This section provides us with two selections from the essays of William K. Clifford (1845-1879) and William James (1842-1910). Clifford s essay, The Ethics of Belief, is based on the concept of evidentialism. This concept holds that we should not accept any statement as true unless we have good evidence to support its truth (Voices of Wisdom, 346). James wrote his essay, The Will to Believe, as a response to Clifford s essay where he endorsed a philosophy called pragmatism. Pragmatism is described in the book as a method for settling philosophical disputes.
It is based on the pragmatic theory of truth. This theory says that a proposition p is true if and only if the belief that p is true works (Voices of Wisdom, 346). In order to get a better understanding of the pragmatic theory of truth, the theory is contrasted against two other theories, the correspondence theory of truth and the coherence theory of truth. James disagreed with these theories because they present truth as a static property existing prior to and independent of human experience and investigation.
James viewed truth as a constant movement of ideas, which guide human beings into more and more satisfying experiences every time. Clifford holds that you should not believe any proposition just because it will give you eternal happiness when in fact there is a lack of evidence which should lead you to doubt the proposition. James, on the other hand, gives us three conditions to believe beyond evidence. First, when you are confronted with what he calls a genuine option that cannot be decided on evidential grounds, you have a right to decide the issue according to your passional nature.
Second, when faced with a situation when belief in a fact is necessary for the existence of that fact, you have the right to believe beyond evidence. And finally, in a situation when belief in a true proposition is necessary for getting at the evidence in support of its truth, you are entitled to believe (Voices of Wisdom, 347). In that last quote James tells us that we are entitled to use our feelings and/or our faith in order to resolve a matter. First we take a look at an extract of William K. Clifford s essay where he presents us a few situations in order to clarify his point.
He starts by telling us a story of a ship-owner that was providing transportation for a group of emigrants. He knew the ship was old, worn out, and didn t have the best craftsmanship. To get rid of his worries he did a complete overhaul to the boat and sent her of to sea. The boat sank and he collected the insurance money without ever telling anyone about his suspicions of the boat not being in the best of shapes. He thought he had gotten rid of any doubts by overhauling the vessel.
He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts (Voices of Wisdom, 348). On the last quote, what Clifford means by his (the shipowner) belief is his thoughts of his ship being in good sailing condition. According to Clifford, even if the boat had made it all the way, the shipowner would still be guilty because when an action is once done, it is right or wrong forever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.
The fact that he got his relieved from his worries by covering the holes instead of searching for evidence that would tell him that the boat was in good sailing condition gives him the guilty status. The second story is about the people that lived in an island where a certain religion was taught which was based on other beliefs than the mainstream ones. A rumor was spread out that the people teaching this religion used some unfair method to get approval for teaching their religion to children.
The rumors said that these teachers were trying to remove the children from their legal guardians and they pushed the issue up to the extent of accusing them of kidnapping. After an investigation by an appointed commission to the issue, based on the evidence presented by the accusers, it was determined that the accused was innocent. They had been accused on insufficient evidence and the accusers had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them because it was founded on passion and prejudice, according to Clifford.
He also says that even if the teachers of the religion would have been found guilty, the action taken by the accusers was still wrong since they did it on the wrong grounds. In both of these scenarios the ruling was that it is wrong to believe on insufficient or biased evidence or to believe by ignoring doubts. In the last case Clifford tells us that, in some situations, what one man believes in may affect what others believe in as well. Clifford finishes by saying, it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence (Voices of Wisdom, 350).
Now lets look at William James s essay, The Will to Believe. He starts by showing us his approach to making the decision between two hypotheses. He calls this decision an option. He categorizes options into three groups: 1- living or dead; 2- forced or avoidable; 3- momentous or trivial. He calls a genuine option one that is either of the forced, living, or momentous type. A living option is one where the two hypotheses are live ones and a live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed (Voices of Wisdom, 350).
Second, if an option is presented and there is no way outside it then that is a forced option. Last, when confronted with an option that is unique and will, probably, not be presented again you will be facing a momentous option. James tells us that there are two ways of looking at our duty as would-be knowers and that is that we must know the truth; and we must avoid error. This is where Clifford and James disagree. Clifford believed that avoiding error was paramount to knowing the truth. This line of thinking leaves truth as something that is always changing.
He said that this would prevent us from believing a lie. James, on the other hand, thinks that we should be daring and always seek the truth since the worst thing that can happen is being in an erratic position and, to him, this is a small price to pay in order to achieve real knowledge. He credits this to our passional nature and explains one of the conditions he stated. To keep us from believing falsehood in the quest for knowledge, James tells us that if an option is not momentous, or forced, or living, we can walk away from it until sufficient evidence has been presented and then we can then make a decision.
When we look at the way we achieve a goal or decision due to the collective cooperation of multiple individuals, we have to take into consideration faith. James follows his explanation of why we should believe beyond evidence by telling us that the goal is achieved because, independently of each person s commitment, each one believes the rest of the group will do their job. In other words they have faith in each other. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming (Voices of Wisdom, 352). This gives us the background to the second condition he presented.
When he looks into the topic of religion, James tries to show us how all genuine options come into play. He says that if a discussion about religion is taking place, then it must be living since it is being discussed. This means that the topic of religion appeals to the people discussing it. It is momentous and forced because we either have beliefs or we don t, and we can not put it on hold or avoid it until more evidence is presented. We can not do this because if religion be untrue, we loose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve (Voices of Wisdom, 353).
The topic of religion shows us that the human intellect has its limitations since it cannot resolve the options given. Therefore, here we see that we have to believe in order to arrive at an answer which shows the last of his conditions. He tells us, briefly stated, that we must believe in order to seek the truth in this matter. Otherwise, we would be avoiding something that might be real. I strongly believe in what William James says. His three conditions for believing beyond evidence are acceptable from my point of view.
These conditions bring into consideration human nature. They allow your feelings and emotions to get involved in the decision-making process which are very hard to margin. Your soul is allowed to participate as well we he tells us that it is ok to belief in order to find evidence. He allows the human being as a whole to participate in an option. On the other hand William K. Clifford is too vague on his approach to life. He is very conservative from what I could see. He is inclined to the things he can grasp in order to find evidence but then doubts whatever he finds.
I don t like the fact that he doesn t establish a set of rules or parameters for his way of thinking. His stories portray his reasoning very well but maybe the fact that he uses these examples doesn t help me see the whole concept. James does give us his options and conditions, which lets see where he is taking us. James s bold approach to the options we face in our lives show a true desire and love for life that I can identify with. I personally like to face the unknowns and learn the truth of them instead of preventing a mistake that might arise from doing so.