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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.
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.
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’.
There might then be less risk of alienating potential members of a more scientific, materialist or non-believer persuasion.
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 Belief”4
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.
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…
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.