Intelligent Design

Can a Darwinist consistently condemn a con man who couldn’t have done otherwise?

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Some readers will recall the case of the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, former dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Tilburg University, who was publicly exposed in 2011 for faking his data in several dozen published papers about human behavior that had made him famous – and who, after being caught, decided to publish a book about his con, detailing how and why he’d done it. Uncommon Descent ran a story about the case (see here), and another story about how it was exposed (see here), while James Barham discussed it at further length over on his blog, TheBestSchools.org, in an article entitled, More Scientists Behaving Badly. A story about the case appeared in The New York Times last week: The Mind of a Con Man, by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.

The case has become something of an academic scandal, not merely because of the fraud perpetrated by Stapel, who doctored his data in at least 55 of his own papers, as well as 10 Ph.D. dissertations written by his students, but also because it cast the entire field of behavioral psychology into disrepute. In their final report on the case at the end of November 2011, the universities of Groningen and Tilburg found that “a general culture of careless, selective and uncritical handling of research and data” was what enabled Stapel’s fraud to go undetected for so long. While the report laid the blame for the fraud solely at Stapel’s feet and exonerated his students of any wrongdoing, it went on to blame Stapel’s peers, journal editors and reviewers of the field’s top journals for letting him get away with his fakery for a period of several years.

During his interview with Yudhijit Bhattacharjee for The New York Times, Stapel recalled his first fateful decision to doctor his research data, after a psychology experiment that went badly wrong:

The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he told me.

… It took a few hours of trial and error, spread out over a few days, to get the data just right.

He said he felt both terrible and relieved. The results were published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2004. “I realized — hey, we can do this,” he told me.

Stapel also professed contrition for his past misdeeds in the interview, as he attempted to explain his motivations for committing academic fraud:

Right away Stapel expressed what sounded like heartfelt remorse for what he did to his students. “I have fallen from my throne — I am on the floor,” he said, waving at the ground. “I am in therapy every week. I hate myself.”…

Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said. He described his behavior as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high.

For my part, I hope that Stapel is as sorry as he declared himself to be, in his interview, and I have no wish to accuse him of insincerity. God alone knows the true state of his mind; God alone can judge him. It seems, however, that many people have questioned the sincerity of Stapel’s apology, following his recent decision to publish a book (called Derailed) describing how he pulled off his con. Among the cynics is Professor Jerry Coyne, who, in a recent post (April 27, 2013) over at Why Evolution is True, wrote:

He seems to mistake explanation for apology, and I think his only regret is that he got caught…

Stapel gives a lot of excuses but his apologies sound lame…

I don’t blame the system nearly as much as I do Stapel here. I think his students are also at fault: how can you put your name on a Ph.D. dissertation if you didn’t collect the data yourself?

…Yes, Stapel became depressed, but it seems more because he was found out, not because he committed fraud and ruined the careers of many of his students.

Coyne on why hard determinism entails that we are not morally responsible for our actions

What I find curious about Professor Coyne’s comments is that he blames Stapel for his actions, despite the fact that he is a “hard” determinist who denies the very notion of moral responsibility. In an article for The Chronicle Review entitled, You Don’t Have Free Will (March 18, 2012), Coyne spelt out with admirable lucidity the consequences of his deterministic philosophy:

So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely? Well, nihilism is not an option: We humans are so constituted, through evolution or otherwise, to believe that we can choose. What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility — only actions that hurt or help others. That realization shouldn’t seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.

In an exchange last year with “soft” determinist philosopher Russell Blackford, who thinks determinism is compatible with moral responsibility, Coyne discussed Blackford’s hypothetical case of a child who drowns in a pond while he stands by and does nothing to help the child. Are the child’s parents entitled to blame him, even if he insists that he couldn’t have done otherwise? Blackford certainly thought so: he argued that if he had wanted to, he could have saved the child, and for this reason, the parents’ anger against him would have been entirely justifiable, in this hypothetical scenario. Coyne pointed out (with perfect consistency) that if Blackford’s wants were determined by his genes and his environment, then there was no meaningful sense in which he could have done otherwise, and that therefore he was not to blame for his failure to save the child:

Yes, of course if you change the “desire-set” construed in that way, then your actions would have been different. But, Russell, your desire-set is fixed by your molecules: by your genes, physiology, and the determined environmental factors that impinge on them…

What it appears to boil down to … is whether or not the parents of the drowned child have a right to reproach Blackford for his dilatory and selfish behavior…

But in what sense are they “quite right” to complain that Russell didn’t save their child? They certainly feel aggrieved about this, for such feelings are evolved and powerful, but in my view Russell had no “moral responsibility” to save the child: he could only do what he did.

Coyne went on to add that the parents could express disapprobation at Blackford for his negligence in failing to save the child:

Yes, the parents could complain about what he didn’t do, and that, indeed, may affect not only Russell’s future behavior, making him more altruistic, but influence others to act more altruistically in the future. (Nobody — even pure determinists — deny that social approbation or disapprobation can influence people’s future behavior.)

But as Coyne explained in a follow-up response to Blackford (April 9, 2012), what made no sense, in his view, was their expressing moral indignation:

But he [Blackford] later argues that one can rightly blame someone for failing to save a drowning child. Note the word “rightly,” which assumes not just responsibility (which is okay with me, as blame changes future behavior, both of the “blamee” and onlookers), but moral responsibility. Russell certainly favors the idea of moral responsibility. But if he sees difficulty in understanding how one can be responsible for one’s own character (and he’s right: how could we be?), then whence the concept of moral responsibility?

To recap: Professor Coyne believes that we are not morally responsible for our actions, and that righteous indignation at people who engage in anti-social behavior is a misplaced emotion, which makes no sense as each of us is a biological automaton. We can express disapproval, and even “blame” people for their actions, if our aim is merely to prevent future recurrences of this behavior on the part of the individual concerned – or other individuals who might be inclined to imitate him. But what we cannot do, if we are consistent determinists, is express moral outrage at the offending individual.

Coyne’s inconsistency

Coyne’s latest comments in his recent post (April 27, 2012) on the scandal involving Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel thus appear to be totally at odds with his declared views on determinism and free will, as he vents his spleen on a respected academic who faked his research data. There is an undeniable tone of indignation in Coyne’s remarks about Stapel: “He seems to mistake explanation for apology, and I think his only regret is that he got caught,” and he adds: “I don’t blame the system nearly as much as I do Stapel… Yes, Stapel became depressed, but it seems more because he was found out, not because he committed fraud and ruined the careers of many of his students.”

Professor Coyne seems to be implying here that Stapel should have thought about how his acts of deceit would impinge on the lives of others, and that he deserves blame for not having done so. “Should have” implies “could have.” But if Stapel’s thoughts and desires are the product of his genes and his environment, then in what sense could he have done otherwise than what he did, and how can he be blamed (in any moral sense of the word) for failing to advert to the effects that his act would have on other people? On Coyne’s account, Stapel’s failure to think of the needs of others ultimately reflects either a failure in his upbringing or a flaw in his genome. He couldn’t help that, so why reproach him for it? I can see why Coyne would want to reprogram Stapel’s stunted psyche, but I cannot for the life of me understand how Coyne, as a hard determinist who denies moral responsibility, could complain about Stapel’s thoughtlessness in committing acts which “ruined the careers of many of his students.” If Stapel couldn’t have refrained from committing those acts, then it makes no sense to say that he shouldn’t have done them. All that Coyne can consistently say is that acts like Stapel’s shouldn’t happen, insofar as they harm the interests of others and of society as a whole. But that’s simply tantamount to saying that society should try to prevent such acts from occurring – which is quite different from saying that the perpetrators of such acts shouldn’t have done them.

Why Charles Darwin would not have blamed Stapel for his actions

Coyne’s inability to justify the feeling of moral indignation which we commonly experience reflects a failing, not only in his own deterministic philosophy, but of Darwinism in general. Few people are aware that Darwin was a thorough-going determinist who denied the notion of moral responsibility as far back as 1837, some 22 years before the publication of his Origin of Species.

In his Notebook C: Transmutation of species (2-7.1838), Darwin espoused a mechanistic account of the human mind. The mis-spellings and grammar and punctuation errors are Darwin’s:

Thought (or desires more properly) being heredetary.- it is difficult to imagine it anything but structure of brain heredetary,. – analogy points out to this.- love of the deity effect of organization. oh you Materialist!

Why is thought, being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? – It is our arrogance, it our admiration of ourselves. (Paragraph 166)

In his Notebook M [Metaphysics on morals and speculations on expression (1838) CUL-DAR125], which was marked “Private”, Darwin recorded his decision not to go public with his materialism. He resolved:

To avoid stating how far, I believe, in Materialism, say only that emotions, instincts degrees of talent, which are heredetary are so because brain of child resembles parent stock. (Paragraph 57)

In addition to being a materialist, Darwin was also a consistent determinist. In his other metaphysical writings from that period (c. 1837), Darwin made it clear that he did not really regard human beings as morally responsible for their good or bad choices. He also held that criminals should be punished solely in order to deter others who might break the law:

(a) one well feels how many actions are not determined by what is called free will, but by strong invariable passions — when these passions weak, opposed & complicated one calls them free will — the chance of mechanical phenomena.— (mem: M. Le Comte one of philosophy, & savage calling laws of nature chance)…

The general delusion about free will obvious.— because man has power of action, & he can seldom analyse his motives (originally mostly INSTINCTIVE, & therefore now great effort of reason to discover them: this is important explanation) he thinks they have none.

Effects.— One must view a wrecked man like a sickly one — We cannot help loathing a diseased offensive object, so we view wickedness.— it would however be more proper to pity them [than] to hate & be disgusted with them. Yet it is right to punish criminals; but solely to deter others.— It is not more strange that there should be necessary wickedness than disease.

This view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything. (yet one takes it for beauty & good temper), nor ought one to blame others.

(See Darwin’s Old and USELESS Notes about the moral sense & some metaphysical points written about the year 1837 & earlier, pp. 25-27. For original transcription, see Paul Barrett, et al., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987, p. 608.)

A true disciple of Darwin, then, would find it impossible to blame Diederik Stapel for his acts of academic fraud. On Darwin’s view, a man like Stapel is simply “a diseased offensive object,” whom we should pity rather than blame – even if we feel the need to punish him, in order to deter others from imitating his example.

While he may have concealed his philosophical views from the public at large, Darwin was scrupulously honest in his scientific research. He believed that science is a quest for Truth with a capital T, and he also believed in carefully setting forth the objections to a theory before proceeding to refute them. On this point, his views diverged sharply from the recently expressed views of Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, who revealed in his New York Times interview with Yudhijit Bhattacharjee that it was his purely pragmatic notion of “truth” that enabled him to rationalize his deed:

Several times in our conversation, Stapel alluded to having a fuzzy, postmodernist relationship with the truth, which he agreed served as a convenient fog for his wrongdoings. “It’s hard to know the truth,” he said. “When somebody says, ‘I love you,’ how do I know what it really means?” At the time, the Netherlands would soon be celebrating the arrival of St. Nicholas, and the younger of his two daughters sat down by the fireplace to sing a traditional Dutch song welcoming St. Nick. Stapel remarked to me that children her age, which was 10, knew that St. Nick wasn’t really going to come down the chimney. “But they like to believe it anyway, because it assures them of presents,” he told me with a wink.

Apparently Stapel defines truth as “whatever works.” And it was this pragmatic notion of “truth” that enabled Stapel to rationalize his original act of academic fraud, as he acknowledged in his interview:

The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he told me.

The Darwinist conception of truth

What Stapel did raises an important ethical question, however: is there a fundamental contradiction between Darwin’s conception of truth with a capital T and Stapel’s pragmatic notion of truth? In particular, can a Darwinist consistently condemn falsifying research data, or for that matter, concocting bogus arguments, in order to persuade people that Darwinian evolution is true? I am not asking here whether Charles Darwin would have approved of such acts of deceit; I think we can all agree that he would have condemned them unequivocally. The question I am asking is whether Darwin’s philosophical worldview could legitimize deceit (the telling of small untruths) in the service of a “higher truth.” And I think the answer is “yes.” My grounds for this conclusion have to do with the nature of truth itself, as Darwinism (and more generally, scientific naturalism) conceives it.

