Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Is belief a choice?

A common theme I have come across when discussing beliefs with Christadelphians is the idea that beliefs are a choice. I find it interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it seems to be an assumption that these Christadelphians have not seriously questioned. Secondly, if true it would lead to some bizarre outcomes.

Let's explore this idea a little further...

So the story goes that God in his infinite wisdom and generosity gave us free will so that we could either choose to believe in him and ultimately live forever (pending further conditions being met) or we could choose not to believe and then simply cease to exist after we die. Since God is not to be blamed for the choices we make, he is therefore not responsible for what we choose to believe. If we don't believe, well that's our choice and God is just honouring that choice. Isn't that nice?

But does this idea actually work in practice?

Suppose for a minute that beliefs are a choice. An act of free will if you like. Choosing to believe in God is thus similar to choosing to eat an ice cream. Just another choice we make during our lifetime.

If this were true, haven't we just opened a set of floodgates? What else could/should we choose to believe in? Suppose there was a greater deity who promised a greater reward? Wouldn't we be better off choosing to believe in that deity instead?

What if there was another deity who promised an eternity of suffering in hell if we didn't worship it? Perhaps we would be better off choosing to believe in that deity, just in case?

What if choosing not to believe made us happier?

Where does evidence fit in?

If beliefs are a choice, does evidence even matter? Why look for evidence that the Bible is true if we could just choose to believe it's true and go from there? Why do Christadelphians point to evidence when trying to persuade others that the Bible is true?

Clearly evidence is deemed important for belief, even by Christadelphians, which leads us to the next question...

What is the relationship between evidence and belief?

There is a lot of discussion in philosophy regarding this topic but I don't want to explore that here. I think such discussions go far deeper than what I'm getting at, and would have implications for both sides of this question. As such, these discussions would unnecessarily complicate this article.

It is perhaps easiest to demonstrate the relationship between evidence and belief by way of a simple thought experiment.

Imagine you're on the top of a very tall cliff face, and you're looking down over the edge. Perhaps this makes you feel a bit scared. Why? The simple answer is that you know that falling from a great height is most likely fatal, and you know that from previous evidence. You may have even hurt yourself during a previous fall, and so your brain rightly tells you to be cautious and avoid situations that might lead to you falling again. Such fear is a learned response. It is (in part) due to a belief in gravity.

You believe that gravity would cause you to fall if you stepped over the edge. What would it take to change this belief? Could you just choose not to believe in gravity? I argue that you could not. The evidence for gravity is overwhelming. That is why you believe it. You didn't choose to believe in gravity and you could not choose not to believe in it. To not believe in gravity would require evidence. Perhaps a lot of evidence.

Let's try another one.

Imagine you're walking along and you hear someone yell "fire!" just around the corner of a building. In the distance you hear sirens approaching. You might believe that a building is on fire.

Now suppose that you immediately here gunshots. As you look around the corner you notice a part of the road blocked off and police cars stationed everywhere. A team of armed police hide behind cars and other buildings, with their weapons aimed directly at a nearby shop window. Their expressions are serious and intense. Note that your beliefs changed automatically because of new evidence.

Before you turn to run away you notice a group of bystanders calmly watching what's going on, and other people casually walking along talking to each other on the other side of the road. You hear someone yell "cut!" and then you notice the film crew positioned all around. You notice that the police and other people involved instantly relax and start chatting to one another calmly while the camera operators make adjustments and regroup for another take. Now your beliefs about the whole thing are radically different again.

Could you go back to choosing to believe that the building was on fire? I doubt it. Could you choose to still believe that anyone was in danger? I doubt that too. Your beliefs follow the evidence you are aware of and what you find convincing. As you become aware of new evidence, your beliefs change with it. You have no control over how your beliefs change. All you can do is try to assess the evidence and figure out what's happening. Some of that process is automatic as well.

There are exceptions where beliefs do not change when new evidence comes to light. Some beliefs may be held so strongly that no amount of evidence will convince you otherwise. All humans are wired this way. As an aside, if you believe that God designed and created us, then you would have to believe that God created us this way. That would make God ultimately responsible for the human tendency to hold onto pre-existing beliefs despite contrary evidence. I'm not going to follow that line of reasoning any further, but it may be worth thinking about.

We have many cognitive biases that get in the way of our ability to reason and think critically. That means we may form irrational beliefs based on poor evidence or we may hold onto incorrect beliefs based on poor reasoning. The scientific method is probably our best method for overcoming these cognitive biases.

Blind faith?

If beliefs are determined by evidence, then why do some people say they believe in things when they don't have (good) evidence?

