Monday, April 8, 2013

Can We Choose Our Beliefs?

Lately on YT and TWeb I've been dealing with a fundy atheist. Andrew Smith, who argues that humans can't "choose" their beliefs, and he uses this as an excuse for why God's punishments are unjust. I asked Nick Peters to take a TNT bomb to this idea, so he'll be the guest poster today.


Can we choose our beliefs?

Andrew Smith says, no, we can’t. He says we can make choices, but we can’t choose to believe something.

Supposing this was true, it would be interesting to see what difference it would make to the truth of Christianity. It could be that Jesus rose from the dead and those who believe in it are those who have to believe in it, kind of an ultra-Calvinist viewpoint.

Of course, Smith is right if he means that we can’t just change our beliefs willy-nilly. I can’t just suddenly believe that I have $1,000,000 in my banking account, as much as I’d like that to be true. He is right that to change our beliefs, our beliefs should be challenged by new claims that have sufficient evidence.

Let’s look at a statement he makes.

“If in order to change your beliefs it is required that new information comes to you and convinces you that your beliefs are false, that is not choice.”

Yes. It is a requirement that you have new information come to your mind that convinces you, but the seeking out of new information is a choice. It is a choice when I go to the library to get books and it is a choice what books I get. I can get books that are in line with my beliefs, which is fine to do at times, or I can choose books that disagree with what I believe.

When I do the latter, I can also seek to choose what kind of mindset I will approach them from. I can choose to approach them assuming I am always right, to which nothing will be convincing because it does not agree with me, or I could take the approach that I am someone who is to be humble and learn from others and realize I could be wrong, in which case I could be more convinced.

If an argument is rational, contains no logical fallacies, and is based on sound evidence, then I am obligated to believe in it. Of course, that could mean I want some time to mull over the argument and examine the premises and such, but if in the end I find nothing wrong with the argument, then I believe it. The reality for most of us is that we’ve all had times like this. Many of us have eliminated beliefs from our system that we once deeply cherished simply because of new evidence.

Smith goes on to say

“You do not get to choose what convinces you and what doesn't, otherwise you could convince yourself of anything.”

But this doesn’t follow. This assumes that all arguments are equally convincing. Consider the classic syllogism.

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates is mortal.

The only way someone could really doubt this is to question that all men are mortal. We have strong evidence of this though in that all men thus far have died, aside from biblically Enoch and Elijah. If that was a problem, let’s go to another one.

All cats are felines.
Mittens is a cat.
Mittens is a feline.

This should be convincing to anyone. Now let’s make another syllogism.

All birds can fly.
Rover is a dog.
Therefore, fundy atheists are dumb.

Now this conclusion is certainly true, although fundy atheists will disagree with it, but it is a bad argument. Not even the most conservative Christian would find it convincing. Thus, to say you can convince yourself of anything would imply that there is an equal argument to believe anything. If that is the case though, there is just as good an argument to convince yourself that you can choose your beliefs as there is that you can’t choose them. (By the way, why is Smith trying to give us an argument to choose the belief that we can’t choose our beliefs?)

“And, since your beliefs are entirely contingent upon what you find convincing, you do not choose them.”

This is true, but irrelevant. We can be convinced of things we don’t want to be convinced of. It happens regularly. People become convinced that a loved one has died when they see them lying in the casket. Is it because these people want to be convinced their loved one is dead? No. It is because they face evidence that they cannot refute. Most of us have had times of denial where we’ve had irrefutable evidence for a position and tried to emotionally push it away. It doesn’t last long.

We conclude that Smith’s case is not well thought-out and is simply a way to try to avoid having blame for the position that he holds with regards to Christianity. Yet even if his position was true, it would not refute the Christian faith at all. Perhaps the problem could really lie with Smith himself?