The Will to Believe

A few years back I went to a lecture intended for professors and graduate students in philosophy. It was open to the public, even minimally publicized, but the second I entered the classroom I realized no other ‘outsiders’ had attended. The lecture turned out to be very technical, chock full of scholarly jargon. But after whispering a few questions to my in-house philosopher (“What’s he talking about? Pascal’s Wager?”) I realized that the thesis could be understood by considering a few statements:

1.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know is not true.

On the surface, this seems fair enough. Boring actually. Yet when you think about it, you realize there are very few instances when you know something is not true. The statement reveals how often we must act without certain or even strong knowledge.

Everything turns on what it means to know something is not true, which is sticky. People seem to be perfectly capable of believing in all sorts of nonsense. Even when challenged with irrefutable evidence, nonsense-believers stick to their guns. The lecturer clarified by saying that all psychological rationalizations and self-deceptions must be excluded (he said this in a rather sticky way, the finer points of which I’m probably missing.) In other words, you can believe in all sorts of crazy things, as is evidenced everywhere, but you can’t say to yourself, “I’m gonna believe in this untrue thing!”

2.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you don’t know to be true.

A slightly different statement, but an entirely different meaning. The lecturer did not make this statement. I only bring it up to clarify the next one:

3.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true.

Now it’s clear we’re dealing with the religious sphere, and the hidden premises that the existence of God, the afterlife, etc., cannot be known. I happen to agree that these cannot be known, but the lecturer concluded that we can’t will ourselves to believe in these cases. I’m not sure. The question that remained for me (and which I was too shy to bring up in the Q&A session) is this:

Can you will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true if believing will make you happy? 

In other words, suppose you believe there is no evidence either way for the existence of God, you are Pascal’s intended audience (as I interpret him)—i.e., really and truly agnostic in heart and mind—can you then will yourself to believe for the sake of your well being? Because you want to?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but it occurred to me that the answer could affect practical scenarios, not just these theological questions. In our personal lives we often have to make decisions based on very little evidence, but we can do some research and make a choice based on probability. But what if we found ourselves in a state of what I’d call “epistemic neutrality” about the issue? Suppose the answer is not something just around the corner, but is in theory answerable. Time limits our query, rendering it somewhat analogous to the question of God’s existence. In other words, we know we can’t know the correct position or action to take, the answer is not likely to come in our lifetime, but we still have to make a choice now-ish. In these cases, suppose one live option will make you happy, the other will not. There is no harm that can come from choosing the “happy” option, and you’ll never know if you’re right or wrong. Can we then will ourselves to believe?


Belief in a bottle! Problem solved.

Is it possible to will yourself to believe? What do you think?


71 thoughts on “The Will to Believe

  1. Well, you might hold up. Of course, people don’t know what “knowing” is. In reality, none of us “know” anything; we merely have a collection of educated guesses – no matter how well-informed. I’m not saying that certainty is impossible, but basic reasoning will tell us that its nearly impossible.

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  2. I can only speak about myself here. I don’t think it is possible for me to will myself to believe anything. I see that a lot of people believe (or at least say they believe) things that I am absolutely unable to believe for a fraction of a second. Maybe they have an ability to will to believe something. For example, how in the world do these evangelical Christians manage to believe in those things they say they believe in? Do they actually believe those things or do they only pretend because everybody else around them says the same thing? How does that work? It is a real mystery for me. Maybe it depends on your personality type, so it might be an ability that some people have and some have not. But I can certainly not just decide to believe something.

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    • “Do they actually believe those things or do they only pretend because everybody else around them says the same thing? How does that work? It is a real mystery for me.”

      Interesting question. I have a character in my novel who’s an evangelical Christian. It was difficult for me to write from her point of view and make her a sympathetic character, especially since I don’t personally buy into those beliefs or understand how anyone could. I realized I had better understand.

      What made it easier for me was to place myself in an uncritical POV, which is to say I imagined not necessarily buying into each individual belief that makes up my worldview. I wouldn’t exactly know what to say if I had to defend each particular, but I’d believe in the community of ideas and beliefs, wholesale, for whatever reason.

      If questioned on the particulars (let’s say, whether or not the world was created in seven days) I’d resort to whatever the authority in my life had said about it (in this case, a preacher) and I’d regurgitate that message as a defense. This sounds horrible and inexcusable, but in reality I myself do it all the time. There are a great number of things I don’t really know, but I assume, perhaps without realizing I’m simply “borrowing” someone else’s point. These things I’m talking about are not what we’d call controversial, but simply things we as a community believe.

      It’s hard for us to imagine someone in this day and age believing in the seven days story, but if you grew up in the Bible belt the way I did, it’s a bit easier to see the sort of insulation that happens in that community. You’d definitely have to take science classes and so on, but in your science class your teacher might give you a way to reconcile your beliefs, or your pastor might warn you of what you would learn in class and tell you what to make of it in advance.


      • I can imagine that to happen in an isolated and isolating environment, but how do they maintain that in the time of the internet, when different views are no longer hundreds of miles but just a few clicks away? The apparatus of fear of hell etc. must be run op to highest speed to maintain that isolation in the times of the internet.

