious of the rigidity of absolutes and certainty. This is not a small problem today. Absolutes and absolute certainties have a way of alienating. It becomes a conversation stopper. And while I am not a religious person I must say that I feel it makes supporting religious freedom much more difficult for those who feel so certain. This is also not one-sided.
Perhaps it has always been so but in my time (I am 55) I think I have seen a marked increase in this particular malady.

2:08 PM  
Blogger RLC said...

Jim -

I thank you for your comments and share your view about trends in these attitudes. I'm right there behind you (52) and it seems to me that respect for science has diminished during my time. Of course the lion's share of the blame for this belongs to those who advance pseudo-science and credulity. But I am dismayed at the frequency with which science is wielded as a hammer of truth, rather than an enticement to engage with reason, and would be happy to see a lot less of this emulation of the opposition's methods.

6:32 PM  

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