Belief, Voluntariness and Intentionality

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  • Belief, Voluntariness and Intentionalitydltc_1284 537..560Matthias Steup

    AbstractIn this paper, I examine Alstons arguments for doxastic involuntarism. Alston fails to distin-guish (i) between volitional and executional lack of control, and (ii) between compatibilist andlibertarian control. As a result, he fails to notice that, if one endorses a compatibilist notionof voluntary control, the outcome is a straightforward and compelling case for doxastic volun-tarism. Advocates of involuntarism have recently argued that the compatibilist case for doxasticvoluntarism can be blocked by pointing out that belief is never intentional. In response to thisstrategy, I distinguish between two types of intentionality and argue that belief is no lessintentional than action is.

    1. The epistemological significance of doxastic voluntarismThere is a long-standing epistemological tradition to think of justification as adeontological matter. I will refer to advocates of this tradition as deontologistsand to the tradition they represent as deontology.1 Deontologists disagree amongthemselves about various details of the view. As I will understand the view here,deontology is the claim that believing is no less an instance of agency than actionis. Advocates of deontology thus understood would say that, just as we candistinguish between obligatory, permissible and forbidden actions, we can distin-guish between obligatory, permissible and forbidden beliefs (or, more generally,doxastic attitudes).2 As William Alston has pointed out, an action or a beliefsbeing justified is most naturally construed as the action or the beliefs beingpermissible, according to some standard of permissibility.3 As far as actions areconcerned, the standard might be that of prudence or that of morality. In episte-mology, the standard for judging a beliefs permissibility is neither prudentialnor moral but epistemic. So when deontologists judge a belief permissible, what

    Department of Philosophy, Purdue University, West Lafayette, USA; Email:

    1 Representatives of deontology belonging to the modern period are Descartes andLocke. Among twentieth-century philosophers, A. J. Ayer, Laurence BonJour, RoderickChisholm, and Carl Ginet may be counted as deontologists. For an instructive reconstructionof the deontological approach in modern and twentieth-century epistemology, see Plantinga(2003, ch. 1).

    2 For ease of exposition, I will frequently use beliefs to refer to doxastic attitudes ingeneral.

    3 Alston (1989, 125f).

    dialecticadialectica Vol. 65, N 4 (2011), pp. 537559

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1746-8361.2011.01284.x

    2011 The Author. dialectica 2011 Editorial Board of dialectica.Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA

  • they have in mind is that the belief is, relative to the agents evidence, likely tobe true.4

    It would be fair to say that Alston has been the most influential and effectivecritic of the deontological approach. In his seminal papers Concepts of EpistemicJustification and The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification, hehas introduced the two primary objections to deontology (see Alston 1989, 81114and 115152). According to the first, the well-known Argument from DoxasticInvoluntarism, deontologists are mistaken when they view belief as being underour voluntary control. According to the second, the Argument from LackingTruth-Conduciveness, deontological justification is irrelevant to epistemologybecause a belief can be an instance of deontological justification without beinggrounded in anything that confers likelihood on it. Having responded to theArgument from Lacking Truth-Conduciveness elsewhere, I will here focus on theArgument from Doxastic Involuntarism, which may be reconstructed as follows:5

    (1) If belief is suitable for deontological evaluation, then belief is an instanceof agency.

    (2) If belief is an instance of agency, then what we believe is under ourvoluntary control.

    (3) What we believe is not under our voluntary control.So:(4) Belief is not an instance of agency.So:(5) Belief is not suitable for deontological evaluation.6

    I will refer to philosophers who take the third premise to be false as voluntarists,and to philosophers who take that premise to be true as involuntarists. I will referto the views these philosophers advocate as voluntarism and involuntarismrespectively. And, for ease of exposition, I will call voluntary what falls withinthe range of things over which we have voluntary control, and I will call invol-untary what falls outside of this range. In this paper, I will develop further and

    4 What differentiates epistemic from moral or prudential reasons is that, unlike the latter,the former confer likelihood on the beliefs they support. How the relevant notion of likelihood isto be understood is a matter of considerable controversy. See Alston (1989, 83f), Feldman 2003,41ff), and Fumerton (1995, 190ff).

