just on belief (a follow up)

I was talking about belief with some of my friends this week (if you think you were one of them, you probably were), touching on some of the things in my last post, but mostly covering a lot of ground on the topic of belief generally.

One friend questioned my assertion that belief was a choice, saying something to the effect that even if you want to believe, sometimes you just can't.  That resonated with me and I've been mulling it over for the past few days.

I think belief is akin to an emotion--it's something we feel, not that we logically come to.  A position or stance, we come to by logic, but usually basing some of that logic on a belief, e.g.: given that I believe X, I can conclude that the government should do Y.  There are some things that most of us believe to be true, like that killing is bad.  But sometimes our beliefs change and warp because they're emotionally based.  Someone can believe that killing is bad, but then kill someone in a rage, defending the honor of a member of their family.

I think that we can consciously train our emotions to some extent (more here), but I had never really thought of applying that to beliefs.  My sense is that beliefs are like gut reactions we don't want to train, or shouldn't train, otherwise we end up with situations where people are manipulated.

At the same time, beliefs are manipulated by political parties, religious denominations, and social groups.  We teach each other what's acceptable, mostly in terms of social behavior, but expressing certain beliefs is a social behavior.  If I said I believed the moon was made of cheese, I would be mocked until I didn't believe that any more.

So we also come to beliefs based on evidence.  They are, in part, a summary of our understanding of the world.  I believe sun will rise because it has done so repeatedly.  Some of that evidence is enforced socially (like people making fun of me if I believe the moon is made of cheese), but some of it is based on evidence (the moon kind of looks like cheese, but other things look like cheese and aren't).

There are feedback loops for belief as well. Attending church could make people believe more (or less) in a religion. Socializing with Democrats could make you more liberal.  You often use your belief to determine you actions, but then your belief is reinforced by the results of your action.

In the end, do we make the choice to believe or not?  It might be deterministic given the evidence and our emotions, but I don't know.  Is the moon made of cheese? Does God exist? Does the sun rise each day? Some questions are easier than others.


Lucas Sanders said...

"If I said I believed the moon was made of cheese, I would be mocked until I didn't believe that any more."

More precisely: you'd be mocked until you stopped defending that belief in public. Professing your beliefs in public is a social behavior, but the belief itself may not be.

ajbc said...

That's true, but not defending your belief is the first step to renouncing it. Many times, people are still ridiculed for things that happened in the past: "Remember when you used to say the moon was made of cheese? Haha!"

There are two main scenarios: either you simmer silently or change your mind. In changing you mind, perhaps you just convince yourself that the belief you were mocked for is less important than you thought it was. Perhaps you pull a 180 and mock others who used to be you. Perhaps you hold tighter to your belief, a martyr in your own mind.

Given that religion tends to be social, I don't see why beliefs wouldn't have a social component. Why else do we consult friends and religious figures for advice on moral issues?

Erik K said...

Don't overlook the extent to which our emotional and intellectual make-up is dependent on the architecture and metabolism of the brain itself. We are still only scratching the surface of how these interact with our beliefs and thought processes.

Socialization, and the acquisition of wisdom are, I think, to quite a large extent a reflection of our ability to selectively transcend or resist the behavioural trajectories along which our basic biology would otherwise tend to push us. Socialization allows us to adapt to our social environments; wisdom builds on socialization by allowing us to mentally step outside some of the limitations of our own experiences and see things from other perspectives and other people's point of view.

Of course, there is also a fair degree of overlap between wisdom and knowledge.