Copyright
William Kingdon Clifford.

Lectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) online

. (page 14 of 22)
Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 14 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


suaded and honestly believed that he had the guidance
of heaven, and was the vehicle of a supernatural reve-
lation, how could he know that this strong conviction
was not a mistake ? Let us put ourselves in his place ;



192 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

we shall find that the more completely we endeavour to
realize what passed through his mind, the more clearly
we shall perceive that the Prophet could have had no
adequate ground for the belief in his own inspiration.
It is most probable that he himself never doubted of the
matter, or thought of asking the question ; but we are
in the position of those to whom the question has been
asked, and who are bound to answer it. It is known
to medical observers that solitude and want of food are
powerful means of producing delusion and of fostering
a tendency to mental disease. Let us suppose, then,
that I, like Mohammed, go into desert places to fast and
pray ; what things can happen to me which will give
me the right to believe that I am divinely inspired ?
Suppose that I get information, apparently from a celes-
tial visitor, which upon being tested is found to be
correct. I cannot be sure, in the first place, that the
celestial visitor is not a figment of my own mind, and
that the information did not come to me, unknown at
the time to my consciousness, through some subtle
channel of sense. But if my visitor were a real visitor,
and for a long time gave me information which was
found to be trustworthy, this would indeed be good
ground for trusting him in the future as to such matters
as fall within human powers of verification ; but it would
not be ground for trusting his testimony as to any other I
matters. For although his tested character would justify f
me in believing that he spoke the truth so far as he
knew, yet the same question would present itself what
ground is there for supposing that he knows ?

Even if my supposed visitor had given me such in-
formation, subsequently verified by me, as proved him



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 193

to have means of knowledge about verifiable matters
far exceeding my own ; this would not justify me in
believing what he said about matters that are not at
present capable of verification by man. It would be
ground for interesting conjecture, and for the hope that,
as the fruit of our patient inquiry, we might by-and-by
attain to such a means of verification as should rightly
turn conjecture into belief. For belief belongs to man.
and to the guidance of human affairs : no belief is reall
unless it guide our actions, and those very actions supply ]
a test of its truth.

But, it may be replied, the acceptance of Islam as a
system is just that action which is prompted by belief
in the mission of the Prophet, and which will serve for
a test of its truth. Is it possible to believe that a system
which has succeeded so well is really founded upon a
delusion ? Not only have individual saints found joy
and peace in believing, and verified those spiritual ex-
periences which are promised to the faithful, but nations
also have been raised from savagery or barbarism to a
higher social state. Surely we are at liberty to say that
the belief has been acted upon, and that it has been ;
verified.

It requires, however, but little consideration to show
that what has really been verified is not at all the
supernal character of the Prophet's mission, or the trust-
worthiness of his authority in matters which we ourselves
cannot test, but only his practical wisdom in certain
very mundane things. The fact that believers have
found joy and peace in believing gives us the right to say I
that the doctrine is a comfortable doctrine, and pleasant
to the soul ; but it does not give us the right to say that

VOL, II.



194 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

it is true. And the question which our conscience is
always asking about that which we are tempted to
believe is not, ' Is it comfortable and pleasant ? ' but, ' Is
it true ? ' That the Prophet preached certain doctrines,
and predicted that spiritual comfort would be found in
them, proves only his sympathy with human nature and
his knowledge of it ; but it does not prove his super-
human knowledge of theology.

And if we admit for the sake of argument (for it
seems that we cannot do more) that the progress made
by Moslem nations in certain cases was really due to
the system formed and sent forth into the world by
Mohammed, we are not at liberty to conclude from this
that he was inspired to declare the truth about things
which we cannot verify. We are only at liberty to infer
the excellence of his moral precepts, or of the means
which he devised for so working upon men as so get
them obeyed, or of the social and political machinery
which he set up. And it would require a great amount
of careful examination into the history of those nations
to determine which of these things had the greater share
in the result. So that here again it is the Prophet's
knowledge of human nature, and his sympathy with it,
that are verified ; not his divine inspiration, or his
knowledge of theology.

If there were only one Prophet, indeed, it might well
seem a difficult and even an ungracious task to decide
upon what points we would trust him, and on what we
would doubt his authority ; seeing what help and
furtherance all men have gained in all ages from those
who saw more clearly, who felt more strongly, and
who sought the truth with more single heart than their



X



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 19o

weaker brethren. But there is not only one Prophet ;
and while the consent of many upon that which, as men,
they had real means of knowing and did know, has
endured to the end, and been* honourably built into the
great fabric of human knowledge, the diverse witness
of some about that which they did not and could not
know remains as a warning to us that to exaggerate
the prophetic authority is to misuse it, and to dishonour
those who have sought only to help and further us after
their power. It is hardly in human nature that a man
should quite accurately gauge the limits of his own
insight ; but it is the duty of those who profit by his
work to consider carefully where he may have been
carried beyond it. If we must needs embalm his
possible errors along with his solid achievements, and
use his authority as an excuse for believing what he
cannot have known, w^e make of his goodness an oc-
casion to sin.

