Clifford, William Kingdon

Clifford, William Kingdon
   A mathematician and philosopher, Clifford wrote in his oft-anthologised essay 'The Ethics of Belief' this famous statement of evidentialism: 'It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence' (1901: 174). While the essay does not focus on religious belief in particular, it is clearly Clifford's primary target. Clifford illustrates the point with the example of a ship-owner that convinces himself - despite the evidence - that his ship is seaworthy. When it sinks and many drown we see the devastation caused by unethical believing. Insofar as religious belief violates the ethics of belief, it too is irrational, unethical and potentially harmful. Clifford himself followed these dictates by moving from Roman Catholicism to agnosticism. While William James offered a famous rebuttal in his essay 'The Will to Believe', more recently philosophers have pointed out that Clifford's principle is self-referentially defeating: he offers no evidence for it, and therefore violates it by believing it.
   Further reading: Clifford 1901; James 1979

Christian Philosophy . . 2015.

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