        This reminds me of a story in the Star Diaries of Stanislaw Lem (a very funny and at the same time philosophical book, highly recommended) where Lem’s hero Ijon Tichy lands on a planet inhabited by robots. Reading the Wikipedia article I think it is the “Eleventh Voyage”, but I would have to look that up in the book. However, my sister took my copy to New Zealand. I just ordere a new copy but it has not yet arrived.

        However that may be, in this adventure, Tichy visits a planet of robots. He eventually discovers that inside each robot, a human being is hiding, pretending to be a robot and thinking that everybody else is a robot. I think Lem wrote this as a satire on Stalinism, but I wonder how many evangelicals have a non-believer hidden inside.

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        • The premise of that book sounds hilarious. I liked Solaris quite a lot and I imagine Stanislaw Lem could take that premise and make it work. What a clever idea, to invert the Cartesian problem!

          I imagine quite a few evangelicals have a hidden non-believer in them, at least when it comes to specific points. They may not realize that they don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater (in other words, they could believe in God without believing the world was created in seven days.) I think the vast majority don’t really care about this point, but we only hear from the ones who do.

          How do they avoid the rest of the world? I don’t think they can, but they do try, especially when it comes to insulating their children. They have been given a framework within which to make sense of conflicting ideas. They can either dismiss conflicting ideas according to a set formula which they take as expert advice (a preacher or someone like that, and these will often give this kind of advice) or avoid looking deeply into the matter. I think the latter is more likely the case. They can self-censor. Not to say this is so terrible…we all make choices about what we want to view online. So think of it like this: suppose the answer to some question is readily available, but you don’t care about that question, do you seek the answer?

          Suppose you do seek the answer, do you look on the internet or do you turn to the expert you’ve relied upon for a very long time, perhaps all your life?

          I think most of the people who belong to some religious organization are not interested in theological questions. To the point of not really caring about whether the world was created in such and such a way, whether science is the proper method of investigation, whether there really is a rational proof for the existence of God, etc. A strange thing to say, I know. This is not to disparage religion, but instead to say that belonging to a religious group is not quite the same as being involved in these questions. They’re listening for practical advice, maybe even filtering out the heavy stuff that doesn’t pertain to them. They want to know: how do I raise the kids, how do I pray to God, how do I conduct myself when I get road rage, how should I deal with moments when I want to cheat on my wife, how do I avoid the temptation of blowing my paycheck at the casino, how do I help with my alcoholic brother who keeps screwing up, etc. They get the answers to these questions and a support group, and at each step the answers they’ve been given work wonders on their lives. They find themselves feeling at peace with the world, no longer driving themselves into a spiral of misery. Do they care about the ontological argument?

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  3. It seems to me that there is plenty of historical evidence that we can will ourselves to believe in any attractive proposition, regardless of the evidence or our past knowledge of it. Indeed, we seem quite capable of making ourselves forget or discard any inconvenient knowledge. It’s always possible to rationalize just about any position.

    For me personally, at this point in my life, I largely share nannus’s outlook. I’m currently emotionally invested in getting the best understanding of reality I can get, regardless of whether that understanding is comforting or not. Within that framework, believing anything that by any rational examination of the facts is false or likely false, would be very difficult. But if I’m being honest, for me at least, that attitude is a luxury, the result of living a relatively comfortable life.

    If my life were to become much harder and uncertain, then the bracing, raw understanding of reality might lose a lot of its appeal, and comforting beliefs might become far more desirable, even if at some level I knew they weren’t objectively feasible. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of people financially devastated, who are currently feeling the fragility and uncertainty of life, and consequently doing a lot of praying, even if they were previously only, at best, nominal believers.

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    • Michelle Joelle mentions someone who says he needs religion in order to function happily. It’s an interesting idea, that some people need to believe in certain things and others don’t. As you put it, skepticism is a luxury. I can see that. I sense too that my education and upbringing allowed me the freedom to be skeptical, although now I don’t feel entirely closed off from the religious sphere the way I did when I was surrounded by it in the Bible belt.

      Suppose the question is something that can be answered by science (and isn’t about God or the afterlife, etc.) but something that won’t be answered right now. You have to act upon this question, it’s not something merely theoretical for you. One belief concerning the matter makes you happy and the other doesn’t. Which do you choose, all else being equal? Is it even possible to choose?

      I know, tough question! 🙂 In truth, I doubt I could come up with an example that meets the criteria I’ve put out here.

      It’s understandable that those with nominal belief are now turning to prayer. I’ve seen relatives who claimed to be agnostic suddenly switch over to a religious point of view when they found out they wouldn’t be alive much longer. The funny thing about Pascal’s Wager is how often it’s brought into play, whether it’s consciously done or not.

      How are you? And how are things going with the cleanup back home? I wish you and your friends and family the best of luck.

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      • I know many people like the one Michelle described. Some of them may be underestimating themselves, but others, particularly those in difficult life situations, I can’t begrudge getting comfort from anywhere they can find it. I know a woman who has had to bury one of her children and whose husband is dying of cancer. I’ve never heard her explicitly state it, but I think her religiosity is a lifeline.

