Monday, December 2, 2013

Pojman and Perceptual Beliefs

From guest blogger, Rashad.

I wanted to revisit Pojman’s argument about belief. I have been trying to wrap my mind around it for a while, but cannot quite understand his definition of belief when considering Clifford’s Ethics of Belief. Pojman defines belief as “an involuntary assenting of the mind to a certain proposition.” He basically says that beliefs are forced upon us by the world. He provides two examples of perceptual beliefs: he sees the white paper he is writing on (1), and he hears music after someone has played it (2). Yes, I agree that these two cannot be denied, that yes they are forced and involuntary. However, what makes them forced and involuntary is the fact that they involve the senses of sight and sound.

What happens when a person sees something and believes it is one thing. Undoubtedly, the person is forced to believe something is there because he or she SEES it. What Pojman seems to disregard here is exactly what it is the person believes he or she is seeing given the context. My example to illustrate this will be from the Hindu story “Snake Mistaken for a Rope”: A man once walked down a road. Freezing in his tracks, he saw an object in the middle of the road that was long. Because the object was long, the man took the object to be a snake. In this situation, this man was forced to believe he saw something because of his sense of sight to SEE and the fact that an object was physically there. No one forced him to believe WHAT it is that he saw. This man chose to believe he saw a snake; the proposition of there being an object was forced while the proposition of that object being a snake was not forced. Here, we see Clifford’s ethics of belief in action. This man chose to believe given
insufficient evidence without “further investigation.” Because an objects looks like something, or has a quality of something you are familiar with does mean it is what you think it is. So why would you believe it is that thing without concrete evidence?! Overall, this man voluntarily believed the object was a snake.

Pojman does not consider such cases in his claim. To this extent, belief is volitional. Given my argument, how would others agree or disagree. Help me better understand Pojman given Clifford’s account and the example provided.


Stoehr said...

Interesting idea, Rashad. My only question is whether or not we can really say he CHOSE to believe the object was a snake; maybe it was more of a mental reflex than a conscious choice. This might be an idea to entertain in your paper, saying how, exactly, the man chose - rather than instinctually reacted to seeing an object in the street and reflexively thinking it to be a snake - to believe the object to be a snake.

Zach Wrublewski said...

I think you may be close to begging the question, here. If you intend to prove that beliefs are not "forced upon us," I don't think you can assert that the person in the snake story chooses to believe the thing in the road is a snake. It seems like there might be a ton of different factors in the person's belief that the thing was a snake other that might force him to believe so; maybe he knew snakes were much more prevalent than ropes in that particular area, or his disposition is such that he jumps to the "worst case scenario" (without choosing to do so), or maybe the fact that the thing in the road was a snake forced him to believe it was a snake.

I think I see your general line of thinking, but I'm not sure I get the subtleties. Can you elaborate on how it's proven that choice can play a part in true belief?

Alexander Laird said...

I think that this is an interesting example.
Let us consider what the man in this situation involuntarily and voluntarily sees. You agree that he involuntarily sees something, because he can't help but see. I would also say that he involuntarily sees something that seems to be about 50 feet away. He also involuntarily perceives that the object is brown, long, and thin. Perhaps he also involuntarily observes that the object is curved, dull, and unmoving. One can go on and on with a list of things that the person involuntarily observes about this object. If you agree that Pojman can't help but believe that he is writing on white paper and hearing music, then you must agree with all of this as well. The question then becomes, at what degree of detail, or at what point of uncertainty, does the man's observation become a voluntary choice about what he is seeing. Pojman can easily say that the same rules of belief that apply to observing white paper also apply to observing the snake in the road. In both cases, a person is making the best guess they can about what they are observing. This is based on previous experiences of white paper or snakes and on deduction. Even if their decision seems arbitrary, their brain is doing the best job it can to decide what is being perceived. Because of this, they have no real choice.
For you to deny this, you must be able to describe the mechanism through which a person makes a voluntary choice. If something different is going on between the paper example and the snake example that makes one voluntary and the other involuntary, then you should be able to explain what this is. That would be an interesting paper, but I think it is no small task. Good luck!

Michael Dean Hebert said...

Sorry, this got long. Here's my view in short - I don't think free will exists, and as such I'm an anti-volitionist. Below is my view in long.

Whenever talking about free will or belief formation I really like to approach the debates by considering the stream of consciousness. I believe that if you take the time to really examine your own subjective experience of making a choice, you'll notice that what you perceived in passing to be self-controlled decision making is actually just as reflexive and reactive as the most base cognitive action (say pulling your hand away from a flame). You are conscious of making a decision, you are not consciously making a decision. It's a fine distinction. Some will undoubtedly balk at what I'm suggesting, but bear with me in a brief experiment.

Think of a kind of candy bar. Take your time. Actually think of a candy bar, pick just one kind, and remember it. Now take just a moment to reflect about the process your mind just went through in order to pick out that candy bar you're thinking of. Perhaps several candy bars came to mind at first, why them? They just came to mind (perhaps you recently saw them at the store, have some in your cupboard, just ate one, whatever). Then you settled on one, why that candy bar? It was just the one you settled on. Where's the free will here? You no more chose the candy bars that came to mind and the one you chose, than the ones that did not come to mind. Perhaps you didn't actually choose a candy bar and instead thought "screw you Michael Dean, I'm not playing your games." Can you account for why you did this? If we go into fine enough details of the conscious experience of making a decision, I think we'll notice that all the factors that play into our decisions and the weight we give them are not really of our own design. They simply arise in the mind. It's perhaps worth noting at this point that my thoughts on this derive from some minimal study of Buddhism. If you're still in line with my thinking, you might notice that I'm not making much of leap from this simple example to my belief that free will, as we might classically conceive of it, does not exist.

I won't get into it here, but let me briefly say that I don't think that a lack of free will is incompatible with morality. Moreover, I don't think that believing there is no free will should cause people anxiety, though of course if I'm right some will not be able to help but feel this way.

What this amounts to in terms of the original blog post is that I'm a full blown antivolitionist. I do not think that we ever choose to form beliefs (try right not to just choose to change a belief you have). Could the man in the story have chosen to see the snake as just a snake? It seems to me he could not because his eyes were tricked. I see no reason to describe it otherwise.

David Harms said...

Michael Dean's point above was definitely very thought-provoking. I too agree in this notion that beliefs arise in the mind and that the details of our conscious experience are not of our own design, as he stated above, and that the nature of belief and decision-making are not spawned from our own belief. I also thought that in the snake example the man did not choose to form his own belief and that he was just mistaken.