Friday, October 7, 2011

Beliefs and the Will

1. If a belief is not at least in part an act of the will, then it is not rationally-based.

2. Beliefs are rationally-based.

3. Therefore, a belief is at least in part an act of the will.

This syllogism arrives in large part due to those (mostly atheists/agnostics) who insist that the will plays no role in their beliefs. That is to say, they could not choose to believe in God (or any negation of propositions they accept) even if they wanted to, for beliefs are not formed by an act of the will. Thus, while people may come to change their beliefs under varying and specific circumstances and given different facts and evidences, it is not because they chose to embrace the proposition. Rather, it was simply deterministic causes that engendered belief.

The problem, as (1) above notes, is rationality (or irrationality) does not seem to play any role whatsoever. If one cannot choose to believe other than what he does, is he really being irrational?[1] It seems not. One may object by saying, “if one’s belief was formed in accordance with logical rules, then he can be said to have had a rational basis for his belief even though he could not choose it.” This seems to make two mistakes.

First, consider the counterexample of a computer. It does not learn, or rationalize, or make inference; at least none of these things are done as a person seems to do them. It goes through all the motions of rational thought (modus tollens, modus ponens, etc.), but does not actually seem to be doing rational thought. This suggests that simply because one goes through the motions of following logical rules one has not necessarily been rational. Another counterexample would be the one who follows rules of rationality but who did not understand why these things are true; such a person should not be said to be rational in the same way as someone who does understand the principles.

Second, if beliefs are the products of some kind of determinism and void of the will, then even rules of rationality are subject to this. It won’t do to say the laws of logic and rationality are some kind of externally objective measure by which we can judge the world. Yet we take rationality and the laws of logic to be just that! But if even the beliefs of rationality are simply accepted or not by deterministic factors, is one really being rational in the normal sense of the term? Not really.[2]

One could always bite the bullet and deny (2), claiming beliefs are not rational. But in that case, even the belief that beliefs are not rational is not rational, so that we have no rational reason to accept the denial of (2). In that case, then, (3) follows. If that is true, then we have good reason to believe that atheists, at least in some small part, can control their beliefs.[3]

                [1] By “irrational,” I do not mean merely lacking rationality, for then the answer would clearly be yes. Rather, I mean forming beliefs for utterly horrible or irrelevant reasons.

                [2] One could object, however, that the laws of logic and rationality “work,” and hence we have reason to accept them. However, we have good reasons to suspect pragmatism does not always form true beliefs (right for the wrong reasons, anyone?), and we may question why we ought to believe what is pragmatic.

                [3] Finally, there is belief for emotional or psychological reasons (which people often refer to as irrationality), which seems to me to be prima facie evidence of will-based belief.

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  1. Regardless of the logical construction presented here, the question I think that needs to be answered is: could you will yourself to believe that Santa Claus actually exists? Or, for a more Orwellian idea, that 2+2=5?
    And when I say this, I mean really believe - not play a semantic game or rationalize. It is in that sense that an atheist says that she does not simply choose her beliefs.
    Also, not all beliefs are rationally based. Consider the belief of the Heaven's Gate Cult that thought that the Hale-Bopp comet was an alien spacecraft and committed mass suicide based on that belief. It's hard to see how that's anything but an irrational belief that is freely chosen.
    There are also irrational beliefs that are not chosen. Consider the schizophrenic who believes himself to be Napoleon. This belief did not involve an act of will, but merely one of brain chemistry gone awry. It does raise the question of how much of what we believe might be deterministic, so I don't think the answer is as clear-cut as your syllogism makes it seem.

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for the comment. Perhaps you are asking if there is a psychological state that one can be in in which one believes in Santa Claus, facilitated by at least some desire, whereby one interprets any evidence in such a way to support his existence, or merely defends his existence. I don't see why not. Now before you are too incredulous, please consider that I did not in fact say this would be reasonable, or a correct course of action. Merely that one could. But in any case, I don't see this as countering either premise, and hence the conclusion does indeed follow.

    But your second example does seem to counter the second premise, namely that beliefs are rationally based. Now, excluding the mentally incompetent/disturbed individuals, beliefs are at least in part based on rationality; that is, people think their beliefs are actually true for reasons, even if their reasons are themselves irrational. Taking the Heaven's Gate, assuming at least one of them was not actually insane, they likely reasoned from astrology, or the concept of faith in the midst of astrology, or something. But certainly none of the mentally competent people simply asserted "we must have faith, and there's not even a reason we must have faith (i.e., even "having faith" is not a reason for having faith)." But no mentally competent person holds beliefs for which he does not reason--even if the reasoning is bad. My point is that such reasoning is not possible on a deterministic scale. Mentally incompetent people are exempt by the major premise--after all, as you say, their beliefs are not chosen nor are they rationally based. They don't even think there's some overriding but ultimately false reason he's Napoleon. :>

  3. I know this post is late but it needs to be said.

    I find that many objections to the atheists......and let's be clear, this is one of those ludicrous consequences of atheism that they must accept if they follow it to its conclusion, is people grant them far too much---as if this there is really a debate worth having here.

    Humans could not even speak without free will. You must *move ideas around in your mind to do virtually anything that makes sense. This Tiny group of people are baiting rational human beings to play their ridiculous games and the actual amount of atheists that believe they don't have free will is much smaller than the amount of atheists because it's just either too crazy to accept or they haven't realized the implications of their worldview yet.

    So I think it is proper to claim firmly that it is self refuting. It cuts is own throat and with every word they speak or sentence they type, they are proving without question they are deluded. Their Bias is the sole reason they deny it.

    Nice website BTW

    1. Thanks, John, and sorry I did not get back to you until now! I think atheism does suffer a problem of self-refutation, and explorations along the libertarian freedom lines need to be done and developed. :)


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