Sunday, July 17, 2011

Is Belief a Choice?

"If you choose to be an atheist, then..."

"When you make the choice to believe in God, you..."

I get confused when choice and belief cohabitate in the same sentence, because I've never been able to choose to believe (or disbelieve) anything. Yet so many people talk about beliefs as if they're neckties, as if choosing atheist or theism is as easy as reaching into a closet and picking the one with red stripes or the one with paisley.

When evangelists have tried to convert me, they've acted as if they just have to convince me that believing in God is healthy -- that I'll be happier and have a more meaningful life if I just choose to believe. What they never explain is, assuming I agree with them, exactly how I'm supposed to flip the atheist-to-theist switch. No doubt I'd be happier if I believed I was a millionaire, too. But I just can't seem to forget my actual, pitiful bank balance.

To start untangling this, I'm going to grapple with the word "belief," because I suspect some of my confusion comes from different people using the word to mean subtly different things. When you and I both say the word "belief" in the same conversation, are we talking apples and apples or apples and oranges?

So I'll define what I mean by belief. If you mean something different by it, that's fine. Please don't tell me that I'm wrong about what belief means. I'm not claiming that I'm right. I'm just defining belief in a specific way, to explain how *I* use the word -- and one thing I AM right about is how *I* it. If you want to use it some other way, go forth, my son, and do so. You have my blessing. If you think my way of using it is silly or pointless, quit reading this once you come to that conclusion.

I'll start with a couple of things I DON'T mean by belief: I don't mean practice. If someone ACTS as if he believes, that's not enough to constitute belief in my mind. I'm sure there are plenty of religious people who, on some level, are unsure of whether or not God exists, but they go to church, read the Bible, etc. And there are probably "atheists" who are really agnostics, but they self-identify with the label "atheist," read books by Richard Dawkins and so on.

(Daniel Dennett makes the distinction between believing in God and believing in belief in God. The latter means thinking that belief in God is a good thing and cheerleading yourself towards it, whether you actually believe God exists or not. And the interesting thing, to me, is that people confuse the two sorts of beliefs. They really feel like believing in belief is the same as believing. And on an emotional level it is: enthusiasm is enthusiasm.)

If when an evangelist tells me to choose, he means "choose to go to church and live your life as if you believe, whether you actually do or not," I could do that (though I might choose not to), but that's not what I mean by belief.

Please note that I am not belittling folks who believe in that sense, nor am I claiming they're lying. There are good reasons to be an "in practice" believer. For instance, if someone WANTS to believe but doesn't yet, he might go through the motions in hope that doing so will evoke belief. (Belief is also not necessarily a steady state. It may wax and wane. Meanwhile, when it's in the wane stage, one can participate in rituals -- clinging to them until a wandering belief returns to the hearth.)

I can also see why a practicer might call himself a believer just to simplify conversation. What's easier to say? "I'm a Christian" or "I'm a guy who goes to church every Sunday, reads the Bible, wants to believe, often does or almost does, sometimes has doubts, but is hoping to believe permanently?" Truth is, in most conversational circumstances, the latter would be inappropriate, even if it's technically true. It would be too much information. "Hey! I just wanted to know whether to get you a Christmas card or a Chanukah card, buddy. I didn't want your life story!"

Finally, it's possible to just not think about it all that much: "I need God in my life, I heard some arguments for his existence once, and they seemed convincing, I go to church regularly, so ... I'm a Christian. I believe in God."

With the greatest respect to people who believe in that sense, that's not what I mean by belief. To me, someone who is trying to believe -- or someone who thinks belief is a good thing -- does not qualify as a believer (without some other mindsets also being present).

Though this doesn't capture the sincerity with which many people embrace rituals, creeds, mental frameworks and lifestyles, for lack of a better term, I'm going to call this sort of belief "acting," to distinguish it from what I'm calling "believing": "Mike is acting like a Christian." (If this sounds insulting to you, note that I'm a theatre director. I see how fervently actors throw themselves into their roles, and I take acting very seriously. When an actor plays Hamlet, he reaches for a sort of truth. Still, he's not actually Hamlet.)

