The Will to Believe

A few years back I went to a lecture intended for professors and graduate students in philosophy. It was open to the public, even minimally publicized, but the second I entered the classroom I realized no other ‘outsiders’ had attended. The lecture turned out to be very technical, chock full of scholarly jargon. But after whispering a few questions to my in-house philosopher (“What’s he talking about? Pascal’s Wager?”) I realized that the thesis could be understood by considering a few statements:

1.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know is not true.

On the surface, this seems fair enough. Boring actually. Yet when you think about it, you realize there are very few instances when you know something is not true. The statement reveals how often we must act without certain or even strong knowledge.

Everything turns on what it means to know something is not true, which is sticky. People seem to be perfectly capable of believing in all sorts of nonsense. Even when challenged with irrefutable evidence, nonsense-believers stick to their guns. The lecturer clarified by saying that all psychological rationalizations and self-deceptions must be excluded (he said this in a rather sticky way, the finer points of which I’m probably missing.) In other words, you can believe in all sorts of crazy things, as is evidenced everywhere, but you can’t say to yourself, “I’m gonna believe in this untrue thing!”

2.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you don’t know to be true.

A slightly different statement, but an entirely different meaning. The lecturer did not make this statement. I only bring it up to clarify the next one:

3.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true.

Now it’s clear we’re dealing with the religious sphere, and the hidden premises that the existence of God, the afterlife, etc., cannot be known. I happen to agree that these cannot be known, but the lecturer concluded that we can’t will ourselves to believe in these cases. I’m not sure. The question that remained for me (and which I was too shy to bring up in the Q&A session) is this:

Can you will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true if believing will make you happy? 

In other words, suppose you believe there is no evidence either way for the existence of God, you are Pascal’s intended audience (as I interpret him)—i.e., really and truly agnostic in heart and mind—can you then will yourself to believe for the sake of your well being? Because you want to?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but it occurred to me that the answer could affect practical scenarios, not just these theological questions. In our personal lives we often have to make decisions based on very little evidence, but we can do some research and make a choice based on probability. But what if we found ourselves in a state of what I’d call “epistemic neutrality” about the issue? Suppose the answer is not something just around the corner, but is in theory answerable. Time limits our query, rendering it somewhat analogous to the question of God’s existence. In other words, we know we can’t know the correct position or action to take, the answer is not likely to come in our lifetime, but we still have to make a choice now-ish. In these cases, suppose one live option will make you happy, the other will not. There is no harm that can come from choosing the “happy” option, and you’ll never know if you’re right or wrong. Can we then will ourselves to believe?


Belief in a bottle! Problem solved.

Is it possible to will yourself to believe? What do you think?


What is Freedom?

Just another word for nothing left to lose?

At Jmeqvist, you’ll find a great post distinguishing between positive and negative freedom. I’d like elaborate on these to get you good and confused:

1. Negative Freedom. Here I’m quoting Johan at Jmeqvist as he says it so well:

“…we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which in this case is the absence of interference.”

I might call this concept of freedom “common sense freedom” since in ordinary language (esp. in North America, as Johan carefully points out), this is usually what we mean by the word.

2. Positive Freedom. Here again I’ll quote Johan and then elaborate with a few examples:

“…a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree.”

Plato: Those of you who are familiar with Plato know that he often spoke of being a slave to desire (consider the metaphor in the Gorgias which likens the blind hedonist’s soul to a leaky jar that can never be filled). One cannot be free until one has knowledge of what is good. Otherwise one is left to snatch at random desires, which will only lead to dissatisfaction in the long run, even if you happen to get lucky from time to time. Freedom in the Platonic sense will lead to happiness, happiness and wisdom being inextricably tied.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: One can be constrained in the #1 sense and still be free. “And all, being born free, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage,”—Ch 2 of the Social Contract. And: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Here we have a sticky philosophy indeed, but I’m not capable of giving the best summary of it right now. What I will say is here we have a sort of Platonic idea of freedom, but replace knowledge of the Good with the Law and the General Will and you have a closer fit. The problem is the General Will need not be the general will of the majority, so Rousseau’s effort to bring the Good down to earth seems to have failed. The Good and the General Will remain just as abstract as before.

