Do You Believe

Many times, I’ve argued that we can’t choose what we believe. It’s such a simple fact, but we still hear all the time that people choose this belief or that.

People frequently say, “I choose to believe that people are good.” Or something like that.


You may be able to choose tuna or chicken salad for lunch. To prove this, flip a coin and go with one or the other based on the coin toss. *

You cannot choose to believe that the moon doesn’t exist, or that cows rule the universe. Or whether there’s a God, or whether people are basically good. Wanting to has nothing to do with it.

Flip a coin. Flip heads to believe that the earth rests on the back of a giant turtle and that ships fall off the planet somewhere around New Zealand. Tails and believe that the sun is literally the eye of a fiery chameleon that soon will blink.

I suggest to you that you can’t do it. You can act as though you believe it and you can pretend to believe it. But I don’t think you can choose to actually believe it.

Same goes for God or goodness of humanity. Simply choose to believe the other way for a few minutes, as you would choose the tuna. Can’t.

Getting 1984 on the idea: Let’s say that, in order to make yourself believe something, you subject yourself to shock therapy. You let rats eat your face until you believe the thing. That might work. You might actually begin to believe it.

But still, your choice was to do the therapy, not to believe. The believing comes by itself. After all, if you could just choose to believe, you wouldn’t bother with the therapy. I mean, come on. Rats eating your face? (Winston didn’t get a choice, in 1984. But then, just the threat of the rats was enough to screw him up. No eating necessary.)

So there ya go. People can’t choose what to believe.

* Of course, there’s reason to believe that you don’t get to choose the tuna or chicken salad either. If we started the universe all over again, with every bosun, lepton, and quark in the same position, moving the same way, at the same speed as it was way back in the beginning… would we all be here, billions of years later, doing exactly the same thing we’re doing right now?

Maybe not, thanks to the true randomness of quantum theory. But who knows?

12 Responses to Do You Believe

  1. Kevin November 3, 2008 at 11:03 am #

    Okay, I’ll agree with you that you can’t choose to go directly from disbelief to belief.

    However, I do think you can consciously prepare your mind (or that of another) for a particular belief, making sure that all the conditions are right for a particular belief to take hold.

    So, can you directly choose to believe in God? From a standing start, no. But if you choose to get up every Sunday morning, go to church, immerse yourself in the teachings of the Bible, and reinforce everything through associating primarily with other Christians, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to wind up a Christian yourself. And going into it, knowing the likely outcome, was a choice that you made.

    By the same token, when someone says they “choose to believe that people are good”, what they probably mean is that they choose to artificially prejudge situations in order to support their hope that people are good, with the expectation that they will be able to develop a line of reasoning that support the hope and turns it into belief. Example: Driving to work, someone cuts you off. Instead of cursing them, you force yourself to remember that you hope that people are good, and they’re might be an explanation for the rudeness. Two weeks later you’re in a hurry to see your sick friend and you cut someone off accidentally, which reminds you that you took the time to forgive that person, and confirms to you that it was the right thing to do, helping to convert your hope into a belief that people are good.

    So, choosing to believe versus choosing to actively create the conditions that will ultimately (hopefully) result in belief: A distinction, but not a lot of difference.

  2. weeklyrob November 3, 2008 at 11:49 am #

    Kevin: I don’t think I agree.

    I could be wrong, but my guess is that I could do everything you said about being a Christian without ever believing that Jesus Christ was God’s son put on earth to die for our sins. I just don’t see it happening, no matter what I do, short of full-on brainwashing or getting proof.

    As far as believing that people are generally good, you’re assuming that people aren’t saying what they mean. If you’re right, then my point is moot, of course. I don’t think so.

    (By the way, I’d also argue that you can’t choose what you hope for, but maybe that’s for a different day.)

    And lastly, I think that believing something is very different from sort of setting things up so that you’re more likely to believe it with the right input. But I guess that reasonable people can disagree….

  3. Kevin November 3, 2008 at 2:29 pm #

    “Short of full-on brainwashing”.

    I want to make a comment about this, but I think I’ll regret it later.

    At any rate, you COULD resist the conversion to Christianity through ritual, but that’s a choice you’re making to not believe (or a choice to resist). You’re not fertile ground.

    If you WANTED to become a believing Christian, but for some reason had trouble with the leap, immersing yourself into it is a very good way to prepare the ground so that your epiphany can happen, and there’s a pretty darn good chance that an epiphany will come along. For this reason have so many young men gone into the various priesthoods, and I’d wager a majority of them come out the other side of the, um, process having found their calling. I don’t claim it’s anywhere near 100%, as we all know it isn’t, but a lot of people do “find their faith” through intensive, ritual programs.

