Note 1: In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable
conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he
watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the
success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he
got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no
Of course, the point of this
introductory paragraph is in this last sentence, and the weight lies at
two places: "In such ways he acquired a sincere
and comfortable conviction" - which were irrational and
unreasonable ways of arriving at a convinction, and the last part, what
the conviction thus reached practically was in aid of: "he got his insurance-money when she went down in
mid-ocean and told no tales".
And the general assumptions
Clifford here seems to make may be stated as follows:
- Any belief a person has may
have been founded rationally and reasonably or not.
- If a belief is founded
rationally, it is consistent and based on real evidence.
- If a belief is founded
reasonably, the amount and quality of the evidence is proportionate to
the importance of the belief.
The first point is a mere matter
of logic, but if it is to make a real difference we must also presume
- normally and usually people
are free to make up their own minds by gathering evidence and reasoning
on the basis of that.
The second point lays briefly
down what it is for a belief to be called rational: It must be
consistent (for an inconsistent set of beliefs is always false) and it
must be based on real evidence - statements of fact or logic that other
persons can test the validity of in terms of principles that are
intersubjectively and logically valid.
What "intersubjectively and
logically valid" means or should mean is again a difficult question,
but the underlying point is clear enough: There is no ground for
intellectual agreement or disagreement between people without some
agreed standards to judge statements.
The third point lays briefly down
what it is for a belief to be reasonable: The evidence one has
for it is proportionate to the importance one attributes to it.
Thus, if one believes that a
certain belief - whatever it is - is important one should, if one holds
the belief in a reasonable manner, have a lot of evidence for or
against it, and if one believes a certain belief is not important one
need have little evidence for it. Text.
What shall we say of him? Surely
this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is
admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship;
but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he
had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had
acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient
investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he
may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet
inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that
frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.
Here we have to make a small
proviso in judging him "verily guilty of the
death of those men", namely that indeed the ship went down
because measures its owner could and should have taken given such
knowledge as he had about the ship, but did not take, and not for
reasons having nothing to do with the fact that these measures had not
There are two important claims
sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had
no right to believe on such evidence as was before him."
This is an important point
because the faithful and fanatics of all beliefs, creeds and political
convictions believe quite otherwise, namely that something is
true and important because they strongly feel and believe it is,
usually because they also believe that what they believe is true and
important will serve their interests.
In brief: Neither sincerity, nor
strength, nor conviction are in any way sufficient to make a belief
rational. What makes a belief rational is only its logical relation
to evidence. And indeed, it should be minimally such as to be more
probable than not given such the evidence one has, as this would be
judged by impartial rational men who are at least as intelligent and as
well-informed as oneself is.
may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet
inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that
frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it."
Here I think a proviso must be
made that relates to human weaknesses: One's responsibility for one's
own opinions is indeed one's own, but it is also commensurate with
one's intelligence and courage. Some people are just not capable of
seeing certain rational inferences others see clearly, and some people
just do not have the courage to entertain the convictions they
"When an action is once done, it is right or
wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can
possibly alter that."
The reasons are, first, that in
the end one acts in a here and now for such reasons as one here and now
has, and this will be so for all times that follows it, regardless of
however better or other those later times are informed, and second,
that acts should not be judged by their outcomes, but by their reasons,
for one has control over one's reasoning but not over the world, or
only to such extent as one reasons truly about it and has power to act
and interfere. Text.
"The question of right or wrong has to do with
the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but
how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but
whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him."
Put otherwise: A belief is right
or wrong not because it turns out to be true or false, but because it
was reached or not by a rational argument on the basis of evidence, and
because such evidence as one had gathered was reasonable in being
proportionate to the importance attributed to the belief. Text.
"There was once an island in which some of the
inhabitants professed a religion teaching neither the doctrine of
original sin nor that of eternal punishment."
Here it should be remarked that
W.K. Clifford lived on an island (England) where most inhabitants in
fact did profess a religion teaching both the doctrine of original sin
and of eternal punishment, and that he very probably believed none of
I quote from
the article on Clifford on the excellent site on mathematicians by
St. Andrews University:
tells us that
eccentric in appearance, habits and opinions. Text.
