Believing without evidence is always morally wrong – Francisco Mejia Uribe

is an executive director at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong. He has degrees in philosophy and economics from the University of Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, and blogs at The Philosopher Blog.

 

You have probably never heard of William Kingdon Clifford. He is not in the pantheon of great philosophers – perhaps because his life was cut short at the age of 33 – but I cannot think of anyone whose ideas are more relevant for our interconnected, AI-driven, digital age. This might seem strange given that we are talking about a Victorian Briton whose most famous philosophical work is an essay nearly 150 years ago. However, reality has caught up with Clifford. His once seemingly exaggerated claim that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’ is no longer hyperbole but a technical reality.
<p>If I believe it is raining outside... <em>The Umbrella</em> (1883) by Marie Bashkirtseff. <em>Courtesy the State Russian Museum/Wikipedia</em></p>
In ‘The Ethics of Belief’ (1877), Clifford gives three arguments as to why we have a moral obligation to believe responsibly, that is, to believe only what we have sufficient evidence for, and what we have diligently investigated. His first argument starts with the simple observation that our beliefs influence our actions. Everyone would agree that our behaviour is shaped by what we take to be true about the world – which is to say, by what we believe. If I believe that it is raining outside, I’ll bring an umbrella. If I believe taxis don’t take credit cards, I make sure I have some cash before jumping into one. And if I believe that stealing is wrong, then I will pay for my goods before leaving the store.
What we believe is then of tremendous practical importance. False beliefs about physical or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten our survival. If the singer R Kelly genuinely believed the words of his song
‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (1996), I can guarantee you he would not be around by now.
But it is not only our own self-preservation that is at stake here. As social animals, our agency impacts on those around us, and improper believing puts our fellow humans at risk. As Clifford warns: ‘We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to …’ In short, sloppy practices of belief-formation are ethically wrong because – as social beings – when we believe something, the stakes are very high.
The most natural objection to this first argument is that while it might be true that some of our beliefs do lead to actions that can be devastating for others, in reality most of what we believe is probably inconsequential for our fellow humans. As such, claiming as Clifford did that it is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence seems like a stretch. 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.
The second argument Clifford provides to back his claim that it is always wrong to believe on insufficient evidence is that poor practices of belief-formation turn us into careless, credulous believers. Clifford puts it nicely: ‘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.’ Translating Clifford’s warning to our interconnected times, what he tells us is that careless believing turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars, conspiracy theorists and charlatans. And letting ourselves become hosts to these false beliefs is morally wrong because, as we have seen, the error cost for society can be devastating. Epistemic alertness is a much more precious virtue today than it ever was, since the need to sift through conflicting information has exponentially increased, and the risk of becoming a vessel of credulity is just a few taps of a smartphone away.
Clifford’s third and final argument as to why believing without evidence is morally wrong is that, in our capacity as communicators of belief, we have the moral responsibility not to pollute the well of collective knowledge. In Clifford’s time, the way in which our beliefs were woven into the ‘precious deposit’ of common knowledge was primarily through speech and writing. Because of this capacity to communicate, ‘our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought’ become ‘common property’. Subverting this ‘heirloom’, as he called it, by adding false beliefs is immoral because everyone’s lives ultimately rely on this vital, shared resource.
While Clifford’s final argument rings true, it again seems exaggerated to claim that every little false belief we harbour is a moral affront to common knowledge. Yet reality, once more, is aligning with Clifford, and his words seem prophetic. 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. And it’s the same reservoir that search engines tap into when we seek answers to our questions and acquire new beliefs. Add the wrong ingredients into the Big Data recipe, and what you’ll get is a potentially toxic output. If there was ever a time when critical thinking was a moral imperative, and credulity a calamitous sin, it is now.

John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World

jason louv

 

A comprehensive look at the life and continuing influence of 16th-century scientific genius and occultist Dr. John Dee

  • Presents an overview of Dee’s scientific achievements, intelligence and spy work, imperial strategizing, and his work developing methods to communicate with angels
  • Pieces together Dee’s fragmentary Spirit Diaries and examines Enochian in precise detail and the angels’ plan to establish a New World Order
  • Explores Dee’s influence on Sir Francis Bacon, modern science, Rosicrucianism, and 20th-century occultists such as Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, and Anton LaVey

Dr. John Dee (1527-1608), Queen Elizabeth I’s court advisor and astrologer, was the foremost scientific genius of the 16th century. Laying the foundation for modern science, he actively promoted mathematics and astronomy as well as made advances in navigation and optics that helped elevate England to the foremost imperial power in the world. Centuries ahead of his time, his theoretical work included the concept of light speed and prototypes for telescopes and solar panels. Dee, the original “007” (his crown-given moniker), even invented the idea of a “British Empire,” envisioning fledgling America as the new Atlantis, himself as Merlin, and Elizabeth as Arthur.

