10 February 2011

What, exactly, is belief?

I've had a lot of conversations with friends about my situation and the nature of "belief" seems to come up quite a bit. I'd like to re-create a conversation I recently had with a friend in which he was quite adamant about the nature of choice in belief. In one discussion, we had this exchange (paraphrased, but quite accurately):
Me: I wouldn't describe my situation as a choice, exactly. I'd say that it's more like I've simply begun to ask questions, looked around, and what I've learned combined with however my mind receives the data has formed my non-belief. I'd say that I've more been led or brought to a state rather than looked at a fork in the road and freely chosen an outcome. I'm not convinced that there's much choice involved in belief.
Him: Sure there is.
Me: Well, let me put it this way. What if I asked if it was possible for you to choose to believe in Islam right here, right now. Do you think it's possible? Maybe... but I don't think it would really mean anything to you. Do you agree?
Him: No. I could choose to believe in Islam right now if I wanted to.
Me: Really? But what would it mean to you? Would it mean anything?
Him: Absolutely. I'd start reading the Koran and going to services.
Me: But those are external things, not belief. Do you think you could really choose to believe in Islam right now?
Him: Absolutely. I can choose to believe anything.
Me: Hmmm. What about this: could you choose to believe that the sky is green?
Him: Yes. I can choose to believe anything. I have free will.
Me: But somewhere inside you're not going to be able to ignore the fact that your eyes see blue. On some level, wouldn't those just be words or a statement? You couldn't possibly actually believe it, could you?
Him: No. Absolutely, I could. I have the will to believe anything.

I pretty much couldn't believe my ears. Perhaps it's obvious that I strongly and entirely disagree. Put so strongly as he did (my hunch is that it was purely or mostly out of defensiveness, not as the result of an actual cognitive processing exercise), belief essentially means nothing. If one can literally believe that the sky is green simply by choosing it... then what does it mean to say that he believes in Jesus Christ as Lord?

Less intensely, I also had a discussion with a very close friend recently about the more "subtle" nature of belief-choice interaction. I re-proposed my theory that "belief" is more like a definition of a state, comprised of available facts, my biases, whatever causes certain interpretations/reactions to those facts, etc. The inputs are what they are... I'm the "black box"... and "belief" is what pops out.

The objections that he kept bringing up were along the lines of scenarios where people seem to make a decision against the intuitive implication of certain facts because they choose to, say, take someone's word. For example, I tell you that I have a dragon in my garage with a straight face. You weight the facts/background information (having no experience of dragons, believing strongly that they are only mythical creatures, thinking that even in mythical portrayals they are too big for my garage, etc.) but choose to believe anyway because you think that my trustworthiness is that good.

But this isn't really choosing for an arbitrary reason to believe. All that's happning is you, the black box, are weighting my trustworthiness against the improbability of the statement... and you find me more believable.

I also theorize a few other items:
  • Many times when we say we're choosing to believe someone despite a lack of supporting evidence or in the face of contradicting evidence... I think that we're really saying that we're okay with choosing to act in a certain way. This isn't belief in my book. We're "going along" with someone's pleadings or insistence simply because the action doesn't require that much investment... but in our minds, we're not convinced.
  • On that note, I think we have a far lower barrier for "belief" or "belief-based-investigation" when the stakes are low. Relatively meaningless propositions about what someone did during their weekend or at work today pass through the BS filter and get integrated with our network of beliefs. There's nothing at stake to investigate.
  • Obviously, the converse is the opposite. When extremely high risks are at stake, we're far more cautious. Just "going along" with a dragon-believing-friend is one thing. Him telling you to bet your life on its existence and then holding a gun to your head as you prepare to open the garage door is far different.

What does all this mean in the context of something like believing or not believing Christianity? I'm not exactly sure! For one, however, I'd at least like to put forth that I don't think my non-belief is anywhere near chosen to the degree that believers would like. I can't believe the number of conversations about this that have skirted the "choice" issue when it comes to belief -- why did I choose to go down this path in the first place? Why can't I just choose to suppose Christianity is true and then research from within the framework of belief? And so on.