Darwinism is wedded to a notion of methodological naturalism, which Darwin originally espoused because he believed that the only good scientific explanation is one which explains everything in terms of physical laws, which enable scientists to predict effects from causes, in a deterministic fashion. Darwin set out the conditions that he believed a good scientific explanation must satisfy in a short essay which he jotted down while he was reading selected passages from Dr. John MacCullough’s book, Proofs and Illustrations of the Attributes of God (London, James Duncan, Paternoster Row, 1837). For those who are interested, here’s the reference: Darwin, C. R. ‘Macculloch. Attrib of Deity’ [Essay on Theology and Natural Selection] (1838). CUL-DAR71.53-59. Viewers can read it here at Darwin Online.) Darwin’s essay contains a telling passage in section 5, which succinctly summarizes why Darwin believed that appeals to “the will of God” explained nothing:

N.B. The explanation of types of structure in classes — as resulting from the will of the deity, to create animals on certain plans, — is no explanation — it has not the character of a physical law /& is therefore utterly useless.— it foretells nothing/ because we know nothing of the will of the Deity, how it acts & whether constant or inconstant like that of man.— the cause given we know not the effect.

Darwinism’s implications for ethical truth

What, the reader will ask, does this have to do with the moral legitimacy of lying in the cause of science? The implication follows once we realize that on a naturalistic worldview, there can be no autonomous domain of objective ethical truths. Ethical principles are simply rules which allow us all to get along. Few Darwinists have articulated this point more perceptively than Professor Jerry Coyne. As he put it in a post entitled, Uncle Eric on scientism (December 12, 2012) in response to fellow atheist Eric Macdonald, Coyne took issue with Macdonald’s expressed belief that there are some actions which are objectively wrong. Coyne answered that while he also condemned certain barbaric actions as wrong, he could do so only in a subjective sense:

Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong — that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong. And those reasons are based on opinions. In this case, the “opinion” is that it’s wrong to hurt anyone for trying to go to school. In other words, Eric claims that moral dicta are objective ones, on the par with the “knowledge” of science.

But such dicta are not “truths,” but “guides for living”. And some people, like the odious Taliban who perpetuate these crimes, do disagree. How do you prove, objectively, that they’re wrong? You need to bring in other subjective criteria.

The problem with “objective” moral truths is much clearer in less clear-cut cases. Is it objectively true that abortion is wrong, or that a moral society must give everyone health care? You can’t ascertain these “truths” by observation; you deduce them from some general principles of right and wrong that are, at bottom, opinion. (Of course, some opinions are more well-founded than others, and that’s what philosophy is good for.)

In other words, Eric is committing here the very sin he decried (as I recall) in Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: he is saying that there are scientifically establishable truths about ethics. And if that’s true, then let Eric tell us what those truths are — without first defining, based on his taste, what is “moral” and “immoral.” Let him give us a list of all the behaviors he considers objectively immoral.

Now, I maintain that there is no objective morality: that morality is a guide for how people should get along in society, and that what is “moral” comports in general with the rules we need to live by in a harmonious society — one with greater “well being,” as Harris puts it. A society in which half the inhabitants are dispossessed because they lack a Y chromosome is not a society brimming with well being, and I wouldn’t want to live in it. And yes, what promotes “well being” can in principle be established empirically. But that still presumes that the best society is one that promotes the greatest “well being,” and that is an opinion, not a fact.

Could a consistent Darwinist morally condemn deceit in the cause of Darwinism?

Which brings us to the question: Is a society which indoctrinates children with deceptively simple or fallacious arguments for Darwinism (say, arguments of the kind described in Dr. Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution) doing a bad thing? On Coyne’s logic, a Darwinist cannot consistently condemn such behavior. Here’s why.

If you are totally convinced that:

(i) truth is a scientific notion;
(ii) truth can only ascertained by either logic or observation;
(iii) Darwinism is objectively true in a scientific sense of the term; and
(iv) a society which recognizes the reality of Darwinian evolution, is “better” – or at least, works better – than one that doesn’t,

then it seems to me that the logic of engaging in deceptive persuasion, in the cause of Darwinism, is inescapable.

I am not referring here to a scientist publishing data which could impede future scientific research, or that would be liable to be exposed, bringing science itself into disrepute. Let’s suppose instead that the deception is more subtle: say, a published study that serves to “refute” a popular scientific objection to Darwinism (e.g. is there enough time available for evolution?), and make creationists or Intelligent Design proponents look silly; or for that matter, continuing to publish, in children’s science textbooks, an old argument for Darwinism that’s been trotted out for decades (e.g. Haeckel’s embryo drawings) but which scientists now know to be false. If you passionately believed in the truth of Darwinism, and if your notion of truth were a naturalistic one, then I do not see how you could morally condemn such actions.

And I haven’t even mentioned the propaganda for the materialistic view of mind that pervades high school and university science textbooks. When was the last time you saw one that gave a fair hearing to scientific arguments for dualism, or exposed the fallacies (which I have written about here) in “scientific” claims that free will is an illusion? And when was the last time that students were exposed to rebuttals of fallacious arguments for materialism – despite the fact that even materialist philosophers such as William Lycan have acknowledged that there are no good arguments for materialism? Once you accept materialism, of course, then Darwinism becomes a much easier pill to swallow.

But it is materialism itself – a fundamentally false notion that clouds one’s entire view of the world – which is the ultimate deception. The story of Santa Claus pales in comparison.

P.S. For those readers who may have been wondering what I’ve been doing for the past month or so, I should explain that I’ve been working on a reply to a recent online essay on humans and animals, that’s somehow turned into a 30-chapter book! My apologies for the long delay. My book should be ready in a week or two.

127 Replies to “Can a Darwinist consistently condemn a con man who couldn’t have done otherwise?

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Glad to see you back Dr. Torley. A 30 chapter book in a month?,, probably annotated with copious references and notes. You ‘literally’ put us to shame! 🙂

    As to free will, the scientific evidence, which you have probably already seen, but which decisively overturns determinism, is here:

    In the following experiment, the claim that past material states determine our conscious choices (determinism) is falsified by the fact that present conscious choices effect past material states:

    Quantum physics mimics spooky action into the past – April 23, 2012
    Excerpt: The authors experimentally realized a “Gedankenexperiment” called “delayed-choice entanglement swapping”, formulated by Asher Peres in the year 2000. Two pairs of entangled photons are produced, and one photon from each pair is sent to a party called Victor. Of the two remaining photons, one photon is sent to the party Alice and one is sent to the party Bob. Victor can now choose between two kinds of measurements. If he decides to measure his two photons in a way such that they are forced to be in an entangled state, then also Alice’s and Bob’s photon pair becomes entangled. If Victor chooses to measure his particles individually, Alice’s and Bob’s photon pair ends up in a separable state. Modern quantum optics technology allowed the team to delay Victor’s choice and measurement with respect to the measurements which Alice and Bob perform on their photons. “We found that whether Alice’s and Bob’s photons are entangled and show quantum correlations or are separable and show classical correlations can be decided after they have been measured”, explains Xiao-song Ma, lead author of the study.
    According to the famous words of Albert Einstein, the effects of quantum entanglement appear as “spooky action at a distance”. The recent experiment has gone one remarkable step further. “Within a naïve classical world view, quantum mechanics can even mimic an influence of future actions on past events”, says Anton Zeilinger.
    http://phys.org/news/2012-04-q.....ction.html

    supplemental note:
    Henry Stapp on the Conscious Choice and the Non-Local Quantum Entangled Effects – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJN01s1gOqA

    In other words, if my conscious choices really are just merely the result of whatever state the material particles in my brain happen to be in in the past (deterministic) how in blue blazes are my choices instantaneously effecting the state of material particles into the past?,,, I consider the preceding experimental evidence to be an improvement over the traditional ‘uncertainty’ argument for free will, from quantum mechanics, that had been used to undermine the deterministic belief of materialists:

    Why Quantum Physics (Uncertainty) Ends the Free Will Debate – Michio Kaku – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFLR5vNKiSw

    Moreover, it is shown in the following paper that one cannot ever improve the predictive power of quantum mechanics by ever removing free will as a starting assumption in Quantum Mechanics!

    Can quantum theory be improved? – July 23, 2012
    Excerpt: physicists have experimentally demonstrated that there cannot exist any alternative theory that increases the predictive probability of quantum theory by more than 0.165, with the only assumption being that measurement (*conscious observation) parameters can be chosen independently (free choice, free will, assumption) of the other parameters of the theory.,,,
    ,, the experimental results provide the tightest constraints yet on alternatives to quantum theory. The findings imply that quantum theory is close to optimal in terms of its predictive power, even when the predictions are completely random.
    http://phys.org/news/2012-07-quantum-theory.html

    of note:

    What does the term “measurement” mean in quantum mechanics?
    “Measurement” or “observation” in a quantum mechanics context are really just other ways of saying that the observer is interacting with the quantum system and measuring the result in toto.
    http://boards.straightdope.com.....p?t=597846

    Now this is completely unheard of in science as far as I know. i.e. That a mathematical description of reality would advance to the point that one can actually perform a experiment showing that your current theory will not be exceeded in predictive power by another future theory is simply unprecedented in science! And to find that free will is a required assumption in out most successful scientific theory is nothing less than amazing.

    Of note to just how strongly quantum theory is verified:

    “I’m going to talk about the Bell inequality, and more importantly a new inequality that you might not have heard of called the Leggett inequality, that was recently measured. It was actually formulated almost 30 years ago by Professor Leggett, who is a Nobel Prize winner, but it wasn’t tested until about a year and a half ago (in 2007), when an article appeared in Nature, that the measurement was made by this prominent quantum group in Vienna led by Anton Zeilinger, which they measured the Leggett inequality, which actually goes a step deeper than the Bell inequality and rules out any possible interpretation other than consciousness creates reality when the measurement is made.” – Bernard Haisch, Ph.D., Calphysics Institute, is an astrophysicist and author of over 130 scientific publications.

    A team of physicists in Vienna has devised experiments that may answer one of the enduring riddles of science: Do we create the world just by looking at it? – 2008
    Excerpt: So Zeilinger’s group rederived Leggett’s theory for a finite number of measurements. There were certain directions the polarization would more likely face in quantum mechanics. This test was more stringent. In mid-2007 Fedrizzi found that the new realism model was violated by 80 orders of magnitude; the group was even more assured that quantum mechanics was correct.
    http://seedmagazine.com/conten....._tests/P3/

    As a philosopher, Dr. Torley you may appreciate the following exchange a philosopher had with Einstein:

    Einstein was asked (by a philosopher):

    “Can physics demonstrate the existence of ‘the now’ in order to make the notion of ‘now’ into a scientifically valid term?”

    Einstein’s answer was categorical, he said:

    “The experience of ‘the now’ cannot be turned into an object of physical measurement, it can never be a part of physics.”

    Quote was taken from the last few minutes of this following video:
    Stanley L. Jaki: “The Mind and Its Now”
    https://vimeo.com/10588094

    The preceding statement was an interesting statement for Einstein to make since ‘the now of the mind’ has, from many recent experiments in quantum mechanics, undermined Einstein’s General Relativity as to being the absolute frame of reference for reality. i.e. ‘the now of the mind’, contrary to what Einstein thought possible for experimental physics, according to advances in quantum mechanics, takes precedence over past events in time. Moreover, due to advances in quantum mechanics, it would now be much more appropriate to phrase Einstein’s answer to the philosopher in this way:

    “It is impossible for the experience of ‘the now’ to be divorced from physical measurement, it will always be a part of physics.”

    Since our free will choices figure so prominently in how reality is actually found to be constructed in our understanding of quantum mechanics, I think it is very fitting to reflect on the Christian perspective, on just how important our ‘free will’ choices are in this temporal life in regards to our eternal destiny:

    Is God Good? (Free will and the problem of evil) – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rfd_1UAjeIA

    Verse and Music:

    John 5:6
    “Do you want to be healed?”

    Red – Feed The Machine
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zj2uZO7xnus

  2. 2
    RDFish says:

    Coyne’s denial of moral responsibility is completely wrongheaded – of course we are responsible for our actions! Of course people choose their actions, and – if they are not coerced by someone else – those choices are free.

    Coyne is right, however, that retribution ought not to figure in our justice system. Our penal code ought to be designed to minimize recidivism rather than feed our desire for vengeance, right?

    Now, it may be that conscious free will is the cause of our actions, or it may be that our actions are determined by unconscious neural activity and our conscious awareness perceives and narrates our choices rather than causes them. I don’t think anyone knows how that works. But either way, I don’t see how it changes how we think we ought to respond when people engage in anti-social behaviors. Why can’t we express moral outrage if we feel it?

