Willed Faith and Belief
An essay on Kierkegaard
1 Introduction
Can we will to believe what we choose Are there times when we should at least try to believe in something If it were easy to manipulate our own beliefs low self-esteem would vanish the divorce rate would decline and over-consumption would disappear with the reminder I already have enough stuff
Yet there is something suspect about willed beliefs Perhaps it is not ethically responsible to change beliefs without regard for the truth of the matter1 And the epistemological coherence of the notion is questionable Perhaps belief states are just not the kind of things that are under the influence of our will – analogous to the fact that we cannot decide to perceive blueness when looking at a red apple
This is an issue that has attracted some interest in the course of the history of thought In this paper I will be looking into the views of a contemporary author who sees the relationship of willing to belief as an issue recurring thoughout the history of philosophy
In his book Religious Belief and the Will2 Louis Pojman identifies Soren Kierkegaard as a direct prescriptive volitionalist ie a thinker who holds that beliefs can and ought to be at least in some circumstances directly willed
C Stephen Evans in Does Kierkegaard Think Beliefs Can Be Directly Willed3 responds to Pojmans position arguing that the attribution of direct volitionalism to Kierkegaard is too strong a claim Evans does admit Kierkegaard as an indirect volitionalist ie as holding that we can bring about belief states indirectly as consequences of other actions that are themselves directly willed An example might be my taking up a winter sport in order to produce a belief that winter is an enjoyable season
Additional articles4 have appeared in the literature recently which respond to Pojmans position in Religious Belief and the Will as well as views presented in Pojmans book entitled The Logic of Subjectivity5 and a paper Pojman recently contributed to the ongoing discussion viz Kierkegaard on Faith and Freedom6 Various related issues are dealt with in these discussions many of which would make interesting topics for another paper
In this paper I will be examining Pojmans analysis of Kierkegaards views as articulated in Religious Belief and the Will and Evanss paper as it relates specifically to arguments contained in Pojmans book For support of their varying positions both authors rely primarily upon references to Philosophical Fragments7 and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments8 by the pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus These are the Kierkegaardian writings that I will be referring to as well The question of the relationship between the views of Kierkegaard and the views attributed to the pseudonymous author will not be discussed here I will refer to the author as Kierkegaard when responding to a discussion that refers to Kierkegaard When responding to a discussion which refers to Climacus and in my own analysis of the The Fragments and The Postscript I prefer to refer to the author under the pseudonym
In the first section of my paper I will describe Pojmans views concerning Kierkegaard and I will paraphrase the definitions of volitionalism laid out by Pojman I will explicate the proffered grounds for his analysis of Kierkegaard and will consider the strength of his position In the second part of this paper I will examine the extent to which Evans successfully replies to Pojman The issue of the strength of Evanss own position will be addressed I will offer an alternative to Evanss critique
In my final section I will investigate the relevance of the discussion of volitionalism to a general reading of the Postscript Are there grounds for supposing that Climacus is advocating either direct or indirect or prescriptive volitionalism Is there reason to suspect that he would oppose these positions
2 Pojmans view that Kierkegaard is a volitionalist
In Religious Belief and the Will Pojman offers an overview of how the relation of willing to faith and belief varies throughout the history of western thought He provides descriptions of various well-known thinkers in order to illustrate types of volitionalism and he presents arguments intended to undermine the validity and coherence of direct and prescriptive volitionalism I am taking issue only with Pojmans characterization of Kierkegaard as a direct prescriptive volitionalist
Pojman defines volitionalism as the view that believing is an act that is under our control Direct volitionalism is the position that one can acquire beliefs directly simply by willing to believe certain propositions Indirect volitionalism is the view some beliefs arise indirectly from basic acts of the will Pojman identifies an additional set of distinctions Some volitionalists are prescriptive some are only descriptive The latter is the psychological position that the voliting of beliefs is possible The former goes a step further and asserts a normative element holding that it is permissible or obligatory to take the necessary steps to acquire beliefs based on nonepistemic considerations Pojman 143-144
