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Voluntarism and Transparent Deliberation1

Asbjrn Steglich-Petersen
Faculty of Philosophy University of Cambridge Sidgwick Avenue Cambridge CB3 9DA United Kingdom Abstract: It is widely assumed that doxastic deliberation is transparent to the factual question of the truth of the proposition being considered for belief, and that this sets doxastic deliberation apart from practical deliberation. This feature is frequently invoked in arguments against doxastic voluntarism. I argue that transparency to factual questions occurs in practical deliberation in ways parallel to transparency in doxastic deliberation. I argue that this should make us reconsider the appeal to transparency in arguments against doxastic voluntarism, and the wider issue of distinguishing theoretical from practical rationality.

Is belief formation sensitive to practical considerations? Can one choose to believe in the same way one can choose to perform ordinary intentional actions? One reason for thinking that one cannot choose to believe, deriving from the claim that beliefs 'aim at truth', is that deliberation about belief formation exhibits transparency to considerations about the truth of the proposition being considered for belief. Thus, if I am considering whether to believe that p, I invariably jump to the question whether p. And whether p is, at least in normal cases, beyond my control. This makes it seem as if believing is different from other things that one might decide to do. Although deliberation about ordinary intentional actions might be transparent to certain normative considerations about the goodness of those actions, it is not transparent to non-practical, factual questions. In this paper I argue that this perceived difference is illusory. Deliberative transparency to a factual question in the relevant sense occurs in both doxastic and practical deliberation, and in parallel ways. The kinds of possible considerations in deciding to perform normal intentional actions are limited in the same ways as the considerations one can have in deciding what to believe. This will make a certain popular line of argument against voluntarism about belief appear much less convincing, and possibly have wider consequences for the distinction between practical and theoretical rationality. Voluntarism about Belief First a brief introduction to the question of voluntarism about belief. Voluntarism is the view that one can believe at will, or decide to believe, in the same way one can de1 Thanks are due to JP Smit, Jeppe H. Andersen, Veli Mitova, and Jane Heal for valuable suggestions, and to the Gates Cambridge Trust and Darwin College for financial support.


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cide to perform ordinary intentional actions. In order to make this view just faintly plausible, some initial qualifications are necessary. Firstly, voluntarism as I will define it is not the view that beliefs are kinds of actions. Beliefs are psychological states with a propositional content that can be evaluated for truth, and actions cannot, so a straight assimilation would lead to absurdity. The relevant process being assimilated to ordinary intentional actions, rather, is belief formation. Secondly, voluntarism is not committed to the implausible view that all beliefs are formed in response to decisions of the agents having them. It seems obvious enough that the vast majority of our beliefs are formed without wilful interference, as when I open my eyes and form beliefs about my surroundings. All that voluntarism is committed to is the possibility of willed belief-formation. Thirdly, it is important to qualify what is meant by 'voluntary'. The standard interpretation is that voluntarism is the view that one can form beliefs for practical reasons, and not just epistemic ones. Distinguishing these two categories is a controversial issue and difficult to do in a non-question begging way, but as the details of this are relatively unimportant for the following argument, I will stick to a relatively minimal interpretation. Beliefs are normally regarded as 'purporting to represent reality', or 'aiming at being true', and epistemic reasons for belief are roughly the reasons that are related directly to this 'purpose' of belief by bearing on the truth of the proposition being considered for belief. Epistemic reasons for the belief that p are thus, roughly, considerations that in some way or another affect the likelihood of p being a true proposition. Practical reasons, on the other hand, bear on whether or not to make some proposition true by performing some act. In the belief case, the relevant proposition to make true, is the proposition that someone believes this or that. Voluntarism is often criticised through an analysis of these two categories of reasons. To illustrate, the most recent of such attempts is made by Pamela Hieronymi, who distinguishes between 'constitutive reasons' and 'external reasons' for belief. Constitutive reasons for belief are those that, by bearing on the truth of the proposition under consideration, are related in a direct way to the 'commitment' one necessarily undertakes when believing, such that being convinced by such reasons simply amounts to believing. Being convinced by external reasons, on the other hand, does not simply amount to believing, but requires some further effort to make the belief happen, perhaps by considering constitutive reasons as well. Phenomenologically, this makes sense. We obviously can have and be convinced by practical reasons for belief. Some beliefs might be extremely unpleasant, or there might be a high risk associated with not having a certain belief, as in Pascal's infamous example concerning belief in the existence of God. But merely being convinced by such reasons does not, it seems, lead to having a belief. On the other hand, being convinced by considerations pointing to the likelihood of the truth of some proposition is difficult to distinguish from actually having the attitude of belief in that proposition. Finally, to make this bear directly on voluntarism, it might be worth noting why forming a belief in response to epistemic reasons is not enough for voluntarism, however genuine the deliberation over such reasons might be. The thought here is presumably that one cannot decide what is the case in the same way one can decide whether one should make something the case. It is the factiveness of the considerations that can decide doxastic deliberation that makes genuinely voluntary belief-formation impossible. Given this, two further qualifications are needed. Voluntarism is not proven by pointing to the many examples of beliefs being caused by non-truth relevant factors, such as when our social surroundings cause us to form certain beliefs, or cases of wishful thought. Beliefs can be caused in multifarious ways,

