Theory of Knowledge

There seem to be instances where we cannot choose to believe (i.e. that the lights are on, that we like/dislike a new flavor); there also seem to be instances where we can choose to believe (i.e. instances in which equal evidence is given for either side). Why do there seem to be both voluntary and involuntary beliefs, which doxastic belief system is right (voluntary or involuntary), and in what types of circumstances do we encounter either type of belief? I will address these questions in this paper, as well as briefly address the doxastic stances of Clifford, James, Alston, Shah, and Ginet. I will attempt to describe the gestalt nature of belief and explain how we can have a belief—be it voluntary or involuntary—and show that a belief can be counted as such if it meets one of two criteria: Satisfies an established theory for either doxastic voluntarism[1] or involuntarism[2].

First, what is doxastic voluntarism and involuntarism? For the purposes of this paper I will refer to any belief that is formed by choice as “voluntarism” and any belief that is formed without choosing to believe, “involuntarism.” Cases of voluntarism include, but are not limited to, belief in a god, which fork in the road to take, x is better than y. Cases of involuntarism include cases that seem to match up with our perceived reality—the light is on, feeling pain, that 2+2=4.

For doxastic voluntarism to be true, no cases of involuntary beliefs can be formed. One argument for this is, doxastic cases where there is no seeming intent to believe (whether or not the light is on) do, in fact, have choice to believe. In the case of the light being on, we choose to believe that the light is on regardless of there being no other choice in the matter. In cases of empirically evident beliefs, there is only one choice to be made, yet this is still a choice. But is that true? If there are not at least two variables to choose from then there can be no choice: x = z is not a choice because x can be nothing other than z; x = y or z entails a choice since x can be either y or z. If we grant, however, that a single choice is still a choice, then beliefs must be formed after perceptions; however, “many philosophers and psychologists have concluded that belief is an involuntary disposition formed in response to perceived evidence” (Chignell). The voluntarist idea that we choose to believe the light is on before we perceive the light seems counter intuitive.

Gettier shows us how even the most seemingly sound theories for belief—justified belief, sufficient evidence, has the right to be sure that p is true—are not without convincing counter-arguments.[3] But this does not explain what a belief is or how we come to believe. It only shows that counter-arguments can be made for any attempt at a normative explanation. I feel that this is due to an oversight as to the nature of the very system of beliefs, which I will attempt to explain hereafter in the paper. There seems to be a correlation between the circumstances in which we can or cannot choose to believe. Instances in which we seem to not have a choice to believe seem directly connected to our perceived reality—we cannot choose to believe that the light is off when it is on. Doxastic voluntarism, however, seems more elastic—able to bend toward belief and non-belief; however, the reasons for voluntary belief are both complicated and concrete. Voluntary beliefs are governed by the entirety of a persons past experiences (choices made, teachings, social interactions, etc.) to include the current experience in which he finds himself. When presented with a choice to ϕ or not to ϕ, the previous experiences with ϕ-ing will determine whether or not a person ϕ’s. For example: Whether a person S believes that person T is telling the truth or lying depends on S’s previous experiences with T. This does not explain what it is to believe, it only helps explain why we have certain beliefs and why we seem to hold to irrational beliefs given compelling evidence otherwise.

Previous attempts as defining what it is to believe have been, I feel, doomed from the very beginning. Clifford, James, Alston, Ginet and the likes have attempted to lay out an all-encompassing definition for belief, but they all seem to come up hit the same general obstacle; they try and define belief by either wholly proving or disproving doxastic voluntarism.

  • Clifford—It is wrong always for everyone everywhere to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence.[4]
  • James—When the opinion is genuine, it’s possible to believe even if there is          insufficient evidence.[5]
  • Alston—S is epistemically justified in believing p iff, in believing, p, S is               getting closer to the epistemic goal.[6]
  • Shah—We have beliefs that are formed on practical considerations and are not                  truth-governed.[7]
  • Ginet—We can choose to believe if there is a stake in believing.[8]

The mistake, I feel, is trying to encompass voluntary and involuntary beliefs in the same definition. The fact that they are opposite to each other should have raised doubts as to the very possibility of such a task. A scientist trying to successfully combine matter with anti-matter will be unsuccessful at every attempt, simply given the nature of matter and anti-matter. Likewise, an artist would be considered foolish to think he could combine black pain with white paint and still retain their absolute colors without turning gray (pure white and pure black). Epistemic divisions are just as obvious as empirical divisions; but, because epistemic divisions occur only within the mind, they are easier to imagine as being compatible with one another. Just as matter and anti-matter are two separate forms of True Matter[9], voluntarism and involuntarism are two sides of True Belief: A True Belief is such that it satisfies either voluntarism or involuntarism.

Most philosophers have a seemingly valid description of belief. Clifford, for example, posits that it is wrong always for everyone everywhere to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence, while James argues that we can believe on such grounds as long as the option is genuine. Clifford gives the example of an owner of a ship that is getting ready to sail. There is evidence the ship may not be seaworthy yet the shipowner decides to forgo attaining further evidence of the seaworthiness of his ship and decides to let the ship sail, believing it will make the voyage. The ship sinks during its trip and the whole crew is drowned. In this case we might be compelled to agree with Clifford that the shipowner was wrong to believe that the ship was seaworthy. However, James might argue that the shipowner’s decision to believe in the ship’s seaworthiness might be genuine if there were circumstances that compelled the shipowner to believe—if the ship did not make the journey his family would starve and be homeless; the shipowner would not be able to pay his employees if the ship did not make the journey; the shipowner’s life was being threatened if he did not let the ship sail. Those might be reasons enough for the shipowner to choose to believe in the seaworthiness of his ship. Both philosophers have compelling arguments for their case and each has compelling arguments against the other’s case. A commonality between the two approaches of defining “belief” can be seen in the complexity of what a single belief entails.

