Review of Scott Aikin, Evidentialism and the Will to Believe - Aug 2014

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This is a pre-publication version. The final and official version can be found in the Sophia journal, Volume 53, Issue 4 (2014), Pages 587-588.


Scott F. Aikin, Evidentialism and the Will to Believe. Bloomsbury, 2014; x + 214pp. ISBN: 978-1-6235-6017-1.

Scott Aikin offers a much-needed comprehensive treatment of the Clifford-James debate on the ethics of belief. He aims to present the core arguments of William Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief and William James’ The Will to Believe, and to provide commentary (p. 4). Aikin begins by discussing Clifford’s ship owner case (pp. 13-22). Knowing that his ship is old, poorly-built, and often needs repairs, the ship owner chooses to ignore the evidence and instead focuses on the character of the ship-builders and his feeling that providence will protect the passengers. As a consequence, the ship owner believes that all will be well. All is not well, and many innocents lose their lives. By overlooking the evidence, and believing that less-relevant factors rendered the decision to set sail a sound one, the ship owner has committed a crime. Had the ship safely completed its journey, the ship owner is still guilty, as lives were still endangered and only luck prevented a disaster. Commenting on another Cliffordian story, and sounding like a Bayesian, Aikin adds that ‘excellent evidence’ is needed when finding someone guilty of a crime, not only to avoid an innocent being unfairly charged, but also to prevent the real perpetrator going free (p. 32).

Hence, what Aikin calls Clifford’s Evidentialist Norm: It is wrong, always, everywhere and for any one to believe anything on insufficient evidence (p. 48). Clifford extends his case to seemingly innocuous overbeliefs, as they may only seem to be innocuous, form part of our background knowledge, and can affect the beliefs and actions of others (pp. 34-37). In other words, it is our moral and social responsibility to base our beliefs on evidence. Aikin realises that Clifford’s teachings differ from both David Hume’s and Rene Descartes’. Relying on evidence is not just theoretically preferable; it is morally necessary (p. 48-49). While clarifying and defending Clifford’s arguments is useful, Aikin also commendably updates them, so as to remove emotive objections to comments grounded in colonial racism, which he finds ‘yuck’ (p. 65). Generally agreeing with Clifford’s approach, Aikin’s critique of James is much more substantial.

To James, belief in God has practical consequences that serve as sufficient justification for faith; evidence is not required (p. 81). Aikin notes that James narcissistically redefines truth and religion, which Aikin calls ‘the old switcheroo’, and which raises questions as to whether there is any point to James’ work (p. 121-122). Such pragmatic reconstructions also lead to pluralism, which makes James’ choosing to follow the Christian faith rather puzzling. Aikin thinks little of James’ arguments, labelling one ‘pretty much garbage’ (p. 125). Aikin also does not appreciate James’ ‘straw man’ argumentation and naïveté in opposing Clifford and adopting a light-hearted attitude towards overbelief potentially leading to error; after all, the consequences of such errors could be grievous (p. 128-129). And the unsure Cliffordian need not remain ‘in suspense forever’, but can actually take reasonable measures to gather and weigh up evidence. Aikin finds some of James’ advice regarding friendship and dating to be quite dark, suggesting that perhaps people should focus not on believing something pleasing, but on becoming a person that others would like (p. 144-145). Such commentary reminds me somewhat of a self-help professional encouraging a timid person to become more confident and assertive; with the latter, inspired by snippy aphorisms, becoming a successful terrorist.

Aikin moves on to James’ famous alpine climber case, which argues that the climber’s belief in making a potentially life-saving jump will aid him (pp. 148-154). He points out numerous problems with this story, recognising that the climber could jump without believing, and asserting that evidence regarding the very feasibility of the jump and perhaps of the effect of positive thinking is ironically utilised. Indeed, no amount of belief and warm feelings will enable the climber to jump one kilometre. She will simply plunge to her death. Aikin also points out that what James identifies as the core of religion, that the best things are the more eternal things and that we are better off believing this, is unsound and does not necessarily lead to the sort of faith (i.e. Christian) that James and his followers endorse (pp. 160-163). Aikin adds that apart from overbelief being morally wrong, it can allow errors to aggregate and drown out truths, and also accuses James’ view of leading to idolatry (pp. 177). This is an ingenious criticism, as the Jamesian does not honour the God that actually exists, but instead merely honours an image of the God that the believer prefers. It would seem that the religious adherent has an obligation then, to ensure, through evidence, that what they believe in reflects reality.

Evidentialism and the Will to Believe is refreshingly humorous and informal. I felt that Aikin goes too far on occasion, referring to James’ ‘noxious bullshit’ (p. 129) and making his anti-theism painfully obvious, even indicating that God is a ‘cosmic despot’ and asserting that it is good that God does not exist (pp. 97, 165, 169, 192). Nevertheless, Aikin’s blend of casual and technical language offers readers respite and entertainment; fellow analytical philosophers should take note. In sum, Aikin provides a helpful summary and analysis of Clifford’s and James’ views on evidentialism, and manages to build on Clifford’s pro-evidentialist case by providing (ironically) practical and social reasons to appeal to evidence, as well as moral reasons. I am also left with the impression that overbelieving for its practical benefits actually yields practically bad consequences. This is an essential primer for those wishing to understand the Clifford-James debate.

Raphael Lataster

University of Sydney

© Raphael Lataster 2018