"For although they had sincerely and
conscientiously believed in the charges they had made, yet they had
no right to believe on such evidence as was before them. Their
sincere convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient
inquiring, were stolen by listening to the voice of prejudice and
Put otherwise: There is a right
to believe - but it is strongly dependent on patient, rational inquiry,
and easily disqualified by passion or prejudice. Text.
"Let us vary this case also, and suppose, other
things remaining as before, that a still more accurate investigation
proved the accused to have been really guilty. Would this make any
difference in the guilt of the accusers? Clearly not; the question is
not whether their belief was true or false, but whether they
entertained it on wrong grounds."
This involves the same reasoning
as in Note 4. Text.
"And they might be believed, but they would not
thereby become honourable men. They would not be innocent, they would
only be not found out."
It seems fair and relevant to
remark that this is the situation in which most politicians and priests
are: What such men claim is rarely rational and reasonable, and usually
manufactured either by wishful thinking or deceit. Text.
"Every one of them, if he chose to examine
himself in foro conscientiae, would know that he had acquired
and nourished a belief, when he had no right to believe on such
evidence as was before him; and therein he would know that he had done
a wrong thing."
This I doubt in general, though
it is true for rational and reasonable men. But then many men have
strong beliefs that dispose them to disregard evidence.
For one example, not being a
Catholic I believe the pope is mistaken on many matters of faith he
believes he is right about. But I also believe that he will not see
many matters as I do until and unless he gives up Catholicism. And
conversely, the pope will think similarly about unbelievers like me.
For another example, there are
quite a large number of personal judgments that are both important to
oneself and not merely judged by one's standards of rationality and
reason, and these concern such matters as whom one loves, what one
likes, and what one's personal ends are.
These matters seem to be more a
matter of personal desire than of personal belief, though it is also
true that personal desires when combined with beliefs about the reality
the desires are meant to be realized in can be both tested by testing
the beliefs they are combined with, and can be tested as to whether
they are practicable and have a tendency to succeed when practised.
"It may be said, however, that in both these
supposed cases it is not the belief which is judged to be wrong, but
the action following upon it."
Here is a somewhat subtle point
that Clifford will try to settle by insisting that a person's actions
and a person's beliefs are intertwined much like effect and cause:
- What one consciously and
deliberately does and does not do depends on what one believes that
will - probably - result from one's acts, and this in turn depends on
what one believes in general about one's situation and place in it.
"In the first place, let us admit that, so far as
it goes, this view of the case is right and necessary; right, because
even when a man's belief is so fixed that he cannot think otherwise, he
still has a choice in the action suggested by it, and so cannot escape
the duty of investigating on the ground of the strength of his
convictions; and necessary, because those who are not yet capable of
controlling their feelings and thoughts must have a plain rule dealing
with overt acts."
This refers to the point made and
quoted in Note 10, and involves the relations
between belief and action. As I pointed out there, I agree that one's
acts and one's beliefs interdepend, in the sense that one will tend to
try to do what one believes serves one's interests and one will tend
not to try to do what one believes does not serve one's interests, but
it seems also to me that there is a faculty of willing or deciding that
intermediates between one's beliefs and desires on the one hand, and
one's actions on the other hand.
The reason to assume such a
faculty of willing or deciding, that operates independently of the
faculties of believing and desiring, though informed by them, rather
like a judge is supposed to be independent from the prosecution and
defense, but informed by them, is that experience teaches that one
always, if perhaps perversely or against one's own interests as one
conceives of these, may decide to try to do the less probable than the
more probable or the less desirable rather than the more
"But this being premised as necessary, it becomes
clear that it is not sufficient, and that our previous judgment is
required to supplement it. For it is not possible so to sever the
belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without
condemning the other. No man holding a strong belief on one side of a
question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate
it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt
and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair
inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty."
Yes, but here the point I made in
Note 9 enters. It may be made in
general terms as follows:
It seems a plain matter of fact
that the vast majority of men is not able or not willing
to judge quite a few matters without bias, and fairly, completely,
rationally and reasonably. And these are especially those matters about
which they have strong religious or political prejudices, or in which
they have a strong personal interest. Text.
"Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has
not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it."
This sounds much like Peirce, who
made a similar point three years earlier than Clifford did, in "How to
make out ideas clear".
Even so, it seems a slight
exaggeration, in that everybody may have beliefs about remote things -
the backside of the moon, the state of the world in 500 years, the
teachings of faiths one anyway disbelieves - that may have little or no
influence on one's acts.
But in general the relation
between acts and beliefs seems to be as sketched in Notes 10 and 11.
"He who truly believes that which prompts him to
an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed
it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in
open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to
make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between
sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so
organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated
from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the
Put otherwise: Whatever specific
belief one has at any moment depends on all one's beliefs on that
moment. The reason is that it might and indeed would be different if
some of ones other beliefs that entered into this particular belief
were different - and the same holds again for these other beliefs.
However, it does not depend on
all one's beliefs to the same extent nor in the same way: If one is
rational the influence of one belief on another will depend on whether
or not both are implied by some theory one holds, and on the
probabilistic degree of relevance of the one belief to the other, which
is a measure of the difference the truth of the one makes to the
probability of the other. Text.
"No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary
it may seem, i ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more
of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens
others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost
thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its
stamp upon our character for ever."
The reason was given in Note 14, including the qualification that not
all beliefs one has at any moment are equally relevant to any specific
belief one has at that moment. Text.
"And no one man's belief is in any case a private
matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives our guided by that
general conception of the course of things which has been created by
society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and
processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and
perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding
generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be
handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified,
with some clear marks of its proper handiwork."
No, not quite. For one thing, I
don't believe that "no one man's belief is in any
case a private matter which concerns himself alone" and I also
don't believe that "Our words, our phrases, our
forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property".
As to the first point I don't
Consider one man's love for his
wife, and suppose it to be sincere, great, romantic, and an inspiration
for him to do many things I hold good and admirable. Should it matter
to me that I don't love his wife in the same way as he does, and that I
therefore don't feel inspired like he does?
In short: This seems to me a good
example of personal tastes, preferences and beliefs that are fairly
considered to be personal and one which is best considered private -
always in so far as these private beliefs do not seriously and
evidently effect the chances for health and happiness of others.
As to the second point I don't
One lives in society in order to
further one's own and other's chances on health and happiness by
cooperation, and this entails quite a few duties and rights - but not
such as to make one's acts, or words, or ideas "common
"Into this, for good or ill, is woven every
belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege,
and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in
which posterity will live."
I agree with the sentiment, but
feel it is here a bit exaggerated. However, what seems true is that
this privilege and this responsiblity are both more or less
proportionate to one's talents. Text.
"In the two supposed cases which have been
considered, it has been judged wrong to believe on insufficient
evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding
investigation. The reason of this judgment is not far to seek: it is
that in both these cases the belief held by one man was of great
importance to other men. But forasmuch as 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
With provisos, to be sure:
Whether you believe the soup is
better with a little more salt, or that your shoes are nicer than mine,
seems less important than your beliefs about physics or politics - and
if you are not a person of great intelligence who has given himself
much trouble to make your opinions about physics or politics rational
and reasonable, then I may act wisely about your beliefs concerning
physics or politics, while holding them of more importance than those
you hold about your soup or my shoes, by not giving much attention to
In short: Not all beliefs of all
persons are equally important or relevant, and there is a considerable
amount of personal opinions and tastes that are best considered private
in most circumstances, indeed because, whatever they are, they will not
materially influence the chances of most or all other men for health
and happiness. Text.
"Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the
decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the
compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves but for
Here lie two fundamental points
of principle: First: Is it belief that prompts the decisions of
our will? And second: Are our beliefs for humanity but not for
As to what prompts the decisions
of our will:
I do not believe one's beliefs
"prompt" these, but I do believe one's
beliefs guide and constrain one's decisions - which are prompted by
one's will, which is a separate faculty apart and independent
from one's beliefs, as is shown by the fact that one can always,
possibly perversely, decide and will to act counter to what one
believes is right.
