Voluntary Beliefs

Belief is a confusing mixture of the voluntary and the non-voluntary. St. Thomas tries to explain this by saying that the knowledge of first principles and of conclusions drawn from them are not voluntary, while other beliefs are voluntary:

Faith implies assent of the intellect to that which is believed. Now the intellect assents to a thing in two ways. First, through being moved to assent by its very object, which is known either by itself (as in the case of first principles, which are held by the habit of understanding), or through something else already known (as in the case of conclusions which are held by the habit of science). Secondly the intellect assents to something, not through being sufficiently moved to this assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it turns voluntarily to one side rather than to the other: and if this be accompanied by doubt or fear of the opposite side, there will be opinion, while, if there be certainty and no fear of the other side, there will be faith. (ST. II-II Q. 1, a. 4, corp.

However, in reality it is highly questionable whether the intellect ever assents to anything of necessity in such a way that it is impossible to doubt it. For example, if a skilled mathematician shows you a proof of some new conclusion using premises which are well known to you, you may assent to the conclusion without any doubt. But if he then says, “There is a flaw in this proof,” you are unlikely to respond, “I cannot accept that claim, as I have seen beyond any possibility of doubt that this conclusion is true.” Or if you do respond in this way, suppose he says, “In that case, I will offer to bet you $1 against $100 that there is a flaw in the proof and that I can show it to you. Since you claim that you cannot be wrong, you are bound to win the bet and gain a dollar.” Hopefully in this situation you will come to your senses and doubt the proof, rather than continuing to assert your own infallibility, an act of insane overconfidence which will surely cost you $100.

St. Thomas does point out that the act of making a statement, whether to oneself or to others, is always a voluntary act. However, he does not seem to take note of the fact that this implies that the contrary act is also possible, even if it would violate first principles or conclusions drawn from them. For example, just as I can say or write “2 + 2 = 4” voluntarily, I can equally well say or write “2 + 2 = 5”, should I so choose, and I can say this not only to others but also to myself.

Someone will respond to this that if I do say this, whether to myself or to others, I am lying. Indeed. But how is this lying detected? The main way that we would determine that someone was lying in such a case is that he would refuse to act on this claim. As an obvious example, I might say that I want to change two twenty dollar bills for a fifty (when he has one), and I would expect him to refuse. This would actually be more obvious with statements like “it is raining.” If someone believes it is raining, he will probably carry an umbrella or something of the sort. The problem with the mathematical statement is that it is so basic that it is hardly clear what it would mean to act as though two and two made five. But given that we can determine how a person believing something would act, we can find evidence that someone is lying by showing that he refuses to act in conformity with his claim, at least in certain contexts.

This suggests that there is a sense in which any belief will be entirely voluntary: just as I can voluntarily choose to make any claim, I can voluntarily decide to conform the whole of my life to the claim. In this way I am deciding to act in every way as though the claim were true, both interior and exterior, insofar as these things are in my power.

Choosing to believe, in this sense, would be rather like choosing to love someone. Just as I choose to conform my life to love, I can choose to conform my life to belief. However, there is one significant difference. There is reason to believe that one who chooses to conform his life to love is disposing himself as fully as possible toward love, such that it will always be true that he does indeed love. But there may be reason to think that, at least in some cases, it is different with belief. For example, suppose that someone were to say, “I choose to believe that I can walk out of a fifth story window without getting hurt.” If he does choose this in the manner under discussion, he will be willing to put it into practice. But even if he does actually carry it out, it is possible that he is doing this to prove that he believes, while in fact still not truly giving intellectual assent. In other words, it may be that part of the disposition to believe is in the intellect itself, and that such a disposition must be present there in advance in order for the choice to believe to be efficacious.

If this is the case, we could say that someone who “chooses to believe” when his intellect entirely lacks the appropriate disposition is rather pretending to believe, in a sense, rather than truly believing. However, this is not completely clear and consequently it remains at least possible that such a choice to believe is always efficacious.

18 thoughts on “Voluntary Beliefs

  1. […] Since belief is voluntary, it follows that truth is only one of the possible motives for belief, and people can believe things for the sake of other ends as well. Consequently there may be some things that it is always better to believe, even without making a special effort to determine whether they are true or not. […]


  2. There is a problem with “deciding to act in every way as though the claim were true”. If this means that in any context in which the truth of a claim could be a principle of my action, I do take it as such a principle, and if “my action” includes thinking, then believing in this sense always entails assenting to falsehood, and is generally speaking manifestly irrational.

    This may be shown in the following manner:

    “Some percentage of my opinions are true”, “Given that I hold an opinion about something, there is a some chance that it is so.”
    “100% of my opinions about things that are so are true”, “Given that I hold an opinion about something, and that it is so, there is a 100% chance that the opinion is true”

    Now suppose I choose to believe X, e.g., I choose to believe that someone didn’t intentionally treat me unfairly.
    According to the proposed sense of belief, if I am asked to state “what is the probability that your belief is mistaken”, I would have to say “the probability is 0% that I am mistaken in believing that he didn’t intentionally treat me unfairly, since he did not intentionally treat me unfairly.”


