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  1. 1.       Introduction

In this paper, I will discuss W.K. Clifford’s arguments, and William James’s responses.  James has argued that it is okay to believe something if it is living, forced, and momentous. However, Clifford says it is morally wrong to believe anything that way because people in society will generally start accepting everything and become hesitant to test and question. However, James’s response covers that by saying only if it fits three categories…thereby making it a somewhat rare occurrence.  And my point says the two can support each other.


  1. 2.       An overview of the debate

There are two main positions in this debate. Clifford is an Evidentialist.  An Evidentialist believes that everything should be questioned and nothing should be accepted on sheer trust or faith.   Evidentialists often debate about what counts as evidence and what doesn’t.

James is a Pragmatist.  Pragmatists believe that there are certain situations when you can believe something.  They also believe that if nobody acted on faith or trust that people would have less good moral character like courage and other related values.

However, it is very rarely addressed that someone can be both things, as long  they aren’t a strict evidentialist. That is my point of view, sort of a mix.


  1. 3.       Clifford’s argument

So what exactly makes something count as evidence? Or rather, why seek for answers for almost every topic? W.K. Clifford writes that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (518).  This just says that it is morally important to believe something without evidence, personally. Though it doesn’t totally support the issue, there is a point to be made about trying to make justifications based on evidence.  Another point he makes that is illustrated in this quote is: “…if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.” (Clifford 1879, 185–6) Basically, that if he or anyone believes certain ideas without testing them, then society as a whole will fall into that pattern.


  1. 4.       My argument  to counter Clifford’s argument

James is quick to counter the first argument by saying: “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.” Basically that if he were to follow that rule, and only that rule, he would not have many options and might miss some truth that could help him progress. Also, he points out that not every person would be able to use just acceptance for every thought or idea (Clifford’s fear). Instead, the option would have to be live, forced, and momentous. In which case, the idea is applicable to the person at the time, they must make a decision, and the decision will impact their life greatly. Because not many opportunities like that come up in life, it should be a viable option when presented. In the end, he says that Evidentialism is not a totally horrible idea, but it is just one way of thinking. This brings us to the point that pragmatism can be used to support Evidentialism because when a point is able to be believed with sheer faith, when the science comes out to prove it right, that makes it that much more convincing. Furthermore, if everything was believed only on Evidentialism, then people would have less passion, less culture, and many social structures would be ruined. Many people say this is a good thing. Yet, how do they know. It’s like in economics, you can say that such change would have a positive impact in a certain way; but, until you actual see how it affects everything, the point is moot. Finally, most people would address the death of pragmatism, as only a religious thing, but as I said earlier, it would affect entire cultures around the world and possibly the psychology of humans. People would give up values like faith, hope, and trust possibly anything that isn’t 100% proved.  Since faith belongs to religion, hope belongs to the human spirit of kindness, and trust belongs to psychology. Whereas, if both were used together,  it would create this higher order human that both knows how to use their intellect and heart.


  1. 5.       Conclusion

Although Evidentialism wasn’t fully proven as wrong, James did have good points to show that it was not the only way of thinking.  When there is evidence, you should believe, and it is important to try and gain evidence.  Nevertheless, when there is no evidence to go on, and it has a big impact in the person’s life, they should have the option to belief, thus making society better as a whole.



Evidentialism [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy].” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2012..

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatic-belief-god/#WilJamWilBelArg&gt;.

“WILLIAM JAMES, “THE WILL TO BELIEVE” .” Computer Club. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://alien.dowling.edu/~cperring/williamjames.html&gt;.


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