Sunday, June 03, 2007

A question about beliefs, volition, and rationality

Several years ago, I read J.P. Moreland's book, Scaling the Secular City, where he made an argument for substance dualism from the self-refuting nature of physicalism. Physicalism, in this context, is the view that all we are is the sum of our physical parts. We have no immaterial soul or spirit or anything like that. He argued that physicalism is self-refuting because it entails determinism, and determinism removes the necessary preconditions for rational thought. So it could never be rational to be a physicalist.

I don't want to get into that argument. I just wanted to explain the context of what I do want to get into. Moreland claimed that "If one is to be rational, one must be free to choose his beliefs based on reasons" (SSC, p. 95).

Some time after that, I listened to a lecture by Moreland that I think was called "Love Your God With All Your Mind." It was posted on line here but is no longer there. During his talk, he stated emphatically that our beliefs are not under the control of the will. To prove his point, he had the audience imagine that he would offer them a million dollars if they could choose right then and there to believe that there was a pink elephant flying around over their heads, and to actually think it was true. He said that even with a million dollar motivation, you couldn't choose to believe it. The reason is that our beliefs are not under the control of the will.

He went on to say that we can change our beliefs by choosing to read things and to expose ourselves to ideas, and that our beliefs will change as a result. But our beliefs are not under the direct control of the will such that we could simply choose to believe something.

To me that seemed inconsistent. I sent J.P. Moreland a letter at an address I found on the website to Talbot, but I never heard back from him. I've asked about this issue on a few message boards, and I even asked a question about it on Yahoo answers recently. But I've never gotten a satisfying answer. Most people I ask don't even seem to understand the question.

Recently, I got two J.P. Moreland tapes from Stand to Reason. One is called "The Invisible Man: A defense for the existence of the soul," and the other is called "Is non-sensory knowledge possible?" I don't remember which one it was, but in one of them Moreland repeated his whole thing about how our beliefs are not under the control of the will.

I had entertained the idea that maybe since Scaling the Secular City was written in the 80's that maybe Moreland has just changed his mind over the years. But then just a few minutes ago, I found where Moreland has posted a blog called "Atheism and the Empty Glass" where he said that "those who take the time to tell you that free will isn’t real are assuming that you have the free choice to listen to them and change your views accordingly!" Apparently, he hasn't changed his mind.

Since just about all the people who post on my blog seem to be pretty bright, I thought I'd get your thoughts on the subject. This is my question: Are our beliefs under the control of the will? If not, can we still be rational? And please don't just give yes or no answers. Give me your reasoning. Thanks.



At 6/04/2007 8:25 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I think Moreland is right to say that we have no proximal control over our rational beliefs since they must be based on reason and evidence and although we can choose whether or not to engage reason and how diligently we look into evidence, we have no control over the rules of logic or the evidence we find. So his pink elephant example expresses this well. What can he mean by the assertion that "If one is to be rational, one must be free to choose his beliefs based on reasons" in that case?
Well, I think that what Moreland is trying to portray is that we can decide what we believe, on the basis of the evidence. This is analogous to being able to choose according to our desires; belief is akin to action. But we can't choose our desires without an infinite regress ('we can do what we want, but we can't want what we want'). So the evidence is like our desires (we have no control over it) but we can choose to engage our faculty of reason and deliberate on it as we can choose to weigh up our sometimes competing desires and the potential consequences of following them, and act upon the resulting decision. Moreland would say that determinism robs both processes of meaning and this is his best bet as a defense against inconsistency in my view.

At 6/04/2007 11:57 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

ephphatha: Are our beliefs under the control of the will?

Doesn’t that depend on the belief? There are some things that I have gained knowledge and experience over the course of my lifetime that make it extremely difficult, if not impossible to believe differently, no matter how hard I will it. Like Pink Elephants flying across a room.

But to the other extreme end of the spectrum, there are other beliefs in which I am a blank slate, and I could see the use of my will to “trump” belief. The only thing I know about building a bow is from your single blog entry. Imagine I unreasonably did not like you. For whatever reason, our personalities clashed so strongly, if you claimed “100% Sunny” I would insist on an umbrella. You say “black” I will insist on “white,”

I could see that by such a prejudice entrenched, if I was to investigate the best way to make a bow, I would believe that you did not present the best way—simply by my irrational disagreement with everything you say. In that instance isn’t my belief under the control of my will? Even if it turns out the best way IS your way, I have willed myself to believe something different.

(And before that is written off as a ridiculous example, I suspect we both know Christians that refuse to read a book, simply because it was written by an atheist, and atheists that refuse to listen to arguments simply because it is stated by a Christian. Is that using will to control information and perhaps belief?)

Moreland’s use of Pink Elephants is a bit frustrating. I am not sure that engages the full scope of belief. There are no flying elephants. There are no pink elephants. Most people do not offer $1,000,000 just to have people believe something. The “belief” is an extreme example.

What if Moreland stated a pink flamingo was flying overhead? Again, highly unlikely, but actually possible. With the pink elephant, people laugh and joke. With a pink flamingo, people start to listen for the flap of wings. Could one “will” to believe a pink flamingo?