    • I think it is reasonable to define belief in that way, in the same way that it is reasonable to define a circle as a line with all points equidistant from a center. But we proceed to call some things in the world circular, even though this definition does not apply to any of them strictly. In the same way, my definition of belief is idealized and should not be expected to apply with absolute strictness to anything that people actually do.

      A few other points should be made here:

      When someone says, “given that I hold an opinion about something, and that it is so, there is a 100% chance that the opinion is true,” the statement about the 100% probability is a conditional probability. X given X has a probability of 100%. So the argument is that if someone is going to take X as a principle of action in relation to what he says and thinks in this case, he must say that X has a probability of 100%. But I think there is an equivocation here on “given.” Saying that the probability of X given X is 100% is a mathematical statement of probability theory. Being “given” in this sense, already implies a probability of 100%. If X has a probability of 100%, it has a probability of 100%.

      But in real life, simply speaking, X does not have a probability of 100% for you, even if you believe it. So you are “given X” in the sense that you say, “X is true.” But you are not given X in the sense relevant to the statement of mathematical probability, and therefore you should not follow up with the claim that X has a 100% chance of being true.

      To say this in another way, acting as though something is true, is different from acting as though something has literally no chance of being false. When I walk out the door to go to the store, I am acting as though I am going to arrive at the store. But the fact that I take precautions against dying, as by looking to the side before I cross the street, means that I am acting as though there is some chance that I am not going to arrive at the store. I believe that I am going to arrive, and I do indeed take “I will soon be at the store” as a principle of action, in almost every way. But I do not act as though there were no chance that I will not be at the store.

      You could respond that in this case, it is not “in every way.” You would seem even more convinced that you will arrive at the store, if you think that there is no chance of not arriving, and if you therefore took no precautions and in fact did not even bother to start walking there, since you will arrive no matter what. And this may be true in some sense: someone with an even stronger conviction might well behave this way, and my definition of belief might apply even more to his behavior, than to a normal person’s behavior.

      I agree that such behavior would be wrong and irrational, but I do not think that the fact that my definition of belief might apply more strongly to this behavior than to reasonable behavior, is a reason either to reject the definition, or to say that the definition of belief does not apply at all to reasonable behavior. The definition is a rough approximation of what people normally do, and of reasonable behavior. Attempting to make it apply even more strictly to one’s actions is irrational, just as it would be irrational to insist on 100% precision if someone hires you to carve a circular object.


      • It is not just that X is not given to you with 100% certainty. Rather, even in the degree that it is given to you, and where Y follows from X, you will not necessarily assent to Y with the certainty with which you assent to X, if Y is much less connected with your reason for believing X than X is, Y entails a much smaller good or evil than X is, etc.

        In your example of going to the store, you don’t have much positive reason specifically to believe you will reach the store aside from the things that are in fact evidence that you will reach it, so the will is not much, if at all involved in your belief, and this belief may correspond to consistently holding that it is, e.g., 99.7% probable that I will soon be at the store.

        But take another case; “I believe Mark will not, even if given the opportunity, steal this money”; “I believe Mark will, given the opportunity, steal this money”; Aquinas seems to say that you can simultaneously believe both of these, in different respects: as regards considerations of Mark’s character and similar things, I act as those it is basically certain that he will not steal; as regards doing things to prevent him from stealing, I act as those it is quite probable (and could act as though it were extremely probable, if it was a large enough sum or other such circumstance). If he is right, and it seems possible to do this, then you have a belief that by reason of the good on account of which one holds the belief is restricted in scope to certain types of consideration. One cannot, in this case, give any fixed probability for X, as though he in all circumstances treats it as 99% probable, 95% probable, 90% probable, etc., that Mark will not steal the money given the chance.


        • I agree this is something that people do, and that it can be reasonable. Again, however, I do not think it indicates a problem with my description of belief, which is, as I said, idealized, while people’s actions are not.

          I agree that in this situation “you can simultaneously believe both of these, in different respects.” But this implies that your belief in neither is absolute; and it would not be unusual in that situation for someone to remark, “Your faith in Mark seems pretty weak, given all the precautions you are taking.” This relates to what I said earlier about the actions of a believer being assimilated to the actions of someone who knows; you may believe that Mark is a good man, but you believe this less than someone who acts on this assumption consistently, in all circumstances. The fact that he believes more does not necessarily make the latter more reasonable; like other virtues, faith consists in a mean, with extremes that are not virtuous. This is true even if you define theological faith in such a way that it has an aspect which does not consist in a mean; there remain aspects where one must keep to a mean.


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