This post was motivated in part by Homer Price's excellent blog post, The Theology and Science of Free Will.

An important question in my mind is whether free will applies to belief. I can choose my behavior, but can I choose what I believe? Some people apparently think so. In the brand of Christianity to which I was subjected in the past, it didn't seem to matter whether my behavior was "good" or "evil"; either way, I was condemned to Hell, because I was "born in sin". But either way, said the preachers, I could avoid that fate by "believing in Christ" (or "on" Christ -- not sure what that was about). I took that to mean I must believe that there was a fellow named Jesus who was "the Son of God" and whose hideous death somehow compensated for my sins.

But could I really have chosen to believe such a thing through an act of will? To me, belief feels like something that is served up autonomically by the logical part of my mind, a conclusion based upon the available facts and probabilities. Even if I wanted to, I don't think I could choose to believe that the Earth is flat, or that wine is turned into blood by a priest's incantation, or that the Jesus narrative is true.

What is your own experience? Can you change your genuinely held beliefs by choosing to do so? Are you aware of any scientific inquiries into this question?

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I think that to some extent, through being open to confronting and testing evidence, we can at least alter our beliefs. In any case, I feel pretty certain that they should be treated with great caution, because belief is the most dangerous force in the world. One of the most profound thoughts I've ever heard is Robert Anton Wilson's bon mot that Convictions cause convicts; whatever you believe imprisons you. Consequently I try my best to believe in nothing.

Nihilism or skepticism? That is the question. I prefer the latter. I try to keep my beliefs flexible and responsive to the evidence.

Believing in nothing is as impossible as having absolute power.

Those who claim the latter have to trust the guards who protect them from assassins.

Your mind will not let you believe in nothing; you have made something of it.

Bee cottonpicking ess, Bert. You are less free than you want to believe.

As my pal Fred (Nietzsche) put it, To have and not have one’s affects, one’s pros and cons at will, to condescend to them, to seat oneself on them as on a horse, often as on an ass—for one must know how to make use of their stupidity as well as of their fire. 

What I meant was, sure, I'll toss up an argument here and there, but I always know I'm just as full of shit as the next guy.

(Besides, it's a positive belief; nothing isn't just nothing, it's the source of everything. Just ask Lawrence Krauss, or a Taoist, or a Qabbalist.)

I also completely concur with that!

Bert, I’ve seen Krauss’ book; I want some evidence that you’re as FOS as he.

Hilton Radciffe’s Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks deals with Krauss and others who know so much about so little: it has consequences for H. Sapiens that are as harmful as the consequences religion has.

Bert, I interpret this to mean simply that you regard the premises upon which you base everyday decisions to be working hypotheses rather than firm beliefs.  I can see the wisdom in that.

That is what skepticism means.  It is almost a direct quotation from my buddy, David Hume.

An interesting juxtapose, Vine: working hypotheses and firm beliefs.

My four years in hardball politics, where the personal attacks were as mean as those we hear from Trump, persuaded me that events require an ability to switch between the two.

Legislating requires basing decisions on working hypotheses.

Surviving requires basing them on beliefs firm enough to suggest narcissism.

I'm ignorant of politics and would like to better understand what you've said.  Does legislating require basing decisions on working hypotheses because it's impossible know for certain what all of the effects of the legislation will be?  Does surviving require basing them on firm beliefs because one must fight to survive and no one fights for hypotheses?

Vine, I will try to explain the working hypotheses.

If I win election to a legislative body, I will spend much time talking with people who want a legislative result and who will fund my attempt to win the next election.

As a legislator I will know my party’s leaders spend much time talking with people who want results and who will fund my party’s attempts to win the next election. Party leaders will know better than I the effects legislation will have and will tell me how they want me to vote.

They will know if my vote is necessary for the result they want: a bill’s adoption or rejection. If my vote is not necessary, they will free me to vote as my funders and maybe as my constituents want.

Any questions?

i see, so you were rarely able to vote in accordance with your own convictions.  I don't think I would have lasted four years.

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