Take the 2-minute tour ×
Philosophy Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for those interested in logical reasoning. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Are we free to choose our beliefs? Or is our belief in a proposition something that is thrust upon us by the weight of the evidence we have in favor and against the truth of it?

For example, is it possible to choose to believe something one finds absurd? If in such a case one really has no justifying reason for the belief, then what is it that makes this a belief, rather than some kind of pretense of belief? Fundamentally, what does it mean to believe something?

The free-to-choose-our-beliefs issue, for example, lies at the heart of Pascal's wager, since Pascal's calculation on the advantages or disadvantages of a particular belief, as opposed to the truth of that belief, would seem to be relevant only if we are indeed able to choose what to believe.

share|improve this question
    
I chose not to believe in free will. –  Neil Meyer Mar 19 '13 at 11:46
add comment

7 Answers

1) Regarding the question

Are we free to choose our beliefs?

Since you posted in a philosophy forum, I take it that you are not interested (only) in the empirical question pertaining to psychology.

The technical term in philosophy is doxastic voluntarism (DV), i.e. the thesis that beliefs are subject to the will and, as such, that we are able to choose what to believe. Whether DV is a defendable claim is debated in current epistemology, as well as in philosophy of religion and, a bit more surprisingly, in philosophy of science.

The consensus seems to be that DV is untenable and thus doxastic involuntarism is the standard position. This shows in the use of the technical term, which is employed – in a similar way to "relativism" and other fighting words – as ultimate objections in arguments ("Position X implies DV and is therefore untenable").

Interestingly enough, it seems that in the history of philosophy the situation was actually reversed, as DV was maintained by many central figures in philosophy (Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, ...). Although a minority position these days, there are quite important names who defended (some forms of) DV. Among them are Roderick Chisholm, Jerry Fodor and Bas Van Fraassen. Particularly the latter draws heavily from the pragmatist's toolbox, which was arguably the only tradition where DV was more or less accepted.

2) Regarding your question:

Is it possible to choose to believe something one finds absurd?

The same question arises whether one can choose to believe a claim that she agrees rationally to be false. The problem is that a pragmatic justification of beliefs (i.e. based on utility and means-ends arguments) may clash with a (lack of) epistemic justification. Consider the following:

P is false. However, believing that P has a practical advantage. Therefore one should believe that P.

It is hard to imagine that the pragmatic justification might override the belief that P is false. The debate whether this epistemic self-deception may be possible is one of the crucial topics in current debates around DV. (Again, the consensus is that it is not and thus is an objection to DV.)

Now, consider:

P is probably false. However, believing that P has a great practical advantage. Therefore one should believe that P.

Does this change your evaluation that overriding is possible? Probably not. However, in general it may be possible to construct a case such that the epistemic justification is weaken so much (and the pragmatic justification is strong enough) to produce a tradeoff where an override is possible.

To show another route, consider a more concrete example (presupposing that pessimistic meta-induction is a sound argument):

Our best currently available scientific theory T is probably false. However, believing that T is probably false (and thus adopting an instrumentalist attitude) diminishes the empirical testability of T, while believing that T is probably true increases the empirical testability of T. Scientist consider the empirical testability of T to be crucial. Therefore, scientists should believe that T is probably true.

What do you think now? Making the practical advantage to matter epistemically, seems to kinda blur the line here. In general, making these abstract schemata more concrete could show that there are contexts in which DV might be more plausible than in others, thus pointing to the context-sensitivity of DV.

3) Regarding Pascal's wager:

Pascal's famous argument is used as textbook example of DV, but it is unclear whether Pascal actually presupposed DV in his argument. If I recall correctly, he didn't claim that such form of practical reasoning could lead to a voluntary belief in God, but that it could lead to take part in the religious practice, which in turn would create an environment where a belief in God could grow eventually.


share|improve this answer
add comment

It seems you are asking two ontologically distinct questions here. The first is whether can are free to choose our beliefs, and I will get to that below. The second is a different question altogether. In essence, it is asking whether it's possible to believe in something you don't believe in; i.e. it is paradoxical the way it is currently stated. By definition "belief" in something presupposes that you have "confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of" that something, so if you believed in it, it wouldn't be absurd. If it was absurd ("utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false"), you logically couldn't believe in it.

But back to the first question, my answer would be no. First of all, any belief you acquire comes from somewhere. You did not choose to be presented with the idea or occurrence. It just happened as part of the natural order of things. Even if you are presented with some idea that you might believe, and it is interesting so you try to learn more (more stuff to believe), the fact that you want to learn more is not under your control. Further still, your own personal determination of the verity of a statement or event is not under your control. It depends on your brain physiology, which—being physical—is also subject to causal law.

