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

But this doesn’t in itself explain why I keep banging on about (categorical) prescriptive beliefs and whether or not they can be supported by evidence.

The reason is that if we stick to William Clifford’s principle (‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’), which we are calling ‘CP’, we would have to take that ‘anything’ seriously. So it would have to apply to all beliefs, including both descriptive and prescriptive beliefs.

But if prescriptive beliefs cannot be supported by evidence anyway then we could never have ‘sufficient evidence’ to hold any prescriptive belief. CP would say we should never hold any prescriptive belief. CP itself would count as a prescriptive belief, so CP would undermine itself.

But it’s worse than that. If we should never hold any prescriptive belief then we should never hold any moral belief. Moral beliefs like ‘Thou shalt not kill’, ‘Do not steal’, ‘Do not lie’ and ’Love thy neighbour’ are all prescriptive beliefs. CP would undermine not only itself but the whole of morality.

So we have four choices:

(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.

I don’t think this is feasible, as I hope to explain.

(ii) We continue thinking prescriptive beliefs cannot be supported by evidence. We keep CP but give up on morality.

That’s a huge baby for a trickle of bathwater. In fact hardly a trickle, as CP as a prescriptive belief undermines itself.

(iii) We keep morality, reject the whole of CP, and stop worrying about evidence and prescriptive beliefs (and descriptive beliefs for that matter).

In theory this is the simplest. We give up now and I chuck my PhD in the bin for good measure. But then we’d have to put up with fake news and unjustified religious belief, and the miseries they lead to. Or find another antidote.

(iv) We continue thinking prescriptive beliefs cannot be supported by evidence, keep morality, and argue for an evidence principle which, unlike CP, excludes prescriptive beliefs.

This is the only option which makes sense to me, because of the miseries which fake news and unjustified religious belief can inflict on us, and because of the seemingly obvious connection between belief and evidence.

Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe 1495
Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe 1495

Read on.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

3 thoughts on “Banging on

  1. Pingback: Taken for a mug | some strong language

  2. Pingback: *Press This* Banging on #168 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

  3. Pingback: The moral of the story | some strong language

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