The second thing I don't mean by belief is "a good guess." One might say, "I believe it's going to rain tomorrow," meaning "I looked at the weather report, and they presented evidence that it's LIKELY to rain tomorrow. If I had to place a bet, I'd bet on rain. But I am aware that it might not rain."

That sort of belief connects smoothly with the first sort I described, the ritualistic sort. "Based on the 'belief' that it's going to rain tomorrow, I'm going to carry an umbrella." In other words, even though I don't know for sure that it's going to rain tomorrow, I'm going to live my life as if it's a fact. I'm not going to live my life as if it MAY happen. (How would I do that, anyway?) I'm going to live my life as if it's GOING to happen.

(When the weatherman says "There's a 90% chance of rain tomorrow," do you think of tomorrow as a rainy day or as a day in which it's likely to rain? I would love to conduct an experiment that tells me how the majority of people think about things like this.)

Here's what makes this sort of belief not the kind I'm talking about: what happens when it doesn't rain tomorrow? Do you feel like "Okay, the weather report was wrong?" or do you feel like "Oh my God! How is this possible? I'm in the Twilight Zone! I've passed through the looking glass!" I'm guessing the former.

The beliefs I'm talking about are ones the mind grasps as FACTS. They might be things that one intellectually knows might be false, but they must be things that one can't emotionally accept as false -- or at least things that would be very hard to emotionally accept as false. (For some people, an example of this is Free Will. They agree, logically, that it can't exist, but they can't shake the feeling that it does.)

In the case of such beliefs, it is not necessarily because one NEEDS to believe -- though that might be the case. You might have a hard time accepting that a fact isn't true simply because you're senses are constantly bombarded with the impression that it IS true. This happens at magic shows. One knows the conjurer is "just doing tricks," but they SEEM real. If you don't at least feel like they're real, the show is no fun.

I am not saying that most people believe David Copperfield actually has magic powers. They don't. But that feeling -- the feeling that magic has happened, even if you know it hasn't -- is a necessary component for what I'm calling a belief. (It's not sufficient. More is needed. But it must be present.)

To distinguish that sort of belief from "I believe it's going to rain tomorrow," I'm going to call the latter "a good guess." So we have acting, guessing ... and believing.

Believing -- as I'm defining it -- is accepting something as true (with or without evidence) AND falling into a mental state in which it's really hard to UNaccept the belief. The belief becomes axiomatic. It's not just the case, as in acting, that you live as if you believed the claim to be true. In the case of beliefs, your MIND behaves as if the claim is true. In other words, you don't generally question the claim. Maybe you will question it when new evidence arises, but your default state is to accept the claim in the same way that you accept the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. It doesn't occur to you that it might not, and you'd be floored if it didn't.

Let's say that I proved to you -- conclusively -- that sidewalks don't exist. You might totally understand (and even accept) the logic and INTELLECTUALLY believe me, meaning that you couldn't refute it. Still, you have the constant sensation of walking on a sidewalk.

That feeling not enough to make "it sure feels like there's a sidewalk" a belief (in the sense that I mean) because you might truthfully think "I'm hallucinating." In order to qualify as a belief, a claim must seem to be true intellectually AND be unassailable (or at least without only assailable with great difficulty) emotionally.

Given that, let's return to the question of whether or not one can choose beliefs: I am an atheist for several reasons. First of all, I am convinced by the logic put forth by many scientists, skeptics and philosophers that we have no evidence for God. Don't worry about whether those people have lead me down the path of truth or deluded me. That's not important (to what I'm writing about here). The point is that, right or wrong, they've intellectually convinced me.

On top of that, I've never experienced God on a visceral or emotional level -- not even for a second. (I've never had the feeling of someone watching over me or of an intelligence "out there", even as a fiction.) So the claim "God exists" doesn't just hit me as intellectually false, it also FEELS similar to "you have three hands." I have never in my life had the sensation of having three hands. Could I choose to believe -- really believe -- that I have three hands?

The question is this, can I CHOOSE to go from the state I'm in to one of belief in God, as I've defined belief. And, if so, how? Let's say you convince me that I'd be a happier person if I was a believer. I accept your logic and WANT to believe. How should I make myself do it?

