Cognitive Voluntarism of James F. Ross

Excerpted from Epistemics of Divine Reality (2009, 2011)

In his paper Reason and Reliance: Adjusted Prospects for Natural Theology (1990),[1] James Ross defines ‘Cognitive Voluntarism’ as the view that ‘humans, for  the  most  part,  believe  not because they  are  compelled  by  the  evidence,  but  because  they  want  to  (sometimes  even   being  compelled by wants operating as “convictors”) because assenting appears to advance their ‘apprehended good”.’ Cognitive voluntarism is seen as our willing reliance upon people, feelings and outcomes, directed to our own fulfillment. According to Ross, it has reemerged as a basis for rational certainty, not only in empirical cognition generally, but in the most important commitments of our lives.

Ross begins by saying that rational certainty about God is more plausible than was believed in the fifties. The fact is that, the notion of what constitutes rational certainty is now better understood. The most important achievement, however, has been the rehabilitation of faith. Faith is seen as willing  reliance  on  others thought better placed  to  know, as well as willing  reliance on the regularities  we  find in  nature  and  people,  to indicate what we should  believe. Ross goes on to say that faith is undeniably a source of knowledge.

Faith is undeniably a source of knowledge, often more efficient than finding out for oneself, as the telephone book makes clear.  And  where  faith  falls  short  of  knowledge,  it  often supplies rational  certitude, even about the most expensive and conservatively entered  human undertakings, especially  in  engineering (bridge and theater design),  naval architecture (hull design), applied  science (nuclear power plants), and sometimes  even  in  our  formal  logical and mathematical disciplines. Faith is a foundation for rational certainty, maybe not a rock‑bottom one, but an indispensable one.  In fact, trust is the very fabric of social conviction and the golden thread of science.[2]

Thus, according to Ross, rational certainty finds its basis on faith, and faith is indispensable to it. The truth is that rational certainty is more a contextual thing than a universal thing. Thus, what is handed over down to the next generation is voluntarily accepted as truth with rational certainty since voluntary reliance is part of the sociology of knowledge. Everyone has his own system or framework of rational certainty. Here we may pause to consider that Paul on Mars Hill did not quote the Old Testament Messianic prophecies to the Greeks; the Old Testament was a framework of rational certainty chiefly and significantly for the Jews and not for the Greeks. Therefore, one cannot be in the position to judge anyone unless one is able to see from the other’s viewpoint. As Ross puts it,

You cannot get into a position to evaluate until you become an insider. There is no  access to the reliability of the “system” from the outside, not any more than there is access to the standpoint of musical, philosophical or aesthetic mastery of judgment, except by discipleship, first.[3]

This is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s language games and forms of life. One cannot be in a position to even understand, far be to judge someone else’s position, except by participating in the other’s form of life that grants meaning to his position.

In addition to the significance of faith, the cognitive role of feelings to ground rational certainty has also been recognized. Ross says that feelings ‘are knowledge-making.’ It is the satisfaction and stability of deep feeling that ‘hardens belief into rock-bottom commitment.’ Feelings play an important role in both faith and reason. Statements like ‘I feel I can trust him,’ or ‘This argument is elegant,’ or ‘This argument is flimsy,’ demonstrate that feelings are not separate from the cognitive process of faith and reason. Thus, rational certainty is not cold. It is charged with feeling and reinforced with faith.

Ross points out that much of the stuff we believe in, and which is crucial to make sense of this world, is convictions beyond all data. For instance, belief in the origins, salvation-history, final judgment, after-life, etc. all go beyond empirical data but are voluntarily believed to make sense of the data at hand. In other words, a leap beyond is crucial to make sense of the present ground. Such ‘going beyond’ provides rationality to life. However, on finding such convictions directly refuted by experience, adherents do replace them with the ‘nearest tenable facsimile.’ Thus, faith has become crucial to make sense of any knowledge in this world. Further, a sense of the sociology of knowledge as the rationality of relying on those who ought to know has been recognized. For instance, we sit on a train with a feeling of security and satisfaction that we will reach the destination, because we rely on the railways, including the driver as the one who ought to know to drive the engine. This sense of certainty can only be lost by recurrent failure of the railways. Similarly, a worker follows the directions of the engineer, even as a soldier follows the directions of his commander out of reliance in people and the pattern of things.

“Faith”  is  no  longer   the  paradigm of “unjustified belief”  or  “belief  that  contravenes the evidence”, or “belief held against the demands of reason” as Locke and Hume, and even C.J. Ducasse (Nature, Mind and Death. 1948) thought, but  rational  trust in those who ought to  know and, equivocally but relatedly, reliance on the patterns in things.  Even non-thinking animals display what Santayana called “animal faith”, staking their lives hour by hour until they lose.[4]

Hints of Kierkegaard’s ‘infinite passion’ that seeks satisfaction can also be found in Ross’ cognitive voluntarism. We trust because we want something, he says. ‘Reliance is, itself, a mode of satisfaction.’ As an example, he refers to the hunter who relies on the flight pattern of turkeys because he wants to eat some. Thus, an internal urge, the will, for satisfaction may be considered as the engine of believing.

