Belief and Choice

Question from Apostate:
Hi there,

I have seen this statement, “belief is not a choice,” in several atheist documents. I have never seen it well supported. For instance I once saw an atheist state they were unable to believe they could fly and then flap their arms to demonstrate that they are unable to fly. That supports the belief that they can not fly by flapping their arms but says nothing of their ability to find an environment where our arms could provide enough lift.

From my perspective, while I’ll agree there are some beliefs that must be held if we want to refrain from delusion, such as my belief that you are reading this, other beliefs seem quite malleable and within conscious control, like my belief that I will have everything I need to meet any challenge I face or the decision to look upon an event as positive instead of negative.

What do you mean when you say, “We can not choose our beliefs” and why do you feel that way? To me it seems to be an abdication of personal responsibility for the list of things you consider to be true.

Answer by SmartLX:
The statement “belief is not a choice” (a variant of which I used here) may be more absolute than is justified, especially given varying definitions of “belief”. Nevertheless it applies very well to the most likely subject of those “atheist documents”, namely belief in gods.

I would actually go further and say that for the most part, opinion is not a choice. Whether to take action based on belief or opinion is a choice, whether to state your true beliefs and opinions is a choice, but the ultimate position of your mind on an issue is usually not.

When one is presented with evidence for a given proposition, one either accepts it or doesn’t. This is a subconscious process (as evidenced by several studies where people’s brains were scanned while they made quick decisions, and their own thoughts beat them by several seconds). One may consciously decide to openly accept the evidence or else pretend to reject it, but this has nothing to do with what one really believes.

Your atheist who couldn’t believe he could fly was assuming that conditions such as gravity, atmosphere and the size and shape of his arms would stay roughly as they really were. If the question were changed to, “Do you believe you could fly, given your choice of environment and any imaginable conditions?” the same person would probably give an answer like, “Yes, if I could really change anything at all about the world.” Importantly, this person would not suddenly choose to believe, he or she would believe. The altered conditions would provoke a different judgement of the possibility of the act, about which the atheist would merely choose whether to be honest.

The second example you raise is essentially optimism, a belief that the future will turn out favourably. You might think of this as a deliberate belief, but what of all the pessimists who wish they could be optimistic but can’t manage it? It seems to be either a predisposition or an ongoing opinion based on one’s circumstances.

That brings us to the general exception to all of this: the case where one convinces oneself of something. It does happen, and in fact an entire industry has been built around your example alone; think how many books and seminars there are on how to think positive and become optimistic. Actually turning 180 degrees on an issue without any changes to the evidence or arguments one way or another (and emotion can have a great effect on what we perceive in this area) requires one to manually affect one’s own subconscious thought processes. This can be achieved through self-hypnosis, or affirmations, or forms of brainwashing, or all three, and the results are not often permanent. The important thing here is that for most of what we think and believe, we don’t do any of this to ourselves. Our beliefs and opinions are therefore nearly all the natural conclusions of our brains, and our choices are based on them rather than causing them. I do not regard these conclusions as deliberate decisions.

Applying all of this to the debate between atheism and theism, whether one accepts or rejects the assertion that a god exists is down to how one’s brain reacts to the evidence presented. This includes simply being told there’s a god, which children in particular will often accept as good enough and later reinforce.

The resulting theological question is why a god would punish people for not truly believing in Him if it’s not their choice, and especially if He has the power to show Himself. Believing in and yet denying a god is a conscious action which might legitimately earn punishment if the god is real (and many believers do think “atheists” secretly believe), but simply not believing is nothing of the sort.

13 thoughts on “Belief and Choice”

  1. Thank you,

    I have to say though that I am with the writers of the management books, being in management I read a lot of them. I am aware of the studies showing how quickly our subconscious reacts to things. While they are certainly interesting I have not seen anything which says those initial conclusions can not be changed later with more time to mull over the data. If there is a study you know of I’d very much like to see it.

    What I have got is loads, of admittedly personal, experience with reexamining the context of things I, and those I lead, believe. In terms of objective things, the external stimuli tend to make those who change their minds delusional, as perhaps the flying example was intended to convey. However when it comes to interpersonal relationships and optimism versus pessimism it has been my, admittedly subjective, experience that all manner of beliefs are up for adjustment.

    I don’t think helping someone to re-contextualize how they weight the emotional effects of events they have experienced counts as brain washing.

  2. Hi again.

    I’m not suggesting that initial conclusions are unchangeable, which is obviously false or else there would be no apostates in the world.

    The important thing is that it’s mulling over data that changes one’s mind, not just a conscious effort to reverse an inconvenient position through sheer willpower. Being willing to examine or re-examine data that apparently challenges one’s own conclusions, and might well cause them to change, is a good description of what it means to be open-minded. Still, the primary stimuli are external and one cannot control what makes an impact or sinks in, or how long it takes.