We are free to do what we want, but we are not free to choose our wants themselves.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/belief

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/absurd

share|improve this answer
    
"[T]he fact that you want to learn more is not under your control": It seems one can make a conscious decision to try to learn more about a topic. That seems very much under my control; it is a choice I make, perhaps after considerable reflection (Do I have the time? Will it be worthwhile?) Unless you believe that every decision I make is not really "under my control"? –  Joseph O'Rourke Jul 25 '11 at 15:32
    
I was referring to universal control, that is, that we as humans have the ability to break free of physical causation. This type of control we don't have. We do have another type of control, which I call human control. But it is not "control" in that our actions are free, i.e. that our decisions are uninfluenced, or somehow broken from the causal chain of events. Rather, it is merely a sense of control that we feel which results from our inability to 100% accurately predict the outcome of an event, giving us the impression that there is more than one possible outcome. –  stoicfury Jul 29 '11 at 16:36
    
Put more simply, can you seriously say that—regarding anything you are interested in—that you chose to be interested in that subject? Did you survey the array of topics in science, say biology, physics, and mathematics, take a step back and say "Ahah! I choose to be interested in mathematics!" It's hard for me to conceive of it like that. –  stoicfury Jul 29 '11 at 16:47
add comment

To what extent do we choose our beliefs?

The closest extent for us to choose our beliefs:

  • When our emotions strongly enough to force us to do something, then, there is specific tendency to believed.

  • When we are being threatened strongly and there is something offering security, then, there is something may be considered as alternate solution to believed.

The farthest extent for us to choose our beliefs:

  • When we induced that something was right, then, there was something we believed
  • When we deduced that something was right, then, there was something we believed

The closest extent and the farthest extent might be conflicting each other, and:

  • Usually the closest extent was the winner
  • Rarely the farthest extent was the winner

The points are:

  • We can have our beliefs based on our strong emotions related to specific feeling, that make us believe that our feelings must be fulfilled (satisfied) (the closest extent).

  • We can have our beliefs, when those are derived from our deductive thinking nor empirical justification (the farthest extent).

  • But sometimes, our beliefs at the farthest extent may be failed if it against our beliefs from the closest extent. Decisions are emotional not logical. I believe it, but i am not accepting it 100%.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Two important factors in epistemological taxonomy are: meaning, truth.

  1. Something that has no meaning to you is data. A number like 15665 is just a data.
  2. Something that has a meaning to you, but it's truth or falsehood is not known, is called information. Number 15665 when denotes the total count of suicides during last year, becomes information, because it now means something to you.
  3. Something that has a meaning to you, and is true, is called fact. 15665 suicides during last year becomes a fact when you get sure about it's truth. Of course, wrong sources of information exist. The ways to get sure about truth of a piece of information could be logical validation, etc.

Now, based on these definitions, a belief is something that is both meaningful and subjectively true. But, it can't be supported via logical validation. For example, belief in God is something that has meaning to almost all of us, and to believers, it's also true. But can we get a prove that it's objective true?

In other words, the difference between the fact and belief is objectivity or subjectivity of its truth, and whether we can logically validate it or not.

Well, up to here I introduced the terminology to get to common terms.

The extent of our freedom to choose our beliefs is unlimited, as belief is something subjective, and intangible. Therefore, there is literally nothing out there to prevent us from believing something. This is the major reason cults and religions grow so fast. Because you can't put somebody under X-ray and measure his/her amount of belief in something. However, there are theories which denote that most of our beliefs come from our surrounding people. In other words, we're influenced by the beliefs of people with whom we have relationships. The boundary between this relational beliefs (as I'd like to call it), and thoughtful beliefs (beliefs which are the result of our reasoning process) is not known, and is a continuum.

share|improve this answer
1  
Can you cite some sources on your terminology? –  Joseph Weissman Jul 22 '11 at 16:29
    
@Joseph, what cite is better than contemplation? After all, philosophy means wisdom loving, and we're here to get wise. Think about it. If you agree, then upvote, otherwise downvote. Let the truth find its way up. :) –  Saeed Neamati Jul 22 '11 at 16:57
1  
Philosophy is an inherently academic discipline -- it does not just mean "what you think about something." Citations help provide a neutral-point-of-view. Your own opinion may be interesting but does not really provide a constructive answer to a theoretical question... –  Joseph Weissman Jul 22 '11 at 17:51
1  
Saeed, I would object to your terminology for several reasons. Your statement (2) suggests that something would cease to be information, once we come to know that it is true, but this doesn't seem to be what we would want. In (3), your terminology has the feature that a statement could be a fact for one person, but not for another. This would bring it closer to what might be called knowledge, which most philosophers distinguish from facts, although you haven't mentioned any concept of justification, which is important in most theories of knowledge. –  JDH Jul 23 '11 at 0:57
1  
Also, your statement (1) suggests that you would call a totally meaningless statement data, although I think that most people would not agree that such a label would be correctly applied to some gobbledegook assertion. Finally, I find your statement about "governmental affirmation" as a means of verifying truth somewhat questionable. –  JDH Jul 23 '11 at 1:02
show 2 more comments

Pascal wager is an attempt to merge ethics with logic, in the sense that given there's a doubt concerning the afterlife, it would be more rational to live according to the belief that there is one, after weighting possible earns vs. losses. It was an attempt to turn a subjective choice into an objective one so that ethics would come down to logic.