    So while I disagree with what Coyne says, I do believe a lot people are confused about moral responsibility in general. Most justice systems make allowances for people who seem to have been coerced by some sort of pathology: If somebody has a tumor in his amygdala and he loses his temper and hits somebody, we might decide that he wasn’t responsible for his action. But if someone else loses their temper and nobody can find any problem with their brain – no tumors or lesions or the like – then we would hold them fully responsible. I think that is confused. In my view, everybody is responsible for everything they do, whether or not doctors or scientists can identify a problem with their brain! Just because we can’t find the problem on an MRI doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem! We should certainly consider known medical conditions when we sentence people – rather than a long incarceration we might sentence the person with the tumor to brain surgery and hospitalization, for example. But that doesn’t mean the person with the tumor wasn’t responsible for what they did – they were.

    Again, none of this hinges on what we believe about physical determinism, or varieties of free will, or evolutionary theory.

    Also, I’m not sure whether or not we can call moral truths “objective” – epistemologists have a hard time demonstrating that any belief is objectively true, after all, and moral propositions are pretty abstract. And I don’t see that theism is capable of making morality any more objective than atheism (if it was, I’d expect theists to all agree about moral issues, but obviously they don’t).

    Finally, can anyone explain how libertarian free will is consistent with rationality? If we are rational, then our actions are based on our beliefs and desires. But I think it is clear that we do not choose our beliefs or our desires, but rather we choose how to act. The libertarian holds that this choice is free, but that would mean our choices do not follow from our beliefs and desires – i.e. we would be irrational. If we are rational, we are compelled by beliefs and desires we do not choose.

    The libertarian says that we choose whether or not to act upon our desires, of course. But upon what do we base that choice? On beliefs and desires again! If, for example, I desire to rob a bank but choose not to because it was immoral, this would mean my desire to be moral is stronger than my desire to steal money, and not that some transcendent decision-maker overrode my desire.

    Sorry if I rambled but these topics are so interesting!

  3. 3
    bevets says:

    Morality then is not something handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection… Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothaches and marking student papers… now that you know morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you from behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense. ~ Michael Ruse

    What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question. ~ Richard Dawkins

    If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities. ~ Voltaire

  4. 4
    Robert Byers says:

    The story by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee. It seems to me a con job on America when these people rise above the great numbers of americans to get these writing jobs for top mags. Affirmative action maybe? Con job anyone?
    NYT’s preaches identity control on gets what in America this Canadian accuses.
    Anyways.
    The gut got away with his ‘research” because it was welcome to find MEAT made on selfish and bad. Jusy what liberals want to hear.
    LIkewise GARBAGE (green crusadeers alert) makes one RACIST.
    He knew there would not be a lot of interest to show he’s wrong!
    Its just crazy times we live in concerning right and wrong and the passions of the left wing.
    Anto-Creationist attacks are just more of this stuff.
    There is a time when the people must start concluding and accusing the powers that be about secret motivations to control civilization and so the belief systems.

  5. 5
    kairosfocus says:

    VJT:

    Well done, as usual!

    Excellent context for pondering he increasingly widespread phenomenon of the dark triad of machiavellinaism, narcissism and sociopathy substituting for morality as a “guide” to conduct (including of course in blog debates), in a world dominated by evolutionary materialism — as Plato warned against 2,350 years ago.

    And, how can we get that book, HOW SOON?????

    KF

  6. 6
    bornagain77 says:

    Haeckel’s Bogus Embryo Drawings – video
    Excerpt: “It is clear that Haeckel may have fudged his drawings,,, but I would argue that the basic point that is being illustrated by those drawings is still accurate” – Eugenie Scott – leading neo-Darwinist
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?f.....9wk#t=103s

    Darwin Lobbyists Defend Using Fraudulent Embryo Drawings in the Classroom – Casey Luskin – October 11, 2012
    Excerpt: embryologist Michael Richardson, who called them “one of the most famous fakes in biology,” or Stephen Jay Gould who said “Haeckel had exaggerated the similarities by idealizations and omissions,” and that “in a procedure that can only be called fraudulent,” Haeckel “simply copied the same figure over and over again.” Likewise, in a 1997 article titled “Haeckel’s Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered,” the journal Science recognized that “[g]enerations of biology students may have been misled by a famous set of drawings of embryos published 123 years ago by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel.” ,,,
    So if you’re a Darwin lobbyist defending a textbook that uses Haeckel’s inaccurate drawings, be forewarned: neither Bob Richards nor any other credible authorities I’m aware of endorse the unqualified and uncritical use of Haeckel’s original inaccurate drawings in biology textbooks today. You’re on your own.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....65151.html

    Current Textbooks Misuse Embryology to Argue for Evolution – June 2010
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....35751.html

    Icons of Evolution 10th Anniversary: Haeckel’s Embryos – January 2011 – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0kHPw3LaG8

    Haeckel’s Bogus Embryo Drawings – The faked drawings compared to actual pictures
    http://www.newworldencyclopedi.....ogeny2.jpg

    Actual Embryo photos;
    http://www.intelldesign.com/wp.....15;385.jpg

    There is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates: – Richardson MK – 1997
    Excerpt: Contrary to recent claims that all vertebrate embryos pass through a stage when they are the same size, we find a greater than 10-fold variation in greatest length at the tailbud stage. Our survey seriously undermines the credibility of Haeckel’s drawings,
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9278154

  7. 7
    bornagain77 says:

    Falsehoods In Textbooks – Ten Icons of Evolution – overview – Dr. Jonathan Wells – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4050609

    The “Icons of Evolution” – video playlist – video
    http://www.youtube.com/playlis.....94E1D66A08

    Dr. Wells writes a article defending his criticism against the Ten Icons of Evolution in detail here:

    Inherit the Spin: The NCSE Answers “Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution”
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2....._answ.html

    (Not) Making the Grade: Recent Textbooks & Their Treatment of Evolution (Icons of Evolution update) podcast and paper – October 2011
    http://www.idthefuture.com/201.....nt_te.html

  8. 8
    bornagain77 says:

    corrected links:

    Haeckel’s embryos – drawings
    http://i32.tinypic.com/15bo6d.jpg

    Actual Embryos – photos (Early compared to Intermediate and Late stages)
    http://www.ichthus.info/Evolut.....mbryos.jpg

  9. 9

    Finally, can anyone explain how libertarian free will is consistent with rationality? If we are rational, then our actions are based on our beliefs and desires.

    “Based on” is not the same as “determined by”. We have the capacity to make both rational and irrational choices with regards to our beliefs and desires.

    But I think it is clear that we do not choose our beliefs or our desires, but rather we choose how to act.

    That’s not clear to me. Why can we not choose our beliefs, or sort through competing, conflicting desires?

    The libertarian holds that this choice is free, but that would mean our choices do not follow from our beliefs and desires – i.e. we would be irrational. If we are rational, we are compelled by beliefs and desires we do not choose.

    This makes no sense. Having free will doesn’t mean that our choices “do not follow”, only that they do not have to follow. We can make both the rational choice, or an irrational choice.

    Beliefs and desires are not limited to the rational. If we are compelled by belief and desire, then while our choices would be computable from those beliefs and desires, they need not be rational, because those beliefs and desires may not only be irrational, they could be largely self-conflicting.

    If one’s choices are only computations of beliefs and desires they did not choose, then one is simply a thing being moved around by unchosen beliefs and desires, whether that motion can be described as rational or not. Without free will and the capacity to alter beliefs and desires and make choices that supervene their computation, there can be no moral responsibility, only physical causation.

    Humans would be no more guilty of “murder” than a falling tree branch that happens to hit someone.

  10. 10
    Barry Arrington says:

    Excellent Dr. Torley.

    On Coyne’s view there is no such thing as justice. There is only power relationships between those who are weak and those who are strong. If a man has power there are no objective criteria deterring him from using it in any way that suits his fancy. What if it suits his fancy to start a Rwandian style genocidal rampage? Genocide might not suit Coyne’s “moral taste” but he cannot consistently say it is objectively wrong. Consistently he can only say things like “I do not prefer the taste of liver and onions, and I also find that genocide does not suit my personal moral tastes.”

    A man who cannot justify his opposition to genocide on any basis other than he finds it distasteful should not be taken seriously.

    Let’s say a couple of brothers decided to blow up a bomb at the crowded finish line of a popular marathon. Can Coyne say the brothers “should not” have done that when according to his views they could not not do that?

  11. 11
    RDFish says:

    Hi William,

    RDF: Finally, can anyone explain how libertarian free will is consistent with rationality? If we are rational, then our actions are based on our beliefs and desires.
    WJM: “Based on” is not the same as “determined by”. We have the capacity to make both rational and irrational choices with regards to our beliefs and desires.

    Yes, I didn’t deny we have the capacity to act irrationally! My point is that if we act rationally, we are compelled to act in accord with beliefs and desires that we do not choose.

    RDF: But I think it is clear that we do not choose our beliefs or our desires, but rather we choose how to act.
    WJM: That’s not clear to me. Why can we not choose our beliefs, or sort through competing, conflicting desires?

    It’s very clear to me that we cannot choose to believe something we do not believe, and we cannot choose to desire something we do not desire, nor choose not to desire something we do desire. Try it and see!

    But yes, we definitely sort through competing, conflicting desires, and choose the ones we act on. Those choices, of course, are either rational or not!

    RDF: The libertarian holds that this choice is free, but that would mean our choices do not follow from our beliefs and desires – i.e. we would be irrational. If we are rational, we are compelled by beliefs and desires we do not choose.
    WJM: This makes no sense. Having free will doesn’t mean that our choices “do not follow”, only that they do not have to follow. We can make both the rational choice, or an irrational choice.

    I’d say it makes perfect sense – I’ve already said several times that we are capable of acting irrationally! However, if we are to be rational, we are compelled to act in accord with beliefs and desires that we do not choose.

    Beliefs and desires are not limited to the rational. If we are compelled by belief and desire, then while our choices would be computable from those beliefs and desires, they need not be rational, because those beliefs and desires may not only be irrational, they could be largely self-conflicting.

    I don’t know if our choices are “computable” or not. I don’t think it’s meaningful to say that beliefs and desires are rational or irrational; only decisions and actions can be rational or irrational.

    If one’s choices are only computations of beliefs and desires they did not choose, then one is simply a thing being moved around by unchosen beliefs and desires, whether that motion can be described as rational or not.

    I wouldn’t say we’re “things” – we’re people! And sometimes we’re not rational for sure. But when we are rational, we are constrained to act in accord with beliefs and desires that are not under our conscious control.

    Without free will and the capacity to alter beliefs and desires and make choices that supervene their computation, there can be no moral responsibility, only physical causation.

    First, we really can’t choose to believe or desire at will. Again – give it a try. Can you believe that Rome is the capital of France? Can you desire to see puppies tortured? I sure can’t. Next, I don’t think we should talk about “computation” – that brings up a whole other topic (is thought algorithmic?). Next, do you really mean to say that our choices “supervene their computation” – don’t you mean something like “transcend their computation”? And finally, why would you say we have no moral responsibility? Of course we are responsible for our actions – who else is responsible for what I do??

    Humans would be no more guilty of “murder” than a falling tree branch that happens to hit someone.

    I certainly don’t understand this way of thinking! People choose their actions, and trees don’t! People can be affected by punishment, and trees aren’t! And so on.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  12. 12

    It’s very clear to me that we cannot choose to believe something we do not believe, and we cannot choose to desire something we do not desire, nor choose not to desire something we do desire. Try it and see!

    I have. I’ve succeeded. You’re wrong.

    But, don’t worry. That you cannot do such a thing is probably because you don’t have free will, and that’s certainly not your fault.

  13. 13

    Can you believe that Rome is the capital of France?

    Yes, I can. I can believe whatever I wish.

  14. 14
    RDFish says:

    Hi William,

    There is no way I could choose to believe that Rome is the capital of France, because I happen to already know that it isn’t true. It’s pretty scary to me, actually, to imagine that somebody could simply choose to believe something they know is an outlandish lie, and then – poof! – they actually start thinking it is true.

    Most people I talk to feel like I do: They realize that beliefs are not volitional at all. You can choose to reflect on your beliefs, or seek different perspectives from other people or books and so on, and these choices may lead you to believe new things of course. But to simply decide to believe something – even a ridiculous lie such as that Rome is the capital of France – and then immediately begin to actually believe it just seems, well, very irrational!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  15. 15
    JDH says:

    It’s very clear to me that we cannot choose to believe something we do not believe, and we cannot choose to desire something we do not desire, nor choose not to desire something we do desire. Try it and see!

