William Kingdon Clifford

clifford"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. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat." William K. Clifford

William Clifford (1845–1879) was an English mathematician and philosopher who initially worked in the field of geometric algebra, which in turn had application in the field of mathematical physics. He was possibly one of the first to suggest that gravitation might be a manifestation of an underlying geometry.

Clifford was appointed professor of mathematics and mechanics at University College London, in 1871, and subsequently, in 1874. became a fellow of the Royal Society. He was also a member of the London Mathematical Society and the Metaphysical Society. In 1876, Clifford suffered a breakdown, possibly brought on by overwork as he lectured by day, and wrote by night. Following a 6-month sabbatical he resume his duties for 18 months, but again collapsed. Although he went to the island of Madeira to recover, he died there of tuberculosis after a few months. Eleven days later, Albert Einstein was born, who would go on to develop the geometric theory of gravity that Clifford had suggested nine years earlier.

As a philosopher, Clifford's name was initially associated with two phrases that he called 'mind-stuff' and the 'tribal self. The former of these concepts is not directly relevant to the present discussion, but the phrase 'tribal self' does relate to Clifford's views on the ethics of religious belief through which Clifford tried to explain conscience and morality of the 'self' conforming to the needs and welfare of the 'tribe'. However, today, Clifford' is possibly best remembered for his ideas about truth and public duty, which appears to manifest in his attitude towards religion. In this context, Clifford spoke out against all religions that appear to put the claims of unsupported faith above those of human society.

It should be noted that Clifford's arguments against theology take place against the wider backdrop of Darwin's ideas about evolution and he was therefore seen, in some quarters, as championing the cause of atheism often associated with modern science at that time. Clifford published his essay 'The Ethics of Belief' in 1877, where he famously draws the conclusion:

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

Clifford reaches this conclusion based on three lines of arguments, which are outlined below, with links to the original text:

  • The Duty of Inquiry
    It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence; and where it is presumption to doubt and to investigate, it is worse than presumption to believe.

  • The Weight of Authority
    We may believe the statement of another person, when there is reasonable grounds for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth, so far as he knows it.

  • The Limits of Inference
    We may believe in that which goes beyond our experience, only when it is inferred from our experience and by the assumption that, what we do not know, is like what we do know.