What if Moreland stated a cat was walking through the room? Bit unusual, but not unlikely. (Especially if one wondered it had been set up ahead of time.) What if a person was extremely allergic to cats? Despite the improbability, would they nervously look about, regardless of their “will”?

We have to consider how each person is persuaded by different evidence, the plausibility of the claim, the circumstances in which it is given, the person’s historical background, etc. I guess, for me, there are too many factors to cut-and-dried state “yes” or “no.” Generally I would agree that our beliefs are not a matter of will. But not always.

ephphatha: If not, can we still be rational?

Certainly not 100%. I would think we all have feelings, history and knowledge that causes us to implement bias, even unknowingly. We all can “want” something to be true, regardless of whether it is or not, and by that desire color both the information received, and the strength we attribute to it.

Yet we also have the wonderful ability to recognize that characteristic and attempt to minimize it (if that is our choice) to the greatest extent possible, and/or communicate with others as to their beliefs, biases, history, knowledge and desires, always open to changing our own upon learning new information.

At 6/04/2007 9:28 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Moreland claimed that "If one is to be rational, one must be free to choose his beliefs based on reasons" so I don't think your example of a extreme dislike would qualify, since although an extreme dislike is a reason, it is not what he was referring to as 'rational'.

At 6/05/2007 4:48 PM , Blogger Paul said...

In a sense I think Moreland is right that we can't just excrete beliefs by sheer force of will, we have to have reason to believe it. But then he says something telling, as you state: "we can change our beliefs by choosing to read things and to expose ourselves to ideas, and that our beliefs will change as a result." The question is why we would expose ourselves to ideas and what ideas we would choose to expose ourselves to.

I think that it is the case that there are often (thinly veiled) subconscious desires to believe certain things to be true. One can be predisposed to believe certain things, and the rational process is then employed to gather up apparent support for that belief. At a certain point we would then feel that our belief is justified, and we would formally affirm it as a fact in our minds. The problem with the pink elephant example is that even if we might have the desire to believe it, it would both upset too many of our existing beliefs and there is just not enough "evidence" to marshal in the service of our belief-making processes.

The question then is, where do we get our preferences and predilections which bias our rational processes, and are we a slave to them? I don't think Moreland has definitively answered the free will question. I'm sure he hasn't answered it where the will to believe the Gospel is concerned (he is an Arminian), because even if we had unfettered will to believe the mundane things of earthly existence, it does not mean that the will to believe all things is not constrained somehow.

I certainly think we have the potential to be rational — indeed, I think God has crafted our minds for such a purpose. I think the engine of reason is sound; we just have to learn how to guide it and feed it clean fuel. A messy and sometimes seemingly hopeless task. I certainly think we have no hope of warranted beliefs if we are not willing to learn the tools of reasoning (logic), seek out the best arguments on both sides of an issue, be introspective about our own motivations and presuppositions, and have a genuine affinity for truth even if it cuts against our own grain.

At 6/05/2007 4:54 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...


But what if we agreed that it was reasonable to dislike ephphatha because he is just that sort of person that deserves disliking? *wink*

All kidding aside, you are quite correct that Moreland would not accept prejudicial dislike as a valid “reason” to rationally determine a belief.

Although that raises a question as to what DOES qualify. What if comfort is the basis by which I use my reason to make a determination, regardless of actual truth, whereas another uses truth, rather than comfort—which is the “correct” basis for reason?

And, given our human propensity to lie to ourselves, can we independently determine that we are using an objective reason as our basis? Do you think that each of us, due our different make-up, would have different reasons upon which we rationally make decisions? Including decisions about beliefs?

At 6/06/2007 6:02 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

On your first point I would say that we need to distinguish what it is subjectively rational for an agent to believe and what it is objectively* rational for them to believe.
On the point about our inherent biases, I agree with Paul about being forensically introspective and would add to that the scaffolding of methodologies that tend to identify and minimise bias.

*By objectively I mean something like globally inter-subjectively validatable.

At 6/06/2007 6:52 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

What do you mean by "globally inter-subjectively validatable"?

At 6/06/2007 9:14 PM , Blogger Paul said...

I think he means to avoid the idea of objectivity in the transcendent sense that we might think. This simply leaves a community consensus according to the instinctive (or maybe just commonly agreed upon) principles of rationality — just human (or community) subjective rather than individual subjective.

At 6/07/2007 8:01 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I think Paul put a bit of spin on there but he has the sense of it.
Essentially it means that you should be able to email the protocol and people in wherever, Malasia for instance, should be able to follow it and replicate the results. In addition to that, the protocol should have all the safeguards against bias built in. The scientific method has this covered.

At 6/08/2007 5:38 PM , Blogger Paul said...

I don't think you can ever have infallible safeguards against bias (not claiming you think so). I've seen too many people presented with perfectly adequate evidence for things and just shrug it off as "unconvincing." Even if we can define a foolproof method of reasoning we cannot guarantee that any given person will apply it consistently. People are only rational so far as it serves their cause.

At 6/23/2007 6:33 AM , Blogger John Bryden said...

A brief comment comes to mind. Belief is not a function of the will, but of the faculty of understanding. The function of the will is to initiate action. Perhaps this distinction may shed some light on the problem.


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