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Why not choose to believe?

December 29, 2010

I come to a belief by a mental awareness that I accept some proposition as being true. But why do I accept that proposition as being true? Is it because I want the proposition to be true? Is it because I have consciously chosen to find the proposition to be true? Or perhaps instead I have made a series of indirect choices to achieve the same?

It seems that I have evaluated evidence, and I feel that the evidence points one way or another.

But why is it that I accept some evidence and not others? Why is it that some evidence is more persuasive to me than others? Yet…for others, different sets of evidence may be persuasive.

Once again, is it because I want the evidence to be compelling? Is it because I have consciously chosen to find the evidence compelling? Is it even because of an indirect process?

For me, it doesn’t seem as if I’ve chosen any of this. Some tell me that if I just choose which evidences to look at, then I can influence my beliefs. If I stop reading “anti” sources and instead reading “uplifting” or “confirming” sources, then I’ll be more likely to believe.

But still, this doesn’t seem realistic. Even without countering evidence, some evidence may seem uncompelling and some evidence may seem compelling. So it’s not as if I’m disbelieving as a result of being “spoiled” by anti evidence…

Other people feel differently, and it baffles me. They say that they chose to believe what they believe. They choose to have faith over doubt (or maybe they choose to have doubt over faith). I can’t even comprehend! What do they mean by “choose.” When they talk, I hear the language of non-choice — because I don’t see how they ever chose to find one thing more compelling or persuasive to them. When I see their choices, it seems like they are talking about actions. A choice to continue reading x over y, to continuing doing a over b. But “believe” doesn’t seem to be a voluntary action.

I used to liken belief to something like sexuality…and most people get it in that analogy. One doesn’t choose to whom they are attracted, but one can choose whether or not they will pursue or refrain, whether they will embrace or repress. But the refraining or repressing doesn’t equate to a choice against one’s feelings, as so many learn.

I thought this baseline would be a common ground for a discussion at MSP on Mormonism, disability, and same-gender attraction, but then Alan had to go blow my mind:

Andrew, you’re still missing a critical component. Attractions are not consciously changeable except for the people for whom they ARE consciously changeable.

And since then, I’ve been combing through a site he linked to me, Queer by Choice, by people who actually do believe attractions are consciously changeable. As Alan later noted, what’s jarring to me about this site is the extent to which they take their experiences and try to apply them to everyone…but ultimately, that’s what people who talk about a consciously unchangeable orientation are doing too.

Sometimes, I just want to feel like I’m not totally abnormal. I want to feel like deep down, we are all similar in some ways. Yet, we aren’t.

I digress.

The site has a few arguments that seem a bit…off…to me, but maybe because I’m viewing through through the lens of choosing beliefs as well. For example, their page about whether they could choose heterosexuality, their page about whether feelings can be chosen at all, their clarification on choice, and distinction between direct and indirect choice. There was an interview about the process of choosing, whose final lines were interesting:

QBC 101: people should not fuss over whether they are officially willing to call themselves “attracted” or not
QBC 101: “attraction” is not some mysterious THING that people have to “discover” before they can allow themselves to have sex with someone. it is only a question of “do you choose to enjoy this moment being sexual with this person or not?”
QBC 101: they should just relax and enjoy the moment and not WORRY about some mysterious THING called “attraction” or “non-attraction” or “gay” or “straight” because their mysterious THING that they believe in does not even matter. enjoyment is all that matters
QBC 101: because until you get beyond all this fear and worry you will always be foreclosing your own choices by being too anxious and unable to trust in the existence of multiple options
QBC 101: relaxing and enjoying the moment is what most people are so very BAD at doing.

I’m wondering how exactly I could rewrite this entire site as an apologetic tract for the church.

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19 Comments
  1. Hi Andrew! This issue of whether beliefs can be chosen is something I’ve thought a lot about, and it just so happens I have an essay on it that is coming out in a literary journal in a week or so! I’ll send you the link when it comes out … but basically I argue that faith can be chosen in a way similar to how you choose to gamble on some outcome or another occurring. For example, you might gamble on a pair of dice hitting a red number, and this involves taking action *as if* you knew the dice would land there, even though you don’t really know, and indeed, you know that you don’t know. It’s probably good to distinguish between this choice of acting-as-if-you-believe-something-is-the-case versus believing a given proposition. In the casino example, you may believe that there is an equal probability of the dice landing on black or red, and yet still make the choice to put your faith in red, so to speak.

    I hadn’t thought of relating that distinction to the issue of choosing one’s sexuality! Your discussion there is really interesting and gave me a lot of food for thought.

