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To Believe Or not to Believe, That's The Question

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The purpose of this article is to summarize a discussion about a new idea brought by William Clifford, the evidentialism, and the answer (or critique) of William James’s about this concept in a discussion between the two philosophers. With Clifford’s text “The Ethics of Belief” and James’s answer in “The Will to believe”, the main topic is whether is morally wrong to believe things without evidence, or if it is acceptable at some circumstances.

In his text William Clifford made perhaps one of the most surprising defense of what is now called evidentialism. According to Clifford, “It is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”, it is immoral to do so and it is our duty to find the proof. Evidence, is the main component that justifies belief, therefore should not be ignored. According to Clifford, people are inclined to believe in things without good evidence because they are blinded by their own desire and hope. In the beginning of his text, Clifford present us an example of a guy who believed his ship would make it through one last trip, contrary to what everyone else was telling him, and put the life of everyone on board in risk because he believed he was right. Clifford’s example shows us how believing in something without evidence can be stubborn and selfish. When we let ourselves believe in things without enough justification, we become more vulnerable, making it easier for people to be dishonest, even when they have good intentions with us. Comfort can be one of the hardest things to deal with when trying to change someone’s minds. How could we help someone if they do not want to be helped since they feel comfortable where they are?

When two people are in a relationship, for example, and one of them cheated, how could we help the other person of they would rather believe in the falsehood? In this case the wish to believe in something because you want it to be truth can be harmful. Everyone has the chance to change, question or doubt their beliefs, but according to Clifford, even when someone does not want to think otherwise, they can still think about their actions before acting on it. We all suffer when a bad action is made, however we suffer even more when a credulous mind is supported, and false beliefs are fixed in their minds. To Clifford, someone that has no time to understand or question their beliefs, should not have the right to believe. Believing in something with insufficient evidence can make damages to ourselves and to society. If someone believes in X, there might not be harm done for the individual, however, it could become a problem in the bigger picture. Even if X ends up being true after all, by simply believing in something because we were told to do so, can harm our capacity of questioning and as consequence supporting false beliefs. Because of that, Clifford explains that it is dangerous to believe in falsehood, however the biggest problem a society could face is becoming credulous. It is known that some things like religion and faith can be hard to find good evidence, so Clifford proposes that we believe in what is well-justified, since believing in falsehoods is worse than not accepting the truth. Some people, on the other hand, may think the opposite.

William James’s response to Clifford’s argument is that there are some situations in which believing in something without enough evidences is rationally acceptable and not immoral. James debates that our beliefs are consequences of hypothesis where it is better to act than not to. When we do not have enough evidences to support an action, hypothesis are created, and it is up to us evaluate which one is the better option for each circumstance. James calls genuine option the one that is live, forced and momentous. The first, when there is a possibility of belief and it matters to the one who believes in it. The second, when there are only two possible hypotheses, and choosing one is the same thing as not agreeing with the other. And the third is when something with a great value depends on it. James argues that if we follow Clifford’s theory we would be only avoiding the error instead of trying to find the truth, and because of fear, we could not see the truth, since in order to see it we need to take the risk of believing without enough evidence.

James’s “The Will to Believe” is summarized by his idea that “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. ”, and focuses on the importance of religious faith, and belief in general, as an important tool people use to achieve great things. If no one had never believed in anything without first obtaining empirical evidence, a lot of things we know today would have been different. The ability and the will to believe, play vital roles in our lives, and although many do not want to admit it, not always, all beliefs are going to be rational, unlike Clifford wants. James’s ‘Do you like me or not?’ example is a moral question, where in order to obtain an answer, we would need to ask our heart instead of science. The example is meant to show that a belief does not depend on only one person, however, if someone really believes in something, this belief will be validated by their passion, with no need of evidence. The example clarifies that there are cases where having faith in a fact, helps its creation. James believes that as knowers “We must know the truth; and we must avoid error” so we should hold on to our beliefs until we have sufficient evidence in order to avoid falsehood.

To conclude, James claims that we have two duties when it comes to faith: to believe the truth or to not believe the false. Because in order to belief the truth we have to believe in something, at the same time we have to risk having false beliefs. Clifford also believes there are duties to be fulfilled, that is that if someone must choose between two conflicted ideas then, this person has the option to choose in what to believe. Both philosophers make really good points, although with antagonists arguments. James using more sentimental arguments while Clifford uses a series of examples.

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