It appears that it is the position of prescriptive volitionalism that Pojman finds particularly perplexing Rejection of the value of this position is a major impetus behind the writing of his book as evidenced by certain remarks made by Pojman in the introduction to Religious Belief and the Will
This work arose from two experiences in my life As a child I found myself doubting religious statements and being told that there was something disloyal or apostate about such attitudes I often found it impossible to make leaps of faith into orthodoxy as I was supposed to do
The second experience that led to working out these ideas was studying the work of Soren Kierkegaard the Danish Christian Existentialist Kierkegaard as the reader will see was a consummate volitionalist apparently believing that every belief was a product of the will in some way It was trying to come to grips with his thought in graduate school that convinced me there was something wrong with at least some types of volitionalismPojman xii
We can sympathize with Pojman here as he rebels against the notion that he is somehow morally in the wrong if he does not produce faith at will But is this Kierkegaards position Does Kierkegaard maintain that we can and ought to will belief Is the leap of faith constituted by a decision to believe in God – despite lack of evidence or even evidence to the contrary
Pojman does not make an explicit identification of the leap of faith with the willing of faith However this identification does seem to be one that is implicitly assumed as evidenced by remarks made in his introduction quoted above Pojman is not alone in this popular interpretation of Kierkegaards concept of leap But in my own reading of the Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript I failed to find a strong indication that Kierkegaard intends the expression leap to be understood in this sense
I will review some discussions of leap found in the Postscript in this papers final section below The point I want to make here is that Pojman seems to have a particular axe to grind with Kierkegaard Pojman is reacting to the prescriptive direct volitionalism he initially saw in Kierkegaard during his days as a graduate student
Pojman offers references to the writings of Kierkegaard as support for the claim that Kierkegaard is a prescriptive direct volitionalist
Pojman points out that according to Kierkegaard Even if we had direct proofs for theism or Christianity we would not want them for they would take the venture out of the religious experience For him Kierkegaard faith is the highest virtue precisely because it is objectively uncertain for personal growth into selfhood depends on uncertainty riskPojman 71 Pojmans source for these remarks is the chapter The Historical Point of View in the Postscript
As I read Pojman these and similar references are intended to show that Kierkegaard reasoned
1 The truth of Christianity cannot be objectively demonstrated therefore
2 faith develops not as a consequence of evidence but can only result from a decision to believe–regardless of the lack of evidence and regardless of the absurdity of what is believed
The former of these claims is an accurate description of Kierkegaards views as represented in the Postscript The existence of God and the truth of Christianity cannot be known with certainty Furthermore it is not simply a matter of adequate evidence not yet having been accumulated The seeker of objective evidence for Christianity commits a kind of category mistake a shifting of one genus to anotherPostscript 136 Proof of Gods existence is not to be found in the objective realm An objective acceptance is Paganism or thoughtlessnessPostscript 130 It is paganism because it regards God as immanent or as within the objective realm The conviction that Gods existence is demonstrable assumes His immanence rather than His transcendence beyond the knowable objective realm
At issue here is the inference to the second claim I maintain that Kierkegaard does not hold the latter view nor is he obliged to hold it it does not follow from the first claim The fact that a belief does not result from objective evidence does not imply that that belief results from simply willing it into existence Alternative explanations are possible
Pojman interprets Kierkegaard as not only a direct but a prescriptive volitionalist as well But nothing in these references justifies this interpretation In fact there is much in the Postscript which would support an opposite conclusion ie that Kierkegaard rejects the whole notion of one individual prescribing values to another individual Though Kierkegaard often describes the subjectively existing thinker as ethical which presumably we all ought to be and he speaks of faith as the highest virtue he adamantly avoids directly prescribing anything to the individual reader A major tenet held by Kierkegaard is that an individual must find his or her own way Kiekegaard admires Gotthold Ephraim Lessing for understanding this Lessing understood and knew how to maintain that the religious pertained to Lessing and Lessing alone just as it pertains to any human being in the same way Postscript 65 Prescribing a way of life to another would be to make an ethical judgment regarding how that individual ought to be living But this is precisely what Kierkegaard says we cannot do One person cannot ethically judge another because the one can understand the other only as a possibility Postscript 322