    I think there is a kind of self-honesty at work here: a lot of TBM Mormons seem to advocate (implicitly or explicitly) a kind of dishonesty towards the self about what one believes. E.g., rationally and naturally you might believe that there’s a 50-50 chance of the dice landing on red or black, but God and the bishop say it ought to land on red, ergo you are supposed to lie to yourself and say you believe with total certainty it is going to land on red, and only red. And the same with same-gender attraction. If you can say to yourself, Hey, in all honesty, I am hot for people of my own gender, but in action I am going to choose to eak out what pleasure I can from interactions with the opposiite gender, because that is what I believe in and that is what I choose, well, okay, I can acknowledge a kind of integrity in that. But obviously if you are just supposed to deny that you are attracted, or just “forget about that whole silly ‘attraction’ business” and pretend it’s not an issue – there’s where this dishonesty begins as I see it.

  2. Therese,

    …basically I argue that faith can be chosen in a way similar to how you choose to gamble on some outcome or another occurring. For example, you might gamble on a pair of dice hitting a red number, and this involves taking action *as if* you knew the dice would land there, even though you don’t really know, and indeed, you know that you don’t know.

    This is really intriguing to me, because although I’m not getting published in any journals any time soon ;), I’ve played around with the idea of chosen faith as being like gambling.

    But for me, even here, the involuntary aspect pokes through (and I perhaps have a different understanding of the gambling paradigm). When you gamble, it’s not you that decides. Rather, it’s generally the house, and probability (unless you are card-counting, or using rigged gambling implements). You are playing with odds. To bet on red, you don’t need to act *as if* you know it will land on red. You can believe whatever you want about the likeliness or unlikeness of your bet’s odds, but regardless of which, the odds are as they are, and you have the potential of winning — if you gamble long enough.

    But time or frequency brings compounded consequences. Every time your acting-as-if-you-believe fails, there is an adverse result. In a faith comparison, this means not being convinced, not believing, etc., (I think there are worse self-esteem and emotional effects too; you feel guilty for your unbelief, worthless, and sinful.) But in the gambling world, the effects are pretty precipitous as well. You can go bankrupt and go into debt, all from your attempts to strike it rich!

    For me, that’s why the sexuality comparison makes a lot of sense to me. For *me*, it would be like gambling with such a slight chance of success (if the chance is not zero, that is!) that I will probably go bankrupt before I ever hit it big.

    The idea of self-dishonesty doesn’t seem satisfying to me. Because the idea of self-dishonesty should lead to all sorts of adverse effects (e.g., in my instance, guilt, feelings or worthlessness, depression). It seems instead like some people are convinced that things will land on only red — so they don’t have a conflict at all between “rationally and naturally believing in a 50-50 chance” and believing with total certainty it is going to land only on red, because the former option is completely eradicated from consideration.

    That’s what bothers me. It would be different if people struggled between the two concepts in their head…but many people don’t. They believe one, or they believe the other.

  3. You’re touching here on a problem that has perplexed theologians and philosophers for centuries. The name of your blog is of course satirizes a classic theological statement on the irrelevance of human “choice” against the majesty of an omnipotent God. But even the most hardened Calvinists have ultimately been forced to acknowledge the power of human choice, in spite of their theological commitment to the “irresistibility” of grace. (Calvin himself was more stubborn on this point than most, but few of his followers have been able to defend his position with the same enthusiasm that he did…)

    But the question of whether faith or belief is or can be a choice, or if it’s just a result of some kind of mysterious programming that we’re not capable of understanding, is just like asking whether light is a particle or a wave. The answer is, of course, it depends how you look at it. From one angle, with one set of questions, of course faith is a choice and could not be anything else. From another angle, with another set of questions, faith is not and could not ever be chosen: it is a gift or divine grace (or blindness, if you’re coming from a position of non-faith).

    Maybe one way of looking at this — and of course I approach this as a particular kind of believer — is that faith is a relationship. I would define it as a relationship with God. And if you’ve ever been in a relationship (or have tried to enter a relationship) you know that a relationship is simultaneously totally dependent on your choice, your willingness to choose and work at the relationship, and it is also simultaneously totally dependent on the choice of our partner, and our partner’s willingness to choose and work at the relationship. (In the case of God, we call that willingness to choose and work at a relationship with us “grace.”) (I don’t mean to beg the question of “why” we make such choices… This is just an analogy…)

    As for “choosing” one’s sexual orientation… If you ask me there’s a certain amount of bravado in the position that one “chooses” to be gay. God knows if I had had any choice — even the teeny weeniest bit of choice in the matter! — I’d be living in some mountainside castle in Happy Valley teaching LDS History and making babies.

