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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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!

Another reason I'm in awe of Nietzsche is these words of Zarathustra:

There are a thousand paths that have never yet been trodden, a thousand forms of health and hidden islands of life. Man and man’s earth are still unexhausted and undiscovered.

[And Tom thinks I'm a pessimist]

Welcome to pragmatism, Bert.

Do I get a free toaster oven?

Actually, I'd say I'm more of a cynic, bucking for a promotion to stoic.

Bert, in philosophy cynics can win promotion to stoics.

In politics they can be promoted to realists or remain powerless.

I'm not feeling much of a need for power.

Money, power, and sex. They are a trinity I can accept.

My holy trinity is Blake, Nietzsche and Jung.


My understanding of pragmatism is that it sees the meaning of a proposition in the action that would be taken if it were accepted as the truth (or at least as a working hypothesis). How does Nietzsche's poetic prose relate to that?

Homer, philosophers and dictionaries define pragmatism differently, and dictionaries use words I understand.

I don’t know Nietzsche view(s) on pragmatism.

I now realize that I should not have taken your comment about pragmatism seriously.


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