01 May 2006

Returned to Life with a Monday Quote

After many weeks of diversion of attention to serious matters (proposal writing, concert preparation, bleak thoughts of profound depression, etc.), I am attempting to return to the fray.

Having recently finished Simon Blackburn’s Truth: A Guide, I follow his lead of highlighting the 1877 exchange between mathematician William Clifford and psychologist William James, on the ethics of belief. Clifford’s essay and James’ reply are reprinted, together with an analytical essay, in a volume edited by A. J. Burger, who has also graciously preserved the text on the Web.

The passage that drew my attention reminded me of the many arguments I’ve had over the question of why one should care that some people believe dumb things (astrology, UFOs, etc.). Clifford’s response is basically that small stupidities lead to worse, but his analysis why is quite compelling.
He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it; he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action.


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