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Can you choose to believe something?

  1. Jun 19, 2008 #1
    The closest thing to this I can see working is acting as if something were true. A practical example would be acting as if you knew you were going to perform a task (like playing a sport) well. Acting confident before a task often improves performance. This is not yet belief. But if you succeed in making yourself more relaxed before the task, you may be justified in believing that you will perform well, depending on your past experiences at performing that task.

    The above is a special case. First of all, the truth of the proposition, "I will perform well" cannot be determined until the future. It is still up in the air. Second, whether or not it is true is determined by your own actions, which you have some control over. Without these two special conditions, I can't see how belief can ever be reduced to a decision process. And even in the above case, the belief would probably not be justified in the absence of past experiences of performing well. These past experiences serve as (somewhat limited) evidence.

    So bottom line, can you analyze a belief as a decision process? As in, "If I choose to believe proposition X, the result will likely be favorable, but if I don't believe X the result will be unfavorable. So I should believe X." This seems like an unrealistic model of belief to me.
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  3. Jun 19, 2008 #2


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    Belief is, to me, "Bayesianism with a bias". This relates maybe to what you write: you assign probabilities to future outcomes, and the whole distribution is your most accurate description of "belief". Picking out one, and hence putting that probability to 100% and all the rest to 0%, is what's usually considered "having a belief". You don't say that you firmly believe with 60% probability that this or that is going to happen, with 20% that something else is going to happen, and still 20% that yet something else will occur, although that is the most accurate description of your "belief". You have to "collapse" into a single event.

    Note also that Bayesian probability description doesn't necessarily have something to do with "the future" but in fact about everything we cannot be sure about (which is, ultimately, everything).
  4. Jun 20, 2008 #3
    This is pretty much the direction I've been leaning toward. I like thinking of beliefs in terms of subjective probabilities interpreted as betting odds. For example, if someone said they believe they can run a five minute mile, I would want to know what odds they were willing to lay on this proposition in order to gain an understanding of what they mean by "believe". But I am aware that there are limitations to this approach too. Some suggest that it only matters that such betting preferences could be consistently assigned in principle, and that it doesn't matter whether people would actually be willing to bet in practice. But I'm not so sure. It is tricky to pin down what it means to believe something, even though most people can tell when they do believe something.

    Whatever belief is, I don't think it is a decision. But perhaps someone here could make a good argument that it is. I read a book by a person associated with the London School of Economics (he's a visiting professor of statistics or researcher or something) in which he evaluated Pascal's Wager and concluded that it was potentially a sound argument for belief. The author is evidently no slouch when it comes to math, but I was disappointed that he sees no problem reducing belief to a question of "how will I be rewarded if I do believe, huh? What's in it for me?" He claimed that there is a distinction between this and pragmatism. Something about pragmatism evaluating beliefs by their effects after the fact, whereas he was (somewhat tentatively) advocating a decision before the fact based on expected value. Still sounds like pragmatism to me, but I don't know because I haven't studied it. Here is a link to the book's amazon page:


  5. Jun 20, 2008 #4
    Hhhhmmmm... tough one. I think in certain circumstances belief can clearly be considered a choice. Just look at people who change their religious beliefs. One day you can declare absolute positivity in some outlook, and the next declare positivity in a completely different outlook. It is obviously a very complex process though...
  6. Jun 20, 2008 #5
    As far as I can tell, proponents of religion are the biggest advocates of the "belief is a choice" position. But I have no idea what they can mean by this. It seems to be more of a convenience for them than anything else. That way they can say that whoever does not believe in the One True Faith (theirs, naturally) deserves the retribution they are going to get. But I really wonder if they ever "chose" to believe in their religious doctrines. I'm inclined to think that what's going on is really more like a second-order belief. That is to say, "good people" believe what we believe, so anyone who doesn't already believe ought to start right away. Daniel Dennet calls it "belief in belief".
  7. Jun 20, 2008 #6
    Yeah, it is really more of a cultural phenomenon. Sadly based almost entirely on fear. But many people go there whole lives saying they believe in one thing, just to turn and recant some day. Whether or not they really ever meant it is the clincher.