    I want to make it very clear in this response that I am not accusing RDFish of anything at all. Its just that having spent years counseling people about sin, you get to hear the same excuses all the time.

    Many apologies to you RDFish, but this seems like justification for some behavior rather than search for truth. I certainly don’t know you and am not making any accusation, it’s just this is exactly what an addict would say on the way to giving in once more to his addiction.

    The real choice is not can we choose to desire, the choice is can we choose to be set free from our desire.

    I am sorry for bringing religion into it, but in a way I have to agree with RDFish. Man left to himself is cursed to continue in his desires. However, according to the Words of Christ as set down by John, Christians are no longer bound by that if we choose to believe.

    “If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed.” John 8:36.

    I know ID is supposed to be Designer agnostic, but occasionally I think it does help to get commentary directly from the Word.

  16. 16
    RDFish says:

    One more thing, William:

    That you cannot do such a thing is probably because you don’t have free will, and that’s certainly not your fault.

    I think you’re being sarcastic here (no offense, but I always think sarcasm is the last resort for people out of arguments).

    But in case you’re serious, I really disagree with you about this: I think people have the freedom to choose whatever they want (unless they are coerced somehow). And I believe the blame, praise, and responsibility for each person’s actions are due to that person. I think I’ve made that pretty clear!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  17. 17
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    “I think people have the freedom to choose whatever they want (unless they are coerced somehow).”

    My nitpick would be that coercion limits choices, it doesn’t eliminate them. Anytime one is tempted to think that they “have no choice” about something, I believe it’s generally the case that they DO have a choice, but the difference in alternatives favors one outcome over another.

  18. 18
    RDFish says:

    Hi JDH,

    I want to make it very clear in this response that I am not accusing RDFish of anything at all. Its just that having spent years counseling people about sin, you get to hear the same excuses all the time.

    Many apologies to you RDFish, but this seems like justification for some behavior rather than search for truth. I certainly don’t know you and am not making any accusation, it’s just this is exactly what an addict would say on the way to giving in once more to his addiction.

    Well, no offense to you either JDH, but it certainly isn’t my intent to say that people are not responsible for their actions, and I’m not sure how you could have mistaken my position like that. Perhaps I haven’t been very clear.

    Just because I think our justice system should be designed to minimize recidivism rather than satisfy our desire for vengeance doesn’t mean I think criminals shouldn’t be held accountable for their behavior! On the contrary, I feel each person is fully responsible for everything they do – even if they say they have a disease, addiction, had bad parenting, or whatever other excuse they may offer. Hopefully that is clear.

    I do, however, believe that some of these things can be taken into account when society tries to figure out what to do with convicted criminals. If a long-term law-abiding citizen all of a sudden had a brain tumor and suffered seizures and violent outbursts and punched somebody in the nose, I wouldn’t say we should treat them the same way as a hardened criminal who went around punching people all the time just because they felt like it. Still, both people should be held responsible for their actions.

    The real choice is not can we choose to desire, the choice is can we choose to be set free from our desire.

    These are all choices, I think. I always try to ignore some desire if I feel it is wrong, because I very much desire to do what is right!

    I am sorry for bringing religion into it, but in a way I have to agree with RDFish. Man left to himself is cursed to continue in his desires. However, according to the Words of Christ as set down by John, Christians are no longer bound by that if we choose to believe.

    Again, I really can’t understand how people think they can choose their beliefs. I figure out what I believe through introspection and analysis and reflection, not by just deciding to believe whatever I want to believe!

    And neither do I choose what I desire. Some of my desires I think are negative (I desire to eat doughnuts) and some are positive (I desire to help children in need). But if I’m honest, I can’t say that I am capable of choosing not to desire doughnuts even though I choose not to eat them. Nor could I choose to simply not care about children in need and ignore my desire to help them – I could only choose not to act on that desire for some reason (or, irrationally, for no reason at all).

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  19. 19
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    RDFish,

    “Again, I really can’t understand how people think they can choose their beliefs.”

    The individual will has strong influence over beliefs. A person can essentially brainwash themselves into believing almost anything. One may not be able to instantaneously change a belief, but one can choose to adopt a context — a worldview — which will dramatically alter how they view other things. One person believes that life begins at conception, and that ending a pregnancy intentionally is an act of murder; another believes that a zygote is nothing more than tissue, and that pregnancies can be terminated without moral consequences. These beliefs are not imposed upon us, we adopt them consciously. It might be argued that these types of beliefs are consequential to others, such as theism, but at the end of the day our beliefs are still choices. It may be difficult to imagine choosing to believe or reject certain specific things, but beliefs are largely, if not exclusively, the result of the exercise of our will. I have a hard time imagining another ontological context for beliefs besides choices, unless I adopt the view that I am nothing more than matter in motion, in which case all my beliefs and actions have prior physical causes, and I have no real choice about anything of consequence.

  20. 20
    vjtorley says:

    Hi everyone.

    Bornagain77,

    Thank you very much for the links relating to free will, and to Haeckel’s highly misleading embryo drawings. They are much appreciated.

    Bevets,

    Thanks for the quotes from Ruse and Dawkins. They certainly make valuable apologetic ammunition!

    Kairosfocus,

    I’ll try and get the book out by the end of this year. I have a few important posts I’d like to get out first, though.

    Robert Byers,

    I’d have to agree with your assessment. One of the reasons why Stapel lasted so long was that he knew precisely how to pander to people’s prejudices and confirm their biases.

    Barry Arrington,

    Thank you for your kind words. It is rather shocking that Professor Coyne’s sole reason for rejecting a society engaging in barbaric practices is: “I wouldn’t want to live in it.” To be fair, he did add that he thought social “well-being” was objectively measurable, “in principle.” But then he spoilt his case by saying that the belief that the society with the greatest well-being was best was a subjective opinion.

  21. 21

    There is no way I could choose to believe that Rome is the capital of France, because I happen to already know that it isn’t true.

    I take you at your word.

    It’s pretty scary to me, actually, to imagine that somebody could simply choose to believe something they know is an outlandish lie, and then – poof! – they actually start thinking it is true.

    That’s not necessarily the context that frames everyones conceptualizations of what “knowledge” and “belief” are. I have no certainty about anything, and all my beliefs are conditional, so that makes it much easier to believe whatever I wish.

    Most people I talk to feel like I do: They realize that beliefs are not volitional at all. You can choose to reflect on your beliefs, or seek different perspectives from other people or books and so on, and these choices may lead you to believe new things of course. But to simply decide to believe something – even a ridiculous lie such as that Rome is the capital of France – and then immediately begin to actually believe it just seems, well, very irrational!

    I agree that many, or perhaps most, people believe what they must, which means – to me – that they do not have free will. Free will is indeed a scary responsibility. I can believe whatever outlandish irrational nonsense I wish.

    But in case you’re serious, I really disagree with you about this: I think people have the freedom to choose whatever they want (unless they are coerced somehow). And I believe the blame, praise, and responsibility for each person’s actions are due to that person. I think I’ve made that pretty clear!

    Are “desire” and “want” different? Because you said that people cannot choose their desires, but can choose what they want. That looks a little self contradictory.

  22. 22
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    vjtorley,

    “For those readers who may have been wondering what I’ve been doing for the past month or so, I should explain that I’ve been working on a reply to a recent online essay on humans and animals, that’s somehow turned into a 30-chapter book! My apologies for the long delay. My book should be ready in a week or two.”

    Congratulations. Your writing is prolific, so I’m not surprised to hear that you’re actually writing a book, and I would hazard to bet that it won’t be your last. 😉

  23. 23
    vjtorley says:

    RDFish,

    Thank you for your comments. You write:

    If, for example, I desire to rob a bank but choose not to because it was immoral, this would mean my desire to be moral is stronger than my desire to steal money…

    Here I would have to respectfully disagree with your account of choice: it’s framed in Hobbesian terms from the start. The problem is that Hobbes doesn’t provide an objective yardstick for measuring the strength of a desire, so his account is circular: the strongest desire is just the one that wins.

    You also write:

    …[I]f we act rationally, we are compelled to act in accord with beliefs and desires that we do not choose.

    I would have to disagree. Often in life, we are faced with a choice between a multitude of competing goods, each of which is desirable in its own right. Consider the young Leonardo da Vinci. He was faced with a number of career choices, all appealing to different desires he had. Why should be assume that one of these desires was stronger than the rest? That’s a gratuitous assumption. It would have been perfectly rational for Leonardo to (a) devote his life entirely to science; (b) devote himself entirely to medicine; (c) devote his life entirely to art; or (d) dabble in all three. None of these choices would have been a wrong choice.

    You add:

    There is no way I could choose to believe that Rome is the capital of France, because I happen to already know that it isn’t true.

    OK, but let’s consider your choice to believe in some religion (e.g. Christianity). Choice really does come into it here, because all reason can establish is whether a religion is worthy of belief (i.e. credible), and not whether it is true. Or let’s take a more everyday example: consider Othello’s decision to believe the rumors he heard about Desdemona, in Shakespeare’s play. Once again, there was an element of choice about the belief: whom do you trust?

    As for desires, it may not be possible to alter them in the short term, but we can certainly cultivate them in the long term. A man who does not like to pray can cultivate habits that he knows will eventually awaken in him the desire to pray. A more controversial example: a gay person can choose to undergo therapy with the aim of altering his desires.

    Finally you write:

    It’s very clear to me that we cannot choose to believe something we do not believe, and we cannot choose to desire something we do not desire, nor choose not to desire something we do desire.

    To the extent that this is true, it’s trivial: we cannot choose to believe NOW what we do not currently believe. However, we can choose to try to believe in the future what we do not currently believe: “Lord… help thou mine unbelief!”

    Hope that helps.

  24. 24
    RDFish says:

    Hi Chance,

    The individual will has strong influence over beliefs. A person can essentially brainwash themselves into believing almost anything. One may not be able to instantaneously change a belief, but one can choose to adopt a context — a worldview — which will dramatically alter how they view other things.

    I think we’re pretty much in agreement here. Here’s the way I put it a few posts ago: You can choose to reflect on your beliefs, or seek different perspectives from other people or books and so on, and these choices may lead you to believe new things of course.

    We make all sorts of choices that affect our lives, and these may affect our future beliefs. Still, we do not choose our beliefs in the way we choose our actions. If somebody asks me if I will rob a bank I can choose to do it or not. If somebody asks me if I will believe the Earth is flat, I have no choice in the matter – I do not believe this, and I am powerless to change that. I could set out on a course that may or may not change this belief in the future, but I can’t predict how it will turn out: I could join a silly cult, do some mind-altering drugs, and watch cartoons until I actually believed the Earth was flat… but even that might not work.

    One person believes that life begins at conception, and that ending a pregnancy intentionally is an act of murder; another believes that a zygote is nothing more than tissue, and that pregnancies can be terminated without moral consequences.

    Right – even theists disagree about these issues! That’s why I say theism doesn’t help to make moral propositions any more objective.

    It may be difficult to imagine choosing to believe or reject certain specific things, but beliefs are largely, if not exclusively, the result of the exercise of our will.

    We’ll have to disagree about this, because there is no way I can understand why you think that! Can you, like William here, choose to believe that Rome is the capital of Paris, and then – poof! – you think it is true? I don’t think that is what you mean, but still your saying our beliefs are largely or exclusively the result of our will is just baffling!

    I have a hard time imagining another ontological context for beliefs besides choices, unless I adopt the view that I am nothing more than matter in motion, in which case all my beliefs and actions have prior physical causes, and I have no real choice about anything of consequence.

    This is another viewpoint I have a hard time understanding. First, physical causes certainly are not simply “matter in motion” – that would be a view from a couple of hundred years ago I guess, but I don’t think anyone believes that any more. But no matter what our understanding of physics, ontology – the whole nature of reality at a fundamental level – turns out to be, I don’t see how that affects what we are able to choose. I can choose to read a book, but I can’t choose whether or not I like doughnuts, and I can’t choose whether or not I believe in the tooth fairy. These are real, true facts about me that I can’t change, and it doesn’t matter if physicalism or dualism or any other -ism is true or not!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  25. 25

    We’ll have to disagree about this, because there is no way I can understand why you think that!

    Doesn’t he believe that for the same reason you believe the opposite – he must believe it? You frame your question as if he has a choice about what he believes about how we come to beliefs.