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and are not guaranteed to be caused by truth-relevant factors, but this is not the same as being caused by a decision of the agent having them. The last important point is that we can distinguish between direct and indirect forms of voluntarism. Indirect voluntarism is regarded as plausible by most authors. It is the view that we can decide to cause a belief to be formed by non-truth relevant factors, such as hypnosis or taking a belief-causing pill. In such cases, however, the belief is not directly caused by the intention one might form by deciding to form a belief, but through some means known to cause the belief. This in itself is a relatively trivial possibility, but it points to an important feature of the full-fledged form of voluntarism, namely that the belief formation must happen as a direct consequence of being convinced by and deciding upon a set of practical, i.e. non-truth relevant, reasons. Much more could be said about the subtleties of voluntarism, but this suffices for the following argument. I now move on to consider a particular kind of symptomatic argument explaining why voluntarism is an incoherent position. Transparency and the conceptual argument against voluntarism The most influential argument against voluntarism proceeds on conceptual grounds from the assumption that beliefs aim at truth or purport to represent reality and derives more or less from Bernard Williams classic discussion Deciding to Believe from 1970. The modern literature on the topic is to a large extent an elaboration of this argument (see for instance Elster (1979), Winters (1979), Bennett (1990), Hieronymi, 2006): One reason [I cannot believe at will] is connected with the characteristic of beliefs that they aim at truth. If I could acquire a belief at will, I could acquire it whether it was true or not. If in full consciousness I could will to acquire a 'belief' irrespective of its truth, it is unclear that [...] I could seriously think of it as a belief, i.e., as something purporting to represent reality. (Williams, 1970) This argument can be phrased in terms of a descriptive constraint on doxastic deliberation: it is a necessary condition on fully conscious doxastic deliberation that the reasons deemed relevant for taking up or discarding a belief that p are relevant in virtue of bearing on whether or not p is true. So for fully conscious deliberators, the deliberative question whether to believe that p is decided by and only by deciding whether p. Call this feature of deliberation transparency. If a fully conscious pattern of deliberation does not exhibit this feature of transparency, it does not count as deliberation about belief. Note that reasons allowed to influence genuine doxastic deliberation need not as a matter of fact be relevant for the truth of the proposition considered for belief, as long as they are deemed relevant by the deliberator. I might have completely wacky notions about what considerations counts in favour of the truth of p, and still let those considerations enter into my deliberation about whether to believe that p. Transparency seems to exclude believing p at will, because one cannot decide whether p at will. Whether p is a factual question that no practical deliberation can decide. In the recent literature, several authors have explicitly counted this feature of transparency as a descriptive constraint on doxastic deliberation, including Moran (2001), Shah (2003), and Velleman (2005), and it looks like Williams' original influential argument depends on the constraint being sound. For the conceptual argument against voluntarism argument to work, however, it must pick out a relevant difference between deliberation about belief and deliberation about normal intentional actions that one indisputably can decide to perform. In the


