2 Reasons Why Beliefs are (Almost) Involuntary

Some critics of Blaise Pascal reject his famous Wager argument because it misconstrues the nature of belief formation. The Wager assumes it is possible for agnostics to chose (as a voluntary act of willpower) to believe in God even if the evidence for theism appears insufficient for belief.[1] But that assumption is mistaken, say the critics.

What are we to make of this objection? Does it really undermine Pascal’s Wager? In this blog post, I will consider two arguments against the view that beliefs can be formed instantly through a voluntary act of willpower – a view which Louis P. Pojman (1995) calls “direct volitionalism.”[2] I will then weigh the consequences of these two arguments for the Wager.

Direct Volitionalism is the view that some beliefs can be produced directly through sheer willpower
Direct Volitionalism is the view that some beliefs can be produced directly through sheer willpower
1. The Argument from Perception and Memory

One way to argue against direct volitionalism is to consider how perceptual and memory beliefs are typically formed. When I hold a blue book in front of my eyes, I cannot help but believe I am seeing a blue book. I do not infer that a blue book is in front of me. The belief just forms automatically without my consciously inferring it. Or consider memory beliefs. I can recall what I had for breakfast this morning, but when the memory presents itself to my mind, the resulting belief arises instantaneously. I do not will myself into believing that I had bacon and eggs this morning on the basis of evidence. I simply find myself believing what is presented to me through memory. Thus, in typical cases of memory and perception, belief seems involuntary.

But what about the beliefs we acquire by reflecting on evidence? Aren’t these voluntary? This leads us to the second argument.

2. The Logic of Belief Formation

The “logic of belief” argument makes the rather bold claim that evidence-based beliefs are still involuntarily acquired. Why? Because belief is largely dependent upon how the evidence appears to the mind when the belief is formed. For example, if it appears to an agnostic that the evidence for theism is a 50/50 split, then she cannot simply choose (by an act of sheer willpower) to believe that God exists, since that would require the evidence to appear differently to her than it actually does. The weight of evidence would need to appear slightly in favour of theism for the belief to take hold. Otherwise, as soon as she generates the belief, she will realize that it was based on her own willpower, not on how the evidence appeared to her mind. Realizing that she has created the belief in the absence of sufficient evidence undermines her ability to keep believing it. In other words, the attempt to form beliefs by sheer willpower undercuts itself.[3]

Indirect Volitionalism

I find the two arguments against direct volitionalism to be sound. But if they are, then hasn’t Pascal’s Wager been refuted? It seems not. These two arguments only demonstrate that beliefs are beyond our direct control. This conclusion is entirely compatible with the view that willpower can still play an indirect role in the acquisition of beliefs. Louis Pojman (1995) calls this view “indirect volitionalism” and I can see at least two reasons to embrace it.

First, my decisions play a role in how I gather and interpret the evidence upon which many of my beliefs are based. For example, I can be a conscientious and attentive learner who deals honestly with the facts. I can also be lazy and indifferent learner. In these ways, I can indirectly influence how the evidence appears to me, even if I do not directly control the belief that subsequently takes hold.

Indirect Volitionalism is the view that we have indirect control over the beliefs we acquire and maintain
Indirect Volitionalism is the view that we have indirect control over some of the beliefs we acquire and maintain

Second, my choices can influence the use and proper functioning of the mechanisms which produce various beliefs in me, such as perception and memory. Beliefs arising from perception and memory tend to form automatically and rapidly without my choice, but I can still repress, ignore, or deny past experiences in order to avoid forming memory beliefs I dislike. I can manipulate my perception by dabbling in hallucinogenic drugs and I can remove myself from situations which I know will produce beliefs that I wish to avoid. So for both of these reasons, I think that indirect volitionalism is quite plausible.

Implication for Pascal’s Wager

So what does all this mean for Wager argument? Well, if indirect volitionalism is true, then the Wager can be reformulated along indirect lines. It would not be an invitation for agnostics to generate belief in God by an act of sheer willpower. Rather, it would be an opportunity for agnostics to gather and interpret the evidence in such a way that eventually produces belief in God, despite there being insufficient evidence to support that belief.

Unfortunately, this indirect route to belief in God is fatally flawed. Even if it is possible for an agnostic to indirectly generate belief in God, there are ethical reasons why a person should not do so. Why? Because the policy of adopting beliefs in the absence of sufficient evidence conflicts with our responsibilities as truth seekers. We have a duty to try to have well-justified beliefs and to avoid tampering with our cognitive faculties merely to get the beliefs we want.[4] Therefore, I think it prudent to recast the Wager as a decision by agnostics to hope that God exists, rather than an attempt to believe. There are no ethical prohibitions against hoping that God exists when the evidence is 50/50, and I have defended this approach to the Wager elsewhere.


[1] I am assuming that (1) a requirement for belief is that one takes it to be more probable than not, and (2) the agnostic’s assessment of the evidence for God does not meet that requirement.

[2] My arguments in this post rely heavily upon the work of Louis P. Pojman in What Can We Know? An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995), pp.262-82. It is still a matter of debate whether the Wager argument does indeed assume the truth of direct volitionalism, as critics claim.

[3] The critic of direct volitionalism may also find support for his arguments in the fact that beliefs are best understood as dispositions – a view that I have argued for here. Dispositions are more or less entrenched in the ways we live in and cope with the world. They are rooted in habits of thinking, feeling, and acting, and are not normally changed by an immediate act of will. Some beliefs are more easily replaced than others, but change is not simply a matter of deciding on the spot to start having different beliefs.

[4] Some interpreters of Pascal deny that he advocated intentional bias in belief formation. According to this interpretation, Pascal is not encouraging agnostics to deceive themselves into belief by being dishonest with the evidence. Rather, Pascal is advising them to eliminate barriers to belief in God that arise from disordered passions and habits of mind that distort their perception of the evidence. When these barriers are kept in check, Pascal thinks that agnostics will see the evidence in a more favorable light and eventually become believers. If this reading of the Wager is correct, then the charge that Pascal advocates intellectual dishonesty no longer applies.

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