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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Homer, I think we are not so far apart.  I readily agree that an act of will is sometimes necessary in order to change one's beliefs.  My original question was whether an act of will is sufficient.  Can we change what we believe solely because we want to, even in the absence of any new evidence?  Based upon your reply to Tom Sarbeck's Radcliff quote, I think your answer would be yes.  Perhaps my own difficulty in the matter is simply a result of insufficient imagination.

The best answer that I can give you is that writing the blog post that inspired your question changed my beliefs about my mother.  If you read note (2) in my blog, what I am writing in this reply may make some sense. I had previously thought that she was acting on the assumption that my conscious thoughts and feelings were not worth consulting because they had no effect on my behavior, and that she was therefore assuming that I had no will. I conflated her with the philosophers who deny that humans have wills. I now realize that she was no philosopher. She was so closely identified with me that she assumed that my thoughts and feelings were the same as hers, or should be, and that she did not need to ask me what I thought, or listen to me if I said what I thought, because she was sure that she already knew. She gradually realized her mistake, but it took her an unendurably long time!

Stated more generally, thinking through your reasons for believing something, re-examining your assumptions, and checking for contradictions and illogical leaps to faulty conclusions can transform your beliefs even if you are not examining new evidence. In practice however, such re-consideration of beliefs is probably usually motivated by encountering new evidence that is inconsistent with them--like my encounter with gravity waves.  Published accounts that I have read suggest that this is a common process undergone by new atheists.

What Radcliff was saying, I think, was very different. For example, people who want to believe in a loving God (as neither you nor I seem to have done) can invent all sorts of reasons for believing as well as all sorts of characteristics that they would like for God to have and thereby strengthen and elaborate their beliefs, rather than change them.

That is how I, too, interpreted the Radcliff quote, and I do see that the phenomenon to which he refers is quite different from how you addressed the difficulties around your mother.

It is more relevant to my own experience, however. Once, in my youth, I did, in fact, make a sincere attempt to believe in the Christian God. I was highly motivated and tried to use my imagination to explain away the contradictions and perplexing questions to which my efforts inevitably led me. But I failed. I could sustain the fantasies for no more than a few days at a time before succumbing to severe bouts of involuntary reason. I never made such an attempt again.

I love your phrase, "involuntary reason."  I guess the second paragraph in my post above describes what the prefrontal cortex does "autonomically."  My involuntary reason also kept me from accepting Christianity and theism more generally.  But I never really wanted to believe.  After my involuntary reason had done its work,  I coincidently took a philosophy course that was constructed around proofs for the existence of God. The professor was a devout Episcopalian, but the conclusion of the course was that none of the proofs held water. We ended with Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" and Nietzsche's  "death of God."  

After I made that post, I remembered reading about a psychological study that gave atheists and theists a specially designed multiple-choice test of reasoning.  The result was that the atheists refused to choose answers that at first glance seemed plausible, but were wrong.  The theists went ahead and chose the easy wrong answers. It seems that the "involuntary reasoning" of the prefrontal cortexes of people who become atheists is more insistent than that of people who remain theists. Atheists may not know the right answers, but they know a wrong answer when they see it!

Homer, the discerning mind requires practice. We had lots of opportunities to be discerning when listening to sermons and bible study groups. Once questioning starts, there is no bottom to the hole. The bible, centuries old, has lots of discrepancies. 

When we really want to believe in something, we happily let our imaginations paint in the details.

Hilton Radcliff, in Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks.

I concur completely!




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