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The Ethics of Belief
#1
The Ethics of Belief
This thread is addressing the issue of the morality of believing things without evidence.  We will start with the presumption that morality isn't meaningless, and that things like murder are wrong.  The exact nature of morality is, however, a subject for another thread.  If you wish to discuss the nature of morality, please do so in another thread.

Like many words in English, the word "faith" has multiple meanings.  For the purposes of this thread, I will use it exclusively to mean

              belief that is unsupported by evidence.

This is the sense of "faith" that is most relevant to religion, as the whole point of some religionist telling someone that they just need to have faith is that they don't want to bother with proper evidence.  Otherwise, they would just give the evidence, and not make an appeal to faith.

I will keep to this one meaning in order to avoid the problem of equivocation, which is a common issue when this matter is discussed, with an alternate meaning of "faith" used to shift the discussion away from the fact that one has introduced the term in an effort to avoid actual evidence.


As one might expect, this topic has been discussed in the past, and I will be taking as the basis of the present discussion William Kingdon Clifford's essay "The Ethics of Belief" which can be found at:

http://ajburger.homestead.com/files/book.htm

I have selected that site as it also has an essay that is a response to ideas like Clifford's, and has a response to the response.  I will be defending Clifford's position, and will be happy to try to explain any portions of it that anyone has questions about.  I will use extensive quotes, as I rather like the way Clifford approaches this question.  As needed, I will argue against the response to Clifford by William James called "The Will to Believe" at the above link.  I will draw on the essay that is a response to it by A.J. Burger entitled "An Examination of ‘The Will to Believe’" and will defend it, as needed, as it essentially is agreeing with Clifford.  Here is the beginning of Clifford's essay:

Quote:SHIPOWNER was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship.  He knew that she was old, and not over-well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs.  Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy.  These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense.  Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections.  He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also.  He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere.  He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors.  In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales. 
        What shall we say of him?  Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men.  It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him.  He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.  And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it. 
        Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the ship was not unsound after all; that she made her voyage safely, and many others after it.  Will that diminish the guilt of her owner?  Not one jot.  When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.  The man would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out.  The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him. 

The argument Clifford is presenting is essentially this:  What you believe affects your actions, and your actions affect others.  As you are responsible for the effects of your actions on others, so, too, are you responsible for the beliefs that prompt your actions.  So just as you have a responsibility to be careful about your actions, you have a responsibility to be careful about your beliefs that lead to your actions.  And the way one is responsible about one's beliefs is by seeking evidence prior to accepting a proposition as true or false; that is, prior to having a belief one way or another about the matter, one should have evidence.

Clifford's conclusion is:

Quote:To sum up:  it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

This is probably long enough for an opening post, and will add details as needed in subsequent posts.

"A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence."
— David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, Part I.
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#2
RE: The Ethics of Belief
I agree with everything said here I think. But I would also like to add the other side of the equation, that when presented with clear proofs or you are reminded about knowledge you know deep inside, but that decide to deny and reject it, this disbelief is unjust and unethical too.

Depending on the weight of what you are denying and it's purpose, it can be an extreme injustice.  When you oppose a truth simply because you dislike it, despite being present clear proofs,  and prefer blindness over sight, it's an injustice too.

Following what you have no knowledge of is to be condemned, and attributing to God for example what you don't know is a great injustice, while also disbelieving in clear proofs or denying knowledge you know when reminded, is unethical too.
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#3
RE: The Ethics of Belief
(July 22, 2015 at 5:45 pm)MysticKnight Wrote: When you oppose a truth simply because you dislike it, despite being present clear proofs,  and prefer blindness over sight, it's an injustice too.

Not understanding what 'clear proofs' (sufficient evidence) means as it pertains to justified true belief is where people, like the shipowner and believers of myth, get into trouble.
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#4
The Ethics of Belief
(July 22, 2015 at 5:45 pm)MysticKnight Wrote: knowledge you know deep in side

What would be an example of this. Please elaborate.
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#5
RE: The Ethics of Belief
(July 22, 2015 at 5:45 pm)MysticKnight Wrote: ut I would also like to add the other side of the equation, that when presented with clear proofs or you are reminded about knowledge you know deep inside, but that decide to deny and reject it, this disbelief is unjust and unethical too.

