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5.0 out of 5 stars A deliberately outrageous thinker, 1 July 2009
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This review is from: W. K. Clifford and the ""Ethics of Belief (Hardcover)
So ends Timothy Madigan's excellent study of the remarkable W. K. Clifford and his secular sermon, "The Ethics of Belief". A Victorian mathematician who wrote an essay on our epistemic and ethical responsibilities - outrageous? It seems unlikely, and yet his most famous essay's conclusion that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" remains polemical dynamite, however philosophically improper. As well as the essay itself, Madigan discusses its original context (the Victorian "crisis of faith") and then maps out both the contemporary and modern reactions, including William James's rejoinder, "The Will to Believe". Intellectual achievements are balanced by more personal details and the thoughts of those who knew him. The freethinker Moncure D. Conway, for example, wrote that Clifford "had a winning personality, irresistible indeed, and in public speaking could charm alike the Royal Society or a popular audience."

The essay began life as a lecture delivered in 1876 to the Metaphysical Society and remains in print in various collections (see, for example, The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (Great Books in Philosophy), for which Madigan wrote an excellent introduction). Clifford's starting point was to understand the world "as it really was". He "held that the scientific approach was the best way to reach knowledge which was objective", he "tried to clear away outdated and oppressive beliefs which obscured this scientific understanding" and he "felt it to be immoral to accept dreams or illusions, no matter how comforting, when the means existed for grasping reality itself". He had an "almost evangelical desire to combat credulity and charlatanism" and he wanted to, in Conway's words, "liberate the people of all classes from degrading dogmas." He became "a fierce advocate of the view that there was no such thing as disembodied consciousness, and he delighted in debunking paranormal claims." Clifford's striving for intellectual clarity is a positive virtue that continues to inspire freethinkers everywhere.

Madigan identifies "a change in attitude regarding received wisdom" that Clifford as a mathematician experienced directly. For more than two thousand years, "Euclid's geometry had been considered as an unquestioned certain body of knowledge" but recent work on non-Euclidean geometry by Riemann and Lobachevski (which Clifford could read in the original German) was opening up whole new fields as well as tearing down old certainties. Today geometry, tomorrow the Gospels - why should either be exempt from "conscientious inquiry"? Clifford understood the difference between traditions which welcomed inquiry and those which shirked it. One of his earliest critics, the Catholic W. G. Ward, admitted that every Christian teacher "impresses a sacred duty on the mass of believers, that they shall not read infidel books or otherwise allow themselves to doubt the truth of Christianity." Why does that not surprise me?

"For Clifford, as for Nietzsche, the religious beliefs of human beings had once been reasonable hypotheses to explain the natural world and its wonders. But the rise of scientific investigation had shown that these answers, while often satisfying, were unsubstantiated or often plain wrong. If the facts no longer support cherished beliefs, then for the good of human progress such beliefs had to be shed." That he also "wished to provide a scientific understanding of human morality" shows just how far ahead of his time he was.

No wonder Clifford had none of Nietzsche's despair when it came to spreading the word. He was too busy spending "his free time giving public lectures to the working class" and "would have been appalled by Nietzsche's offhand comments about the inability of most humans to give up the dogmas of religion and theology." Underpinning his optimism, I believe, was his conviction that the scientific method was not confined to the laboratory. Science was for Clifford the best way of arriving at new knowledge, rather than a loose collection of subject areas like physics and geology and cosmology beyond the reach of most people. It relies on inductive reasoning, and inferential methods, of course, rely on nature being uniform. Although the assumption "that the future will be like the past" is one that all sane people make, justifying induction is a difficult philosophical problem, one which Madigan as a good philosopher takes seriously. (As a non-philosopher, I would point to the impossibility of evolution if the laws of nature chopped and changed.)

"The Ethics of Belief" is not without its flaws, and Madigan has done a thorough job gathering into one volume a wide range of critical and friendly opinion spanning over a century. He suggests that we can best understand Clifford's evidentialism as a type of "as if" thinking, to use the term coined by the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger, rather than a hard-and-fast system of rules which one is obliged to follow. (Vaihinger's work "defended the notion of creative fictions - propositions that are known to be false but which nonetheless are the means to some definite end if treated as if they were true.")

For Clifford, "the duty to tell the truth, and correlate beliefs to evidence, was an obligation that all must adhere to, and the method which best enabled humans to achieve this was the scientific one." It is a perennial irony that those who shout loudest about duty and truth often pay least attention to evidence and reason.
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W. K. Clifford and the ""Ethics of Belief
W. K. Clifford and the ""Ethics of Belief by Timothy J. Madigan (Hardcover - 1 April 2008)
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