Augustine  says, “nemo credit nisi volens” (“no one  believes  unless  he wants to”); not that you can believe at will or even  disbelieve at will, though the power of the unconscious is awesome  at   rejection,  and  impressive  at  accommodation, regardless of the evidence.  Nevertheless, the will is the engine of believing, not the understanding (except in the few cases of the “manifest vision of truth”, of compelling obviousness, as Aquinas explained it). And even the compelling obviousness of one’s mortal wounds can be willed away, say, as a medic urges one to live, sometimes with success. The rest of the time evidence does not compel belief, the will supplies the commitment.[5]

Regarding the contention that the truth about the existence of God must be demonstrated before being believed in Ross, responds that ‘there is nothing knowable by a demonstration that cannot be known with certainty without one, and that includes mathematical and logical theorems.’[6]  Demonstrability cannot be considered to be the gateway to knowability. Ross argues that a genuine demonstration will rule out all counterpossibilities. However, such genuine demonstration has never been and cannot be given; since counterpossibilities from the other side are expected seeing that belief is more a matter of will than of reason. Further, a common ground regarding the validity of some demonstration is not agreed on because of contextual arrangements.

As has been said earlier, it is not simply data at hand but feelings urged by a desire for meaning that play an important role in the forming of convictions. However, feelings cannot be blindly left unrestrained. The refinement of feelings is important for a proper channeling in of knowledge. Practical wisdom, thus, is the ability to live wisely and well, and is the product of good training and example, internalized by one’s mimesis (imitation, e.g., of father by son) of refined understanding, feeling and even passion. Ross points out that a life without passion is feeble and furtive. Similarly, philosophy without feeling is philosophy without springs. When it comes to making sense of life, it is not science but practical wisdom that is more appropriate. Thus, one cannot ground his life on dry empirical proofs. According to Ross, feeling creates ‘conviction by combining satisfaction (fulfillment in some respect) with reliance (which is itself a kind of satisfaction in dependence, like lovers holding hands) into an outcome that is our conviction.’ Reliance on the community that says it has found out the truth (sociology of knowledge) and personal practice, mimesis, or imitation of it that brings satisfaction and rewards lead to convictions.

There are in-built wants that operate as convictors. Convictors convert data into conviction. Thus, according to cognitive voluntarism, people believe not by the force of evidence but by the force of wants that operate as convictors. Ross contends that this approach to knowledge is not something new but was recognized long back. For instance, both ‘Augustine and Aquinas (with differences) think our cognitive powers have basic drives (of which the rational appetite, the will, is the chief drive), and thus, have a targeted finality that is no natural end, but rather, life with God.’[7] It may be added that this view is also reflected in William James’ concept of ‘will to believe.’ In his The Will to Believe and Other Essays, he wrote:

…our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. There are passional tendencies and volitions which run before and others which come after belief, and it is only the latter that are too late for the fair; and they are not too late when the previous passional work has been already in their own direction.[8]

He also adds that in ‘truths dependent on our personal action…faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.’[9] However, James qualifies such freedom to believe what one wills with the condition that this freedom ‘can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve….’[10] In other words, faith becomes inevitable where intellect cannot go on. So, one is compelled to choose from among the living options available. Since religion is a live hypothesis which may be true it cannot be left ignored. James’ view, however, is more pragmatical and similar to Pascal’s Wager. He says, ‘If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish…to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the willing side – the chance depending, of course, on my willingness to run the risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right.’[11] Evidently, the William James’ view doesn’t sufficiently take into consideration the existential motif of ‘infinite passion’ and the ‘sense of meaningfulness.’ However, it is quite close to the main idea of cognitive voluntarism.

According to cognitive voluntarism, then, the rational certainty of faith in God is more a contextual thing. There is an inner urge in man that attempts to find meaning out of all that he knows. Revelation provides the data, usually in the form of traditions passed on by the community, which makes sense of life. Practical wisdom holds on to such beliefs through pragmatic experience that refine the feeling and passion. Feeling combines with reliance to produce conviction. Reliance on verbal testimony is a very important source of knowledge.