    Bringing that back to your post, then, I think these people started in a state of unbelief (but hope) and ended in a state of belief, as a result of a concious choice they made. They chose to believe, and took the best path they could come up with to get there.

    So, I’m not trying to argue that people don’t mean it when they say they choose to believe, what I mean is that the phrase has a more complicated meaning than simply “I woke up one morning and decided I was a Buddhist”. I think it means “I conciously choose to take the extra steps necessary in my life to engender a belief”. Which is different from simply saying “I believe”, which probably indicates that no extra steps are necessary, no choice involved.

    Can’t choose what you hope for? Dude, don’t go all Calvinist on me.

    We can choose all sorts of cool things. You can choose to be an optimist, despite your negative nature. It doesn’t mean you’re a natural optimist, it means you engage your brain before you let your nature take over, and you force the optimistic response over the more natural pessimistic response. Men choose to be monogamous, even though there’s strong evidence that we’re naturally inclined to be otherwise. Some people choose to be vegetarian, though we know that human animals have a natural desire to grind bloody flesh between our teeth. And we can choose our hopes, and what to believe.

    And please don’t call me reasonable. 😉

  4. JB November 3, 2008 at 3:17 pm #

    Well, this basically happened to me from birth through the age of about 16:

    “get up every Sunday morning, go to church, immerse yourself in the teachings of the Bible, and reinforce everything through associating primarily with other Christians”

    And I’m agnostic. I didn’t even know I was agnostic until college. Didn’t know what the word meant, didn’t really think I was atheist, but really really didn’t like anything to do with church. Nobody abused me, they just bored me. And threatened me with eternal damnation for what I interpreted as no reason at all. Nobody ever told me I was free not to believe. Nobody told me anything other than dogma. Anybody who was an “atheist” was weird and alien to me, because nobody I knew was that way. We all went to church and sat through the sermon and tried not to fall asleep.

    I pretty much *tried* to be a Christian in college, in order to get next to a girl. Didn’t really take, but I will admit that I didn’t give it my all. I’ve also played a lot of christmas concerts, gone to a lot of services, etc, with Christian girlfriends.

    None of it made me believe in anything other than that nobody knows anything.

  5. weeklyrob November 3, 2008 at 3:23 pm #

    Well, I guess I don’t want to mess with whether most non-believing priests end up believing. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I don’t accept it as given. But it’s aside from my main point, so….

    I’ll just go to the original point that we both agree with, which is that people can’t simply choose to believe something. They can try to keep their minds open, and hope that the thing they can’t control (the actual BELIEVING) happens.

    I also don’t think you can choose to be an optimist, though you can choose to act as though you are one, and may eventually become one. With monogamy and veggies, we can control our actions, but in the cases I’m talking about, we can’t control our minds.

    I’m not a Calvinist, but I know that, just for scientific purposes, I’d like to hope for the Earth’s destruction. Just for ten minutes, so I can see what that’s like. But I can’t. And putting myself on the path to being open-minded about it is different.

    Do you regret commenting yet?

  6. Kevin November 3, 2008 at 4:32 pm #

    No, no, I didn’t make the comment that I would’ve regretted. I said something else, instead.

    And JB, while I can relate to your experience, I would argue that you’re not typical, because 92% of Americans say they believe in God. How could this happen? How could 92% of Americans wind up believing in something for which there is no evidence?

    Rob hasn’t described his theory of how someone comes to believe, only that you can’t force it to happen. 92% of Americans are apparently genetically pre-disposed to belief in God or, alternatively I guess, God has actually revealed his existence to them as fact and it is no longer belief but knowledge.

    Rob, you say “They can try to keep their minds open, and hope that the thing they can’t control (the actual BELIEVING) happens”, with which I agree. I guess my point of contention is that I think the actual believing happens quite often if you take proper steps to make it so.

    You’d like to hope for the Earth’s destruction, just to see what that’s like but think that you can’t. You seem to misapprehend the magnitude of what you want to achieve. To wish for something completely against your nature isn’t a small task to be done in 10 minutes, it’s a large one, with many steps, to be accomplished over many years, if not a lifetime.

    I have great confidence that if you properly dedicated yourself to wishing for the Earth’s destruction, you’d achieve your goal admirably.

  7. weeklyrob November 3, 2008 at 5:27 pm #

    But again, my main point is one that you agree with.

    I think what’s happening here is that you agree so readily that you don’t think that my point is worth stating. But I say it is, because before examining themselves, many people really do think that they simply decide what to believe.

    [And more damaging, they think that other people simply decide what to believe.]

    At the least, they SAY that people simply decide what to believe. And it’s not true. Hence my magnificent post.

    You have a point of contention. Many times, you say, people can decide that they want to believe something that they don’t currently believe. So they take steps and eventually do believe it.

