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.
Wonderful, clear post; thanks for it.
Have you ever noticed that people convince themselves that something is true, though? That they, for example, tell a little white lie, and tell it so many times, embellishing on it, that eventually they come to believe it themselves?
Posted by: star | October 24, 2010 at 10:54 PM
I too was about to comment on people convincing themselves that something is true. This happens more often than we realize.
With many beliefs, there is a necessary antecedent: The desire to believe. If the desire to believe did not exist, I don't think most religions, conspiracy theories, etc., would ever take hold. The desire to believe is what tunes a person in more to one side of the discussion than another. For example, I enjoy debating 9/11 "Truthers." Like creationists, these people will ignore every argument and piece of evidence you can throw at them -- because, I believe, they have a desire to believe in a mysterious and scary shadow government or some such thing pulling the strings in the background, like Yahweh. They want to believe a narrative that's far more compelling and interesting than a handful of Saudi piss-ants with box cutters, fire, and gravity. Meanwhile, of course, they accuse me of ignoring their evidence, telling me that I must believe the "official account" because I want to convince myself that my government isn't lying to me. Of course, I don't believe that's why I believe what I believe, in part because I admittedly don't want to believe that's why I would believe such a thing!
Human beings are not Mr. Spocks who naturally weigh the evidence on both sides and come to a dispassionate, informed position, which they subsequently believe. (There probably aren't any religions or conspiracy theories on the planet Vulcan.) For most Earthlings, the desire to believe starts them off in one direction, and barring a mental "avalanche" -- to reference another recent post of yours -- that's the direction they end up going.
Posted by: Karl Coryat | October 25, 2010 at 04:39 PM
Thanks Brian for this wonderful article!
I met a couple of guys over at my university...they were from some Youth Christian movement.
They showed me some pictures, and asked me to choose the ones I thought represented my life, God and the spiritual journey I'd taken, and what I though about Christ being the savior etc.
I asked them this question: Believing in God and Christ means that I believe that this 'belief' will bring something positive in my life. By my own experience of Hinduism, Sikihism, Spiritual movements (RSSB) and a bit of Christianity, I don't think there's any truth value in believing in the first place. Infact it just creates a bias towards relating everything positive to the wonders of this 'belief'. I believe in myself, and humanity, and science that can explain me, my brain and my behaviors more accurately than anything else in the world.
I was expecting a nice discussion, but they didn't answer my question and quickly made an exit...I hope I didn't offend them.
Posted by: dman | October 26, 2010 at 03:12 AM
Beliefs are what causes war, greed and insanity. Most people believe that beliefs are truth without really thinking about it and hence when you try to challenge those beliefs they get irritated. Beliefs are programs but people don't realize this. I think it takes some courage to look at yourself and your beliefs. But with effort you can be free of beliefs
Posted by: Mits | October 26, 2010 at 05:30 AM
Who are these PEOPLE? Where did they come from? I think they need to be punished.
They must be different from the TEXAS RANGERS... GO RANGERS!!!!!!
Posted by: Roger | October 26, 2010 at 09:02 AM
beliefs do not cause "war, greed and insanity"... people do.
it is people who make war and who act greedily or insanely. it is people who commit sinful actions and bad behavior, not beliefs. beliefs are merely ideas, not actions. action is karma.
there are many beliefs, in fact all sorts of beliefs. but it is action (karma) which is the cause of war. acting greedily is action. and insanity has various possible causes - usually that of brain chemistry and/or emotional immaturity or instability.
it is not beliefs which are the causes of war, greed, or insanity... it is simply bad actions, or selfishness, or neurological and emotional imbalances.
Posted by: tAo | October 26, 2010 at 03:33 PM