W. K. Clifford and ‘The Ethics of Belief’ by Tim Madigan
Jon Wainwright finds it easy to believe Tim Madigan.
The philosophical reflections of Victorian mathematicians are unlikely to be uppermost in our twenty-first-century minds. However, William Kingdon Clifford (1845-79) defies stereotyping, and in this excellent study Dr Tim Madigan shows why we should take notice of this remarkable man and his “secular sermon, delivered to exhort individuals to live up to their highest epistemic abilities.” Clifford’s most famous essay, ‘The Ethics Of Belief’ (1877), declares that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” – a provocative claim then and now. Also controversial – and proving an ongoing struggle for secular humanists today – was his opposition to those who thought that a spread of disbelief would lead to moral decline. As for Clifford the man, Moncure Conway wrote that he “had a winning personality, irresistible indeed, and in public speaking could charm alike the Royal Society or a popular audience.