The ethics of belief (final version)
Below is the final version of the PhD research proposal I sent off to the UK’s last weekend. Thanks for all the feedback on the previous version – as a result of which I opened it up a bit beyond the historic debate between William Clifford and William James.
In the end I decided to go with this rather than Ethics as a product of evolution purely because I thought the ‘belief’ topic might be more focused and manageable through the application process. I left ‘evolution’ as my second choice, and I’d be more than happy to do either.
I would like to examine the historic debate between William Clifford and William James on the ethics of belief, to identify if possible the most rational position to adopt on the issues it illuminates. Considering the impact of religious belief on the prospects for peace in the 21st century its relevance could be more than academic.
Clifford’s 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief declared that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. Clifford clearly meant ‘morally wrong’: The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.
James responded with his 1896 lecture The Will to Believe, intended as a
defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters
He caricatured Clifford as saying:
Believe nothing, …keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies.
The material below derives from a longer introductory treatment. I would welcome the opportunity to dig deeper into both positions, so as to try to shape and evaluate the most defensible thesis in the spirit of ‘Clifford’ against the most defensible antithesis in the spirit of ‘James’.
One rationale for doing this is a suspicion that something like this opposition might underlie much of the antagonism between different groups of believers and different groups of nonbelievers.
There is only space here to sketch a possible approach. We can start with a remark James makes towards the end of The Will to Believe:
When I look at the religious question as it really puts itself to concrete men, and when I think of all the possibilities… it involves, then this command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait – acting of course meanwhile… as if religion were not true [Footnote] till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough, – this command… seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave.
Since belief is measured by action, he who forbids us to believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true. The whole defence of religious faith hinges upon action. If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away, and controversy about its legitimacy is a piece of idle trifling, unworthy of serious minds. I myself believe, of course, that the religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.
Clifford and James seem to agree that the issue is fundamentally one of ethics. Clifford says unjustified belief is unethical. James’s ‘religious hypothesis’ is about ethics – but it is also a hypothesis about what is the case.
For James religion says ‘essentially two things’:
First, …that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone… and say the final word. “Perfection is eternal” … seems a good way of putting this first affirmation of religion, an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be verified scientifically at all.
The second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true.
And a third:
The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here.
Two ‘affirmations’ plus one ‘representation’ constitute the ‘religious hypothesis’.
Since belief is measured by action: So we attribute beliefs to people on the basis of their actions, such that we may deny they really believe what they say they believe because of how we see them act? Possibly, but this is far from the necessary connection James needs for his ‘necessarily also forbids us to act’. It is possible both to believe something while not revealing it by action and also to behave in the same way while believing something or while believing the converse.
Clifford does not condone even purely private unjustified belief. He says we should never believe anything on insufficient evidence, even though in a particular instance ‘there may be no great harm done by the mere belief’ or ‘it may be true after all’. ‘No great harm’ could extend to ‘no harm at all’. Clifford does not deny we can conceal our beliefs. But unless his principle is adopted 100% both the individual and the community will become more credulous, and that is wrong.
James on the other hand sees something special in the religious hypothesis such that it is impossible to behave as a non-believer as one would as a believer.
We can, for the sake of argument, grant that the kind of behaviour typically required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is thoroughly desirable, even that no behaviour is ‘better’. James would claim that that best behaviour may only accrue from sincere belief in the religious hypothesis; and that it is impossible to behave as if you believe the religious hypothesis without actually believing it.
This is a huge claim: that at the highest level morality can be necessarily linked to a belief that something is the case; that from the perspective of the individual believer, morality is what it is because of that something.
It may be both possible and necessary to recast both positions to include relative certainty. ‘Clifford’ may not need to insist on a purely ‘binary’ belief: only that, for example, it is unethical to believe that something is the case with greater certainty than the evidence would justify.
‘James’ on the other hand might say that sometimes it is ethically better to believe that something is the case with greater certainty than the evidence would justify rather than withhold one’s conviction, because of the ethical benefit in making that leap of faith. ‘Clifford’ would question whether that leap of faith can ever be a good thing.
© Chris Lawrence 2011.