7 votes

Believing without evidence is always morally wrong

12 comments

  1. [7]
    9000
    (edited )
    Link
    I have heard Clifford's argument before, and I find him needlessly skeptical. For instance, he doesn't define "sufficient evidence," but continues arguing in such a way to imply that this bar is...

    I have heard Clifford's argument before, and I find him needlessly skeptical. For instance, he doesn't define "sufficient evidence," but continues arguing in such a way to imply that this bar is quite high. However, the bar cannot be 100% certainty, or we would never believe anything (with the possible exception of mathematical laws, but we wouldn't believe they apply to the real world).

    But then, what is this sufficient bar? Clifford seems to argue that it is both pretty much constant regardless of context and that it is high. But, doubt or disbelief are still decisions! To withhold judgement on a topic that is relatively clear but doesn't meet an incredibly high bar can also be immoral (see: climate change, believing rape victims, etc.). I believe the context clearly does matter. The stakes are not equal for all beliefs. Making decisions on low-confidence data is important both when the stakes are low and when there is insufficient time or ability to investigate further despite high stakes. Inaction can be immoral, and to not take action because we are investigating something else trivial, or because we don't have the time to come to a belief, is then also immoral.

    The philosopher William James responded to Clifford with this rather poignant quip:

    Believe truth! Shun error!—these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true.

    Yes, this means there will be misinformation. Of course there will. Our belief systems cannot be about never having false beliefs, because then we will just choose to never have beliefs! Our belief systems must instead accept some realistic amount of error and continually aim to improve and approximate truth. This is what systems like the scientific method are about. We still make decisions on insufficient data constantly, but the goal is to over time hone in on true knowledge.

    To address this author's point, I think the real root cause of modern misinformation is a lack of trust. It's not that people are dumb that they believe wrong things, but because they are skeptical of the motives and incentives for many of the people speaking truth. Sure, we could all just be much more skeptical and default to no action on many of the important issues, as Clifford and Mejia Uribe seem to be arguing, but I think instead, we should focus on developing transparent and trusted systems of information collection, analysis, and dissemination. We will still be wrong sometimes, but at least then we will not be in antagonistic disagreement over fundamental truths. I don't know how to accomplish this goal of societal trust, but it seems more plausible than telling everyone they're too gullible and to just stop believing things.

    EDIT: typos

    17 votes
    1. [3]
      Litmus2336
      Link Parent
      I'm always skeptical of anybody who believes we actually have "sufficient" evidence for anything. Generally at some point you have to admit our perceptions can be flawed, and then it just becomes...

      I'm always skeptical of anybody who believes we actually have "sufficient" evidence for anything. Generally at some point you have to admit our perceptions can be flawed, and then it just becomes a backpedaling race to determine what "sufficient" actually means. Either you accept that what we perceive is real, and then you've made an improvable jump which can easily undermine anything you say afterwards, or you decide the first thing to prove is that what we perceive is real, which is basically unproveable.

      If you decide decisions need to be based wholly in evidence (with no faith), you will prove nothing. Almost everyone takes, on faith alone, the existence of the material world.

      6 votes
      1. [2]
        JakeTheDog
        Link Parent
        Sufficient may sound trivial, but it's context dependent. Having a sufficient level of evidence for choosing the least busy gym time to work out at vs approving a new pharmaceutical vs...

        Sufficient may sound trivial, but it's context dependent. Having a sufficient level of evidence for choosing the least busy gym time to work out at vs approving a new pharmaceutical vs establishing that the Higgs boson exist span several orders of magnitude. There is always a sufficient level for every scenario, whether it be personal judgement or an industry standard.

        More concretely, sufficiency is a matter of practicality. It would be impractical to make your everyday decisions—even medical ones—with the thresholds required by particle physics (and the reverse would be equally meaningless).

        If you decide decisions need to be based wholly in evidence (with no faith), you will prove nothing. Almost everyone takes, on faith alone, the existence of the material world.

