William Kingdon Clifford

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

William Kingdon Clifford (May 4, 1845March 3, 1879) was an English mathematician and philosopher.


However convinced you were of the justice of your cause and the truth of your convictions, you ought not to have made a public attack upon any man's character until you had examined the evidence on both sides with the utmost patience and care.
  • It is a very serious thing to consider that not only the earth itself and all that beautiful face of Nature we see, but also the living things upon it, and all the consciousness of men, and the ideas of society, which have grown up upon the surface, must come to an end. We who hold that belief must just face the fact and make the best of it; and I think we are helped in this by the words of that Jew philosopher who was himself a worthy crown to the splendid achievements of his race in the cause of progress during the middle ages, Benedict Spinoza. He said, "The freeman thinks of nothing so little as of death, and his contemplation is not of death but of life." Our interest, it seems to me, lies with so much of the past as may serve to guide our actions in the present, and to intensify our pious allegiance to the fathers who have gone before us, and the brethren who are with us; and our interest lies with so much of the future as we may hope will be appreciably affected by our good actions now. Beyond that, as it seems to me, we do not know, and we ought not to care. Do I seem to say, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die?" Far from it; on the contrary, I say, "Let us take hands and help, for this day we are alive together."

On the Space-Theory of Matter (read Feb 21, 1870)[edit]

from the Cambridge Philosophical Society's Proceedings II (1876) pp. 157-158

  • Riemann has shewn that as there are different kinds of lines and surfaces, so there are different kinds of space of three dimensions; and that we can only find out by experience to which of these kinds the space in which we live belongs. In particular, the axioms of plane geometry are true within the limits of experiment on the surface of a sheet of paper, and yet we know that the sheet is really covered with a number of small ridges and furrows, upon which (the total curvature not being zero) these axioms are not true. Similarly, he says although the axioms of solid geometry are true within the limits of experiment for finite portions of our space, yet we have no reason to conclude that they are true for very small portions; and if any help can be got thereby for the explanation of physical phenomena, we may have reason to conclude that they are not true for very small portions of space.
    • Abstract
  • I hold in fact
    (1) That small portions of space are in fact of a nature analogous to little hills on a surface which is on the average flat; namely, that the ordinary laws of geometry are not valid in them.
    (2) That this property of being curved or distorted is continually being passed on from one portion of space to another after the manner of a wave.
    (3) That this variation of the curvature of space is what really happens in that phenomenon which we call the motion of matter, whether ponderable or etherial.
    (4) That in the physical world nothing else takes place but this variation, subject possibly to the law of continuity.
    • Abstract
  • I am endeavouring in a general way to explain the laws of double refraction on this hypothesis, but have not yet arrived at any results sufficiently decisive to be communicated.

The Ethics of Belief (1877)[edit]

Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes.
Full text online at Wikisource

The Duty of Inquiry[edit]

Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me.
It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence; and where it is presumption to doubt and to investigate, there it is worse than presumption to believe.
  • It might be said to the agitator, "However convinced you were of the justice of your cause and the truth of your convictions, you ought not to have made a public attack upon any man's character until you had examined the evidence on both sides with the utmost patience and care."
    In the first place, let us admit that, so far as it goes, this view of the case is right and necessary; right, because even when a man's belief is so fixed that he cannot think otherwise, he still has a choice in the action suggested by it, and so cannot escape the duty of investigating on the ground of the strength of his convictions; and necessary, because those who are not yet capable of controlling their feelings and thoughts must have a plain rule dealing with overt acts.
  • No man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty.
    Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it. 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, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.
  • Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.
  • Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves but for humanity. It is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning. Then it helps to bind men together, and to strengthen and direct their common action. It is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer; to add a tinsel splendour to the plain straight road of our life and display a bright mirage beyond it; or even to drown the common sorrows of our kind by a self-deception which allows them not only to cast down, but also to degrade us. Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his beliefs with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.
    It is not only the leader of men, statesmen, philosopher, or poet, that owes this bounden duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her children beliefs which shall knit society together, or rend it in pieces. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe.
    It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out of it is often a very bitter thing. It leaves us bare and powerless where we thought that we were safe and strong. To know all about anything is to know how to deal with it under all circumstances. We feel much happier and more secure when we think we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens, than when we have lost our way and do not know where to turn. And if we have supposed ourselves to know all about anything, and to be capable of doing what is fit in regard to it, we naturally do not like to find that we are really ignorant and powerless, that we have to begin again at the beginning, and try to learn what the thing is and how it is to be dealt with — if indeed anything can be learnt about it. It is the sense of power attached to a sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of believing, and afraid of doubting.
  • A bad action is always bad at the time when it is done, no matter what happens afterwards. Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide. But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent. If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done from the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves, for then it must cease to be society. This is why we ought not to do evil, that good may come; for at any rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made wicked thereby. In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.
  • The harm which is done by credulity in a man is not confined to the fostering of a credulous character in others, and consequent support of false beliefs. Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me. Men speak the truth of one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other's mind; but how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I believe thing because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant? Will he not learn to cry, "Peace," to me, when there is no peace? By such a course I shall surround myself with a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I must live. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and it is no marvel if he should become even as they are.
  • To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
    If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it--the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.
  • Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is not to be made once for all, and then taken as finally settled. It is never lawful to stifle a doubt; for either it can be honestly answered by means of the inquiry already made, or else it proves that the inquiry was not complete.
    "But," says one, "I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments."
    Then he should have no time to believe.