Kant: Freedom is unconditional, self-causing; in other words, it’s autonomy from the world of contingency for rational beings. Since we can’t control everything that goes on in the world of cause and effect, we, as rational beings, shouldn’t place our moral laws on empirical foundations, but instead on the Categorical Imperative. Freedom is noumenal and cannot be known, but must be assumed. Also, being a free agent doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Morality and happiness do not necessarily coincide.

3. Existential Freedom. This area is not my forte, so there’s my word of caution. If we suppose, like Nietzsche, for instance, that there is no clear definition of what it is to be human, then there can be no ordering of the psyche. Achieving perfection cannot be a goal unless it is taken to mean something subjective (which, in my opinion, is not really the same thing as #2.) Without these definitions we move into a territory beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. One must scratch out one’s own meaning, own’s authenticity, in this world despite seeing beyond false, imposed definitions, and this self-invention ex nihilo is existential freedom.

Johan asked an interesting question of #1 and #2: Are these definitions of freedom contradictory?

It is certainly true that existential freedom (which Johan doesn’t go into) contradicts positive freedom, but what about positive and negative?

Johan says: “Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.”

I agree with Johan, but I wonder how the various relationships would play out in the extreme.

Suppose you are given a choice between two boxes, but you don’t know what’s inside either box. You are free in the sense that you get to choose a box and no one is stopping you, but since you have no knowledge of what’s inside them, you have no rational basis on which to make a decision and are therefore not free in a positive sense (Let’s leave aside the possibility of abstaining from choice, please). Here positive and negative freedoms don’t seem to be in fundamental conflict, they just refer to different aspects of the situation.

However, having only negative freedom puts you in a crappy place. You have to gamble, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. You still have reason in this scenario, of course, which is why Kant’s freedom would not apply here. But in this case, reason is rendered entirely inoperative.

Let’s amend this metaphor and put a thousand mosquitos inside one box and a magical infinitely delicious calorie-free cupcake in the other. Throw in world peace if the cupcake is not enough for you.

Reverse the scenario. Suppose you know the cupcake and world peace are in one box, and you know mosquitos are in the other box, but someone has your hands tied behind your back and your mouth taped shut and so on so you cannot engage in your choice. Here we have one freedom (positive, knowledge-based freedom) but not negative.

But what good is knowing which box the cupcake is in if no one can eat it? What good is knowing how to bring about world peace and absolute guilt-free deliciousness if these things cannot come to pass?

Is positive freedom necessary for negative freedom to thrive?

Is negative freedom necessary for positive freedom to thrive? 

How would you play out this thought experiment for a society?

In what ways do these thought experiments pertain to real life situations?

What is your conception of freedom?

As usual, feel free to answer any of these questions. In fact, feel free to answer this question: Would you take the cupcake or world peace? And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?

Many thanks to Johan for his insightful post!

The Harmony of the Soul: Plato’s Republic

Lex Solo has asked me to write a blog post about the forms of government in Plato’s Republic, and instead of giving a simple explanation of these, I had to go off topic: Was Plato’s Republic truly a political work? Was he really anti-democratic? Here is some of what I had to say on the matter (the original post on Lex Solo’s blog with the explanation of political forms is here):

Is the Republic a work in psychology?

YES. A lot of people read the Republic as primarily political (given the title, and the fact that it’s taught in political theory classes, and quotes like the one below, it stands to reason) without giving much thought to the questions that kick-start the whole enterprise. But I’m not sure we can take Plato’s political theories here at face value. We must keep in mind that the turning point in the dialogue is when Socrates stops his questioning and begins a rare exposition in which he tries to defend the view that justice is sought out for its own sake. Might does not make right. Doing the right thing will make you happy—quite a claim!—and doing the wrong thing, even if it seems enticing, will only harm you. The individual’s pursuit of justice as happiness is ‘writ large’ for the sake of clarifying the issue. We are to imagine a perfect city as a metaphor for the perfect soul. (We have every right to ask whether this analogy flies, but that’s another question for another day).