- To consider only one other such witness : the
followers of the Buddha have at least as much right to
appeal to individual and social experience in support of
the authority of the Eastern saviour. The special mark
of his religion, it is said, that in which it has never been
surpassed, is the comfort and consolation which it gives
to the sick and sorrowful, the tender sympathy with
which it soothes and assuages all the natural griefs of
men. And surely no triumph of social morality can be
greater or nobler than that which has kept nearly half
the human race from persecuting in the name of religion.
If we are to trust the accounts of his early followers, he
believed himself to have come upon earth with a divine
and cosmic mission to set rolling the wheel of the law.

o -2



196 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

Being a prince, he divested himself of his kingdom, and
of his free will became acquainted with misery, that he
might learn how to meet and subdue it. Could such a
man speak falsely about solemn things ? And as for his
knowledge, was he not a man miraculous with powers
more than man's ? He was born of woman without the
help of man ; he rose into the air and was transfigured
before his kinsmen ; at last he went up bodily into
heaven from the top of Adam's Peak. Is not his word
to be believed in when he testifies of heavenly things ?

If there were only he, and no other, with such
claims ! But there is Mohammed with his testimony ;
we cannot choose but listen to them both. The Prophet
tells us that there is one God, and that we shall live for
ever in joy or misery, according as we believe in the
Prophet or not. The Buddha says that there is no GodA
and that we shall be annihilated by-and-by if we are )
good enough. Both cannot be infallibly inspired ; one
or the other must have been the victim of a delusion,
and thought he knew that which he really did not know. \
Who shall dare to say which ? and how can we justify
ourselves in believing that the other was not also
deluded ?

We are led, then, to these judgments following.
The goodness and greatness of a man do not justify us i
in accepting a belief upon the warrant of his authority, !
unless there are reasonable grounds for supposing that ^
he knew the truth of what he was saying. And there
can be no grounds for supposing that a man knows that
which we, without ceasing to be men, could not be
supposed to verify.

If a chemist tells me, who am no chemist, that a



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 197

certain substance can be made by putting together
other substances in certain proportions and subjecting
them to a known process, I am quite justified in believ-
ing this upon his authority, unless I know anything
against his character or his judgment. For his pro-
fessional training is one which tends to encourage
veracity and the honest pursuit of truth, and to produce
a dislike of hasty conclusions and slovenly investigation.
And I have reasonable ground for supposing that he
knows the truth of what he is saying, for although I am
no chemist, I can be made to understand so much of the
methods and processes of the science as makes it con-
ceivable to me that, without ceasing to be man, I might
verify the statement. I may never actually verify it, or
even see any experiment which goes towards verifying
it ; but still I have quite reason enough to justify me in
believing that the verification is within the reach of
human appliances and powers, and in particular that
it has been actually performed by my informant. His
result, the belief to which he has been led by his in-
quiries, is valid not only for himself but for others ; it
is watched and tested by those who are working in the
same ground, and who know that no greater service
can be rendered to science than the purification of
accepted results from the errors which may have crept
into them. It is in this way that the result becomes
common property, a right object of belief, which is a
social affair and matter of public business. Thus it is to
be observed that his authority is valid because there are
those who question it and verify it ; that it is precisely
this process of examining and purifying that keeps
alive among investigators the love of that which shall



198 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

stand all possible tests, the sense of public responsibility
as of those whose work, if well done, shall remain as the
enduring heritage of mankind.

But if my chemist tells me that an atom of oxygen
has existed unaltered in weight and rate of vibration
throughout all time, I have no right to believe this on
his authority, for it is a thing which he cannot know
without ceasing to be man. He may quite honestly
believe that this statement is a fair inference from his
experiments, but in that case his judgment is at fault. \
A very simple consideration of the character of experi- *
ments would show him that they never can lead to
results of such a kind ; that being themselves only
approximate and limited, they cannot give us knowledge
which is exact and universal. No eminence of charac-
ter and genius can give a man authority enough to
justify us in believing him when he makes statements
implying exact or universal knowledge.

Again, an Arctic explorer may tell us that in a given
latitude and longitude he has experienced such and such
a degree of cold, that the sea was of such a depth, and
the ice of such a character. We should be quite right
to believe him, in the absence of any stain upon his
veracity. It is conceivable that we might, without
ceasing to be men, go there and verify his statement ;
it can be tested by the witness of his companions, and
there is adequate ground for supposing that he knows
the truth of what he is saying. But if an old whaler
tells us that the ice is three hundred feet thick all the
way up to the Pole, we shall not be justified in believ-
ing him. For although the statement may be capable
of verification by man, it is certainly not capable of



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 199



I verification by him, with any means and appliances
which he has possessed ; and he must have persuaded
himself of the truth of it by some means which does
not attach any credit to his testimony. Even if, there-
fore, the matter affirmed is within the reach of human
knowledge, we have no right to accept it upon authority
unless it is within the reach of our informant's know-
ledge.