The Weight Of Authority[edit]

  • We have no reason to fear lest a habit of conscientious inquiry should paralyse the actions of our daily life.
    But because it is not enough to say, "It is wrong to believe on unworthy evidence," without saying also what evidence is worthy, we shall now go on to inquire under what circumstances it is lawful to believe on the testimony of others; and then, further, we shall inquire more generally when and why we may believe that which goes beyond our own experience, or even beyond the experience of mankind.
  • In what cases, then, let us ask in the first place, is the testimony of a man unworthy of belief? He may say that which is untrue either knowingly or unknowingly. In the first case he is lying, and his moral character is to blame; in the second case he is ignorant or mistaken, and it is only his knowledge or his judgment which is in fault. In order that we may have the right to accept his testimony as ground for believing what he says, we must have reasonable grounds for trusting his veracity, that he is really trying to speak the truth so far as he knows it; his knowledge, that he has had opportunities of knowing the truth about this matter; and his judgment, that he has made proper use of those opportunities in coming to the conclusion which he affirms.
    However plain and obvious these reasons may be, so that no man of ordinary intelligence, reflecting upon the matter, could fail to arrive at them, it is nevertheless true that a great many persons do habitually disregard them in weighing testimony. Of the two questions, equally important to the trustworthiness of a witness, "Is he dishonest?" and "May he be mistaken?" the majority of mankind are perfectly satisfied if one can, with some show of probability, be answered in the negative. The excellent moral character of a man is alleged as ground for accepting his statements about things which he cannot possibly have known.
  • It is hardly in human nature that a man should quite accurately gauge the limits of his own insight; but it is the duty of those who profit by his work to consider carefully where he may have been carried beyond it. If we must needs embalm his possible errors along with his solid achievements, and use his authority as an excuse for believing what he cannot have known, we make of his goodness an occasion to sin.
  • The goodness and greatness of a man do not justify us in accepting a belief upon the warrant of his authority, unless there are reasonable grounds for supposing that he knew the truth of what he was saying. And there can be no grounds for supposing that a man knows that which we, without ceasing to be men, could not be supposed to verify.
  • What shall we say of that authority, more venerable and august than any individual witness, the time-honoured tradition of the human race? An atmosphere of beliefs and conceptions has been formed by the labours and struggles of our forefathers, which enables us to breathe amid the various and complex circumstances of our life. It is around and about us and within us; we cannot think except in the forms and processes of thought which it supplies. Is it possible to doubt and to test it? and if possible, is it right?
    We shall find reason to answer that it is not only possible and right, but our bounden duty; that the main purpose of the tradition itself is to supply us with the means of asking questions, of testing and inquiring into things; that if we misuse it, and take it as a collection of cut-and-dried statements to be accepted without further inquiry, we are not only injuring ourselves here, but, by refusing to do our part towards the building up of the fabric which shall be inherited by our children, we are tending to cut off ourselves and our race from the human line.
  • We have no right to believe a thing true because everybody says so unless there are good grounds for believing that some one person at least has the means of knowing what is true, and is speaking the truth so far as he knows it. However many nations and generations of men are brought into the witness-box they cannot testify to anything which they do not know. Every man who has accepted the statement from somebody else, without himself testing and verifying it, is out of court; his word is worth nothing at all. And when we get back at last to the true birth and beginning of the statement, two serious questions must be disposed of in regard to him who first made it: was he mistaken in thinking that he knew about this matter, or was he lying?
  • In regard, then, to the sacred tradition of humanity, we learn that it consists, not in propositions or statements which are to be accepted and believed on the authority of the tradition, but in questions rightly asked, in conceptions which enable us to ask further questions, and in methods of answering questions. The value of all these things depends on their being tested day by day. The very sacredness of the precious deposit imposes upon us the duty and the responsibility of testing it, of purifying and enlarging it to the utmost of our power. He who makes use of its results to stifle his own doubts, or to hamper the inquiry of others, is guilty of a sacrilege which centuries shall never be able to blot out. When the labours and questionings of honest and brave men shall have built up the fabric of known truth to a glory which we in this generation can neither hope for nor imagine, in that pure and holy temple he shall have no part nor lot, but his name and his works shall be cast out into the darkness of oblivion for ever.

