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An introduction May 1, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Blogging, Personal.
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After completing my M.Sc. in computer science, and without quitting my day job as a firmware developer, I have spent the past year teaching computer science at a high school. Though I enjoy teaching and think it is important, I have come to the conclusion that there are more domains I would like to learn about, think about, and perhaps contribute to. And so… I have signed up for graduate studies in philosophy. This blog will chronicle my adventures as I face the uncharted waters of the humanities. Wish me safe passage through to the other side…

The title of this blog is taken from the 1877 essay “The Ethics of Belief” by the English mathematician and philosopher William K. Clifford (quoted in Carl Sagan’s “A Demon-Haunted World”):

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose that she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid ocean and told no tales.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.

Clifford sums up his main message with these words: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The aspiration of this blog, then, will be to earn belief through patient investigation, with a firm demand for sufficient evidence, and without stifling any doubts. The entire World Wide Web is out there to keep me honest.

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