Hi everyone! My thanks to everyone at Flickers of Freedom, and to Thomas in particular, for this wonderful opportunity. I’m really excited to talk to all of you about what I’ve been working on lately, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
I’ve actually been thinking a lot about freedom recently, but in connection with our beliefs rather than with our actions. Let’s assume that there is a sense in which we are agents who sometimes determine for ourselves what we will do. Some of our intentions and actions are attributable to us, rather than to some external influence or some automatic, subpersonal mechanism within us. And we have the capacity to be more or less self-governing over certain aspects of our practical lives, in that the extent to which our actions are the product of external forces is sometimes under our control. Can anything similar be said about our relationship to our beliefs?
I think the dominant view about the answer to this question is ‘no’. It is almost universally denied that we exercise anything like direct voluntary control over our beliefs. Epistemologists commonly depict us as being “passive in response to” or “at the mercy of” the evidence, in that we cannot help but believe whatever seems to us to be true in light of our evidence. We cannot will ourselves into believing that P if we do not take P to be true, even for the best of practical reasons. As William Alston puts it in his seminal paper “The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification,” “volitions, decisions, or choosings don’t hook up with anything in the way of propositional attitude [belief and withholding] inauguration, just as they don’t hook up with the secretion of gastric juices or cell metabolism.” This is sometimes intended to be a claim about a conceptual constraint on belief, while others take it to be a merely contingent psychological fact, but most agree on its truth.
To be sure, it is widely acknowledged that we can voluntarily shape what we believe in many indirect ways, and that non-evidential influences frequently affect what we believe. We can curate the evidence we expose ourselves to, or even change our evidence; we can choose how thoroughly to deliberate; we can develop good or bad habits with respect to the possibilities we consider. And if we are at the mercy of our evidence when we are explicitly considering what to believe, we are equally at the mercy of implicit bias, wishful thinking, fatigue, intoxication, and all sorts of other forces that influence how we see the evidence. To deny that we exercise any kind of voluntaristic control or autonomy in forming or sustaining a belief is specifically to claim that we have no direct control, unmediated by some distinct action.
I think there is more latitude for volition in constructing our doxastic lives than this traditional picture admits, and that there is a dimension in which we can genuinely be said to be more or less self-governing with respect to our beliefs. This is in the possibility of overcoming what I call “epistemic temptation.” In today’s post, I’ll focus on explaining in more detail what epistemic temptation is, leaving my account of doxastic self-control for next time. I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts about whether they recognize the phenomenon, and how common they think it is (I think it’s pretty common, but it certainly varies from person to person, and some claim not to recognize it at all).
Let’s grant that at each moment in time, a thinker believes that P only if she takes P to be true. It might still be the case that over time, her take on whether P is true fluctuates without a change in evidence, such that she takes P to be true at one time and false at another. This can happen because her capacity to assess whether P is true vacillates, due to temporary corruptions in judgment caused by insecurity, wishful thinking, the influences of her peers, stereotype threat, or other environmental priming effects. The very same evidence can strike one as supporting different conclusions depending on how it is presented, the company one is in, or the kinds of emotions one is currently experiencing. When these factors vary over time, a thinker’s ability accurately to assess what her evidence supports varies with them, and can lead to a rise or fall in her confidence in a proposition without a change in the evidence she possesses.
Specifically, the cases I’m interested in are those in which a thinker has previously formed the belief that P, but later loses confidence in her previous judgment without acquiring significant new evidence or having any specific reason to think her deliberation was flawed. In such cases, we will generally be aware of a conflict between how things used to seem and how they seem now – “I used to think P is true, but now it doesn’t seem true to me” – but we often won’t take ourselves to have decisive evidence either way about which perspective might be the result of some malfunction. I’m imagining that there was no obvious corrupting event of e.g. taking a hallucinogenic drug; it’s just a relatively ordinary change in one’s emotional state or circumstances that leads to a change in perspective.
Here’s an example that I hope hits close to home – it certainly does to me! Imagine that at some point in the past, I deliberated carefully about a philosophical question, considering all the major arguments for and against the possible views. Eventually, I formed the belief that View X is the correct one, thereby coming to believe in the truth of X. But when I arrive at the APA to present on X, my confidence in my previous deliberation plummets (though I gain no specific information concerning a flaw in that deliberation). I've heard all the arguments against X before, but they now strike me as much more forceful than they previously did, and those in favor of X as much less forceful. Although my time and psychic energy could be better used by concentrating on the next session, I instead spend it by re-opening the question and deliberating anew with the same evidence I previously had, with my insecurity-infused judgment now leading me to abandon my belief in X. Finally, although I previously held that the prestige of a philosopher’s home institution is no evidence at all that his or her views are correct, I now perceive the arguments of those with prestigious positions as much more compelling and form the new belief that Y is the correct view.
At this point, since I’ve gone on long enough, I’ll just end with a two-part question. Could I have held onto my belief in my view throughout the conference, even though it no longer seemed to me to be true? And could it have been rational for me to do so? Let me set aside a positive answer to the first question that would involve indirect control over my belief, using “self-manipulation.” Of course I could have weathered my bout of epistemic temptation by going to sleep, drugging myself, or otherwise undermining my capacity to redeliberate. But this isn’t especially philosophically interesting (or good conference etiquette!). My question is whether it is psychologically and conceptually possible to maintain my belief directly, without resorting to strategic self-manipulation. And if it is, would I necessarily be irrational for doing so, given that my evidence no longer seems to me to be sufficient?
As you might have guessed, my view is that it is both possible and rationally permissible to maintain one's previous belief in the face of epistemic temptation. In my next post, I’ll elaborate on those claims and defend them against an influential way of thinking about the nature of belief and epistemic rationality that emphasizes “transparency” as a conceptual constraint on doxastic deliberation and as a rational ideal governing belief in general.
By the way, for anyone who’s interested in these kinds of questions about rationality over time (with respect to agency as well as belief), we’re hosting a read-ahead conference at UW-Madison over Labor Day weekend with the theme of “Belief, Action, and Rationality Over Time.” The presenters and commentators are listed here. If you’re interested in attending, please register for free here.