The first attempt to “scale up” the just soul is supremely simple. Often referred to as the city of pigs because of its lack of luxuries, it’s grotesque simplicity is the cornerstone of Socratic aesthetics. Each person in the community specializes in a particular skill, such as farming or carpentry, and ‘minds his own business’. There is no need for warfare because no one seeks out anything in life except the bare necessities of food and shelter, etc. Anything but the simplest art forms—maybe a few happy folk tunes, for instance—are deemed frivolous. These simple communal people want for nothing, but Glaucon, Socrates’ interlocutor, finds this city repulsive and insists on an expansion into luxuries which he thinks are necessary for a good life.

Who doesn’t want to enjoy a nice glass of un-watered-down wine from time to time, right? Maybe a little Tomme de Savoie to go with it?

Who knew you’d have to go to war for it.

From here we move on to the rest of the Republic, which Socrates describes as being in a ‘feverish’ state in which war is necessary to achieve the goal of luxury. A glorious exposition of forms of government, education of the ruling class, etc, follows. So glorious we often forget why we started. At this point it’s important to recognize that what is described from here on out is no longer ideal in the strictest sense, but somehow degenerate, sick. And this premise we should remember to take as a parallel in the human soul.

After the city of pigs, we have nothing but war and strife on a grand scale. Because of our lust for luxury, because of our natural greed, we will never realize a perfect state. The forms of government devolve, degenerate, because of this natural greed. The philosopher kingdom cannot last long.

Many first-time readers of Plato come away thinking the philosopher kingdom is Plato’s ideal polity and that he was nothing but a fascist. It’s certainly true that anti-democratic strains appear here and elsewhere in Plato. But what do we make of the fact that Plato has Socrates include equal rights for women in his just city? There’s definitely more at play here than what meets the eye. Despite what I.F. Stone says on the matter, I don’t believe Plato’s anti-democratic tendencies here reveal what he thought a just government would look like. We have very little idea of what he thought about equal rights and slavery, as not much detail can be gleaned from a project that is not at its heart a pragmatic political treatise.

Socrates’ city of pigs is the garden of Eden from which we have been expelled. Let’s take this back down to the psyche. To achieve a city of pigs within myself, I would have to stop lusting for anything but bare necessities. In reducing my desires to this simple state, I could achieve happiness.

But then I’d be a pig.

And yes, your dog is your superior. But everyone already knows this. (Scroll down to the dog question).

The truth of it is, we have desires for things beyond the necessities of life. This is what it means to be human. How do we satiate our desires? Is it possible to achieve happiness in a sick soul? Should we start a war with life, seeking goods outside ourselves, chasing fame and wealth and pleasure? No, because in the end, we come up dissatisfied. But dammit, it’s who we are.

Not all is lost, though. We have reason, the only medicine that will cure the ailment of being human. Using reason as our guiding light to temper our excess desire, we can in our moderation achieve something like inner justice, happiness. This happiness wavers—we’re only human, after all!—and it degenerates from time to time when other influences take over, but a renewal, a vigilance, can perhaps bring about an imperfect—and maybe for that reason a more glorious and spectacular—harmony of the soul.

My Philosophy

I noticed a lot of people “liked” my last post, but didn’t respond. So I thought perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to ask such ridiculously hard questions without breezily answering them myself. I wonder if you will come back again after you get to know me? This is feeling like a first date.

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

I decided somewhere back in my college days that experience is what matters most to me, it’s epistemologically prior to external causation. In other words, it’s what I know most clearly and directly. So I experience being free, therefore I am. Although I’m going further than Descartes here.

How do you determine right from wrong?

I don’t really know. This is one of the hardest and most important questions, in my opinion. I think it’s intuition and quite a bit of utilitarianism that guides me, and I’m okay with it for the most part, but it doesn’t solve everything. I’m not a relativist in the extreme sense—I believe in a right and wrong, but I don’t think it’s possible to figure that out without taking everything into context, which requires consideration on a case by case basis.

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

I think it would be best to do away with this whole rationalism/empiricism divide and just describe what’s actually going on in experience, without the need to reduce or dismiss anything. I experience ideas as much as or more than ‘sense data’, so why place ideas in some ethereal realm?

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

I look to phenomenology for the answer to this. I admit it doesn’t really solve the problem, it merely looks at things from a different angle, the angle of experience, to be sure, and feels like it’s doing away with the problem. But if you were to put a gun to my head, I’d choose solipsism over reducing everything to the machinations of our brains. I do believe our minds depend on our brains in some way—I experience this every time I’m under the influence of some drug…like ibuprofen!…or when it’s that time of the month…yes ibuprofen!—but these two aren’t quite the same thing. How do the two interact? Do they? I don’t know. I just base my opinion here on experience as epistemologically prior which I spoke of in the first answer.

