W. K. CLIFFORD
William Kingdon Clifford (1845–1879), British mathematician and philosopher, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and King's College, London, where he became a professor of applied mathematics. His promising career was cut short when he died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four. His best known work, The Ethics of Belief, deals with the relationship between evidence and belief. He attacks the kind of pragmatic justification for religious belief set forth by Pascal in his Wager Argument (see Chapter 16). Clifford argues that there is an ethics of belief that makes immoral all believing without sufficient evidence. Pragmatic justifications are not justifications at all but counterfeits of genuine justifications, which must always be based on evidence.
Clifford illustrates his thesis with the example of a shipowner who sends an emigrant ship to sea. He knows that the ship is old and not well built, but he fails to have the ship inspected. Dismissing from his mind all doubts and suspicions that the vessel is not seaworthy, he trusts in Providence to care for his ship. He acquires a sincere and comfortable conviction in this way and collects his insurance money without a tinge of guilt after the ship sinks and all the passengers drown. Clifford argues that although the shipowner sincerely believed that all was well with the ship, his sincerity in no way exculpates him, because “he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him.” One has an obligation to get oneself in a position in which one will believe propositions only on sufficient evidence. His general conclusion is that it is “always wrong for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”
James, William. The Will to Believe (Dover, 1956).
Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God (Oxford University Press, 1982).
Meiland, Jack. “What Ought We to Believe? or, The Ethics of Belief Revisited,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 17 (1980).
Pojman, Louis. Religious Belief and the Will (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986).
Price, H. H. Belief (Un wi n & Allen, 1967).
Wainwright, William. Reasons of the Heart (Cornell University Press, 1995).
Williams, Bernard. “Deciding to Believe,” in Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1972).