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Philosophy Research Archives

Volume 4, 1978

Barbara Winters
Pages 433-464

Acquiring Beliefs at Will

The paper considers the question of whether it is possible to acquire beliefs at will, i.e. directly, simply as the result of willing to do so. In particular, it discusses an argument of Bernard Williams in "Deciding to Believe" to the conclusion that it is a necessary truth that one cannot acquire a belief at will. The argument is first clarified and reformulated so as to exhibit the underlying assumptions and explain precisely what he means by "acquiring beliefs at will." The truth of the premises is then examined. Attention is focused on the most important assumption, which is that necessarily, if in full consciousness I will to acquire a belief b irrespective of its truth, then after the event it is impossible that I believe in full consciousness [b is a present belief of mine and I acquired b at will]. After further clarification of this claim, I argue that whatever plausibility it has results from the plausibility of another claim: Necessarily ~ (Ǝx) (Ǝp) (x believes [x believes p and x's belief of p is not sustained by any truth-considerations] ) . I defend the latter claim against apparent counter-examples and show that it is compatible with the possibility conscious irrationality and has important implications. Nevertheless, I argue that even if it is true, other premises of Williams' argument are not plausible and he does not succeed in establishing that we cannot acquire beliefs at will.