Here in the United States, you often hear "It's a free country, so...[I can do such and such.]" Reflecting this attitude, I frequently say on this blog that people are free to believe whatever they want to, so long as they don't try to force those beliefs on others.
But Sam Harris has caused me to see the caveats in this. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, a section in the "Belief" chapter is called Do We Have Freedom of Belief?
Short answer: No.
If you ask me to raise a hand, I can choose either my right or my left. Since I'm right-handed, I might expect that you think I'll raise my right, so I could decide to fool you by raising my left.
Or, I could just do whatever I felt like doing at the moment. Right, left -- the decision seemingly is up to me.
On the other hand, if you ask me to either believe that Jesus died for our sins, or to reject this belief, I'm not free to do this. Sure, I could say that I believe in this central tenet of Christianity, but it wouldn't be true. I'd just do it, for example, in an attempt to win a new car, if Christians were the only people able to enter the contest.
Likewise, commenters on this blog have asked why I no longer believe in the guru that I once followed -- apparently assuming that I have a choice in the matter, that I could willingly revert to how I previously felt if I wanted to.
Harris, a neuroscientist, challenges this assumption.
While belief might prove difficult to pinpoint in the brain, many of its mental properties are plain to see. For instance, people do not knowingly believe propositions for bad reasons.
...A belief -- to be actually believed -- entails the corollary belief that we have accepted it because it seems to be true. To really believe a proposition -- whether about facts or values -- we must also believe that we are in touch with reality in such a way that if it were not true, one would not believe it.
We must believe, therefore, that we are not flagrantly in error, deluded, insane, self-deceived, etc... Choosing beliefs freely is not what rational minds do.
Of course, human minds are not always rational, nor are they always privy to all the facts about a situation. So we can choose to believe in something that isn't true.
Today I went back to an auto parts store, a replacement wiper blade in hand, because I was sure that it needed the connector that was on the old blade and this connector didn't seem to snap properly into the new blade.
Three of the four new wiper blades that I'd bought for our two cars had a connector that was the same as what was on the blades I'd gotten last year. I'd tried to snap the fourth connector on, but it didn't seem like it'd fit. So I asked the auto parts guy for help.
He simply walked out to the car and snapped the blade on, saying "It looks like they went to a new connector on this particular size." OK. Instantly I knew that my belief was wrong: there was no need to change the connector; I just hadn't fiddled with it enough.
But before that moment it wasn't possible for me to freely choose that belief. The evidence seemed to point to the 26 inch blade having the wrong connector, since the 18, 19, and 22 inch blades that I'd bought had different shorter connectors.
I was pleased to alter my belief, though, since I didn't want to spend any more time at the auto parts store than was necessary. Such is the way of "science," taking this word to mean what we all do when we're open to fresh facts.
The answer to the question "What should I believe, and why should I believe it?" is generally a scientific one.
Believe a proposition because it is well supported by theory and evidence; believe it because it has been experimentally verified; believe it because a generation of smart people have tried their best to falsify it and failed; believe it because it is true (or seems so).
This is a norm of cognition as well as the core of any scientific mission statement. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned -- there are no facts without values.
Meaning, in part, because that last italicized statement is meaty tofuy, "every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.)" and "beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain."
So we believe what we believe until we no longer believe it. Then we can't go back to believing, just because we may want to.
Have you ever been in love with someone, then fallen out of love? You may remember how nice it was when your relationship was lovey-dovey instead of filled with irritation, harsh words, distance, and tenseness.
It doesn't work, though, to simply tell yourself "I still love _____," because you don't. Your emotions belie that statement. You know it isn't true.
This is why you're going to have to be duplicious if you want to start a new religion even though you're not religious. You might be thinking, "Why would I want to do that?" Well, lots of reasons.
Do you want people to bow down to you whenever they see you? Do you want people to worship you, and think you're God? If they don’t think that you’re God, being God’s Chosen One is almost as good. People should trust God you completely. People should hand control of their lives over to God you. Otherwise you’re not doing it properly.
I enjoyed this Wiki web page, a link to which was emailed to me by a Church of the Churchless visitor (thanks, Robert). But in light of the above evidence about belief not being under our control, I question whether this advice makes sense.
First convince yourself that you have a special relationship with God, the gods, the Aliens, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Other World, Chuck Norris, something wonderful and holy.
If I know that I'm convincing myself to believe something that isn't true, that takes the truthfulness out of my believing -- which makes the belief unbelievable, since I like to believe that my beliefs are actually true.
There's another way, however.
You don't have to convince yourself provided you can convince your followers [see above], but it helps. Anyone can be a self-proclaimed prophet; you just have to proclaim yourself to be a prophet. Then convince your followers that you have a special relationship with God, the gods, the Aliens, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc, something special.
I like the idea of founding my own religion. Being a revered prophet sounds cool to me. I've pretty much given up on the prospects of such reverence coming from anywhere outside of my own psyche, though.
Along this line, Harris speaks of what he really means when he says that his daughter is the "loveliest in the world."
I believe that I have a special attachment to my daughter that largely determines my view of her (which is as it should be). I fully expect other fathers to have a similar bias toward their own daughters. Therefore, I do not believe that my daughter is the loveliest girl in the world in any objective sense.
...What I really believe is that my daughter is the loveliest girl in the world for me.