A rude assembly

Seamus Bradley's blog

Clifford Versus James

Here’s a first post in my series on indeterminate credence. My first topic is what has sometimes been called the Clifford–James debate. W.K. Clifford and William James had different views about what the aim of belief was. I argue that if one sides with Clifford over James, then indeterminate credence is reasonable.

Before beginning I should note that I am not interested in Clifford or James scholarship. I am merely taking some remarks of theirs as a starting point for a discussion about objectivism versus voluntarism about belief.

W.K. Clifford had a particularly strong view about when it was OK to believe something:

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

William James saw the plausibility of this view:

All this strikes one as healthy, even when expressed by Clifford with somewhat too much robustious pathos in the voice. Free-will and simple wishing do seem, in the matter of our credences, to be only fifth wheels to the coach.

James however took a different view:

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

James’ worry was that Clifford’s view is too much focussed on shunning error, and that this might conflict with his capacity to believe truths. Roughly, in order to avoid an excess of scepticism, James thinks we should allow free will to determine belief when the evidence is sparse. I take James’ position to be a voluntarist one, and to contrast that with Clifford’s objectivist position. If we take Elga’s toothpaste/jellyfish example – I’ve already discussed that here – then we can understand James’ position as saying that you can believe what you like, since the evidence doesn’t constrain you; while Clifford’s position is that you should have appropriately non-committal beliefs, since the evidence doesn’t justify any particular beliefs.

Indeterminate credence seems to have the resources to represent the sort of non-committal belief that Clifford recommends. In a later post I’m going to give a stronger argument that indeterminate credence is a better formal framework for representing the suspension of judgement than precise probabilism is.