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What is doxastic voluntarism?

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Doxastic voluntarism, in short, is the idea that people willingly choose what they believe to be true. While the Bible indicates that each person is responsible for his or her own beliefs, it also suggests that some of what we believe is dependent on the work of God. Both of these doctrines have a partial connection to the two major interpretations of doxastic voluntarism.

The question of whether or not a person “chooses” a belief can be separated into two distinct versions. The first form is direct doxastic voluntarism, which implies that a person directly and immediately chooses what he or she will believe. Under this scheme, a person would determine, “I choose to believe Fact X,” and then immediately accept Fact X as true. The second application is indirect doxastic voluntarism, which implies that a person chooses what beliefs he or she will subject to scrutiny and can voluntarily seek out experiences in order to test or change those beliefs.

Neither of these concepts is the same as choosing to act as if some idea is true. The choice to act a certain way does not require being convinced of anything in particular. For the same reason, doxastic voluntarism does not require a person to act in any particular way on the basis of what he or she “believes.” Whether or not a person behaves in a way consistent with his or her beliefs is a separate question. Putting these points together, we distinguish between the intellectual “belief” being referred to by doxastic voluntarism and the spiritual “belief” referred to in the Bible. Scripture’s presentation of “belief” implies trust and faithfulness, whereas the doxastic concept is purely abstract.

Philosophers generally reject the concept of direct doxastic voluntarism. The idea that one can simply “flip a switch” in order to accept an idea as true runs contrary to both experience and common sense. It would be tempting to argue that direct doxastic voluntarism is also unbiblical, based on the idea of predestination. Particularly according to Reformed interpretations, the idea that a person has the power to believe or not believe, entirely on his own power, is false. However, keep in mind that these ideas deal in distinct meanings of the word belief. The Bible speaks of those who seem, intellectually, to accept certain ideas but do not express the submissive, saving “belief” relevant to spiritual matters (see James 2:19; Matthew 7:21–23).

In contrast, indirect doxastic voluntarism is more widely considered to be true. This interpretation implies that people cannot choose what they believe, but they can choose whether or not they will subject their beliefs to scrutiny. The most common analogy of this concept is that of learning to play a musical instrument. A person cannot simply “choose” to play a musical instrument well. However, he can choose to take lessons, knowing that will lead in the right direction. He can also choose which instruments to pursue and which to leave alone. Applied to choosing beliefs, a person can—indirectly—select what to believe through investigation and lack of investigation.

Indirect doxastic voluntarism seems to fit well with the Bible’s approach to faith and (spiritual) belief. Scripture indicates that we are expected to scrutinize our own beliefs (2 Corinthians 13:5), to investigate what we are told (Acts 17:11), and to submit to the truth we find (John 5:39–40). While the Bible suggests that saving faith requires an act of God (John 6:44), it also indicates there is sufficient evidence in human experience for people to be held accountable for seeking the truth (Psalm 19:1; Matthew 7:7–8). As a result, the Bible has an extremely rational basis for saying that all men are “without excuse” (Romans 1:18–20). According to Scripture, people are responsible for what they believe, even if they cannot arbitrarily “choose” those beliefs. This, more or less, is exactly what indirect doxastic voluntarism implies.

This conclusion, once again, should be taken with the understanding that Scripture distinguishes between what a person accepts in his or her mind versus what he or she trusts and acts on in the heart. The concepts are similar, but doxastic voluntarism does not refer to exactly the same thing as the Bible’s concept of “belief.”

Only a minority of philosophers reject all forms of doxastic voluntarism. According to these opinions, intellectual beliefs are completely involuntary; even the choice to seek out information is an unintended consequence of a person’s pre-existing state of mind. Rejection of doxastic voluntarism is more common among those who favor a strongly deterministic worldview. This approach could also be considered compatible with the more extreme versions of divine determinism, but this (again) is a minority view. Practically speaking, there is little value to such an approach, since human experience requires the assumption that we can and do change the opinions of others.

Scripturally speaking, the two main interpretations of doxastic voluntarism have to be answered separately. Direct doxastic voluntarism is not as easily squared with the Bible as indirect doxastic voluntarism. The Bible suggests the ability of human beings to seek, search, and question and affirms our responsibility to do so. But the Bible does not suggest we have an unlimited control over our own minds; therefore, indirect doxastic voluntarism would appear to be the more biblically sound approach. A total rejection of doxastic voluntarism, to the point of absolute determinism, is not only scripturally weak but unlivable in practice.

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This page last updated: November 21, 2023