Does God exist?

I think it depends on what we mean by God. Yeah, this sounds like a lot of hemming and hawing, but really, I’m not a religious person (possibly because I grew up in the Bible belt), so I don’t want to say “yes” without being a bit careful. However, I’d say “yes” if it meant a sort of Aristotelian God as an end to an infinite regression, as a rational explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. I’d even go so far as to call God “Reason” or “the Good”…I know…you think I’m crazy now.

Is there life after death? Why?

Hell if I know.

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

Nope. Not necessarily. Like I said above, God’s existence means nothing, pragmatically speaking, to me.

What is a soul? Does it exist?

I think so. I would call it “mind” to sound more modern, but I feel it.

Do dogs have souls?

Yes indeed. And they go to heaven automatically, whereas we’re stuck in purgatory and forced to crawl around under their dinner tables begging for scraps of meat while they tell us to “get down.”

What about parameciums?

Ugh. Yeah. Okay. Sure.

What is Justice?

Hm. I can’t really answer this one with any detail, but I’ll say it’s a world in which everyone is perfectly happy.

What is Love?

Desire to have full possession of the Good forever. No just kidding. Sort of. I do agree that love is desire, and desire is something you can have only for something you don’t already possess. I think I’d better put this in terms of my relationship with my husband. We’ve been together for nine years. Given the odds of our particular circumstances and what we’ve had to go through, this is quite remarkable. He makes me a better person, the person I want to be deep down. It’s a quiet thing for the most part, and often hard  (because sometimes we don’t know or pursue what’s good for us). I tend to be a recluse, but he knows I’m not, not deep down. So he’ll suggest that I go to a coffee shop to write instead of sitting in my comfort zone here in my office. It’s never a selfish desire to change me, or shape me into something I truly am not. It’s seeing potential and truth and good.

And I like to think I do the same for him, except he doesn’t have much that needs to be corrected. But when he does, I’m on it, I’m on it.

I think when you find someone you understand and who understands you, you’re close to being in love. Getting this far in life is a hard thing. Having real friends is a hard thing too, and I’d extend love here (I could only be saying this because I don’t have that many!) When you have someone who not only understands you, but knows what’s good for you, and makes you see that good, you’ve hit the jackpot. You just go from there trying to return the favor.

What is happiness?

Being in love. (See above). A certain amount of money and good health doesn’t hurt, but isn’t necessarily required.

What is courage?

Knowing and doing the right thing, even though it’s hard. Now this is a tricky question. So don’t take my flip answer at face value.

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

I think happiness does factor into ethics. And I think being a good person means being a happy person for the most part. So this answer seems to conflict with my answer above to the question, “What is courage”? But it doesn’t. Because I believe that when you know and do the right thing, you’ll be happy…for the most part. Why do I say “for the most part”? Because I can imagine some pretty crazy awful scenarios that would challenge this view, but I think, for the most part, it’s correct.

What is the purpose of art?

This is where I expect everyone to get up in arms. I don’t think art is an end in itself. I’m with Tolstoy—I think it must have spiritual ends, otherwise it’s empty.

So now, what’s your philosophy?

What’s Your Philosophy?


Tell the world. Don’t be shy. Yes, we’re used to piggy-backing off the famous philosophers, and that’s why I came up with this prompt. Those well-versed in philosophy will appreciate a grassroots approach, even those who spend every waking hour thinking about the transcendental unity of apperception, believe it or not. No need to read everything everyone’s ever said about anything. Just say what YOU think. So rarely do we get a platform for original philosophical thought. Well, this is it.

No need to answer these any or all of these questions, but I thought they might help stimulate things:

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

How do you determine right from wrong?

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

Does God exist?

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

What is a soul? Does it exist?

Do dogs have souls?

What about parameciums?

What is Justice?

What is Love?

What is happiness?

What is courage?

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

What is the purpose of art?

Please leave a comment to link to your post, or leave your ideas directly in the comment box, if you wish.

Happy philosophizing!