S. Joel Garver


On What the Queen Told Alice:
Willing to Believe


The Queen remarked..."I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" said the Queen in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast..."

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Alice is undoubtedly correct that she cannot believe at will things she perceives to be impossible. In fact, there is serious doubt that she can believe any proposition whatsoever simply at will. After all, if she perceived a proposition to be true, she could hardly help but believe it, since belief is "drawn to the truth." On the other hand, if she perceives a proposition to be impossible--or even just false--she cannot believe it, since, again, belief is "drawn to the truth."

It is precisely on the basis of these sorts of intuitions regarding the nature of belief and human psychology that a great number of philosophers have argued against the possibility of believing at will (Williams 1973; Alston 1989b; Pojman 1986; Pojman discusses various contenders in the debate both historically and on the contemporary scene). It is a matter of great importance to the development of my arguments--particularly, the argument that we are right in holding people responsible for their beliefs--whether or not we can believe at will or what other sorts of responsible control we might have over belief.

If it is impossible to believe at will in the way that we, say, raise our arms at will or wrap packages at will, then that will limit and shape the models of responsibility that are applicable to belief, if any. The impossibility that is involved with believing at will, however, is not of a piece. If impossible, believing at will might be impossible in some logical or conceptual way and thus be necessarily impossible. On the other hand, it might only be psychologically impossible and thus contingently so. Bernard Williams argues for the former in his essay "Deciding to Believe" (1973).

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