The Limits Of Inference[edit]

  • A little reflection will show us that every belief, even the simplest and most fundamental, goes beyond experience when regarded as a guide to our actions. … Even the fundamental "I am," which cannot be doubted, is no guide to action until it takes to itself "I shall be," which goes beyond experience. The question is not, therefore, "May we believe what goes beyond experience?" for this is involved in the very nature of belief; but "How far and in what manner may we add to our experience in forming our beliefs?"
  • If an event really happened which was not a part of the uniformity of nature, it would have two properties: no evidence could give the right to believe it to any except those whose actual experience it was; and no inference worthy of belief could be founded upon it at all.
    Are we then bound to believe that nature is absolutely and universally uniform? Certainly not; we have no right to believe anything of this kind. The rule only tells us that in forming beliefs which go beyond our experience, we may make the assumption that nature is practically uniform so far as we are concerned. Within the range of human action and verification, we may form, by help of this assumption, actual beliefs; beyond it, only those hypotheses which serve for the more accurate asking of questions.
  • We may believe what goes beyond our experience, only when it is inferred from that experience by the assumption that what we do not know is like what we know.

    We may believe the statement of another person, when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth so far as he knows it.

    It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence; and where it is presumption to doubt and to investigate, there it is worse than presumption to believe.

The Common Sense of the Exact Sciences (1885)[edit]

Clifford's work, edited and extended by Richard Charles Rowe & Karl Pearson

  • In March 1879 Clifford died at Madeira; six years afterwards a posthumous work is for the first time placed before the public. ...The original work as planned by Clifford was to have been entitled The First Principles of the Mathematical Sciences Explained to the Non-Mathematical, and to have contained six chapters, on Number, Space, Quantity, Position, Motion, and Mass respectively. Of the projected work Clifford in the year 1875 dictated the chapters on Number and Space completely, the first portion of the chapter on Quantity, and somewhat later nearly the entire chapter on Motion. The first two chapters were afterwards seen by him in proof, but never finally revised. Shortly before his death he expressed a wish that the book should only be published after very careful revision and that its title should be changed to The Common Sense of the Exact Sciences.
    • Preface by Karl Pearson
  • Upon Clifford's death the labour of revision and completion was entrusted to Mr. R. C. Rowe, then Professor of Pure Mathematics at University College, London. ...On the sad death of Professor Rowe, in October 1884, I was requested... to take up the task of editing... For the latter half of Chapter III. and for the whole of Chapter IV. ...I am alone responsible. Yet whatever there is in them of value I owe to Clifford; whatever is feeble or obscure is my own. ...With Chapter V. my task has been by no means light. ...Without any notice of mass or force it seemed impossible to close a discussion on motion; something I felt must be added. I have accordingly introduced a few pages on the laws of motion. I have since found that Clifford intended to write a concluding chapter on mass. How to express the laws of motion in a form of which Clifford would have approved was indeed an insoluble riddle to me, because I was unaware of his having written anything on the subject. I have accordingly expressed, although with great hesitation, my own views on the subject; these may be concisely described as a strong desire to see the terms matter and force, together with the ideas associated with them, entirely removed from scientific terminology—to reduce, in fact, all dynamic to kinematic. I should hardly have ventured to put forward these views had I not recently discovered that they have (allowing for certain minor differences) the weighty authority of Professor Mach, of Prag. But since writing these pages I have also been referred to a discourse delivered by Clifford at the Royal Institution in 1873, some account of which appeared in Nature, June 10, 1880. Therein it is stated that 'no mathematician can give any meaning to the language about matter, force, inertia used in current text-books of mechanics.' This fragmentary account of the discourse undoubtedly proves that Clifford held on the categories of matter and force as clear and original ideas as on all subjects of which he has treated; only, alas! they have not been preserved.
    • Preface by Karl Pearson
  • We may... be treating merely as physical variations effects which are really due to changes in the curvature of our space; whether, in fact, some or all of those causes which we term physical may not be due to the geometrical construction of our space. There are three kinds of variation in the curvature of our space which we ought to consider as within the range of possibility.
    (i) Our space is perhaps really possessed of a curvature varying from point to point, which we fail to appreciate because we are acquainted with only a small portion of space, or because we disguise its small variations under changes in our physical condition which we do not connect with our change of position. The mind that could recognise this varying curvature might be assumed to know the absolute position of a point. For such a mind the postulate of the relativity of position would cease to have a meaning. It does not seem so hard to conceive such a state of mind as the late Professor Clerk-Maxwell would have had us believe. It would be one capable of distinguishing those so-called physical changes which are really geometrical or due to a change of position in space.
    (ii) Our space may be really same (of equal curvature), but its degree of curvature may change as a whole with the time. In this way our geometry based on the sameness of space would still hold good for all parts of space, but the change of curvature might produce in space a succession of apparent physical changes.
    (iii) We may conceive our space to have everywhere a nearly uniform curvature, but that slight variations of the curvature may occur from point to point, and themselves vary with the time. These variations of the curvature with the time may produce effects which we not unnaturally attribute to physical causes independent of the geometry of our space. We might even go so far as to assign to this variation of the curvature of space 'what really happens in that phenomenon which we term the motion of matter.'
    • Clifford & Pearson, Ch IV, Position, §19 On the Bending of Space

