Notes on William K. Clifford's
The Ethics of Belief (1877)
Maarten Maartensz (2004)
Part II




Note 38: "Are we then to become universal sceptics, doubting everything, afraid always to put one foot before the other until we have personally tested the firmness of the road? Are we to deprive ourselves of the help and guidance of that vast body of knowledge which is daily growing upon the world, because neither we nor any other one person can possibly test a hundredth part of it by immediate experiment or observation, and because it would not be completely proved if we did? Shall we steal and tell lies because we have had no personal experience wide enough to justify the belief that it is wrong to do so?"

Clearly, what Clifford wants to answer to all questions is: "No, emphatically no!". Were it different, then he could not have written the first part, for one reason. In any case, the questions are mostly rhetorical, but it is well to realize that "neither we nor any other one person can possibly test a hundredth part" of whatever one seriously believes.

However, there are two pertinent considerations here:

First, every man who has survived so far must have some beliefs that are adequate to the facts and no beliefs he has acted on which are seriously false, for else he would be dead. (Of course, this does not necessarily mean that such a man does not have seriously mistaken beliefs, but only that he has not tested them seriously by acting on them.)

Second, every man has certain knowledge of at least two kinds: Of the natural language in which he may insist he is certain of nothing - for he must at least be capable of knowing sufficient of the language to state his beliefs; and of an infinity of things that he knows that he does not know, for every man may know about very many things that he does not know all or much about them.    Text.

Note 39: "The beliefs about right and wrong which guide our actions in dealing with men in society, and the beliefs about physical nature which guide our actions in dealing with animate and inanimate bodies, these never suffer from investigation; they can take care of themselves, without being propped up by "acts of faith," the clamour of paid advocates, or the suppression of contrary evidence."

This seems one of the points Clifford wanted to insist on - and the point is, of course, that beliefs about physics and ethics "never suffer from investigation". It is quite likely that most of his contemporaries thought otherwise, and indeed Clifford's opinion is a minority-opinion of truly scientifically minded persons.   Text.

Note 40: "Moreover there are many cases in which it is our duty to act upon probabilities, although the evidence is not such as to justify present belief; because it is precisely by such action, and by observation of its fruits, that evidence is got which may justify future belief. So that we have no reason to fear lest a habit of conscientious inquiry should paralyse the actions of our daily life."

This is a quite important point, and it should be stressed that one can know truly that such and such statement of probability- say: the probability of throwing a six with a fair die is 1/6 - is true.   Text.

Note 41: "But because it is not enough to say, "It is wrong to believe on unworthy evidence," without saying also what evidence is worthy, we shall now go on to inquire under what circumstances it is lawful to believe on the testimony of others; and then, further, we shall inquire more generally when and why we may believe that which goes beyond our own experience, or even beyond the experience of mankind.

Note that Clifford has explained, in Part I, why "It is wrong to believe on unworthy evidence": Because mistaken beliefs lead to mistaken beliefs, and mistaken beliefs when acted upon will not lead to success and likely will harm the actor or others.

But surely it is correct to give sime sort of explanation of what evidence is "worthy" - though it should be obvious that, firstly, any prediction and any expectation, in as much as they refer to the future, go beyond one's own experience and that of mankind, and secondly, that in order to test a belief one does need to derive some prediction that is entailed by it and is as yet untested, for if it is tested and true it must be part of one's evidence.  Text.

Note 42: "In what cases, then, let us ask in the first place, is the testimony of a man unworthy of belief? He may say that which is untrue either knowingly or unknowingly. In the first case he is lying, and his moral character is to blame; in the second case he is ignorant or mistaken, and it is only his knowledge or his judgment which is in fault."   

Indeed, but the subject is somewhat more complicated, though there is this basic distinction that one's purported beliefs may be based on lies or ignorance.

What makes it more complicated than a simple choice between either is that most beliefs human beings express seem to involve a bit of both: One tends to at least slightly exaggerate one's confidence in one's own opinions, and also one's knowledge of evidence for one's opinions- and both may be psychologically necessary or helpful in maintaining these beliefs at all.   Text.

