Do I choose belief or does belief choose me?
November 1, 2006 3:09 AM   Subscribe

Is belief a voluntary action, an involuntary action or some mix of the two?

Is belief a voluntary action, an involuntary action or some mix of the two?

After reading this Free Will question I remembered a similar thought that came up a few years back that I never explored.

Can I simply choose to believe something or do I not have any control over this part of my mental psyche?

More specifically: Does one choose to believe in an idea, a statement, an occurrence or is this something that happens without our conscience control?

When someone sees something so astonishing and they utter “I couldn’t believe it, even with my own eyes” could they indeed not believe it, even after experiencing it?

Another angle, if someone told you something was true, but to your standards there is no real proof or disproof of what he tells you, could you still simply choose to believe? And if you did, would you actually, truly, be in belief or would you only be fooling yourself?

Going even deeper & conversely, if you did currently have a belief and someone presents something that conflicts with your belief, would that render it no longer true or could you tell yourself to overlook such obstacle, and again still not just be fooling yourself?

Would the answers to these question apply equally to the belief of things we can see and touch (ie. the ice is cold, the car won’t start) and to things that are only thoughts and ideas? (ie. the belief or disbelief of god, that it will or will not rain, that someone does or does not hate you, etc…)

Lastly, does the idea of subjectivity change the premise of this question as well? That being, if someone believes in something that is subjective, ie. beauty, character; how does this affect everything?

I guess overall this question has to do with reality and our perception of it, but I am trying (in the essence of actually coming to some sort of conclusion and to not wind up in an endless circular argument) to give a few concessions and assume that we all are really here, that I really am typing this and that you really will try to answer ;)
posted by crewshell to Religion & Philosophy (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This earlier askme question wondered whether one could believe at will in the same way one could raise their arms at will.
posted by extrabox at 4:24 AM on November 1, 2006

Belief is a mental capacity, and as such is not obligated to defer to facts or any external idea of 'truth'. You choose belief, because it is your mind that defines what it does and does not believe. It can be swayed by facts or outside opinions, if you choose to let it be swayed.

The world is full of intelligent people who disagree with each other. The different beliefs they hold arise because, as different people, they use different criteria to establish truth.

If you hold a belief and someone presents evidence that contradicts it, your response will not depend on any arbitrary law of belief but upon your personal decision whether or not you choose to let this new information influence your beliefs.

The word 'choose' here doesn't (usually) refer to a conscious decision whether or not you should believe in something. The choice is an unconscious one affected by your life and education, and whether the new information corresponds to your preconceived notion of what is and is not an acceptable source. Not surprisingly, information that conflicts with beliefs, especially deeply held ones, is usually considered unacceptable.

Regardless of the actual state of the world and any truth within it, we can only interpret that truth through the filter of our own minds. Since our minds are not identical, our ways of understanding the world (and hence our ways of 'choosing' belief) are as varied as we are in every other way.

But that's just my personal opinion of it. Someone else may have a different idea. Depends what they believe in.
posted by twirlypen at 4:31 AM on November 1, 2006

Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die

According to that article, which rings quite true to me as someone who used to believe strongly in Christianity and now doesn't, we change our beliefs not based on levels of apparent truth but on levels of apparent threat/safety. Sometimes my fear of damnation trumps your evolutionary biology textbook.
posted by heatherann at 4:53 AM on November 1, 2006

It is voluntary, but habits are hard to change. That's why you can want to change your beliefs and still have a very hard time doing so. It takes work.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:23 AM on November 1, 2006

Not voluntary but subject to influence from others or from yourself. Think of the belief as the end sum of an equation that includes information, desires/fears, and certain errors of judgment.

I can't decide to believe that I have no hands as I type this, though I can choose to think it. Belief must conform to evidence (or lack thereof) to a certain degree.