    Changing people’s contexts is a perfectly acceptable way to convince them of something. Brainwashing, whether inflicted on others or self-administered, is more often an act of removing all conflicting contexts so that the main message is unopposed. Brainwashing experiments in the military have shown results when the subjects are kept in near-total isolation, but the effects fade rapidly when they’re released.

  3. I see what you are saying, new data can be a catalyst for reflection and change our minds, However the data can be internal as well as external. How often have you changed your mind about something after mulling it over for a while? (I do this all the time.) Decisions made in the presence of strong emotion often look foolish as we look back, even if there is no new external stimuli. Some of that is simply the chemicals present in the heat of the moment which fade. However looking back at initial preconceptions is a skill less practiced than I would like. Simple reexamination is often enough to change the perceived context or connotation of events. That type of reflection is well within our control and is what I refer to about changing our beliefs.


    p.s. Sorry to be so long in responding, I have been fairly consumed by SWTOR.

  4. No problem Apos, I’ve been debating whether to dive into the Old Republic myself.

    I don’t see that the principle changes because of the time spent mulling. One can change one’s internal conditions for considering evidence in a general sense, and one can put in the effort to make a well-thought-out decision, but one doesn’t begin considering with an explicit goal of reaching a particular opinion (unless one already has that opinion, in which case the whole exercise is futile).

    To return to the original question, new believers don’t set out to believe. They set out to experience, examine and learn, and belief comes involuntarily if the internal and external conditions are right.

  5. I won’t derail the thread with SWTOR, I think the timing between my responses will be telling enough.

    Having said that, this stuck out at me, “but one doesn’t begin considering with an explicit goal of reaching a particular opinion (unless one already has that opinion, in which case the whole exercise is futile).”

    I think people convince themselves of what they want to believe all the time. Look at the way a YEC can look at the Grand Canyon and see how awesome the flood was. *shudder*.

    To me many beliefs are involuntary, others are victims to my preconceptions or prejudices. The later are up for review if I can see my own bias and then choose to keep or discard it. Experience helps but will is also a factor. It’s as simple as deciding to put a positive spin on whatever new data point arises.

    I would say the facts are the facts, but our emotions color our experience of those facts and we have some, possibly considerable, say in how we will feel about the facts we experience.

    Belief comes voluntarily if the internal and external conditions are right. This is most common with what is emotional, or what can not be empirically verified.

  6. Just been reading you site, since I stumbled across it.

    I’m fascinated. How did you come to the conclusion that a person has no freedom to choose their beliefs? Am I to take it, that you believe that humans are incapable of any level of self-reference? That would seem to be a prerequisite of your argument. Are you saying that you believe introspection is merely an illusion, and that it is impossible for someone to evaluate and alter their epistemology? It certainly does not follow philosophically. Even the most strict Determinist, is forced, by observable reality, to allow that humans have freedom of action, even if only within the confines of their supposedly predetermined fate.

    Or am I misunderstanding, and are you saying that one set of facts, necessitates one, and only one, interpretation of those facts, and therefore there can be no choice? That is fought with problems as well. There are entire disciplines that deal specifically with constructing opposing arguments, from the same data set.

    At least on first blush, saying that one cannot choose one’s own beliefs, would seem to be a statement with some pretty deep and questionable implications and ramifications. I don’t really see anything in what you have said, which substantiates that claim. I would love to know the underlying belief system that causes you to think this is such an obvious observation. I would agree that that most people *don’t* choose their beliefs, but that is more an issue of intellectual laziness than anything else. It is a very different thing, to say that people don’t bother to examine their beliefs, than it is to say they are incapable of it.

  7. Let me try to lay it out again.

    People may do what they want, think what they want, and examine their own beliefs as much as they want. When examining one’s own beliefs, one may certainly make objective judgements on them, such as that other people would or wouldn’t believe the same thing. One may also act on any belief. Ultimately retaining or losing a belief, however, is not a choice; it is an involuntary “change of heart”.

    Take born-again Christians, for instance. They make a great deal out of their conscious choice to accept Jesus as their lord and saviour, and indeed this is a conscious choice, but they can only do this once they already believe that God and Jesus exist. How do they instruct potential converts to come to this conclusion? One must pray to Jesus directly, to ask for his direct influence. The crucial moment is not a choice; they see, feel or hear God, or they don’t, and then they believe or they don’t. Perhaps they try again, and again. It’s not a decision they come to, it’s a reaction they try to provoke in themselves and each other.

    Tell me two things, if you can. What belief, that you don’t currently have, could you create in yourself if you saw a material benefit in it? And if belief is a choice, why are so many believers plagued by doubts, including the late Mother Teresa? Couldn’t they just choose to believe more strongly?

  8. Ok, first, let’s define belief.

    From the OED:

    1: Trust, confidence; faith.