Quotes about Clifford[edit]

  • Pearson's enthusiasm for W. K. Clifford's intuitive dynamics and physics, also for Clifford's violent hostility to traditional beliefs, influenced at least his earlier thinking. Both Clifford and Pearson were creative mathematicians; neither fitted the milk-and-water, namby-pamby 'great man' ideal of the 'great mathematician' which seems to be the accepted norm in historical accounts of mathematicians; and at least one of them would have hooted at the idea that he was, or was to become, an object of reverence for generations of students.
  • Students of Spinoza will easily trace the connection between his theory of mind and matter and the doctrine set forth in Clifford's essays on "Body and Mind," and "The Nature of Things-in themselves.Briefly put, the conception is that mind is the one ultimate reality; not mind as we know it in the complex forms of conscious feeling and thought, but the simpler elements out of which thought and feeling are built up. The hypothetical ultimate element of mind, or atom of mind-stuff, precisely corresponds to the hypothetical atom of matter, being the ultimate fact of which the material atom is the phenomenon. Matter and the sensible universe are the relations between particular organisms, that is, mind organized into consciousness, and the rest of the world. This leads to results which would in a loose and popular sense be called materialist. But the theory must, as a metaphysical theory, be reckoned on the idealist side. To speak technically, it is an idealist monism. Indeed it is a very subtle form of idealism, and by no means easy of apprehension at first sight. Nevertheless there are distinct signs of a convergence towards it on the part of recent inquirers who have handled philosophical problems in a scientific spirit, and particularly those who have studied psychology on the physiological side. Perhaps we shall be told that this proves the doctrine to be materialism in disguise; but it is hardly worth while to dispute about names while more serious things remain for discussion. And the idea does require much more working out; involving, as it does, extensive restatement and rearrangement of metaphysical problems. It raises not only several questions, but preliminary (and really fundamental) problems as to what questions are reasonable.
  • The models of Einstein and de Sitter are static solutions of Einstein's modified gravitational equations for a world-wide homogeneous system. They both involve a positive cosmological constant λ, determining the curvature of space. If this constant is zero, we obtain a third model in classical infinite Euclidean space. This model is empty, the space-time being that of Special Relativity.
    It has been shown that these are the only possible static world models based on Einstein's theory. In 1922, Friedmann... broke new ground by investigating non-static solutions to Einstein's field equations, in which the radius of curvature of space varies with time. This possibility had already been envisaged, in a general sense, by Clifford in the eighties.

External links[edit]

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Public Domain Works by Clifford[edit]