Whenever there's an argumentation, two outcomes are possible (alone or combined): convincement and persuasion. The first one appeals to reason/logic only: I may show you some data and convince you that smoking is bad for you. You are convinced, you agree with me that this data makes sense, but if you are not persuaded you won't stop smoking.

What would it take to make a person be persuaded? It usually would come to using the ethos and pathos modes of argumentation. If I show you the picture of your best friend suffering from lung cancer caused by smoking, perhaps you would be persuaded.

Sometimes persuasion alone is enough to change someone's mind. Convincement or the logos mode usually is not enough.

The question is, could one persuade oneself to change a course of action or patterns of though? I believe it is possible, but, as stated before, it would require means beyond pure logic.

share|improve this answer
add comment

According to David Wallace, an American philosopher & novelist, we do not get to chose to worship. Worship we must. It is part of the fabric of our being. Our only choice in the matter is what we get to chose to worship.

He does not discuss how we make that choice, nor how easy or hard it is, he offers only suggestions.

Simone Weil, moral philosopher & activist writes:

"It would seem that man was born a slave, and that slavery is his natural condition. At the same time nothing on earth can stop man from feeling himself born for liberty. Never, whatever may happen, can he accept servitude; for he is a thinking creature"

From this one may conclude, although it is not said directly, that one is a slave in mind. That our beliefs enslave us. But we chose not to believe this, but then this is maya (indian doctrine of illusion/delusion)

I think much depends on our education, both formal & sentimental, and the influence of our parents and peers. The condition of culture as we mature from child to adult. The quality of our personal ties, the nature of our natural affections & inclinations; and from the qualities of our own soul. As a child, we learn many things, paying no critical attention, nor reflecting on them, we do not have the mental resources and nor the patience (the world is too immediate), this is done for us, by our passions & by our guardians.

Ecentually, at the cusp of adulthood, We may form an idea of what we want to believe. The world believes otherwise. Somehow a compromise must be sought & achieved. Where we end, is largely a matter of our intellectual courage and of our emotional resources. It forms our character, and it humbles us.

We are largely the product of our times, shackled to several dead philosophers. What we say, is largely a matter of convention, what we do is mainly a matter of ritual; we say we chose our beliefs, but really our beliefs chose us. But we like to believe otherwise, for as Weil explained, we are free-thinking men.

share|improve this answer
add comment

We can learn and think until we know something. We can further study through it until we get confident about our knowledge. This knowledge is commonly but mistakenly stated as our believe. However believing is beyond knowing, it kind of needs some proofs in practice. Suppose the simple question "which one is better, knowledge or wealth?". People usually answer "knowledge" but then go for wealth throughout their lives. Everyone know lying is wrong, but how many of us has never lied before and will never lie after? Then can we say we deeply believe that lying is wrong?

To put it another way, we earn our knowledge from many different ways and sources. Then we practice our lives based on some ideas (not necessarily ours). What we do will gradually become our habit, the habit will gradually become our own idea and eventually we will believe in it. We will justify it, we will defend it, we will not leave it until we will be forced to. The knowledge we earned in the first line of this paragraph is one source of ideas based upon which we start to behave.

Thus believing is far beyond knowing and having ideas. It is partly up to us in what to believe and partly an independent mechanism of our nature. Believing in something needs more effort to be achieved than knowledge needs effort.

Suppose we are to make a choice that we have never ever before thought about it and initially have tendency to neither of the available choices. So we think and think, consult with others and read about it, then we decide. This decision will be kept in our minds as one memory, and more notably would be in this memory the result of the choice-making process and not all the stuffs we thought about before to decide. In a near or far future then we reach a very similar situation, our memory automatically comes to our help and to bypass all the difficulties of a new challenge recalls us of the result of the previous decision in a similar situation. So this time would no longer be initially neutral about different available choices. The previous choice will now be our default choice. Not impossible to choose differently but a little bit difficult. If someone continues to decide similarly in all such similar situations for a long time, then changing the default choice will not be very easy. Thus, any choice that we make we are indeed setting our default choice for a similar situation in the future. When a person lives for tens of years he is now living with the beliefs produced by the default actions and reactions of himself during all those years of choice making!

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.