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.”

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