Note 43: "In order that we may have the right to accept his testimony as ground for believing what he says, we must have reasonable grounds for trusting his veracity, that he is really trying to speak the truth so far as he knows it; his knowledge, that he has had opportunities of knowing the truth about this matter; and his judgment, that he has made proper use of those opportunities in coming to the conclusion which he affirms."

This is quite so, and the list of requirements - honest, knowledgeable, informed, impartial - to trust the judgment of a purported specialist about something is quite apt.

The only qualification one has to make is that of Note 42: Even the most honest, knowledgeable and informed scientists, at least in so much as he is human, tends to favour his own opinions, about which indeed he is most expert on.    

But this common human weakness is no real hindrance - as long as everyone who is qualified is free and in principle capable of correcting one's mistakes in an open and rational debate.  Text.

Note 44: "However plain and obvious these reasons may be, so that no man of ordinary intelligence, reflecting upon the matter, could fail to arrive at them, it is nevertheless true that a great many persons do habitually disregard them in weighing testimony."  

Indeed, one may safely assert more: Not merely "a great many persons" but normally, except perhaps amongst scientists, the vast majority. For this there are quite a few reasons, of which I name a few:

  • Wishful thinking and its variants conformism and chauvinism tend to be both psychologically pleasing and socially rewarded.
  • There are usually strong social pressures, even in democracies, towards some opinions and against others.
  • It is extra-ordinarily rare to meet a person who is only interested in the truth, and not also in how this supposed truth effects his own chances for income, status, riches or fame.   Text.

Note 45: "But if we chose to grant him all these assumptions, for the sake of argument, and because it is difficult both for the faithful and for infidels to discuss them fairly and without passion, still we should have something to say which takes away the ground of his belief, and therefore shows that it is wrong to entertain it. Namely this: the character of Mohammed is excellent evidence that he was honest and spoke the truth so far as he knew it; but it is no evidence at all that he knew what the truth was."

This is part of a longer discussion by Clifford of the claims of Mohammedanism - which he probably selected to discuss because he felt quite the same about the prophet Jesus, but knew that saying so in his society might make him loose a considerable part of his audience.

Apart from that, the point Clifford makes is a simple and valid one, and one that is very often missed by sincere believers and followers of whatever charismatic religious or political leader:

Honesty and sincerity about one's own convictions are not at all sufficient grounds for these convictions - as everyone should know, since everyone must have experienced cases in which one was sincerely convinced of some untruth.    Text.

Note 46: "What means could he have of knowing that the form which appeared to him to be the angel Gabriel was not a hallucination, and that his apparent visit to Paradise was not a dream? Grant that he himself was fully persuaded and honestly believed that he had the guidance of heaven, and was the vehicle of a supernatural revelation, how could he know that this strong conviction was not a mistake?"

As I pointed out in Note 45, the same sort of questions can and should be asked of Jesus and the Christian prophets, of Buddha, and of any other person who believes or pretends he has some deep insight in the nature of the universe that is hidden to others.

Incidentally, here is another question that concerns the fact that so many of the many Holy Books of mankind are contradictory amongst each other, and although supposedly inspired by God himself usually without the least glimmer of sound and useful information that an all-knowing all-powerful benevolent God surely could, would and should have given to His Chosen People, and full of claims about the nature of the universe that are completely at odds with a great lot of really well-researched science. Why is this so?   Text.

Note 47: "But if my visitor were a real visitor, and for a long time gave me information which was found to be trustworthy, this would indeed be good ground for trusting him in the future as to such matters as fall within human powers of verification; but it would not be ground for trusting his testimony as to any other matters."

This still concerns the claimed visits of the archangel Gabriel to Mohammed. What makes it obvious - except for devout Muslims who prefer to be not rational about their own faith, like most non-Muslims about theirs - that the vast probability is that Mohammed was mistaken or lied is that there is no good evidence for angels of any kind of any faith, and that the archangel Gabriel remained hidden from the contemporaries of Mohammed. (If I tell you I have a real living lustful Greek talking mermaid hidden in my garage in an old bathtub, but you are not allowed to see it, you may rationally believe me to be insane or a liar.)  Text.

Note 48: "For although his tested character would justify me in believing that he spoke the truth so far as he knew, yet the same question would present itself—what ground is there for supposing that he knows?"

