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 could TRY to choose to believe that gravity doesn't apply to me, or that I could kick the foundation of a building to pieces because, for all the atoms that define its structure, it's mostly empty space.  In both cases, my suspicion is that such beliefs would be disabused, with possible attendant untoward consequences.  If I do indeed CHOOSE to believe certain things, they are those things which conform to the observable reality around me.  In other words:

I believe what I do is a logical consequence of my understanding of the facts, and my position will obligately change according to my information.
-- Aron Ra

Your beliefs about gravitation and atomic structure are not the products of your observation of the things around you.  They are the products of your trust in Isaac Newton and Neils Bohr and other physicists that you presumably learned about in school. Children going to Christian schools are learning to trust in God, whom they are taught inspired the Bible, and to mistrust any scientists who disagree with it. You and they are on opposite sides of the culture war, each learning the culture of your group. 

Ummm ... how about WRONG.  Gravitation is something I suspect each of us observes on a daily basis, though we may not be conscious of it.  As for trust in Isaac Newton, I am a retired electrical engineer who, during his college tenure, did considerable verification of some of the kinematic, gravimetric, and optical principles he elucidated, never mind principles of relativity where his theories fell short.

Oh, and as regards atomic structure, my specialty in semiconductors depends in considerable portion on an understanding of the influence of minute impurities in a silicon, gallium arsenide or other base material, which allows the creation of P- and N-type strata and therewith bipolar junction and field effect transistors, among multiple other devices.

Proper understanding of such fields requires both lecture and lab work.  I've done BOTH ... and I'd appreciate it if you didn't presume on what I trust or not.  I could go back to the original experiments of Georg Ohm if I had any doubts about Ohm's Law, though that would be an interesting exercise.

Loren, I apologize for making the false assumption that you had no more expertise in physics than the average person. I greatly respect your specialized knowledge and original research. I should have written my reply in the first person "I" rather than the second person "you." I never even took a college course in physics (my science was biology) and my knowledge of it is scrappy.  I do know that the ancient philosophers I have read, such as Aristotle, Epicurus, and Lucretius, had no concept of gravity as a consequence of the mass of a spherical earth. I can only trust that Isaac Newton was closer to the truth than they were.

As for my claims to be responsive to the evidence in my beliefs, they were revolutionized by the recent discovery of gravity waves. I think that only now do I have some inkling of what Einstein was thinking. 

Homer, check again on whether gravity waves were discovered or their discovery was merely claimed.

When the noise is a thousand times stronger than the signal, discovery requires confirmation by others with other means of detection. I understand that no one else has the taxpayer subsidies to pay for the other means. Ergo, no confirmation.

As to Loren, weeks ago in another thread he based a metaphor on swords that assumed one kind of sword. I pointed out that combat requires several kinds of swords and I’ve seen no reply.

The CERN claim of discovering the Higgs Boson was based on four independent teams of physicists all looking for the same signal.  But CERN is a multinational agency with lots of funding. 

In my case, whether or not gravity waves were actually detected doesn't really matter. My discovery of the idea of gravity waves jolted me out of my misunderstanding of what Einstein was thinking.  E.g., in his view, space is not nothing, and it is not just defined by a human measurement of the extent of the universe. Space is an entity all its own, and we are within it more like the fish are in the sea than like we are in a room. Colliding black holes can shake space just like an atomic blast can shake the crust of the earth.  (Let me know if I am still on a completely wrong track.)

Homer, you are on a track that was laid almost a century ago.

There is more than gravity in space, and out there it is rather weak.

At you can download a free PDF file that will help you climb over barriers.


Thank you for the link. I just downloaded the PDF.

Great quote, Loren.  He said what I was saying (I think) with a lot fewer words.

Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog post.  Sociological research shows that people tend to accept the beliefs of other people whom they like and trust.  Your comments don't indicate much liking or trust in your preachers, so it is not surprising that your rejected their message.  

I hate to quibble about words, but the autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, not your beliefs.  The logical part of your brain is the prefrontal cortex. Yours and mine seem to work the same way.  But the reply by Bertold Brautigan makes a very good point about convictions nullifying logic. 

Feel free to quibble about words with me; precision in writing is an endeavor worthy of our time. In this case, I believed "autonomic" could have a more general meaning -- see definition 1b at and chose the word to suggest the very analogy that you have explicitly named: I feel that I have no more direct control over my beliefs than I have over my heart rate.

I have heard that it is possible through biofeedback to control one's own heart rate. So making the analogy explicit greatly clarifies the disagreement between us.  I will be careful to state my position in the first person this time, as it is based on my own experience.  As I wrote earlier, I try to keep my beliefs flexible and open to revision in light of the evidence.  But to do that I must make the conscious decision to look at the evidence, and to do that I must be able to climb over the barriers erected by my convictions and my emotions to my moving out of my ideological "comfort zone." One of the reasons that I am in awe of Nietzsche is that he had the "free will" to do that.  The dangerous degree of polarization in this country today is due to the unwillingness of people on both sides of the culture war to do that.

By the way, this is a great discussion!




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