    But some of the greatest gifts life gives us come when life denies us a choice. Sometimes life says, “You want ‘A’? Tough titties. You get to choose ‘X’ or ‘Y’ Sucks to be you.” Thank God for such choices! Without them I think we could never find real happiness.

    Or sometimes people say, “You want to be Mormon AND gay? You can’t be both. Tough titties. You have to choose.” And sometimes the correct answer to that is, “I am what I am.”

  4. John,

    Interestingly, the last time I had a discussion with a Calvinist on the blog (and off-site), I was able to have a very fruitful discussion out of it. A lot of it made far more sense than the Arminian alternative (although it paints an absolutely crapsack world.)

    It seems that in your attempt to try to make an analogy of faith to something like light, you don’t really go and show a dualistic nature of faith…but rather, you use multiple definitions of faith and then say, “aha, and by this definition of faith, it is a choice.” I’m not all that convinced…

    The queer by choice site is very strange indeed. After all, some of the rebuttals I could scrap together from various parts of the site I read might be, “Just because you can choose to be queer doesn’t mean you can choose contrariwise not to be queer.” And “just because you view many of the choices in your past as limiting future degrees of freedom, doesn’t mean you weren’t choosing.”

    In fact, this really gets to an interesting ideal of Calvinist choice from the last conversation I had. It’s not that humans have *no* choice, but rather that their choices are not in any sense free because free will doesn’t even make sense. Choices and will, instead, are situated in our nature — and wouldn’t make sense any other way.

    In that way, both the QBC argument that “Just because you view many of your previous choices as limiting future choices doesn’t mean you aren’t choosing”, your argument that “some of the greatest gifts life gives us come when life denies us a choice,” and the Calvinist nature-situated will have some commonality. It’s just they differ on what the “X” and “Y” are and what the “A” is that is disallowed.

    “You want ‘faith’? Tough titties. You get to choose ‘deprave lifestyle one’ and ‘absolute disgust at the way God truly operates as a result of your reprobate nature.’ Sucks to be you. Thank God for such choices! Without them I think we could never find real happiness (although your happiness will not last long.)”

    You pull the “Mormon” and “gay” trick precisely by redefining one of the terms. You get away with it because no one really knows what it means to be Mormon (and this frustrates a lot of people.)

  5. Actually, I just finished reading a great biography of Jonathan Edwards, and he more or less argued that faith is simultaneously driven by choice and predestined, in almost exactly the same way light is simultaneously a wave and a particle. The fact that faith partakes of this kind of dual nature explains, I think, why Calvinists and Arminians (or Lutherans and Catholics) have been at it for centuries, and why they never seem to resolve the argument definitively…

    To each individual making the choice, we must choose as if the choice depended solely on us. And yet, we make choices within a web of contingencies, only a fraction of which we even recognize. So I disagree… I don’t think it’s merely semantic… I think faith is simultaneously fully choice and fully predestined.

    And yes, sometimes we feel trapped and it looks ugly (and I take flak for not making choices the way others think I ought, or for “choosing” to see things differently)… It takes courage to move forward when you’re under fire from all sides, and when you’re not sure you should be moving this way in the first place. But, yes, I’ll stand by what I’ve said. There’s no true joy that can be won any other way.

  6. John,

    But that’s entirely the (semantic) point. You say “I think faith is simultaneously fully choice and fully predestined.”

    Right.

    But is faith simultaneously free choice (or “free will” or even “moral agency”) and fully predestined?

    Nothing in your latest comment evokes the idea of libertarian free will, IMO. Especially not, “To each individual making the choice, we must choose as if the choice depended solely on us. And yet, we make choices within a web of contingencies, only a fraction of which we even recognize.”

    Had you not had the experiences you’ve had, would you believe as you do? Suppose you had had none of the visions, none of the divine encounters, none of that, then would you think the way you do? Would you be in the situation of making choices contrary to the ones others think you ought? Would you be in the situation of seeing things differently?

    From reading your story, it seems even CLEARER that you didn’t choose that.

    To elaborate, the reason I think there is a chafing between your outlook, your path, and what people think you “ought” to do or believe is precisely the difference between the elect and the reprobate. The many people who go to your blog trying to say you’re wrong and you are going down a wrong path and you don’t believe what you should believe and blah blah blah can’t begin to understand your experiences because…they don’t have the capacity to.

  7. Based upon my own personal experiences, there does appear to be a place in the brain that when consciously “entered” dispells all disbelief.