Indeed - and this is the same point I made in Note 45, and one that people widely tend to miss when emotionally affected by some religious or political system of ideas.    Text.

Note 49: "For belief belongs to man, and to the guidance of human affairs: no belief is real unless it guide our actions, and those very actions supply a test of its truth."

It is better to say: No belief is tested unless it guides our actions, and to add that a belief that is not tested is a mere make-belief without any worthy rational ground.   

However, as I pointed out before, human motives and psychology are complicated, and it seems true that the political and religious beliefs of most men are embedded in a more or less consciously maintained set of fallacies and tricks that serve to defend the faith and isolate it from any rational criticism: One pooh-poohs critics; doubts their motives, sincerity or sanity; refuses to consider counter-evidence; disregards one's own relative ignorance of relevant science, philosophy, logic or mathematics; and generally does not discuss one's convictions with qualified and intelligent opponents, especially not if these have a gift for language and argument.   Text.

Note 50: "It requires, however, but little consideration to show that what has really been verified is not at all the supernal character of the Prophet’s mission, or the trustworthiness of his authority in matters which we ourselves cannot test, but only his practical wisdom in certain very mundane things."

And the same holds, as Clifford no doubt meant to convey, for Christianity, Judaism and all other faiths based on the teachings of supposedly divinely inspired prophets.   Text.

Note 51: "The fact that believers have found joy and peace in believing gives us the right to say that the doctrine is a comfortable doctrine, and pleasant to the soul; but it does not give us the right to say that it is true. And the question which our conscience is always asking about that which we are tempted to believe is not, "Is it comfortable and pleasant?" but, "Is it true?" "

I agree in terms of logic, but not in terms of psychology: Alas, the great majority of men do not seem to possess a "conscience" that is "is always asking about that which we are tempted to believe is not, "Is it comfortable and pleasant?" but, "Is it true?"". Instead, the vast majority of men, including scientists, though these probably least of all, tends to arrive at their fundamental political and religious convictions by some irrational leap of faith that is mostly motivated by wishful thinking.   Text.

Note 52: "It is hardly in human nature that a man should quite accurately gauge the limits of his own insight; but it is the duty of those who profit by his work to consider carefully where he may have been carried beyond it."

This is quite true, and one of the many reasons that free rational discussion is so important, both for science, and for men in general. It cannot be helped that one is partial to one's own beliefs and feelings, and therefore one needs the rational arguments of others to correct that partiality - which exists, men being what they are, also if one is quite right in one's conviction, and has done one's rational best to research it.   Text.

Note 53: "If there were only he, and no other, with such claims! But there is Mohammed with his testimony; we cannot choose but listen to them both. The Prophet tells us that there is one God, and that we shall live for ever in joy or misery, according as we believe in the Prophet or not. The Buddha says that there is no God, and that we shall be annihilated by and by if we are good enough. Both cannot be infallibly inspired; one or other must have been the victim of a delusion, and thought he knew that which he really did not know. Who shall dare to say which? and how can we justify ourselves in believing that the other was not also deluded?"

We are still involved with Clifford's discussion of religious faith, and the problem he mentions here is part of the fact that there are at least 3500 religions that purport to be The One And Only Divine Truth and contradict all other 3499 True Religions.

The same holds for political creeds, which also have tended to be believed and maintained fanatically, irrationally, and against all evidence by sincere believers - who, as in the case of the major religions, have been quite willing to discriminate, persecute, repress, silence, lock up or murder their opponents, normally "in their own best interests", it was claimed, and "for the noblest and best of moral reasons".   Text.

Note 54: "We are led, then, to these judgments following. The goodness and greatness of a man do not justify us in accepting a belief upon the warrant of his authority, unless there are reasonable grounds for supposing that he knew the truth of what he was saying."

Precisely - as should be chiselled in stone above all churches, next to Cromwell's saying "By the bowels of Jesus Christ - I beseech thee to bethinkest thee that thou MAYEST be mistaken!".

And there is another matter of some importance here, related to the fact that so many have been murdered for religious reasons, supposedly according to the teachings of some infinitely powerful, benevolent and all-knowing divinity: Why is it that so many religions and religious people do not limit their teachings to morals, such as the excellent and widely shared "Do not do unto others as you would not be done unto", and leave the question of what reality is really like to science?   Text.

