The wreck of the Psyche

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

On 22 December 1870 there was a total solar eclipse.

A solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, wholly or partially blocking out the sun as viewed from earth.

A total solar eclipse is a rare event, and even then its totality is only visible across a narrow band on the earth’s surface.

On 22 December 1870 the narrow band included parts of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Sicily, Greece, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

The British Royal Astronomical Society organised an expedition to observe and record the eclipse.

solar eclipse 22 December 1870
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Let’s get metaphysical

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

Why am I so interested in what some random bearded Victorian dude thought about anything?

Here is one reason (in three parts):

(i) An important branch of philosophy – epistemology – is concerned with knowledge and belief.

(ii) An important position in epistemology – evidentialism – holds that beliefs should only be based on relevant evidence.1

(iii) Random bearded Victorian dude William Clifford effectively kicked off evidentialism.

knowledge and belief

But there’s another reason. I find that whole Victorian context fascinating. It was a time when the ‘educated classes’ were coming to grips with the advance of science, with a dawning awareness of social responsibility, and with the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’2 of declining religious faith.

In the second half of the nineteenth century we see a world slowly emerge which our own modern world seems, for good or ill, to be shaking itself free from. We could be peering from a great distance into a clouded, shadowed, distorting mirror.

In the autumn of 1868 architect Sir James Knowles was having dinner with Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and astronomer and clergyman Charles Pritchard.

They shared a worry that declining religious belief among the educated elite would lead to general moral decline in society.3

(As an aside, it is interesting that declining religious belief, presumably about what IS, could be thought to create a moral decline, if morality is about what OUGHT to be: see Hume’s guillotine.)

The trio hit on the idea of starting a Theological Society to explore their concerns. Knowles volunteered to organise it as long as the other two agreed to join.

As with most things Victorian, no women were invited. However one of the first people Knowles invited was his friend Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster, whose wife, Lady Augusta Stanley, suggested changing the name to ‘Metaphysical Society’.

William Blake Ancient of Days
William Blake, Ancient of Days

There might then be less risk of alienating potential members of a more scientific, materialist or non-believer persuasion.

Almost everyone (male) who was anyone was invited. Those who agreed to join included the prime minister William Gladstone (plus three of his cabinet ministers); William Thomson, archbishop of York; Henry Manning, Roman Catholic cardinal-archbishop of Westminster; Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist; art critic John Ruskin; Sir James Fitzjames Stephen and his younger brother Sir Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf); biologist Thomas Henry Huxley; philosopher Henry Sidgwick; and mathematician and philosopher William Clifford.

William Ewart Gladstone
William Gladstone

John Ruskin
John Ruskin
Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley

Among those who were invited but, for whatever reason, declined included Cardinal (and, from 2019, Saint) John Henry Newman; poet Robert Browning; and philosophers Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill.

Robert Browning
Robert Browning
Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

The society eventually had sixty-two members. Between 1869 and 1880 they read ninety-five papers, many of which were published in either the Contemporary Review (which Knowles edited from 1870 to 1877) or The Nineteenth Century (which Knowles founded in 1877).

The papers tended to focus on grand speculative and metaphysical issues, as the founders had intended. The founders had also hoped to facilitate some common ground between science and religion, but in this they were largely disappointed.

The society was finally dissolved in 1880. Although Huxley joked that the society died of ‘too much love’,

the actual cause of the Society’s death was due in no small part to Clifford’s address “The Ethics of Belief4



2 Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach.

3 Timothy J Madigan (2009), W. K. Clifford and “The Ethics of Belief”, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, p18.

4 Madigan (2009), p21.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

To cleave or not to cleave

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

’Cleave’ is an English verb with two virtually opposite meanings.

To ’cleave’ can mean to split or divide. Hence ‘cleaver’, which is a heavy knife for chopping meat.

But to ’cleave’ can also mean to cling or adhere, as in Genesis 2:24:

meat cleaver
Cleaver [Coyau / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0]
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Hume’s guillotine

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

I complained last time about Clifford‘s apparent move from as ‘is’ to an ‘ought’.

This gives us an ideal opportunity to bring David Hume into the conversation.

David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher who many would argue was one of the greatest philosophers of all time.

A celebrated quote of his from A Treatise of Human Nature claims to have spotted a flaw in a lot of moral reasoning he had come across.

Hume's guillotine
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The moral of the story

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

Last time I came up with four options as to whether an evidence principle like William Clifford’s (‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’,1 which we are calling ‘CP’) can apply to moral beliefs and other categorical prescriptive beliefs.

I rejected the first option, which was this:

(i) Somehow we manage to persuade ourselves that prescriptive beliefs can be supported by evidence. This would save both CP and the whole of morality.

William Kingdon Clifford
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April 1 is coming early

This is from the Daily Telegraph website 14 January 2021, by someone called Jonathan Saxty:

We Brexiteers are being blamed for the problems we warned about

In reality, fault lies squarely with the Government and poor planning

As problems mount for UK businesses, both in dealing with mainland Europe and regarding Northern Ireland, don’t be surprised if Brexit and Brexiteers get the blame for what is a failure of Government, as the possibility of reintegration via the backdoor looms. Many businesses are reporting difficulties adapting to the post- Brexit trading landscape, with the Federation of Small Businesses claiming many small firms have not had the time, money or clarity to prepare. German logistics group DB Schenker became the latest parcels operator to suspend cross-border delivery, following a similar move by DPD. How did the Government not anticipate…

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Banging on

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

Last time I explained why I think it’s so important to have a workable principle of good and safe believing.

In short, it’s because we need an antidote for the kind of fake news which led to the storming of the Capitol building, and for the kind of unjustified religious belief which led to 9/11 and the Spanish Inquisition.

Trump supporters storm Capitol building, Washington DC
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Taken for a mug

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

The last few articles (from Fake news and the ethics of belief to If only) have been getting increasingly technical.

It would be unfortunate if this meant losing sight of why I think this stuff about belief and evidence matters.

I am therefore going to backtrack a bit and, at risk of repetition, spell out what for me is the point of all this.

Thank God for President Trump
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If only

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

Last time we looked at how evidence can support a descriptive belief. We will now see if evidence can also support a prescriptive belief.

Take the first on our list:

I ought to do more exercise

Is this a moral imperative, like ‘I must not kill’?

That doesn’t seem right. It is more a ‘pragmatic’ imperative, like ‘I ought to use a Phillips screwdriver on a cross-head screw’.

Phillips screwdriver
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