Stupid Atheist Meme #2: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”

Stupid Atheist Meme #2: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” August 6, 2015

This is my second post in my series on stupid atheist memes. (For the previous entry, click here.) I’d like to discuss the following meme, coined by philosopher W.K. Clifford in his famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief.”

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

While I am embarrassed to admit that, in my philosophical youth, I used to agree with this meme, I’m proud to say I got wiser.

The problem with this meme (and the reason I think it’s stupid) is that it is self-defeating. Assume, for the sake of argument, that it’s true. Now ask yourself, “What is the evidence that it’s true?” I’m not sure what would even count as evidence for Clifford’s meme.

Also, as someone who’s been thinking about nontheistic metaethics recently, I think it’s interesting to focus on the word “wrong” for a moment. That word suggests (to me, anyway) that Clifford is stating some sort of normative principle. But which kind of normativity? Moral? Epistemic? Something else? In any case, the word “wrong” suggests a potential practical (if not logical) inconsistency among some of the people who buy into Clifford’s meme. Take, for example, Richard Dawkins’s oft-quoted (if misguided) verdict on morality and purpose:

(1) The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
–Richard Dawkins (boldface mine)

Assuming that Dawkins means that there is no such thing as ontologically objective moral values or duties, then notice this entails that there is nothing (ontologically objectively) morally bad or wrong about believing something without sufficient evidence. In other words, Dawkins’ statement seems to entail this statement.

(2) The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, nothing wrong with believing something upon insufficient evidence.

Since I reject Clifford’s meme, does this mean I think it’s okay to believe anything without sufficient evidence? No, not at all. In fact, in our everyday lives, there might not be much or any practical difference between someone who agrees with this meme and myself. In theory, however, Clifford’s meme is a much too simplistic approach to the justification of belief. And the task of articulating a better alternative is probably more difficult (and complex) than many non-philosophers assume.

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