Donald B. McCormick, Ph.D

Religion - Science
The Ethics of Belief (Clifford): An Update
                                                                                                     (Donald B.McCormick)

   All of us operate from a set of beliefs that results from the inculcation during youth and continuing through adulthood of those same beliefs, written and oral, held by others. How we sort and modify these beliefs is an individual characteristic. More importantly how we pass on our beliefs to others is a matter that should be based on truly moral principles. This subject  was dealt with by William Kingdon Clifford in a collection entitled "Lectures and Essays". The particular essay on "The Ethics of Belief" can be found in "Gateway to the Great Books", Vol. 10, Philosophical Essays, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1963.

     It is my intent to give a little background on Clifford, to mention some of his main points on the ethics of belief, and to exemplify each with a few past and present examples. All of this is in the hope that it will give us pause to introspectively examine the way in which we accept so-called information and, most especially, how we pass on such information to others. Clearly this matter has ongoing import to everyone, whether working in the realms of business, politics, religion, or science and its applications. The last named takes this seriously. In the disbursement of federal tax dollars by the National Institutes of Health, for example, those universities that receive such monies must provide an ethics course to those, typically graduate students, who are recipients.

     On Clifford, it should be recalled that he was a brilliant but short-lived Englishman, born in 1845 at Exeter, schooled at King's College, London and then at Trinity College, Cambridge where he produced original mathematical papers as a student and was elected a Fellow.  He gave up his position at age 26 to become Professor of Mathematics at University College, London. At age 29 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Clifford was primarily a geometer, treating especially the problems of non-Euclidean geometries. In 1870 he wrote "On the Space-Theory of Matter" in which he presented the idea that matter and energy are simply different types of curvature of space, thus foreshadowing Einstein's "General Theory of Relativity". Clifford was also much concerned to understand, and to make others understand, the basic ideas that underlie all science, and he gave many popular lectures in which he discussed these matters in a lucid, witty, and eloquent style. His lectures are as entertaining and also enlightening as those of any of his contemporaries in science, e.g. Faraday, Helmholtz, Huxley, and Tyndall. Clifford published books including The First Principles of the Mathematical Sciences Explained to the Non-Mathematical and The Common Sense of the Exact Sciences, which latter was titled a few days before he died of pulmonary tuberculosis at age just short of 35 in Madeira, Portugal. As stated in his biography given in the cited Volume 10 dealing with philosophical essays, "Clifford's writings in science, mathematics, and philosophy are both profound and clear. In The Postulates of the Science of Space, his gift for making difficult ideas understandable is applied to that most delicate task --- examining what we have always taken for granted." As an aside I would mention that Clifford also wrote fairy stories in "The Little People".

     On "The Ethics of Belief", Clifford divided his subject into three main sections and gives several examples to explain his statements and conclusions. I shall summarize his points, some rather repetitive, and give his as well as my examples as an update:
I.The duty of Inquiry. The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of a belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how one got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether one has a right to believe on such evidence as before one. Clifford's first example was a ship owner who sent an old ship in need of repairs to haul human cargo. Though the owner believed the ship to be still sea worthy, it sank and all were lost. Nevertheless, the insurance was collected as law upheld his belief that the ship was okay. Yet he had no right to believe such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in an investigation of the soundness of the ship. This is also an example of the fact that the British legal system then and the American one now provide us with systems of law, not justice, as one of our Supreme Court Justices reminds us. One only hopes that justice usually prevails in a jury system beset with clever lawyers who can alter the membership of juries. I remind you of the O.J. Simpson trial. My more current example is the case of NASA's Columbia accident leading to death of the astronauts. The fore-knowledge that there was some ceramic chip damage should have halted the mission until certain repair and avoidance of the problem could be effectuated. As a NASA biomedical consultant, I also worry about the present inadequate radiation shielding for deep space, long-time trips, e.g. to Mars. Another example given by Clifford is of an island where some inhabitants were accused of using unfair means to get their religious doctrines taught to children. In this case, the commission appointed to investigate found the accused were innocent; however, a more recent example I would cite is the pressure put on some students in our Air Force Academy to believe in the doctrine of the Christian right, where an investigation has revealed such coercion did occur. In both cases the question is not whether the belief of the accusers was true or false, but whether they entertained it on right or wrong grounds. In other words, it is not belief  which is judged to be right or wrong, but the action following upon it. Consider the consequence of substituting religion such as "intelligent design/creationism" for  real science such as biologic evolution. As fore-seen in such matters by Clifford, "The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery." Another current example, is where the eagerness of some to besmirch the president and his political party led to the belief of many in the other principal party that the president's military reserve record indicated a problem of honorable service. This confusion of belief based on false reporting led to the eagerness of some to accept the report without sufficient evidence and before the facts proved otherwise. Clearly, however, it was false intelligence that led the current administration to believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the time the U.S. invasion occurred. Emotions and a general dislike based on other presumed causes commonly lay a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts that may explode in an unfortunate overt action. As stated by Clifford, "[belief] 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. It is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe."

