Friday, November 09, 2018

Always, Everywhere, and for Everyone

Francisco Mejia Uribe attempts (unsuccessfully) to defend W. K. Clifford's argument about the ethics of belief from criticisms. One of the constant criticisms of Clifford's argument is that it is based on an exaggerated view that every single belief, without fail, is of serious social consequence (a view for which Clifford never gives adequate evidence). Uribe argues:

I think critics had a point – had – but that is no longer so. In a world in which just about everyone’s beliefs are instantly shareable, at minimal cost, to a global audience, every single belief has the capacity to be truly consequential in the way Clifford imagined. If you still believe this is an exaggeration, think about how beliefs fashioned in a cave in Afghanistan lead to acts that ended lives in New York, Paris and London. Or consider how influential the ramblings pouring through your social media feeds have become in your very own daily behaviour. In the digital global village that we now inhabit, false beliefs cast a wider social net, hence Clifford’s argument might have been hyperbole when he first made it, but is no longer so today.

This is obviously an absurd response. Not only is this evidence also completely inadequate to establish the claim being made, it's simply wrong. If John believes without any evidence that Mary has ten pairs of socks (e.g., if he just assumes that everyone has ten pairs like he does), how does the existence of social media and global travel and communication make 'the stakes very high'? If Francisco Mejia Uribe believes without adequate evidence that "every single belief has the capacity to be truly consequential", why should I consider this a serious moral wrong, rather than just bad reasoning without all the moralism about it?

Mejia Uribe also tries to defend on exactly the same grounds Clifford's argument that every single act of belief has a definite effect on our character, despite the fact that 'character' in this sense is a word used to describe something that is established by repeated actions, not single actions. It fails for this point, as well; there is simply no evidence that "careless believing" in the very, very weak sense it has to mean here -- namely, believing even one thing without adequate evidence -- "turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars, conspiracy theorists and charlatans".

Mejia Uribe's defense of Clifford's common property argument is no better:

Today, we truly have a global reservoir of belief into which all of our commitments are being painstakingly added: it’s called Big Data. You don’t even need to be an active netizen posting on Twitter or ranting on Facebook: more and more of what we do in the real world is being recorded and digitised, and from there algorithms can easily infer what we believe before we even express a view. In turn, this enormous pool of stored belief is used by algorithms to make decisions for and about us.

Big Data is not any kind of belief at all; it is data, as the name suggests, which is a different thing entirely. And as anyone knows who has dealt with algorithms, algorithms themselves often put forward false things on inadequate evidence. And as has been noted, a problem with Clifford's common property argument is that part of our common property consists of hypotheses and speculations put forward for further inquiry. Much of what we say we know is likely to need modification when new evidence comes in, or new ways of looking at old evidence are developed. And since the process of sorting and refinement is not affected whether the things in this treasury of things we think we know are even true or false, it's not clear why adding something on inadequate evidence (which might be false, but might also be true) would make any difference at all.

In any case, as I've noted before, the whole set of arguments fails because they are the wrong arguments to get the conclusion that Clifford wants; he wants to conclude "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence", but what the arguments would actually prove, if they worked, is "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything that tends to morally relevant bad consequences". Clifford never does anything to establish that the latter implies the former, nor does Mejia Uribe, and even if they did the 'always, everywhere, and for anyone' is just assumed, not established on sufficient evidence. Always, Everywhere, and Anyone are strong modal operators; they require that one have established a complete lack of exceptions.

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