Puzzle 1: Are Beliefs Voluntary?

23 March 2020

Need a distraction from the incessant stream of information (good and bad) and speculation (mostly bad) about the Coronavirus? I certainly do.


Well, here’s my attempt to give you one. For my next sequence of blogs—for the duration of the Corona outbreak—I’m going to post about philosophical puzzles that are either old or new. And I’m going to describe the puzzles and attempt to make them gripping—and not offer you any help in solving them. Or I won’t offer you any help until the next blog, at which point I’ll post links to philosophical papers that offer various solutions.


If all goes well, each should occupy your brain in a fascinating-yet-somewhat-frustrating fashion, which at least provides some respite from thinking about the current crisis in global health. (I hope, of course, this sequence of blogs is short, but it might not be.)


So here’s puzzle number 1 in the series: Do we have voluntary control over our own beliefs? Or for short: Is belief voluntary?


Otherwise put: Can I simply choose to believe something that I didn’t believe before? Or can I voluntarily choose to stop believing something that I currently believe?


The terms of the puzzle should be fairly clear, even if they’re hard to define explicitly. But I’ll elaborate just a little on the relevant terms.


On voluntariness. Raising your arm is something you can do voluntarily (if you’re not injured). Making your hair grow faster is not something you can do voluntarily. Of course, there might be things you can choose to do that (if you’re lucky) indirectly cause your hair to grow faster. A change in the world, roughly and in the relevant sense, is under your voluntary control only if it unfolds in a reliable way under the direct guidance of your informed intentions. And so far, faster hair growth has never been voluntary in that sense. 


On belief. If you’re reading this, you have many more beliefs than you even realize. I’m not just talking about your political, moral, or religious beliefs. I’m also (and primarily) talking about your everyday beliefs about how things are in the world. By “beliefs” I just mean (roughly) everything in your brain’s internal model of what the world is like. So take the beliefs you have about some random kind of object, say, an ATM machine. You, I suspect, have the following beliefs: that it has buttons, that it has a screen, that it runs on electricity, that it connects to your bank account, that you have to insert a bank card, that it takes your PIN, that it dispenses money in the currency of the country you’re in, that it stores rather than prints money, etc. And those are just your beliefs about one kind of object. Of course, most of those ordinary beliefs you would just label “knowledge.” But knowledge is just belief that is successful in the right way (true, justified, whatever else is needed to solve the Gettier problem, etc.). So wherever there is knowledge, there is belief too (at least on traditional views of knowledge). 


Now why is this a puzzle? And why is it important?


It’s a puzzle because evidence points in two opposite directions. Many beliefs, it seems, are not under voluntary control. Can you believe that today is Friday the 13th, just by choosing to do so? You couldn’t if you tried. As William Alston puts it, to form that belief I wouldn’t know what button to press. Voluntarily changing your beliefs about mundane things like what your name is or where San Francisco is located seems not just hard—but impossible. (This position is called involuntarism.)


But many beliefs do seem to be under voluntary control. When people trust others, they seem to do things like choosing to believe their partners are faithful or that their boss has their best interests at heart. People seem often enough to choose the belief that the president is telling the truth—or lying. So contrary to the examples from the last paragraph, voluntary belief seems all around us. (This position is called voluntarism.)


But such voluntary belief presents a deepening of the puzzle. If you form a belief by choice, you could just as well not have done so. And if it’s in your power to not believe something, then how convinced can you really be when you say you “believe” it? Isn’t such voluntary “belief” no more than pretense? Still, phrases like “I choose to believe” are common enough that there must be something to them!


So we have a puzzle. Why should we care? Much of the concern with this problem in philosophy originated among Christian philosophers. As you know, one of the basic requirements of most mainstream forms of Christianity is to believe. Believe and you go to Heaven. Don’t believe and face eternal damnation. But how on Earth (let alone Heaven) can you be required to do something that you don’t have voluntary control over? It would be a cruel deity indeed, who required that which was not in your power.


But the problem generalizes. Even those of us who aren’t Christian still think that there is some sort of moral responsibility for one’s beliefs. We think people who have racist, sexist, or xenophobic beliefs are in the wrong for having those beliefs. Yet how can they be blamed for doing what is not under their voluntary control? 


So it seems to matter greatly whether beliefs are voluntary. Yet it’s puzzling either way. And in addition to the puzzle of whether beliefs are voluntary, there is the further puzzle of how we can be responsible for them if they’re not.


I wish you the best in finding a solution. And if you do, let me know!

Comments (6)

wilson1224's picture


Monday, March 23, 2020 -- 3:20 PM

What we believe based on

What we believe based on natural science and what we believe to be a basis for thought or action seem to be different things. If one accepts that science must determine what one believes about the natural world, it does not necessarily follow that what one believes about social practices can also be determined by science. The true reasons for belief and action are the result of community's long reflection on what it considers to be true and valuable.

This is a question of self-identity. Do we pick our identity? Can we change our identity? At what point are we imposing our categories on a person who sees things from a very different perspective?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, March 23, 2020 -- 2:23 PM

Short answer... No.

Short answer... No.

Long answer... Heck No!

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, January 23, 2022 -- 3:52 PM


It depends.
Davidson said it (belief) is propositional. This implies that one has choice ( or ' free' will.). Yet, there are those who argue there is no,such thing as free will..
Everything has a price. So it is said. Ask your puzzlemaster---he should know.

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