1.3.3 Pascal's Wager: We Cannot Choose Our Beliefs

Pascal

The third objection to Pascal’s Wager relates to a philosophical theory called “doxastic voluntarism”. “Doxastic” means “pertaining to belief”. “Voluntarist” theories are theories that emphasise the importance of the will. Doxastic voluntarism is thus the theory that belief is subject to the will, i.e. that we are able to choose what to believe.

There are certain cases in which doxastic voluntarism clearly does not hold. We cannot simply choose to believe that it is the year 2020 and that elephants rule the Earth; we cannot induce this belief in ourselves by a sheer act of will. Many philosophers think that doxastic voluntarism is false in all circumstances, that belief is entirely subject to reason rather than to the will. If this is true, then it presents a problem for Pascal’s Wager.

The objection to Pascal’s Wager is that we form our beliefs on the basis of evidence, not on the basis of desire, i.e. that we cannot choose our beliefs. No matter how much I may want to believe that a given proposition is true, I cannot bring myself to do so simply by willing that I do so. Rather, in order to come to believe that the proposition is true I require some evidence for its truth.

If this is correct, then in prescribing that we choose to believe in God Pascal’s Wager is prescribing the impossible. Pascal’s Wager may be sound insofar as it tells us to do all we can to bring it about that we believe in God, but if we are unable to do anything to bring it about that we believe in God then this conclusion will hardly be significant.

Some respond to this objection by mounting at least a partial defence of doxastic voluntarism. It may be that doxastic voluntarism is false with regard to certain beliefs, such as the belief that it is the year 2020 and that elephants rule the Earth. With regard to certain other beliefs, including belief in the existence of God, however, doxastic voluntarism is somewhat more plausible. We have a great deal of evidence, it might be argued, that it is not the year 2020 and that elephants do not rule the Earth, and it is this evidence that prevents us from choosing to believe both that it is and that they do. What evidence we have concerning the existence of God, however, is far less conclusive, and so an element of choice whether to believe or to disbelieve remains.

A stronger response to the objection, however, is to concentrate on the indirect control that we have over our beliefs. Doxastic voluntarism may be false, i.e. it may be false that we can induce in ourselves a belief in God simply by willing that we so believe, but Pascal’s Wager does not distinguish between beliefs formed by the will and beliefs formed in any other way. Pascal’s Wager prescribes belief in God; it does not prescribe belief in God by a sheer act of will. There are other means by which it is possible to induce in oneself a belief in God, and if the only problem with Pascal’s Wager were that doxastic voluntarism is false then it would demonstrate that we ought to use these other means in order to bring ourselves to believe.

Though we do not have direct, voluntary control over our beliefs, it does seem that we have indirect control over them. We are able, for instance, to exercise control over the kinds of evidence to which we are exposed. We can choose to associate with people who believe in God; we can choose to read books by noted apologists; we can choose to act is if we believe and see what happens. Each of these choices would increase the likelihood of our coming to believe in God. If Pascal’s Wager is correct in saying that we ought to exercise what control we can over our beliefs in an attempt to induce in ourselves a belief in God, therefore, then we ought to do each of these things.

There are also other, more cynical ways in which we can exercise control over our beliefs. Using the techniques of hyponosis it is possible to induce beliefs in a subject without any regard for evidence at all. If one were thoroughly convinced of Pascal’s Wager, therefore, then one might choose to exercise control over one’s beliefs by hiring a hypnotist.

There are, then, some things that we can do to influence our beliefs even if doxastic voluntarism is false. Even if we cannot induce in ourselves a belief in God simply by an act of will, we can exercise control over our beliefs in other ways. If Pascal’s Wager is to be resisted, therefore, then this must be done on some other ground than that we cannot choose our beliefs.


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