        On your question, my own personal inclination is to prepare for the worst but hope for the best. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s gotten me through some difficult situations. If I don’t do the preparation, I always have the dreaded feeling that I should be doing it, that I’ll end up intensely regretting not doing it when I had the chance. But once I’ve done everything I reasonably can, I feel better about just hoping for the better outcome or scenario.

        Of course, that presupposes there is any preparing that can be done. I think one nice benefit of religious belief, for those who have it, is that when you’ve done everything you can think of to do and can’t think of anything else, you can still pray. It *feels* like you’re engaging in something productive. Of course, the downside is some people pray too early, when there are still things they could be doing.

        I’m actually fine. Accept for nasty allergic flare ups and some back pain I’ve been having since helping friends gut their houses, I’m more or less back to my usual routine. Thankfully, my shoulder hasn’t bothered me to speak of in ages. Thanks for asking.

        How are you doing?

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        • I can understand the idea of preparing for the worst. I was once told to be optimistic about something that I had no reason to be optimistic about, and I just said, “Look, I can’t hope. I don’t want to hope. If I do, I stand a good chance of ending up disappointed. If I don’t have hope, I have a remote possibility of being pleasantly surprised.”

          Of course that works in certain scenarios and not others.

          I’m so happy to hear your shoulder has improved so much! So you didn’t have to get the surgery? Hopefully the back pain is going away?

          I’m doing all right. Not much of a change here, except I did go to Mayo. (That’s what the conversation above was all about.) I didn’t expect much, especially since I was referred to the ENT specialist to do all the same inner ear tests, and I actually got less than I expected. Now I’m going to a chiropractor for reasons that aren’t clear to me, mainly to say I tried something different. In fact, this post came about because I thought about how nutty it was to go to a chiropractor for neurological problems, then I thought about alternative medicine in general and how so many people swear by such and such a thing, then I thought about belief and placebo effects and wondered if I could force myself to believe just to get the placebo effect (to my credit, I decided fairly quickly I couldn’t,) then I remembered the lecture I refer to in this post. A long and circuitous route to this! But in all I’m doing much better.

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          • “So you didn’t have to get the surgery? Hopefully the back pain is going away?”

            Thanks. It looks like I made a more or less clean getaway from the surgery. Insisting on the second opinion and finding my own way through the therapy exercises now appear to have been good moves. Every so often the shoulder aches in minor ways, but nothing even remotely debilitating. The back pain is fading; thanks. It came from doing a ridiculous amount of physical work within a week or so, something my body can’t do anymore without consequences at almost 50. In truth, the allergies issues are more bothersome.

            Sorry to hear you’re still dealing with those symptoms. Glad you want to Mayo though. At least you did it and eliminated the possibility that they could provide the solution.

            I can certainly understand the siren call of alt medicine when scientific medicine has repeatedly failed. (I felt that call when I was in the midst of my shoulder issues, and read and watched more fringe stuff than I’m comfortable admitting.) Honestly, if I were in your shoes, I’d probably try it, just to remove any lingering doubt that you’ve left any solution unexplored. Just be careful that it’s safe and don’t pay too much for it.

            Hope you find some kind of solution soon.

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          • Wonderful news about the surgery. It’s nice when you don’t have to decide which route to take anymore. My husband went through a similar thing with his back, and being in limbo caused him a lot of distress…which isn’t a great thing to deal with when you have pain on top of that. It’s harder to make decisions.

            Sorry to hear about the allergies. I wonder if they’re connected to the work of clearing out houses? Could mold be the issue? Or something inside the houses? Or do you already know what you’re allergic to?

            On being almost 50 and suffering the consequences, if it makes you feel better I’m suffering consequences at age 34. Just the other day I went into my first flamenco dance class and did a minimal amount of stretching, didn’t even break a sweat, nothing compared to what I used to do not so long ago, and afterwards I felt so sore and twitchy I couldn’t get to sleep until past 4am. The ladies are in their 60s, so I figured I could do as much as they were doing—not so! (The worst part is, I asked my fellow classmate what she did to work out, and she admitted she didn’t do much besides go for walks. And here I’d consoled myself by thinking that she probably spent all her life doing ballet or something.)

            I fought going to Mayo because I knew it would be a financial drain and probably useless. I’d heard that they redo every test without considering whether that test is really necessary, and that turned out to be the case. They claim their tests are better—the only difference I could see was that they had fancy equipment, “Astronauts train with this!” but not new tests. You could say their tests are more accurate, but I just thought the whole thing was a colossal waste of resources. In order to get into the neurology dept., I had to do the vestibular stuff, but after doing it I realized that I didn’t think Mayo was such a big deal after all. So I never went to the neurology dept. Nothing is really ruled out there, but I just had to put an end to this diagnostic madness. Even the ENT specialist said it looked like I’d had the full workup, and that I should just reevaluate my meds. Why couldn’t he have looked at my chart to begin with? What a waste of time and money. I’m glad I didn’t have to travel too far to get there.

            Just yesterday I saw a nurse practitioner who thought I might have narcolepsy, so there’s another avenue to explore. I doubt I’ll explore it since the treatment is the medication I’m already taking.