    These are real, true facts about me that I can’t change, and it doesn’t matter if physicalism or dualism or any other -ism is true or not!

    And whether or not that belief is true, it is what you must believe, because you cannot choose what you believe … correct?

    As far as how one can choose their beliefs:

    IF one holds all knowledge to be not just prone to error, but likely erroneous due to the imperfect nature of senses in gathering data and mind in interpreting it; IF one holds all beliefs as conditional views that are likely not any more valid than any other belief held by countless humans since the dawn of time; IF one holds no belief or knowledge as certain or even likely to be actually true; THEN one has a contextual philosophy that renders “knowledge” and “belief” into disposable tools that can be used towards any purpose one chooses, adopted and discarded as they prove to be suited or not suited for any task at hand.

    I can believe whatever I wish because it doesn’t matter to me if what I believe is actually true or not. What matters to me is that my beliefs produce what I want them to produce in my life. That they are true beliefs is entirely irrelevant to me.

  26. 26
    RDFish says:

    Hi vjtorley,

    RDF: If, for example, I desire to rob a bank but choose not to because it was immoral, this would mean my desire to be moral is stronger than my desire to steal money…
    VJT: Here I would have to respectfully disagree with your account of choice: it’s framed in Hobbesian terms from the start. The problem is that Hobbes doesn’t provide an objective yardstick for measuring the strength of a desire, so his account is circular: the strongest desire is just the one that wins.

    If I wanted to explain why I chose not to rob the bank, I might say that my desire to be moral was stronger than my desire for the money. You object, complaining that I cannot objectively demonstrate the truth of this explanation because I have no independent yardstick for measuring my desires. Well, sure – I am reporting my subjective experience of my desires, and making sense of my actions according to them. There is no circularity involved. I certainly don’t see how libertarianism provides any more objective method to assess our motivations!

    RDF: …[I]f we act rationally, we are compelled to act in accord with beliefs and desires that we do not choose.
    VJT: I would have to disagree. Often in life, we are faced with a choice between a multitude of competing goods, each of which is desirable in its own right. Consider the young Leonardo da Vinci. He was faced with a number of career choices, all appealing to different desires he had. Why should be assume that one of these desires was stronger than the rest? That’s a gratuitous assumption. It would have been perfectly rational for Leonardo to (a) devote his life entirely to science; (b) devote himself entirely to medicine; (c) devote his life entirely to art; or (d) dabble in all three. None of these choices would have been a wrong choice.

    I don’t believe we are in disagreement here. I’ve made clear a few times here that we have conflicting and competing desires, and I have not said anything about choices like these necessarily having a normative dimension. We agree that faced with multiple desires, we must choose among them (we have no choice but to choose, of course!). If we seek to explain why we choose one course of action instead of some other, we might answer in various ways:

    1) We could say we choose for no reason at all (i.e. we made an irrational choice)
    2) We could say that we choose according to our strongest desire (this is what it seems like to me)
    3) We could say that we choose using our libertarian free will (this is what I think you are saying)

    But how is #3 any sort of answer at all? It’s fine that you claim to have this volitional power that transcends physical cause… but did you make your decision for some reason or not? If not, then your decision was irrational. If so, what reason could it have been if it was not entailed by your beliefs and desires?

    RDF: There is no way I could choose to believe that Rome is the capital of France, because I happen to already know that it isn’t true.
    VJT: OK, but let’s consider your choice to believe in some religion (e.g. Christianity). Choice really does come into it here, because all reason can establish is whether a religion is worthy of belief (i.e. credible), and not whether it is true.

    Fine example! I could not possibly believe in a religion that I didn’t believe in. I don’t want to insult anybody’s religion, but surely you can think of one that you find quite unbelievable. I ask you: Can you, by sheer power of will, start believing the fact claims of that religion? I’m certain I could not, even on pain of death, believe some of the things that some people say.

    Or let’s take a more everyday example: consider Othello’s decision to believe the rumors he heard about Desdemona, in Shakespeare’s play. Once again, there was an element of choice about the belief: whom do you trust?

    Once again: We reflect, analyze, talk to other people, and figure out what it is we believe. We do not choose what it is we believe. It is very different, in what I think is a very obvious way! If you decided to trust that Karl Marx really was right about political theory, could you? I’m guessing you could not (I’m going out on a limb here, but I feel pretty confident :-)).

    As for desires, it may not be possible to alter them in the short term, but we can certainly cultivate them in the long term. A man who does not like to pray can cultivate habits that he knows will eventually awaken in him the desire to pray.

    Yes we agree about this!

    A more controversial example: a gay person can choose to undergo therapy with the aim of altering his desires.

    As a heterosexual man, it does not feel like a choice that I am not sexually attracted to other men – it feels utterly involuntary. Do you feel you could voluntarily change your sexual orientation, or that it could be changed in therapy? Could you change absolutely everything by submitting to therapy – for example, could you be changed in such a way that you would want to torture babies? Interesting questions, I think – I’m really not sure about the facts here.

    RDF: It’s very clear to me that we cannot choose to believe something we do not believe, and we cannot choose to desire something we do not desire, nor choose not to desire something we do desire.
    VJT: To the extent that this is true, it’s trivial: we cannot choose to believe NOW what we do not currently believe. However, we can choose to try to believe in the future what we do not currently believe: “Lord… help thou mine unbelief!”

    Like I said, we agree that choices we make can certainly influence our future frame of mind, our outlook, and yes, our beliefs. But this is not what we mean by volitional choice. If I want to believe in Scientology (just to pick a religion I do not currently believe in) I could start reading books by L. Ron Hubbard, going to Scientology meetings, and so on. Will that eventually make me believe in Scientology? I really don’t know (but I doubt it). The point is, we can take actions that might influence our future thoughts in all sorts of ways, but that is completely different from choosing our beliefs.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  27. 27
    RDFish says:

    Hi William,

    Doesn’t he believe that for the same reason you believe the opposite – he must believe it?

    I don’t think I understand your question. I’m not saying that we “must” believe what we believe – it could very well have happened that we ended up with different beliefs, depending on a virtually infinite number of factors. What I’m saying is that we can’t simply decide what we want to believe, and then actually believe it.

    And whether or not that belief is true, it is what you must believe, because you cannot choose what you believe … correct?

    Again, I think there’s some confusion when you say people must believe whatever it is they currently believe. No, people change their minds about things all the time, as I’ve said many times now: We reflect and analyze our beliefs, listen to others, read books, have experiences, and so on – all these things result in new and changed beliefs all the time. What we cannot do is simply choose to believe something, and as a result actually believe it is true.

    I can believe whatever I wish because it doesn’t matter to me if what I believe is actually true or not. What matters to me is that my beliefs produce what I want them to produce in my life. That they are true beliefs is entirely irrelevant to me.

    Ah, ok. I think I understand you better now, thanks.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  28. 28
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    RDFish, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    “Can you, like William here, choose to believe that Rome is the capital of Paris, and then – poof! – you think it is true?”

    Taking this point specifically, no I don’t think I could convince myself of such a thing instantaneously. But my belief that Rome is the capital of Italy, and that Paris is the capital of France, depend on other beliefs, such as the general reliability of the geographical testimony of others, as I’ve never been to Italy or France. It also depends on my belief that my apprehension of objective facts is generally reliable and consistent. Mess with either of those beliefs, and it would be possible for me to choose to believe that either of those generally accepted facts are disputable.

    Let me come at it another way. As I suggested earlier, I think that the ontology of belief is ultimately seated in human free will. Since you suggest otherwise, what do you see as the cause of belief, and what imposes our beliefs upon us irrespective of our will? I think it would be more illuminating to understand how you source belief.

  29. 29
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    Footnote to #28, I think that certain beliefs constrain others, and so it’s possible that those which are consequent to antecedent beliefs are constrained. This throws the issue back to the antecedent beliefs. Taken somewhat differently, some beliefs have a sort of “dominion” over others. For instance, if I chose to believe that materialism is true, and that nothing is objectively real or ascertainable which is not the product of material interactions, then I am not subsequently entitled to believe in immaterial truths, assuming I understand the logical connection. This does not mean that I cannot choose to believe in immaterial truths, it just means that I must modify my commitment to materialism, my belief quotient, in order to accept certain truths. So many if not most of our beliefs flow from other upstream ones, and at some point we arrive at those which can be affected by our will, such as our belief that our perceptions of reality are generally reliable. Other beliefs follow rather necessarily.

  30. 30
    Phinehas says:

    RDFish:

    Briefly, because I haven’t read the whole thread yet…

    If you cannot change your beliefs and we cannot change ours, then what is your purpose in discussing your beliefs? We all believe what we believe because we cannot believe otherwise, right?

    Of course, that says very little about what might actually be true, and all of our discussions are from the perspective that something might actually be true and that it is important for our beliefs to align with such.

  31. 31
    RDFish says:

    Hi Chance,

    Mess with either of those beliefs, and it would be possible for me to choose to believe that either of those generally accepted facts are disputable.

    Yes, each belief depends on others, and we might revise many beliefs when a more fundamental belief is brought to doubt. If I found my wife lied to me about being with the mailman, I might then come to believe she never loved me in first place. I wouldn’t choose to think that, but there you go.

    As I suggested earlier, I think that the ontology of belief is ultimately seated in human free will. Since you suggest otherwise, what do you see as the cause of belief, and what imposes our beliefs upon us irrespective of our will? I think it would be more illuminating to understand how you source belief.

    Hold on, let me check… nope, I actually don’t hold any beliefs about that, although I try to.

    Seriously, I don’t know what to believe regarding mind/body ontology or free will. In other words, nothing I’ve come across has led me to believe (a telling idiom!) that consciousness is either causal or percpetual, or that our minds are or are not algorithmic or contra-causal. So I won’t argue the truth of dualism or physicalism or libertarianism. Up one level from the metaphysics, however, I do think we can come to understand some of this by introspection. And to me, introspection reveals that I can choose my actions but not my beliefs and desires.

    So to answer your question, I guess all I can say is that our beliefs result from a huge number of things – including our vast experience (which is partially determined by our previous choices!) and our innate and ideosyncratic cognitive faculties.

    For instance, if I chose to believe that materialism is true, and that nothing is objectively real or ascertainable which is not the product of material interactions, then I am not subsequently entitled to believe in immaterial truths, assuming I understand the logical connection. This does not mean that I cannot choose to believe in immaterial truths, it just means that I must modify my commitment to materialism, my belief quotient, in order to accept certain truths.

    I take your meaning, I think, but I’d say “entitlement” isn’t really a helpful concept here. We needn’t be entitled to believe one thing or another – we simply do have beliefs, entitled or not. Likewise, one needn’t modify their commitment to one view in order to believe something contradictory – it’s pretty clear that many people hold contradictory beliefs routinely. But yes, again, each belief depends on others.

    So many if not most of our beliefs flow from other upstream ones, and at some point we arrive at those which can be affected by our will, such as our belief that our perceptions of reality are generally reliable. Other beliefs follow rather necessarily.

    Regarding reliability of our minds: I don’t think we can know if our perceptions and cognition is generally reliable, since if it wasn’t we wouldn’t necessarily know it. So it’s not that I believe one way or the other about that; it’s just that there’s nothing I can do about it, and nothing to discover, and so I don’t think about it. Still, I have other beliefs that are very strong – even though logically they oughtn’t be if I can’t demonstrate the fundamental reliability of my mind. So even though I understand that, and I don’t feel strongly convinced that my perceptions of reality are somehow demonstrably true, I have strong beliefs about all sorts of other things! I guess one thing that implies is that we are not logic machines 🙂

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  32. 32
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    If you cannot change your beliefs and we cannot change ours,…

    When you do read the rest of the thread, you’ll see I’ve said repeatedly that our beliefs change all the time, and that we can change our own beliefs by means of reading, talking, reflection, analysis, and so on. What we cannot do is choose our beliefs by act of will: We cannot believe something we don’t believe, or choose to disbelieve something we believe.

    … then what is your purpose in discussing your beliefs?

    I like to discuss these things – I enjoy it. Talking with me might change someone’s mind about something, sure, but that’s not my motivation. Likewise, someone else’s arguments may cause me to change my mind about something too, which I actually enjoy quite a bit.

    We all believe what we believe because we cannot believe otherwise, right?

    No, I don’t think that at all. Of course we might have come to believe otherwise – any one of a virtually infinite number of factors might cause my (or your) beliefs to change at any time! My point is that our beliefs are not under our voluntary control the way our voluntary actions are. I can choose to sit on the couch, but I cannot choose to believe in unicorns, and there is nothing I can do about that.

