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Do we choose what we believe?

Descartes divided the mind up into two faculties: intellect and will. The intellect gathers up data from the world and presents the mind with various potential beliefs that it might endorse; the will then chooses which of them to endorse. We can look at the evidence for or against a particular belief, but the final choice about what to believe remains a matter of choice.

This raises the question of the ‘ethics of belief,’ the title of an essay by the mathematician William K. Clifford, in which he argued that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ If people choose what they believe, we can ask when it is morally right or wrong for them to entertain certain beliefs. Clifford’s stern moral position was famously challenged by William James, but not his crucial premise that we choose what to believe. Some philosophers have taken this premise to extremes; Jean-Paul Sartre went as far as to suggest that we are always to blame for our own suffering, since however much the evidence might suggest that our situation is a miserable one, it is always our choice to believe that it really is so.

But do the ‘ethics of belief’ rest upon a false presumption? Spinoza believed so (as was observed by Edwin Curley). He opposed Descartes’ two-faculty psychology. Will and intellect, he argued, are one and the same; as soon as the intellect gathers up its data, the mind is thereby made up on what to believe. We may think we choose what to believe, but this, Spinoza claims, is an illusion arising from ignorance. The human mind grinds out beliefs from the data it receives in a blindly mechanical fashionin an early work, Spinoza called the mind a ‘spiritual automaton.’ We think of ourselves as free only because we fail to consciously note all the inputs that set the direction of our thought.

Does it make sense to mock, to hate, to be angry with, to disesteem others for their differences of opinion?

Many important things follow from Spinoza’s alternative picture of the mind. People with opposing views cannot disagree because they choose to respond differently to the same data. There must be a difference in the data to which they have access, even if neither is conscious of this. When people disagree with us, there is no point in imploring them to ‘face facts.’ The problem is not that they are refusing to face the facts; it is that they haven’t been exposed to the same facts as us, at least not in the same way.

Similarly, our value judgments, whether truth-apt or not, are straightforward functions of the influences upon us. Exposure to given phenomena will generate a set of value judgements with the certainty of a chemical reaction. It makes little sense to describe anybody’s values as corrupt or perverse. Each person’s values are appropriate in terms of the influences to which she has been subjected; if we wish her values to change, we must subject her to new influences. Thus the doctrine that will and intellect are one and the same, Spinoza averred, teaches us ‘to hate no one, to disesteem no one, to mock no one, to be angry at no one, to envy no one.’

This doctrine was of great importance in Spinoza’s agethe age of religious conflicts. People were condemning each other’s beliefs when, according to Spinoza, they should have been trying to understand the processes producing the divergences. You cannot intimidate somebody into changing beliefs that are the result of processes over which she has no control. The idea of Pascal’s Wager rests upon a misunderstanding of the mind. Even God cannot change our beliefs by offering rewards and punishments; that is like trying to pay somebody not to sneeze.

After an election, like the one we just had in the United Kingdom, I often find myself thinking about Descartes’ and Spinoza’s opposing pictures of the mind. Does somebody who disagrees with me, even while seeming to be exposed to precisely the same facts, just perceive a different world? Or do they choose to believe different things about a world we perceive with equal clarity? Does it make sense to mock, to hate, to be angry with, to disesteem others for their differences of opinion? Or is the burden on us to find out what it is they have failed to notice and show it to them?

The answers hang upon the strength of Spinoza’s arguments against Descartes’ position. My critical analysis of these arguments has been highly favourable. But we are dealing with two philosophical giants, and there is much still to be said on either side.

Image Credit: Photo by  secretlondon123. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Christa E

    There was a time when I was rather sorely treated by a couple because they didn’t care for me smiling in their direction.
    My belief was if you see a cute baby in a cute hat, it’s acceptable to smile.
    They didn’t share my belief. And for a long time I took it personally. Then one day it dawned on me that from their perspective, who knows what they saw or what life experiences built up walls in them. It really had nothing to do with me.

    This article has given me more to think about along those lines.


  2. Richard Baron

    I would rescue Clifford by taking from him a view that one ought to be the kind of person who demands evidence before judging whether some proposition is true. (Belief can then follow judgement – Sacha Golob has just given a paper to the Aristotelian Society on this and related issues, and it will appear in the 2014-15 Proceedings in due course.) Whether one has freedom to form one’s epistemic character remains a question, but at least we can move up from particular beliefs.

    Turning to questions like the recent General Election, it is most unlikely that two people chosen at random actually did have precisely the same evidence – given that the evidence will have included information on economics and society generally, not just the immediate facts. But beyond that, the combination of three points may help to explain make disagreement entirely legitimate:

    1. It is not possible to work out, with a high degree of certainty, exactly what should be done in relation to any particular issue.

    2. The nature of our representative democracy is such that we vote for whole packages, not issue by issue. People will weight different issues in different ways, and while some sets of weights would be bizarre, there is no indisputable ordering of all sets of weights that would reveal which was the best set.

    3. A collective suspension of judgement is not an option. We have to get some government or other, even if the decision must be made on inadequate grounds. (Some people can abstain, but we know that many will not, so there will be a decision. In that context, it does seem justifiable to pitch in and vote. And of course those who condemn people who voted in one way tend to be people who, despite the uncertainty, themselves voted in some other way.)

    I think these three points are enough to mean that even a view that there was no such thing as faultless disagreement would not have much purchase here.

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