That's called gut feeling and certainly doesn't count as evidence.
[Image: Bumper+Sticker+-+Asheville+-+Praise+Dog3.JPG]
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#6
RE: The Ethics of Belief
Quote:The argument Clifford is presenting is essentially this: What you believe affects your actions, and your actions affect others. As you are responsible for the effects of your actions on others, so, too, are you responsible for the beliefs that prompt your actions. So just as you have a responsibility to be careful about your actions, you have a responsibility to be careful about your beliefs that lead to your actions. And the way one is responsible about one's beliefs is by seeking evidence prior to accepting a proposition as true or false; that is, prior to having a belief one way or another about the matter, one should have evidence.
Thanks for starting this topic and making a small summary of the main argument. I partially agree with what the author says, but I also have some doubts, namely:

- What if what you believe doesn't affect your actions? For example, if I believe in a deistic god that created the universe and doesn't care about Human affairs, does that belief impact my actions? How would you respond if the belief didn't and couldn't impact one's actions?
- Is there always a correlation between beliefs and actions? How do we prove that a hideous act like murder, even if the author claims it was in the name of some god we all know, was really motivated by belief? Can we prove it?
- How do you define evidence? I suppose it's the criterion of "verification" that means you need some kind of proof to know something works or not - But do we apply that criterion to everything in life? I used the example of love between me and my significant other (in the other thread) as an example of belief unsupported by evidence, but I still find that belief rational. I can't comprehend what goes on the theist mind, but it's something that makes them believe.
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you

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#7
RE: The Ethics of Belief
+1 rep for best-defined OP ever.

It seems to me, however, that at least SOME beliefs will reliably support moral actions or at least cannot possibly be the root for immoral actions, despite having insufficient evidence. Therefore, while they may be poorly founded, they are at least not immoral.

Let's say I hold the belief that whenever I see a brown dog, I have to act extra kindly toward people, or I will have bad luck. The truth is that this belief is probably false, and could therefore never be corroborated with sufficient evidence. But the anecdotal evidence stemming from my own random interactions with the world has led to a belief which will, at least sometimes, cause me to act more kindly than I would otherwise. I do not see that this is an immoral belief.

I would say that superstitious beliefs, at least sometimes, are relatively moral-neutral. For example, if I have a lucky tie that I like to wear on dates, it may cause me to act more confidently, as my belief in that tie's "powers" will cause me to feel more positive and confident. I cannot see making an argument that causing myself to behave more postively and confidently would be immoral.
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#8
RE: The Ethics of Belief
To sum up:  it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.




Mr. Clifford has obviously not met many true believers.  They are fully impressed by the flimsiest of "evidence" even if it isn't evidence at all in the case of fools like our resident theists.

When a theist is told that his bullshit is true there is no such thing as "insufficient."
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#9
RE: The Ethics of Belief
(July 22, 2015 at 5:45 pm)MysticKnight Wrote: I agree with everything said here I think. But I would also like to add the other side of the equation, that when presented with clear proofs or you are reminded about knowledge you know deep inside, but that decide to deny and reject it, this disbelief is unjust and unethical too.

Depending on the weight of what you are denying and it's purpose, it can be an extreme injustice.  When you oppose a truth simply because you dislike it, despite being present clear proofs,  and prefer blindness over sight, it's an injustice too.

Following what you have no knowledge of is to be condemned, and attributing to God for example what you don't know is a great injustice, while also disbelieving in clear proofs or denying knowledge you know when reminded, is unethical too.

Two things.  First, things that people "know deep inside" often really are just strong feelings that a person has, that fits with their pre-existing beliefs.  For example, many Christians strongly feel deep inside themselves that Jesus is the son of God.  The thing is, there are Muslims who strongly feel deep inside themselves that Jesus isn't the son of God, but that Mohammed is the prophet of God.  Strong internal feelings are not proper evidence.  If such things were proper evidence, then it would not lead to contradictory conclusions.

Second, you bring up a worthwhile point, that the other side of the coin, so to speak, is that one ought to believe what the evidence supports.  I suspect that Clifford (and James) do not emphasize that, as most people do not have much of a problem with that, but have the problem of their beliefs running ahead of the evidence.  But you are right, that people ought to believe what is supported by evidence, to the extent that the belief is supported by evidence.

"A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence."
— David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, Part I.
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#10
RE: The Ethics of Belief
(July 22, 2015 at 7:09 pm)Dystopia Wrote:



- What if what you believe doesn't affect your actions? For example, if I believe in a deistic god that created the universe and doesn't care about Human affairs, does that belief impact my actions? How would you respond if the belief didn't and couldn't impact one's actions?