There are additional references proposed by Pojman as implying a direct volitionalist position in Kierkegaard Pojman remarks that according to Kierkegaard the self believes by virtue of the absurd He quotes from the Postscript Faith is the objective uncertainty due to the repulsion of the absurd held fast by the passion of inwardnessPostscript 611 Pojman continues with an elaboration on this quote The will is not able to believe what is fundamentally absurd Grace enables us to subvert principles of the understanding Pojman 73
This argument is not different in kind from the inferences based on the previous references It is the case according to Kierkegaard that Christianity is absurd and involves a paradox But the ineffability of Christianity is not grounds to conclude that faith can only be attained as a result of a direct act of the will
Pojmans argument does not suffice to imply that Kierkegaard thought we can or should will faith The most that his references support is the contention that it is possible to believe something that is contrary to reason Grant for the sake of argument that we can believe something that we simultaneously acknowledge appears to be logically inconsistent There can be explanations for a belief in something that is apparently absurd We cannot infer that the only explanation for such a belief is that one has simply forced oneself to believe it
Pojman also cites the Interlude of the Philosophical Fragments Pojman points out that Kierkegaard is discussing a type of belief that is the organ for apprehending history ie a type of ordinary belief as opposed to faith Though Pojman is primarily concerned with religious belief he finds in Kierkegaards writing remarks concerning both types of belief Pojman interprets the Interlude as indicating that Kierkegaard regards ordinary beliefs as directly willed He says that according to Kierkegaard In believing what happened in the past the will is active in recreating the scene or proposition It takes testimony and reworks it transforming the what of the past into an active how of the present making the history contemporary Pojman 73 A close reading of the Interlude gives no indication that this is the kind of thing Kierkegaard is saying Rather he is occupied with the concept of necessity and how the concept of necessity cannot apply to anything that has come into existence Philosophical Fragments
Pojman places great emphasis on a few lines from the Interlude Belief is not so much a conclusion as a resolutionBelief is not a form of knowledge but a free act an expression of the willPhilosophical Fragments 83
Pojman concludes The idea is that the imagination of which nothing human is more free takes over in belief attainment He continues This is as radical a volitionalism as Descartess We are free to believe whatever we please Pojman 73
3 Evans Replies to Pojman
It is this argument of Pojmans based on the Fragments that Stephen Evans responds to in his paper Does Kierkegaard Think Beliefs Can Be Directly Willed Evans remarks The grounds for this reading of Kierkegaard as a direct volitionalist are probably most strong in the Interlude Evans 175
Evans accepts Pojmans arguments against the validity of the direct volitionalists position But Evans challenges Pojmans reading of Kierkegaard as a direct volitionalist
Allowing that Kierkegaards views on ordinary belief have implications for his views concerning faith faith is a type of belief Evans proceeds to consideration of Pojmans argument based on these passages from the Interlude
Evans explains that in this discussion Kierkegaard is responding to religious Hegelians who claim that historical truths can be understood as necessary truths Christianity thus could rest on a solid foundation Evans 175 Evans points out that Kiekegaard is holding the position that historical assertions are contingent that the historical realm cannot involve necessity Historical truths are therefore susceptible to the arguments of the skeptics and cannot ground Christianity For assistance on this point Kierkegaard recalls that the classical skeptics
doubted not by virtue of knowledge but by virtue of the will the skeptics held that doubt can be terminated only in freedom by an act of the will Philosophical Fragments82
We can acknowledge with the skeptics as well as Kierkegaard that what is not known with certainty can be doubted We are free to doubt what is contingent Nothing coerces the conclusion the rules of logic do not necessitate our acceptance of a contingent fact
It is only if a few lines from the Interlude such as those quoted above are taken out of context that it appears that Kierkegaard is arguing in the words of Pojman that we are free to believe whatever we please
