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Belief without Prior Evidence Essay

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Updated: May 24th, 2019

William Clifford’s famous essay The Ethics of Belief is aimed at showing that it is immoral to believe something without sufficient evidence because unjustified opinions can pose a significant threat to others.

In his work, the author demonstrates that in some cases, a person’s conviction can imperil the lives of many people; therefore, one has to ensure his/her decisions are based on facts or reliable observations, rather than wishful thinking (Clifford unpaged). Overall, it is possible to develop an objection to William Clifford’s argument. In particular, there are circumstances when people can derive evidence only when they act on some preliminary and often unsupported beliefs about something.

For example, researchers often try to substantiate a certain theory or conjecture, but their efforts are guided by the assumption that this conjecture can be true. Very often, people’s convictions and opinions lead to the discovery of data that can eventually establish the truth or falsity of these convictions. This paper is aimed at examining this objection to Clifford’s essay in more detail. To a great extent, this critique relies on the ideas of William James who discusses the nature of faith in his lecture The Will to Believe.

First, it should be noted William Clifford formulates his argument in a very concise way; in particular, he says, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (Clifford unpaged). This is the main claim that he makes in his work.

In order to explain this viewpoint, Clifford describes a situation when a person can convince oneself that something is true without even trying to obtain any evidence (Clifford unpaged). One can remember the famous example of a ship-owner who convinces himself that his ship is safe and takes no effort to determine whether this assumption is true. As a result, he endangers the lives of the sailors (Clifford unpaged).

Certainly, it is possible to accept this example, because it shows that very often an individual can choose to believe that some proposition is true; moreover, he/she does not search for the facts that can verify this proposition. Clifford believes that this behavior is unethical because it can pose a threat to the wellbeing of other people. It seems that this idea should be kept in mind by every person who has to take important decisions.

Nevertheless, the central argument of Clifford’s essay cannot be fully accepted. In some cases, people have act on a certain belief, and only in this way, they can gather empirical evidence substantiating this belief. For instance, in his lecture, William James mentions a chemist who conducts a series of experiments in order to demonstrate that a certain hypothesis is true (James unpaged). Additionally, medical workers have to test a drug on human subjects, even though that they cannot ensure that it is completely safe.

One can also refer to the empirical studies carried out by physicist who try to demonstrate the validity of their theories or models. In other words, the actions and decisions of these people are based on preliminary and unsupported beliefs. Nevertheless, there is nothing unethical in such behavior; moreover, in some cases, it can lead to scientific discovery. On the whole, such situations are familiar to people who study natural or social sciences.

In his lecture William James argues that researchers often have to act on insufficient evidence and only in this way they can make meaningful discoveries (James unpaged). This is one of the main issues one should bear in mind. William Clifford’s implies that evidence should precede the beliefs or conviction of a person. However, the example provided by William James indicates that this process can be reversed. Therefore, the validity of Clifford’s views can be questioned even by people who conduct empirical studies.

It should be noted that William Clifford might have responded to this objection in order to defend his arguments. In particular, he could have pointed out that many researchers can easily twist facts so that they could fit their theories. Moreover, they may deliberately disregard the evidence that contradicts their hypothesis.

In other words, their studies can become biased, and the validity of their discoveries can be easily undermined. Such a possibility does exist and it creates significant problems for researchers; however, modern scientists take various safeguards to make sure that their research methods are objective and unbiased.

As it has been said before, unsubstantiated conjectures can guide the research efforts of many scientists. This is better for them to have at least unsupported beliefs, than no conjectures at all. Without them researchers may not be able to achieve any progress in their work. This is how one can justify the existence of opinions that are not sufficiently supported by empirical observations. It should be pointed out that very often one cannot gain sufficient evidence.

For example, in mathematics, a statement cannot be called true, even when it is supported by thousands of observations or empirical tests. Therefore, the main task is to find a proof showing that a theorem or conjecture is true in every possible case. This is why mathematician may spend many years in order to prove theorems or conjectures. So, William Clifford’s emphasis on sufficient evidence may not always be justified because it may be difficult to determine when the evidence is sufficient or not.

Secondly, people’s relations with one another are often based on beliefs without sufficient evidence. These beliefs become substantiated only in the course of their day-to-day interactions and experiences. In this case special attention should be paid to the concept of trust or reliance on someone else’s good intentions, expertise, friendship, or loyalty. It implies that people may have confidence in something without having substantial evidence.

For example, people can put trust in the competence of medical workers, even knowing that sometimes they can commit errors. Similarly, a person has to rely on the loyalty and integrity of his/her friends, colleagues, or relatives. It is difficult to find something unethical in these actions, in part because they are often inevitable. Very often, these decisions can be based on intuition or impressions produced by other people.

These intuitive opinions may turn to be true or false in the future, but very often people can determine it only through action. So, William Clifford’s approach to beliefs may not be applicable to daily lives of many people whose decisions are based on intuition, rather than empirical data.

Admittedly, one can argue that such behavior can lead to very adverse effects, especially in those cases, when their trust is abused by others. Nevertheless, one cannot say that people always act unethically when they rely on their intuition. Overall, these examples indicate that people can act on unsubstantiated belief and sometimes they can find evidence that support or refute their convictions only in this way. So, this examples show the limitations of Clifford’s ideas.

Certainly, one cannot entirely overlook his argument because he warns people about the dangers of unsupported beliefs and their effects on people. Moreover, his essay clearly highlights the need to search for empirical evidence or at least some confirmation of a person’s opinions.

Nevertheless, he does not take into the possibility that evidence cannot be obtained unless a person acts on certain beliefs or assumptions. In some cases, an individual may have no other options. This is the problem that William Clifford does not address in his essay.

Overall, the nature of belief continues to attract the attention of many philosophers, scientists, and epistemologists who want to. One of the main issues is the need to prove ones convictions by providing logical or empirical evidence.

In his work, William Clifford attempts to demonstrate that it is unethical to have beliefs that rely on insufficient evidence. However, this argument extends only to those situations when people refuse to search for data that can support their conviction and prefer wishful thinking. Such conduct can indeed be criticized from an ethical perspective.

However, very often people have to act on the beliefs that are not fully supported by empirical observations, and only in this way, they can discover the necessary evidence. This is one of the main points that one can make in response to William Clifford’s essay The Ethics of Belief. Still, despite these limitations, the work of this philosopher should be considered by modern scholars.

Works Cited

Clifford, William. The Ethics of Belief. 1 Aug. 2008. Web.
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James, William. The Will to Believe. 2 Dec. 2001. Web.

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