What is and what ought to be

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

I was talking last time about 9/11, religious belief and fake news in relation to William Clifford’s 1877 evidence principle:

…it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

Clifford’s principle has come in for a lot of stick over the years from those who saw it as too ‘scientistic’ – ie coming from ‘an exaggerated belief in the principles and methods of science’.

11 September 2001 attacks on New York City: View of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty

 William James was one of the first to take issue with its universal, absolutist language: the ‘always’, ‘everywhere’, ‘anyone’ and ‘anything’. But if you take all these away then surely it cannot count as a principle, and therefore cannot be any good for policing what and how to believe?

Despite this though I had a nagging suspicion that Clifford had got something fundamentally right. My PhD thesis set out to discover if that something was really there and, if so, what it was.

One of the first things I tackled was the ‘anything’. It occurred to me that there were two major categories of beliefs: descriptive beliefs about what is or is not the case; and prescriptive beliefs about what ought or ought not to be the case. These two categories seemed mutually exclusive.

Whether between them they accounted for every possible belief was less apparent, and in any case it did not seem crucial if there were beliefs which didn’t obviously fall into one of these two categories. Examples might be aesthetic beliefs or personal preferences. But when it came to the kind of beliefs which motivated 9/11 or, in earlier years, the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, aesthetic beliefs and personal preferences did not seem particularly relevant. On the other hand a descriptive belief like ‘there is a God who wants me to fly this plane into the World Trade Center’ or a prescriptive belief like ‘I ought to fly this plane into the World Trade Center’ were exactly the kind of beliefs I thought I needed to focus on.

So the important categories for my purposes appeared to be descriptive beliefs and prescriptive beliefs. Hence the full title of my thesis: Permission to believe: Descriptive and prescriptive beliefs in the Clifford/James debate. I therefore had to ask myself if an evidence principle like Clifford’s could apply to both types of belief; and, if not, whether it mattered.

Read on.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

4 thoughts on “What is and what ought to be

  1. Pingback: Fake news and the ethics of belief | some strong language

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  3. Pingback: *Press This* What is and what ought to be #167 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

  4. Pingback: Face to face | some strong language

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