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  • Terry Wigmore

Belief, Evidence and Reason

I blame the internet. Well, maybe not all the internet, maybe just social media that spreads misinformation without evidence and purporting to have facts when no evidence is forthcoming.


I have wrestled with the US J6 Commission's presentations, especially the one on July 12, 2022. The observation of the White House Counsel, Pat Cippolone, that Flynn, Giuliani, and Powell were bending Trump's ear on massive voter fraud in 2020, WITHOUT EVIDENCE to support their cockamamie theories struck me as something I often take for granted - it was common-sense. Show me the money! Got evidence of massive voter fraud? Show me the evidence? Instead, Powell and Giuliani, among a host of other others making lawsuits to keep Trump in power and overturn the 2020 US election, made outrageous claims of grand conspiracies with absolutely NO evidence of their claims. None! Why is it that so many of Trump's supporters still cling to the BIG LIE? Another way of looking at this is to ask why do we believe so much WITHOUT evidence? Why are we more inclined to belief without reason? And the best question, it seems to me, is whether or not belief, without a foundation in reason and evidence is an ethically sound position to take.


I read an article by Francisco Mejia Uribe, called, "Believing without evidence is always morally wrong" published on the Aeon website (https://aeon.co/ideas/believing-without-evidence-is-always-morally-wrong). This was a brief interaction with the ideas of a philosopher who was new to me, William Kingdon Clifford (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kingdon_Clifford). The main idea was that it is ALWAYS morally irresponsible to believe anything without sufficient evidence. That is a rather stark position to take, after all, ALWAYS is pretty restrictive. Clifford posited the idea in an essay published in 1877, called ‘The Ethics of Belief’ . He makes 3 arguments to support his claim.

  1. Our beliefs influence our actions. For example, If I believe that it is raining outside, I’ll bring an umbrella. If I believe taxis don’t take credit cards, I make sure I have some cash before jumping into one. And if I believe that stealing is wrong, then I will pay for my goods before leaving the store.

  2. It is ALWAYS wrong to believe anything without sufficient evidence. As Clifford argued, ‘We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to …’ (The Ethics of Belief) In short, sloppy practices of belief-formation are ethically wrong because – as social beings – when we believe something, the stakes are very high.

  3. In our capacity as communicators of belief, we have the moral responsibility not to pollute the well of collective knowledge. At the time Clifford was writing, sharing beliefs was limited to speeches and print. Ideas that were outrageous were exposed to critique by scholars and experts, and checked before gaining traction in the court of public opinion. In the age of the internet, the advent of social media platforms representing very narrow bands of beliefs, ideas can be launched without adequate vetting. The Public Space of social media is co opted, and truth claims are watered down so much that wading through the contents of links and posts is like trying to tread water in a cesspool of claims- without evidence. "Subverting this ‘heirloom’, as he called it, by adding false beliefs is immoral because everyone’s lives ultimately rely on this vital, shared resource.

The immediate application of Clifford's idea to the J6 investigation into the Insurrection is to expose the BIG LIE as lacking evidence and, as Clifford points out, it is ALWAYS wrong to believe anything without evidence. What about all the Covid misinformation that so many have come to embrace and believe? Again, it is ALWAYS wrong to believe anything without evidence. How did regular folks get swept up in the MAGA movement? Or in the Freedom Convoy? They seem to be examples of "Belief without evidence" - a morally corrupt position. We can point fingers and blame any number of factors from the unregulated social media platforms, to the need we all have to have a sense of belonging to a cause, to the feeling we had, during Covid, of being victimized by mandates, or victimized by immigration, or any number of other beliefs that made people angry. Were the beliefs based on reason? Most of the time it fairly easy to challenge these ideas. Sometimes it is more difficult to see where truth is found. How do we navigate these situations? Reason. Look for, and weigh the evidence. If it doesn't make sense, don't share the link! If there is no evidence for a claim, don't believe it. If the evidence is superficial, biased, inadequately researched, not peer-reviewed, incoherent, rambling or skewed, don't spread it. When in doubt, ask what others think about the idea. Don't spread or embrace ideas that are fringe-worthy until you have thoroughly checked them out for yourself. Can't figure it out for yourself? See what experts say! Take time to look into ideas before choosing to believe them.


Of course, for me, the more intriguing application of Clifford's ideas are the truth claims and belief systems of religious groups, of any sort.


I would like to quote Francisco Mejia Uribe's final paragraph in the Aeon article to wrap this idea up:


"While Clifford’s final argument rings true, it again seems exaggerated to claim that every little false belief we harbour is a moral affront to common knowledge. Yet reality, once more, is aligning with Clifford, and his words seem prophetic. Today, we truly have a global reservoir of belief into which all of our commitments are being painstakingly added: it’s called Big Data. You don’t even need to be an active netizen posting on Twitter or ranting on Facebook: more and more of what we do in the real world is being recorded and digitised, and from there, algorithms can easily infer what we believe before we even express a view. In turn, this enormous pool of stored belief is used by algorithms to make decisions for and about us. And it’s the same reservoir that search engines tap into when we seek answers to our questions and acquire new beliefs. Add the wrong ingredients into the Big Data recipe, and what you’ll get is a potentially toxic output. If there was ever a time when critical thinking was a moral imperative, and credulity a calamitous sin, it is now."


Powerful words, and a great reminder of what Clifford's idea means when updated to the 21st century. Be careful what you choose to believe, and be sure you have thoroughly investigated the evidence.



Left: Clifford; Right:“The Umbrella” (1883) by Marie Bashkirtseff.

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