    I have been performing my own experiments with this area and I can take something that I doubt, or that has no evidence for being true, whatsoever, which my rational mind tells me to disbelieve, and take it consciously into this area, and when I am focussed there and make the attempt to believe it, I believe it. I can then then consciously “remove myself” (or remove my focus) from that area and enter the rational part of the brain and consciously allow the belief to be dispelled and turn into doubt.

    Based upon these personal experiments, I am of the opinion that the brain has two oppositely functioning areas, one that dispells belief and engenders doubt and one the dispells doubt and engenders belief.

    So, I am now of the opinion that we literally can choose our beliefs.

  8. LDS Anarchist,

    wat.

  9. White Adipose Tissue?
    We Are Talented?
    Work Adjustment Training?
    Wafer Acceptance Test?
    Website Administration Tool?
    Wheel and Track?
    Workshop on Agreement Technologies?
    Wide Area Tandem?
    Work Authorization Tracking?
    Wireless Action Team?
    Wet Anode Tantalum?
    Washington Accessible Taxi?
    Welcome Any Time?
    We Aren’t Trying?
    War Against Terrorism?

    I’m sorry, Andrew, I just don’t get yer meaning…did I come close?

    • Don’t worry, “wat” is the internet spelling of “what”? We’ll get rid of that superfluous h one of these days!

  10. I wonder if this is something like a person who is extremely afraid of flying in airplanes. And you tell the guy, “Look, being in an airplane is actually quite safe… I mean, we get in cars every day and we’re really far more exposed to danger in a car, people die in car crashes all the time. Airplanes almost never crash.”

    But then the guy responds with, “But you can’t CONTROL the airplane, you’re helpless, nobody can do anything.” Well, that’s the reason it’s safer, because an average guy isn’t controlling it, silly. And then your friend says, “Okay, well, I see your point. But flying is still really scary.”

    Maybe at some point your friend is forced to get on a plane in order to do something important. Maybe he uses your logic to explain to himself why flying is actually quite safe, and that gives him the added edge that helps him get on the plane without being terrified. Or maybe he just drinks a little before he gets on to settle his nerves. Or maybe he doesn’t get on at all because he just can’t overcome his fears. Maybe he passes out during the enhanced pat-down.

    What does the guy “believe”? Does he believe he’s safe… or not? Does knowing the facts give the guy hope? What are his “beliefs” about flying?

  11. Syphax,

    Supposing his fear only came from some belief that airplanes are not safe, and he still has the fear, then he still isn’t convinced that airplanes are safe.

    Knowing the facts aren’t enough; the facts have to be personally persuasive and compelling. One has to *understand* and *comprehend*. (This is my problem with a lot of math. Math makes next to no sense to me, so learning about math does little good for me, because it goes in one ear and out the other. People assure me it’s quite logical and systematic, but…)

    I don’t think that fear coordinates one to one with a belief, though, so I think that the first line I had doesn’t necessarily hold.

    But I think your example has something important. Let’s suppose that he weren’t “terminally” afraid (e.g., “doesn’t get on at all” or “passes out during the pat-down.”) If he successfully gets on the plane, does that mean he is not afraid of flying? Does that mean he consciously chose his feelings?

    People can do things against their feelings and judgments…and they do so all the time “in order to do something important.”

  12. Right. I’m not trying to equate faith with fear, but only trying to illustrate the fact that “belief” is rather an abstraction that is extremely difficult to extract from the big mess it’s entangled with. That mess includes our behaviors, our desires, our goals, what we perceive the facts to be, whether those facts are emotionally compelling, whether that emotional compulsion overpowers other things that are also emotionally compelling. Mix that together with a natural yet flawed ability to factor in the likelihood of an event occurring (does it make you feel better that a bad thing has only a 1% chance of occurring? what about 0.001%?), and it’s just a big mess.

    Neither will I make any attempt of solving this problem. I only point them out. Solving them is somebody else’s department.

    *grabbing coat, hat, and flipping off light*

  13. Hi again Andrew!

    So, that essay of mine on choosing to believe that I mentioned way back in December FINALLY came out this week! Here’s a link:

    http://theresedoucet.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/a-surefire-recipe-for-unassailable-faith-involving-four-judgments-and-a-vegetable-analogy/

    Hope you enjoy! :)

  14. This is so timely! I just got through talking about choosing to believe (yet AGAIN) just recently, so this is a great treat indeed!

  15. Thanks so much Andrew! I really enjoyed reading your post on cultural Mormonism over at Wheat and Tares too – and very much appreciate the link to my essay!

  16. Therese,

    Yeah, I just got around to reading the entire thing recently…the actually “recipe”, I thought was very intriguing, and I’m going to write a post here about it pretty soon.

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