Belief cannot be solely predicated on whether or not p is true. Many people have beliefs that are based on truths and some on falsities. Ancients once believed the Earth to be the center of the universe while some believed the world to be flat. The truthfulness of the belief does not play a factor in the belief itself. Shah explains that we have beliefs that are formed on practical considerations and are not truth-governed—wishful thinking, belief in one’s self, betting against the odds. Furthermore, he posits, “most of our beliefs aren’t formed through our intentional attempts to accept the truth” (Shah). There does seem to be a correlation between truth and belief, but I feel that the correlation has nothing to do with belief itself and everything to do with how easy it is to formulate a belief when the belief corresponds with truth.

It seems evident that there are grounds to believe in conceptions of both voluntarism and involuntarism, however, the two concepts are diametrically opposed. How, then, can two opposing ideas entail what is to believe—True Belief? The idea of two opposing concepts forming a whole is not new to philosophy, or the universe in general for that matter. We see it represented in the sinuous lines of the yin-yang or the front and back of a coin, and watch the everlasting battle between physics and metaphysics wage; materialists defy immaterialists, voluntarists/involuntarists, monists/dualists. Take the yin-yang symbol—a black and white circle divided by a curved sinuous line, each color with a small drop of the opposing color within it. The symbol is only complete when both of its sides are thought of as a divisible whole. It is true that yin is white and it is true that yang is black and it is true that they make up the symbol, but it is not true that either of them alone make the whole symbol. The same can be demonstrated with a coin. It has two opposing sides that can be rhetorically divided, yet it is impossible to only have a top or a bottom to a coin. Likewise, it is impossible to have belief without accepting both voluntarism and involuntarism. The fighting battle over which one is right is akin to asking which side—yin or yang—makes the yin-yang symbol? Or, which side of the coin is what makes the coin? Voluntarism and involuntarism each play a pivotal role in what it is to believe and are both necessary to answer the question, “What does it mean to believe?”

Understanding which beliefs are voluntary and which are not is, in a way, similar to understanding which forms of knowledge are a priori and which are a posteriori. Voluntary beliefs seem to hinge on an a priori aspect of beliefs, whereas involuntary beliefs seem to hinge on an a posteriori aspect. Voluntary beliefs do not need empirical evidence nor any prior knowledge in order to form. A child being told about God for the first time might choose to believe in such a being before collecting evidence for or against the premise. We might believe a new beer to be good or bad before we have tasted it, simply because we understand the concepts of bitter and sweet. Involuntary beliefs follow perceived empirical evidence. We believe the light is on because we see that it is on. We believe we are feeling pain because of an injury we have sustained. We do not have a choice to accept, at least initially, involuntary beliefs. Unlike voluntary beliefs, involuntary beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to believe otherwise—a person who is feeling genuine pain will not be able to convince himself that he is not feeling pain. Involuntary beliefs are obtained without the recipient being conscious of the belief. When we look at the light we do not think, “I believe the light is on”; yet, if asked whether or not we believe the light to be on we would say that we believe it is on and have an inner sense that we always that to be true from the moment we perceived the light being on. Voluntary beliefs, however, are obtained consciously.[10] A subject makes a voluntary decision, with or without evidence, to believe that p. When presented with a plenitude of beer options at a bar I take each beer into consideration and then decide which beer I want based on my belief that I will enjoy beer x over beer y.

Involuntary beliefs beget voluntary beliefs, not always, but voluntary beliefs cannot beget involuntary beliefs. Involuntary beliefs agree with the “response to perceived evidence” claim established earlier. A voluntary belief is ofttimes a response to multiple involuntary beliefs. Take the following example: there are two oranges on a table with a sign that says, “Free orange! Take one!” One of the oranges is shriveled and rotted with mold, and the other is plump and ripe. We immediately see the state of the oranges as though the belief in them was imprinted on our minds. The involuntary belief shows us that there are two oranges and that one is discolored and seems rotten while the other seems ripe. From those involuntary beliefs, the voluntary belief to choose the ripe orange follows naturally unless there is a compelling reason to choose the rotten orange (playing a prank on a friend). From this example we can see that the only way in which a voluntary belief could produce an involuntary belief is if belief could proceed perception[11]. Voluntary belief can proceed perception

What, then, does it mean to believe? A belief is such that it must agree with either voluntarism or involuntarism. The goal must not be to find which doxastic belief system is right, but to find a right theory for each side of the system—voluntary/involuntary. The question, “What is a belief?” can be answered by establishing a valid argument for voluntarism and for involuntarism. Recognition of this division is necessary to achieve a more complete understanding of belief. Once premises for voluntarism and involuntarism have been established, what a belief is will follow naturally.

[1] We can choose to believe or not to believe

[2] We do not have a choice in whether or not we believe

[3] There are, however, plenty of examples in which the three theories seem to hold true: When a father gives his child permission to ϕ; upon discovering new evidence for p; S deposited money into his account and believes the money is in his account.

[4] The Ethics of Belief, William Clifford

[5] The Will to Believe, William James

[6] The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification, William Alston

[7] How Truth Governs Beliefs, Nishi Shah

[8] Deciding to Believe, Carl Ginet

[9] By “True Matter” I mean everything that can be regarded as either matter or anti-matter

[10] The moment a voluntary belief becomes a belief is a type soritical paradox which I address in different paper, Quantum Heap

[11] Believing the light is on before the perception of it registers in the brain

Works Cited

Chignell, Andrew, “The Ethics of Belief”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Shah, N. “How Truth Governs Belief.” Philosophical Review 112.4 (2003): 447-82. Print.