     To summarize this first part of Clifford's essay, he has underscored that it is wrong to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. If anyone , holding a belief which was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of those who call in question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions that cannot easily be asked without disturbing it --- the life of that person is one long sin against humankind. Clifford fortifies his judgment with two quotes. From Milton: "A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believes things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determine, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy." From Coleridge: "He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and will end in loving himself better than all."

II. The Weight of Authority. It is wrong to believe on unworthy evidence without saying also what evidence is worthy. Clifford reminds us of veracity, knowledge, and judgment. The fact that believers have found joy and peace in believing a particular doctrine gives us the right to say that the doctrine is a comfortable and even pleasant one, but it does not give us the right to say that it is true. Two principal religions are analyzed by Clifford, and I would add a third, that are founded on the deification of men whose former existence seems not to be in doubt. In chronological order, consider Buddha. The special mark of the religion that stems from the prince named Gautama, who lived in India around 500 B.C.E., is the comfort and consolation which it gives to the sick and sorrowful, the tender sympathy with which it soothes and assuages all the natural grief of people. Consider the likely history that relates that Buddha divested himself of his kingdom, and of his own free will became acquainted with misery, that he might learn how to meet and subdue it. Consider also the unlikely belief that he was born of a woman without the help (sexual participation) of a man; rose into the air and was transfigured before his kinsmen, and went up bodily into heaven from the top of Adam's Peak. Next there is Jesus who is considered by many to be the Christ. It is revealing to read about this man, who was born in Judaea about 6 B.C.E. and died in Jerusalem around 30 A.D., in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Vol.6, Micropaedia: "The portraits of Jesus in the Gospels are the testimony of 'faith to faith'. It is therefore impossible to write a biography of Jesus in the conventional sense of the word. Rather, one is compelled to draw a picture, to describe Jesus on the basis of the way he was remembered by the believing community that took his name. How satisfactory one finds such a picture of a picture depends in part upon the credence one is ready to assign to the sources---the amount of biographical information that the sources provide is slight." Interestingly some of the same attributes that were earlier thought to belong to Buddha, such as a virgin birth unsullied by sex, the ultimate ascension to heaven, and most of the preaching of moral behavior were also later ascribed to Christ. Finally one can consider Mohammed as the Prophet of Allah and founder of Islam. This man, who lived around 600 A.D., seemed also to be of excellent character and spoke the truth as far as he knew it; but there is no evidence at all that he knew what the truth was. What means could he have of knowing that the form that appeared to him to be the angel Gabriel was not a hallucination, and that his apparent visit to paradise was not a dream or delusion from his solitude and want of food? As Clifford points out, "That the Prophet preached certain doctrines, and predicted that spiritual comfort would be found in them, proves only his sympathy with human nature and his knowledge of it; but it does not prove his superhuman knowledge of theology." The goodness and greatness of a person do not justify us in accepting a belief upon the warrant of his authority, unless there are reasonable grounds for supposing that he knew the truth of what he was saying.

     Clifford gives other examples, e.g. a chemist, an Arctic explorer, an old whaler, a medicine man, and even discusses Ohm's law to reach his conclusion to this section: "In regard, then, to the sacred tradition of humanity, we learn that it consists, not in propositions or statements which are to be accepted and believed on the authority of the tradition, but in questions rightly asked, in conceptions which enable us to ask further questions, and in methods of answering questions."

III. The Limits of Inference. Clifford reminds us that inferences of the historical kind are more precarious than those drawn from experimentally secured science. An example of the historical kind is the siege of Syracuse in the Peloponnesian War, which was a war between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 B.C.E. Only the writings of later historians, who claim to obtain their information from earlier manuscripts that are said to derive from Thucydides, are available as source material. The tendency to be subjective on the subject of winners and losers leads one to be cautious on interpretations made well after the event. Contrast this with scientific documentation. The inference of the existence of hydrogen in the sun based on spectroscopic observations is supported by massive experimental and theoretical evidence.

     The summary of this final part of Clifford's essay is:
     "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 do 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.

     It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence; and where it is presumption to doubt and to investigate, there is worse than presumption to believe."

     My final remarks. I believe, as did William James the psychologist/philosopher, that Clifford was somewhat of an infant terrible who set a rather exacting standard on all of us.  As a scientist, however, I find his statements as summarized overall by James to be worth our constant effort: "Belief is desecrated when given to unproved statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer. Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his belief 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. If a belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. It is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town. It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe upon insufficient evidence."

     We should not abandon reason in favor of emotions. As stated by George H. Smith in his book on "Atheism" (Prometheus Books, 1989), "If anything will guarantee failure and unhappiness, it is the delusion that one's feelings can abrogate the function of reason. --- To qualify as knowledge  (i.e., as a correct identification of reality), a belief must be justified; it must warrant acceptance by rational standards. If a belief meets the requirements of these standards, it is a rational belief; if a belief cannot meet the requirements, but is adopted nonetheless, it is an irrational belief."

      In his "Critique of Religion and Philosophy", Walter Kaufmann quotes George Santayana, who was a truly gifted philosopher of our times: "Believe, certainly; we cannot help believing; but believe rationally, holding what seems certain for certain, what seems probable for probable, what seems desirable for desirable, and what seems false for false."