Clifford Vs James on the Adoption of Belief

In his essay, The Ethics of Belief, W.K. Clifford tries to convince the readers that making the right choice about what to believe in is, indeed, a matter of ethical importance. He argues that even if our beliefs were fixed, we were still obliged to act in a manner that demonstrates we are responsible and reasonable. He emphasizes this by use of an example of a ship owner who convinced himself that his worn out ship could still function effectively, even though he doubted it, and the ship went on to sink killing everyone on board.

Perhaps Clifford’s most influential take on belief is in his argument that belief is not a private matter, but rather a guideline of things and events that have been created by the society for social purposes. As such, he argues, any case of believing for faulty reasons has the potential of wrecking the entire system of belief that the society depends on. This, in turn, has the capacity to weaken the self-control and critical faculties of individual members of the particular society. He, therefore, suggests that, to avoid this disorientation, it is wise that not a single person in a society believe in something without having sufficient evidence of its existence or occurrence. If these sentiments are transferred to the belief in God, then Clifford is saying that believing in God merely on faith, without having sufficient evidence of his existence, is wrong. Clifford would, therefore, not consider the belief in God as a responsible thing to do because, as he states it “…it lacks sufficient evidence.”

While Clifford takes the position of trying to convince people not to believe in something until they had sufficient evidence, and that a single faulty belief by a member of a society could wreck the entire belief system in the society because “…the social fabric of belief is a social trust,” William James take a different stand that rather seek to provide a philosophical justification of faith. He puts forth arguments and conditions under which faith could be considered appropriate and the reasons why it is appropriate. Indeed, he starts his article, The Will to Believe, by providing definitions of some key words, not in contemporary English meaning, but in the meaning he wants them to have. This will or passion he permits to control the beliefs of the society. The element of faith means the James thinks it is not a problem to believe in the existence of God, as opposed to Clifford who thinks this belief has no sufficient evidence and should, therefore, not be adopted. However, he, like Clifford argues that our will should not influence our belief at all. To explain this, he gives an example of a mind willing to believe that they have a million dollars in their bank account yet the money is not there. No matter how willing the mind is to believe, it cannot change the fact that this money is not in the bank account.

Traditionally, a powerful being cannot create something that is more powerful than itself. But sometimes it happens that the created being gets to understand and implement more things than its creator. The reasoning of not creating a being superior to you is the possibility of being overruled or losing favor in the eyes of your subjects because they prefer the more powerful and intelligent being that you have created. However, when it happens, it can have its upside and down side. The created being could use its superiority to maliciously dethrone the creator and take over his duties, or on the upside, the created being could use its superior abilities and knowledge to enhance his creator, out of mutual respect.                         

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