    Of course, that says very little about what might actually be true, and all of our discussions are from the perspective that something might actually be true and that it is important for our beliefs to align with such.

    Agreed. Epistemology is hard. Still, I think if you just take some time to introspect, you’ll find you cannot actually change what you believe or what you desire simply by an act of will. And that means that if you are to act rationally – meaning if you act in accord with your beliefs and desires – then you will act in accordance with beliefs and desires that you did not choose.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  33. 33
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    RDFish, perhaps you’re taking belief too generally. Not being able to believe something contrary to experience does not necessarily mean that I cannot choose my beliefs, it means that I cannot choose how I experience reality. I don’t believe that the sky is blue, I experience a blue sky. I think it’s a mistake to attribute that with belief, at least in some senses of the word. (Yet if someone were to ask me if I believed in a blue sky, my usage of the language might compel an answer of yes.)

    Analogously, I cannot flap my arms and fly. This does not mean that I don’t possess free will. It means that my being exists within certain physical confines. If I want to fly I can build an airplane. So my choices are constrained, but such constraints do not imply that I cannot freely choose.

    Depending on which definition of belief one uses, I think it’s clear that we do have choice in the matter.


    Belief

    1 : a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing

    2 : something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group

    3 : conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

    We quite obviously have significant control over #1, where #3 is more constrained by experience with evidence. The evaluation of evidence is at the core of our perception and reasoning facilities. Many of our beliefs, namely the ones you use as examples, are constrained by our experience with the evidence. I cannot honestly choose to believe that the earth is flat because I know it to be round. If that were not the case, and I lacked any knowledge of the Earth’s nature outside of my direct experience with a flat patch of ground, I would be free to believe otherwise. As a matter of fact, I could believe any number of things about the nature of the planet had I not seen pictures of it from space.

    But it’s not simply about the quantity or quality evidence either, but about how we allow the evidence to speak. (HT: Paul Nelson). I can choose to set unreasonable standards of evidence for the things I choose to believe, and demand absolute proof over a reasonable preponderance of the evidence. This is also a choice.

    So you should be clear what you mean by “belief.” If you simply mean that we have no control over what we believe about reality with regard to direct experience, I might agree. We can’t genuinely choose not to believe in gravity, or our sense of smell, or in food and water. Other things, such as the preciousness of human life, we apparently are free to choose, but the considerations are often complex, and tied to other antecedent existential beliefs.

  34. 34
    StephenB says:

    RDFish, you pose some interesting questions, but I fear that you are conflating several elements in your analysis of our power to change beliefs. In all honesty, I don’t think you are being precise enough with your formulation:

    Obviously, a person cannot believe one thing and also believe something else at the same time. That point hardly needs any emphasis. Taking it one step further, the question is not, “Can I change my belief or beliefs?” or even “Can I identify the beliefs that I would like to hold and finally attain them? You seem to understand that it is, indeed, possible to do that, assuming that we are discussing the kinds of beliefs that influence moral behavior. Ultimately, those are the only kind that matter.

    In fact, how we behave affects what we believe and what we believe also affects how we behave. In any significant change of belief, one either conforms truth to desire or he conforms desire to truth. The question, then, is this: If I do decide to conform desire to truth and become more moral, or if I decide to conform truth to desire and become less moral, will I, in either case, be infallibly successful in attaining my goal? If you are asking any other kind of question, I would not care to follow up.

  35. 35
    RDFish says:

    Hi Chance,

    RDFish, perhaps you’re taking belief too generally. Not being able to believe something contrary to experience does not necessarily mean that I cannot choose my beliefs, it means that I cannot choose how I experience reality. I don’t believe that the sky is blue, I experience a blue sky. I think it’s a mistake to attribute that with belief, at least in some senses of the word. (Yet if someone were to ask me if I believed in a blue sky, my usage of the language might compel an answer of yes.)

    Take any belief at all – that the Earth orbits the Sun, or that dogs can’t talk, or that you have two feet. I assume you have firmly-held beliefs about these propositions, and also that you could not for the life of you simply decide to believe otherwise.

    You likely also have strong beliefs about more abstract propositions, like perhaps “lowering taxes generally spurs economic growth” or “Earth’s climate is warming due to human activity” or “Darwinian evolution fully accounts for biological complexity”. You might change your mind about these things based on things you hear, or read, or even by sitting alone and ruminating about evidence on one side or another. But you can’t simply make up your mind to believe the opposite of what you currently believe and then actually change your belief that way.

    You can simply decide to pour a glass of water, or to yell “football!”, but you cannot simply decide to believe that dogs can talk. Nor can you change your desires – you experience your desires, but you don’t pick them.

    Analogously, I cannot flap my arms and fly. This does not mean that I don’t possess free will. It means that my being exists within certain physical confines. If I want to fly I can build an airplane. So my choices are constrained, but such constraints do not imply that I cannot freely choose.

    We agree on this.

    Depending on which definition of belief one uses, I think it’s clear that we do have choice in the matter.

    Yes, I always say we make choices, and those choices are free (unless, for example, somebody is physically forcing us or threatening us into one particular act).

    Belief
    1 : a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
    2 : something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
    3 : conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence
    We quite obviously have significant control over #1,…

    I think we need to be more careful about this one. I can choose to trust Fred to pay back the loan, meaning I’ll give him the loan and tell him I’m trusting him to repay it. But my estimate of the likelihood that Fred will actually pay it back – based on my knowledge and experience of Fred, etc. – is a belief that I cannot choose. These beliefs arise in our minds, but not under volitional control.

    …where #3 is more constrained by experience with evidence. The evaluation of evidence is at the core of our perception and reasoning facilities. Many of our beliefs, namely the ones you use as examples, are constrained by our experience with the evidence. I cannot honestly choose to believe that the earth is flat because I know it to be round. If that were not the case, and I lacked any knowledge of the Earth’s nature outside of my direct experience with a flat patch of ground, I would be free to believe otherwise. As a matter of fact, I could believe any number of things about the nature of the planet had I not seen pictures of it from space.

    Really? You could just make something up that you didn’t know was true, and decide to believe it, and then you would actually believe it was true? That doesn’t seem reasonable to me. Or perhaps you mean you might, based on faulty or incomplete information, arrive at a false belief. Well sure, we do that all the time. But still, if you arrived at a belief for whatever reason, you would not be able to believe its contradiction simply because you decide to. It really seems to me that it’s just not possible – it’s not the way our minds work.

    But it’s not simply about the quantity or quality evidence either, but about how we allow the evidence to speak. (HT: Paul Nelson). I can choose to set unreasonable standards of evidence for the things I choose to believe, and demand absolute proof over a reasonable preponderance of the evidence. This is also a choice.

    One is compelled by the evidence (and one’s predispositions, experiences, and so on) one way or another, and one comes to believe one thing or another, and that is not under volitional control. I can’t change what I believe just by deciding to change my standards of evidence. I may certainly argue that way, demanding more evidence for things I do not believe (it’s pretty normal for people to do that). But that still doesn’t mean I can start to believe something I don’t believe simply by deciding I don’t need much evidence to believe it.

    So you should be clear what you mean by “belief.” If you simply mean that we have no control over what we believe about reality with regard to direct experience, I might agree. We can’t genuinely choose not to believe in gravity, or our sense of smell, or in food and water.

    Well, the idea of “direct experience” is pretty dicey – all of our observations are mediated by our mental faculties… but let’s not go there. Let’s say we agree that we can’t choose our beliefs that are obvious from our repeated and uniform experience, yes?

    Again, I would say that our beliefs regarding very abstract propositions, such as examples I’ve given here, are also outside of our volitional control

    Other things, such as the preciousness of human life, we apparently are free to choose, but the considerations are often complex, and tied to other antecedent existential beliefs.

    I believe that human life is precious, and I absolutely would not be able to simply choose to believe otherwise and then – poof! – I would no longer believe human life is precious! There’s just no way – and I don’t believe you or anyone else would be capable of changing their beliefs like that either.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  36. 36
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    Obviously, a person cannot believe one thing and also believe something else at the same time. That point hardly needs any emphasis.

    Do you mean a person cannot believe one thing and also its contradiction at the same time? Or do you mean a person can only think of one thing at a time? I really don’t understand what you mean, I’m sorry.

    Taking it one step further, the question is not, “Can I change my belief or beliefs?” or even “Can I identify the beliefs that I would like to hold and finally attain them? You seem to understand that it is, indeed, possible to do that, assuming that we are discussing the kinds of beliefs that influence moral behavior. Ultimately, those are the only kind that matter.

    For me, the main question was indeed whether or not beliefs (of all types) were something under our voluntary control, the way our voluntary actions are. It seems to me that they are not: I do not have the ability to believe something that I do not believe simply by deciding to, and I don’t think other people are able to do that either (but I’m not sure – at least one person here claims he can do just that).

    In fact, how we behave affects what we believe and what we believe also affects how we behave.

    Yes I agree with both of those statements. If we change our behavior, it may (or may not) eventually end up changing some of our beliefs. But that is very different from changing one’s beliefs simply by an act of will. I can choose what I say, but I can’t choose what I believe, and that is true for all sorts of beliefs.

    In any significant change of belief, one either conforms truth to desire or he conforms desire to truth.

    I think you’re assuming that desire and truth are always at odds; I don’t see why that would be the case. Let’s say someone desires that there be a God, and then finds out there is indeed a God – wouldn’t that be a case where desire and truth coincide?

    The question, then, is this: If I do decide to conform desire to truth and become more moral, or if I decide to conform truth to desire and become less moral, will I, in either case, be infallibly successful in attaining my goal?

    If I understand you, you are saying that one might will oneself to believe P, even though he wishes Q, because he is moral (or he is moral by virtue of doing this)? And alternatively, one might will oneself to believe Q, in spite of initially believing P, because he is less moral (or he is less moral by virtue of doing this)? And then you ask if people can invariably do both of these things?

    I have done my best, honestly, to interpret your question, but I can’t make much sense of it. I can only repeat my point: I arrive at my beliefs by reflection and analysis, experience, input from others, reading, and so on. My beliefs form during this process, and may change or even reverse. To me, this is very different from willfully choosing what I want to believe.

    If you are asking any other kind of question, I would not care to follow up.

    I wasn’t asking a question so much as making a point, which was that we cannot will ourselves to believe what we do not believe, nor to desire what we do not desire. We can only will ourselves to act how we choose to act. So, to the extent we base our actions upon our beliefs and desires, our choices are not under our volitional control.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  37. 37
    Andre says:

    A few comments I’d like to add.

    Firstly objective truth is easy to prove, its not some mystical thing beyond our grasp.

    1.) Logic will still exist even if no humans exist. Example, the universe will still exist even if we get wiped by a meteor tomorrow.

    2.) 1 + X = Y will still exist even if no humans are around after the meteor hit earth. 1 apple falling on the floor next to 3 more will still be 4.

    Opinions which is what people have are based on beliefs and those beliefs are shaped by how we choose to interpret the evidence. As a 34 year long materialist, my opinion changed because I chose to change them based on my choice to accept all the evidence. This is a state of intentionality and they can only exist in a non-deterministic world.

    The first question anybody has to ask is this…. Does immaterial things exist objectively outside of the human subjective? The answer is clearly yes. Logic is an example of that so with that in mind I have to accept that if one immaterial thing can exist then all of them can, I am not in a position to accept some and discard others if I do I become illogical. The funny part is this; even if I choose that some immaterial things exist and others don’t it was still done so by free choice.

    The problem I have noticed with materialists is that they use the immaterial to deny that it the immaterial exist, or they choose to ignore that there is more to the universe than material things. without the immaterial the material world cannot interact and if the material world can not interact nothing can exist.

  38. 38
    JDH says:

    Hi RDFish,

    I think you are looking too inward and being too broad with the term belief. There are a myriad of things which influence our beliefs. So I would like to separate out a few classes of types of beliefs.

    1. Memory of past experiences. It seems in this case you are right, I don’t think I can will myself to believe that yesterday I saw the sun rise in the west. Maybe some people can do that, I can’t.
    2. Trust in the correct analysis of an argument. I can do this easily. I can will myself to believe yes the argument is logical or no the argument is wrong. Its just that I am not that good at analysis. I can convince myself that one argument has holes and the other side has no consequential problems. But its mostly just ineptitude on my part. My belief actually ends up being quite malleable.
    3. Trust in another person. I can do this to myself all the time also. I evaluate whether I should believe what the other person says mostly based on the trustworthiness of the individual and then choose to believe or not to believe.

