( Perusing my hard drive this morning I happened upon a paper I wrote several years ago on the subject of belief.  While perhaps less complete than it could be, I think it dovetails nicely with yesterday’s post on materialism.  It was not originally written for online publication, and I think this shows in its length and style, but rather to satisfy the needs of a college philosophy course.  Still, it sheds some light on what may follow as a logical followup question from yesterday for some of my readers, namely, “What then, is knowable?”  Properly speaking this is the subject of epistemology and this essay is insufficient to address that question in any depth.  I hope it may be enough to point the reader towards my source material, particularly the work of William James and Martin Heidegger, who cover this subject in a far more insightful and enlightening manner. ) 


Why do we believe what we believe? By belief I do not mean what we profess to believe or what we want to believe, but what we actually assume to be true about ourselves and the world. The term “belief” seems a little old fashioned in our post-modern society. We are accustomed to thinking of beliefs as little more than private fantasies – harmless if kept within the confines of our own heads, and of no proper bearing on external reality. Those who seek to impose their beliefs on others we regard as suspect, or outright criminal. Our educational system, designed to produce technicians of a highly skilled nature, reinforces this paradigm of arriving at justified belief only after a vigorous investigation of phenomenon, based on certain concrete and ‘proven” rules of discovery and analysis; OR from authority figures that follow these same rules. In this way, the cosmologist has replaced the theologian, and the psychologist, the priest.

W.K. Clifford, in his essay The Ethics of Belief sums up this modern perspective when he says, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (Clifford, 79) By evidence he means empirical evidence, or something very much like it. For Clifford, and I contend for many of us, evidence is only really evidence when it is publicly demonstrable. “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.” (Clifford, 78) Clifford is less concerned with truth per se, as with methodology. “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.” (Clifford, 77)

Let us keep this perspective of Clifford’s in mind as we entertain a possible problem of belief, specifically a moral belief. Fatima is a Muslim woman living in America, a working mother and a college student. Andrea was raised “non-denominational” Christian, and has no fixed religious beliefs. Andrea is a long time friend, an anthropology student and an agnostic. Fatima has a young daughter named Isabella, who is preparing for her first day of kinder-garden. The problem is that Fatima insists her daughter wear the hijab: a head scarf and face wrap, combined with a concealing dress, worn by orthodox Muslim women when in public. Andrea protests. Her argument is that the hijab is not legally required in America, is an unnecessary repression, will lower Isabella’s self esteem and is a morally reprehensible practice forced on women by a patriarchal ruling caste. She points to the repressive regimes of the Middle East, regimes Fatima and her husband moved to America to escape, as “proof” of the immoral nature of this practice. Fatima responds that the hijab preserves a woman’s special and protected place in society. She claims that it will allow an adult Isabella to fully express her femininity by not marketing her as “a good to be bought, sold and gawked at” on the public streets. She points out that she, herself, wears the hijab in public, and does so without any pressure from her husband. She also points to the high rate of divorce, medication and general unhappiness of western women as “proof” of the beneficial nature of this practice. Now, how would Clifford judge the situation? Whose belief is right? Neither Fatima nor Andrea can offer any empirical evidence in favor of her position. Clifford would probably recommend that both with-hold judgment until such evidence appears. But what would count as evidence? Must young Isabella be denied an education until a consensus is reached? Moreover, a consensus among whom? Child physiologists? Does the religion of the psychologist matter? What methodology should they use in reaching their conclusions? Is the field of psychology even the final answer on this question? If it is revealed that regular doses of cocaine improve psychological states of depression, should we hand out cocaine to all teenagers?

William James puts his finger on the issue when he says, “Moral questions immediately present themselves as questions whose solution cannot wait for sensible proof. A moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist. Science can tell us what exists; but to compare the worths, both of what exists and of what does not [yet] exist, we must consult not science but what Pascal calls our hearts….” (James, 95) When James references our “hearts” he is talking about, as he calls it, our “passional nature”, our desire to seize at the truth, even where empirical evidence is lacking. James remarks that there are actually two epistemological rules which govern justified belief. One is, indeed, to avoid error. The other is to hold to truth. But, he emphasizes, these two rules are wholly separate. “We must know the truth; and we must avoid error – these are our first and great commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws. Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing anything at all, not even A!” (James, 94) Therefore, we can only hold out for empirical evidence when there is no particular demand that we seize the truth (or as close as we can reach towards it) right now. James does not hold that empirical reasoning is invalid; only that it is limited. When we look at questions that are proper to empirical reasoning, they are generally questions that are not, as James puts it, forced or momentous. “Wherever the option between losing truth and gaining it is not momentous, we can throw the chance of gaining truth away, and at any rate save ourselves from any chance of believing falsehood, by not making up our minds at all till objective evidence has come.” (James, 94) So when are we justified in allowing our passional nature to dictate our beliefs? “Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision – just like deciding yes or no – and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth…” (James, 93-94)

Returning to the case of young Isabella, we cannot hold out for objective evidence. She must go to school tomorrow and she must wear something. The question is, as James puts it, forced. If we decide to let her wear whatever she wants, we have not made a neutral choice, but rather asserted that a five year old child is capable of knowing how to properly dress herself, a highly questionable and not at all objectively based assertion. Moreover the question is certainly a “live” one, as James puts it, for Fatima and Andrea. They both have stakes in the outcome of the situation. Admittedly, Fatima has a larger stake, as Isabella’s mother. Lastly, the choice is momentous. Our patterns for proper behavior are imprinted at a young age. What she learns as a child will affect Isabella, positively or negatively, for the rest of her life. In this situation, a choice not only can be made by “passional nature”, it MUST be made.

