The post last week on being prayed for sparked some interesting questions about free will and belief. I thought returning to that topic would be a nice complement to the discussion about choosing to alter your own will that’s developing out of Tristyn’s pharmaceutical thought experiment.
Disagreement arose over whether a petitionary prayer to God seeking my conversion was an affront to my free will or agency. Posters P. Coyle and Hendy made the great point that belief is not a matter of will. (Hendy’s gone into a lot more detail about the nature of belief at his own blog here). I can’t will myself to believe that God exists, so a change in my belief (whether caused by God or any other reason) is not an imposition on my will. This would be the case even if God poked into my head and altered my belief, though I don’t think that’s exactly what Christians pray for when they pray for conversion.
Christians I’ve talked to tend to think that there is evidence for their belief. Some Christians think that atheists don’t consider their evidence in good faith, but many others concede that the evidence that sustains their belief is not universally accessible. Miracles or a subjective feeling of closeness to God might be personally convincing, but they’re impossible to offer as anything but hearsay evidence to others.
What Christians I’ve talked to hope for is that I would be able to access this kind of evidence or that I would stop applying a needlessly high standard of evidence to some claims. Some of my Christian friends think some of my other beliefs are most compatible with Christianity, so they’re hoping I get over whatever is preventing me from recognizing that fact, whether it’s pride, fear, or too much optimism that a superior system exists. They’re asking God to smooth any of these paths to truth.
Ultimately I don’t find this kind of prayer any more of a threat to my free will than someone offering me reading material that could change my mind. Data is compulsion, but it’s good compulsion. My will and desire aren’t and shouldn’t be directed to preserving a certain belief, I aspire that all my beliefs are true. The Christian who prays for me and little old atheist me are in agreement about our goal at that level.
I’m pushy in this way when I try to explain complicated science facts to someone less immersed in the topic than I am. I have data that the other person can’t parse, which I believe would be compelling if they could understand it. I might try to throw my interlocutor into the path of someone I thought would be better able to explain (kind of what Christians are doing) or I might cheat a little and try to convince using an appeal to authority, playing on their trust and my apparent expertise. My preference is that they believe the right thing for the right reasons, but I can’t necessarily get there if their background is too limited.
There’s a different issue tied up in this question that has less to do with problems of will than the continuity of self. If God altered my beliefs suddenly while I was asleep and I woke up a Christian, the real issue is the discontinuity between my identity when I went to sleep and my identity when I woke up. If I became aware of this kind of reversal, I’d be more likely to find my new belief to be evidence of my own insanity than evidence of God.
Identity can weather sudden changes and epiphanies without being broken, but all of these are accompanied by at least a subjective sense of cause. Otherwise they feel like delusion and annihilation. That’s not to say that big shifts aren’t always a kind of violence to the self, but at least you’ve sacrificed your old self on the altar of some greater good. Remembering the cause of that shift provides some connection to the dross you burned away.