I think what is going on in most such instances is that these people actually do believe based on evidence, but that the evidence they cite is actually just the result of poor reasoning ability and a lack of critical thinking. My reason for thinking this is because if you ask anyone why they believe something, they will always provide a reason. That reason is synonymous with "evidence" in this context. If someone could not provide a reason, I would have to doubt whether they really believed what they claim. Perhaps they have reasons that they cannot articulate. Either way, this would still be belief based on evidence. Note that such evidence does not need to be empirical in order for a belief to be based on it.

There are other cases where people believe things beyond where the empirical evidence takes them. In this case, the evidence would be partly empirical and partly based on reasoning as to the best explanation. You might argue that this reasoning is done consciously and is therefore a choice. I would respond that no one holds a belief based on what they feel is not the best explanation. To put it another way, if we only believe based on what we feel is the best or most likely explanation of the evidence, then we cannot choose to believe otherwise. If we later discover a better explanation, or if we later arrive at a better explanation through logic and reason, then our belief will change accordingly. We could not arrive at a better explanation without also having our beliefs automatically change as well.

Let's pretend

It seems to me that whilst we cannot simply choose to believe what we like, we can say we believe whatever we like. In other words, it's possible for people to pretend to believe. And there are many reasons why someone would do that.

For example, pretending to believe in God might make you feel accepted by your peers and your family. You might feel overwhelmed by some situation and pray to a god hoping that such a being exists who can help you.

Perhaps it is even possible to deceive oneself into believing in God. The easiest person to fool is ourselves, so I could imagine that it would be possible to fool ourselves into believing something. However it's not clear to me whether such a belief would be a real belief or just a means of pretending.

To be clear, I do not advocate pretending to believe anything, unless your personal safety or the safety of others is at risk. Pretending to believe is simply dishonest and I am strongly opposed to dishonesty.

The evidence I am aware of does not point to the existence of any deity. In fact quite the opposite. I cannot simply choose to believe. If I were to attempt that, all I would really be doing is pretending to believe. I am sure that any deity worth the title would not be impressed by that. It would be futile and actually insulting to said deity. I would also be undermining my own integrity and rationality.

Belief is not about choice

I have demonstrated that beliefs are not a choice.

This raises serious questions about the Christadelphian belief system:

  • Given the clear link between evidence and belief, if God does not provide clear and convincing evidence that he exists to every individual on earth, on what basis can he hold these individuals accountable for not believing in him?
  • Again, if someone's incorrect belief is the result of cognitive biases that God is ultimately responsible for, how can God hold such people accountable? Isn't God accountable in these cases?
  • If beliefs are not a choice, why do Christadelphians require people to accept a statement of beliefs (statement of faith) in order to become/remain members?
  • If beliefs are not a choice, then how is it fair for God to offer salvation conditionally based on belief?
  • If beliefs are not a choice, does this not agree with the fact that beliefs are largely dependent on cultural factors such as where you were born, the beliefs of your parents/peers etc?
    • Given that the vast majority of modern Christadelphians were born into the religion, doesn't that make most of Christadelphianism (and most other religions) merely a cultural phenomenon?


Finally, if beliefs are not a choice, then the way to confirm or revise your beliefs is through evidence, not willpower. The more evidence you have, and the more diverse that evidence is, the more likely it is that your beliefs are true. However, unless you are prepared to investigate all of the evidence, regardless of your current beliefs, you will never arrive at truth.

Beware of motivated reasoning, and confirmation bias, both of which will see you dismissing or downplaying any new evidence that is contrary to what you already believe, whilst only holding to any evidence that supports your existing beliefs, no matter how weak or strong that evidence is.

If you really want to know if your beliefs are true, look earnestly for evidence that might prove them false. If your beliefs are not able to be tested or verified, then there is no way to know whether they are true. If there is no way to know whether your beliefs are true, then you could be deceived and you would have no way of knowing. If you're right, you would only be right by accident. If you hold onto beliefs that cannot be tested or verified, why should anyone take you seriously? How could they know you're not making it all up?

Do you understand the reasons why other people believe things you don't? Are you aware of the evidence that supports their beliefs? All of it? The best you can do is keep your mind as open as possible while you gather evidence, and attempt to follow the truth wherever it leads. If you form your beliefs before assessing the evidence, then you'll never arrive at truth. If you're not prepared to change your mind when new evidence comes to light, then your search for truth is not objective. If you're not open to new evidence, then you're not searching for truth. It's as simple as that.

Follow the truth, wherever it leads, even if that makes you uncomfortable. It will be worth it in the end.