Thursday, April 23, 2009

Can One Choose to Believe?

My sister-in-law is taking a philosophy class in college and her teacher assigned an essay on the above question. Last night sis-in-law came over to get my help writing the paper. Initially, my answer was no, we can’t choose our beliefs. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “belief” as

1. a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
2. something
believed ; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
3. conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

A belief is by definition something that someone holds to be true. Therefore we do not choose our beliefs. If we think that something is true, we believe it. If we think that something is false, we don’t believe it. We may change our beliefs based on new information, but that also is not a choice we make, but something we are “forced” to do by a new understanding.

As we discussed the question, though, I changed my mind about my original conclusion. While someone cannot choose to believe something he knows to be false through an act of will (like throwing a switch – now I believe, now I don’t, now I do, now I don’t…) he can choose to believe something by creating new evidence that allows him to hold as true something that he would otherwise assume is false.

Suppose we ask Mr. A what color the sky is. Mr. A declares that he believes the sky is blue. (I am not going to go here into differences between knowledge and belief. The sky example is easy, so go with it for the sake of illustrating the point.) When asked why he believes the sky is blue, he answers that he can see that this is true by looking at the sky. Mr. A is then told by an authority that the sky is, in fact, not blue but is green. Mr. A now has a choice between believing the evidence of his eyes and believing the authority. If he continues to believe the sky is blue, he has to say that the authority is mistaken. If he chooses to believe the authority, he has to come up with an explanation for why he sees the sky as blue. Perhaps his eyes are faulty and see the sky as blue, but it is really green. What if everyone he speaks to tells Mr. A that they also see the sky is blue? If Mr. A wishes to believe the authority, he can conclude that everyone’s eyes are faulty, and the authority perceives things as they truly are.

Whatever his choice, Mr. A must introduce “evidence” based on conjecture to allow him to believe. If he chooses to believe his eyes, he introduces the evidence that the authority is making a mistake. If he chooses to believe the authority, he introduces the evidence that his eyes are faulty.

So one can choose his beliefs, insofar as one can manufacture evidence is his mind to enable himself to believe that what he chooses to believe is in fact true.

This may explain the chazal that says one must believe the rabbonim even if they say left is right and right is left. One is obligated to manufacture evidence to allow himself to believe what the rabbonim say is true.

This also runs directly counter to scientific principles, whereby the question is always “is this correct” rather than “how can this be correct.” In order for one to choose his beliefs, it is necessary to start with the conclusion and come up with reasons why it is true (and possibly ignore the evidence of one’s senses.) This is not a problem with my conclusion per se. People choose what to believe and later justify it all the time. This is because the human mind is not naturally scientific. Scientific thinking is something that has to be learned.

Being able to manufacture evidence in one’s mind to allow one to believe a chosen conclusion does not, however, make that conclusion true. This is just mental gymnastics that allows one to think it is true. Objective reality does not exist in a person’s mind. After all, a person can justify any belief. The best means we currently have of determining what is objectively true is the scientific method, which assumes that a given conclusion is false until proven otherwise and (ideally) precludes the use of mentally manufactured evidence to support a conclusion.

So while we can choose what to believe by justifying our conclusions, if we are interested in the actual truth we should reject as evidence anything we manufacture out of nothing to support our preconceived conclusions.

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