Note 55: "And there can be no grounds for supposing that a man knows that which we, without ceasing to be men, could not be supposed to verify.

This is a somewhat implicit denial of all human claims to supernatural knowledge - to which religious prophets tend to be prone. And it should be mentioned that all claims of all supernatural knowledge of all prophets or frauds have been incredible to non-believers and usually have been easily refuted, if not by naive people than by professional stage-magicians (conjurors) who know what it takes to mislead and trick a naive audience.  Text.

Note 56: "If a chemist tells me, who am no chemist, that a certain substance can be made by putting together other substances in certain proportions and subjecting them to a known process, I am quite justified in believing this upon his authority, unless I know anything against his character or his judgment. For his professional training is one which tends to encourage veracity and the honest pursuit of truth, and to produce a dislike of hasty conclusions and slovenly investigation. And I have reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the truth of what he is saying, for although I am no chemist, I can be made to understand so much of the methods and processes of the science as makes it conceivable to me that, without ceasing to be man, I might verify the statement."

Here we have again an illustration and sum-up of the marks that characterize a genuine expert: honesty, specific knowledge and training, impartiality.

And note Clifford's last point: One excellent mark of real science is that any of its propositions can be rationally tested by anyone with the time, the intelligence and the relevant background knowledge - and that there is no scientific proposition that rests on mere authority, and that there is no scientific proposition that is immune from rational criticism in terms of logic or evidence.   Text.

Note 57: "I may never actually verify it, or even see any experiment which goes towards verifying it; but still I have quite reason enough to justify me in believing that the verification is within the reach of human appliances and powers, and in particular that it has been actually performed by my informant. His result, the belief to which he has been led by his inquiries, is valid not only for himself but for others; it is watched and tested by those who are working in the same ground, and who know that no greater service can be rendered to science than the purification of accepted results from the errors which may have crept into them. 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."  

It is true and important that a very important part of science consists of  "the purification of accepted results from the errors which may have crept into them", which happens by rational criticism and empirical research and experiment.

Likewise, it is true and important that science is a social affair.   Text.

Note 58: "Thus it is to be observed that his authority is valid because there are those who question it and verify it; that it is precisely this process of examining and purifying that keeps alive among investigators the love of that which shall stand all possible tests, the sense of public responsibility as of those whose work, if well done, shall remain as the enduring heritage of mankind."

And here another very important reason to prefer scientifically founded statements over statements founded upon other kinds of authority: Only in science are disagreements settled in principle by rational argument and ascertained intersubjectively accessible facts.   Text.

Note 59: "But if my chemist tells me that an atom of oxygen has existed unaltered in weight and rate of vibration throughout all time I have no right to believe this on his authority, for it is a thing which he cannot know without ceasing to be man."

Here the example does not seem to be well-chosen, and indeed Clifford seems to contradict here what he affirms later: "We may go beyond experience by assuming that what we do not know is like what we do know; or, in other words, we may add to our experience on the assumption of a uniformity in nature."

In any case, it is of some importance to note that what one can verify are always particular statements, about specific things or relations, then and there existing or not, in specific circumstances, whereas such verified particular statements are used to appraise the value of sets of general statements that are the core of any serious theory, that tries to represent some feature of some real thing(s) in general, in all circumstances and at all times.

Consequently, any theory involves claims that go beyond such experience as one has - and indeed if it did not it could not be tested nor would it be of any use to explain anything we have not experienced, such as the future. Therefore any theory contains guesses, and no theory can be absolutely certain. (Incidentally, this is no reason not to use the most probable theory, and indeed real science is characterized by its ability to produce real technology that also works for those who do not believe in science or do not understand it. Religions, by contrast, if they work at all work only for their sincere believers, for easily understood psychological reasons, that mostly have to do with the real though imaginary satisfactions of wishful thinking.)

Finally, the ways in which theories rationally gain or loose in credibility depending on such empirical evidence as one has found so far, are well explained in principle by elementary probability theory, for example as rendered in my "Classical Probability Theory and Learning from Experience".   Text.

