Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Quote: Clifford on the Ethics of Belief

I'm in the process of editing my piece on deferring to experts for publication somewhere (maybe Skeptical Inquirer), so I've been doing a bit more reading in the area. I just remembered William Clifford's famous 1877 essay, "The Ethics of Belief" (a nice pdf version is here). It's well worth a read, if only for its purple prose and hardnosed conclusion: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Another nice quote: 
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 humanity. It is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning. Then it helps to bind men together, and to strengthen and direct their common action.

It is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer; to add a tinsel splendour to the plain straight road of our life and display a bright mirage beyond it; or even to drown the common sorrows of our kind by a self-deception which allows them not only to cast down, but also to degrade us. 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.