            The chiropractor is so expensive…I had no idea it would be so astronomical otherwise I might not have mentioned it to my husband (who insisted that I not worry about the money and just try it.) Well, I worked out a deal so that I didn’t have to pay full price, and I’m glad I did. This is not working and I’ve been going twice a week for about a month, so I’ll stop going after this paid session is over. I’m actually a little worried that it’s not safe.

            I think when you’re in the midst of a health crisis, you just go for anything after a certain point. I can totally relate to digging around at the fringe…no need to feel embarrassed about it. It’s only natural (haha.) After a certain point I just decided that research was getting too cumbersome, that it felt much better to just stop.

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          • Thanks Tina. The allergies are definitely related to the floods and house guttings, although I’m not sure what the specific cause was. We wore masks during the guttings, but the issue has been my eyes more than anything else. It’s slowly been getting better though.

            Sorry to hear that Mayo was such a bust. Sounds like they’re optimized to financially drain patients or insurance companies. That’s a shame.

            I’m afraid I’m not too surprised about the chiropractor. I’ve never known anyone to get relief from them, except in cases where they might have coincidentally healed naturally during the treatment. And I’ve known a couple of people who thought they were worse off afterward, so definitely be careful. All of which is in line with the lack of any scientific evidence for chiropractic effectiveness. Still, having tried it, at least you can now check it off.

            I wish I had some decent advice to give you, but it seems like you’ve tried everything. I hope you can find some kind of relief soon. At least it sounds like it’s not getting worse, although I know that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

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          • Glad to hear you’re feeling better. My husband has been dealing with the same issue, but his problem is due to dry eye. (Apparently taking allergy medication is not great for that. And he wasn’t drinking enough water.)

            Thanks for listening to my little rant. At this point it’s the best thing anyone can do for me.

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  4. People tend to believe what they want to be true and tend to reject uncomfortable truths. That’s very common. There seems to be a difference between believing something because you want it to be true and believing something because you want to believe it. In the former case belief is not willful, but rather subconscious. In the latter case, you believe that belief itself might be beneficial to you, and the actual proposition is untestable in principle (like the existence of God or a belief that my wife loves me). Another example of willful belief is a belief of a salesman that the product he sells is useful to his customer. He needs this belief to sell the product. That’s pragmatic belief.

    Here is a good overview of the reasons to believe.

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    • Thanks for that link! I did have William James in mind, of course, and that gives a nice summary of the issues.

      Your distinction sounds similar to the one I was trying to make, except I added on a bit of a twist in the hopes that I’d take the question out of the theological realm (where people tend to have their minds made up one way or another.)


  5. There is a theory that we rarely make rational decisions based on evidence, but rather we experience an emotional response, and then use our analytic minds to find reasons to support the decision our brain already made. Salespeople tap into this emotional decision-making process to secure a sale, then provide factual data to enable the buyer to justify their emotional decision to themselves afterwards.

    The will to believe implies that a person could over-turn both the emotional decision, plus any supporting rational evidence, and you would need a lot of willpower to do that. Being strongly social animals, I think it is more likely that group expectations might be able to over-turn a decision. So we might feel that something is wrong, and be able to argue rationally that it is wrong, but we accept it anyway because everyone else does.

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    • “There is a theory that we rarely make rational decisions based on evidence, but rather we experience an emotional response, and then use our analytic minds to find reasons to support the decision our brain already made.”

      That’s a theory I tend to believe in. 😉

      No really, I do sense that happening in myself when doing philosophy. Although, I don’t necessarily get a specific emotional feeling, but instead a vague feeling, something akin to: “But that doesn’t seem right. Why?” And the vagueness of this response makes it seem more like an emotion than a rational thought. After this feeling occurs, then I dig deeper and try to find its source, often times using the written word to find my way to the source, although who knows what’s really going on.

      “The will to believe implies that a person could over-turn both the emotional decision, plus any supporting rational evidence, and you would need a lot of willpower to do that.”

      It’s an interesting idea that the initial emotional response would have to be overturned to will yourself to believe. I think that makes sense when you consider the word “will”—as in “will power.” There’s a sense that willing does not come easily, that willing is not a subconscious choice, but a fully self-aware decision with a bit of endeavor. Maybe even a struggle against emotion. And when we think of making fully self-aware decisions, we think of being rational. And yet the idea of belief seems contra to rational, which makes the phrase “will to believe” paradoxical.

      The only way I can see the possibility of willing belief (in theory, anyways, leaving aside our actual psychological makeup) is if all rational evidence proves inconclusive and evenly weighted, with the question needing an answer tout de suite. And you’re right, the initial emotional response would have to be overturned in order to make way for the “better” emotional response. In a way then we’d be using reason to guide emotion when reason has nothing else to work with. But I think the supporting rational evidence would be the precursor of this willing, in theory anyways.

      Such a use of reason seems unlikely, and, as you point out, we’re more likely to resort to group think in such situations.


    • There is a theory that we rarely make rational decisions based on evidence, but rather we experience an emotional response, and then use our analytic minds to find reasons to support the decision our brain already made.