Note 60: "For although the statement may be capable of verification by man, it is certainly not capable of verification by him, with any means and appliances which he has possessed; and he must have persuaded himself of the truth of it by some means which does not attach any credit to his testimony. Even if, therefore, the matter affirmed is within the reach of human knowledge, we have no right to accept it upon authority unless it is within the reach of our informant’s knowledge."

See Note 59. The qualification that should be made here is that the principle involved may be not "within the reach of our informant’s knowledge", but may be somehow necessary, either in general or in a specific state of partial knowledge and partial ignorance, in order to find and establish further knowledge.

One example of such a principle is: "Human beings can learn from experience"; another is Clifford's own "we may add to our experience on the assumption of a uniformity in nature". Both may be false, and both go beyond present experience and present knowledge, but it is hard to see how human beings could reach rational beliefs without them, or would want to try if they believed otherwise. (For more along these lines see On The Logical Principles Of Scientific Explanation.)   Text.

Note 61: "What shall we say of that authority, more venerable and august than any individual witness, the time-honoured tradition of the human race? An atmosphere of beliefs and conceptions has been formed by the labours and struggles of our forefathers, which enables us to breathe amid the various and complex circumstances of our life. It is around and about us and within us; we cannot think except in the forms and processes of thought which it supplies. Is it possible to doubt and to test it? and if possible, is it right?"

Here Clifford in fact asks what is the value of tradition, of whatever kind.

The brief answer is: It is a mass of belief and practices that at some point may have helped some men to help them survive and have a somewhat better or more pleasant life than they would have without it.

And the general proviso is: Even so, that is no good reason to believe this is currently so, or is true for all ot other men, and is no reason at all not to rationally investigate and test traditional beliefs and practices.      Text.

Note 62: "We shall find reason to answer that it is not only possible and right, but our bounden duty; that the main purpose of the tradition itself is to supply us with the means of asking questions, of testing and inquiring into things; that if we misuse it, and take it as a collection of cut-and-dried statements to be accepted without further inquiry, we are not only injuring ourselves here, but, by refusing to do our part towards the building up of the fabric which shall be inherited by our children, we are tending to cut off ourselves and our race from the human line."  

Indeed - though it may not be "the main purpose of the tradition". Even so, any tradition that survived is surely good for something, or it would not have survived, and is surely fit to be questioned in all respects. For what cannot be questioned and debated must be a dictatorial belief, that is probably suited to help dictators survive, and is not rationally fit to be believed.   Text.

Note 63: "Here the only reason for belief is that everybody has believed the thing for so long that it must be true. And yet the belief was founded on fraud, and has been propagated by credulity."  

This seems to be an adequate summary in two statements of the history of all religions.   Text.

Note 64: "That man will undoubtedly do right, and be a friend of men, who shall call it in question and see that there is no evidence for it, help his neighbours to see as he does, and even, if need be, go into the holy tent and break the medicine."

Here Clifford in fact insists on the importance of non-conformists: Individuals who dare to question current tradition or current practice, and who dare to oppose it by rational argument and, where necessary, by personal action (as even the Bible reports positively, where it concerns the overthrow of pre-Biblical religious beliefs and "heathen images").   Text.

Note 65: "The rule which should guide us in such cases is simple and obvious enough: that the aggregate testimony of our neighbours is subject to the same conditions as the testimony of any one of them. Namely, we have no right to believe a thing true because everybody says so unless there are good grounds for believing that some one person at least has the means of knowing what is true, and is speaking the truth so far as he knows it."  

This shows the major weakness of democratic majorities: There is strength in numbers, but no wit or reason. And indeed no majority knows more or indeed as much as its few independent individual rational thinkers - if there are any, for many a majority is based on nothing better or different than unthinking imitation and conformism.   Text.

Note 66: "However many nations and generations of men are brought into the witness-box they cannot testify to anything which they do not know. Every man who has accepted the statement from somebody else, without himself testing and verifying it, is out of court; his word is worth nothing at all."

Correctly: None of the words of followers and imitators add one iota to rational evidence.   Text.

