Do We Choose Belief?

Many state blithely that they choose to believe this or that. The statement, on the face of it, is absurd. It is impossible for most of us to believe, for example, that 2 + 3 = 6. This proves easily that some beliefs are impossible, but it does not prove that it is impossible to choose some beliefs. Some people believe blue is attractive and other find it much less attractive. If I am forced to live or work in an environment where nearly every thing around me is blue, it is in my interest to believe that blue is attractive. It may or may not be possible for me to choose to be attracted to blue, but it does not really matter as this does not seem to be a belief in the important sense most people want to assign to belief.

When people say they choose to believe something, they are generally talking about something like the existence of moral value or God or mathematics. William James famously declared that our first act of free will is to believe in free will. His point is well taken, by some anyway. Life is filled with choices, and we make choices based on our beliefs. If we do not believe we have control over our beliefs, then we do not believe we have control over our choices. If we do not believe we can make choices, we are rather stuck in the mud. The fact that we carry on with our lives is evidence that most of us at least behave as if free will is possible.

Of course, free will, and freedom of belief are hardly one and the same. Is it possible for someone who believes recreational homicide is wrong to come to a different conclusion by an act of will? It is conceivable (though just barely) that some argument or experience might change ones mind, but this is not an act of will. If I move to a society where disbelief in Odin is punishable by death (no, I am not aware of any such society), I would certainly choose to avow publicly that I believe in Odin, but this avowal would be made much easier by actually being able to believe in Odin, for it is easiest to avow an occurrent belief.

Perhaps if we cannot simply choose a belief, we can choose to examine a belief in more detail in order to move closer to a new belief. I live where belief in Odin is required, but I do not as yet believe in Odin. In fact, I do not have the requisite experience or knowledge to believe in Odin, so I may begin to read texts on the basic tenets of Odin’s followers. I may attend worship services devoted to Odin. I may mimic prayers and sacrifices to Odin, if such are appropriate. I may discuss the virtues of Odin belief with his followers. When I come to understand Odin better, I may come to believe in Odin and declare honestly and proudly, “I choose to believe in the infinite power and mercy of Odin.” I may congratulate myself on discovering ways to choose beliefs. Now, I need only to define a belief.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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2 Responses to Do We Choose Belief?

  1. I have battled the concept of belief myself. I was raised in a Christian home, and early on found myself questioning the many doctrines inside that single faith. This contraversy lead me on an eventual path of disbelief. This was a painful struggle, for I loved my God, and felt a piece of myself dying slowly as I went through this process. I remember praying (the last time I did so) for God to return to me my faith. This did not happen, and I extended to my God that if He was to create me in a way where I had the ability to question, and required that I have true faith for salvation, then that in itself was a contradiction. I also extended to Him at this time that I would no longer believe simply because I should, and my doubt and concern was justified. In designing me this way, if punishment was to be mine, then he could condem me to hell with all the other “believers” of other faiths; for where their beliefs less than mine? (A truely bold statement I know) What choice do I have to have faith. Was it I that made a brain bent on scientific knowledge and against that on religious wisdom. Do I chose anything at all, or am I bent towards these choices already. I will always question, and always have ideas. True enlightenment comes, I believe, from constant criticism of our ideas, and not constant reinforcement of them. For it is easier to agree with ones self than to battle against him, but the easiest path is most often not the correct or “right” one. Instead of belief, ideas are the right path, because changing an idea is much simplier than changing a belief upon further knowledge against such. Constant doubt,is painful, yet appropiate; but what choice do we have in our thinking anyway.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I can relate to your struggle of belief. My grandfather was an avowed atheist, and taught me to believe that science could explain everything. “That all knowledge is scientific knowledge”. as he used to say.. Later in life I began to ask how is it that I know this with absolute certainty? My doubt began by asking questions that science cannot by its nature and design answer…..the why questions (science only answers how something works or behaves or operates) I fought my disbelief that science had all the answers vehemently, but my doubts continued to flood my mind. I soon realized that my belief just a form of scientism. I began to understand that this proposition “all knowledge is scientific knowledge” can not be proved by science. It is a metaphysical statement and assumption that transcends any scientific experiment that could prove it to be true. I began reading Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and came to see that scientific knowledge is only part of the whole but cannot explain the whole. These great thinkers along with Jacques Maritain and a more contemporary Thomist Benedict Ashley, that yes science is first in the order of knowing (epistemology) but science leads to an understanding of the mind and intellect of the Universe.

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