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Do we consciously choose our beliefs?

September 29, 2009



I think it sounds nice to say that we choose our beliefs…and especially if we’ve grown up in a framework that places high value on “free will” (such as Mormonism), it just sounds better to say that we choose our beliefs. So we believe in the church, in God, in revelation, in prophecy, and so on, because we choose. Or if we don’t, we don’t believe because we choose.

Yes, it sounds nice. But is it right?

I probably won’t be able to make a conclusive way, but I think we don’t choose our beliefs…or rather, if we DO, then our choice is not in a vacuum. It is not “free” will, but highly limited, regulated, directed will. I’ve written about this before, but this time, my comments are in response to James’s post at Thinking in a Marrow Bone.

Going to James’s post, there actually is a lot I agree with. It’s actually kinda baffling that he comes to the conclusion that he comes to (but not inexplicable…I think he concludes the way he does because it is the most personally persuasive conclusion.) For example, let’s take James’s reference to A Christmas Carol and his comments afterward:

At the conclusion of Scrooge’s experience, you would be hardpressed to get him to chalk up the whole experience to an “undigested bit of beef.” Certainly, the possibility still existed. However, Scrooge would never accept that possibility because he was changed, in a penetrating way, because of his experience. There is something about revelatory experiences that invites us to interpret them as such. When we accept that invitation, we abandon alternative interpretations and open ourselves to be changed forever.

I agree with this accounting. As a result of Scrooge’s experiences, he is personally persuaded or inclined to believe a certain way…namely…that his experiences were not “an undigested bit of beef.” So, regardless of all the evidence in the world that could suggest alternative explanations, what matter is what personally persuades Scrooge…and as James notes…Scrooge is changed in a penetrating way by his lived experience. Similarly, something changes members who have what they deem to be revelatory experiences…this INCLINES and PERSUADES these members to interpret the experiences as revelatory. Even if they do have a choice on belief (which hasn’t been established), the fact — that James admits with Scrooge — is that after someone has a “penetrating lived experience,” you’d be “hardpressed” to get that person to chalk up the whole thing to some alternative explanation.

I admit that there is SOMETHING we can choose. We can choose actions (ignore the possibility that free will in this realm is just illusory). So, regardless of belief or nonbelief, regardless of personally persuasive evidence or the lack thereof, we can choose to act in certain ways. And when we do this, what may happen is that we might make it more likely that we come across a penetrating experience that changes our beliefs. But this isn’t the same thing as saying we consciously chose our beliefs, for we did not. The “penetrating experience” often isn’t reliable or predictable, so we can’t establish a prescription: do x, y, and z, and get outcome 1. (Although the church tries to establish such a prescription: read scriptures, fast, pray, and endure to the end [among other things,] and get a testimony…but this prescription, because it isn’t bona fide, reliable, or predictable, leads to heartache for many.)

My problem with James’s post is because, out of nowhere, he claims, “In other words, we choose to believe.”

I don’t think his essay bears that out. Rather, he writes: there are many plausible, possible explanations. A person who deems his experience to be revelatory could be a prey of confirmation bias, or he could be misattributing a coincidental hormone change. But does that mean that members “choose” to believe in either confirmation bias, coincidental hormone change, or bona fide revelation?

I don’t think so…rather…each member will see all of these options and recognize that one of them feels intuitive (regardless of it is or is not actually true.) The individual is inclined to one explanation or another. James really states it well earlier in his article when he says: “However, there was something about the experiences that invited me to believe that they were communications from God.”

So, I think he is being somewhat opportunistic in his verbiage (and by the same token, perhaps I am too…to make my contrasting point). Was James invited to believe, to which he still had to make the choice to believe or not? I think that, from a basic standpoint, this is imprecise…no, James was inclined to believe, which he did. Rather, James was invited to act on that belief. So, if you do believe that x experience is a spiritual experience from God (because this is the most personally persuasive option, not because you “choose” it), then really, the question is what will you do based on this. Presumably, you will try to seek what God wants you to do. However, I would concede — in a more technical fashion — that even if belief were a choice — it would not be in as “free” as James might like it. Rather, James is already incredibly biased for believing it is of God — because of his lived experience. So why would he “choose” otherwise? Free will and choice aren’t so free.

Why do I harp on this point? I think it is because this kind of idea brings so many people pain. If people grow up with the idea that they can just choose to have faith and choose to believe…then when they don’t…and when they don’t have personally persuasive evidence or an inclination to believe, then they will beat themselves up for it. They will try to commit to actions (because these are chosen), but because they don’t have the belief framework behind it (and this isn’t chosen), they will feel miserable and mismatched.

I think the same is true for believers. If they believe (because it is most personally persuasive to do so), then although they can look at “alternative” explanations and see they are plausible, trying to make these explanations fit just because they are “scientific” (or because of whatever alternative appeal) isn’t going to work. They will drive themselves miserable if they try to go against their very grain.