But like Pojman Evans though he presented a lucid summary of the theme of the Interlude seems to read these passages without adequate attention to context He analyses–without regard to overall message of the Interlude–the description of the skeptics reasoning that was quoted by Pojman in order to strengthen his claim that Kierkegaards remarks concerning the skeptics do not imply direct volitionalism Evans recalls a significant line that Pojman quotes and emphasizes Kierkegaards concluding phrase doubt can be terminated only in freedom something every Greek skeptic would understand inasmuch as he understood himselfPhilosophical Fragments82 Evans regards this remark about self-awareness as evidence that Kierkegaard is not a direct volitionalist Evans points out that that direct volitionalism assumes self-awareness If an individual doesnt fully understand what he is willing he cant be said to be capable of directly controlling his beliefs
Evans says
In tracing belief to will Climacus by no means necessarily implies that beliefs are consciously chosen If anything is evident about Kierkegaard as a psychologist it is that he is a depth psychologist While Kierkegaard certainly assigns will a central place in the human personality he thinks that human beings hardly ever make choices with full consciousness of what they are doing Evans 178
Evans is saying that the reason this relationship to the will doesnt entail direct volitionalism is because the skeptic may not be completely cognizant of the fact that he is doubting as a result of his willing the doubting
It may be that human beings and skeptics do not fully understand all their own actions But this point of Evanss does not effectively undermine Pojmans view that Kierkegaard is a direct volitionalist It may still be that in some cases cases when we fully understand what we are doing we are aware that beliefs and doubts are acts of the will If direct volitionalism presupposes self-awareness then the willed belief can still occur but only when the individual has understood him or herself Therefore Evanss argument does not completely discredit the thesis that Kierkegaard is a direct volitionalist it does however undermine the strength of Pojmans argument as based on the Interlude
Evans is not opposed to the idea of Kierkegaard as an indirect volitionalist He points out that the passages from the Interlude though not an indication of direct volitionalism do indicate indirect volitionalism Indirect volitionalism Evans points out and Pojman agrees is not an objectionable thesis
Evans explains the passages quoted from the Interlude Kierkegaard may have in mind the well-known fact that beliefs can be modified indirectly in the course of doing other things Evans 178-179 Evans points out that Kierkegaard emphasizes that the skeptics are exercising their power of will The skeptic wills to refrain from drawing conclusions Evans quotes Kiekegaard
Insofar as he the skeptic uses dialectics in continually making the opposite equally probable he does not erect his skepticism on dialectical arguments which are nothing more than outer fortifications human accommodationsBy the power of the will he decides to restrain himself and hold himself back from any conclusion Philosophical Fragments 84-85
As Evans claims there is indirect volitionalism occurring within the skeptical reasoning described by Kierkegaard The skeptics utilized indirect volitionalism to achieve a state of suspenced judgement by considering the opposite equally probable But any reading of an issue of volitionalism of any type into these passages is missing Kierkegaards point Kierkegaard is not discussing control of mental states He is discussing the concept of necessity and our freedom to deny contingent facts
It might be said that the skeptic wills to doubt the reality of a state-of- affairs or that he wills not to doubt ie he wills to believe that a state-of- affairs is the case But these expressions are not precise formulations of what is actually occurring The skeptic does not literally decide not to believe in something Strictly speaking he decides that a specific conclusion does not follow from evidence that is given The skeptic doesnt have the power to believe or disbelieve whatever suits him whether he fully understands himself or not But he does have control over his inferential reasoning He can regard as insufficient evidence that is generally accepted This does not amount to possession of control over belief states Rather this control shows possession of an ability to exercise discretion concerning the validity of certain types of inferencing and the strength of evidence
The skeptics were concerned with the process of reasoning They did not want to risk false conclusions Kierkegaard explains their project I am deceived only when I conclude something about that stick that looks broken in the waterthis is why the skeptic keeps himself in suspenso and this state was what he willedthe skeptics say that the end in view is a mind suspended which brings with it a tranquility like its shadow Philosophical Fragments 83
If they are willing a state of mind at all that state of mind is in suspenso The skeptics are not willing doubt any more than the gullible are willing belief
The contention that passages in the Interlude imply that Kierkegaard thought we can will beliefs probably results from a blurring of the willing of belief with the acceptance of a conclusion The appearance of such an implication is a consequence of an ambiguity in Kierkegaards language If I decide to withhold judgement until Im better informed Im not consciously willing a state of doubt If I accept evidence Im not willing a belief The belief is a consequence of my act of accepting evidence It can be said that I am free to accept or reject evidence except in certain cases for example cases of logical entailment or perhaps in cases of self-evidence But in the case of matters-of- fact doubt is by virtue of the will ie no type of necessity coerces assent