      Here is Hume on the subject:

      All the perceptions of the mind are of two kinds, viz. impressions and ideas, which differ from each other only in their different degrees of force and vivacity. Our ideas are copyed from our impressions, and represent them in all their parts. When you would any way vary the idea of a particular object, you can only encrease or diminish its force and vivacity. If you make any other change on it, it represents a different object or impression. The case is the same as in colours. A particular shade of any colour may acquire a new degree of liveliness or brightness without any other variation. But when you produce any other variation, it is no longer the same shade or colour. So that as belief does nothing but vary the manner, in which we conceive any object, it can only bestow on our ideas an additional force and vivacity. An opinion, therefore, or belief may be most accurately defined, a lively idea related to or associated with a present impression.A Treatise of Human Nature

      Belief is an idea associated with a strong emotion. And a strong emotion can be caused by a charismatic preacher or a salesman, organ music in a cathedral, peer pressure, torture, hallucination, etc. So, a question whether belief can be induced voluntarily is a question whether someone can control his or her emotions. I believe, for most people emotions are involuntary. But it seems possible to know what causes certain emotions (drugs, music, prayer, meditation, social situation, etc.) and voluntarily subject oneself to these factors — go to a church, chant a mantra, attend a political rally, chew peyote or what not.

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      • I agree that emotions are mostly involuntary. It takes a great deal of willpower to acknowledge emotion and seek to change them (or at least manage them.)

        Interesting quote from Hume. I’m not sure I get it, but I’m intrigued by the last sentences. Is he talking about the articulation of belief or belief itself? Or both?


        • You can follow the link and read this in context. The XVII century English can be somewhat hard to understand. Earlier in the text, Hume considers two kinds of “perceptions of the mind”:

          All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions: and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting only those which arise from the sight and touch, and excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion. I believe it will not be very necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction. Every one of himself will readily perceive the difference betwixt feeling and thinking. The common degrees of these are easily distinguished; though it is not impossible but in particular instances they may very nearly approach to each other. Thus in sleep, in a fever, in madness, or in any very violent emotions of soul, our ideas may approach to our impressions, As on the other hand it sometimes happens, that our impressions are so faint and low, that we cannot distinguish them from our ideas. But notwithstanding this near resemblance in a few instances, they are in general so very different, that no-one can make a scruple to rank them under distinct heads, and assign to each a peculiar name to mark the difference. — SECT. I. OF THE ORIGIN OF OUR IDEAS

          Then there are sections SECT. VII. OF THE NATURE OF THE IDEA OR BELIEF. talking about the relationship between ideas, impressions, and beliefs from which I took the previous quotation and SECT. VIII. OF THE CAUSES OF BELIEF. discussing what makes ideas “lively” turning them into beliefs.

          In essence, belief is an idea associated with a strong impression (feeling or emotion). Belief is not about the idea itself, it’s about the way the idea is conceived in our mind. I think, James builds on this introducing his “lively”, “forced” and “momentous” options.

          If you read enough of Hume and James and understand how beliefs are formed, it should be possible to follow this process consciously.

          Atheists often compare belief in God to belief in “Russel’s tea pot, Flying Spaghetti Monster, dragon in Carl Sagan’s garage and other nonsense. The reason people don’t believe in FSM and such is that the idea of FSM makes no impression on human mind compared to the idea of God. So, I think those arguments are what’s called a strawman.

          Sorry for long elaborated comments. They can be boring. I know.

          Liked by 1 person

          • No need to apologize for long and elaborated comments here, my friend! They are very much welcome and appreciated. And not at all boring.

            On the question I asked about articulation of belief, I just realized that a comma in Hume’s original writing confused me:

            “An opinion, therefore, or belief may be most accurately defined, a lively idea related to or associated with a present impression.”

            I didn’t realize that what came after the comma after the word “defined” was the definition.

            I haven’t read Hume since sometime before college, and not in a college course. My take away is: “That stuff on causality and succession and habits,” which was enough to allow me access to the Kant class I’d traveled thousands of miles to take. It’s nice to get a refresher on Hume. Thanks for bringing these details to my attention!

            Also, I didn’t focus on belief itself while I was reading Hume, only on causality and impressions vs. ideas. I don’t necessarily buy into this classical empiricist dichotomy, but I think Hume was onto something in his understanding of belief, at least as I understand belief. Something about belief feels like it must be tied to an emotion, as if that’s a part of belief’s definition. Yet those of us who scrutinize beliefs tend to leave aside emotion as irrelevant, and focus on the veracity of statements. Which is fine, normally, but we should be careful.

            And while I don’t agree with James’ radical empiricism as he conceived of it, I still find his views on belief illuminating, especially when he discusses live and momentous options. I think philosophers have a tendency to think of belief in a vacuum, apart from the living, breathing person who has a whole history of life experiences. For someone who’s had a bad experience with a certain set of beliefs or the culture from which these beliefs arise, it would be a colossal, if not impossible, demand to ask someone to return to them with an open mind.

            Not only do emotions play a role in how we think and what we believe, but other beliefs also play a role. I guess you could think of them as a network of beliefs. If we scrutinize one belief as a statement, in a vacuum, and expect the non-believer (or believer, or whatever) to come over to our side of the argument on that alone, we’re overlooking the way beliefs operate in conjunction with other beliefs. An obvious example: It would be very difficult to convince someone to believe in heaven and hell if that person doesn’t believe in God. This one’s almost too obvious. There are other kinds of belief webs that aren’t so obvious, I think.

