Beliefs, Erections and Tears, Or: Where are my Credence-Lowering Pills?

People who are not philosophers sometimes “come to believe” (“I’ve come to believe that cutting taxes is not the way to go”) or “start to think” (“I’m starting to think that Jolene isn’t going to show up”). Philosophers “form beliefs”. People who are not philosophers sometimes say “I have read the report, and now I’m less confident that the project will succeed”, and sometimes write “reading the report lowered my confidence in the success of the project”. Philosophers say “I have read the report and lowered my credence that the project will succeed”.

In other words, philosophers talk about routine changes in credence as if they were voluntary: I, the agent, am doing the “forming” and the “lowering”. That is kind of curious, because most mainstream epistemologists do not think beliefs are voluntary. Some think they sometimes are – perhaps in cases of self-deception, Pascal’s wager, and so on – but most take them to be non-voluntary by default. Very, very few hold that just like I decided to write now, I also decided to believe that my cats are sleeping by my computer. Yet if I were their example, they would say “Nomy looks at her desk and forms the belief that her cats are sleeping by the computer”. If I say anything to them about this choice of words, they say it’s just a convenient way to speak.

John Heil, wishing to be ecumenical in “Believing What One Ought”, says that even if we think that belief is not, strictly speaking, voluntary, we can agree that it is a “harmless shorthand” to talk about belief as if it is voluntary (talk about it using the language of action, decision, responsibility, etc). Why? Because it is generally possible for a person to take indirect steps to “eventually” bring about the formation of a belief.

OK then –so erections are voluntary! Let’s use the language of action, decision, and responsibility in talking about them! No, seriously. It is possible for a man to take indirect voluntary steps to bring it about that he has an erection. And yet, if I teach aliens or children an introduction to human nature, I do something terribly misleading if I talk about erections as if they were voluntary.

Another example: suppose Nomy is a sentimental sop and hearing a certain song can reliably bring her to tears. Heck, just playing the song in her head can bring her to tears. There are steps Nomy can take to cause herself to burst out in tears. Still, again, in that Intro Human Nature course one cannot talk about outbursts of tears as if they were voluntary without being misleading.

Last, would any self-respecting action theorist say that the phrase ‘she raised her arm’ can be a ‘harmless shorthand’ way to describe a person who caused her arm to jerk upwards by hooking it to an electrode? Or, worse, a “harmless shorthand” by which to describe a person whose arm jerked due to a type of seizure but who easily could have caused such jerking through using electrodes or prevented it through taking a medication?

In all of these cases, a “shorthand” would not be harmless – for two reasons. The more banal one is that when eliciting intuitions about birds, you don’t want the ostrich to be your paradigm case. Most erections, outbursts of tears, and arm-convulsions are not the result of intentional steps taken to bring them about, and there is a limit to what we can learn about them from the fewer cases that are. The same is true for most beliefs. Many of my beliefs are the result of no intentional action at all – my belief that the cats are here came into being as soon as they showed up in my field of vision, my belief that there are no rats in Alberta came into being as soon as a Tim Schroeder told me – and other beliefs I have are the result of deliberation, which is an action, but not an intentional step taken to bring about a particular belief. (so my belief that the ontological argument fails was not the result of intentional steps taken to make myself believe that the ontological argument fails). Whatever intuitions one might have about non-paradigmatic cases, like Pascal’s wager, could easily fail to apply to the many cases in which no step-taking has preceded a belief.

But to talk of erections and tears as if they were voluntary is also dangerous for a deeper reason, a reason that has nothing to do with the frequency of indirect-steps cases. Even if the majority of tears, erections, or convulsions were indirectly self-induced, there is still a difference between the action taken to induce the erection, tears or seizure and the thing that results from the action. If the former is voluntary, that alone doesn’t make the latter voluntary. Similarly, even if we routinely had the option of making ourselves believe something through the pressing of a button, and we routinely took advantage of this option, there will still be a difference between the act of pressing the button – an action – and the state of believing itself. If we make “pressing the button” a mental action – analogous to intentionally calling to mind images that are likely to produce an erection or an outburst of tears – it hardly matters: the mental action that produces a belief would still be different from its outcome.

