Deciding to Believe Redux

In Jonathan Matheson Rico Vitz (ed.), The Ethics of Belief: Individual and Social. Oxford University Press. pp. 33-50 (2014)
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Abstract
The ways in which we exercise intentional agency are varied. I take the domain of intentional agency to include all that we intentionally do versus what merely happens to us. So the scope of our intentional agency is not limited to intentional action. One can also exercise some intentional agency in omitting to act and, importantly, in producing the intentional outcome of an intentional action. So, for instance, when an agent is dieting, there is an exercise of agency both with respect to the agent’s actions and omissions that constitute her dieting behavior and in achieving the intended outcome of losing weight. In our mental lives we exercise intentional agency both in performing mental actions and when we intentionally produce certain outcomes at which our mental actions are aimed. The nature and scope of our intentional agency in our mental lives with respect to controlling the acquisition of mental states such as belief, desire, and intention is a topic that is of interest in its own right. In this essay, I will focus solely on our control over coming to believe. Understanding what sort of control we have our beliefs has far-reaching implications. For instance, theorizing about self-deception and wishful thinking is aided by theorizing about what if any intentional agency we can exercise with respect to acquiring beliefs. Another often mentioned concern that motivates thinking about doxastic agency comes from religion (when conversion requires a change of belief). We also hold persons morally and epistemically responsible for beliefs they have or fail to have. Finally, some deontological theories of epistemic justification require that agents be able to exercise a robust form of doxastic control. Fruitful work on any of these problems requires that we have an account of our intentional agency in acquiring beliefs. There are at least three loci of doxastic control. The first is over acquiring beliefs. The second is over maintaining beliefs. The third is over how we use our beliefs. I am chiefly concerned with the first locus of doxastic control in this essay, but I will say something about the second locus along the way. Also, I will only consider one way we might exercise control over acquiring beliefs. Specifically, I will present an argument against direct doxastic voluntarism (DDV). By “DDV” I mean to refer to the thesis that it is conceptually possible for agents to consciously exercise the same sort of direct voluntary control over coming to acquire a doxastic attitude—such as belief, suspension of belief, and disbelief—that they exercise over uncontroversial basic actions. If DDV is correct, then coming to believe can be a basic action-type. DDV, or something very close to it, was Bernard Williams’ target in his 1973 paper, “Deciding to Believe.” Williams’s argument is widely regarded as having been a failure. But I think that Williams was on to something in his paper. Hence, in this paper, while I do not attempt to resurrect Williams’s argument, I develop and defend a revised argument for a thesis that is quite close to Williams’s. I will proceed as follows. First, I will discuss Bernard Williams’ (1973) failed attempt at showing that DDV is conceptually impossible. This will be followed by a discussion of some constraints on our belief-forming activities. I will then clarify my target a bit more than Williams does in his original paper. Finally, I will present my own argument against the conceptual possibility of DDV.
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