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following, I argue that it does not. Deliberation about ordinary intentional actions exhibits transparency to a factual question in the same way as deliberation about belief. I will first state the argument as succinctly as possible and then elaborate by answering a series of objections. First notice that whether to believe that p is not the only deliberative question one can pose about belief. At least as relevant is the question whether to form a belief about p. Whereas the former question is transparent to whether p, the latter is not. There might be practical considerations for or against engaging in belief formation, such as whether the belief would be useful, how costly the belief formation would be in terms of inquisitive resources, etc. Furthermore, it seems that questions of the latter kind will typically precede questions of the former kind. Having decided to form a belief about p, one will engage in a deliberation over whether to believe that p or that not-p, which are both transparent to whether p. Even if we sometimes ask ourselves whether to believe that p independently of any prior decision to form a belief about p, this question is logically prior to deliberation over believing that p and often seems highly relevant as belief formation can be a costly affair. So deliberation about belief splits into two kinds of deliberation, one of which is transparent to a factual question that one cannot decide at will, another of which is sensitive to practical considerations and thus not transparent to a factual question. Deliberation about ordinary intentional actions, on the other hand, has seemed to most authors not to be transparent. If I am deliberating about whether to hide a pen from someone, the question will not be decided by a factual matter, but by practical considerations. There is no single factual consideration that will decide whether I should hide the pen. I might even decide to do it for no particular reason at all. Having made that decision and thus formed the intention to hide the pen, however, there might still be some deliberation to do before I can perform the action, namely deliberation about how to carry out the intention. This type of deliberation is typically identified as deliberation over means to ends. The claim is now that deliberation over particular ways of carrying out the intention is transparent to the factual question of whether or not they are actually conducive to carrying out the intention. Deliberation about whether to place the pen under the couch in order to carry out the intention to hide the pen is transparent to whether or not placing it there actually would achieve hiding the pen. As in the case of belief, this seems to give rise to a descriptive constraint: if someone in deliberating about whether to j in order to carry out the intention to g does not care about whether j-ing as a matter of fact would be conducive to g-ing or not, it would be difficult to seriously think of that person as intending to g at all. To give an example, suppose that the president of the United States declares that he intends to put an end to global warming and that journalists at a press conference inquire into how he is planning to carry out the intention. Suppose that the president is asked whether he intends to halt the emission of carbon dioxide, and answers that he does not. Suppose further that he is asked if he thinks that there are ways to put an end to global warming other than halting carbon dioxide emission, and he answers that he does not, but that he does not see that as a reason to carry out his intention to end global warming that way. In such cases, we should think twice about attributing to the president an intention to put an end to global warming. There might be ways of saving such an attribution, but statements of the sort mentioned should prima facie count against describing the president as having such an intention. Note that this constraint is not merely due to the fact that deciding how to carry out an intention involves forming instrumental beliefs. The president is not failing in forming

