February 13th, 2016
ONE of the most disheartening elements of the barbaric attacks in Paris this weekend is that we all knew something like this could happen. We all knew very well that there is a frightening number of people living in the world today whose beliefs would lead them to act in precisely this murderous fashion. Tragic events like these shake our secular sensibilities to the core precisely because they remind us of something we have forgotten: beliefs matter. The very success of our western sociopolitical organization—where fundamental beliefs are privatized and the line between individual freedom and state coercion is drawn at the joint separating one’s liberty and that of others—has contributed to the slow oblivion of the explosive link between belief and action. We have been successful beyond measure in building stable societies where the vast majority of people respect the rule of law and behave with civility and toleration. But our very success at keeping substantive beliefs private and treating those of others with respect has weakened our capacity to respond when all of the sudden belief bursts into violent action. We all raise our voice immediately to condemn the barbarous convictions of the perpetrators but fall short of a comprehensive reassessment of the importance of belief itself. After a few days of indignation, we go back to our own private and reasonable beliefs and the matter fades until the next episode.
The fact that our secular sociopolitical setting takes freedom of belief as a cardinal element of what it means to be autonomous has contributed to the neglect of a more serious engagement with the behavioral consequences of our commitments
If we want to start redressing our generalized neglect of the link between belief and behavior we need a bit of help from philosophy; and there is probably no better place to start than with the ideas of William Kingdon Clifford. You probably have never heard of Clifford, but no philosopher has made a more exhilarating case about the connection between believing and acting than this victorian Englishman. As I will try to show in what follows, we need to rediscover and take his lessons seriously. In his riveting essay The Ethics of Belief, Clifford takes what seems to be an unusual route in the topic of belief—or epistemology in philosophical lingo: he uses an ethical argument to defend a specific approach on how we ought to acquire beliefs. Specifically, he provides an ethical defense of of what philosophers call ‘evidentialism’—the view that a belief is justified only if evidence supports it and that the degree of conviction in one’s beliefs should be proportional to their evidence. While defending evidentialism was nothing philosophically revolutionary—others before Clifford such as Hume and Locke did so—what was truly innovative in Clifford’s essay was that the whole ethical force of the argument hinged on the tight connection between believing and acting. As he clearly puts it in his essay, “belief belongs to man, an to the guidance of human affairs: no belief is real unless it guide our actions”. As a man of science in an era still dominated by religious belief and by a powerful institutionalized clergy, Clifford had a unique vantage point to develop his acute awareness of the direct connection between belief and behavior. Contrary to the generalized opinion of his contemporaries that a crisis of faith was leading to the destruction of the moral fabric of society, Clifford was convinced that breaking free from unwarranted belief would lead to unprecedented social progress and ethical betterment. He even wrote another essay titled The Influence Upon Morality of a Decline in Religious Belief where he made the eloquent case that what many saw as an impending social debacle was in fact a precious opportunity to liberate morality from “popular theology” and reboot it as a social instinct informing “the union of men in a common effort for a common object”. It is with this normative project of social improvement in mind that Clifford takes on the topic of belief.
Every single belief we hold is then constitutive of our character—of our general disposition—which inevitably shapes the way we conduct ourselves in the world
Now, if we follow Clifford up to here—and concede that every single belief affects our character to some degree—then our beliefs acquire a social dimension as they guide the way in which we behave in the world and our conduct inevitably affects our fellow humans. Hence Clifford warns us: “We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide.” For Clifford then, no single belief is a private matter that concerns the believer alone. Belief, through its inextricable connection to behavior and its communicative essence, is inherently public. Clifford completes the argument then: since “no belief held by one man, however seemingly trivial the belief, and however obscure the believer, is ever actually insignificant or without its effect on the fate of mankind, we have no choice but to extend our judgment to all cases of belief whatever.” In short, once we understand the public nature of belief, we become aware of our radical responsibility to keep our epistemological practices to the highest standards.
If this sounds familiar is precisely because we are in a situation in which credulity has indeed taken hold and savagery is all around us.
Given the social dimension of belief—the way in which it molds our character and the manner in which it directs our conduct—caring for the way in which we acquire beliefs was for Clifford our most cardinal duty and credulity our most contemptible sin. His point was so radical that he warns us that even if our beliefs were true, that would not absolve us from the responsibility of dutifully inquiring again and again into their soundness. In his own words, “Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is not to be made once for all, and then taken as finally settled.” A person that turns a blind eye on his or her epistemic responsibilities “to stifle his own doubts, or to hamper the inquiry of others, is guilty of a sacrilege which centuries shall never be able to blot”. Nowhere in his essay he commends or criticizes specific beliefs but only the manner in which we come to acquire them. This point is of radical importance for understanding the uniqueness of Clifford’s proposition: his ethics of belief is epistemological through and through and precedes any subsequent moral judgement about the content of a belief. But of course his hope was that if one dutifully inquires into one’s beliefs, one will come to believe the true moral and practical beliefs. “It is in this way that the result becomes common property, a right object of belief, which is a social affair and matter of public business.” In other words, if one takes care of the way in which one acquires beliefs, the content will take care of itself.
In dark times like today, we should take Clifford’s advise to heart and stop pointing fingers at specific beliefs while launching instead an unprecedented reassessment about the way in which we acquire them. We all need a degree of soul-searching to acknowledge the ways in which we have misused our hard-won freedom of belief by letting irrational epistemic practices roam free. If we want to defeat fundamentalism we need to cast a new light into the complacent ways we have allowed ourselves to form beliefs. Only then we will reclaim the moral high ground necessary to overcome the barbarity that accompanies credulity. Only then we will have a common stronghold to reply to all of those that accuse us of evil for not following the commands of their gods that the evil is on them for taking us down the road of savagery with their credulity.