As to whether our beliefs are for
humanity or ourselves:
It seems to me our beliefs are
important to others to the extent that we could and should rationally
have known that they are relevant to another's chances of harm or
happiness, but that quite often we cannot rationally know so, and also
that each of us both lives in his or her own private version of the
world we all live in, and has a freedom to act and believe, and acts
and believes both for his own interests and those of others.
But it is easy to be seduced into
totalitarianism, and so - with the evidence about totalitarianism in
the 20th Century - I am a little careful with claims of acts supposedly
"not for ourselves but for humanity"
"Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this
matter will guard the purity of his beliefs with a very fanaticism of
jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object,
and catch a stain which can never be wiped away."
The problem is that - as the
world tends to be - generally one's fellows will not praise one because
one is rational and reasonable but because one is like them and one
supports their prejudices.
So I would like to rephrase this
as: Whoso would deserve a rational and reasonable self-respect, etc.
"It is not only the leader of men, statesmen,
philosopher, or poet, that owes this bounden duty to mankind. Every
rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent
sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which
clog his race. Every hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her
children beliefs which shall knit society together, or rend it in
pieces. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the
universal duty of questioning all that we believe."
Again, this seems to me a little
exaggerated. One may fairly require of all men and women that they be
rational and reasonable in all their beliefs and acts - but one should
know the capacities of all men and women to be so vary a lot, and that
one should in general require and expect no more than another is
Another relevant consideration,
apart from ability and opportunity, is that one often is pressed for
time, and forced to make choices, and indeed forced to make these
choices also in far less ideal, quiet and unconstrained circumstances
than one believes their importance merits.
Finally, if indeed most men and
women live lifes constrained by all manner of pressures and
difficulties, it seems more just to require them to be reasonable - to
treat others fairly, justly and kindly - and try to be happy, since
most misdeeds are committed by unhappy people, rather than that they
try to be rational, since this last demand requires much in the way of
intelligence, opportunity and effort. And it is easier, usually, to be
reasonable than to be rational, just as it is usually easier to be kind
than clever. Text.
"It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the
doubt which comes out of itis often a very bitter thing. It leaves us
bare and powerless where we thought that we were safe and strong. To
know all about anything is to know how to deal with it under all
It may be fairly doubted that it
is humanly possible "To know all about anything":
All human knowledge is partial, schematic, incomplete, abstracted from
much circumstantial detail, and based on guess-work.
Also, it is a good moral
principle that "non posse nemo obligatur": What is not possible cannot
be a duty to anyone. (And this also concerns rational thinking.) Text.
"But if the belief has been accepted on
insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. Not only does it
deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of power which we do not really
possess, but it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty
I suppose one reason for Clifford
to write "sinful" is to relate it not to
one's supposed duties to God but to one's "duty
to mankind". Text.
"That duty is to guard ourselves from such
beliefs as from pestilence, which may shortly master our own body and
then spread to the rest of the town. What would be thought of one who,
for the sake of a sweet fruit, should deliberately run the risk of
delivering a plague upon his family and his neighbours?"
What one could think of is the
parallel with the Bible and original sin. Apart from that, what one
should think of, knowing a little of the history of the 20th C, is of
fascism, communism and other forms of mental and dictatorial pestilence, which indeed in the end depended on
the individual choices of individual men and women. Text.
"And, as in other such cases, it is not the risk
only which has to be considered; for a bad action is always bad at the
time when it is done, no matter what happens afterwards. Every time we
let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of
self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence."
And the reason is that "Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy
reasons" we make ourselves believe something that is
unreasonable and may influence our other beliefs. Text.
"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. But a greater and wider evil arises when
the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of
believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent."
Let's first note what it is,
among other things, that "We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and
support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead
to": The millions of iniquities,
wasted lifes, persecutions and murders in the name of some irrational
political creed like fascism or communism, or in the name of some
irrational religious creed like Christianity or Mohammedanism.
