Suspension of belief

I’ve been pondering how one decides what to believe when it’s not obvious what to believe.

For example, with many things in the physical world it’s obvious what to believe, but it’s not obvious what to believe about the metaphysical world. It’s easy to believe in concepts such as gravity, but not easy to believe in concepts about gods.

In the absence of sufficient evidence that points to a definite this-is-how-it-is-and-no-mistake, it seems most sensible to reserve judgement. Is this always possible, though? What about situations where there are consequences connected to whatever decision you make about what to believe or whether to suspend belief/disbelief? It’s not always possible to be neutral.

Some dude called WK Clifford (1845-1879) apparently asked whether it is ever morally justified to believe in a proposition based on insufficient evidence. He cited an example of a sea captain spying a dodgy-looking ship in the distance. He worries about its seaworthiness, ponders whether to intervene and decides not to, leaving any outcome to Providence. One outcome is that the ship sinks and he feels responsible for the deaths of its inhabitants; in the other scenario it doesn’t sink so no lives are lost. However, Clifford argued that the captain is equally wrong, even though there was no bad consequence, because he is guilty of the creation of risk through his negligence.

My thought on that is that he could have taken action to rescue the ship but it might have been full of pirates and his own human cargo may have lost their lives instead. Anyway…

How does Clifford’s argument apply to ordinary lives? For example, you may have a sick child and not know whether to put him/her to bed with a hot drink or take him/her to A&E. Wrong decisions can sometimes have traumatic, even lifelong, results: a serious illness might be missed and treatment delayed, repeatedly over-estimating danger may mean the child becomes a hypochondriac, repeatedly under-estimating danger may mean the child believes his/her parents are indifferent to his/her pain… the list is endless. All decisions are a risk because causes aren’t always apparent and consequences can’t be predicted.

Clifford talked about how carelessness and recklessness in forming opinion is dangerous because of how it can affect other people’s lives. He talked about society being a collaboration, that none of us is in it alone, and that we have a moral responsibility not to let our passions, prejudices and wishes interfere with a rational assessment of evidence.

That’s all very well, but I come back to the original question: what happens when there is insufficient evidence for rational assessment yet the situation demands you make a decision about what to believe in order to know how to act? According to Clifford’s argument doing something and doing nothing are both wrong.


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