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  1. If we define freedom the way the “rah rah free will” crowd wants us to, then “free will” is a nonsensical oxymoron.

  2. yeah, these days, I don’t even know the full *scope* of what free will advocates want to include in it.

  3. Sofal permalink

    I completely agree with this. You can only indirectly influence your beliefs. For example, the people you choose to associate with can have a strong effect on your beliefs. The books (and blogs!) that you read can influence it.

    There comes a point (at least for me) when you reach a certain level of perceptiveness on the objective likelihood of events and explanations; when you can look at other people that are completely different than you are and realize that your world view and belief system cannot hold any more weight than theirs without first accepting the premise that you are more intelligent or spiritually deserving/blessed than they are, which is completely improbable for all people who don’t share your beliefs. You look at religious people from all sorts of different backgrounds and they can be just as convinced that they are right as any Mormon is, and they have just as many miraculous, subjective, faith-promoting experiences as any Mormon could hope to have. You reach into your own church’s doctrine and history and you find a thousand little factoids that don’t prove any big point individually, but which together form a comprehensive view of how completely improbable the offered explanation is.

    You’ve gone through life. You’ve had diverse experiences. You’ve read and heard a million opinions. You’ve observed cause and effect in action innumerable times. You’ve seen lies of all different shapes and sizes, some inadvertent, some intentional. You’ve observed how tradition and culture can propagate both beautiful and ugly things. You have glimpsed into the expansive orchestra of gray areas that make up the human experience. In the end, you cannot simply choose to believe in something which immediately strikes you as implausible without some kind of jarring and convincing personal experience. And I’m not talking about the “I kinda felt peaceful” experience. I mean you are being told the sun revolves around the Earth and you need some serious confirmation of this and NOW would be a great time. They keep touting The Formula for getting this experience and it never works. It’s like you’re in a chemistry class and no matter what you cannot get your experiment to turn out the way everyone else’s does. Either the chemical reaction happened or it didn’t.

  4. I think I would probably distinguish between an active faith and belief in this analysis. For example, I can look at the world, my body, the earth, the sky, etc., and conclude one of two things: a, the come from God, or b, they are the random result of various evolutionary and genetic permutations over millennia. Both are possible, although the second is the more logical (in some ways). I choose to believe in the first, because I find that it gives me motivation and I prefer to believe I’m not talking to myself when I pray.

    However, where it becomes active faith is when the super-natural kicks in – Voices in your head. Feelings of peace. Dreams. Visions. Otherwise seemingly unexplainable things with subjective meaning to them. Those are the things that make the belief worthwhile, and sustainable. But I do think that you can choose belief to start with.

  5. Madam Curie:

    I don’t think you *choose* to believe in one or the other. You’re trying to separate ‘logic’ from everything else, and I don’t think it works that way.

    No, logic is just a system of rules. So, religions have logical frameworks (that is, most of them don’t have gaping fallacies in their arguments). Nonreligions also have logical frameworks (that is, they don’t have gaping fallacies either.)

    So, you can’ just say “One is more logical”…as long as both are logically valid, both are logical.

    The question is soundness. The premises of each argument differ, and we have to figure which are true. The problem is we don’t necessarily have proof…so this is taken on faith.

    This isn’t a faith we choose though. Rather, you have subjective experiences and motivations that seal the deal. The first is more attractive and appealing to you because it gives you motivation.

    But I should certainly hope you aren’t CHOOSING this. Because let me tell you what happens if you are choosing. Then that means that it really IS NOT convincing to you that God exists and has created all of these things, but you are just choosing to admit it (in the same way you could certainly could TRY to admit that 2+2 = 5, but it would no be convincing or persuasive…you’d be forcing yourself to try to believe in something or not). You are not simply choosing to believe that you are talking to yourself when you pray (I hope!), because if you’re just choosing, that means you have NO inclination or motivation to trust that God is really listening. You are just deceiving yourself.

    I don’t know how I can really iterate this.

    No, you believe God is there when you pray because SOME SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE makes that the most persuasive alternative. Because if you LACK this persuasive attribute — whatever it is — then all you’re really doing is trying to make yourself believe 2 + 2 = 5, and you will never get very far with that.

    Nonbelievers who try to believe are exactly in the position that they are trying to make 2 + 2 = 5. It doesn’t work for them no matter what they do, because they can’t choose for this to make sense to them. It either will or it will not (obviously, mathematics are objective, so this is a bad example, because if 2+2 = 5 seems right to you, then that’s a deficiency with you. Religion is not the same way…we simply don’t know of an *objectively right answer*…but we can still determine what SEEMS subjectively right.)

    The same can be true for believers. Believers who try not to believe (maybe because they THINK that nonbelief is more “logical,” WHATEVER THAT EVEN MEANS) are trying to make 2+2 = 5. But they cannot simply wave off the uncertainty, doubt, uneasiness…they cannot wave off these experiences they TRULY feel are spiritual but cannot adequately account for with natural explanations (because the natural explanations aren’t persuasive to them.)

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