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William Kingdon Clifford.

The scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion online

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordThe scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion → online text (page 6 of 10)
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the course of things which has been created by society for social
purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes
of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age
to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a
precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handed on to the next one,
not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its
proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief
of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and
an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in
which posterity will live.

In the two supposed cases which have been considered, it has been
judged wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief
by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation. The reason of this
judgment is not far to seek: it is that in both these cases the belief
held by one man was of great importance to other men. But forasmuch
as no belief held by one man, however seemingly trivial the belief,
and however obscure the believer, is ever actually insignificant or
without its effect on the fate of mankind, we have no choice but to
extend our judgment to all cases of belief whatever. 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. Then it helps to bind men together, and to strengthen and
direct their common action. It is desecrated when given to unproved
and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of
the believer; to add a tinsel splendor to the plain straight road of
our life and display a bright mirage beyond it; or even to drown the
common sorrows of our kind by a self-deception which allows them not
only to cast down, but also to degrade us. Whoso would deserve well of
his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his belief with
a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest
on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.

It is not only the leader of men, statesman, philosopher, or poet,
that owes this bounden duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers
in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to
kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every
hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her children beliefs
which shall knit society together, or rend it in pieces. No simplicity
of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of
questioning all that we believe.

It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out
of it is often a very bitter thing. It leaves us bare and powerless
where we thought that we were safe and strong. To know all about
anything is to know how to deal with it under all circumstances. We
feel much happier and more secure when we think we know precisely
what to do, no matter what happens, than when we have lost our way and
do not know where to turn. And if we have supposed ourselves to know
all about anything, and to be capable of doing what is fit in regard
to it, we naturally do not like to find that we are really ignorant
and powerless, that we have to begin again at the beginning, and try
to learn what the thing is and how it is to be dealt with - if indeed
anything can be learnt about it. It is the sense of power attached
to a sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of believing, and
afraid of doubting.

This sense of power is the highest and best of pleasures when the
belief on which it is founded is a true belief, and has been fairly
earned by investigation. For then we may justly feel that it is common
property, and holds good for others as well as for ourselves. Then
we may be glad, not that I have learned secrets by which I am safer
and stronger, but that we men have got mastery over more of the
world; and we shall be strong, not for ourselves, but in the name
of Man and in his strength. But if the belief has been accepted on
insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. Not only does
it deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of power which we do not
really possess, but it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of
our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs
as from a pestilence, which may shortly master our own body and then
spread to the rest of the town. What would be thought of one who,
for the sake of a sweet fruit, should deliberately run the risk of
bringing a plague upon his family and his neighbors?

And, as in other such cases, it is not the risk only which has to
be considered; for a bad action is always bad at the time when it is
done, no matter what happens afterward. Every time we let ourselves
believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control,
of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer
severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs
and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born
when one such belief is entertained is great and wide. But a greater
and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained
and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is
fostered and made permanent. If I steal money from any person,
there may be no harm done by the mere transfer of possession; he
may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the money
badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong toward Man, that
I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should
lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves; for
then it must cease to be society. This is why we ought not to do
evil that good may come; for at any rate this great evil has come,
that we have done evil and are made wicked thereby. In like manner,
if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may
be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all,
or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I
cannot help doing this great wrong toward Man, that I make myself
credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe
wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become
credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into
them; for then it must sink back into savagery.

The harm which is done by credulity in a man is not confined to the
fostering of a credulous character in others, and consequent support
of false beliefs. Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to
habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to
me. Men speak the truth to one another when each reveres the truth
in his own mind and in the other's mind; but how shall my friend
revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it,
when I believe things because I want to believe them, and because
they are comforting and pleasant? Will he not learn to cry, 'Peace,'
to me, when there is no peace? By such a course I shall surround
myself with a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I
must live. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet
illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have
made my neighbors ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to
the liar and the cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family,
and it is no marvel if he should become even as they are. So closely
are our duties knit together, that whoso shall keep the whole law,
and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere and for any one, to believe
anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or
persuaded of afterward, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which
arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and
the company of men that call in question or discuss it, and regards
as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without
disturbing it - the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

If this judgment seems harsh when applied to those simple souls who
have never known better, who have been brought up from the cradle
with a horror of doubt, and taught that their eternal welfare depends
on what they believe, then it leads to the very serious question,
Who hath made Israel to sin?

It may be permitted me to fortify this judgment with the sentence
of Milton -

'A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only
because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determine, without
knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth
he holds becomes his heresy.'

And with this famous aphorism of Coleridge -

'He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed
by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end
in loving himself better than all.'

Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is not to be made once for
all, and then taken as finally settled. It is never lawful to stifle a
doubt; for either it can be honestly answered by means of the inquiry
already made, or else it proves that the inquiry was not complete.

'But,' says one, 'I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course
of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent
judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of
the arguments.' Then he should have no time to believe.

II. The Weight of Authority. - Are we then to become universal skeptics,
doubting everything, afraid always to put one foot before the other
until we have personally tested the firmness of the road? Are we
to deprive ourselves of the help and guidance of that vast body of
knowledge which is daily growing upon the world, because neither
we nor any other one person can possibly test a hundredth part of
it by immediate experiment or observation, and because it would not
be completely proved if we did? Shall we steal and tell lies because
we have had no personal experience wide enough to justify the belief
that it is wrong to do so?

