Do You Control Your Beliefs?

This is a controversial one.

But bear with me. I think there is an idea here that can help us move toward virtue and having better, more fruitful conversations.

Have you ever had the thought, “I can’t believe so-and-so believes this about this! How could anyone actually believe that?! Only someone who is [insert negative trait] could possibly come to that conclusion.”

It is an easy one to have - particularly given how contentious and important many of the big issues of our times are. Abortion, police misconduct, voting laws, Middle East relations, vaccination, mask-wearing, critical race theory. We could go on.

We are quick to cast moral aspersions in the direction of those who think differently. And perhaps that can be justified. Some positions on these various issues are undergirded by various moral precepts that may in fact be suspect. But importantly, those precepts themselves take the form of a belief in the mind of the person using them in their belief-forming-apparatus.

So, imagine with me for a moment. Let’s do an inventory, some self-reflection.

How did you come to acquire your beliefs? What did that process look like?

Take simple external-world beliefs based on sensory data. For instance, I believe that I am looking at a blog on a screen in front of me. This is one of my beliefs. Now, what degree of choice did I have in believing this? Arguably, next to none. I just find myself believing - I am so overwhelmed by the data coming to me from my eyesight that I can’t help but believe. I would suggest to you that I am currently unable to cease believing it by mere powers of refusal alone. I would think the same goes for you.

Alright, how about your more complex beliefs? Suppose you believe that God exists or that God does not exist. Either way - did you really one day just decide to believe that? What degree of control did you have over that belief? Or is it similar to the perceptual case above, that the preponderance of evidence from your life experience, powers of reasoning, and investigation led to a belief “emerging” in one direction or another. Instead, you find yourself believing it, rather than making an explicitly conscious choice in the matter. Even for those with significant or extreme “conversion stories”, where a turning point moment seems more easy to pick out, we can wonder about what degree of choice the believer had in adopting that belief given the data on the table in front of them.

Now, at least in my opinion, we still exercise quite a bit of control over our actions and how we spend our time - the evidence we pursue, the things we decide to think about, the sources we go to for information. These are the founts from which our beliefs emerge; so in that sense, we can exercise control over what streams of evidence we allow to flow into our belief-formation-process.

One implication of this view is that people are a bit less morally responsible for what they actually believe. There is likely still moral responsibility in the realm of action and what we do to influence our collection of evidence, but as far as the beliefs themselves, there is less at stake morally than if you were to adopt the view that we have absolute, full control over our beliefs.

This implication can have a number of interesting outcomes if you end up believing this about belief.

First, this might lead to you to be more gracious and gentle with those who believe differently, even radically differently. After all, this just happens to be where the person finds themselves mentally given their massive data set over their life experience.

Second, it can allow us to focus on what matters perhaps more than the resulting belief, and that is the evidence in support of the beliefs. This is the locus of change for belief-shifting, and our discussions would be better served lingering there than with the finger-pointing or exasperated declarations of “how could you believe that?!”

Third, it can make us better interlocutors. Perhaps we thought a piece of evidence for our position was so powerful that it ought to convince anyone who hears it, but to your surprise, your friend is not in fact convinced by it. This view makes perfect sense of that phenomenon. Rather than imbuing a trait of “bad-faith thinker” or “stubborn” to your friend, we can reassess our own evidential structure and see if there are other bits of data that would serve your friend’s potential journey toward adopting a certain belief.

In this week’s episode, “Do You Control Your Beliefs” we explore this topic in more detail. If this interests you, we’d love for you to join the conversation and leave a comment on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.

Stay Curious!