    I can understand how your argument applies in case #1. I don’t think people can will themselves to disbelieve what they have personally experienced.

    But most of what we label “beliefs” are based not on personal experience but by communication of an argument from another person. Here I think there is a lot of allowance for the will. I have met very few people who can cut through the real logic of an argument, or correctly assess the believability of a witness.

    And I think it is verifiable, that if I really want to believe something, I can easily will myself to just not listen to reason. ( Actually, I think a lot of people do this. How else can one possibly account for people who actually believe materialism. )

    So a lot of what we call beliefs are easily changed by the power of the will.

    ***************
    OT question to vjtorley. Can animals believe? I do not think they can because I don’t think they can posit something which “might” be true. I don’t think they can propose a hypothetical. If they could, it seems, they would eventually design things.

    I know an unknown noise or scent can bring about a heightened state of watchfulness – but that just seems to be stimulus-response and fight or flight. It does not seem to be postulating what the noise or smell actually is.

    The reason I ask is that makes belief a universal human only trait. No creature below man can believe, and every single man can believe. Therefore it is by faith…

  39. 39
    RDFish says:

    Hi JDH,

    I think you are looking too inward and being too broad with the term belief. There are a myriad of things which influence our beliefs. So I would like to separate out a few classes of types of beliefs.

    1. Memory of past experiences. It seems in this case you are right, I don’t think I can will myself to believe that yesterday I saw the sun rise in the west. Maybe some people can do that, I can’t.

    Honestly I would think if somebody could do this, it would indicate a serious mental disorder.

    2. Trust in the correct analysis of an argument. I can do this easily. I can will myself to believe yes the argument is logical or no the argument is wrong. Its just that I am not that good at analysis. I can convince myself that one argument has holes and the other side has no consequential problems. But its mostly just ineptitude on my part. My belief actually ends up being quite malleable.

    It seems to me that your malleable beliefs are swayed one way or the other, but not by acts of will. Can you really look at an argument and decide “I think I’ll consider this argument to be invalid”, and then actually believe that it is invalid because of your decision?

    3. Trust in another person. I can do this to myself all the time also. I evaluate whether I should believe what the other person says mostly based on the trustworthiness of the individual and then choose to believe or not to believe.

    I can choose to trust someone in the sense that I would loan them money, let them borrow my car, whatever, and hope that my trust wasn’t misplaced. But trust is not belief: I would believe in some estimate of the likelihood that the person will act well based on my knowledge of him, and I could not change that belief by act of will.

    I can understand how your argument applies in case #1. I don’t think people can will themselves to disbelieve what they have personally experienced. But most of what we label “beliefs” are based not on personal experience but by communication of an argument from another person. Here I think there is a lot of allowance for the will. I have met very few people who can cut through the real logic of an argument, or correctly assess the believability of a witness.

    OK, so let’s say most people come to their (more abstract or complex) beliefs by faulty reason and insufficient justification. That really dooesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they form beliefs as they (perhaps incorrectly) review and reflect on the evidence, and not simply by choosing to believe one thing or another.

    What I think I’m hearing from you and some others here seems to be the idea that some beliefs are so loosely held that it’s pretty much a toss-up which way you might believe, so you can decide to believe either one just by choice. But all that means is that your choice is not based on any good reason – i.e. it is irrational. It’s like you’re just flipping a coin in your head. What I’m talking about are strongly held beliefs, where you really do know what you believe.

    And I think it is verifiable, that if I really want to believe something, I can easily will myself to just not listen to reason. ( Actually, I think a lot of people do this. How else can one possibly account for people who actually believe materialism. )

    I completely agree, and know that research shows that just about everybody does this. Still, this is not at all the same as choosing to believe something you don’t believe, or vice-versa.

    So a lot of what we call beliefs are easily changed by the power of the will.

    I’m still going to disagree. Can you give an example of some proposition that you can choose to believe (or not), and upon making that choice, actually either believe it is true (or false)?

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  40. 40
    vjtorley says:

    Hi RDFish,

    Thank you for your comments. You wrote:

    If we seek to explain why we choose one course of action instead of some other, we might answer in various ways:

    1) We could say we choose for no reason at all (i.e. we made an irrational choice)
    2) We could say that we choose according to our strongest desire (this is what it seems like to me)
    3) We could say that we choose using our libertarian free will (this is what I think you are saying)

    But how is #3 any sort of answer at all? It’s fine that you claim to have this volitional power that transcends physical cause… but did you make your decision for some reason or not? If not, then your decision was irrational. If so, what reason could it have been if it was not entailed by your beliefs and desires?

    I think this comment of yours encapsulates the heart of our philosophical disagreement. If you ask why I chose X when I could have chosen Y, then there are two possibilities. If X was chosen as a means to an end (Z), then the most likely answer is simply that I think X is a better way of achieving that end. (It may not be, of course: sometimes there are two equally long paths to the same goal, but this is relatively rare in real life.) But where X and Y are competing ends, as in the case of young Leonardo’s multiple career options, then I would simply say that I chose X simply because it was desirable in its own right. (Of course you could say that about Y too.)

    The question you want to ask, of course, is: “Why did you choose X rather than Y?” And I don’t think there needs to be an answer to that question. You are assuming the truth of a psychological version of Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason: that given the same set of causes, the same effect invariably follows. We already have good reason to believe that this doesn’t hold true in the physical world; why assume that it holds true for our mental states, then?

    You would argue, however, that an undetermined choice is an irrational one:

    …[D]id you make your decision for some reason or not? If not, then your decision was irrational. If so, what reason could it have been if it was not entailed by your beliefs and desires?

    If I choose end X instead of competing end Y, then of course, my choice has a reason: X, which is desirable in and of itself. What you are implicitly assuming is that a choice is rational if and only if I can give an account not only of why I chose as I did, but also of why my choice was better than all the other alternatives. And that, I think, is unreasonable. What if there are too many alternatives to consider, for instance? Must I always have a reason for narrowing my choices and picking just one among billions of possibilities, when I have to make some choice?

    You also write:

    I could not possibly believe in a religion that I didn’t believe in. I don’t want to insult anybody’s religion, but surely you can think of one that you find quite unbelievable. I ask you: Can you, by sheer power of will, start believing the fact claims of that religion?

    I can certainly think of religions that I could never believe in, with all the will in the world. But I can think of others whose truth I could persuade myself of, if I wished to be persuaded. Look, it happens all the time. How often do you read of a man or woman converting to their spouse’s religion? Would they have done so if they hadn’t met their spouse? No. But meeting that person may make them willing to consider the claims of that religion.

    You also write:

    We reflect, analyze, talk to other people, and figure out what it is we believe. We do not choose what it is we believe.

    I don’t think this analysis does justice to the “spouse case” I discussed above. It may well be the case that one partner already has their beliefs “figured out”, and then suddenly encounters the shock of an alternative worldview, which is espoused by their husband or wife. The person may well have previously considered and rejected that particular religion. What then happens is a kind of re-evaluation of the credibility of its claims. The fact that the claims are endorsed by someone whose judgment you think highly of (i.e. your spouse) may cause you to question your former grounds for rejecting that worldview. You may eventually reach a stage where the claims of this competing worldview may not sound rationally compelling, or even superior to rival claims, but nevertheless sound credible and intellectually defensible. At that point, you may make a conscious choice to accept them. That’s certainly a psychological possibility. Is such a choice epistemologically vicious? I don’t think so. In the end, we all have to believe in some worldview, and arguments for belief are seldom knockdown. So in nearly decision to accept a worldview, there is an element of commitment.

    Finally, you question whether therapy could change absolutely everything about you. And I would agree that it can’t: in most cases, therapy changes to change people’s sexuality, although from what I’ve read, in about 20-35% of cases it can. Other changes are also possible: an overeater may submit to therapy in order to develop an aversion to eating to excess, and that often works. Here’s an example, then, of changing your desires in the long term.

    Hope that helps.

  41. 41
    bornagain77 says:

    As to ‘freely’ finding the one true worldview among many competing worldviews, I would like to, of course, suggest:

    Why Any Serious Religious Quest Should Begin with Christianity – Sean McDowell – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dl_LLjR_5FU

    The Oldest Known Fragment Of The New Testament (What Is Truth?) – Serendipitous Gospel – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/w/6517637

    ‘Other than Christ, no other religious leader was foretold a thousand years before he arrived, nor was anything said about where he would be born, why he would come, how he would live, and when he would die. No other religious leader claimed to be God, or performed miracles, or rose from the dead. No other religious leader grounded his doctrine in historical facts. No other religious leader declared his person to be even more important than his teachings.’ –
    StephenB – UD Blogger

    “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
    – C.S. Lewis – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41

    Centrality of Each Individual Observer In The Universe and Christ’s Very Credible Reconciliation Of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/17SDgYPHPcrl1XX39EXhaQzk7M0zmANKdYIetpZ-WB5Y/edit?hl=en_US

    Supplemental note:

    The Trial of Jesus Christ – Drive Thru History, Holy Land Ep.12 – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuoeMrJa9-o

  42. 42
    kairosfocus says:

    BA: This note on worldviews from the ground up in a world of “turtles all the way dooooown! (or, in a circle . . . )” may help too. KF

  43. 43
    bornagain77 says:

    kf, I recall Stephen Meyer using that ‘turtles all the way down’ illustration in this lecture:

    Return of the God Hypothesis – Stephen Meyer – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....age#t=888s

  44. 44
    DonaldM says:

    Excellent article Dr. Torley. While I’m not the least bit surprised with Coyne’s inconsistencies, it just never ceases to amaze me how deep the cognitive dissonance runs! It reminds of an old story about a Professor teaching ethics who had a student make claims similar to Coyne’s about morality and lack of free will. So the Prof decided to visit the student in his dorm room to discuss it further. Upon leaving, the Prof commented on the nice portable stereo the student had and then proceeded to unplug and take it. The student protested. “Why?” the professor asked, “is there a problem?” “Yes”, said the student, “you can’t just take my stuff without asking.” “After everything you just told me about your view of morality and ethics, I don’t see why not!” replied the Prof, and proceeded to walk out the door with the stereo.

    I don’t recall from whence this story originated, but I do know that it did happen, or something close to it. The student got a real lesson that day! For all their Herculean efforts, Darwinists like Coyne or Dawkins can not explain morals in evolutionary terms beyond a personal preference. That alone should make them question their logic and reasoning, but, alas, it doesn’t!

  45. 45
    StephenB says:

    RDFish:

    I wasn’t asking a question so much as making a point, which was that we cannot will ourselves to believe what we do not believe, nor to desire what we do not desire. We can only will ourselves to act how we choose to act. So, to the extent we base our actions upon our beliefs and desires, our choices are not under our volitional control.

    On the contrary. We can, in fact, change what we believe and what we desire through the power of will (or grace). If you read Augustine’s Confessions, you will find this to be the case. Or, if as it appears, you are more secular minded, read “Man’s Search For Meaning,” by Victor Frankl. Indeed, we have known for years that behavioral change can transform beliefs and desires. Meaning no disrespect, but you are simply wrong.

  46. 46

    Honestly I would think if somebody could do this, it would indicate a serious mental disorder.

    How would there ability to do it be fundamentally different from your inability, seeing as what we believe, or do not believe, is caused? If you are caused to believe X right now, and caused not to believe Y right now, then why would it be any different if I was caused to wake up and believe that I saw the sun rise in the west yesterday?

    In any event, by your standards, I guess I have a serious mental disorder. My “beliefs” do not tell me what I am, or what the world is, or what has occurred; I tell my beliefs what they are, as I see fit. Including what happened in the past.

  47. 47
    Phinehas says:

    RDFish:

    My point is that our beliefs are not under our voluntary control the way our voluntary actions are. I can choose to sit on the couch, but I cannot choose to believe in unicorns, and there is nothing I can do about that.

    OK, but you can’t choose to sit on water. You can’t choose to sit on love. Pointing out examples of things you can’t choose to do does not mean there are not examples of things you can choose to do. It simply means there are limitations to the things you can choose to do. Similarly, describing limitations in what you can choose to believe does not mean it is impossible to choose to believe some things.

    And that means that if you are to act rationally – meaning if you act in accord with your beliefs and desires – then you will act in accordance with beliefs and desires that you did not choose.