Note 67: "And when we get back at last to the true birth and beginning of the statement, two serious questions must be disposed of in regard to him who first made it: was he mistaken in thinking that he knew about this matter, or was he lying? "

As I explained in Note 49 matters are slightly more complicated in human psychological reality, though it remains true that any false statement that is made is made wittingly and thus a lie, or unwittingly and thus ignorantly, namely at least of the fact that it is in fact false, and quite possibly ignorantly of much relevant evidence.   Text.

Note 68: "This last question is unfortunately a very actual and practical one even to us at this day and in this country. We have no occasion to go to La Salette, or to Central Africa, or to Lourdes, for examples of immoral and debasing superstition. It is only too possible for a child to grow up in London surrounded by an atmosphere of beliefs fit only for the savage, which have in our own time been founded in fraud and propagated by credulity."

This is still as it was in the 19th Century - except that the forces of unreason are much helped by the popular press and TV. Two good books on pseudo-science and superstition are by Martin Gardner: "Fads and fallacies in the name of science" and "Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus".    Text

Note 69: "Laying aside, then, such tradition as is handed on without testing by successive generations, let us consider that which is truly built up out of the common experience of mankind. This great fabric is for the guidance of our thoughts, and through them of our actions, both in the moral and in the material world. In the moral world, for example, it gives us the conceptions of right in general, of justice, of truth, of beneficence, and the like. These are given as conceptions, not as statements or propositions; they answer to certain definite instincts which are certainly within us, however they came there."

First, it is not really true that superstitions and credulity are not "truly built up out of the common experience of mankind", and indeed it seems likely that a rational and reasonable human mind is less frequent than its opposite, even though this is unfortunate for the chances of mankind on real civilization.

Second, it is true that both rational and irrational belief are based on general conceptions, and also true that it is not easy to articulate these clearly, whatever they are.

Third and last, it seems by and large quite justified to distinguish between (1) such beliefs as have been produced by some rational process on the basis of good evidence, which are scientific even if not necessarily part of science, since this also applies to enlightened common sense, and (2) such beliefs as have not been thus produced, and are therefore not scientific, and should be regarded with some skepticism, simply because they have not been thus produced and because everyone can and should know there is and has been a lot of foolishness and fraudulence in the human world.   Text.

Note 70: "That it is right to be beneficent is matter of immediate personal experience; for when a man retires within himself and there finds something, wider and more lasting than his solitary personality, which says, "I want to do right," as well as, "I want to do good to man," he can verify by direct observation that one instinct is founded upon and agrees fully with the other. And it is his duty so to verify this and all similar statements."

What is true, and related to being a social animal, is that it generally pleases to please those one likes, and that this seems to be one of the psychological foundations of benevolence. But it is less easy to say in simple and clear terms what doing good to others would consist of. I make a try in "What are good and bad?".     Text.

Note 71: "The tradition says also, at a definite place and time, that such and such actions are just, or true, or beneficent. For all such rules a further inquiry is necessary, since they are sometimes established by an authority other than that of the moral sense founded on experience."

The general point here is that what a tradition teaches should not be accepted without inquiry - and even if the traditions is sensible and helpful, it might be improved.   Text.

Note 72: "Until recently, the moral tradition of our own country—and indeed of all Europe—taught that it was beneficent to give money indiscriminately to beggars."

This I doubt for various reasons. For example, Mandeville doubted this in the beginning of the 18th Century, and Malthus in the beginning of the 19th Century, and both wrote in English, and very probably Clifford knew at least about Malthus. Also, I much doubt whether anyone has ever seriously believed that "to give money indiscriminately" is wise, desirable or beneficent.     Text.

Note 73: "Now here the great social heirloom consists of two parts: the instinct of beneficence, which makes a certain side of our nature, when predominant, wish to do good to men; and the intellectual conception of beneficence, which we can compare with any proposed course of conduct and ask, "Is this beneficent or not?" "

That is: There are natural human motives and spurs to action, which are quite often at least in part inspired by some wish to do some good to somebody else, and there are more or less well-founded criterions by which one may judge such motives and acts.   Text.

Note 74: "It appears, then, that the great use of the conception, the intellectual part of the heirloom, is to enable us to ask questions; that it grows and is kept straight by means of these questions; and if we do not use it for that purpose we shall gradually lose it altogether, and be left with a mere code of regulations which cannot rightly be called morality at all."