Perhaps I'm just self-deluded, but this is not how I've experienced my journey at all. I just started reading and found myself troubled by the fact that for every issue I began reading about, I found that the arguments/propositions/facts of non-believers struck me as far more likely than the apologetic-hoop-jumping I would read on the other side. Of course, it took a heck of a long time (nine years) for my radar to even get set off to the fact that Christianity might not be true! Prior to whatever recipe brought about The Quest, I would say that my belief in Christianity was not chosen, either. My background beliefs, environment which constantly reinforced that Christianity was true and real, and my interpretation of the facts (which were nearly unanimous in arguing for Christianity) led me to continue believing for nine years that Christianity was absolutely true. But I wasn't choosing that. I would say that I was choosing to live my life according to that belief -- praying, going to Mass very often, frequenting confession and adoration, etc. -- but I'm not sure what choice had to do with the belief in the first place.

I'll end by saying that I think we can indirectly influence beliefs. To work on biases, irrational reactions to reasonable arguments and evidence in favor of a contrary position, and being aware of both sides of an issue and as much information about these sides as possible all should help one's belief be aligned with "what is." I still don't think you can choose that belief, but you can help work on the input stream (evidence, arguments, information) and the "black box" (you: biases, tendencies, gut reactions, intuitions, etc.) to help make sure that what comes out the backside is as accurate as possible.

What do you think? Do you "choose" belief?


Like a Child said...

I think you can choose your biases. Emotions can color beliefs (as well as reality). Perhaps I will think differently in the future, but for me, I don't feel like I can choose to believe in the Bible anymore than I can choose to like bananas, for example (I don't like bananas). I can eat them, and over time they might seem more palatable, but half the time when I eat them, I feel nauseous. I can't control that.

There are of course foods that I didn't like as a child that I'm okay with now, but never do I truly love them. I eat my veggies now;)

Another analogy for me would be the sight of blood. It doesn't bother me, mentally, but subconsiously it must be doing something, b/c on occasion I get dizzy or faint at the site of blood. I fainted twice, once during a blood work-up and once when I was volunteering at the hospital while in undergrad, watching a c-section. I worked through this when in lab working on rats, but I often had to fight the feeling of being faint.

DoOrDoNot said...

If you start with the premise that God requires that we believe in Him to receive salvation, then it becomes an action one must do. Period. There's no use arguing that it can't be done, because God has commanded it. If God wants us to believe the sky is green, then the sky is green. It is not an exercise in logic, it is a reflexive obedience. It is an exercise of free will, as your friend said. Your friend has drawn a circle around his free will and you're not allowed to touch it. You threaten his view of salvation if people can't freely choose to believe.

Hendy said...

@LaC: good points. I like that approach and think it jives with my above -- we can change some of the belief "inputs" via choice/effort and these play into the black box outputs. Thanks for sharing. I liked the food analogy as well.

@DoOrDoNot: I agree with respect to his view being challenged. I have to [strongly] disagree with the notion that such a view is actually correct. If belief simply means "live as if", then I think it's possible. One can "live as if" the sky is green, but it would not be based on arbitrary choice/will. It would be based on an input that acting as if the sky is green is a requisite for eternal salvation. The input would produce the actions accordingly.

My stance is that if someone actually believed that "belief" in "the sky is green" was required for eternal life, they would do the following:
- spend a reasonable amount of time considering whether they would actually ever be able to being about such a belief.
- Decide that it was impossible
- Give up the hope of having eternal life.

There is no way that the response would be to somehow manifest belief in the sky being green without also checking one's self into a mental home in the same breath.

In the end, I suppose I agree that his words do reflect, as you point out, what his view of salvation might be, however I believe that if it's the case (like I said above), belief means absolutely nothing and can be chosen for any or no reasons whatsoever. Belief in god is worthless at that point so the insistence on free will being able to form belief is counterproductive.

Ebonmuse said...

I think DoOrDoNot hit the nail on the head with the point that, for some theists, belief must be a volitional act if their theology is to make any sense. Therefore, as far as they're concerned, it is, end of story. Unfortunately, this is just another instance where theology collides with reality. You can certainly reinforce an existing belief by deliberately isolating yourself from contrary evidence, but no one can just spontaneously choose to believe something regardless of the evidence they've seen.

Hendy said...

@Ebon: I agree -- reinforcing old beliefs is definitely more feasible (though I wouldn't say that closing one's eyes and singing "lalalala" will always work either!), while literally choosing to believe x when x is not currently convincing is simply impossible.

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