Why does it matter? Because we only have practical reasons to do things voluntarily. It seems quite clear that, on those occasions, whatever their number, in which we can, in fact, for real, form a belief, there can be practical reasons to form that belief or not to form it, and it seems only slightly less clear that sometimes it could be rational to form a belief that clashes with the evidence. This, however, is taken to mean that there are practical reasons to believe. I am working on a paper arguing that this does not work.  We have practical reasons to take steps to bring a belief about. We sometimes have practical reasons to make ourselves believe something, but that’s not the same as practical reasons to believe it. No such thing. Category mistake. This is where one could ask: why not call reasons to create a belief in oneself “reasons to believe?” Isn’t that a harmless shorthand?

I don’t think so. I agree that “reasons to stay out of debt” is a nice shorthand for “reasons not to perform actions that can lead to one’s being in debt and to perform actions that are conducive to staying out of it”, but while “reasons to stay out of debt” just are reasons for various actions and inactions, you can have “reasons to believe” something without any implied reasons for any actions or inactions. Jamal’s being out of debt is an instance of rationality (or response to reasons) on his part iff Jamal’s being out of debt is the intended result of a rational course of action taken by Jamal. Gianna’s belief that Israelis don’t speak Yiddish can be perfectly rational (as in, there for good reasons) even if it’s not the result of any rational course of action taken by her. Perhaps the belief occurred in her mind as the result of unintentionally hearing a reliable person’s testimony, no action required, or was the result of an irrational action like reading Wikipedia while driving; it can still be as rational a belief as they come. When we say “reasons to believe” it is not normally a shorthand for “reasons to make oneself believe”, and so to shorthand “reasons to make oneself believe” to “reasons to believe” is not harmless, but very confusing. To be continued.

6 thoughts on “Beliefs, Erections and Tears, Or: Where are my Credence-Lowering Pills?

  1. Great post as always Nomy. As I recall, Hieronymi claims that F-ing is voluntary iff any reason that one has for F-ing is a reason for which one can F. But Williams thinks that something can be a reason for F-ing only if it can be a reason for which one F’s. These views cannot both be right, or else everything for which we can have reasons is voluntary. I’m guessing you reject Hieronymi’s view, but then how do you understand the distinction between the voluntary in the involuntary?

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  2. Hello Nomy. I guess I would get off the boat very early: indicative sentences of the form “I F’d” do not necessarily indicate agency. “I ran a marathon and then I collapsed”–one verb is agential, the other is not.

    It is true, though, that philosophers do seem to talk as if belief-formation, etc. is more agential than it is. Here’s a hypothesis: what they are committed to is that this kind of thing is *evaluable*, i.e. you are more rational if you do it one way than another. The right view is that this kind of evaluation is aretaic and does not necessarily require full-blooded agency. But we talk as if it is deontological evaluation, which does require agency.

    (Related: “justified” belief (deontological) vs. “rational” belief (aretaic).)


    1. I think it’s significant that epistemologists had to invent technical locutions like “I lowered my credence” and “I formed a belief” when there are perfectly good (but more passive sounding) natural language ways to talk about credence changes.
      I think you are right about their likely motive: to make epistemic norms sound more like moral duties, because supposedly they are parallel to them. Thus epistemologists say “You have a duty to lower your credence” instead of “if you are rational, your credence will decrease”. I agree with you that epistemic norms are not deontic (except I think they are not exactly aretaic either). Incidenally, thank you soooo much for teaching me that a verb doesn’t always signify an action. I’m totally stunned by the news!


  3. Hello Nomy. I apologize if I came across as condescending (it wasn’t voluntary) …. I thought I was responding to the argument in the first part of your post. My thought was just that from the grammar of “I formed” or “I lowered” it does not follow that forming and lowering are voluntary actions. If I were a careful epistemologist being pressed on this point, I might say that I meant these verbs in a non-agential sense.


    1. Fair enough, but connotations are important when you hunt for intuitions, and when your cholesterol level naturally goes down, you don’t say “I lowered my cholesterol”. You say that only when you intentionally took steps to bring it about that your cholesterol level goes down.


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