Thursday, January 12, 2012

Can We Choose Our Beliefs?

A frequent response to my atheism is that I’ve “chosen” to be atheist, and that I must have some motivation for that choice. Many atheists reply that we do not choose our beliefs, but simply follow the evidence.

A bit of definition is needed here. I don’t believe in a spirit that inhabits our bodies, so I think every choice that we make is unconsciously a result of our genetics, our environment, and possibly some amount of randomness. Choices do not transcend our previous experience. The word “choose” just means the mental process by which we sort through our knowledge to select one of many options.

So the question really boils down to whether the mental process of selecting beliefs is similar to the mental process for choosing our actions. I think that it is under certain circumstances. I believe this because I have seen how humans frequently choose beliefs that are in their own best interest, without additional empirical or logical reasons. For example, a man who falls in love with a woman may convert to that religion (possibly very genuinely), even though he was aware of its doctrine and didn’t find it convincing before meeting the woman.

There are some limits to this ability though. I doubt that any educated, intelligent adult would be able to choose to believe that the Earth is flat. The best she could do would be to act as if she believes the Earth is flat. That is, the more you know about a proposition, the less you are able to choose your beliefs about it. At one point, my belief in God was a choice, but the more I investigated arguments about His existence, the more I became convinced that He does not exist, and the less choice I had in the matter. That alone doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m right, but it does mean that I can no longer choose my beliefs on the subject.

The other caveat is that the more non-epistemological reasons for believing something, your beliefs are less likely to correspond to reality. If you are interested in truth, you should attempt to choose your beliefs purely on evidence that indicates the likelihood of that idea being true. You are free to choose your beliefs for other motivations, but if you do, you’ve reduced the likelihood of your beliefs corresponding to reality.


Rachel said...

So it might be weird for me to jump in on this conversation when I haven't seen you in years, but I really appreciate you posting your blog. I discovered after spending roughly 25 years trying to force myself to believe everything LDS, you really can't make yourself believe anything. Allowing myself open my mind and actually explore what I might believe rather than force certain beliefs on myself has saved me more than Jesus can.

Bennion said...

You're welcome to comment even if I've never seen you, but I would be interested to know who you are! I discovered the same thing though: after trying for some time to believe in the church, I couldn't make myself believe.

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