What shall we say of that authority, more venerable
and august than any individual witness, the time-
honoured tradition of the human race? An atmo-
sphere of beliefs and conceptions has been formed by
the labours and struggles of our forefathers, which
enables us to breathe amid the various and complex
circumstances of our life. It is around and about us
and within us ; we cannot think except in the forms
and processes of thought which it supplies. Is it pos-
sible to doubt and to test it? and if possible, is it
right ?

/(We shall find reason to answer that it is not only
possible and right, but our bounden duty ; that the main
purpose of the tradition itself is to supply us with the
means of asking questions, of testing and inquiring into
things ; that if we misuse it, and take it as a collection
of cut-and-dried statements, to be accepted without
further inquiry, we are not only injuring ourselves here,
p do our part towards the building up



of the fabric which shall be inherited by our children,
we are tending to cut off ourselves and our race from
the human line.

Let us first take care to distinguish a kind of tradi-
tion which especially requires to be examined and called



200 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

in question, because it especially shrinks from inquiry.
Suppose that a medicine-man in Central Africa tells his
tribe that a certain powerful medicine in his tent will be
propitiated if they kill their cattle ; and that the tribe
believe him. Whether the medicine was propitiated
or not, there are no means of verifying, but the cattle
are gone. Still the belief may be kept up in the tribe
that propitiation has been effected in this way ; and in
a later generation it will be all the easier for another
medicine-man to persuade them to a similar act. Here
the only reason for belief is that everybody has believed
the thing for so long that it must be true. And yet the
belief was founded on fraud, and has been propagated
by credulity. That man will undoubtedly do right, and J
be a friend of men, who shall call it in question and see
that there is no evidence for it, help his neighbours to
see as he does, and even, if need be, go into the holy
tent and break the medicine.

The rule which should guide us in such cases is
simple and obvious enough : that the aggregate testi-
mony of our neighbours is subject to the same conditions
as the testimony of any one of them. Namely, we have'
no right to believe a thing true because everybody says
so, unless there are good grounds for believing that
some one person at least has the means of knowing
what is true, and is speaking the truth so far as he
knows it. However many nations and generations of
men are brought into the witness-box, they cannot
testify to anything which they do not know. Every
man who has accepted the statement from somebody
else, without himself testing and verifying it, is out of
court ; his word is worth nothing at all. And when we



I



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. X^"' 01

x <3?Rtfu

get back at last to the true birth and beginning of the
statement, two serious questions must be disposed of in
regard to him who first made it : was he mistaken in
thinking that he knew about this matter, or was he
lying?

This last question is unfortunately a very actual and
practical one even to us at this day and in this country.
We have no occasion to go to La Salette, or to Central
Africa, or to Lourdes, for examples of immoral and de-
basing superstition. It is only too possible for a child
to grow up in London surrounded by an atmosphere
of beliefs fit only for the savage, which have in our
own time been founded in fraud and propagated by
credulity.

Laying aside, then, such tradition as is handed on
without testing by successive generations, let us consi-
der that which is truly built up out of the common ex-
perience of mankind. This great fabric is for the gui-
dance of our thoughts, and through them of our actions,
both in the moral and in the material world. In the
moral world, for example, it gives us the conceptions of
right in general, of justice, of truth, of beneficence, and
the like. These are given as conceptions, not as state-
ments or propositions ; they answer to certain definite
instincts, which are certainly within us, however they
came there. That it is right to be beneficent is matter
of immediate personal experience ; for when a man re-
tires within himself and there finds something, wider
and more lasting than his solitary personality, which
says, ' I want to do right,' as well as, ' I want to do good
to man,' he can verify by direct observation that one
instinct is founded upon and agrees fully with the other.



202 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

And it is his duty so to verify this and all similar state-
ments.

The tradition says also, at a definite place and time,
that such and such actions are just, or true, or benefi-
cent. For all such rules a further inquiry is necessary,
since they are sometimes established by an authority
other than that of the moral sense founded on experience.
Until recently, the moral tradition of our own country
and indeed of all Europe taught that it was beneficent
to give money indiscriminately to beggars. But the
questioning of this rule, and investigation into it, led
men to see that true beneficence is that which helps a
man to do the work which he is most fitted for, not that
which keeps and encourages him in idleness ; and that
to neglect this distinction in the present is to prepare
pauperism and misery for the future. By this testing
and discussion, not only has practice been purified and
made more beneficent, but the very conception of
beneficence has been made wider and wiser .j^ Now here
the great social heirloom consists of two parts : the in-
stinc^oXbeneficence, which makes a certain side of our
nature, when predominant, wish tojio good to men ;
and the intelkctualconception of beneficence, which we
can compare with any proposed course of conduct and
ask, ' Is this beneficent_or not ? ' C By the continual ask-
ing ano: answering of such questions the conception
grows in breadth and distinctness, and the instinct be-
i comes strengthened and purified. } It appears then that
1 the great use of the conception, the intellectual part of
\ the heirloom, is to enable us to ask questions ; that it
\grows and is kept straight by means of these questions ;
and if we do not use it for that purpose we shall gradu-