Clifford addresses that concern:

Clifford Wrote:       Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it.  He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart.  If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future.  It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole.  No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.


When one believes one thing, it affects the other beliefs one has.  Both in terms of what other things fit with it, and in terms of the way one acquires one's beliefs.  In your specific example of deism, it is likely to impact one's examination of the origins of the universe, as well as make one more receptive to other god related beliefs.  And those affected beliefs may affect other beliefs, rather like a pebble being tossed into a still pond, causing a ripple across the surface.

To put this another way, beliefs are not all held in isolation from each other.  So one belief will affect the aggregate of beliefs one has.  And, as already mentioned, if one is willing to accept one thing on insufficient evidence, one is more likely to accept another thing on insufficient evidence.  After all, if such 'reasoning' is okay in one case, why not another?  As Clifford puts it:

Clifford Wrote:We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide.  But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.


(July 22, 2015 at 7:09 pm)Dystopia Wrote: - Is there always a correlation between beliefs and actions? How do we prove that a hideous act like murder, even if the author claims it was in the name of some god we all know, was really motivated by belief? Can we prove it?


There are two separate issues in those questions.  If you mean, 'can we prove that the person did the action for the reason the person claims,' much will depend on what one counts as "proof."  But if you mean to question whether the action had any connection to any belief, are you seriously going to tell us that you believe the action had no connection to any beliefs the person had?

If I take a gun and shoot someone in the head, are you going to tell me that I did not have the belief that shooting someone in the head might lead to the person's death?  That when I loaded the gun, I had no beliefs about the significance of putting bullets in it, in order to make it work?  Is not every action that one takes connected to some belief (or more likely, beliefs)?

If you mean that a person might lie about an action, obviously, that is true.  So we cannot simply accept people's claims.  But that does not mean that their actions have no connection with any beliefs.


(July 22, 2015 at 7:09 pm)Dystopia Wrote: - How do you define evidence?


That is a very complicated question to answer.  And to be perfectly frank, I am not going to give a complete answer, as that would be practically impossible.  However, the short answer is, different things require different kinds of things as evidence.  For example, evidence that the Pythagorean theorem is true is going to look very different from evidence that I am presently in my home.  The former is going to involve discussions of mathematical concepts, and the latter is going to involve looking in my home (or, for such a trivial thing, one might regard my testimony as adequate, as there is nothing extraordinary in being in one's home).

The nature of a particular idea determines the sort of things that would be necessary for there to be evidence in favor of it.  It is no use looking in my home and seeing me here if the object is to prove the Pythagorean theorem, but it is more than acceptable for determining that I am in my home.


(July 22, 2015 at 7:09 pm)Dystopia Wrote: I suppose it's the criterion of "verification" that means you need some kind of proof to know something works or not - But do we apply that criterion to everything in life? I used the example of love between me and my significant other (in the other thread) as an example of belief unsupported by evidence, but I still find that belief rational. I can't comprehend what goes on the theist mind, but it's something that makes them believe.


You will either need to repeat the story or at least provide a link for me to address your specific example regarding your love.  However, I can address the general idea of trusting someone.  I trust my wife.  Now, I do that not because I love her, but because I have known her for many years, and have gotten to know her character fairly well.  She has been honest in the past, and so I infer that she is likely to be honest in the future.  Of course, there is much more than that, as there has not been a falling out or argument recently, nor has she started being distant or otherwise altered her behavior, etc.  Regardless of the details, the evidence I have regarding such things is not the same sort of evidence one can have for the Pythagorean theorem.  That may affect the level of certainty involved, but it does not mean that there is not enough evidence for it to be reasonable for me to trust my wife.

I presume that if you are in love with someone, you have known the person for some time, and during that time, you have observed that person's conduct.  You can make inferences from such observations, though what inferences will depend on what observations you have made.

It is also worth emphasizing that Clifford specifically wrote about "sufficient evidence" and was not trying to tell you that you needed an absolute perfect certain proof before believing something.  You may, of course, complain that there is some slippage in some of what I have stated in this post, but, to bring in someone else for variety:

Aristotle Wrote:Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. 

http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.1.i.html

Not every subject has the same level of precision, and so we must be content with what is possible in a given subject.

"A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence."
— David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, Part I.
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