Wisdom, War, and Doubt: Notes on Responsible Believing

Dr. Leonard O’Brian
Scottsdale Community College
20 April 2006

There was a philosopher, a 19th century Englishman, named W. K. Clifford. Clifford wrote one of the more famous sentences in western philosophy. He said, “It is wrong always, anywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”1 To repeat, it is wrong—by ‘wrong’ Clifford meant ‘immoral’—it is immoral always, anywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. 

Two points may be made about Clifford’s advice: First, historians of philosophy will never forget that Clifford gave us this advice. Second, we human beings will repeatedly forget to follow it. When we forget to follow it in matters of war and peace, we will imperil global treasure and global life. Had the United States’ administration, or the United States’ public, or the Iraqi administration been following Clifford’s counsel in the years leading up to the war, we probably would be living in a safer world today.

How do we follow Clifford’s advice? How do we seek sufficient evidence for our beliefs? There are no formulas, but three suggestions may contribute somewhat to our making life’s decisions wisely.

First, we should acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. Do you remember the months leading up to the war? Almost everyone was assuming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Even the American news media weren’t questioning this assumption aggressively. Jim Lehrer, on the Channel 8 News Hour, interviewed Zbigniew Brzezinski days before the invasion. Zbigniew Brzezinski had been President Carter’s national security advisor. Jim Lehrer asked—I’m paraphrasing—Dr. Brzezinski, if we invade Iraq, what do you see as a worst-case scenario? Dr. Brzezinski answered, Worst-case scenario? Well, the worst case would be that we go in there and don’t find weapons of mass destruction. The damage to our moral stature among the world of nations would be enormous. Now, I think that Dr. Brzezinski believed that Iraq had some sort of unconventional weaponry; but he knew that he didn’t know that they did. Moreover, he could contemplate the deep downside of the unlikely possibility of our being wrong; he could imagine grave implications of our acting as if we knew, when we didn’t.

So, first, we should acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. Second, we should acknowledge that what we don’t know others might be able to shed light on.Now, I know that I don’t know exactly how the current U. S. administration makes decisions, or how other administrations have made theirs; but the longer I watch the present White House, the more it appears to me that a handful of individuals makes big decisions often not very influenced by expert counsel from individuals with divergent opinions. So it seems to me from, granted, my considerable distance: There seems to be a problem of insulation in the White House. 

The problem of insulation applies to us private citizens, as well. How many of us read just one newspaper? How many of us have a favorite columnist, and avoid reading columnists who disagree with our favorite? How many of us listen to the newscasts of just one radio station or just one television channel? If that’s what we do, we resemble an administration that itself seems to be insulated—and we may rubber-stamp their decisions.

Someone said, “If everyone is thinking alike, no one is thinking.” I don’t know who first said that, whether it was Ben Franklin or George Patton. Alan Greenspan has quoted it. Whoever said it has a point.

So, first, we should acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. Second, we should acknowledge that what we don’t know others might be able to shed light on. The last suggestion concerns the importance of being able to change our beliefs. We sometimes say of a person, “She has the strength of her convictions.” We may intend the comment as a compliment. But when ‘strength of convictions’ refers to convictions that seldom waver, we may really be referring to a problem. The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”2 In other words, if everything that I believed in 2003 I believe in 2006, I am foolishly consistent. A respect for the flow of evidence over time requires in each of us some weakness of conviction.

The 19th century Englishman, Clifford, said that we must withhold belief to the degree that we lack evidence. The 19th century American, Emerson, said that we should believe yesterday what the evidence told us yesterday, but believe today what the evidence tells us today. Both formulations reflect intellectual humility, humility in the presence of available evidence. The tradition of intellectual humility goes back 2000 years. When the Oracle at Delphi said that Socrates was the wisest of all people, Socrates did not affect a false humility along such lines as, “No, I’m not the wisest.” He respected an authority other than himself, in this case the oracle. He said, “Hmn. I’m the wisest, am? But I know so little.… Ah, I’ve got it! I’m wise because I know that I know so little.”3


  1. (Back to text) W. K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” published in Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, edited by John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger (Macmillan, fifth edition), 150.

  2. (Back to text) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” published in Self-Reliance: The Wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited and with an introduction by Richard Whelan (Bell Tower, 1991), 75.

  3. (Back to text) Paraphrased from Plato’s Apology, 23B.

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