            Which brings me in a roundabout way to your comment about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc. You could say strawman, I agree. You could say that believing in something that’s obviously intended to be humorous and is not connected to an existing web of beliefs is simply not a live option. Those who use these nonsense beliefs are assuming that those who scrutinize beliefs in a vacuum will bracket the underlying intention of the FSM, focusing only on the content (and maybe concluding that the content is similar enough to believing in Creationism, etc.) We, the scrutinizers, may find there is analogous content, but if we look at how belief operates in us, the comparison doesn’t work because it doesn’t have the same history or context.

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          • Yet those of us who scrutinize beliefs tend to leave aside emotion as irrelevant, and focus on the veracity of statements.

            The judgment of veracity is emotional.

            Check out these articles: Remembering Makes Evidence Compelling:
            Retrieval From Memory Can Give Rise to the Illusion of Truth

            A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact. —Daniel Kahneman

            So, if you want to believe anything (true or false), repeat it to yourself every morning — that’s it. That’s exactly what they do in churches. Reciting the Apostle’s Creed has been a part of any Catholic mass for a long time. You can do it simply because you want to believe something. It’s willful.

            This article states that people would believe a false statement if they’ve already heard it, but don’t recollect the source. I’ve seen another article which I cannot find showing that people would believe a familiar statement even if they previously heard that the statement is false, but can’t remember the source. E.g. they read a report about a scam in a newspaper, but later fall for the exact same scam because the statements sound familiar, but they don’t remember where they heard them.

            This is why it is extremely hard to correct the effects of a false rumor because the more you try, the more familiar people become with the rumor itself.

            How people deal with cognitive dissonance is also quite fascinating. There is a wealth of references in this Wikipedia article.

            This is a very interesting topic and has enormous practical value.

            Liked by 2 people

          • “E.g. they read a report about a scam in a newspaper, but later fall for the exact same scam because the statements sound familiar, but they don’t remember where they heard them.”

            This reminds me of my problem with choosing a good wine. I go into a store and see a label I remember, but I don’t remember if that was the label of some wine I liked or didn’t like. It almost always turns out to be the wine I didn’t like. (Negative makes a strong impression, I guess. Hence, the news.)

            Thanks for those articles! I’ll have to check those out when I get a minute.

            Liked by 1 person

          • You might think, what does legibility have to do with veracity? In this study people believed statements written clearly and doubted the less legible ones. Would you call it reasonable? These things work regardless of one’s education, intelligence level, or reasoning ability.

            Your questions are not merely philosophical. They are psychological and have to be answered based on experimental study rather than abstract philosophical reasoning. And the experiments seem to show that it’s possible to make people (including yourself) to believe anything — quite willfully.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I think believing works differently for different people and that some have a greater capacity to believe things for which they have no evidence, and even for which there is contrary evidence. Whether they have “willed” themselves to believe it is a complex question, but many religious traditions do emphasize an act of will or volition when one converts or accepts that particular set of beliefs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think for the most part, belief is a kind of ignore-ance. Mostly we just don’t have the time or wherewithal to dig deeper. Or we just don’t care, and that’s okay. We’d be paralyzed without beliefs. We get on in life on a provisional basis, and that’s what we have to do to keep sane.

      Of course there’s a difference between provisional belief (taken as such) and an act of faith against reason. That requires a great deal more ignore-ance than our usual, everyday beliefs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Then what you’re calling a belief is really a proposition used for pragmatic reasons, it seems. We consider it likely true, but it’s as yet to be justified, and we’re aware of that potential fallibility – is that what you mean, Tina? It may not be, but if it is, then I’m not sure if we should be calling that belief.

        We necessarily go through life with sets of assumptions and presumptions, testing their efficacy against experience each time they’re applied; but these only act as predispositions, don’t they, and predispositions aren’t beliefs, are they? An example:

        When I board a flight, I’m predisposed to presuming and (perhaps) hoping that I’ll land safely, yet still I don’t believe I will – I’m just playing the odds and in fact I know that the plane might crash, and (if I research it) I know that my chances of surviving any one flight are 1 in 29.4 million*. There’s no belief that zero potential exists for my demise.

        The concept of belief, it seems to me, implies a state of mind outside of such efficacy testing or odds playing, and which presumes its own veracity with absolute certainty, but does not yet have possession of certain knowledge. By that definition – and I accept that’s only one – then why would a sane person ever adopt, or attempt to will into existence, a belief?


        Liked by 1 person

        • I take belief to be much broader than you do. It can be a kind of “blind faith”—taking something as true when there is no evidence or even evidence to the contrary. Or it can be in the realm of probability, as in the colloquial usage: “I believe it will rain today.”

          I hope that’s clear enough. I realize the word “faith” is similarly problematic. I tend to reserve that one for religion, but I know it can be taken in a variety of ways.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Some time ago, I considered whether acting on a probability constitutes belief. E.g. if you take an umbrella, does it mean that you believe it will rain? If you board a plane, do you believe it will land safely? If you buy a lottery ticket, do you believe you will win? If you insure your house, do you believe it will burn? The answer, obviously, is no. You believe things may happen and weigh the probability of event, severity of its consequences, and the cost of preventing it. E.g. taking a train is a significant hassle (high cost) compared to the very low probability (1 in 5.4m) of a crash. So, we board the plane. Paying $50 per month for fire insurance seems to be a low cost compared to the significant probability of a fire (1 in 300 per year). So, we buy a fire insurance. But it’s silly to say that I believe my house will burn because I bought a fire insurance or I believe that my plane will not crash.

