Peter van Inwagen on Clifford’s Principle

While preparing for the philosophy of religion course I’m teach this summer, I just came across Peter van Inwagen’s essay “Quam Dilecta”. The essay appears in God and the Philosophers (1994, Thomas Morris, ed.), a collection of autobiographical essays where the authors (professional philosophers of varying distinction) explain

how they personally see the relationship between the spiritual and the philosophical in their own lives, or else [show] with their own stories how a person of faith can grapple with some of the problems and prospects of religious belief from a philosophical point of view. (p. 4)

At the end of his essay, van Inwagen presents his reasons for trusting “the Church” rather than “the Enlightenment”. There is much (much) one could say about these reasons, but, there is no need to, since van Inwagen himself admits that he believes what he does on the basis of “insufficient evidence”. However, prior to giving his (insufficient) reasons for “trusting the Church”, van Inwagen dedicates a section of his essay to explaining why he rejects the demand for sufficient evidence. This is the section of his essay I’d like to say just a little about here.

The principle that states that it is always wrong to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence has come to be known as “Clifford’s Principle”. W. K. Clifford gave the first clear statement and thorough (but partially unsuccessful) defense of the principle in his Ethics of Belief (1879). Van Inwagen (implicitly) acknowledges that most people agree that Clifford’s principle must be qualified with some such statement as “when the consequences of one’s belief or lack thereof are potentially significant”. But van Inwagen has a deeper complaint. He complains that

Clifford’s Principle is almost never mentioned except in hostile examinations of religious belief, and that the antireligious writers who mention it never apply it to anything but religious beliefs. (pp. 44-45)

Van Inwagen notes in particular that Clifford’s Ethics of Belief appears in almost every philosophy of religion anthology but no epistemology anthology.

But why don’t philosophers apply Clifford’s Principle elsewhere? According to van Inwagen

If Clifford’s Principle were generally applied in philosophy (or in politics or historiography or even in many parts of the natural sciences), it would have to be applied practically everywhere… we’d all be constantly shoving it in one another’s faces… If we generally applied Clifford’s Principle, we’d all have to become agnostics as regards most philosophical and political questions, or we’d have to find some reasonable answer to the challenge: ‘In what sense can the evidence you have adduced support of justify your belief when there are many authorities as competent as you who regard it as unconvincing?’ But no answer to this challenge is evident. (p. 45)

So van Inwagen thinks that A) the fact that apparently equally intelligent and informed people disagree on most philosophical and political questions implies that the evidence that either has adduced in favor of her position is insufficient and B) we have all (at least tacitly) acknowledge (A), and therefore resist applying Clifford’s Principle because we know it would lead to widespread agnosticism.

Even without considering alternative explanations, van Inwagen’s should seem a little implausible: we all (tactily) recognize that applying Clifford’s Principle would lead to widespread agnosticism on philosophical and political views?! How many of us even believe (A) is true?!

But, since I’m a big fan of IBE, I think the best way to undermine van Inwagen’s explanation is to present an alternative one. How about this: religion is the one area where many if not most people readily admit that they hold their beliefs on the basis of insufficient evidence. Reminding someone of Clifford’s Principle isn’t going to do one bit of good if that person believes that he is holding his belief on the basis of sufficient evidence. Why is Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief included in philosophy of religion anthologies but not epistemology anthologies? For the same reason that intro to philosophy courses (students of which are the primary consumers of philosophy of religion anthologies) include sections on “faith vs reason”: many if not most student readily admit that they hold their religious beliefs on the basis of insufficient evidence. Hence, the question of whether they should do so is a very relevant one! Again, if someone believes that she is holding her belief on the basis of sufficient evidence (as is the case most of the time in all other areas of philosophy and politics), there is simply little point in discussing with her the question of whether she should hold her belief on the basis of insufficient evidence. Rather, you should discuss with her whether the evidence is indeed sufficient (and this is exactly what happens, even if not very effectively, most of the time in all other areas of philosophy and politics).

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6 Responses to Peter van Inwagen on Clifford’s Principle

  1. Clayton says:

    Meh, seems pretty plausible.

    You, that is, not PvI.

    I’d ask him what evidence he had for saying:
    If we generally applied Clifford’s Principle, we’d all have to become agnostics as regards most philosophical and political questions, or we’d have to find some reasonable answer to the challenge: ‘In what sense can the evidence you have adduced support of justify your belief when there are many authorities as competent as you who regard it as unconvincing?’ But no answer to this challenge is evident.

