Monday 24 March 2014

Believing at Will

This week, Ema Sullivan-Bissett discusses why we cannot believe at will.

In my PhD thesis I am giving an account of belief which explains the link between belief and truth. One of the features of belief I am interested in is our inability to bring about beliefs at will. Most philosophers agree that we cannot bring about beliefs at will, but there has been disagreement about precisely what this inability amounts to.

I think that the various requirements for a case to count as one of willed belief, found in the work of philosophers working in this area, are captured by the Uncontrollability Thesis, which is the claim that ‘unmediated conscious belief-production is impossible’ (Noordhof 2001: 248).
I cannot bring about the belief that I’m an awesome dancer, just like that, i.e. without mediation. The ‘unmediated’ clause rules out cases in which I bring about the belief that my arm is in the air by raising my arm, or I bring about the belief that I am a chicken, by seeing a hypnotist—these believings would be mediated. We might usefully compare this to the imagination. I can imagine, just like that, without mediation. I can imagine that I am an awesome dancer just like that, I can imagine that my arm is in the air, just like that, and I can imagine that I am a chicken, just like that. I can imagine all of these things consciously, and without mediation, but I cannot believe them consciously, and without mediation.
In my PhD thesis I give an explanation of why we cannot believe at will—of why the Uncontrollability Thesis is true—by appealing to the one of the biological functions of our mechanisms for belief production. I claim that what is essential to belief is its motivational role, whereas our inability to believe at will is just a contingent feature, grounded in our biological history. This means that I allow for believers in other possible worlds who can bring about beliefs at will.         

Many philosophers will be unhappy with my explanation because it treats the Uncontrollability Thesis as expressing a contingent claim. They think that our inability to believe at will does not reflect a fact about us, but rather reflects a fact about the nature of belief itself. Indeed, ‘[m]ost’ philosophers take it that ‘our inability to bring about a belief just like that is a conceptual matter’ (Scott-Kakures 1994: 77), and ‘there is a widespread sense’ that ‘there is something in the nature of belief that makes it impossible to decide to believe a proposition for which one lacks epistemic support’ (Frankish 2007: 528). More strongly: ‘[t]here is [...] something so chokingly unswallowable about the idea of someone’s voluntarily coming to believe something that I have to suspect that this is ruled out at a deeper level than the contingent powers of our minds’ (Bennett 1990: 3). In my thesis I argue that this consequence of my account of belief is not so ‘chokingly unswallowable’ after all.

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