          This does not tell you what belief is, but understanding what belief is not helps.

          Liked by 2 people

  7. Great post, and great questions. I think in matters of joy, fear, self-destruction, and self-protection we can train ourselves to believe all manner of things we cannot justify either materially or rationally. We have to truly want it, though, and not simply decide that it would be better for us. I’m thinking of Jim Gaffigan’s thoughts on religion, which I recently heard in his interview with Terry Grosse. It’s worth a listen to the whole interview, but he basically says he needs religion because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to function happily or get over his self loathing without the promise of mercy (or something to that effect).

    I think that we can also believe in things as they exist and work /for us/ and not necessarily believe in them as material fact. I “believe” in physical laws, even though they’re conceptual and not physical. They can be demonstrated in practice, but as things themselves, I believe in them in part because I’m a philosopher with a robust sense of the metaphysical, and in part because it would terribly inconvenient not to, even though I “know” that we might later discover that some physical laws aren’t exactly or comprehensively accurate. I think in the same way some people “believe” the promises of religion that they cannot prove because they “work” /for them/, giving them comfort, inspiring them to be kinder, more honest, more charitable, or what have you.

    This is not to mention the problematic and harmful moral issues (judging or condemning people for arbitrary reasons, hypocrisy, etc.) that come from following or obeying certain religious dictates, which is obviously a huge topic, but this comment is already pretty long so I’ll leave that be for now.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for reading my post and leaving me with so much to think about. I know this topic is right up your alley of expertise.

      “I think that we can also believe in things as they exist and work /for us/ and not necessarily believe in them as material fact.”

      This is something I’m really trying to wrap my mind around lately as I dig deeper into a character in my novel. She’s an evangelical Christian who doesn’t worry over the material facts, but finds a great deal of comfort and truth in her religious beliefs, on the whole. When she has to defend each point, she can’t…she hasn’t thought about them critically and doesn’t see these issues as important, but can’t quite articulate her priorities in the context in which she finds herself. She’s not the sort of person who goes to protest rallies or engages politically, so she wouldn’t find herself defending these positions in her daily life. She finds her community’s religion true, on the whole, and believing in this totality makes for a better life than not believing.

      We believe in many physical laws without necessarily saying, “Such and such is provisional, but…” These are taken as truths unless we’re forced to defend them in a more critical context in which that law is specifically addressed or highlighted. To do otherwise would be not only ridiculous, but ridiculously fatiguing.

      We often hear that these conceptual physical laws aren’t the same as some religious beliefs, and I think your observation speaks to that objection. Of course, physical laws aren’t the same, being scientific, but believing in a worldview in its entirety is quite different from believing in a worldview point-by-point. It’s almost as if our belief separates into various potencies depending on the context. Speaking for myself, I know I couldn’t defend the existence of gravity if someone were to call me out on it. I wouldn’t even give a satisfactory scientifically valid reason for believing, since I’m not that knowledgable. I’d end up with an argument not very different from: “Well, it makes sense of so many things we do experience, or so I’m told in a few books I’ve read, so I’m going with that.” Or I’d simply defend science as a whole, which is what we hear more often than not.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I do hope I get to read your novel one day – I’m very interested to see how this character turns out! While I do know several Catholic and traditionally denominational Christian philosophers who are quite happy to question and challenge aspects of their faith, I don’t think I know of any who are Evangelical in the sense you describe (historically, C. S. Lewis was close to an evangelical, but I think not in the literalist sense I think you mean, which seems to be a fairly American phenomenon). The mostly medieval Catholic philosophers I spend my time reading have no qualms seeing much of scripture as metaphor when it doesn’t agree with natural phenomena (though what they mean by this is an intensely varied and complex thing).

        On the latter point, it is a bit frightening how few of us understand science adequately. I think our faith in science often gets us into trouble – like when we believe studies run with biases (tobacco companies researching the effects of cigarettes on our health, for instance) – or when something is presented in a way that *seems* scientific (I’ve got several Feynman quotes floating around in my mind). I think our education system needs more gen-ed science classes; when all we have are extremely detailed chemistry and physics classes, the result is that those of us not willing to devote our lives to science tune out and just believe whatever scientists say. I think we need to make more of an attempt to teach scientific literacy to those of us who aren’t going to end up in a lab.

        Liked by 3 people

        • “I think we need to make more of an attempt to teach scientific literacy to those of us who aren’t going to end up in a lab.”

          Oh, dear Lord, yes! Along with a Liberal Arts education, which I believe provides huge amounts of life context.

          In fact, for 40 years I’ve referred to the growing state of things as “The Death of a Liberal Arts education.”