    5 For a response to the Argument from Truth-Conduciveness, see Steup (forthcoming).6 Alston doesnt offer one single, anti-voluntarist argument with clearly articulated

    premises. His attack on epistemic deontology proceeds through a series of arguments andsub-arguments which, on p. 136, culminate in the following summation: Up to this point I havebeen examining the support for a deontological conception of epistemic justification provided bythe treatment of propositional attitude formation on the model of intentional action . . . I concludethat we do not generally have the power to carry out an intention to take up a certain propositionalattitude. Insofar as the conception of epistemic justification as believing as one is permitted todepends on that assumption, it must be rejected.

    Matthias Steup538

    2011 The Author. dialectica 2011 Editorial Board of dialectica.

  • refine my earlier efforts (Steup 2000; 2008) at rebutting the arguments that havebeen offered in support of the third premise.

    Before proceeding, I need to add an important clarification. According to thekind of involuntarism under consideration here, actions (neglecting exceptions)are excluded from the range of involuntariness. Involuntarism, then, is a thesis ofasymmetry between action and belief: While we lack voluntary control in the areaof belief formation, we do enjoy voluntary control over our actions. According tothe voluntarist position I defend in this paper, this thesis of asymmetry is mistaken.

    2. The case for doxastic involuntarismIn preparation for articulating his arguments against voluntarism, Alston distin-guishes between two kinds of direct control over our beliefs.7 The first is basiccontrol, which we enjoy when it comes to controlling the movements of ourbody and limbs. Exerting such control takes no more than making a decision. Forexample, you have direct control over whether or not to raise your arm. To raiseyour arm, no more is needed than just deciding to raise it. Alston considers itobvious that we cannot acquire or drop beliefs just by deciding to do so. He writes:

    My argument, if it can be called that, simply consists in asking you to considerwhether you have any such powers. Can you, at this moment, start to believe that theUnited States is still a colony of Great Britain, just by deciding to do so? (Alston1989, 122)

    The second kind of direct control is nonbasic immediate.8 To exert such control,one executes a series of bodily movements within one uninterrupted, intentionalact. For example, we have nonbasic immediate control over turning on the light.This is not something you can accomplish just by exercising your will. Rather, youneed to go to the light switch and flip it. Alston thinks it is obvious that we do notenjoy such light switch control over our beliefs either. Here is what he says onthis point:

    With respect to almost all normal perceptual, introspective, and memory proposi-tions, it is absurd to think that one has any such control over whether one accepts,rejects, or withholds the proposition. When I look out my window and see rainfalling, water dripping off the leaves of trees, and cars passing by, I no more have

    7 Alston contrasts direct and indirect control. The latter divides into long range andindirect influence control. For his classification of different types of control, see Alston (1989,119, 137).

    8 Voluntary control of the direct kind, then, is either basic or nonbasic immediate.Indirect control divides into long range and indirect influence. While Alston does not think thereis any realistic prospect for long-range control over our beliefs, he allows for the possibility ofexerting indirect influence over them. He does not think, therefore, that the absence of directbelief control, by itself, suffices for a refutation of deontology, which is why he also advances theArgument from Lacking Truth Conduciveness.

    Belief, Voluntariness and Intentionality 539

    2011 The Author. dialectica 2011 Editorial Board of dialectica.

  • immediate control over whether I accept those propositions than I have basic control.I form the belief that rain is falling willy-nilly. There is no way I can inhibit thisbelief. (Alston 1989, 129)

    Alstons examples can be generalized to belief formation in general. Nearly allof our beliefs stick: it is not within our power to get rid of them. The same appliesto doxastic attitudes such as disbelief and suspension of judgment. It is not withinour power to replace disbelief with belief. Nor is it within our power to believeor disbelieve a proposition when in fact we do neither. Consider the followingpropositions:

    H I have a head.T I have two heads.A There are more ants than spiders.

    H is a proposition that is clearly true. I cannot refrain from believing it. T is aproposition that is clearly false. I cannot refrain from disbelieving it. Finally, A isa proposition that is neither clearly true nor clearly false. I can neither believe it nordisbelieve it. By far most of our doxastic attitudes fall into one of these threecategories. Thus the phenomenon to which Alston appeals, the phenomenon ofbeing unable to believe otherwise Ill refer to it as Alstons Datum providesseemingly decisive support to involuntarism. In light of it, the third premise of theArgument from Doxastic Involuntarism seems true.