The truth is, I'm a tough nut to crack. I am guessing people exist on a spectrum, credulous to obstinate. "Obstinate" isn't really the right word, because it implies volition. I don't choose to be obstinate. I just don't know how to budge from my atheism. I don't know how do find the arguments I find logical illogical and I don't know how to give myself the visceral feeling of God's presence. Still, I'm guessing that some people would have an easier time than I would.

Someone suggested that to me recently. He said, "I think most people can choose their beliefs. You're just an exception." Though I agree with him that there's a spectrum and I'm on an extreme end of it, I think the truth is a bit more complicated than my friend suggested.

Given a particular truth claim, there are (at least) three things that influence the likelihood of someone believing in it: (1) the person's location on the "credulity scale," (2) the nature of the claim itself, and (3) it's relationship with other facts/beliefs the person already holds.

Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine a shoebox-like container that's' divided into two chambers, left and right. I put a red ball in the left chamber and leave the lid off the box. I tell you to peer down into it. You can clearly see that the ball is in the left chamber. I ask you to choose to believe that it's in the right. Can you do it?

Where someone lies on the credulity scale might have some bearing on his ability to make himself believe a direct contradiction of his senses, but I'm guessing all but the most extremely credulous will find it impossible to believe (in my sense of the word) that the ball is in the right chamber.

Beliefs aren't easily malleable when they clash with (or are buttressed by) direct sensory experience.

Now imagine that I put the the lid on the box. I don't shake the box or manipulate it in any way. I just drop the ball in the left chamber (and you see me do it) and then cover the box with a lid. I then ask you to believe the ball is in the right chamber. To me -- in my extreme position on the credulity scale -- this belief switch would be as impossible as in the former case, when the lid was off. But I'm betting it would be slightly easier for some people, especially after a passage of time, when seeing the ball dropped into the left chamber has become a dim memory.

Finally, imagine that I put the ball in one of the two chambers without you seeing me do it. I then put the lid on the box and seal the box closed in a way that makes it impossible to open. Let's assume I have magic powers and I can make it totally impossible to open (or see into with x-rays) -- even with the strongest tools available. You can never know which chamber houses the ball. Can you choose to believe it's in the right one?

(You can live your life as if it's in the right one, but, remember, that's not what I'm talking about.)

I'm guessing that, at this point, a lot of people can -- maybe even people who are halfway between credulous and obstinate on the Credulity Scale. Most minds hate mysteries and will resolve them if possible.

Someone even suggested to me that while it's not always possible to choose one's beliefs in all cases, it is ALWAYS possible when faced with an unknowable. The form this usuall takes in religious debates is to claim that, since we can't conclusively prove that God does or doesn't exist, theism/atheism is a choice.

Before I was an atheist, I had a brief period of agnosticism. Many people, usually theists, told me that "agnosticism is a copout." This confused me no end. To me, it just seemed descriptive. Copping out suggests not living up to responsibilities, but I really didn't know whether or not God existed. If it was my responsibility to know, how on Earth was I supposed to make myself know? Can you force yourself to know who is going to win next year's lottery? No. You simply don't know and can't know.

I now wonder if people thought I was copping out because, for them, when faced with an unknowable, they are able to flip into belief or non-belief. And they assumed I was able to do that too and was just refusing to admit to how I'd flipped -- or maybe they thought I was refusing to take some little mental step that would have allowed me to flip. (What step would that be?)

Of course, to a lot of people, there's a political element to religious debates. Agnosticism may seem, to many, like fence sitting. "Either join the seperation-between-church-and-state team or the Intelligent-Design team, Dammit!" That's an example of acting: it has more to do with "living your life as if" than it does with the sort of belief I am talking about.

Cheerleading is also an example of this, as is "dressing as if you have the job." I've always been fascinated by the claim that football players convince themselves they're going to win, and that their belief gives them an edge. I have no doubt that it does. I'm curious about whether they believe they are going to win in the sense I'm talking about (and feel like they're in the Twilight Zone if they wind up losing) or whether they're cheerleading: they know they might possibly lose, but they're trying to drown out that possibly by shouting "I think I can; I think I can; I think I can..."

