PM5316: On Freedom of Choice in Belief

Freedom of Choice in Belief
Some say “we have no choice in what we believe”. They are mistaken.

What is belief?

To have a belief is to have, with respect to some proposition, a tendency to:
  1. assert the truth of that proposition in one’s own thoughts
  2. assert the truth of that proposition in one’s communications with others
  3. to act as if the proposition were true
The word “tendency” is important. It is a disposition, but not an insurmountable disposition. If I believe something, then I will be disposed to share that belief with others; and yet, if I do not do so, that does not necessarily imply I lack the belief. For example, suppose I have some belief which is very unpopular; I may decide to keep it to myself, out of fear for the social or other consequences of espousing it; my doing so does not mean I lack belief, because although my belief motivates me to communicate the proposition, another stronger disposition motivates me to refrain from doing so. Similarly, I may possess a belief, but never communicate it with others, because there never arises circumstances in which it would be appropriate to do so. I believe “water is a liquid”, but I am not going to say or write that unless it is somehow cogent to our discussion.

We might say that only in the first prong, of inner thought, is the tendency absolute. One can believe something yet have good reasons to not say it is true, or to not otherwise change one’s actions on account of the belief; but if one does not even think something, how can one be said to believe it? The first prong is the only essential and indefeasible component of belief; but the second and third prongs are nonetheless important, both because they are the only externally accessible signs of belief, and because while they are defeasible, they are not irrelevant: one can have a belief yet not communicate it, if either a good occasion for doing so does not arise, or if one has good reason to not do so; but if one has a good occasion to express a belief, and one does not have a good reason to not do so, and yet one does not in such circumstances express it, that implies that one does not actually have the belief in question.

Clearly, tendencies or dispositions can differ in strength, being stronger or weaker. Beliefs will differ both in strength when compared to other beliefs, and also in strength compared to other non-belief dispositions – suppose I have some unpopular belief, which if expressed will result in social opprobrium. Now, believing in the belief, I have a disposition to communicate it at others; at the same time, I have a disposition to avoid social opprobrium. Whether I in fact do communicate the belief to others depends, at least in part, on which disposition is stronger – the disposition of belief, or the disposition to avoid opprobrium.

Thus belief is not an either-or question. It is not as simple as you either have a belief or you don’t. You can have a belief weakly, you can have a belief strongly, etc. An attempt to change your beliefs might not change you from an absent belief to a strong one, but maybe it might change an absent belief to a weak one, or a weak belief to a stronger one. Sometimes, in looking for the big changes, we fail to see the smaller ones.

We should also make clear, that the strength of a belief is not the same as the strength of evidence for a belief, or the likelihood that it is true, or so on. One might say that we ought adjust our strength of belief to match the strength of the available evidence, to match the likelihood that the belief is true; but even if ought to do that, that does not mean that we actually do in any particular circumstance. The strength of evidence is not relevant to how strong our beliefs are, although it is relevant to the question of how strong they ought to be.

Now, the question of whether belief is a choice, comes down to whether we can control those three prongs – what we inwardly think, what we outwardly communicate, and how we act. Clearly, the second and third prongs are within our choice – it is our choice what we say or write, it is our generally choice how we act. The real dispute, I think, is regarding the power to control our own thoughts.

Can we control our own thoughts?

Well, we can and we can’t. To some degree, our thoughts have a habit of going where they want to go, not where we want to go. But that does not mean we have no power over our own thoughts. The question is not between perfect control and no control at all – it is recognizing that, while our power is limited, we do have some power. To the extent we have power over our thoughts, then we have power over our beliefs, given that our beliefs are a disposition to think a particular way.
If one wants to control one’s thoughts, how can one do so? Suppose one wants to think a certain way. Here are some approaches which can work, at least to some extent:
  • Choose to read books, visit websites, watch videos, etc., which express the kind of thoughts one wants to think; avoid media which expresses contrary thoughts
  • Associate with people or groups who think the way you want to think; avoid people or groups who think in a contrary manner.
  • Engage in discussion regarding the desired thoughts with those who already think those thoughts, or who share your wish to think that way
  • Look into your heart for your deepest dreams, those most impossible unfulfilled longings – can you find a way to link those longings to your desired patterns of thought?
  • Try methods such as chanting, meditation, prayer, ritual – or one can find in “affirmations” a secular alternative of sorts to prayer
  • Attempt to create art, literature, poetry, etc., which expresses the thoughts you wish to encourage; and refrain from doing so with respect to that which expresses contrary thoughts
Now, none of these methods is perfect, absolute, ultimate, guaranteed, etc. But, if you carry them out, then you are likely to experience at least change in your beliefs. Even if you yourself personally do not, others who try these techniques may find more success than you do. It is a good question to ask yourself, if you find less success with these techniques than do others, why might it be so.

So, based on the above, I would suggest that we do have the power to change our own beliefs – not an absolute and unfettered power, but not no power either.

Objection – If I can change my beliefs to whatever I want, I could make myself believe that the moon is made of green cheese. But try as hard as I might, I cannot make myself believe that. Hence, I do not have power over my own beliefs.

Response – There is a difference between power to change my beliefs and power to change my beliefs to whatever I want. The former is acknowledging a power, but like most or all other powers that humans have, it is not an unlimited and unfettered power, but a limited one. This is a fallacious argument – that one clearly does not have unlimited power, does not in anyway prove that one is powerless.

To change our beliefs, we must feel that we have a good reason to change our beliefs. Good reasons need not be restricted to reasons which some would see as rational or evidentiary. A good reason might be perceived pragmatic or moral benefits of believing as such, even though some reject the idea that such reasons could be good reasons; we need not share in their rejection. But, how can one make oneself believe something if one does not have any good reason to do so?

To change our beliefs is possible, but that is not to say it is effortless; on the contrary, it demands a great deal of mental effort; should it surprise us that we find it impossible to expend great effort on something when there is no good reason for us to do so?

Objection – No sensible person should seek to develop a power to change their own beliefs, for such a capacity could only be a recipe for deliberate self-deception.

Response – But what is self-deception? That is the question.