After reading W.K. Clifford’s essay “The Ethics of Belief” and William James’s essay “The Will to Believe” I have been given the task of answering the following questions: 1) Is it always wrong to believe something for which one lacks sufficient evidence? And 2) Is “faith” inconsistent with critical thinking?
The first problem that arises out of these inquiries is the question of what is “sufficient” or what determines “sufficient evidence”? I would have to assert that determination of sufficiency is autonomous upon the person holding the belief and independent of an objective standard. Although it may be that only when a question or issue is resolved by careful examination of the evidence at hand, that a reasonable person should establish a belief about that issue. But establishing a belief on the evidence and determining the sufficiency of that evidence are both autonomous upon the believer. What is sufficient for one person, may not be sufficient for another. So to say that it is wrong to believe something based on insufficient evidence is to beg-the-question for the determination of sufficiency must be established to determine lack and where must the line be drawn? Therefore, I suggest that a reasonable person may hold a belief established with moral certainty based on the evidence that an alternative is not possible. The highest standard of proof for any belief must be that established beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, is it wrong to believe something when any doubt exists?
This brings me to address the second question regarding belief and logic. If faith is defined as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” according to Webster’s Dictionary, then the answer would be that, yes, faith is inconsistent with critical thinking. I would argue, however, that absence of proof is not necessary to require faith. One can follow the evidence to where it leads beyond a reasonable doubt and a conclusion would still require a willingness to believe due to the nature of man’s incomplete knowledge. One hundred percent conclusive proof may not be available, but a belief may be drawn beyond a reasonable doubt based on the forensic evidence provided at the time. Science relies upon the allowance and acceptance of this type of faith.
Take the debate between evolution versus intelligent design for example. The evolutionist believes that the evidence shows conclusively that changes in organic design are controlled by random mutations and contingent selection. In other words, evolution is a fact such that all that exists is the natural. The intelligent design proponent insists that evolutionary theory lacks sufficient evidence to support such belief and is better explained by an intelligent cause. Who is right? Are both standing upon faith? Does reason to doubt evolutionary theory exist? For one, a fact does not change, while theory does. Science suggests that evolution is both a theory and a fact. ID proponents recognize the fact of evolution within species which they have dubbed micro-evolution, but argue the theory of evolution’s ability to explain the mechanism of evolution is insufficient since reasonable alternatives are available. One side insists that reasonable doubt exists the other does not. Can it be determined if one is wrong and the other right? The possibility must exist or the pursuit of truth of evolutionary theory would be futile.
If ID proponents refuse to believe evolutionary theory with moral certainty that an alternative is possible, are they wrong? If one believes that the origin of life and of the universe are best explained by an intelligent cause, rather than a random undirected process, do they hold this belief in spite of the proof or because of it? How can a being limited by the physical existence know with absolute certainty that nothing exists outside of the natural? Whether one believes evolution theory to be true or false, it is certain that one believes or disbelieves with an element of faith. The study of science exists because human knowledge is incomplete. And, as the human race moves from false beliefs to true, the mechanism of faith as a moral certainty of a belief is a necessary element of the critical thinking process.