S. Joel Garver


Believing as One Ought:
Well-Established Practices

Section I

The easiest thing of all, is to deceive one's self; for we believe whatever we want to believe.

Demosthenes, Olynthica iii.19

Men willingly believe whatever they wish.

Julius Caesar, The Gallic War

Responsibility, in order to be reasonable, must be limited to objects within the power of the responsible party.

James Madison, Federalist #63

Alston accepts that we have indirect voluntary influence over belief. The idea here is that we are responsible for believing something just in case a certain state of affairs, including that belief, would not have obtained had we not done something we should not have done (or, alternatively, had we done something we should have done and did not, in fact, do). As Alston notes, this view "suggests that even if propositional attitudes are not under our effective voluntary control, we might still be responsible for them provided we could...have prevented them" (1989b:137). Stocker makes a similar point by invoking Mackie's INUS condition (Mackie 1974:62f.). The idea here is that a subject is responsible for her beliefs if her willing is an insufficient but necessary part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition that gives rise to a belief.

The question that remains, then, is whether we do have such control over belief, to what extent we have it, how it is structured, and whether it renders us responsible in relevant ways. Consider the following example in favor of indirect voluntary influence. Professor Martha Jones has explained a point several times to a student and when the student approaches her after class for additional help, she comes to believe that the student is a dullard and a pest. She is to be blamed for this belief. The belief is not due so much to evidence for that conclusion, but rather to a combination of other factors: she was ill-prepared for the lecture and presented the point poorly, her pride will not allow her to admit this, and she is feeling general animosity towards students since she had to force her way through a student demonstration earlier that day.

Suppose further that under any one or more of the following conditions she would not have come to believe the student a dullard and a pest: if she were a person even a little less concerned about losing face and more concerned about teaching, if she had forced a smile when the student approached, or if she had taken the time to prepare. These conditions, let's suppose, are things that she is obligated to do and there are no excusing conditions that prevented their implementation. In such a case, it s eems, she is to blame for her belief.

The example demonstrates that such control is possible, probably actually obtains in some contexts, and that it is tied to responsibility. Let us flesh out the account further. Alston divides the voluntary activities and practices that can influence belief into two categories. First, there are those activities "that bring influences to bear, or withhold influences from, a particular situation involving a particular candidate, or a particular field of candidates, for belief" (1989b:137-8). The second category includes those "activities that affect our general belief-forming habits and tendencies" (1989b:138). Notions of epistemic virtue and vice, prohibition, obligation, and permission, will not primarily attach to particular beliefs on this conception of voluntary control, but rather to these two categories of activities or practices. Prescriptive concepts attach to beliefs "only because of some relation these attitudes have to those primary targets of permission, and the like" (1989b:139).

According to Alston these considerations lead us to the conclusion that "we can have no principles laying down conditions under which a [particular, definite] belief is required, forbidden, or permitted, just because we lack sufficient control over belief-formation" (1989b:140). Alston argues in the following way:

What the relevant principles will require, and so forth, are activities that are designed to influence factors that, in turn, will influence belief-formation. Hence there is no basis for taking a particular belief to be required, prohibited, or forbidden. (1989b:140)

In the nature of the case, of course, there may be some beliefs which a subject cannot get at apart from engaging in epistemically defective activities that influence belief-formation. Such a belief would be, for all practical purposes, forbidden. But we shall return to these points below as we survey the landscape of obligation in doxastic life.

The notion of indirect voluntary influence helps us clarify the sense, then, in which belief is passive and in which it is active. While beliefs are conditions which are essentially undergone, beliefs are, ideally, about the world and it is the way we take the world to be that is belief or produces belief in us. This entails passivity. Nevertheless, as Stocker notes, it also "helps remind us that we must remain humble in regards to beliefs by reminding us that we must be sensitive and receptive, not willful in our regard to belief" (1982:408). Sensitivity and receptivity preclude activity and responsibility for the likes of mirrors and cameras, but we are not sensitive and receptive in that way. Stocker remarks,

Just think of the effort even a sensitive and receptive person needs to make in order to understand another person. So too, getting our beliefs to fit the world may involve a lot of work. Such work can be enough for activity and responsibility. (1982:4 08)

And belief is not alone in this. Like many other conditions in respect to which we are active and responsible--completing a brick wall, starting a war, getting to know a neighbor, hurting someone's feelings, constructing a replica--we do not accomplish belief simply at will (the examples are drawn from Stocker 1982:408-412). Like belief, other conditions for which we are responsible and active include forms of passivity. Consider the comment intended to hurt another which we already regret before--sometimes long before--it actually achieves its effect. We are actively responsible, it seems, for that effect, though it is not under our direct control, though it is within the purview of another subject, and though we no longer intend it.

Moreover, Stocker argues that like human belief, many of the effects for which we are active and responsible could not, even in principle, be accomplished at will--in the same way one raises one's arm or Christ makes wine of water at Cana--that is, with disregard for the way the world is.

So for example, we should ask whether the explorer could will in that exceptionally strong way to discover a mountain just at that location. For if it is the willing which is operative, irrespective of the way world is--if, that is, willing to discover it there is sufficient to find it there--then this seems a case of creation, not discovery...For another case, consider making a replica. An artisan can be active and responsible in regard to making a replica of, say, the Tower of London...A miniature maker who acted simply at will in that extravagantly strong sense--i.e., who disregarded what the world, in particular the Tower, is like--would not be engaged in making a replica qua replica, even if what was produced was physically indistinguishable from a replica. (1982:413)

Active sensitivity and receptivity to the way the world is, are as much required of the explorer and artisan as of the believer. And discovery, like belief, is importantly passive.

It is clear then, that acting at will (in the sense of basic or nonbasic immediate voluntary control), cannot be required by responsibility for belief or for various accomplishments and conditions in general. On the contrary, our activity and responsi bility for a particular condition--such as belief--must take account of the way in which these conditions are embedded in, produced by, and conclude various practices and actions. Responsibility, then, as Alston and Stocker suggest, passes from the practices and actions to their results. It is an open question whether we can further push this point to say that the will is so shaped by practice and action that belief is acquired willingly, drawn to the intellect by the will as objects are drawn to the earth by gravity. If so, that is why we believe that p rather than doubt or hope that p. That is also the position of Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, and John Henry Newman, I think, and, in another guise, Nietzsche and Foucault (cf. Ross 1984; St ump 1991; Edwards 1858b:1ff., 1858a:1-189; Newman 1979; Nehemas 1985:42-73; Deleuze 1983:94-110; Rouse 1994:92-114). I shall not dispute that point presently, however, for we have, I believe, already shown what we need in order to ground responsibility f or belief.

Proper assessment of human responsibility calls for a proper assessment of human life and practice. Deceptively simple cases of responsibility and activity--raising one's arm, opening a door, holding one's breath--ought not to serve as paradigms for the whole of responsibility and activity. Perhaps acting at will is more the special case than the general concept. In any case, we must keep in mind the nature of responsibility--we are the created Images of God and it is to the Archetype that we are responsible (Ge 1:26-20). Nevertheless, we must remember that we are created Images and not the Archetype. We lack omnipotence and fall far short of pure act. For us there are times and seasons:

a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time for mourning and a time for dancing;
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek and a time to lose;
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
a time to tear and a time to mend
a time for silence and a time for speech...
(Ecclesiastes 3:4-7)

We labor in time, by activities, acquiring habits, engaging practices, and with more or less success. To see all responsibility located in simple acts of will is to yield to the temptation to see ourselves as gods.

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