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The Perception of Free Will for Actions and Beliefs

February 24, 2010

Honestly, I dislike discussions about free will. I am not a philosopher nor a physicist (nor anything else that would have a credible stake in the discussion). Much like Mormon history, most of the time, I don’t care, since these issues are not the decisive issues for me.

Instead, what has interested me is the perception. The subjectivity. What I feel, observe, perceive, whatever.

My thoughts on the subject are simple: regardless of if “free will” exists or not, I perceive I have free will. At least, to an extent. I perceive free will of action. I don’t perceive free will for, say, beliefs and feelings. This seems kinda basic to me, but for some reason, I seem to get a lot of opposition here.

People often say, “I choose to be …” or “I choose to believe …” These kinds of statements seem ludicrous to me. In my perception, it seems apt to say I can choose to do things. Like, I can choose to flail my arm. I can choose to stop flailing.

But can I choose to be happy at a moment’s notice? I don’t think so. Thinking, “I’m happy” won’t make me feel genuinely, deeply spontaneously happy. I’ll still be whatever emotion I was (currently: that neutral content state) and a thought will push back: “What do you think you’re doing?”

The same with beliefs. Thinking, “I believe in God” doesn’t make me genuinely, deeply, truly believe that. In fact, even this very though process pushes back reactionary thoughts: “Why are you lying? Why are you lying to me?”

I understand that my feelings and beliefs aren’t just set and stone. After all, my emotions can change. My beliefs, similarly, can change. It’s just that I don’t perceive any action that I can reliably and repeatably do to consciously induce a change in these things. If I try such actions, I feel like I’m gambling, at best.

For example, I think that with as-of-yet unappreciated data, people can change beliefs and feelings. For example, if someone gets up and yells in my face, then that will change my neutral contentment to something like anger pretty quickly. If I were to have some tremendous spiritual experience, that might change my beliefs.

It could theoretically be that I could put myself in situations that would be more or less likely to lead to certain changes…unfortunately, things don’t quite work out so well even with this. For example, the church has a “plan” for inducing a testimony. If you study your scriptures, search them out, ponder them, pray, fast, attend church meetings then…you should gain a testimony. Or at least, you should increase your chances.

But this doesn’t mean everyone who does these things will have a testimony. Instead, it’s just like committing to playing the slot machines 10 times instead of 1, in my mind. I can’t consciously control the chance mechanism, and in some cases, the odds are quite against me.

When I talk to some others, what I am most baffled by is the fact that many other people don’t seem to even think that they operate like that. They perceive (or at least, they say they perceive) just as much freedom for beliefs as they perceive for actions.

I’m always incredulous when hearing something like that. I try to find situations when they would agree that they couldn’t easily choose the other way (it’s a similar tactic with heterosexuality and homosexuality. To people who really think it is chosen…uh, then why don’t you demonstrate that for me? Just for 10 minutes and then you can go back, right?) I feel that many people, when they make such a claim, may be downplaying the unconscious processes that predispose them to certain interpretations, certain understandings, certain gut reactions. Or many others, I feel, are afraid to admit such a lack of perception of free will — many people are afraid to think that they aren’t free enough to change their beliefs on a dime.

I think that if there were such radical free will, we’d see quite different things in life than we do. For example, if I could consciously choose my emotions, then why would I ever suffer sadness or anger? Heck, why would I ever deal with this neutral contentment. Wouldn’t I just put myself on a high for most of the time?

Too, it would be convenient to be a belief chameleon. Sometimes, it’s easier just to agree with the group. But if I could change my beliefs, then I could do more than just say I agree with the group. Instead, I could change my very reaction to the statement of belief so that I reacted in wholehearted favor. But no, I have that internal person who asks, “Why are you lying?”

However, if I were a belief chameleon, I don’t know who I would be. If I could change what I intuited, what I comprehended, what I understood or believed with some will, then who would I be? I couldn’t be my values — because my values would be a matter of choice. I couldn’t be my beliefs, because my beliefs could change with the situation with whatever effort.

Perhaps being a chameleon is good enough?


