Saturday, March 25, 2017

Culpable in Unbelief?

Most people are in agreement that what is known as doxastic voluntarism is false. This is, in its common and strengthened form, the idea that we choose all of our beliefs. Surely that seems false. However, an interesting challenge (one that I’ve written on before) to Christian belief can be placed by the skeptic:

1.     I cannot choose my beliefs.
2.     If I cannot choose my beliefs, then my belief that Christianity is false or unjustified is not under my control.
3.     Whatever is not under my control is something for which I am not morally responsible.
4.     So I am not responsible for believing that Christianity is false or else unjustified.

The conclusion seems to be an undesirable consequence for the Christian. After all, if she wants to claim that those who reject Christ are morally culpable in doing so (which the Bible seems to indicate, cf. John 3:18-19), then one or more of the premises are going to have to be denied. In the past, I have challenged premise 1. However, for our present purposes, I will let that premise stand.[1]

Instead, I challenge premise 2. Suppose that it is true you cannot choose any of your beliefs. It still seems conceivable that your present beliefs could be under your control—at least to a degree sufficient to confer moral responsibility. This is because you could be in control of at least some of your cognitive attitudes. In other words, how open you are to the Gospel of Christ can be a matter of your attitude concerning God. Suppose you find yourself not wanting to deal with the claims of God (it interferes with your lifestyle, perhaps), and so you simply dismiss it out of mind, never to think about it again (except for in pesky internet debates). Or suppose you choose instead to try to scour the internet to find arguments and evidences that back up your desired conclusion. It may be that the conjunction of your cognitive attitude with your decision to dismiss the claim or engage in confirmation bias against it is enough to result in your present state of unbelief. While that present belief (or lack of belief) is not directly chosen by you, it seems you are responsible after all, since your attitudes and your earlier decisions lead to the present state of unbelief.

There is an analogue in drug addiction. Suppose there is someone so thoroughly addicted to a drug that he cannot will to stop abusing it. It hardly follows necessarily that he is not responsible for his drug addiction. For it is conceivable that he chose to use the drug, knowing it was highly addictive, and that his decision led to his current addiction. So, even though he cannot choose not to be addicted, nonetheless his choices are responsible for his present condition.

This, or something like this, I think is the story with unbelievers. Please feel free to share your thoughts below!

[1] It’s not at all clear that from the falsehood of doxastic voluntarism it follows that none of our beliefs can be chosen. See Jonathan L. Kvanvig, “Univeralism and Hell,” in Destiny and Deliberation: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Oxford University Press, New York), 2011, 49.


  1. Good thoughts here!

    It seems what you call "cognitive beliefs" is similar to what JP Moreland talks about in Love You God With All Your Mind: indirectly choosing your briefs. That is, even if we can't choose our beliefs directly, we can still choose them indirectly. One of the ways we can do this seems to be what attitudes we hold towards certain ideas or propositions. But that brings us back to 1. But you seem to have alluded you have a different defeated for 1. I'm curious as to what that is! Or am I wrong that by cognitive attitudes you mean a way of indirectly choosing our beliefs?

    1. Hey man, thanks for the comments! So, I didn't take my style of critique to defeat 1 since, as a matter of fact, you're not choosing your beliefs, but you are still responsible for them in that you chose the attitudes that led to them. I have an undercutting defeater for 1, though, that I sort of mention in the footnote. Typically, the justification for 1 is that doxastic voluntarism of the strong sort is false. But that itself is not justification for 1. It's consistent with the falsehood of strong doxastic voluntarism that at least some beliefs are chosen. So essentially I undermine the support for 1, since 1 is a general state covering all beliefs.


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