Once again Clifford stresses the great importance of questioning things, and the great danger that a society where this does not happen sufficiently, for whatever reason, will decline into some form of authoritarian dictatorship.   Text

Note 75: "Yet here, in the dim beginning of knowledge, where science and art are one, we find only the same simple rule which applies to the highest and deepest growths of that cosmic Tree; to its loftiest flower-tipped branches as well as to the profoundest of its hidden roots; the rule, namely, that what is stored up and handed down to us is rightly used by those who act as the makers acted, when they stored it up; those who use it to ask further questions, to examine, to investigate; who try honestly and solemnly to find out what is the right way of looking at things and of dealing with them."

Put otherwise, for the nonce in Biblical terms, the rational use of and approach to all traditional belief and practice is as insisted by Thessalonians 5, 21: "Prove all things: hold fast that which is good."    Text.

Note 76: "A question rightly asked is already half answered, said Jacobi; we may add that the method of solution is the other half of the answer, and that the actual result counts for nothing by the side of these two."

Here are three important points compressed in one statement:

  • Real science is driven by questions.
  • The core of real science consists of rational methods to answer questions.
  • Rational methods are in principle far more important than the results reached with them.

The reason for the last point is that once one has found a rational method to answer a question it can be used to answer many more questions, and does not need genius to do so, but just competence and relevant knowledge.   Text.

Note 77: "The question which required a genius to ask it rightly is answered by a tiro. If Ohm’s law were suddenly lost and forgotten by all men, while the question and the method of solution remained, the result could be rediscovered in an hour. But the result by itself, if known to a people who could not comprehend the value of the question or the means of solving it, would be like a watch in the hands of a savage who could not wind it up, or an iron steamship worked by Spanish engineers."

Here Clifford mentions some of the recent achievements of science of his day such as the telegraph and the "iron steamship" - which 117 years later are outdated and mostly replaced (namely by radio, the internet, airplanes, all invented after Clifford died).

In any case, the points of principle are the central importance to the human cognitive enterprise of trying to improve man's standing and chances in nature by the finding of real natural knowledge of good questions and good methods to answer good questions - and that without sufficient individuals to appreciate and understand the value of good questions or without sufficient individuals capable of (eventually) answering them rationally, there would be no science and no human civilization, but just another kind of ape, characterized by being furless and by its capacity to chatter to others and to seriously and proudly believe all manner of delusions.   Text.

Note 78: "In regard, then, to the sacred tradition of humanity, we learn that it consists, not in propositions or statements which are to be accepted and believed on the authority of the tradition, but in questions rightly asked, in conceptions which enable us to ask further questions, and in methods of answering questions. The value of all these things depends on their being tested day by day."

Here Clifford in fact insists that there are two approached to tradition: The common one of accepting it at face-value, because it was handed down from posterity by authority, and of practising it without rationally questioning and investigating it; and the scientific one that accepts nothing without critical rational investigation and objective empirical testing.

Unfortunately, it seems that "the sacred tradition of humanity" so far had far more of the first than of the second approach.     Text.

Note 79: "The very sacredness of the precious deposit imposes upon us the duty and the responsibility of testing it, of purifying and enlarging it to the utmost of our power. He who makes use of its results 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 out."

This again - like some other parts of Clifford's prose - sounds a bit dated and semi-religious. The last was probably on purpose, for Clifford knew very well that those who opposed him would do so - and still do so - "in the name of" some tradition or religion.      Text.

Note 80: "When the labours and questionings of honest and brave men shall have built up the fabric of known truth to a glory which we in this generation can neither hope for nor imagine, in that pure and holy temple he shall have no part nor lot, but his name and his works shall be cast out into the darkness of oblivion for ever."

This seems more sentiment than (possible) fact. In any case: The vast majority of mankind that lived and died did so, as far as the presently living are concerned, anonymously and without being known for anything whatsoever by their posterity. And the very few of earlier generations that are recalled after their death tend not to be scientists but political or religious leaders, whereas the few scientists that are recalled tend to be misunderstood and misconstrued for current purposes, that often have little or nothing to do with their real intents or achievements.   Text.



last update: 25 Jan 2012