To all this and much more
Voltaire's dictum strongly applies: "If we believe
absurdities, we shall commit
atrocities." commit atrocities."
And let's note what Clifford
claims is ultimately the foundation of these many human horrors and
actrocities: "the credulous
character" - of the sincere followers, the
faithful servants, the willing conformists that actually committed the
crimes of fascism, communism, Christianity, or Mohammedanism. Text.
"If I steal money from any person, there may be
no harm done from the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the
loss, or it may prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot
help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest.
What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it
should become a den of thieves, for then it must cease to be society.
This is why we ought not to do evil, that good may come; for at any
rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made
This may sound a little
Victorian, but the underlying reasoning is correct: Both to steal and
to believe something on unworthy evidence is immoral and demoralizes
those who commit these deeds. And indeed, what demoralizes when one
believes things on unworthy evidence is precisely that wherever this is
not due to stupidity it is based on dishonesty. Text
"In like manner, if I let myself believe anything
on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere
belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to
exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong
towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not
merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great
enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of
testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into
What Clifford is claiming here
may be otherwise put thus: Western societies since the Renaissance and
Galileo have been factually based on science and the technology this
enabled, and they owed their advantages over other types of societies -
such as e.g. better ships and better guns in the 16th, 17th and 18th
Centuries - to science.
And science in the end is based
on the spirit of free enquiry, free discussion, logical reasoning
and empirical experimentation. Therefore, indeed it is a danger to
a society thus dependent on science to "become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things
and inquiring into them".
"The harm which is done by credulity in a man is
not confined to the fostering of a credulous character in others, and
consequent support of false beliefs. Habitual want of care about what I
believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of
what is told to me. Men speak the truth of one another when each
reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other's mind; but how
shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless
about it, when I believe thing because I want to believe them, and
because they are comforting and pleasant?"
See first Note
28. I agree with Clifford, but also must note that what he argued
for and I agree with - say: the fundamental social and human
importance of belief founded on rational reasoning and empirical
investigation in a climate of free inquiry and discussion - is
something that seems fit, in actual empirical fact, to a minority of
men and women, namely mostly those who are scientists or whose outlook
And unfortunately so far in any
normal society this type of human being - say: the rational kind - has
been in a minority, even though it is a minority from which most
contributors to science and civilization issued. Text.
"Will he not learn to cry, "Peace," to me, when
there is no peace? By such a course I shall surround myself with a
thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I must live. It
may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and
darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours
ready to deceive."
Indeed - but as I remarked in Note 29 it seems to me an indubitable fact that
the vast majority of men and women everywhere and always seem to have
much preferred to live in "a
thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud",
in a "cloud-castle of sweet
illusions and darling lies" - and one
reason was that the vast majority of their neighbours likewise much
preferred this, and were willing to force anyone who dared deviate from
the social norms and practices back into conformity, or into a madhouse
or a grave.
"The credulous man is father to the liar and the
cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and it is no marvel if
he should become even as they are."
Yes indeed - but let us be honest
and clearminded enough to admit that the "credulous man" so far
always and everywhere formed the majority, and was proud to be
credulous, and quite willing to persecute anyone who was not.
Here are a few relevant
statistics about the late 20th century, more than 100 years after
"The scientific world view is very
rare. My guess is that at least 99% of all currently living human
adults have a non-scientific world view and way of thinking. Most
people probably base their lives on religion and/or magic. (..) let me
amuse the reader by mentioning some results a Gallup investigation
conducted in the U.S. in 1978 produced. According to it, 57% of all
Americans believe in ufos, 54% in angels, 51% in ESP, 39% in devils,
37% in precognition, 29% in astrology, 24% in clairvoyance, and (only!)
11% in ghosts." (pag. 226 van R. Tuomela, "Science, Action, and
Reality", D. Reidel Pub. Comp.
1985, ISBN 90-277-2098-3.)
And let's also note that 2500
years before Clifford wrote the Buddha already noticed this: "Stupidity
and egoism are the roots of all vice". Text.
"To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and
for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."
