Personal Beliefs: Clifford and James on Insufficient Evidence
Comparing Clifford and James: Belief, Evidence, and the Question of Justification
Carefully contrast and compare the positions of Clifford and James concerning the question of believing when we have inadequate evidence. Be careful to distinguish the precise area of disagreement between the two–it may not be as global as it at first seems. Is James right that in certain determinate questions or areas of life, belief without perfectly adequate evidence is justified? Or is Clifford right about such cases that the most we can do then is withhold judgment? Again, both thinkers give reasons for their position. Your job is to do the same as you compare the two positions.
Clifford captures his view, evidentialist, with the stark pronouncement that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Clifford, thus, stands as the paragon of intellectual honesty; he follows the arguments where they lead and spurns comforting fiction.
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In contrast, James’s doctrine of the will-to-believe is summarized by his claim that “our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.” James offers a defense of the role of sentiments in intellectual life; he stands as the Romantic resistance to the demands of cold-blooded reason; he defends belief in the face of withering skepticism. Clifford and James are ironically opposed.
Approaches to Religious Belief: Contrasting Clifford’s Evidentialist View and James’s Will-to-Believe Doctrine
Clifford’s case against religious belief proceeds along two lines. First, Clifford argues that because the evidence is not sufficient to show that belief in God is true, one should not believe. That’s just evidentialist. Second, Clifford argues that the evidence also shows that belief in God encourages other intellectual and moral failures. According to Clifford, religious belief is not an isolated phenomenon but a one-off case of epistemic irresponsibility. On the contrary, Clifford holds that religious belief brings with it a host of other intellectual vices of credulity.
Alternately, James’s will-to-believe doctrine is committed to the proposition that religious belief may be responsibly held. Yet he does not give the religious believer carte blanche to believe at will whatever proposition that favors. Rather, James contends that religious belief is only a very specific kind of allowable. To be more specific, James argues that the most one is justified in adopting is what he calls the “religious hypothesis.”
James holds that because the arguments for the existence of the traditional God fail, the traditional conception of God fails as well. Accordingly, in James’s hands, religious belief is reconstructed. The religious hypothesis is less a view about God’s nature and existence and more a view about the place of hope in our lives. That is, James’s strategy for defending religious belief is simply to transform it into something else, something less theological. And so, according to James, religious belief is not about God, Jesus, Heaven, Hell, angels, immortality, souls, or miracles. It rather is simply the belief that “the more eternal things are best.” This is the belief that the will-to-believe doctrine aspires to defend.
Morality of Belief: A Clash of Perspectives between Clifford and James
I stated back in the discussion question that I believed that James’s theory was different; he believed that if you had evidence, you would have to support people’s abilities to apportion beliefs to evidence. But at the same time, Clifford argues that believing something upon insufficient evidence is like stealing from society, almost as if you are not allowed to grow in society.
In other words, Clifford holds that believing is always morally impermissible unless one has sufficient evidence. James holds that there are conditions under which it is morally permissible to believe a proposition that is not supported by sufficient evidence. Clifford holds that believing is always morally impermissible unless one has sufficient evidence. James holds that there are conditions under which it is morally permissible to believe a proposition that is not supported by sufficient evidence. These conditions are satisfied, according to James, by some religious propositions.
Clifford holds that believing is always morally impermissible unless one has sufficient evidence. James holds that there are conditions under which it is morally permissible to believe a proposition that is not supported by sufficient evidence. These conditions are satisfied, according to James, by some religious propositions.
- Clifford, W.K. (1877). The Ethics of Belief. London: Watts & Co.
- James, W. (1896). The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. Longmans, Green.
- Plantinga, A. (1983). Warrant: The Current Debate. Oxford University Press.
- Audi, R. (1994). Dispositional Beliefs and Dispositions to Believe. Noûs, 28(4), 419-434.
- Kvanvig, J. L. (2003). The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding. Cambridge University Press.