    I don’t think so. I don’t think it happens many times, and I don’t even think it happens occasionally. It’s certainly never happened to me. Has it ever happened to you?

    As for the rest, I doubt that most of those people who believe in God could claim that they choose to do so. I think they’d mostly say that they just do. And they’d be right.

    But again, that’s a whole other subject.

  8. Kevin November 3, 2008 at 9:01 pm #

    We agree. And yet, we don’t. I see it like this:

    Rob says “You can’t walk to Alaska.”
    Kevin says “With enough preparation and hard work I think you could.”
    Rob takes three steps toward me. “See, not in Alaska!”
    Kevin says “I agree, you walked and yet you’re not in Alaska. But I don’t think you’ve proven that you can’t get there from here.”

    As far as the likelihood of willing oneself into belief, I’m pretty sure it happens all the time. It’s the entire premise of competitive coaching, if you think about it. An athlete has no reason to believe he can break a record, as he’s never done it before, and neither has anyone before him. And yet he believes that he can. He wills himself to believe it possible. And he creates all the conditions for that belief, by only hanging around with people who also believe he can do it, by blocking out the negative messages, by immersing himself in his sport and it’s trappings. He consciously drives all doubt from his mind, until, finally, he believes.

  9. BruceS November 4, 2008 at 5:24 pm #

    JB, I’m with you on this. I grew up immersed in a family so Catholic that others called my father “father” as a sort of joke. I was an altar boy. I went to CCD regularly. All it did was give me plenty of evidence of how hypocritical people are. I checked out other Christian sects, and found them worse. If there’s a God, great, but keep his fans away from me.

    Kevin, the 92% figure is likely bogus. Remember that 67% of studies invent their statistics, while 46% skew them (sometimes creating apparent self-contradictions). Whatever the percentage really is, it’s largely self-perpetuating. People are, by and large, stupid and impressionable. They believe in all sorts of silly nonsense. Often, parents instill nonsense in their children. Peers do this at all ages.

    Rob, you may be interested in _The Year of Living Biblically_ by A. J. Jacobs. He makes a concerted attempt to believe in God and Christ, and even gets lots of help. I’m no spoiler.

  10. weeklyrob November 5, 2008 at 1:32 am #

    Kevin: The Alaska thing isn’t anything near a fair analogy.

    For one thing, since this was my post, I think that the argument should be defined by what I wrote. I said, and have said since, that I’m talking about making a choice to believe something in the same way that you choose what’s for lunch.

    You can’t just believe that the moon is made of green cheese in the same way that you can choose what’s for lunch.

    I keep saying variations on this theme, but you keep coming back with arguments about how you think that with enough preparation you may be able to change a belief.

    I also mentioned shock therapy in my post and said then that you make the decision “to do the therapy, not to believe. The believing comes by itself. ”

    So I really do think it’s clear that I’m talking about the moment of change. And, in fact, you’ve agreed that that moment is outside of our control.

    So to follow your analogy with my own:

    Rob: You can’t get to Alaska just by choosing to be there.

    Kevin: You could work to get your muscles strong enough to fly there using feathers.

    Rob: Well, on the one hand, that’s beside the point, and on the other, I doubt that you’re right.

    So we agree on my point, and as to the other bit….

    I don’t agree that an athlete has no reason to believe that he can break a record, or that he wills himself to believe that he can.

    I’d guess that athletes who truly believe that they can break records are pretty damn good athletes. They have lots of reasons to believe it, and maybe the coach tells them truths or lies to get them to believe it.

    To take your version on face value, we have to start with a person who truly believes that it’s impossible to achieve a certain goal. Then this person says to himself, “though this thing is actually impossible, I’m going to try to convince myself that it is possible. I’m going to work toward deluding myself, though I know that it’ll lead to eventual heartache, because I’ll believe that I can do something that I can’t actually do.”

    That’s who we start with. Then we finish with a person who believes that it’s possible.

    If THAT happens all the time, then you have a point. Here’s a person who set out to change his beliefs, and did it.

    I don’t think it’s ever happened to me. I don’t think it happens to sane people. I don’t know how to prove that it doesn’t, but I can say for sure that you haven’t proven to me that it does.

    Bruce: As it happens, I’m not much of a fan of Jacobs. I’ve skimmed the one you mention, as well as his book on reading Britannica. He’s a gimmick guy, which is fine, but not my cuppa.

  11. Kevin November 5, 2008 at 10:10 am #

    Going back to your original post, you said: “Simply choose to believe the other way for a few minutes, as you would choose the tuna. Can’t.”

    So, yup, with that definition, we agree, you’re right.

  12. weeklyrob November 5, 2008 at 1:19 pm #

    I know, it sounds small when that’s my whole point. But I make small points sometimes!

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