I was reading W.K. Clifford and it put me in mind of Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates distinguishes between Opinion and Knowledge. The man who has the right Opinion knows what it true but can not say why he knows it. The man who has knowledge knows what is right and can say why.
For Socrates, it made no difference whether the actions are based upon right Opinion or Knowledge because the results would be the same. But, for Clifford the difference is crucial. He insists that every person has a responsibility to make sure that their action is based on knowledge and not only right opinion.
“The life of anyone who will not accept the responsibility of acting only on knowledge will prove to be one long mistake against mankind”. — W.K. Clifford
What is Belief and how are they created?
If I were to ask you about what your belief, what you answer?
But, before you answer, I want to say that your belief is not a private matter. Your belief concerns more than yourself. Our lives are guided by the general assumptions made by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrasings, our form, and their processes, indeed every mode of thought are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; heirlooms which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and sacred trust to be handed on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified with clear marks of each.
It is our belief that prompts us into action. Any belief at all holds some influence upon the action of whoever holds it. Even if the action never comes to fruition and the belief is not immediately acted upon in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future.
Imagine there was once an island where some of the inhabitants professed a belief and formed themselves into a Society for the purpose of informing the populace of their belief. They published documents and did all in their power to spread the news of their belief and get others to believe. So loud was the noise they made, that a commission was appointed to investigate the facts; but after the commission had carefully inquired into all the evidence that could be got, it appeared that their belief was unfounded. Not only was it untrue, but it became apparent that there was very little evidence to support their belief to begin with and could have been settled easily if the original believers had attempted a fair inquiry for themselves.
After these disclosures, the inhabitants of the island looked upon the members of the Society, not only as persons whose judgment should be questioned, but also as no longer to be counted as honorable. For, although they had sincerely believed in what they spread to all who would listen, they had no right to believe considering what little evidence they had before them. Their sincere convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient inquiry, were in fact stolen by listening to the voice of prejudice and passion.
Let’s say, the investigation proved the belief to be true and the Society in the right. Would this make any difference in their guilt for believing without knowledge? Clearly, they are still guilty. Of course, they would now say: “We were right after all. Perhaps, next time you will believe us.” But that does not clear them of the guilt, it only means they were not found out.