But, as Jason Louv explains, Dee was suppressed from mainstream history because he spent the second half of his career developing a method for contacting angels. After a brilliant ascent from star student at Cambridge to scientific advisor to the Queen, Dee, with the help of a disreputable, criminal psychic named Edward Kelley, devoted ten years to communing with the angels and archangels of God. These spirit communications gave him the keys to Enochian, the language that mankind spoke before the fall from Eden. Piecing together Dee’s fragmentary Spirit Diaries and scrying sessions, the author examines Enochian in precise detail and explains how the angels used Dee and Kelley as agents to establish a New World Order that they hoped would unify all monotheistic religions and eventually dominate the entire globe.

Presenting a comprehensive overview of Dee’s life and work, Louv examines his scientific achievements, intelligence and spy work, imperial strategizing, and Enochian magick, establishing a psychohistory of John Dee as a singular force and fundamental driver of Western history. Exploring Dee’s influence on Sir Francis Bacon, the development of modern science, 17th-century Rosicrucianism, the 19th-century occult revival, and 20th-century occultists such as Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, and Anton LaVey, Louv shows how John Dee continues to impact science and the occult to this day.

Drapes

Drapes, Folds, Reveal…

Imagine a world…

Reality unfolds to reveal truth…

An obscure danger…

Hides in the drapes…

That twist in the curtains…

That is a threat…

Part, darkness, lightens…

Find the folds, part and reveal the truth, darkness, lightness…

Flash….

Interpret…

Approach the darkness of the drapes, the light appears, part the drapes to reveal the truth…

For years the folds dance, the darkness and light, always the truth… An eye appears to behold reality…

Sleep…

To trigger…

Next…

Sleep to drape…

Drape to sleep…

Awaken to reveal…

Part…

Featured

ABUELA

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“Bring me more.”

“Quickly!” Abuela roared!

Lilliana scurried out of Abuela’s room and off into the hall, down the stairs and doubling back into the kitchen, where a large iron stock pot filled with meaty gruel boiled violently, spilling it’s slop over the top and onto a filthy black iron stove. She placed abuela’s giant clay soup bowl on the wooden table opposite the stove, then dipped the big wooden ladle in the soup and stirred.

Lilliana looked at her reflection in the worn and stained metal tile finish of the wall behind the stove.

She wasn’t pretty anymore. Not since Abuela took Lilliana from her parents. Her hair matted now, when once she was young her hair draped gracefully over her shoulders, black and shimmering. Her black eyes had once drawn stares but were now ringed with black circles. Her face wrinkled and worn, pasty white, lips parched, mostly hidden by her matted hair. She wore a stained blue house dress that clung to her bones; bones that poked through her skin like trash filled Hefty garbage bags. It seemed to her that her breasts would grow no larger than the pimples they were.

Puberty would never be the same for her as it would be for so many other girls

The gruel continued to pour over the side. It was the only way to make this gruel right, abuela said. Bring it to a boil and keep it there. Simmering won’t stop the demons, boiling them will. To kill them though, you had to eat them, and abuela did. Everyday she ate demons, as she called them. Everyday. Always as a soup. She hated the soup, but it had to be done. The demons were out there and as long as she was alive and still had her powers, she would eat them

The soup boiled but wasn’t filled with enough meat. “Anton!” Lilliana turned to the stairs and called down the basement. “Anton! I need some more meat for the soup.”

Lilliana turned back to the pot on the stove, leaving the door to the basement open for Anton to drag up some more meat from the freezer.

Anton was a tall lanky black guy, with a big head and black happy Einstein hair, wearing a long black t-shirt, faded blue jeans and pink Keds sneakers.

Anton was abuela’s manservant. He did all the repair and heavy work around the house. As well as dragging bags full of demons up from the freezer when Lilliana needed them. He did all the gruesome work on them too. He found them at night, brought them home and kept them in cages, then killed them and chopped them up. Though Anton was mostly silent, Lilliana could occasionally hear him whisper something to them. “Anton? What do you say to them, can I come down and listen to what you say to them and hear their response.” “What they say isn’t so important and your Abuela may not allow that…”

“Then why do you talk to them?”

“Oh, just something to do before I kill them I guess. It calms them. I like them calm. They thrash around less when I’m cutting them up.”