    2: Mental acceptance of a statement, fact, doctrine, thing, etc., as true or existing.

    3: The thing believed; a proposition or set of propositions held to be true; a religion; an opinion or persuasion.

    I do this, not to be pedantic, but to make sure we are discussing the same thing. Your focus on solely religious faith, leads me to think there might be a need to make sure we are using the terms the same way.

    Now, as to your questions, I can actually do you one better than you asked, and detail a multi-stage conscious evolution of a belief system. I was raised to believe in a very non-materialistic view of the world. Some might call it a hippy, or punk, aesthetic. from birth, until my mid-twenties, I firmly believed that life could not be measured by material possessions and wealth. Then, I reached a point, where I decided this belief was holding me back, and adopted a much more mainstream American consumer materialist belief system. For a little over a decade, I pursued that system, truly believing that each promotion, each raise, each step up the corporate ladder, got me closer to the goal of true happiness, and that if I just went far enough up the ladder, I would have the freedom to do whatever I wanted.

    About the time I “made it” to the six-figure income level, I realized that I was not a single step closer to my goals, than I had been when I started. I had more money, sure, but I had neither the time, nor freedom to do anything worthwhile with that money. I realized that my operating belief system was flawed. I then rejected the consumer belief system, changed my career, and synthesized an entirely new belief, informed by both my earlier anti-capitalist beliefs that I was raised with, as well as my capitalistic belief system from my time in the corporate world.

    The end result was 1: Conscious rejection of my default belief system. 2: Conscious acceptance of a belief system directly antithetical to my default belief system. 3: Observation of flaws in my current belief system, and consequent rejection of said belief. 4: Synthesis of a new belief system, taking into account a rational analysis of what was learned from the previous two belief systems.

    I suspect that you are confusing blind faith, and fundamentalism, with belief. They are not the same thing.

    As to your second question, anyone not plagued by doubt, just hasn’t thought about their beliefs long and hard enough. Humans have a finite capacity, in an infinite (or at least near enough to infinite to not matter) universe. If you think about it long enough, all any human can ever do, is be reasonably certain of their beliefs. No matter how much evidence you gather, no matter how certain you are of your beliefs, an infinite universe leaves an infinite amount of room for doubt. Unwavering, undoubting, unquestioning belief in anything, is at least in my opinion, the sign of a weak or diseased mind, caught in the thrall of a completely irrational delusion. Doubt is not proof of a lack of belief, it is a necessary part of any rational belief.

  9. Fascinating story, L, thanks for sharing.

    I’d like to delve into the process you summarise with the word “adopted”, when you switched the hippie worldview for the consumer mindset.

    You believed once that the hippie approach would help you achieve your goals in life; life then showed you that it wouldn’t. Losing this belief wasn’t a choice, from my perspective, because the contrary results were there to convince you otherwise from the outside. You involuntarily realised you were wrong. (Same again when you brought home the bacon and still weren’t happy.)

    So, how did you then “adopt” the beliefs of a corporate go-getter? Was there material or anecdotal evidence that the new lifestyle would be more fulfilling? If so, you were again convinced from outside, and changing track was a perfectly rational decision at the time based on your new view. If not, was it essentially a guess, and how did you manage to conjure up a belief (wrong, as it turned out) that it was “correct”?

    If in fact I’m wrong despite all of the above, and belief can indeed be a choice, your story may well be a good example of why choosing one’s own beliefs is a bad idea. If one imposes upon oneself a belief not supported by reality, instead of letting real-world evidence shape one’s beliefs naturally, acting on that arbitrary belief will run counter to reality and won’t likely produce the desired results – unless, purely by chance, one’s self-imposed belief happens to be the truth or something close to it. For you, maybe it’s third time lucky.

  10. It might perhaps be what you see as an overly semantic distinction, but I don’t believe that any idea we ever have, is ever “from the outside.” Perceptions are nothing but raw data, until we internalize them, and synthesize them with our world view, including our belief systems. As such, no one’s mind can ever be changed about anything “from the outside.” Until the person internalizes what they experience, and interprets it through their knowledge and belief system, it is just noise. Even if someone specifically tells you what you should believe, you never actually hear what they are saying. What you hear, is your understanding of what they are saying, based on your knowledge, your experiences, and your beliefs, which all color how you perceive what they are saying. Someone might tell you the most important piece of information you will ever get in your life, but if they tell it to you in a language you’ve never learned, then all you actually hear, is a bunch of noise, with no meaning at all.

    In my particular case, my belief system was not getting me the results I wanted. I changed it. It really is as simple as that. There isn’t any big trick or process there. I said that if how I viewed the world wasn’t making me happy, then I would change how I viewed the world, and see if that did the trick. Ultimately it didn’t, so I changed how I saw the world again, this time better informed, by an extra decade of experience. Perhaps the years I spent studying philosophy make this sort of mental flexibility easier for me than some people, but ultimately, it is something anyone can do, and many people do on a regular basis, whether they realize it or not.

