Thursday, April 23, 2009

We Don't Have Free Will of Belief

I'm speaking in the philosophical, not the political sense. In democracies, we are allowed to believe whatever we want (clearly, judging by the observable breadth of nuttiness). What I mean is this: imagine you're driving home from work one day and you look up at a hill on your way home. You notice copious clouds of black smoke boiling up from it. You will likely now believe that the hill is on fire. You don't choose to believe it; saying you choose to believe it implies that you could look up at the hill, see the smoke, and still believe that nothing was different from the day before. The facts force your beliefs, if there's any congruence at all between your mind and the outside world.

Clearly well-meaning, honest people can look at the same situation and take two different interpretations away from it, even things as basic as looking at a sign and reading a word on it that's not there. But without digressing fully into the labyrinth of human psychology, it is clear that beliefs are not consciously chosen, and not subject to free will. Regardless of whether it's a mentally healthy person observing smoke and believing there's a fire, or a mentally ill person who believes that the CIA has projected a hologram of smoke to get you to turn around so they can catch you, or a religious person who believes the Rapture has begun.

In the same vein, an atheist can't suddenly decide to believe in supernatural beings, any more than a Christian can decide to suddenly stop believing in one - unless either of them gets new information, which might just be new ways of connecting or evaluating information they already had. Discussion is good for this. Social involvement is better. Get to know reasonable religious people. Volunteer with them for whatever secular or close-to-secular activities you can find, and be an example of a good atheist. For most religious people, this will be new information. That's why exposure to atheists or even to other religions is often enough to either devert people or at least move them a step away from politically ambitious religion.

The determinism of belief makes Pascal's Wager all the more interesting, because as Christopher Hitchens frequently points out, Pascal in his own description of it conceded that there are those "so made that they cannot believe". Because he seems to be recognizing the determinism of belief, this begs the question of whether he was really just telling nonbelievers to shut their mouths and they might trick God. Yet another problem with the Wager!


Dan said...

My biggest problem with Pascal's Wager is that the odds are so poor that it's practically pointless to play. Even if there is a supreme being(s), you've got a slim chance of picking the right one.

"Hey Angel! I'm dead and ready to see God and Jesus!" "Sorry, honey, I'm a Valkyrie and Odin and Thor don't think you were a very brave warrior in life."

Remember, the House always wins.

bakakarasu said...

Re: free will - it's a bit more complicated. I suggest folks interested in this area read Daniel Dennett's "Elbow Room"

As regards you suggestion to
"Get to know reasonable religious people." - it's a bit difficult to consider folks who think they have an invisible special friend to be 'reasonable' ;-)

Michael Caton said...

That's one by Dennett I haven't read. I take the approach in talking to religious folks that everybody has irrational beliefs, some worse than others, some more politically entrenched than others. But clearly most religious people can keep the lights on and make it to work most days ("reasonable"), so they are not entirely immune from making connections.