On this day, though, Anton agreed to take her down later to speak with the last one before he killed it

Lilliana returns to Abuela with her soup.

“Abuela! I have your soup. Abuela gave Lilliana a start… she seemed dead at first but Abuela raised her head, she had fallen asleep. She stared….”Abuela, are you ok?”

“Tired and hungry.”

“I brought up another helping of the gruel.”

“Good…”

And she raised the bowl closer to her mouth… as using her arm like a mechanical shovel and crane, she shoveled the putrid gruel from the bowl to her mouth, the contents of which was hot murky liquid and chunks of fresh bloodied meat that danced in kind that almost seemed to be alive as abuela shoveled… Lilliana watched the madness in abuelas motions Like a child’s legs crossed and playing with it’s toys, consuming her favorite food in an effort to rid the world of demons, she imagined…

Abuela paused in exhaustion.

“Abuela, can you tell me more about the demons?”

“I tell you this because you must know, you will eventually do the same and will need to know…. They hide in the bodies of young human children to cast spells which is when you bring them out into the light. Once they become visible you must eat them quickly, seasoned appropriately and why they hide in little bodies is to fool everyone but the most knowledgeable and aware.”

Back in the basement, Anton takes Lilliana down to meet a demon, a little girl of about ten who calls herself Trisha.

“You know Anton is really a sweet guy, he treats you nice until the end.”

“No he doesn’t then why am I here?”

“Because of Grannie and what you are and what she has to do…”

 

“What are your parents like? Do they know about what you are?”

“What do you mean?

“A demon? That you are a demon.”

“But I’m not a demon.”

“Everything will be easier if you’re honest.”

“But I am being honest.”

Lilliana talks with Trisha, asking her questions about her life at home. What her parents are like. Her home. Her friends. Her toys. School. Does she like boys? Trisha often whimpers, afraid of Anton. Lilliana tells her that Anton is really a sweet guy. He just has a job to do

As they talk, Anton paces by, after chopping at meat in the back room, putting it in the freezer, then returning, bending down to Lilliana who sits outside the cage on the soot covered floor with Trisha, and reminding her . . .

“Trisha is a demon, don’t let her fool you.”

Anton walks away up the steps.

Lilliana asked her outright . . . “Are you a demon?”

“What’s a demon,” Trisha asked her pouting innocent lips…

“Well, you…”

Trisha sobbed uncontrollably.

“I’ve done nothing wrong, I don’t understand. Why was I taken? What is he going to do to me?” Lilliana looks back as he works..

Anton watches from the open door of the cutting room

Trisha asks about the locked door.

“What’s in there?”

Lilliana motions to the door down the hall from the cutting room…

“Abuelas secrets, all the scary things that make her who and what she is…”

“What about you? Let’s play some games, what games can you or want to play?”

“Hide and seek!” Trisha spoke with some elation distracted by the current terror…

“I’ll hide, you seek…”

“Ok… I’ll look for you…”

Lilliana lets her out to play, closing the basement door. They play awhile but Lilliana doesn’t recognize her own strength and so Trisha finds the play to rough. Together they press their ears to the secret closet door. They can only imagine. Lilliana tells what she knows about Abuela’s past. That she was a Bruja, and she made clothes for a living, clothes that some said had magical powers. To wear her clothing could be either good or bad luck, no one ever knew. And so the people of her small town in PR exiled her. What happened to all the clothes she made? Perhaps that is her secret.

The bell from Abuela rings out, deafening them. Lilliana runs, dragging Trisha into the cage and leaving her crying. Anton calls down from the top of the stairs to the kitchen. Lilliana fills another bowl from the seething pot on the stove then hurries back up the stairs to tend to Abuela, as Anton unloads another bag of demon meat into the pot While Lilliana sits with Abuela on her bed, feeding her, she looks out of the window to the empty streets.

Their home was a condemned tenement in Brooklyn, the only one on the block left standing. The building was surrounded on all sides by a debris ridden one-acre lot. In the distance she could see children playing in the schoolyard, from which Anton had found and taken two demons in the last year Lilliana turns to Abuela and asks.

“Do you ever wonder if you’ve chosen the wrong child, Abuela?”

She looked up from her soup bowl? Her eyes glistened when opened so wide. Suddenly her head grew twice its size and thrust forward to meet Lilliana’s. Abuelas exposed monster teeth, the ones she needed to chew the demons well but hid in her gums behind her mortal set, and sneered at Lilliana.