    "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right."
    Stewie Griffin
  8. Jun 20, 2008 #7
    Yes, this is exactly what I'm interested in working out. Having myself been raised from the moment of birth to be a fundamentalist Christian, you would think I would have a pretty good idea. But I don't. In early childhood, you pretty much believe whatever your parents tell you to believe. When this is reinforced socially, by restricting contact with other people primarily to those who have similar beliefs, it is easier to avoid doubts. That's the whole point of the practice of separation. Plus, what 7 year old is really in a position to think about something as momentous as the claims of religion? I know I wasn't. But in my teenage years, I began to have serious doubts that the particular version of Christianity I was in was the OTF. Of course, I had to keep these doubts to myself. And I even tried to block them out, like a good believer should. The end result was that I continued professing a sort of amorphous general belief in Christianity for several years, even though I could not have told someone which particular doctrines I believed if asked. I just felt a generic obligation to tell someone "I'm Christian" if they asked about my religion. Eventually, that wore off (only after I had left for college and had a chance to get away from the social reinforcement). And no, I was not brainwashed by an evil college professor :biggrin: So now, I really don't know to what extent I ever believed any doctrines. It is very unclear. To the extent that I did believe, it was mostly because I was afraid of not believing. But that seems more like the second-order belief I mentioned above, rather than a genuine belief.
  9. Jun 20, 2008 #8
    I went through a similar religious ordeal in my childhood, luckily, though the rest of my family are die-hard southern baptist, my parents were never the uber-religious types. They did kick me out for a few days when I finally told them. But I actually had the chance to figure it out pretty early. I see childhood indoctrination as an obvious form of mass child abuse.

    I think people have the ability to fool themselves. So even if someone believed in something only because of social reinforcement, fear, and a lack of critical thinking (as a result of the others) it might as well be a genuine belief. On a neurological level I doubt that you could ever tell the difference.
  10. Jun 22, 2008 #9


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    Ah, I had the idea that "belief" in the OP was not some religious belief, but more mundane beliefs, like, say, do you believe that the Dutch will go to demi finals of the Euro 2008 cup (before they got eliminated by the Russians).

    But I guess that Bayesianism can also be applied to religious beliefs, although there are two problems with that. The first is of course that there are no - or almost no - tangible objective elements to base ones probabilities on (your guess is as good as mine, objectively speaking) ; the second is that although this ought to give rise to a whole distribution, I've in fact never met anyone who said that he's 25% Muslim, 30% Christian, 10% Scientologist, 12% Budhist and the rest atheist :smile: which would be a true Bayesian description of (religious) belief.
  11. Jun 22, 2008 #10
    You were right, vanesch :smile:. I was referring to beliefs in general. I don't see why religious beliefs need to be treated any differently than other beliefs. And if they do, in what sense are they actual beliefs and not just expressions of an intense desire? For instance, I might wish that in the afterlife, a twenty-something Jessica Alba lookalike would come around to my living quarters periodically to make sexy-pants. It's not logically impossible. But do I believe it? Could I base a religion on that? And lest anyone think I'm being irreverent for suggesting such a thing, note that the claims of certain world religions about rewards and punishments in the afterlife differ in detail (maybe not that much) from my scenario, but not in their approach; which is to dangle a carrot on a stick in front of you. As St. Paul tells us, faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.

    But I don't mean to restrict the discussion to religion. I'm trying to get at what it means to believe something. The process of how people acquire beliefs is obviously a very complicated psychological phenomenon. Probably even extremely rational scientists and philospher-types do not come to believe a proposition at the exact instant they have acquired enough evidence. Belief may happen earlier or later. I think the most that can be asked is, once it is agreed that you believe something (however that came about), what does that mean?

    I like your suggestion of the Bayesian approach. It seems to work pretty well for ordinary beliefs like your football/soccer example. It definitely fits in with my understanding of how science works, too. Of course, you can't expect people to speak that way about most conventional beliefs. It's merely understood that even for very well-supported beliefs, such as the belief that the motion of a spinning top can be adequately explained with Newtonian mechanics, what you really have is a sharply peaked distribution. I think you already made this point in your first post, about collapsing distributions. But as you point out here, it doesn't account very well for what we usually think of as religious beliefs. I think Eckhart Tolle, Oprah, and friends might come close to providing a counterexample, though. They seem to advocate something like a distributed belief in all the worlds religions.