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certain beliefs as a response to factual considerations but in forming certain intentions as a response to factual considerations. Note further that this constraint does not make instrumental irrationality impossible. The constraint makes it impossible for agents to at the same time consciously hold that a particular action is not conducive to carrying out a certain intention and still decide to perform that action in order to carry out the intention. The constraint decrees that, in such cases, it is either wrong to describe the agent as being in the process of carrying out the relevant intention, or wrong to describe the agent as having that intention at all. This is compatible with very significant instrumental irrationality of several different kinds. One can be irrational in the sense of being wildly wrong about a particular action being conducive to carrying out an intention. As long as I am convinced that gazing lovingly at a banana is conducive to opening it, transparency allows that I take that action in order to open the banana. It is also compatible with incoherence in my deliberation about means to ends. All that the constraint requires is that the agent cares that the means he chooses are actually conducive to carrying out his intentions. If this holds, it gives a new perspective on transparent deliberation over belief. I claim that transparent deliberation over belief is just a special case of the kind of transparent deliberation that occurs over ordinary intentional actions, and that this deliberation is preceded by the untransparent deliberation over whether to form a belief about p in the same way that transparent deliberation over normal intentional actions is preceded by untransparent deliberation over whether or not to perform some normal action. Transparency, in other words, is not a differentiating feature of deliberation about belief. If this is true, several consequences follow. One is that the contrast between deliberation about belief formation and deliberation about ordinary actions, between theoretical and practical rationality, will become more blurred. A more specific consequence is that transparency no longer supports arguments against voluntarism. If deliberation over actions that we definitely can decide to perform exhibits transparency in a way parallel to deliberation about belief formation, then counting transparency as an argument against voluntarism would come at the cost of denying voluntarism about ordinary intentional action types as well. One possible way of explaining this symmetry between doxastic deliberation and deliberation over ordinary acts is by conceiving of believing p as involving the goal of representing p as true only if p in fact is a true proposition. Doxastic deliberation over whether to believe that p is transparent to whether p, because that is the only way of deciding what proposition to hold true that is conducive to the goal of holding p true only if p is true. The only way of successfully carrying out a prior practical decision to form a belief about p is to represent p as true only if p is true. As a candidate for doing this, one might consider whether to believe that p, but that would be conducive to one's goal only if p is true, which is why such deliberation is transparent to that question. According to this view, Moore's paradox that asserting 'I believe that p, but p is not true', while not involving one in straightforward self-contradiction nonetheless seems to involve one in serious irrationality, should be seen as a parallel to and partly explained as an instance of the following irrational assertion about intentions: 'I am j-ing in order to carry out my intention to g, but j-ing is not conducive to g-ing'. Trivially, if p is not true, holding p to be true is not conducive to carrying out the intention to holding p true if and only if p is true. So we should be doubtful about ascribing such an intention, and hence a real belief, to anyone uttering a Moore sentence of the above kind.


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A couple of final remarks. Obviously, the above argument suggests more than I can hope to seriously establish in this short paper. I have been presupposing that the anti-voluntarist argument from transparency must pick out a feature of belief formation differentiating it from normal intentional actions, and I have argued that it does not. The anti-voluntarist might retort, however, that forming a belief that p remains something one cannot decide to do. One can, trivially, decide to form a belief about something, but one cannot decide what to believe about it. A similar thing might hold for normal action types as well, but in those cases we are more interested in our ability to form an intention to do something for practical reasons than in our constraints in carrying them out. Although I have pressed a voluntarist line of thought, I am happy to embrace this alternative interpretation of what the parallel, if true, shows about belief formation. Voluntary or not, what would still hold is the thought that belief formation is not fundamentally different from normal intention actions. Deciding whether to be a voluntarist or not is thus more than anything else a matter of where in the process of belief formation to place the emphasis. Bibliography Bennett, Jonathan. 1990. 'Why is Belief Involuntary?', Analysis, 100. Elster, Jon. 1979. Ulysses and the Sirens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Hieronymi, Pamela. 2006. 'Controlling Attitudes', forthcoming in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. Moran, Richard. 2001. Authority and Estrangement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Shah, Nishi. 2003. 'How Truth Governs Belief', The Philosophical Review, 112(4). Shah, N. and Velleman, D. 2005. 'Doxastic Deliberation', forthcoming in The Philosophical Review. Available at Williams, Bernard. 1973. 'Deciding to Believe', in: Problems of the Self. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Winters, B. 1979. 'Believing at Will', Journal of Philosophy, 76.