Can You Choose What You Believe?

Can someone “choose” to believe something? You see it on TV all the time: “Honey, I wasn’t sleeping around on you, you have to believe me!” I’m not a psychologist, and haven’t spent my life researching the issue, so I don’t exactly know how beliefs are formed, and I assume no one fully knows. But in philosophy, people who subscribe to the theory that beliefs are chosen are called “voluntarists” and those who disagree are “involuntarists”.

The common view for most of human history has been driven by religion. In most religions, being able to choose your beliefs is crucial. In order to be ‘saved’ you need to believe in Jesus. In order to follow the 1st commandment you are required to believe that there is only one god. How can you fault, or reward someone, for something they have no control over?

You also see this is the classic theist argument known as Pascal’s Wager. It basically argues that if there is a god, choosing to believe in him has great rewards, if there isn’t one, believing in him anyways is no big deal. Many atheists, who I suppose are also involuntarists, would argue that you cannot “choose” to believe in a god, you just have to be convinced there is one. It’s also a fallacious argument for other less controversial reasons too.

Now this issue has implications beyond just religion. Can you choose to be more open minded about alternative medicine, UFOs, psychics, or Bigfoot? Or how about beyond scientific controversies? Can you choose who you fall in love with? Can you choose whether or not you care for the sick, or are a bigoted racist?

As a self described skeptic, I can’t help but lump myself into the involuntarist group. You couldn’t pay me any amount of money to convince me that homeopathy can cure anything (other than thirst). You can try (please, try!), but I’m fairly certain that only quality scientific evidence could actually sway my belief in this area. You could pay someone to act against their beliefs though. If I was hard up for cash and desperate, I may be willing to take money to endorse some kind of bogus product I didn’t believe in, but I still wouldn’t believe in it.

In other words, I think that you cannot choose your beliefs, but you can choose your actions. You may have some latent racist tendencies (as I’m sure most people do), but we should try to acknowledge them and make sure they do not influence our decisions or actions.

We are also not merely passive victims to our beliefs. We can condemn certain abhorrent beliefs and the people that hold them (or ridicule silly beliefs). This is due to the fact that our beliefs (involuntary) are formed by our actions (voluntary). We can change our beliefs (be open minded) by choosing to expose ourselves to differing opinions and arguments, and by carefully listening to them. It’s all too common for people to only read or listen to opinions they already agree with. So while we may not be able to condemn someone for holding a belief, we could condemn them for disregarding evidence, logic, or compassion to come to such a distasteful belief.

Sometimes, someone may have an odd belief because they just don’t know any better. Before Darwin’s seminal book, everyone was a creationist. Similarly, many people are raised in an environment where they are told lies about evolutionary theory, so it’s hard to fault them for having belief in creationism.

It’s important when encountering someone with strange beliefs to give them the benefit of the doubt. Assume that they have either not been exposed to outside arguments or have not considered them.

For anyone who’s still skeptical of involuntarism, ask yourself this question: Can you choose to believe that you are a purple dinosaur? You can imagine yourself as one, but can you believe that you are one?

What do you guys think? What sorts of implications does this have for free will? How does this affect the mentally disturbed? How does this influence political debates? Can someone believe something by saying it often enough? Can you choose to be open minded? If we as skeptics are trying to influence the beliefs of others, what’s the best way to go about it? Is merely presenting the logical and rational view enough?

For a more in-depth article on this issue, I highly recommend Austine Cline’s article here.

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  • Jonathan Abrams

    Jonathan Abrams is the latest founder and president of the Ottawa Skeptics. He organizes local events, makes media appearances as the token skeptic, and is one of the website maintainers. He is the host of the skepticism podcast The Reality Check. When he’s not thinking about science and skepticism, he’s working as a computer engineer, playing pinball, or doing the dishes.