    edit: To clarify, I'm not trying to pretend that religious belief was not a motivator for me bringing this subject up. I made it pretty clear that it was in the post dealing with my personal experiences. But I really am interested in belief in general. I'm especially interested in scientific beliefs, and whether there is anything special about them.
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2008
  12. Jun 22, 2008 #11
    I don't know about you, but I can sure choose to believe something. That is, I can choose to believe whatever I choose to believe.
  13. Jun 22, 2008 #12
    Could you give us an example of something you have chosen to believe?
  14. Jun 23, 2008 #13
    When I was young, I did not believe relativity or quantum mechanics. Now I do. My change in belief was definitely a choice. I considered the evidence for the theories and made a decision based on that.

    I've changed my beliefs about many things over the years.
  15. Jun 23, 2008 #14
    Excellent. I was hoping to get to scientific beliefs. Can you remember when you made a decision to believe quantum mechanics?

    For me, scientific beliefs like that come about gradually. First there is the long period of being confused and just trying to understand what's being presented, whether it is in books or lectures or whatever. Then you work a bunch of problems and sort of get used to thinking that way. You are just going through the motions, learning how to do calculations in Dirac notation, for example. And then you repeat a classic experiment in the lab, and if the results turn out the way theory predicts, you are by then aware that it is hard to doubt the theory is true. But for me, I couldn't pinpoint that as the moment of belief. It seems like belief sort of snuck up on me over the course of a long time.

    My beliefs on a lot of things have changed, too. I expect it will happen many more times. But I'm not sure it was a conscious decision.
  16. Jun 23, 2008 #15
    I have always believed in science. I will speculate up and down all day long, but I refuse to except anything as a truth until there is a logical reason for me to accept that truth. Scientific beliefs are based on the principles of the scientific method. I.e. you choose to believe in evidence, subsequently you believe in what the evidence shows. That is, at least for me, how I justify my schema of the universe.

    Religion tells you what the truth is, science shows you.
  17. Jun 23, 2008 #16
    If by "choice", you mean "result of internal causation", then yes.
  18. Jun 23, 2008 #17
    Probably, when people tell you what they believe, it is something that they don't believe. Most people really do believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, but they never tell you that.
  19. Jun 23, 2008 #18

    jim mcnamara

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    jimmys -

    I dunno. Try repeating 2+2=3. Or did you mean more wooly areas of human thought?

    Like -
    People saying 'I believe ...' is an attempt at some kind of self-affirmation?
    As in if I say it enough times, I believe it? Or if I repeat it ad nauseum to my wife, she believes it? That is, before she hits me with a heavy wooden object to put me out of her misery?

    That would be nice :) Not the heavy wooden part....not at all. You experiment, I'm taking the coward's way out.
  20. Jun 23, 2008 #19
    Yeah, I admit that ultimately you must take some principles for granted, such as the principle that beliefs require evidence. That is what I understand you to mean by believing in evidence. If somebody asked you why you affirm that principle, you could try to justify it pragmatically by saying, "Well, look at what a mess people end up in when they base beliefs on something other than evidence." But then you would be relying on evidence to justify the principle, which is kinda circular. I guess you could say the principle is self evident!

    Actually, it's precisely because belief is the result of internal causation that I have trouble thinking of it as a choice. I know that this is a dangerous path to go down, because in some sense even our conscious choices, such as what to eat for lunch, are caused. But in the case of decisions like that, I think the causes are pushed far enough in the background that the causal connection is not obvious.

    edit: I guess my question "can you choose to believe something?" is more psychological than physical. Even if our sense of "choice" is just a polite fiction from a physical point of view, I think it is a useful fiction in psychology. My sense of hunger has physical causes, and I don't normally think of myself as "choosing" to be hungry. I just am....
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2008
  21. Jun 23, 2008 #20
    I made the decision to believe quantum mechanics when I was a college sophomore taking a class in modern physics. I think the biggest factor was learning about the results of double slit experiments. But it was a gradual process similar to the one you described.

    A more dramatic change occurred in high school. Early on, I actively disbelieved relativity and quantum mechanics, and I made up my own alternative "crackpot" theories. None of them worked. Eventually I gave up, and I chose to change my attitude toward the subject. I did not believe or disbelieve the conventional theories at this point. I decided to keep an open mind and wait until I learned more before making a final decision.
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