    That is, I’d ask him if I didn’t expect him to say ‘insufficient evidence’. It seems, however, that PvI’s position here isn’t all that intuitive. It depends upon what we mean by sufficient evidence. Consider two accounts of sufficiency, the first stronger than the next:
    (1) S has sufficient evidence for believing p iff S knows p.
    (2) S has sufficient evidence for believing p iff most ordinary folk who examined S’s evidence would say S isn’t unreasonable for believing on such evidence.

    So far as I can tell, PvI’s remarks aren’t obviously true on either reading of ‘sufficient evidence’.

  2. Steve C. says:

    Dustin, nice point. In my experience, “faith” (in the sense of having faith that x) is often defined by the religious as “believing something in the absence of sufficient evidence or reason”–that is, believing on insufficient evidence. And, as we know, in many Christian churches faith is extolled while reason (i.e. vain, worldly, limited, human reason) is disparaged. So it’s not just that many religious believers admit that they hold their beliefs on insufficient evidence; many of them actually take pride in the fact!

    I made a post on my blog venting about this esteem of faith and proposing intuition as a more respectable substitute. The positive attitude towards having faith (trust) in God tends to be directed also towards having faith (believing on insufficient evidence) that God exists. It’s only the latter that bothers me.

  3. Matt Sigl says:

    I think Van Inwagen’s point is that whether or not we think our non-religious beliefs are based on insufficient evidence, it nevertheless turns out that they indeed are.  Reaching this moment of crisis, when one realizes that nearly all of ones beliefs are insufficiently justified, it doesn’t make much sense then to abandon believing anything at all. Instead it liberates a person to believe in things like religion and God and the like.  I don’t particularly think this is that good of argument but I am probably simplifying it and distorting it. Still, there has always been a bridge from the post-modern  relativist camp to religious faith…by undermining all knowledge belief in God becomes no more implausible then belief in gravity. Or so the  argument goes….

    Am I totally massacring the point here? I’d love to hear thoughts.

  4. dtlocke says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the thoughts. But I’m not sure I follow. Are you offering an interpretation of Van Inwagen that differs from mine? Here again, for convenience, is my interpretation of Van Inwagen:

    “So van Inwagen thinks that A) the fact that apparently equally intelligent and informed people disagree on most philosophical and political questions implies that the evidence that either has adduced in favor of her position is insufficient and B) we have all (at least tacitly) acknowledge (A), and therefore resist applying Clifford’s Principle because we know it would lead to widespread agnosticism.”

  5. Matt Sigl says:

    I think I absolutely agree with you; I was just trying to work out his thoughts for myself and as such I was being a little redundant. I think what is unique about religion, and what Van Inwagen fails to really appreciate, is the blase way people are tought to accept religion without even the pretense of sufficient evidence.  Politics, Science…all other domains of knowledge demand we believe that sufficient evidence is possible. If we did not believe this, the scientist would not continue his experiments, the debate between the presidential candidates would be a farce.  If a philosopher really believes that there is a case to be made for all knowledge (or the vast majority of) being insufficient this should be DEEPLY troubling and he should become some sort of nihilist.  It should not be an excuse for religious faith.  
       On a different note, I think there is something very different about deep philosophical disagreements and scientific or political ones.  When two equally intelligent, informed people have political disagreements usually it has one of two causes. 1. They each, in reality, have limited access to the actual contingent facts, and so are not actually both fully informed about the state of affairs.  OR 2. The political disagreement can ultimately be reduced down to a deep philosophic disagreement. Most obviously the current amount of disagreement in Amercian politics today can, I think, be traced to religious (and therefore philosophic) differences.  When Philosophic differences are causing a stalemate between two intelligent parties then the problem can seem truly intractable.  The only thing to do in this circumstance is simply reassert and reevaluate the points of contention and further justify to the other person (and, in doing, to oneself) the reasons for one’s belief. I grant, there is little, even in philosophy, about which, even after argumentation, one can be said to be “certain” (in the strictest sense) about. This doesn’t mean that all options are equally likely (I don’t mean to assert that Inwagen thinks this-he is much too bright) and so, in my opinion, does not excuse the belief in elaborate poorly supported metaphysical propositions about God, not to mention more tenuous claims about the historical fact of a miraculous Jewish Rabbi who lived in ancient Palestine! Van Inwagen is a truly great philosopher in many ways but how he gets from point A ( a nagging sense of philosophic discomfort in the differences in opinion among equally intellgent philosophers) to Point B (full acceptance of Christian Dogma, from original sin on downward) is still a mystery to me. Criticizing the enlightenment is just not good enough.  Anyway….I rant…..I still agree with Van Inwagen on Free Will but that is for another day…..

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