    3. An initial explanation of Alstons DatumIt would be nice to have an explanation of Alstons Datum. Why is it that wecannot believe otherwise? Why can you not believe that the US is still a colony ofGreat Britain, or that you have two heads, or that cats are insects? And why is it notwithin your power to refrain from believing that it is raining when you see that itis, or that you have a head, or that cats are mammals? And finally, why can youneither believe nor disbelieve that there are more ants than spiders, or that thenumber of ducks is even? Note that the propositions in the first category are clearlyfalse, the propositions in the second category clearly true, and the propositions inthe third category neither clearly true nor clearly false. Note further that whatconfers upon a proposition the status of being clearly true or being clearly falseis your evidence. Here we have, then, an initial explanation of Alstons Datum: Wecannot believe otherwise because our evidence makes it impossible for us to doso. This explanation has been suggested by H. H. Price (1954, 16): If you are ina reasonable frame of mind, you cannot help preferring the proposition which theevidence favors, much as you may wish you could.

    Alston concurs. Considering why we cannot either believe or disbelieve whatis neither clearly true nor clearly false, he says the following (1989, 126):

    Matthias Steup540

    2011 The Author. dialectica 2011 Editorial Board of dialectica.

  • How could I simply choose to believe [p] rather than [q] when they seem exactly ona par with respect to the likelihood of truth, especially when the subjective probabil-ity seems rather low? To do so would be to choose a belief in the face of the lack ofany significant inclination to suppose it to be true. It seems clear to me that this is notwithin our power.

    Now, when two propositions for example, the number of ducks is even and thenumber of ducks is odd seem exactly on a par with respect to the likelihood oftruth, this is so because in light of our evidence neither one is more likely true (orfalse) than the other. It is, therefore, our evidence that prevents us from believingeither one of these propositions. Alstons point applies with equal force to what wecannot believe and what we cannot refrain from believing. When you cannotbelieve that the US is still a colony of Great Britain, it is your evidence that makesthis impossible for you. And when you cannot refrain from believing that it israining when you see that it is, it is again your evidence that is responsible for yourinability. Alstons Datum, then, may be restated as follows: Given our evidence,we cannot believe otherwise.

    4. Two ingredients of voluntary controlThe initial explanation of Alstons Datum remains incomplete. There is a furtherquestion we need to consider which clearly emerges once we come to see that afailure to have control over something can come about in two ways: either by beingunable to do what one has decided to do, or by being unable to control onesdecisions themselves. Voluntary control, then, has two ingredients:

    Executional control: the ability to execute ones decisions and choices.Volitional control: the ability to control ones own will.

    Let us consider some examples to illustrate the distinction.

    Paralysis: Peter wants to raise his arm to reach for his coffee. But he justhad a stroke, and now his arm wont move because it isparalyzed.

    Twitching Eye Lid: Toms eye lid twitches. He tries to stop it from twitching, butto no avail.

    Icy Hill Ingrid is driving up a hill on an icy road. The wheels spin onthe ice, and the car comes to a complete stop. She tries tocontinue driving, but with no success.

    Each of these examples illustrates an executional control failure. Peter decided topick up his coffee, but his arm wont move. Tom is trying to make his eye lid stoptwitching, but it continues twitching. Ingrid wants to drive up the hill but cantbecause the wheels of her car have lost traction. Compare such inability to do whatone wants to do with volitional control failure:

    Belief, Voluntariness and Intentionality 541

    2011 The Author. dialectica 2011 Editorial Board of dialectica.

  • Agoraphobia Al cannot take a walk in the park because he suffers from an irratio-nal and excessive fear of wide open places.

    Mysophobia Mel washes and disinfects his hands up to one hundred times a day.He cannot help behaving in this way because he suffers from anirrational and excessive fear of germs and contamination.

    The reason why Al cannot take a walk in the park is not that he cannot execute hisdecision to do so because of external obstacles such as civil unrest, torrentialrainfall, or sudden paralysis. Rather, he cannot take a wal...


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