Can We Choose Our Beliefs?



(The FreeThinking Theist)


October 19, 2015

Am I responsible for my beliefs or does something else impose them upon me? What do you believe? How do you know those beliefs you hold are any good (let alone true)?

Many philosophers, scientists, and theologians today reject the idea that humans can ever make genuine choices. I freely think they are wrong as it sure seems as if we possess free will and can make real choices (at least occasionally). Moreover, as I have demonstrated in my Freethinking Argument Against Naturalism, if one denies libertarian free will they simultaneously (and inadvertently) reject knowledge (justified true belief) gained via the process of rationality. I think these are good reasons to stand against and disagree with the majority. What do you think (are those thoughts your own)?

Let me explain why the price tag associated with rejecting the ability to freely think is so high. A naturalistic determinist (for example) who rejects human free will has no grounds to affirm that naturalism is true. In fact, it is an utterly non-rational statement — if naturalism is true or not. If the naturalist happens to be correct about naturalistic determinism, it is impossible for free will to exist, and it logically follows that rationality and knowledge are lost as well. But, it seems to me that we are using logic and rationality to come to these conclusions. Let’s consider a supportive argument:

1- Rationality requires deliberation.

2- Deliberation requires libertarian free will.

3- Therefore, rationality requires libertarian free will.

This mini-argument hinges on the word “deliberation.” According to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, deliberation means:

To weigh in the mind; to consider and examine the reasons for and against a measure to estimate the weight of force of arguments, or the probable consequences of a measure, in order to a choice or decision; to pause and consider.[1]

Given this definition, I do not see how one can truly deliberate without libertarian free will. For instance, if the non-rational laws of nature and past events causally determine one’s considerations, examinations, and estimations, then one cannot rationally affirm, justify, or provide any warrant that their determined beliefs are true (including a person’s belief that naturalism is true). Libertarian free will is required and essential to be able to deliberate in the truest sense. If deliberation is impossible, then so is rationality. If the process of rationality is an illusion, so is knowledge.

If deliberation is the process of considering various reasons for and against certain actions, and if this process implies libertarian free will, then this means that we are free to choose what we ultimately believe. This is called “doxastic voluntarism.”[2]

Do not be intimidated by that term. Doxastic Voluntarism is just a fancy way of saying that human agents choose their own beliefs and that people possess the ability to determine what they believe, such that an individual may freely choose whether to believe a certain proposition or not. 

Now, there are two different views regarding doxastic voluntarism: direct and indirect. Direct doxastic voluntarism seems utterly absurd as no one could choose to believe any proposition (or not) at any given moment. For instance, even if I were offered a billion dollars to really choose to believe at this very moment that there is no such thing as the reality of the past or that God does not exist, it would be impossible for me to really believe these propositions are true. However, I believe that indirect doxastic voluntarism is true. If so, I am truly responsible for at least some of my beliefs in the sense that I can exercise freedom at various points in my life. For instance, I can freely choose what I will or will not consider, how I will view a particular subject, if I am open to a particular line of argumentation or not, etc. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland summarize this position nicely:

Libertarians claim that we hold people responsible for what they believe (and the New Testament would seem to command people to believe certain things and hold them accountable for their choice to believe or not to believe), and this requires some form of doxastic voluntarism to be true.[3]

Compatibilists and all determinists reject the idea of indirect doxastic voluntarism because it implies libertarian free will to indirectly choose what they will or will not believe (this would undermine naturalistic and theological determinism). However, it seems to me that by denying this view, they are admitting that they are doing so without good reason or any reason at all. At the very least, they have not freely chosen to believe indirect doxastic voluntarism is false (let that sink in for a while).

The Free-Thinking Theist,

Tim Stratton


[1] Websters 1828 Dictionary

[2] William Lane Craig & JP Moreland, “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview,” InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2003) Page 87

[3] Ibid.


About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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