        I'm confused by this. 1) Why do you need faith to prove anything? I think the issue here is with the word "prove"; proofs only exist in math, everything else only has varying levels of evidence. 2) I would argue that the existence of the real, material world is easily testable via our experiences i.e. empiricism. Of course it's easy to hit an impasse here if you argue that our experiences are also not real.

        6 votes
        1. Litmus2336
          Link Parent
          If existance is real, then we can prove such things as "my hand is on the desk". There are certain propositions that logically can be proven as true, although many more difficult things cannot be...
          1. If existance is real, then we can prove such things as "my hand is on the desk". There are certain propositions that logically can be proven as true, although many more difficult things cannot be "proven."

          2. I would argue that the existence of the real, material world is easily testable via our experiences i.e. empiricism. Of course it's easy to hit an impasse here if you argue that our experiences are also not real.

          I would argue the Cartesian point that we could all be deceived by some devil (or evil god) to think things are real, when they're actually not. If that were true, empiricism wouldn't get us anywhere. What we could test would be worthless, as the rules would be changeable at the whim of the controller.

    2. [3]
      45930
      Link Parent
      I'm with you there. What I am skeptical of is adopting a philosophy that let's you "morally" take action, because taking action is what you set out to do. But regardless of what your personal...

      I think the real root cause of modern misinformation is a lack of trust. It's not that people are dumb that they believe wrong things, but because they are skeptical of the motives and incentives for many of the people speaking truth. Sure, we could all just be much more skeptical and default to no action on many of the important issues, as Clifford and Mejia Uribe seem to be arguing, but I think instead, we should focus on developing transparent and trusted systems of information collection, analysis, and dissemination.

      I'm with you there. What I am skeptical of is adopting a philosophy that let's you "morally" take action, because taking action is what you set out to do. But regardless of what your personal burden of proof is, I think we can all agree that the internet has opened a new vector of false information attacks, and developing a trustworthy factual information pipeline would be hugely beneficial to society.

      As an aside, I'd be interested to hear what you think about guilt in the eyes of the law. If you think that for you to take action on information, that information can be a certain amount untrustworthy. Do you feel that "beyond a shadow of a doubt" is too rigid of a burden of proof for criminal guilt? Or is context the main factor?

      4 votes
      1. 9000
        Link Parent
        First, I believe that phrase is "beyond a reasonable doubt," so I'm going to respond assuming that's what you meant. In terms of criminal convictions generally, I think we can evaluate this...

        Do you feel that "beyond a shadow of a doubt" is too rigid of a burden of proof for criminal guilt? Or is context the main factor?

        First, I believe that phrase is "beyond a reasonable doubt," so I'm going to respond assuming that's what you meant. In terms of criminal convictions generally, I think we can evaluate this context.

        First, however, I'd like to make a distinction I have alluded to earlier, but not explicitly made. The distinction is between how the harm of improperly believing or improperly disbelieving can be unequal. For the sake of this argument, I'm going to assume that it's always best to believe the truth and disbelieve falsehoods. But, I think there are times when improperly believing can have mild consequences whereas improperly disbelieving can have disastrous ones, and vice versa. For example, if you are hiking and see something that you think might be poison ivy, but you're not sure, there are two ways to be wrong: either it is and you believe it's not, or it isn't and you believe it is. In the first case, if you wrongly believe the plant is safe to touch, you're going to have a miserable next couple days. However, if you wrongly believe the plant is dangerous and walk to avoid it, you have assumed a minor inconvenience. The consequences for improperly choosing are unequal. So, if you want to be safe, your bar of evidence should sway towards assuming that it is poison ivy, and having a higher bar to proving that it is not. There are also cases where it is better to wrongly believe than it is to wrongly disbelieve, one of the most famous arguments for this being Pascal's Wager.