And here we have arrived at Clifford's
dictum, which deserves to be cast in stone above the entries of all
schools and universities, even if it is too demanding an ideal to
practice always, like most ideals, and because it is at least an ideal
of rationality and reason, and not of faith or politics.
Also, it is not hard to indicate
the fair exceptions to his rule:
- Those beliefs that when acted
upon have consequences that are limited to oneself
- Those beliefs that are based
on personal preferences
- Those beliefs that are forced
I am imprecize here, but this
cannot be avoided. Here are a few precisifications:
The beliefs with consequences
limited to oneself are excepted just because and to the extent one
is oneself the only possible victim of one's false beliefs. The beliefs
based on personal preferences are excepted because one's likes
and dislikes are not only and often not much dependent on one's
beliefs, while in any case what is not excepted are the plans and
proposals motivated by one's likes and dislikes, for these are beliefs
like other beliefs, and require rational scrutinity by oneself and
others. And the beliefs forced by circumstances mostly have
to do with time-pressures and insufficient information: Here and now
one must - for example - either operate the patient or wait for more
information with the chance that the patient dies.
And in any case: Though there are
exceptions to Clifford's dictum, and though the principles it embodies
are ideal rather than always practicable, the exceptions are exceptions
only, and ought to be rationally argued when made an
Apart from this: "it is wrong always, everywhere,
and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."
And to supplement this with a
It is always right to try to think rationally and try to
act reasonably. Text.
"If a man, holding a belief which he was taught
in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any
doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading
of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it,
and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked
without disturbing it--the life of that man is one long sin against
Obviously, as quite a few
others of Clifford's remarks, this is directed against religion as it
is normally believed and practised. And indeed, most faithful believers
of most religions have tended to be believe it is "impious (to ask) those questions which cannot easily
be asked without disturbing it--the life of that man is one long sin
against mankind" and thus have insisted that people led lifes
that were, according to Clifford's standards, "one
long sin against mankind".
But then Clifford is right that
religion as it is normally practised and believed is not compatible
with rationality, science or indeed the ideal of only trying to believe
what is worthy of belief in a rational sense. Text.
A man may be a
heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor
says so, or the assembly so determine, without knowing other reason,
though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his
This is from Milton, but it means
little more than that followers and conformists have handed over their
own judgments to their leaders or role-models, have ceased to judge for
themselves, and therefore can not be relied upon as
independent witnesses or thinkers, and run the same cognitive risks as
those they imitate. Text.
He who begins
by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his
own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end loving himself
better than all.
This is from Coleridge, and it
should be added that the vast majority of virtually all religious and
political creeds love their own creed, their own leaders, and their own
group far better than truth or rationality or indeed morals, for here
also fits a very pertinent quotation from Orwell, with my stresses:
"Actions are held to be good
or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and
there is almost no outrage - torture, the use of hostages, forced
labour, mass deportations, imprisonments without trial, forgery,
assassination, the bombing of civilians, which does not change its
moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side." (The Collected
Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol 3, p. 419,
written in May 1945.)
Unfortunately, so far in human
history rational and reasonable men and women have been in a small
minority - though it was the minority that elevated all of mankind from
bestiality and primitiveness, and that discovered or invented science
and civilization, and handed it through to posterity. Text.
"Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is
not to be made once for all, and then taken as finally settled. It is
never lawful to stifle a doubt; for either it can be honestly answered
by means of the inquiry already made, or else it proves that the
inquiry was not complete."
Precisely, except that I would
have said "moral" or "rational" rather than "lawful". And again
Clifford seems to be in part argueing against the religiously faithful
of his time, for these held the opposite doctrine mostly. Text.
" "But," says one, "I am a busy
man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be
necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain
questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments."
Then he should
have no time to believe."
Perhaps so - but he may have
little choice in believing as he does, being placed as he is. So what's
more relevant and important:
You may believe as you
please - indeed, you will tend to do so anwyay - but you may not act
upon such non-rationally founded beliefs as are
important to the chances of health or happiness of others, nor may you
insist that your beliefs are more important than the trouble you have
given yourself to give them a rational foundation. Mere faith is not
enough, especially not where it effects the chances of others.