Saliva and blood dripped down from her stained fangs, a horrible stench from her breath warmed her face and made Lilliana turn away, sick and afraid Abuela relaxed, sitting back. Her head shrunk back to normal size, her teeth slowly retracted, allowing her to speak again. “Lilliana. Your mother and father wondered the same thing when I went to them with the truth. I told them what some children had become in the wombs of their unsuspecting mother. That two of their own children might be demons. And when I found them to be so, they fought me, until I killed them all. Except you, Lilliana. You were born free of demons. They had not found you because you were supposed to die in your mother’s womb. But you survived.

Don’t doubt my powers, Lilliana. Don’t doubt my knowledge, wisdom and awareness. I know that it may all seem amazing and fantastic, and terribly cruel and morbid, but the horror’s we live with must be found and our world cleansed. Trust me, Lilliana.

Lilliana bolted from the room crying

Lilliana sat in the kitchen with Anton, who had made them both some hot tea. Lilliana asked Anton if he ate the soup too. No! Only her grandmother could, because if a mortal drank demon remains, they would be possessed themselves, and she would have to kill and eat them also. Demon infested adults were much more difficult to deal with. Younger mystics could deal with them better than an old ugly fart like Abuela. Perhaps Lilliana would one day be groomed to carry on Abuela’s mission.

Lilliana asked Anton if he was ever afraid they were making a mistake. That they might be killing innocent children

I used to, Lilliana. For a very long time I was doubtful of what I was doing for your Grandmother.

Did you ever say anything to her?

No! Oh no! I’m sure she knew everything I thought, as she knows all that you have in your mind, and anyone else’s that she cares to invade. But I never said anything to her

Then you’re no longer doubtful?

Those doubts are all gone. I trust your grandmother, as you should too. And you will. . . eventually.

Lilliana went back down to the basement without Anton’s permission to speak with Trisha in whispers, hiding behind a column beside the cage, while Anton hammered away at the meat in the cutting room down the hall. Trisha asked all the questions. Asking about Lilliana’s own past. Her own childhood. Lilliana becomes sad and feels strongly for Trisha.

Trisha asks what a demon is.

“You are, you lie…”

“Everybody lies, all children lie. How do you know the children from the demons?”

“The wings.”

“If I’ve got wings, show me or show yourself the wings I have.”

“I’ve never seen them.”

“Never? Then how do you know? I’m scared of you, not a demon like you imagine that I am. I just go to school, play with my friends and toys…”

Anton pokes his head out to listen, believing he hears voices, but then goes back to work…

“Go ahead go down and look… All you have to lose is your innocence…”

Lilliana walked quietly down the hall to the cutting room, never having seen inside the room before never having seen a demon dismembered. She stepped in and watched in horror, as Anton chopped his away at the body of a small child. She looked away, sickened, and saw a sledgehammer leaning against the wall in the corner of the room.

Trisha reached passed Liliana for the sledge hammer and lifted it over Anton’s head. Anton turned and saw her, as Lilliana brought the hammer crashing down on Anton’s big head, smashing it to pieces like a ripe pumpkin at Thanksgiving. He fell to the ground. She knelt down to check if he was breathing, leaning close to him. Not a breath seemed to come from him. His eyes opened wide and she pulled back Lilliana, whispered Anton.

Lilliana. You should’ve listened to your Grandmother.

His eyes closed and he was dead.

Lilliana ran down the hall to the cage, keys in hand that she had taken off the hook in the cutting room.

She unlocked the cage as Trisha’s face brightened. Trisha scurried from the cage, holding Lilliana’s hand as they hurried up the stairs to the kitchen. The kitchen door to the backyard wouldn’t open. Lilliana wasn’t allowed out and she never saw how Anton left the house. All the doors were bolted Abuela’s bell went off Abuela knew.

A great roar rattled the plaster walls. Cracks like lightning opened up to shine their light. The house shook. And like thunder, there was a constant slow pounding that came from above, causing the whole house to quiver. Abuela became the monster, a slithering giant snake like beast.

Abuela was stalking them. My God! “What is that!” asked Trisha.

“My grandmother”… said Lilliana.

Lilliana and the girl ran down further in the basement, to the locked door that keeps Abuela’s secrets. Lilliana smashes the lock with a chain kept nearby and enters the room filled with Abuelas mementos of magic. The girls rummage about noting the overwhelming magic that comes to life to… Abuela slithers in after them, confronting herself, she is quickly immersed in herself. Lilliana battles her Grandmother. Lilliana wins and frees the girl Trisha thanks Lilliana, sprouts a demons reptilian wings and flies away, laughing… Lilliana finishes her story… related to the children from the neighborhood, pointing out how she had taken on her demon hunting chores…

 

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