Voluntary belief on a reasonable basis

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A person presented with adequate but not conclusive evidence for a proposition is in a position voluntarily to acquire a belief in that proposition, or to suspend judgment about it. The availability of doxastic options in such cases grounds a moderate form of doxastic voluntarism not based on practical motives, and therefore distinct from pragmatism. In such cases, belief-acquisition or suspension of judgment meets standard conditions on willing: it can express stable character traits of the agent, it can be responsive to reasons, and it is compatible with a subjective awareness of the available options. The view that belief-formation is sometimes voluntary has fallen out of favor.1 It is now commonly thought that belief-formation could be voluntary only on some form of pragmatism, the view that belief-formation is (or can be) undertaken on the basis of practical motives. In this paper, I present a contrary position. Belief-formation need not be undertaken on the basis of practical motives in order to be voluntary. The doxastic will determines belief on the basis of epistemic reasons. It provides epistemic motives.2 I focus on cases of belief-formation in which one comes to think that one has adequate evidence for p, and so comes to believe p.3 In these cases, it is reasonable but not rationally mandatory to hold that there is adequate evidence for p, and there are no strong non-epistemic reasons to believe p (e.g., that believing p would make one happier). The fact that there is more than one rationally permissible doxastic option, together with the reason-responsiveness of the belief that p, together make it plausible that the formation of the belief that p is voluntary. The view I propose takes the limits of voluntary belief seriously. I concede a strong form of evidentialism, according to which belief always commits one to the judgment that there is evidence. I also concede that conclusive evidence, when grasped by a doxastic subject, must induce belief. This view or something like it has had a number of influential recent advocates, such as Bernard Williams, David Owens, Jonathan Adler, and Pamela Hieronymi. It is said that "belief aims at the truth" and that agents, realizing this, must be bound by this aim inasmuch as they wish to qualify as believers (rather than as wishful thinkers, say).4 On my reading, as I will explain later, this restricts voluntary belief because it restricts the options available to the doxastic subject. My paper has three main parts. In the first two sections, I describe the cases I have in mind and characterize them. In the third section, I argue that they meet standard conditions on the will. In the last two sections, I anticipate some philosophical objections against these cases of voluntary belief, and present my rebuttals. For the sake of simplicity, throughout the paper I shall assume that the principal doxastic states are full belief and suspension of judgment. However, my position could, I think, be adapted to a framework allowing degrees of belief, or partial belief.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)312-334
Number of pages23
JournalPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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