Doxastic Voluntarism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (forthcoming)
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Doxastic voluntarism is the thesis that our beliefs are subject to voluntary control. While there’s some controversy as to what “voluntary control” amounts to (see 1.2), it’s often understood as direct control: the ability to bring about a state of affairs “just like that,” without having to do anything else. Most of us have direct control over, for instance, bringing to mind an image of a pine tree. Can one, in like fashion, voluntarily bring it about that one believes a specific proposition? Doxastic voluntarists hold that, at least in some circumstances—such as when the evidence is ambiguous—we can. Doxastic involuntarists, in contrast, maintain that we cannot. Some involuntarists hold that the concept of belief itself precludes the possibility of believing voluntarily. Others hold that the impossibility of voluntary belief is a contingent psychological fact. Historically, the issue of doxastic voluntarism has been connected to how many think about religious commitment: a prominent view of faith is that it is a voluntary decision to believe. Furthermore, the issue of voluntarism has also been viewed as having bearing on fundamental questions in epistemology. For example, are epistemic norms duties to believe in certain ways? Are there practical or moral reasons to believe? If the answer to either question is “yes,” it seems some measure of voluntary doxastic control is required. In section 1, we expand on the definition of doxastic voluntarism, and survey various kinds of control (e.g. direct, indirect, long-range) and the doxastic attitudes we might control (e.g. outright belief, withholding, credences). In section 2, we discuss a number of historical views on doxastic voluntarism. In section 3, we survey motivations for rejecting doxastic voluntarism. There are two general strategies: arguments that appeal to psychological considerations, and conceptual arguments regarding the nature of belief. In section 4, we survey five approaches to defending voluntarism: those that appeal to epistemic permissivism, doxastic compatibilism, skepticism, one-off considerations, and non-standard views of belief. In section 5, we cover empirical work on doxastic voluntarism. The last two sections discuss two implications of voluntarism. In section 6, we discuss voluntarism’s implications for the ethics of belief, and in section 7, we discuss issues at the intersection of voluntarism and religious faith.

Author Profiles

Mark Boespflug
Fort Lewis College
Elizabeth Jackson
Toronto Metropolitan University


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