4 Consider a broader reading of the Postscript
Direct volitionalism the view that we can decide what to believe is a doctrine that would to be most appropriately held by a metaphysical idealist a solipsist or perhaps a New Age convert–thinkers that deny in some sense the hard reality of the objective world Pojman views willed belief and faith as problematic because he sees it as forcing ourselves to believe something even though objective evidence would guide us in the opposite direction If Christianity is without objective evidence faith must just be created in a way analogous to a solipsists concepts which are unconstrained by the realities of the external world Pojman reasons if we are to believe it we must somehow just force ourselves to believe it
Ironically a very similar description of the leap but intended as a caricature can be found in Kierkegaards discussion of Lessing Kierkegaard relates how Lessing sees an attempted leap One closes ones eyes grabs oneself by the neck a la Munchhausen and then–then one stands on the other side on that other side of sound common sense in the promised land of the system Postscript 99
In this reference to a leap the metaphor does not depict how we might come to accept the paradox On the contrary it is an exaggerated description of what systematicians mistakenly believe is possible viz that contingent historical truths could demonstrate eternal truths Climacus maintains that a quantitative transition does not lead to a qualitative conclusion ie decisions about matters pertaining to the eternal cannot be based on matters of fact as if the inference were from one thing to another of the same kind
In the words of Lessing quoted by Climacus That transition that is the ugly broad ditch that I cannot cross however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leapPostscript 98 Climacus enjoys Lessings humour when Lessing talks of earnestly wanting to make the leap It is humourous precisely because this leap cant happen simply by wanting it no matter how earnestly Climacus then would similarly respond to Pojman this leap doesnt happen simply by wanting it or willing it If a leap is possible it is not like a decision made within the realm of historical matters-of-fact it cannot happen by lifting oneself up by the neck To become a Christian and somehow cross this divide an absolute decision is involved a qualitative leap
This point about historical truths being inadequate to ground Christianity is of major importance in the Postscript Climacus regards the Hegelians as self- deceivers when they believe that they can ground Christianity in a system of existence Climacus maintains that a system of existence cannot be given In order to think existence systematic thought must think it as annulled and consequently not as existing Postscript 118 This is because a system is by definition complete and all-inclusive The systematic thinker himself existing cannot be part of his concluded system Climacus says Who is supposed to write or finish such a system Postscript 120 It is only a transcendent god that can have this birds eye view But the Hegelians want to be able to include Christianity within the system
In articulating the sense in which the truth of Christianity is unknowable Climacus makes use of the concept paradox Christianity involves the absolute paradox of the godhead existing in time it is the thesis that God has existed in human form Climacus says The only possible understanding of the absolute paradox is that it cannot be understood Postscript 217-218
Pojman might ask if Climacus is not claiming that we can will faith how then is he suggesting that we arrive at faith given the lack of rational evidence to support faith I would respond it is not clear that Climacus intends to guide us to faith at all He discusses at length the importance of individuality and subjective thinking He speaks of the transformation to inwardness and a reorientation away from objectivity Rather than suggesting that we develop faith Climacus describes a growing subjectivity through which the absolute paradox can be realized
Though Climacus does not show an interest in volitionalism he does put much effort into a discussion of willing the absolute telos willing in the highest sense Recall the discussions of the Pathos section Postscript 387-431 Climacus speaks of the individual whose existence is transformed because he has renounced everything but the highest good which is willed for its own sake
Absolute willing does not preclude relative willing but the absolute relation can require renunciation of all relative endPostscript 405 The subjectively existing individual experiences continual temptation to relate absolutely to the world- historical and must continually renew resolve The subjective individual relating to the absolute acts but not for fame money love etc not even for the good of humanity These are relative ends and are not willed absolutely Only one thing is willed absolutely viz the absolute
