Can You Believe It? A Case for Meaningful Control of Belief
Phillips, Heather Anne
Doctor of Philosophy
Within the doxastic control debate it is often unclear whether, and if so why, doxastic control is important or valuable. Of course, the importance or insignificance of doxastic control is irrelevant to the question of whether or not we have it. However, if whether we possess control is an important issue, which many philosophers believe it is, then it seems fruitful to specify why it is important and frame the debate around the question whether we possess the type of control necessary to secure that which we value. I employ this approach and subsequently argue that we exercise what I call meaningful control of belief. I describe this control as “meaningful” for two reasons. First, I want to make clear that my interests (and what I maintain should inform the interests of the doxastic control debate generally) go beyond mere demonstration of control. Second, when I claim that we can exercise meaningful control, I am claiming not only that a certain kind of control of belief is possible, but also that the available form of control is valuable. Though I make several claims and respond to numerous potential objections throughout the dissertation, I face two primary challenges, both of which involve taking minority positions in long-standing and ongoing debates. First, I argue that we can exert doxastic control. Second, and in support of the former, I argue against the claim that alternate possibilities are required for voluntary control. Doxastic control is most frequently denied because we lack the ability to believe at-will. Particularly prominent within the debate is a form of at-will control brought to the fore by Bernard Williams. On this conception, one acts at-will when the action performed is basic or immediate in the sense of having no intermediate steps, i.e. voluntarily winking, smiling or raising one’s arm (the most frequently used example). The other form of at-will control I address is articulated by Pamela Hieronymi. On her view, one acts at-will when one’s decision to act is sensitive to practical reasons. Examples of this form of at-will control include any action that is performed in order to make someone happy or because a practical reason such as this could have served as a reason to do so. Belief falls short of the at-will standard in the first sense because belief cannot voluntarily be brought about without intermediate steps. That is, you cannot, right now, believe that you are eight feet tall. In the second sense, belief falls short of at-will control because the decision whether to believe that p is not responsive to practical reasons. In fact, in both cases the only thing relevant to answering the question whether to believe that p is evidence speaking for or against p, and therein lies the rub. I, however, develop and advocate for a sense of at-will control that not only aligns with our intuitions about voluntary and non-voluntary actions, but also does justice to the fact that belief is not an action. My account builds on one of the candidate conceptions of at-will Hieronymi considers and discards, namely a sense of at-will similar to the one used in the phrase “fire at will.” When soldiers fire at-will, they fire (or don’t) based on what they judge called for given any commands, instructions or information they have received, the objective pursued and the context in which they find themselves. Similarly, when one believes at will in this (the judged called for) sense, one forms a belief based on what one judges called for given one’s background information, the objective pursued and the context in which one finds oneself. Interestingly, while she discards the other candidate conceptions because they do not align with typical intuitions regarding what actions are voluntary, Hieronymi casts this candidate aside solely because it would not rule out the possibility of at-will control of belief. Given that she aims at explaining why (instead of proving that) at-will control of belief is impossible, her decision to reject the fire-at-will conception makes sense. However, in the context of the doxastic control debate, such a reason is highly question-begging. This does not mean, however, that the judged called for (JCF) conception is without potential objections. During my development and defense of this conception, a difference emerges between this sense of at-will in the context of action and belief. Put most simply, while one can judge an action called for and refrain from so acting, one cannot judge it called for to believe that p and refrain from so believing. This is because on my account of belief, one believes that p when one is satisfied that p, and if one judges it called for to believe that p, then one is satisfied that p and, thereby, believes that p. This asymmetry between the contexts of action and belief raises concerns about one’s ability to do otherwise (or in this case believe otherwise), which is often considered a requirement of voluntary action. While I do not subscribe to the alternate-possibilities account of free action, I recognize both that many do and that responding to their objection is important. I utilize John Martin Fischer’s work in the area of free will to shape my response. Fischer distinguishes between what he calls regulative control and guidance control. Regulative control requires that one be able to do otherwise; guidance control does not. I argue that JCF control of belief is an instance of guidance control and that such control—in the form of doxastic deliberation—is sufficient for meaningful control of belief.
doxastic voluntarism; belief; control; alternate possibilities