Choosing to Believe? –Questions from M

Choosing to Believe? –Questions from M June 3, 2017

For the discussion, who wouldn't learn to love coffee?
For the discussion, who wouldn’t learn to love coffee?

When I was a boy, I was sure of one thing: I hated the very taste of coffee. Part of this may have been that this was the freeze dried Taster’s Choice era of coffee in our house. It was coffee that was hard to love, though really I disliked all coffee. Instead, I became addicted to Diet Coke, just for the taste of it.

I know. The 1980’s were a mixed bag, Reagan, but also parachute pants.

One day, the drama folk I was hanging with started drinking something called a “latte.” This was milk, something I did not like, with coffee, something I did not like. I did not like it, but I liked the crowd, so I drank it and smiled and soon, I kid you not, I liked it.

I went through a similar process with cooked carrots, thanks to my darling wife, but that is another story. Without any recourse to a miracle, my experience has been that many likes, dislikes, and even opinions can be modified if the motivation is there. The motivation need not be noble (as mine was not) or even rational (as mine was not). I like coffee, because I liked the people that liked coffee. Now my experience is that there are some deep seeded desires that cannot just be willed away, though they can be weakened. I do not have to act on them.

On a Change of Belief

With that in mind, I read a question from my jolly skeptical summer interlocutor M*. M* asks:

  1. Christianity is centered on faith and belief more so than it is around actions (like say, Buddhism). Do you believe someone can actually choose to believe something? I find that one gets ones beliefs from means other than what one chooses.

This is a different way to describe Christianity than I would choose. I do not see faith, belief, and action as opposing each other as much as buttressing each other. Belief must lead to action or I do not believe. Action should be based on belief (faith) or it is irrational and unwise.

If we leave those (very complicated!) issues to the side, can I choose to believe?

I think so, in some cases. In other cases, I cannot. Suppose I wish that Narnia existed (not as an idea or in Barterra, but in this world). I can promise this is something I really wished were true as a boy, but I never managed to believe it. Why? There was no evidence it was true. My reason looked, but could not find enough hope to pursue the issue. If I had found a hopeful line of inquiry, then hope might have lead to faith and belief.

Belief in actual Narnia is hopeless.**

So “no,” I have discovered I cannot will belief. The other case came with Christianity. I was at a point in my life where with every passion in me I did not wish traditional Christianity to be true. I wanted to say: “Christianity is false.” I wanted to disbelieve. I could cultivate plenty of desire, loathing of certain aspects of Christendom, and any amount of intellectual problems. As a philosophy grad student, I knew where to look, but I could not do it.

The arguments did not persuade me.

This process of failure to believe has a counterpoint. Sometimes I will be motivated to look into an idea for some reason or another and discover that looking into it changes my mind and my beliefs. I hope, I look, I study, and I believe.

What is the process? I am not sure, but Socrates in Plato’s Symposium helps me. He teaches me that desire might lead to hope, hope to faith, faith to seeing and seeing to knowledge. This has been my experience. What motivates the process? Love. I see beauty and beauty produces desire and desire drives me toward the good beloved object. Of course, sometimes my love is misplaced and the object is unworthy as love of secularism turned out to be for me.

How do I know that I believe? I believe when I act. If I do not do what I say I believe, then I do not do it.

Shouldn’t some beliefs count more?

M* has made a good point in a follow up email. He says:

The analogy (forgive me if I’m getting this wrong) is that a belief system is like a spider web, where parts of the web will attach to each other, and then one or two lines will attach out to something.  I think that’s a great way of seeing things. I’m afraid, however, that I think religious people can use this to their detriment (as can everyone else who is prone to confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, logical fallacies, etc.—including me).  My issue with that excellent explanation is that one can have a very coherent ideology, but the line of the web that attaches out must be stronger in real life than the spider’s web. . . (Examples follow that will be addressed in later questions from M*)

So, I don’t know exactly what my question is here but I think what I’m asking is whether (to use your great analogy), do you believe the line of the web attaching the rest of the web to the tree has to be any stronger or of a different quality than the rest of the line to support this belief structure or can it be the same, weaker, stronger, etc.?

I hope M* sees from what I have just said that this is exactly right! We can kid ourselves. Some beliefs are more important than other beliefs: some are central and some are not, some could detach from external reality and we would be fine, but others would cause our “web of belief” to fly off into space.

We cannot just believe as we wish, because a wish is not sufficient justification for a belief! Our beliefs must cohere and attach at reality as best we can make them do so. Not every belief (or strand of belief) needs to be equally strong, but some must be very strong and some of those strong beliefs should be attached to the “tree” of external reality. Of course, this is complicated, because (as the question shows) our beliefs shape how we see external reality! That too (for good and bad) is a biconditional relationship.

I am not sure that the line to external reality must be stronger that certain internal lines. Mathematical and logical truths, for example, have no external justification, but I should get those right. However, in general some lines of evidence must cohere. Christianity must work in the external world without giving up too much, or presenting to many coherence problems (with the external world as we see it), or it should (and will) fail.

Here are three predictions about the external world that I think Christianity gets quite right:

  1. There is a physical and metaphysical reality.
  2. Humankind is good, but broken. We cannot fix ourselves.
  3. Jesus

And so I am a Christian and not just a theist!

What if you don’t believe any of those things? Can I force belief? No. God forbid! If you see Jesus, I believe His beauty will produce desire, desire love, and love cause you to hope He is real. You look, listen, and learn. If He is there and not silent, then He will speak and you will know.

From now to the moment of our death (mysterious revelation of truth and last choice!), we commit ourselves and then we see.


*M is a non-Christian that sent me 55 questions early this year. He  has asked that I not reveal his or her name. I will write as if “he” is a male, but this is for convenience. I do not know if I will get to all his questions. Here are questions 1, 2, 3, 6, 17, 23, 2627, 283435 37 , 4754 , and 55.

** Yes, yes, I know. Fictional characters are real in one sense of real, but that would be equivocating here. Read the novel.

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