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  1. christianclarityreview permalink

    ..and the only way to even speak of the problem outisd eof Christ is within the arch-typical paradigms of a speech that affirms free will: to say “I would ( react in a arch-typical manner) if “..

    you may or may not get angry if someone yells in your face –no matter what they say.

    i.e. even the perception of free will has to be controlled and constantly maintained within emotional parameters presented as arch typical (“what you would ideally do if”).. you’re being fed those arch typical representations specifically to keep you in a thought cycle that at least makes free will seem possible. They don’t come from outer space.

    That’s the delusion that non-creating speech/human speech is and the evidence of being fallen, not simply living the consequences of someone else’s fall. Original sin was the introduction of non-creating speech to men.. it wasn’t a one time ‘act’ it was the introduction of the now-common human speech.

    If you can hear: God Says ..directly to that non-creating speech, that maintenance of the delusion of free will that is a living creature:

    Isaiah 47:10-15 For thou hast confided in thy wickedness: thou hast said, None seeth me. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath seduced thee; and thou hast said in thy heart, It is I, and there is none but me. But evil shall come upon thee–thou shalt not know from whence it riseth; and mischief shall fall upon thee, which thou shalt not be able to ward off; and desolation that thou suspectest not shall come upon thee suddenly. Stand now with thine enchantments and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to turn them to profit, if so be thou mayest cause terror. Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the interpreters of the heavens, the observers of the stars, who predict according to the new moons what shall come upon thee, stand up, and save thee. Behold, they shall be as stubble, the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame: there shall not be a coal to warm at, nor fire to sit before it. Thus shall they be unto thee with whom thou hast laboured, they that trafficked with thee from thy youth: they shall wander every one to his own quarter; there is none to save thee.


    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

    • You lost me. Perhaps you can bring more clarity in your next comment?

  2. I think choosing how we feel is quite different from choosing what we believe. I have experience of trying to manipulate my own feelings to be what they’re not, and I finally learned that it doesn’t really work. Although it may preclude psychopathy. 😉

    But when it comes to beliefs? I think there the brain is more malleable. For example, I think there have been studies done where, just by saying something enough, people do actually begin to believe it more.

    Although again, convincing oneself to belief something against evidence may affect psychological well-being.

  3. Sarah,

    Well, what I was thinking when I made the comparison is that my beliefs often are very tied to emotions and feelings. Part of the deal of my beliefs is that they are tied to a package of emotions that I can’t ignore or redefine. So, for me, it’s like you say — trying to manipulate feelings to be what they’re not…doesn’t really work.

    I find that most people raise up the neuroplasticity of the brain, faking it until you make it, etc., as a way to change beliefs. But to me, this seems very iffy. It is, like I said in the post, gambling. You never control when you win. Rather, that is always inaccessible to you…you are just pulling the slot machine lever again and again, or throwing the dice again and again.

    Even if you do this, you don’t have a guarantee of winning.

    And for me, when I do this gambling, I feel *terrible* in the process. The emotional reaction is enough for me to say, “OK, I’m going to stop this. It’s not worth it.”

  4. Yeah, free will is tough for me too.
    Like you, I am very suspect of much free will.
    I am very well aware of the locomotive of habits I have behind me.
    I have heard that our only real free will is to decide to NOT do something. Can’t remember where I read that though.
    Thought I’d through that in there to confuse the picture a little more.

  5. FireTag permalink

    What I find scary is that we do know enough about how our minds work to envision being able to manipulate beliefs and emotions at the brain chemistry level on a time frame of decades — it may be 2084 instead of 1984 in the book title, but definitely raises questions of power and authenticity.

  6. Sabio,

    I guess the locomotive of habits don’t bother me that much. I think I can perceive to decide *not* to do something. However, I think that if free will is illusory, then the illusion would extend even to “deciding” not to do things.


    Better get to writing that one! Of course, I don’t know how you would crimethink if your very thoughts were manipulated at the brain chemistry level…seems kinda like resistance truly would become more and more futile.

  7. FireTag permalink

    The elimination of crimethink is much more efficient than its enforcement, but the “enlightened” eugenicists of the early 20th Century were on that course. Lucefier’s plan that “none shall be lost” is at least metaphorical for a trend that is always seeking to mount a comeback.

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