In these pages Climacus is not only not supposing that we can or should will faith but on the contrary is emphasizing that the transformed person absolutely wills only the absolute to the exclusion of all else Clearly this kind of absolute relationship precludes actions that control or transform ones own belief state for the purpose of becoming a Christian
This sort of attempt to control ones own belief state for the purpose of producing faith is analogous to the situation of the monks of the Middle Ages to which Climacus refers In the monasteries much effort was put into creating a life and a frame of mind which to all appearances was close to God Climacus declares True inwardness does not demand any sign at all in externals Postscript 414 The absolute relation to the highest good does not follow from external actions Cultivation of the outward appearance of Godliness can become the end in itself resulting in the loss of the absoluteness of the relation to the absolute telos Climacus remarks renunciation of everything is nothing if it is supposed to merit the highest goodPostscript 408
A criterion of the absolute relationship to the absolute is the absence of any ulterior purpose or any expectation of consequence or reward The specific sign that one relates oneself to the absolute is there is no reward expectedPostscript 402
Willing to believe directly or indirectly is a relative willing and hence a movement away from inwardness and the absolute relationship To will a belief state in order to achieve faith or eternal happiness is willing something for consequences Self-manipulation can only serve to separate the individual from the absolute The absolute relationhship is not something gained by willing to achieve it The act of willing anything other than the absolute undermines the absolute relationship
The willing of the absolute good is the absolute decision the qualitative leap The will is involved in the process of becoming a Christian But one doesnt attempt to will the absolute in order to become a Christian for then the absolute isnt being willed for its own sake However Pojmans position might be rephrased so as to allow a related objection to develop Rather than arguing that there is no objective evidence to support belief one might argue that there is nothing that would occasion willing the absolute Since there can be no objective evidence to convince an individual to will the absolute willing the absolute telos can only be something you must just force yourself to do However as in the case of the objectively unsubstantiated belief there can be explanations for the absolute decision
Evans suggests The believer might be convinced that the paradoxical nature of the god-man is a reality by a first-person encounter with the god-man The belief is the result of the encounter with reality not of some arbitrary act of the will Evans 183 This encounter could not be considered rational objective evidence but it could result in a transformation of an individuals existence Climacus hints at the occurrence of such encounters with phrases like the moment the eternal touches and co-knowledge and various other expressions which connote an experience of unity
Investigation into possible explanations for the absolute decision–explanations that are alternatives to rational and objective evidence and the notion that it is arbitrary–is a project that is suggested by the conclusion of this paper In his book Transforming Vision9 M Jamie Ferreira emphasizes the role that the imagination plays in the writings of Kiekegaard The solution to the question of the explanation of the absolute decision may lie along these lines A believer leaps not as a rational being but by virtue of the power of imagination
Notes
This concern relates to the question of whether we ought to discover andor acknowledge objective truth
Pojman Louis P Religious Belief and the Will London and New York Routledge Kegen Paul 1986 Subsequent references to this work will give the authors name and the page number
Evans Stephen C Does Kierkegaard Think Beliefs can be Directly Willed International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 26 1989 173-184 Subsequent references to this work will give the authors name and the page number
See David Wisdo Kierkegaard on Belief Faith and Explanation International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 21 198795-114 See also M Jaimie Ferreira Kierkegaardian Faith The Condition and the Response International Journal of Religion 28 199063-79
Louis P Pojman The Logic of Subjectivity Kierkegaards Philosophy of Religion Alabama University of Alabama Press 1984
Louis P Pojman Kierkegaard on Faith and Freedom International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 27 199041-61
References in this paper are to the following edition Soren Kierkegaard Johannes Climacus Philosophical Fragments trans Howard V Hong and Edna H Hong Princeton Princeton University Press 1992
References in this paper are to the following edition Soren Kierkegaard Johannes Climacus Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragmemts trans Howard V Hong and Edna H Hong Princeton Princeton University Press 1985
M Jamie Ferreira Transforming Vision Imagination and Will in Kierkegaardian Faith Oxford Clarendon Press 1991