    I frankly find it very odd that you even find this prospect controversial. I suspect from some of your comments, that you have a mistaken impression that there are “right” and “wrong” beliefs, and have the relationship between belief and reality entirely backwards. You have to understand, human beings have a very limited perspective on the universe. It is impossible for us to ever “know” what you call reality, or “truth.” All we can do, is perceive a tiny slice of reality, severely limited by our senses, our nervous system, and then filtered through our knowledge, experience, and beliefs. In this way, it is our mind that creates the reality we experience, not reality that creates our mind. The only “truth” we can ever know, is that which we consensually agree to label as such. We are far too limited and small a creature, to ever actually experience or understand anything as grand as the “truth of the universe.”

    A man who has never seen of or heard of a scorpion before, just sees an odd looking bug, but a man who has been hospitalized, due to multiple scorpion stings, sees a mortal threat. They are both looking at the same thing, but their experiences dramatically change what they see while they are looking at it. Neither one is “right” or “wrong” they just live in different reality tunnels, where the scorpion has different meanings. The wife you love dearly, and want to spend your entire life with, might in the blink of an eye, become that annoying hag who is always hectoring you, just because that gorgeous swimsuit model asked you to go to dinner. Your best friend in the entire world, might become your least favorite person in the entire world, just because you found out he slept with your sister. You might go from having the best time of your life, to being in fear for your life, just because you suddenly noticed how rough the neighborhood you are in, really looks. In all of these cases, nothing actually changed about the objective reality you inhabit. Your wife is still the same woman she was before the model asked you out, you are no more or less attractive than you were an hour ago, your best friend still the same person, your sister is no more or less chaste than she was before. It is just your perception of reality that changed, and your beliefs changed, based on those perceptions, as much as those perceptions change based on your beliefs. It is a two-way street.

    I think your primary mistake is in the assumption that beliefs are always static states of irrational fundamental faith in an ultimate truth. That is not the case. Beliefs can evolve, grow, and change quite organically, as we build better models of reality, through greater experience, shifting perspectives, and greater knowledge. In fact, an intellectually honest person, would have to exert a great amount of effort to keep their beliefs immutable throughout their entire life.

  11. We agree on a few things, at the same time as we don’t seem to agree about anything.

    Of course perceptions and beliefs are formed internally – where else would they form? It’s just that they tend to form and evolve involuntarily, usually (if not always) as a result of external stimulus. You wrote yourself that it’s difficult to keep one’s beliefs immutable; well, the outside world is the reason for that.

    One can certainly alter one’s perceptions, from using pure thought to putting on a pair of crazy glasses to self-hypnosis to use of hallucinogens. If one can manage to forget that one has done this, then perhaps one can indirectly convince oneself that one is living in a different kind of world. Trouble is, if for example you remember that you’re wearing blue goggles, you’ll know that a flower is really yellow even though you see it as green. More trouble is the fact that if you do pull it off, you’ve exacerbated the problem of your limited human perception by deliberately distorting it even further.

    And yes, our view of reality is severely limited, and we could be wrong about anything we think we know. That’s one reason atheists don’t normally profess a positive belief in the absence of gods, on top of simply not believing that they’re there. This limitation doesn’t change the fact that there is a reality of some sort, and either it contains something close to mainstream religions’ conceptions of a god entity which has profound, tangible consequences for human beings, or it doesn’t. We don’t have to know absolutely everything about it to support the idea that it’s probably not there, just as the only thing you need to know about bats to argue that none live in a particular cave is that they poop a lot, if there’s no “guano” on the floor.

    More about the nature of gods in your other thread shortly.

  12. If someone thinks belief is a choice, then ask them to choose to believe the moon isn’t real for a day. Or ask them to believe they are a cat, for five minutes.

    It simple doesn’t work. We either believe in something, don’t believe in something, or are not sure, but at no point, can we make a choice to believe one way or another.

    If belief were a choice, we could all just choose to believe we’re so happy 24/7, and no one how believes that belief is a choice would ever be sad….but we know that’s not the case.

    1. [
      If someone thinks belief is a choice, then ask them to choose to believe the moon isn’t real for a day. Or ask them to believe they are a cat, for five minutes. It simple doesn’t work. We either believe in something, don’t believe in something, or are not sure, but at no point, can we make a choice to believe one way or another. If belief were a choice, we could all just choose to believe we’re so happy 24/7, and no one how believes that belief is a choice would ever be sad….but we know that’s not the case.]

      Big difference between believing something for which there is information available (if you know the moon exists you aren’t going to believe otherwise, as you state), and believing in something for which there is no information available to rationally consider (like the supernatural).

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