Philosophy 231: The Big Questions
Professor C. Trogan
Handout: Epistemology/Belief: Clifford and James
What do the examples of the shipowner and the commission show?
People have no right to believe on inadequate evidence. It makes no difference if the
belief turns out to be true or not. The right to believe is given by the adequacy of the
evidence, not by the sincerity with which the belief is held.
Do you agree with Clifford's contention that all of us have a duty to question our
beliefs? Why, or why not?
Note: Clifford argues that our beliefs influence our actions and have consequences for
other humans. Hence belief is a moral obligation (a duty) which is desecrated when
based on unproved or unquestioned assumptions. He also contends that belief and action
are so closely related that to condemn one is to condemn the other. Are belief and action
are so closely related?
Do you agree with Clifford's claim that it is "wrong always, everywhere, and for
anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence"? Why, or why not?
Note: Clifford argues that we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of
carefully weighing evidence, and promote credulity if we do believe based on insufficient
evidence. Do you think such consequences really follow from violating Clifford's rule?
What do you think Clifford means by "sufficient evidence"? How much evidence
He appears to mean evidence that has been fairly and judiciously examined and has
withstood critical questioning and testing. What constitutes evidence? What different
kinds of evidence exist? What is the difference between sufficient and necessary
What, according to James, is a genuine option? Give an example.
A genuine option is one that is live, forced, and momentous.
Example: Either get married now or lose the chance.
What is James's thesis?
Whenever we face a genuine option that cannot be decided by evidence, our desires must
decide our belief since the decision not to believe is as much a decision based on desire
as our decision to believe.
How, according to James, does Clifford's attitude differ from James's with respect
to "our first and great commandments as would-be knowers"?
Clifford's attitude is "we must avoid error" while James's is "we must know the truth."
James thinks Clifford's attitude, although safer and more conservative than his own,
would nevertheless lead to missing truth we otherwise might find. James's own view,
although riskier, would allow us to get more truth.
How does James support his own attitude? What examples does he use? Do his
examples support his thesis? Why, or why not?
He argues that his attitude (we must know the truth) is as much an expression of the
passions as Clifford's (avoid error). Clifford has a fear of being duped, but James has a
fear of missing the truth. He uses the examples of a general keeping soldiers out of battle
for fear of causalities, of the law courts having to decide based on the best evidence
attainable for the moment, of moral questions that cannot wait for sensible proof because
they deal with what ought to exist, not with what already does exist. He also cites cases
of personal relations that depend, in part, on how we act toward the other and cases where
cooperation is needed to create a fact (government, army, ship, college, athletic team,
train of passages being robbed, etc.). Further, he claims that if the "religious hypothesis"
(by which he means the claims that "the best things are the most eternal" and we are
"better off even now if we believe" that to be so) is false, agnosticism would keep us
from error, but if its true, it would keep us from even finding out because it would
prevent us from taking the chance of following our "willing nature." James thinks that
Clifford's rule prevents me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth and therefore it is
Note: James carefully sets aside scientific beliefs and all other situations where we have
the leisure to wait for more evidence and there is nothing immediate or momentous at
stake. In these situations Clifford's advice is good advice. However, if Clifford's rule is
"irrational" when used in the situations James cites, why isn't James's rule "irrational" in
situations where I would be led to embrace certain kinds of falsehood, if falsehood really
Purchase answer to see full