There are many reasons I suck at sports, but one of them is my inability to whip myself into a mental state. While everyone else on my team is saying, "We're GOING to win," I'm thinking, "Well, of course, I hope we do, but we might lose."

I can't possibly choose to believe the ball is in the right chamber, even if there's no way I can ever know which chamber it's in. In that case -- maybe due to my location on the Credulity Scale -- I am stuck with "I don't know." It's not a copout. It's an accurate description of my mental state.

Why am I stuck with "I don't know" while (some? most?) others are able to believe that the ball is in the right chamber? I suspect it has to do with ability-to-forget or ability-to-not-think-about. (Some prefer the term denial, but I don't like it. It sounds too conscious to me. If you're working to deny a proposition, then at least on some level, you believe or partially believe it. You are straining to thwart that belief: cheerleading. Whereas forgetting is a gentler, less conscious approach. If you successfully forget something, it's just gone from your brain. You don't have to work to keep forgetting it.)

Assuming you're a rational person, you know that the ball could be in the left or the right chamber. And you also know that, since the box is sealed forever, there's no way of knowing which chamber it's in. Essentially  this fact is in your mind: it's impossible to know.

Meanwhile, you're trying to believe that you DO know -- that you know the ball is in the right chamber. So you're trying to reconcile these two ideas:

1. It's impossible to know which chamber the ball is in.
2. The ball is in the right chamber.

If you can somehow forget the first idea -- or ven greatly weaken it -- you many be able to accept the second one. In this case, that's what choosing-to-believe would mean: choosing to forget (or not think about) idea one and remember idea two. And the question for me is, how can I do that? "Just don't think about it" isn't a useful answer to someone who doesn't know how to do that.

That might be the crux of what makes belief an non-volitional act for me: I don't have much control over my thoughts. I am, and always have been, the kind of guy who lies awake and worries. I can't (or at least I don't know how to) just stop worrying. I totally agree with the logic that worrying doesn't solve anything: it's wasted energy. But agreeing with that does nothing to stop me worrying. I have never felt like I'm willing my thoughts. To me, thoughts are things that HAPPEN to me. They come into my head unbidden.

Try the bent-spoon test: imagine a spoon that's bent. Can you unbend it? Can you keep it unbent? I can't. Or rather, it's anyone's guess whether I'll be able to do so in a particular imagining session. Sometimes the spoon just "wants" to be bent, and no amount of mental unbending will change that. I can imagine myself unbending it, but then the image of the bent spoon pops back into my head.

Try to not imagine an elephant.

My problem with believing that the ball is in the right chamber is that, as far as I can tell, it's impossible for me to forget that I don't know which chamber it's in. When I think of the ball, that fact -- the fact that I can't know -- is continually active in my brain. It's as if my brain contains a blackboard with "you can't know" written on it, and if I try to erase the words, they come right back.

1 comment:

paul johnston said...

Marcus - I agree with you that you cannot choose what to believe, but I don't really think that most people can.I think your argument illustrates that we have different kinds of belief formed in different ways. That is perhaps why some people (in a way that is confused and confusing) talk about choosing to believe. They certainly would not talk about that in relation to "normal" beliefs - you don't make a choice about whether New York or Washington had the higher average daytime temperature last summer, you just find out! But it does become a bit more plausible if you look at other kinds of statement or beliefs. Do you believe that people are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad? In answer to this, I do of course think about my experience of people and it is not as if I can answer this sort of question any way I want. However, it is also not simply a matter of establishing what I believe to be the facts of the matter. Rather this is partly a question about how I see the world and although I definitely do not choose how I see the world, the conclusions I come to here do reflect and express my attitude to others, so it seems closer to choice. If I conclude that ultimately everyone's just grabbing the best they can for themselves, you might try to encourage me to see things differently. This wouldn't involve trying to get me to believe something even while knowing it is not true; rather it will try to encourage me to see things differently. You might say: try to focus on the good in people, not the bad. Now you might take this advice and still believe that people are fundamentally bad or you might change your mind. In NEITHER case would I say that you choose your belief - your belief expresses what you hold to be true. However, the process of coming to a conclusion is a more personal and a more complicated one than reaching a conclusion about any fact and if that is true about our beliefs about others then it is also true about our beliefs in relation to God.