THE WEIGHT OF AUTHORITY
"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
However, there are two pertinent
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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
"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
"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
- There are usually strong
social pressures, even in democracies, towards some opinions and
- 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.
"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
"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
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.
"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.
"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
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.
"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
"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
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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
"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
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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
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
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.
"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
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
Principles Of Scientific Explanation.) Text.
"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.
"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.
"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
This seems to be an adequate
summary in two statements of the history of all religions. Text.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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
"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".
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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
- 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.
"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.
"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.
"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
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.
"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