Feeling creates conviction by combining satisfaction (fulfillment in some respect) with reliance (which is itself a kind of satisfaction in dependence, like lovers holding hands) into an outcome that is our conviction. Two kinds of satisfaction suffuse something we assent to. That's how we, those who did not discover anything or even repeat the inquiries, know that there are micro‑particles, electrons, molecules, atoms.  We rely on the community that says it did find out, and we get satisfaction and rewards by doing so.  Thus we are convinced.[12]

Subjectivity of truth, as in Kierkegaard, thus, is paramount. But, in addition is voluntary belief, in the sense that one believes what one wants to believe, or what one is satisfied with. No one stands in a position to evaluate anyone’s belief unless he enters the ‘form of life’, to use Wittgenstein’s term, of the other. Reliance and satisfaction, i.e., faith and feeling, thus are crucial to the noetic event. Faith is the foundation of rational certainty, and things are believed in because they make sense of life. Achieving this sense and meaning of life is the goal of practical wisdom, which goes beyond mere science and evidentialism.

Critique of Cognitive Voluntarism

Ross’ capture of the spirit of knowledge is excellent. Philosophy without feeling, he says, is philosophy without springs. Surely, ‘deep answers the deep’; humans have an inner and infinite urge that can only find satisfaction through faith in an infinite and living God. Therefore, we do go beyond available data to make sense of the available data. The question of origins, meaning, and destiny are unavoidable. Any nearest hint that carries at least some certainty (within the cognitive contextual framework) is immediately converted into a conviction. However, as Ross has pointed out, the danger of falsity can be there. Therefore, he stresses on the refinement of feeling through mimesis, which is observation and practice of those who can be relied on for knowledge of truth. This, obviously, calls for the openness and boldness to change on finding the convictions refuted by experience.

In conclusion, it may be said that Ross’ epistemology is very much of subjective experientialism. Though it is true that one’s experience can never be refuted by another, it still stands whether someone’s experience can comprise reason enough for another to rely on it. According to Ross, the answer is ‘yes’, if pragmatically satisfaction is visible, and this to the extent that mimesis of it becomes justified. For instance, a son sees his father walking and imitates in order to learn walking; he imitates the experience of his father to become an insider of the experience. Similarly, faith in God as demonstrated in a community life of moral righteousness, devotion, generosity, and other facets of religious life can be experienced through mimesis.

However, what about the possibility of being led into the wrong belief through such imitation? Ross answers that still this does not undermine the value of the social institution as a source of knowledge. Accordingly, a ‘social system that hands along truths about food and mixed truths and errors about health and how to live, and superstitions about God and “science”, might do perfectly well to hand along an improved product.’ In other words, there is no social institution or tradition that can lay claim to perfection in all fields of knowledge. Disagreements among sects over doctrinal points, within the major religions, are ample proof of it. However, some products have only one source and the only way to test the workability of the product is by ‘becoming an initiate and making it work.’ Thus, one can only experience the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ by saying ‘yes’ to the Gospel of Christ. There is no alternative source to it. Practice and experience itself justifies belief.

Though incapable of providing an absolute and standard test for truth, Ross’ cognitive voluntarism does demonstrate the relativity of rational certainty. The star over Bethlehem was proof of Royal birth to the Magi; it might have not been so to many others. The miracles of Jesus were proof of His divine authority to Nicodemus; it might not have been to some others. Proofs and demonstrations are only relatively significant; often, they follow faith. Thus, rational certainty is more a subjective issue. Moreover, Ross’ grounding of rational certainty on the will to believe is a significant step. He has also showed that the will to believe is prompted by the inner urge, feeling, and passion for sense and meaning in life. The existential motif, thus, can also be seen in Ross. Thus, cognitive voluntarism attempts to put faith and feeling into their proper place in the noetic event. This, however, is done at the expense of any absolute criteria for truth. The only reference point is the will. Will is prompted by feelings and wants that act as convictors. Thus, truth is more a matter of the subjective will than of objective reality. But, Ross is at least right in saying that in matters of ultimate value, that is, in convictions that go beyond data to infuse life with meaning, one cannot let go his convictions unless they are directly contradicted by experience and replaceable with some other hypotheses that seem to be more reliable. Thus, a Christian cannot throw away his belief in Jesus Christ, since it not only infuses his life with meaning but he also doesn’t find it refuted by experience. However, even if it is refuted by experience, he will not cast that belief out unless it is replaceable by some other more reliable belief; he cannot do so because the will to believe urged by the infinite passion within cannot rest calm without finding some source of satisfaction. Thus, faith is rehabilitated in cognitive voluntarism.

[1] James Ross, “Reason and Reliance: Adjusted Prospects for Natural Theology”, June 1990 (
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] William James, “The Will to Believe,” Philosophy of Religion, 2nd edn. (ed. John Hick; Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), p.219
[9] Ibid, p. 228
[10] Ibid, p. 230
[11] Ibid, p. 229
[12] James Ross, “Reason and Reliance: Adjusted Prospects for Natural Theology”, June 1990 (