THE ETHICS OF BELIED 203

V" **

ally lose it altogether, and be left with a\jnere code of
regulations which cannot rightly be called morality at

Such considerations apply even more obviously and
clearly, if possible, to the store of beliefs and conceptions
which our fathers have amassed for us in respect of the
material world. We are ready to laugh at the rule of
thumb of the Australian, who continues to tie his hat-
chet to the side of the handle, although the Birmingham
fitter has made a hole on purpose for him to put the
handle in. His people have tied up hatchets so for ages :
who is he that he should set himself up against their
wisdom ? He has sunk so low that he cannot do what
some of them must have done in the far distant past
call in question an established usage, and invent or learn
something better. Yet here, in the dim beginning of
knowledge, where science and art are one, we find only
the same simple rule which applies to the highest and
deepest growths of that cosmic Tree ; to its loftiest
flower-tipped branches as well as to the profoundest of
its hidden roots ; the rule, namely, that what is stored
up and handed down to us is rightly used by those who
act as the makers acted, when they stored it up ; those
who use it to ask further questions, to examine, to in-
vestigate ; who try honestly and solemnly to find out
what is the right way of looking at things and of dealing
with them.

A question rightly asked is already half answered,
said Jacobi ; we may add that the method of solution is
the other half of the answer, and that the actual result
counts for nothing by the side of these two. For an
example let us go to the telegraph, where theory and



204 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

practice, grown each to years of discretion, are mar-
vellously wedded for the fruitful service of men. Ohm
found that the strength of an electric current is directly
proportional to the strength of the battery which pro-
duces it, and inversely as the length of the wire along
which it has to travel. This is called Ohm's law ; but
the result, regarded as a statement to be believed, is
not the valuable part of it. The first half is the ques-
tion : what relation holds good between these quantities ?
So put, the question involves already the conception of
strength of current, and of strength of battery, as
quantities to be measured and compared ; it hints
clearly that these are the things to be attended to in the
study of electric currents. The second half is the
method of investigation ; how to measure these quan-
tities, what instruments are required for the experiment,
and how are they to be used ? The student who begins
to learn about electricity is not asked to believe in
Ohm's law : he is made to understand the question, he is
placed before the apparatus, and he is taught to verify
it. He learns to do things, not to think he knows things ;
to use instruments and to ask questions, not to accept a
traditional statement. The question which required a
genius to ask it rightly is answered by a tyro. If Ohm's
law were suddenly lost and forgotten by all men, while
the question and the method of solution remained, the
result could be rediscovered in an hour. But the result
by itself, if known to a people who could not compre-
hend the value of the question or the means of solving
it, would be like a watch in the hands of a savage who
could not wind it up, or an iron steamship worked by
Spanish engineers.



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 205

In regard, then, to the sacred tradition of humanity,
r e learn that it consists, not in propositions or state-
ments which are to be accepted and believed on the.
authority of the tradition, but in questions rightly asked, j
in conceptions which enable us to ask further questions,!
and in methods of answering questions. The value oft
all these things depends on their being tested day by 1
day. The very sacredness of the precious deposit I
imposes upon us the duty and the responsibility of test-
ing it, of purifying and enlarging it to the utmost of our
power. He who makes use of its results to stifle his
own doubts, or to hamper the inquiry of others, is
guilty of a sacrilege which centuries shall never be able
to blot out. When the labours and questionings of
honest and brave men shall have built up the fabric of
known truth to a glory which we in this generation can
neither hope for nor imagine, in that pure and holy
temple he shall have no part nor lot, but his name and
his works shall be cast out into the darkness of oblivion
for ever.



///. The Limits of Inference.

The question in what cases we may believe that
which goes beyond our experience, is a very large and
delicate one, extending to the whole range of scientific
method, and requiring a considerable increase in the
application of it before it can be answered with anything
approaching to completeness. But one rule, lying on
the threshold of the subject, of extreme simplicity and
vast practical importance, may here be touched upon
and shortly laid down.



206 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

A little reflection will show us that every belief,
even the simplest and most fundamental, goes beyond
experience when regarded as a guide to our actions. A
burnt child dreads the fire, because it believes that the
fire will burn it to-day just as it did yesterday ; but this


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 14 of 22)