I often hear people talk about what you “choose to believe,” or saying “I choose to believe” such and such. It typically happens in religious or political conversations. People say these things when they think you’re wrong about something, or sometimes when you present evidence against their view and they retreat into “that’s just my opinion” territory. It’s kind of a conversation stopper. As if, once a person has “chosen” certain beliefs, that’s the end of the matter.
But can we even choose our beliefs? I don’t think that’s how it happens. There are some beliefs we simply cannot choose to hold. Try an experiment. Right now, imagine there is a pink elephant standing before you. Got it? Ok, now I want you to believe there is a pink elephant standing before you. Not imagine–believe! You can’t do it. Even if I offered you a million dollars, or if I threatened you with a gun, you couldn’t choose to believe such a thing. In fact, I suggest that almost none of your beliefs are the direct result of a single choice.
Beliefs usually happen to us, involuntarily. Right now, you believe that there is a computer or a phone in front of you. How did you get that belief? It happened when you looked at your computer/phone. The image hit you, and the belief formed automatically. Most of your perceptual beliefs come to you like that. Other kinds of beliefs also happen automatically. If I say that my wife has $1,000, I have $700, and we’ve combined our assets, you will likely form the belief, quite involuntarily, that we have $1,700 in combined assets. You might also wonder why she married me.
But we can (probably) affect our beliefs indirectly. We can’t directly control them, but we can do things that might change or eventually bring about certain beliefs. This is like lowering your cholesterol. You can’t simply make it go down, right now, as an act of your will. But you can start making choices and doing things that could result in your cholesterol level going down in a few months.
Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician and philosopher, described such a process of indirectly influencing one’s religious beliefs in his Pensees. (In this quote, Pascal assumes that you’ve already worked through the intellectual arguments for God.)
“Endeavor, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. “But this is what I am afraid of.” And why? What have you to lose? But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.”
Powers and Belief
Lest you think Pascal’s instructions to be unrealistic, consider the story of journalist Kirstin Powers. Powers (then an atheist) tells of a conversation with her Christian boyfriend:
“Do you think you could ever believe it?” . . . I said I didn’t want to mislead him—that I would never believe in Jesus. Then he said the magic words for a liberal: “Do you think you could keep an open mind about it?” Well, of course. “I’m very open-minded!” Even though I wasn’t at all. I derided Christians as anti-intellectual bigots who were too weak to face the reality that there is no rhyme or reason to the world. I had found this man’s church attendance an oddity to overlook, not a point in his favor. [. . .] After about eight months of going to hear [Tim] Keller, I concluded that the weight of evidence was on the side of Christianity. But I didn’t feel any connection to God, and frankly, I was fine with that. I continued to think that people who talked of hearing from God or experiencing God were either delusional or lying. In my most generous moments, I allowed that they were just imagining things that made them feel good. Then one night in 2006, on a trip to Taiwan, I woke up in what felt like a strange cross between a dream and reality. Jesus came to me and said, “Here I am.” It felt so real. I didn’t know what to make of it.”
Wanting To Believe?
I think a similar process could work for any number of beliefs, and not just for theism. (Perhaps it could even work for atheism.) Whatever the desired belief, to get started, I guess you just need some motivation for acquiring the belief. Some people, I imagine, will quickly jump to criticize the idea of “wanting to believe” something. But wanting to believe the truth seems a good ambition.
For example, maybe you sense that some irrational fear or blockage is holding you back from believing the truth. This is often the case in psychotherapy–we are told, with overwhelming evidence, that our parent’s divorce was not our fault, but we have great difficulty believing it. Or in other cases, maybe we sense that we desperately want X to be true, even though the evidence clearly supports not-X. It is so hard to give up our belief that X! So we set out to uproot this belief by whatever means we can. Non-cognitive states, biases, etc. can influence our belief formation and need correctives.
But aside from these indirect, long-term strategies, I think it is clear that our beliefs are not under our direct, voluntary control. A bit of reflection on your own beliefs will confirm this, I think. So what does this mean for public discourse? I offer a few thoughts here:
- Don’t move too quickly to criticize a person for their beliefs. Most of the time, people aren’t fully responsible for the beliefs they hold. Don’t assume they’ve chosen to believe such things. Most people acquire their beliefs passively from their upbringing and circumstances.
- Don’t use “this is what I choose to believe” as a defense. You probably didn’t choose it–rather, you’re probably choosing to protect your dogmatism, like an ostrich with its head in the sand. Be courageous and hold your belief out for examination with an open hand. Believe you may be wrong. But be careful not to let someone bully you–seek knowledgeable allies from both sides in your investigation before drawing a conclusion.
- Finally, be sensitive to changing evidence. You may, on occasion, need to reopen a “cold case” belief and reevaluate. The process of investigation is the indirect way of refining and improving your stock of beliefs. Sometimes, you may very well have a duty to investigate a belief you hold or a new idea presented to you.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 233.