          Liked by 3 people

        • Since I grew up surrounded by evangelicals, it felt like they represented Christianity (they certainly thought they did.) It was so refreshing to read the Catholic philosophers in college. My father was Catholic, but not a devout one. He never spoke of his Catholicism, and I know he wasn’t paying attention in school when he was forced to read Augustine. Other than my father, I didn’t know many Catholics (or Jews for that matter.) Probably hard to imagine for someone who doesn’t come from the Bible belt!

          On science, I totally agree. I have very little education on this matter, and what I do have comes from my philosophy of science class. If it weren’t for that class, I don’t think I would be at all critical when it comes to scientific studies. While I still don’t feel I understand science adequately, I’m grateful for that class for bringing my own ignorance to my attention. It gets on my nerves when I hear advertisements using scientific lingo (I should say pseudo-scientific lingo) to sell their products, especially since I know so many intelligent people will not be quick to scrutinize those claims.

          Liked by 2 people

  8. Oh, dear, a meaty post followed (in only a day’s time) by a meaty discussion. I’ll have to come back when I’m not feeling so fatigued and can read in more detail, but an immediate gut response to:

    “Can you will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true…”

    I’ve always taken that to be self-evident.

    If you can’t know something is true or false, you’re easily allowed to think of it as true. That view can absolutely rise to the level of belief. We take readily to things we think might be true. (Like, “They really do love me!”)

    “…if believing will make you happy?”

    For exactly that reason.

    Case in point: me. I’m faced with either the view that the universe “just happened” in the context of some meta-framework science can only guess at (and probably never prove), or the view that someone, or something, essentially said, “Let there be light.”

    Both suffer from the “turtles all the way down” problem, and I find both of them utterly preposterous. Clearly I’m a butterfly having some very insane dream. (And apparently I hate myself, because I’ve dreamed up the 2016 USA election cycle.)

    I’m free to believe either of these preposterous “theories” (or that I’m a butterfly (who stings like a bee)), and proponents of either side campaign tirelessly about how their side obviously makes the most sense. (And they’re both wrong.)

    A non-teleological universe bores me, so I choose (and it is deliberate choice) to believe in a teleological universe. (I’m just worried it’s a cruel VR experiment by a soulless society trying to figure out what hell might be like. “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”)

    Cause the idea makes me happier than living in a physicalist universe. (Of course, psychologically, my innate predispositions may incline me towards happiness on a view I already hold internally, so who the hell knows.)

    Also, FWIW, having been brought up “in the church” I’ve known many, many religious people. The quiet kind who just live their lives in some level of faith. In almost all cases, they (sub-consciously, perhaps) do seem to choose belief because of the peace it brings them. Most don’t really question it much.

    So, yeah, I’ve always thought that kind of belief was self-evident.

    It takes a philosopher giving a lecture to make it all complicated. 😀 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re hilarious. You got a literal LOL from me at the butterfly dreaming up our current political nightmare.

      You seem to get what I’ve been wondering about. I tend to agree, including the part on teleology as you know (although that one for other reasons as well, as you know.) In this case it’s a deliberate choice, meaning you’re not fooling yourself or anything like that. Which makes sense to me since all else is equal and the rational mind has nothing more to work with than which belief would benefit it. In general, that line of reasoning makes sense, and I’m tending in that direction. I wonder if it actually works that way, though…rather, if it can actually work that way. Or in such cases, are we just too emotionally-driven to choose one way or another for what might seem to be too arbitrary a reason? (Kant never cared much about happiness, and I think that view of “pure reason” sits pretty firmly in the psyche.)

      In other words, I wonder if we need time to let the choice sink in before true believing happens, if belief involves an emotional state as well as an epistemic state.

      Or maybe I’m just making this more complicated than it really is. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a deceptively complex question for me in the sense that I don’t know if believing things makes me happy.

    For example, lets assume that having one specific set of beliefs will send us to eternal bliss and any deviation from said belief sentences us to spending eternity at the DMV, eating sandwiches out of vending machines.

    If I believe my belief will send me to bliss, will that actually make me happy? I kind of don’t think so. If I believe I’m headed to eternal DMV, will that make me unhappy? I kind of don’t think so.

    In either case, there’s an outcome I can’t control and I’ll have to figure something out when I get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess the key term is “live option” which I didn’t go into here and maybe I should have. William James thought there were certain beliefs that are dead for some people. I don’t recall if he explained why, or if he just took that as a truth, but I think it’s true. For instance, I doubt I’d ever become a Christian of any sort, barring brain injuries, etc., but the really dead option would be for me to become an evangelical. A more “viable” option would be Unitarian or Episcopalian (some of these invite agnostics and atheists, there’s one like that here in Tucson.) Even so, not likely I’d join any sort of church.

      Live options (that I currently don’t buy into) for me might include alternative therapy as a way to achieve physical health. Or believing that I won’t die within the time frame given to me by a reputable doctor if I have a terminal illness, that I might cheat the clock if I do xy&z or if I simply make myself optimistic (there always seems to be someone who does cheat the clock, which can give false hope to the rest.) These are the kinds of things that would motivate me personally, but everyone would have different live options.

      I’m a bit at a loss to think of another example. I could think of less momentous ones, but I can’t imagine having to make a choice in those cases. I usually just suspend judgement. In most cases, I agree with you, the belief doesn’t make me happy. It’s just a belief.

      Liked by 1 person

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