Is belief a choice?
I don’t think so.
It is certainly common enough to speak of belief as a choice, but could I choose to believe that I was not sitting in a chair right now? (I am.) Could I choose to believe that the music playing at this moment (Sky-Fucking-Line-of-Toronto) had been recorded by The Kinks? (It was The Rugburns.) Could I choose to believe that my cat, Auto-Kitty (pictured to the left) is a Siamese? (She is of course a Tortie.)
Mind you, I am not asking if I could tell you that Auto-Kitty is a Siamese. I most certainly could. I am not asking if I could play some special word-game in approaching the subject and define ‘Siamese’ in such a manner as to include cats with a tortoise-shell coat. I am not even asking whether or not I could embark on some long-term project to convince myself that my little Auto-Kitty was really a Siamese. …though I really don’t think I could do that either. No, I am asking whether or not I could choose to believe, right here and now, that a cat I know to be something other than a Siamese was in fact (using a conventional understanding of the term) actually a Siamese?
The answer is ‘no’.
I think it is safe to say, dear reader, that we could come up with a range of similar propositions for you, claims that you could not choose to believe, at least not without a complex long-term brain-washing process to get you there. You could probably assert these claims, but you could not actually believe them.
So, there is at least one respect in which belief appears to present a limit to our choices. Somewhere in the question of what one believes, we all encounter an emergent property which is beyond the control of our immediate will. …Okay, at least the vast majority of us do.
No, it is not my intention to suggest that we have no choice at all with respect to beliefs, but rather to suggest that the choices must in some respect live with this emergent property, the one which defies our power to shape it at will. Truth be told I think we could probably put a range of different propositions on a scale of sorts. Auto-Kitty’s non-Siamese status is, for me at least at maximum (or near maximum) resistance to the whims of my personal belief. For you, perhaps, taking my word for it, there is perhaps cause for doubt about the matter, and it might be reasonable to say that one’s response to doubt involves a degree of choice.
More to the point at hand, we could perhaps find a range of propositions about subjects inherently difficult to resolve, full of ambiguity, and perhaps even loaded with more heuristic than factual value. One might get to say that he or she has a bit more choice in such matters. But I still think it is worth knowing that somewhere in our mental landscape, we normally encounter a limitation, a point of resistance to the free play of our choices.
I should add that I do think personality is another variable. Some people seem far more capable of choosing what to believe than others. I should also add that in at least one respect this is far from a virtue.
Well, what I am getting at is a trace of the larger question of Beliefs with a capital B. I don’t mean beliefs such as; What color is the chair? What kind of cat is that? or Is there too much chili paste in the chicken red curry? No, I mean questions like; Do you believe in God? How about reincarnation? karma? …The Holy Trinity? …you get the idea. Because people often speak of these beliefs as a choice.
The notion that belief in god is a choice is a particularly common fashion of speaking, and that fashion of speaking can be very misleading. It makes of belief a moral decision, and side-steps the epistemological questions about that belief in favor of arguments from consequantialism. One must, according to this approach, choose whether or not to accept or reject God, all of which actually begs the question of whether or not She actually exists.
But I don’t wish to go too far down this particular road at the moment. I am more interested in fleshing out how the issue affects self-presentation in matters of belief.
Okay, I am thinking about how this affects me!
You see, I often think back to these days of my own deconversion, and I realize that I have become accustomed to speaking of the process in unnecessarily mystical terms. I sometimes say that “I lost belief in God at around the age of 18,” or I may explain that “I chose to reject religion at that age.” Perhaps I will say that “I lost my faith,” and so on.
I don’t think this language is at all unusual, but the more I think about it the more I realize that they are not accurate descriptions of what happened at that time in my life at all. It would be far closer to the truth to say that I never really had faith at all. It would be more precise to say that I could find no aspect of my thought process which has ever answered to the concept of ‘faith’ as it is normally used in connection to belief in God.
Still further, I think it would be more accurate to say that I never really believed in God. Oh, I wanted to! As a young teen I REALLY wanted God in my life. I read. I prayed. I meditated. I studied. I did everything I could to ‘find God’ as they say, and the truth is that I just never did. I found a great deal of speech about him, but that speech never resonated with me on any personal level, nor did it point to anything in the objective world that struck me as a good candidate for a deity. When the day came that I finally came to see myself as an unbeliever, it was less a rejection of some viable notion than it was a concession that no such concept could be found in my mental landscape.
It was less a choice to reject belief than an acknowledgement of a mental state over which I did not really have a choice.
This was about the age of 18 or 19, and by that time I had come to know a number of approaches to the subject of God and religion. But these were always bracketed concepts in my own mind. They were ideas that someone else believed in, definitions of God that fit someone else’s beliefs, …or at least their claims. When I embraced my role as an unbeliever, the decision changed absolutely nothing about my beliefs. It was a change in my self-presentation, a decision about how best to describe the beliefs (or the lack thereof) that I already had.
For me at least, I could no more choose to believe in God than I could choose to believe that Auto-Kitty is a Siamese. I could say that God exists of course, but short of equivocation, I could not mean it.
I could deflect the question and say that I do not know whether or not God exists. Better yet, I could grunt and change the subject.
I could choose to put forward a variety of labels for my thoughts on the subject. So, for example, I could probably describe myself as either an ‘atheist’, an ‘agnostic’, or even an ‘agnostic atheist’. I could add the qualifiers ‘weak’ before ‘atheist’ or ‘soft’ before ‘agnostic’, or I could leave them off according to taste. Any of these approaches would be an equally accurate description of my take on the matter of God. I am somewhat inclined to believe that the label ‘non-cognitivism’ would work as well, though I would have to read-up a bit more on that approach to the issue before deciding once and for all on the label. But let us be clear, what I am choosing here is a label and a certain amount of baggage that goes with that label. What I am not choosing is what I will or won’t actually believe.
I have a little more wiggle room on the issue of surety. I could say that I am certain on the matter or that I am open to the possibility that a god does exist. The cognitive hazards of container metaphors aside, both of these could be a reasonably accurate description of my attitude on any given day. Choosing one or the other term would in a sense help to make the issue normative; it would give me an incentive to try for the attitude I had adopted as a self-description, and to avoid the other. Either way, I do feel like I have a little more choice in the degree of certainty I wish present my approach to this issue to others.
Indeed, I have lots of choices about the way I package my lack of belief and explain it to others. I also have lots of choices about what my (non-)beliefs mean to me and how they will shape my actions in the future.
What I do not have a choice about is what I actually believe on the subject. Somewhere in there, the power of choice simply escapes me.
Okay, I lied about what Auto-Kitty was trying to say in the title. What she was actually trying to tell you with that little meow of hers is that in the picture above, she is more comfortable than you or I or any other person in the whole of human history will ever be. She just wanted you to know that.