So, what choice will Fatima make? James has an answer for that as well. She will choose based on “prestige” – which is just a fancy way of saying she’ll try to make the best choice. If she holds Andrea’s opinion in high esteem, she may relax her insistence on Isabella wearing the hijab. If she holds her cultural background in higher esteem, things will be different. Perhaps she will consult with an older relation or local religious leader. The point is that human beings must occasionally strike out towards the truth, even if it means risking error. Clifford’s injunction, “It is never lawful to stifle a doubt;” (Clifford. 80) is not only unrealistic, it is inhuman.

The deeper question in play here is not merely whether or not we should have some kind of thought behind our actions, but rather a debate about what kinds of thoughts should be allowed to determine or justify human action. This is really the essence of the question of “belief”. By seeking to define “beliefs” as those thoughts which are not empirically justified, we are actually seeking to uphold one style of belief over another. By denying that the empirical process itself is based on certain a priori assumptions, we seek to elevate it above the status of “belief” and into the status of “truth”. What we actually accomplish by this is not the elevation of science, but the degradation of thought. Heidegger points out, in his Letter on Humanism “The characterization of thinking as ‘theorizing’ and the determination of cognition as a way of behaving is one already in accord with the ‘technical‘ explanation of thinking. It is more a reactive move to preserve a sort of independence for thinking in contrast with action and doing. Since then ‘philosophy’ has had to justify its kind of life before ‘science’. It thinks that this will most certainly happen by elevating itself to the level of science. Yet these efforts mount to the relinquishment of the essence of thinking. Philosophy is pursued by the fear of losing respect and value if it is not science. This is regarded as a shortcoming which is equated with being ‘unscientific’.” (Heidegger, 2)

What Heidegger is getting at is really the same point that James tries to make at the conclusion of his essay The Will to Believe: “In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark.” (James, 97) Our existence is not, in all cases, perfectly rational. It is not only that we have yet to attain reason, but rather that being has never, and probably will never, present itself in a fully rationally and comprehensible manner. Therefore, thinking is properly an embrace of being according to different rules at different times. James and Heidegger recognize this fact, which is why we can apply James to the complex field of human interaction and arrive at clarity. Clifford, on the other hand, wishes to cut off an entire field of human activity, and thought, and label it “irrational” whether or not it arrives at the truth of any given situation. “…the question is not whether their belief was true or false, but whether they entertained it on wrong grounds.”( Clifford, 77) This amounts to labeling certain types of thought as “witchcraft” or prohibited thought. Wrong, even where it is effective. Whether or not human life is even possible in a world run by Clifford’s rules I do not know, but I believe that I would not want to live there.

Works Cited: 

Clifford, W.K., “The Ethics of Belief,”

James, William, “The Will to Believe”,

Heidegger, Martin, “Letter on Humanism”

3 thoughts on “Belief

  1. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

    The flaw with this essay is that you’re conflating very different kinds of claims. You seem to be implying that if you can demonstrate that one type of claim can’t be demonstrated by means of evidence then the entire idea of demonstrating claims by means of evidence is suspect.

    But the fact is that so-called “moral” claims aren’t in the same category as, say, factual claims.
    Moral claims aren’t claims about fact: they’re statements of value. As you suggest, whether someone decides to dress their kid a certain way or not has to do with how they value a number of different things (tradition, likely societal consequences of actions, ideals of femininity, etc.). But factual claims are evaluated entirely differently: conclusions such as the fact that there’s one sun in the solar system, that all life evolved from common ancestors, that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492…these conclusions don’t depend on values but on evidence.

    Forgive me if I’m taking your essay the wrong way, but the strong implication I get from it is that you think that since evidence can’t demonstrate conclusively what someone “should” do in a situation, therefore maybe we ought not to always rely on evidence when it comes to evaluating fact claims, particularly (I suspect you have in mind) magical and supernatural claims.

    But, again, that only works if we conflate moral claims with other kinds of claims, which is in error.

    Incidentally, I hope you don’t feel attacked by my critical response to two of your posts. I stumbled across your blog, and I saw that you write on several subjects that I do, and I happen to have some free time, and there’s a place on your blog for comments. So here you go.

    Love is the law, love under will.


    • “Forgive me if I’m taking your essay the wrong way, but the strong implication I get from it is that you think that since evidence can’t demonstrate conclusively what someone “should” do in a situation, therefore maybe we ought not to always rely on evidence when it comes to evaluating fact claims, particularly (I suspect you have in mind) magical and supernatural claims.”

      Nope. That isn’t what I’m saying at all.

      You seem to think that your critiques are substantive and I think you don’t really know what you’re talking about.


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