Clifford and James on Evidence and Belief

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Clifford & James William Kingdon Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” and Willam James’s “The Will to Believe” are yoked together in the story of philosophy. The two essays are taken as the classic starting points for reflection on the norms governing responsible belief. Clifford captures his view, evidentialism, 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 fictions. 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 the 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 iconically opposed.

Clifford’s case is made primarily on the basis of a series of examples. The most powerful of them involves a ship owner who believes contrary to his evidence that his ship is seaworthy. The ship owner suppresses his doubts about his vessel, and sends it out to sea, full of emigrants bound for a new land; he then collects the insurance money when it sinks. Surely this man is blameworthy. But what if the ship had not gone down? What if the emigrants got to their destination safely? Would that bit of good luck diminish the guilt of the shipowner? Clifford answers, “Not one jot.” Why? Because the question of concerning the propriety of the owner’s belief does not rest on whether the emigrants were harmed, but on whether he “had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.” Clifford holds that “It is never lawful to stifle a doubt.”

William James acknowledges that this evidentialist rule is generally sound, but he holds that there are exceptions, specifically in matters of the heart. James considers the following scenario. A young man wants to ask a young woman out for a date. He is unsure that she will accept, as he does not have evidence that she likes him. What is he to do? James proposes one option: “if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have some objective evidence, until you have done something apt . . . ten to one your liking never comes.” Such an option is unacceptable, both to the young man and to the young woman. “How many women’s hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine insistence of some man that they must love him!” James proposes another option, one that calls for an ungrounded commitment; so the young man’s “faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification. . . [F]aith in the fact can help create the fact.”

Given this, it is easy to see why Clifford and James are treated as philosophical antagonists. One pressing question is how practicable the two views really are. On the one hand, it might seem that Clifford’s evidentialism is far too demanding. Clifford himself was aware of this concern, as he worries that his view flirts with an untenable skepticism. He argues that he is no skeptic, yet this protest seems flimsy; in any case, James certainly takes Clifford to be a skeptic.

On the other hand, James’s proposal raises practical difficulties of its own. One can ask whether it is wise to have confidence in beliefs when there is no evidence to support them. James sees the danger in rejecting evidentialism. He holds that when properly deployed, the will-to-believe is not self-confidence or wishful thinking run amok. The question then is what the conditions for the proper deployment of the will-to-believe are. As Clifford emphasizes, having an exaggerated degree of confidence in one’s beliefs is most often a vice, not a virtue.

The main question in the dispute, though, concerns the philosophical concern driving both views: religious belief. Both philosophers agree that the traditional arguments for God’s existence fail. Both agree that the evidence for God is weak, and certainly not sufficient to justify religious belief. They disagree on the question of whether religious belief, given the lack of evidence for it, is ever intellectually responsible.

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 evidentialism. 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, 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 favor. Rather, James contends that religious belief of 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.

The question for traditional religious believers, of course, is whether James is really an ally at all. The Jamesian argument seems an overt bait-and-switch; he seems to have defended religious belief by distorting it into something else. Arguably, Jamesian reconstructed religious belief is not religious belief at all. Indeed, it seems that Jamesian religious belief is in the end no different from Cliffordian non-belief. And so the iconic opposition between Clifford and James admits of reconciliation.