There is no practical danger that such consequences will ever follow
from scrupulous care and self-control in the matter of belief. Those
men who have most nearly done their duty in this respect have found
that certain great principles, and these most fitted for the guidance
of life, have stood out more and more clearly in proportion to the
care and honesty with which they were tested, and have acquired in
this way a practical certainty. The beliefs about right and wrong
which guide our actions in dealing with men in society, and the beliefs
about physical nature which guide our actions in dealing with animate
and inanimate bodies, these never suffer from investigation; they
can take care of themselves, without being propped up by 'acts of
faith,' the clamor of paid advocates, or the suppression of contrary
evidence. Moreover there are many cases in which it is our duty
to act upon probabilities, although the evidence is not such as to
justify present belief; because it is precisely by such action, and
by observation of its fruits, that evidence is got which may justify
future belief. So that we have no reason to fear lest a habit of
conscientious inquiry should paralyze the actions of our daily life.

But because it is not enough to say, 'It is wrong to believe on
unworthy evidence,' without saying also what evidence is worthy,
we shall now go on to inquire under what circumstances it is lawful
to believe on the testimony of others; and then, further, we shall
inquire more generally when and why we may believe that which goes
beyond our own experience, or even beyond the experience of mankind.

In what cases, then, let us ask in the first place, is the testimony
of a man unworthy of belief? He may say that which is untrue either
knowingly or unknowingly. In the first case he is lying, and his moral
character is to blame; in the second case he is ignorant or mistaken,
and it is only his knowledge or his judgment which is in fault. In
order that we may have the right to accept his testimony as ground for
believing what he says, we must have reasonable grounds for trusting
his veracity, that he is really trying to speak the truth so far as he
knows it; his knowledge, that he has had opportunities of knowing the
truth about this matter; and his judgment, that he has made proper use
of those opportunities in coming to the conclusion which he affirms.

However plain and obvious these reasons may be, so that no man of
ordinary intelligence, reflecting upon the matter, could fail to
arrive at them, it is nevertheless true that a great many persons
do habitually disregard them in weighing testimony. Of the two
questions, equally important to the trustworthiness of a witness,
'Is he dishonest?' and 'May he be mistaken?' the majority of mankind
are perfectly satisfied if one can, with some show of probability,
be answered in the negative. The excellent moral character of a man
is alleged as ground for accepting his statements about things which
he cannot possibly have known. A Mohammedan, for example, will tell
us that the character of his Prophet was so noble and majestic that
it commands the reverence even of those who do not believe in his
mission. So admirable was his moral teaching, so wisely put together
the great social machine which he created, that his precepts have not
only been accepted by a great portion of mankind, but have actually
been obeyed. His institutions have on the one hand rescued the negro
from savagery, and on the other hand have taught civilization to the
advancing West; and although the races which held the highest forms
of his faith, and most fully embodied his mind and thought, have all
been conquered and swept away by barbaric tribes, yet the history
of their marvellous attainments remains as an imperishable glory to
Islam. Are we to doubt the word of a man so great and so good? Can we
suppose that this magnificent genius, this splendid moral hero, has
lied to us about the most solemn and sacred matters? The testimony of
Mohammed is clear, that there is but one God, and that he, Mohammed,
is his prophet; that if we believe in him we shall enjoy everlasting
felicity, but that if we do not we shall be damned. This testimony
rests on the most awful of foundations, the revelation of heaven
itself; for was he not visited by the angel Gabriel, as he fasted and
prayed in his desert cave, and allowed to enter into the blessed fields
of Paradise? Surely God is God and Mohammed is the Prophet of God.

What should we answer to this Mussulman? First, no doubt, we should
be tempted to take exception against his view of the character
of the Prophet and the uniformly beneficial influence of Islam:
before we could go with him altogether in these matters it might seem
that we should have to forget many terrible things of which we have
heard or read. But if we chose to grant him all these assumptions,
for the sake of argument, and because it is difficult both for the
faithful and for infidels to discuss them fairly and without passion,
still we should have something to say which takes away the ground
of his belief, and therefore shows that it is wrong to entertain
it. Namely this: the character of Mohammed is excellent evidence
that he was honest and spoke the truth so far as he knew it; but it
is no evidence at all that he knew what the truth was. What means
could he have of knowing that the form which appeared to him to be
the angel Gabriel was not a hallucination, and that his apparent
visit to Paradise was not a dream? Grant that he himself was fully
persuaded and honestly believed that he had the guidance of heaven,
and was the vehicle of a supernatural revelation, how could he know
that this strong conviction was not a mistake? Let us put ourselves
in his place; we shall find that the more completely we endeavor
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 celestial 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 matters. For although his
tested character would justify 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 information, subsequently
verified by me, as proved him 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 real 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 experiences 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 trustworthiness 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 that the doctrine
is a comfortable doctrine, and pleasant to the soul; but it does not
give us the right to say that 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 superhuman
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 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 to 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 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 honorably 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 dishonor 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,
we make of his goodness an occasion 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. 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 forever in joy or misery, according as we believe in the Prophet
or not. The Buddha says that there is no God, 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 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 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 believing
this upon his authority, unless I know anything against his character


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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordThe scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion → online text (page 6 of 10)