        So, with this evaluative tool in hand, we can look at where more harm is likely to come: the government improperly believing someone to be guilty, or improperly believing them to be innocent. Now, this becomes a hard problem, because we also often try to fit the punishment to the crime, so shouldn't they be considered equal? I argue, that since governments almost universally claim a morally righteous monopoly on violence (they are allowed to lock you in a cage for years, but I'm not), and they are vast and organized (as opposed to most criminals, even gangs and terrorist organizations), the harms they can commit with unchecked power are relatively harsher than can be committed by others.

        Don't get me wrong, I do believe that the government should protect us from harm, but like in the poison ivy example, I think we should be biased against their criminal convictions succeeding. Thus, the presumption of innocence and the bar of reasonable doubt seem like a decent compromise to me.

        On top of this, we also see that where the consequences are less dire, the standard is more lenient, and I think this is as it should be. For instance, while the bar for proving a domestic violence case is reasonable doubt, in most US States, the bar to get a restraining order is lower, often preponderance of the evidence. Since a restraining order is a lesser intervention than criminal conviction, it makes sense that it's bar for evidence can also be lower.

        So, to sum up, since the government's moral and physical power vastly outweigh's that of most criminals, keeping it constrained is valid. And, as long as there are appropriate bars for the level of intervention, this still gives people access to government support and protection, even when they cannot meet the higher bar of proof.

        3 votes
      2. Litmus2336
        Link Parent
        I think implicit in "beyond reasonable doubt" is the belief that the universe does in fact exist. The above is meant to be humorous of course, but it is a claim implicit to a lot of our reasoning....

        I think implicit in "beyond reasonable doubt" is the belief that the universe does in fact exist.

        The above is meant to be humorous of course, but it is a claim implicit to a lot of our reasoning. In that context, I don't think "beyond reasonable doubt" is too rigid. Plus, if the universe doesn't exist what's it matter if I decide he's guilty?

        1 vote
  2. [2]
    envy
    Link
    The author then lists two examples of where beliefs do lead to actions that are devastating for others. The author completely fails to give any evidence to refute the proposition that in reality...

    What we believe is then of tremendous practical importance.

    The most natural objection to this first argument is that while it might be true that some of our beliefs do lead to actions that can be devastating for others, in reality most of what we believe is probably inconsequential for our fellow humans.

    The author then lists two examples of where beliefs do lead to actions that are devastating for others.

    The author completely fails to give any evidence to refute the proposition that in reality most of what we believe is probably inconsequential for our fellow humans.

    This is not only lazy writing, but in an article titled "Believing without Evidence is always morally wrong" seems utterly hypocritical.

    5 votes
    1. CrampedQuadrature
      Link Parent
      This is what happens when academics try to write to a popular audience, they tend to write hyperbolic garbage.

      This is what happens when academics try to write to a popular audience, they tend to write hyperbolic garbage.

  3. tindall
    Link
    Clifford is perhaps a less well known philosopher, but his ideas about the morality of belief have shaped the way I think about a number of fields, especially artificial intelligence.

    Clifford is perhaps a less well known philosopher, but his ideas about the morality of belief have shaped the way I think about a number of fields, especially artificial intelligence.

    2 votes
  4. [2]
    skybrian
    Link
    The headline, at least, is written in terms of binaries: believe/disbelieve, having/not having evidence, right/wrong. None of these are actually binary. I think it's important to ground beliefs in...

    The headline, at least, is written in terms of binaries: believe/disbelieve, having/not having evidence, right/wrong.

    None of these are actually binary. I think it's important to ground beliefs in evidence, but I'm not sure there is a useful line to draw?

    2 votes
    1. CrampedQuadrature
      Link Parent
      Not all belief is alike in kind either. Belief it is going to rain today because it's cloudy is not at all the same as believing in God, though non-believers seem to think they are.

      Not all belief is alike in kind either.

      Belief it is going to rain today because it's cloudy is not at all the same as believing in God, though non-believers seem to think they are.