But the possibilities for influence are immense. One thing cognitive psychologists are interested in exploring (as are the soft-core behaviourists) is how behaviour influences belief rather than the other way around. Old quote, I forget by whom: if you want a man to believe in God, first get him to pray; belief will follow. There seems to be some evidence for this. Many of our beliefs appear to be produced by our explanations -- to ourselves -- for why we do things, when the real reason may internal (biological) or external (conditioning).

You can use the same techniques that others use to affect your beliefs, on yourself, and to a degree, choose your beliefs. I would not call that entirely voluntary so much as manipulating a process.
posted by dreamsign at 7:22 AM on November 1, 2006

It's my impression that several saints were known for their struggles with faith.

They were really trying and struggled.

Which would indicate a strong involuntary component.
posted by dragonsi55 at 7:39 AM on November 1, 2006

This has been a hot topic in western philosophy for a long time. William James's The Will to Believe is one place to start -- here is a nice introduction to it. Also section two of his Principles of Psychology has some relevant stuff. Both should be findable online. You might also look here, in the section titled "belief and acceptance". The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has also had some things to say about this; for example see here in the section titled "ownership". Here is a related question at -- you can search there to see if there's a question closer to your own, and if there isn't, you can ask the professional philosophers who run the site.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:36 AM on November 1, 2006

You can use the same techniques that others use to affect your beliefs, on yourself, and to a degree, choose your beliefs. I would not call that entirely voluntary so much as manipulating a process.

From my experience ('user' experience, not researcher or pro!) with cognitive psychology, I definitely agree with that.

It's also interesting that some of the hardest beliefs to change can be fears and phobias. They usually involve very physical sensations and experiences and assumptions that can be tested. They are involuntary and undesirable beliefs, yet there are behavioural approaches that can work there. (Can - not saying it's automagical - and aside from biological factors and medical approaches).

In general, though, the voluntary part can be in trying the kind of physical act, behaviour, experience that can 'manipulate' your beliefs by inducing a perception of contradiction.

The rest - how we deal with that contradiction - is much less in our control, I think, or at least, so much depends on the kind of emotional investment you have in a belief - or resistance to it.

I don't think a cold rational 'I want to embrace/refuse this belief' decision is possible. You can choose/be led to choose even the most abstract and untested of beliefs if you do perceive some kind of personal or social advantage in it.

So yeah I'd say there's a degree of choice but there's so many degrees of involuntary acceptance/refusal, and awareness vs. lack of awareness of how you came to accept or refuse that belief. Even more so for 'bigger' beliefs further removed from sensory or personal experience and more subject to heavier social influences. We choose and are chosen at the same time.
posted by pleeker at 9:55 AM on November 1, 2006

I'll just address this one subquestion, because I don't have a good answer to your main question:

When someone sees something so astonishing and they utter “I couldn’t believe it, even with my own eyes” could they indeed not believe it, even after experiencing it?

This is almost always (if not always) hyperbole, in my experience. You should not take such a statement as evidence that the person does not actually believe what they saw.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:22 PM on November 1, 2006

When someone sees something so astonishing and they utter “I couldn’t believe it, even with my own eyes” could they indeed not believe it, even after experiencing it?

Of course. You've seen David Copperfield levitate, haven't you? (If not, click.) Well, do you really believe that he left the floor and went up into the air unaided?

The way the phrase is usually used, it's just hyperbole. But it's also perfectly possible for that statement ("I saw it, but I couldn't believe it") to be true.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:27 PM on November 1, 2006

Sen. Obama said something about this about religious faith broadly.
Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts.

You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany.
posted by ibmcginty at 8:55 PM on November 8, 2006

the Option Institute is a fantastic organization that focuses on helping people change their lives through changing their beliefs . They BELIEVE that we all have that capacity, at all times, and working with them has enabled me to transform the way I think and act and become much much happier. I strongly recommend their website, books, videos, cd's, and programs. One of their major premises is that our feelings come from our beliefs, and they have developed wonderful ways to work with exploring and changing our beliefs if we want to.
Good luck!
posted by judybxxx at 4:03 AM on November 19, 2006

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