    First of all, defining rationality as you have, strictly in terms of personally held beliefs and desires seems problematic to me. Is the schizophrenic who truly believes imaginary people are out to get him being rational? I think there is an underlying (irrational?) assumption in your definition that objective truth does not exist. For if objective truth exists, then rationality is better understood as acting in accordance with what is true and not in what is (especially falsely) believed. It is only from this perspective that we can label the schizophrenic irrational, and it is only from this perspective that we can have a meaningful debate about choice and beliefs and desires.

    Secondly, there seems to be a bit of confusion about choosing beliefs and desires.

    If we change our behavior, it may (or may not) eventually end up changing some of our beliefs. But that is very different from changing one’s beliefs simply by an act of will.

    Very different? I’m not sure I see how this is so. It seems to me that the difference consists primarily in that the change is more indirect, but why should that be so important?

    Suppose I believe this is a bad day. I’m feeling a bit gloomy. The creative juices are not flowing at work, and I just want it to be the weekend already. Studies have show that if I choose to smile, I will actually end up feeling happier. This is just one of a number of choice that I can make that will result in a change in my perspective or outlook on the day. I can remind myself that I have a great job that I really enjoy. I can recall how much I like the people I get to work with. Suddenly, I start to believe that it isn’t such a bad day after all.

    By an act of will, I’ve changed my actions.
    By an act of will, I’ve changed my focus.
    By an act of will, I’ve changed my perspective.

    And I’ve done all of these things with the express purpose and intent to change what I believe about what kind of day I’m having. So in what way have I not also changed my belief by an act of will? It may not have been direct, but because I have the ability to imagine believing differently, and because I have the ability to predict the actions that are likely to lead to a different belief, I have intentionally and willfully set out to change my belief and have succeeded.

    In my experience, desires are similarly malleable and perhaps even more so. Further, defining rationality in terms of personal desires seems to stretch how most people think about rationality.

  48. 48
    cheshire says:

    This is such a fascinating topic to me, and one I rarely hear the NDE crowd willing to engage in.

    The problem as I see it is that materialism essentially reduces all thoughts/emotions/impulses/choices to matter and chemical reactions. The very fact I can have thoughts or type this sentence is simply the result of chemicals firing in my brain. And what I find odd is how many people on the one hand are willing to embrace materialism, but then on the other distance themselves as far as possible from the logical conlusions that a materialist worldview leads one to. And that’s essentially what Coyne is doing (although watching him try to get his way out of it isn’t nearly as amusing as watching Dawkins try to perform the same trick).

    But the problem is that if consciousness is merely reduced to matter, then concepts such as free will and morality cease to exist. Matter can’t make decisions. Matter can’t be “right” or “wrong”. There is no such thing as an inherently “evil” chemical reaction. Matter is simply what it is. There is no such thing as an “evil” rock or a “wise” rock. There is simply a rock that is bound to it’s intrinsic properties. Yet materialists are essentially arguing that the only differece between you and a rock is the arrangement of the atoms. But simply rearranging something doesn’t suddenly confer upon it the ability to have free will or morality.

    What people like Coyne don’t understand is that when they preach reductionism as forcefully as they do, they’ve pulled the rug out from under themselves when it comes to having any conversation about choices and morality. In Coyne’s eyes, for example, i’m unbelievably stupid (if not immoral) for advocating intelligent design. But his own reductionist position makes these words meaningless and impotent. How can I be stupid or immoral if that’s simply the reality of me as matter? If my chemical reactions result in matter that advocates intelligent design, what choice do I have? But then if he does argue I have control over it and do have a choice, he’s invoking something outside of matter, which his position doesn’t allow.

    If people like Coyne, Dawkins, Harris, etc. want to be consistent, they should just accept that some matter (ID proponents) has different properties than other matter (neo Darwinists). Saying one is better or smarter than the other makes no sense according to their own reductionist position. So the very fact they are willing to engage in a debate is a violation of their own position.

  49. 49
    RDFish says:

    Hi vjtorley,

    The question you want to ask, of course, is: “Why did you choose X rather than Y?” And I don’t think there needs to be an answer to that question. You are assuming the truth of a psychological version of Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason: that given the same set of causes, the same effect invariably follows. We already have good reason to believe that this doesn’t hold true in the physical world; why assume that it holds true for our mental states, then?

    Actually no, I am not assuming there is sufficient reason for our behaviors. Rather, my point is that to the extent our actions are rational (by which I mean proceed by reason from our beliefs and desires) then they are compelled by factors we do not freely choose.

    If I choose end X instead of competing end Y, then of course, my choice has a reason: X, which is desirable in and of itself. What you are implicitly assuming is that a choice is rational if and only if I can give an account not only of why I chose as I did, but also of why my choice was better than all the other alternatives.

    Again, no, I really was just talking about rational choices needing to be reasoned from beliefs and desires. And I’ve said many times that I’m well aware that humans are not uniformally (or even usually) rational.

    Must I always have a reason for narrowing my choices and picking just one among billions of possibilities, when I have to make some choice?

    No of course not – but if you make a choice, and you don’t know why you’ve made the choice, then your choice might as well have been random (or determined by inaccessible neural processes).

    I can certainly think of religions that I could never believe in, with all the will in the world. But I can think of others whose truth I could persuade myself of, if I wished to be persuaded. Look, it happens all the time. How often do you read of a man or woman converting to their spouse’s religion? Would they have done so if they hadn’t met their spouse? No. But meeting that person may make them willing to consider the claims of that religion.

    Once again, I think this is not at all the sort of choice we’re talking about here. The choice here was to convert, not to believe the fact claims of a new religion. As we’ve already agreed, once one is exposed to new ideas (or indoctrinated), ones beliefs might well change. But they do not change by act of will – they change by virtue of one’s exposure and indoctrination.

    And I’m sorry but I have a hard time believing that you could persuade yourself of some point religious dogma that you do not currently believe simply by choice. If you could, can you give an example?

    RDF: We reflect, analyze, talk to other people, and figure out what it is we believe. We do not choose what it is we believe.
    VJT: I don’t think this analysis does justice to the “spouse case” I discussed above. It may well be the case that one partner already has their beliefs “figured out”, and then suddenly encounters the shock of an alternative worldview, which is espoused by their husband or wife. The person may well have previously considered and rejected that particular religion. What then happens is a kind of re-evaluation of the credibility of its claims. The fact that the claims are endorsed by someone whose judgment you think highly of (i.e. your spouse) may cause you to question your former grounds for rejecting that worldview. You may eventually reach a stage where the claims of this competing worldview may not sound rationally compelling, or even superior to rival claims, but nevertheless sound credible and intellectually defensible.

    I agree with all of this, yes – it is just as I’ve been describing regarding how our beliefs are influenced by our experiences, our reflection, our analysis, and so on!

    At that point, you may make a conscious choice to accept them. That’s certainly a psychological possibility. Is such a choice epistemologically vicious? I don’t think so. In the end, we all have to believe in some worldview, and arguments for belief are seldom knockdown. So in nearly decision to accept a worldview, there is an element of commitment.

    It is here we disagree. The spouse in this situation does make a conscious choice to believe something that we he does not not already believe. Rather, he becomes convinced that something is true that he previously hadn’t thought was true. That happens all the time.

    You (and others here) are trying to dream up situations where it seems plausible that one consciously chooses what it is they believe. Some have suggested that beliefs which are not strongly held might be picked this way – my response is that if the belief is so weak that one can choose to commit to it or not by mere choice – a flip of a mental coin as it were – then it isn’t much of a belief in the first place. You suggest that if one is exposed to – or indoctrinated in – new ideas, there may come a point where you “make a conscious choice to accept them”. My response is that the conscious choice is not freely made at all – it is the result of new exposure and indoctrination to something that you find inherently reasonable to believe in. If instead you tried to believe something you found preposterous, then try as you might (and you might try very hard if your true love needed you to convert!) – your free will would be powerless to enable you to believe it.

    Once again, just try it: Imagine your spouse needed you to believe that creatures arrived from the planet Theta 10,000 years ago on a spaceship that looks like a DC-3 and now their souls inhabit your body. Could you choose to believe this, no matter how hard you tried?

    I hope this helps you understand that to the extent we base our choices on reasons in accord with our beliefs and desires (what I have called “rational choices”), our choices are not free.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  50. 50
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    We can, in fact, change what we believe and what we desire through the power of will (or grace).

    I don’t know about that, but my point was different: I was talking about free will, and how we can’t actually choose our beliefs and desires. I’ve said many times now that our beliefs and desires change all the time, and are obviously affected by other choices we’ve made. But nobody can simply choose, using their will, to believe something they do not believe, nor desire something they do not desire, or vice-versa.

    By the way I’ve read “Man’s Search For Meaning”, and found it tremendously insightful, but nothing he says has anything to do with the issues being discussed here. I am pointing out something that all of us can ascertain for themselves simply by introspection. Simply try it and see: Think of some deeply-held belief that you have, and then choose not to believe it any more, and then reflect on your belief and see if it has changed. You’ll find it hasn’t. Then repeat the experiment with some strong desire of yours; again, you’ll find you are unable to change what you desire by act of will.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  51. 51
    RDFish says:

    Hi William,

    JDH: I don’t think I can will myself to believe that yesterday I saw the sun rise in the west. Maybe some people can do that, I can’t.
    RDF: Honestly I would think if somebody could do this, it would indicate a serious mental disorder.
    WJM: How would there ability to do it be fundamentally different from your inability, seeing as what we believe, or do not believe, is caused?

    I’m sure it’s me but I have a hard time understanding your points. My point was that someone who could believe that yesterday they saw the sun rise in the west would be suffering from delusions.

    In any event, by your standards, I guess I have a serious mental disorder.

    I’m sorry if I offended you; I certainly wasn’t talking about anyone here when I said that. It was a hypothetical example that JDH had brought up.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  52. 52
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    RDF: My point is that our beliefs are not under our voluntary control the way our voluntary actions are. I can choose to sit on the couch, but I cannot choose to believe in unicorns, and there is nothing I can do about that.
    PHINEHAS: OK, but you can’t choose to sit on water. You can’t choose to sit on love. Pointing out examples of things you can’t choose to do does not mean there are not examples of things you can choose to do. It simply means there are limitations to the things you can choose to do. Similarly, describing limitations in what you can choose to believe does not mean it is impossible to choose to believe some things.

    I agree with everything you have said. However, it still seems to me that we are incapable of choosing any of our beliefs merely by an act of will. There is no logical necessity that this be true or false; it is something I believe is empirically true, and easily confirmed by introspection.

    First of all, defining rationality as you have, strictly in terms of personally held beliefs and desires seems problematic to me.

    I agree with you, there is plenty of room for argument about what constitutes rationality.

    Is the schizophrenic who truly believes imaginary people are out to get him being rational? I think there is an underlying (irrational?) assumption in your definition that objective truth does not exist. For if objective truth exists, then rationality is better understood as acting in accordance with what is true and not in what is (especially falsely) believed. It is only from this perspective that we can label the schizophrenic irrational, and it is only from this perspective that we can have a meaningful debate about choice and beliefs and desires.

    All true, yes. I wouldn’t like to descend too far into epistemology (it seems no one ever returns!), but I don’t think I’m assuming that objective truths do not exist here. Rather, I’m really focussin on the observation that we simply can’t choose what to believe and desire, and then saying (as I have repeatedly) that to the extent our choices are entailed by our beliefs and desires, they are not free.

    RDF: If we change our behavior, it may (or may not) eventually end up changing some of our beliefs. But that is very different from changing one’s beliefs simply by an act of will.
    PHINEHAS: Very different? I’m not sure I see how this is so. It seems to me that the difference consists primarily in that the change is more indirect, but why should that be so important?

    It is a completely different kettle of fish. Let’s say I wish to believe that my body is inhabited by the soul of a creature from the planet Theta. First, I attempt to simply choose to believe this by power of will, and find that no matter how I try, I still do not actually believe that this is true. Then I decide I will immerse myself in meetings with other people who do believe this, and perhaps that will eventually make me change my belief. One thing to note is that the choice to do this is based on some desire and belief that I did not choose. But beyond that, note that I cannot myself predict if this method will be successful or not! I might subject myself to these meetings for years, and still find that my belief has not changed! This is not at all what we mean when we talk about doing things volitionally.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  53. 53
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    RDFish @35,

    Let me make a couple of claims up front in response to your comments.

    1) Just because we cannot choose to change any of our beliefs at will from one moment to the next, it does not follow that belief modification does not result from acts of will.

    2) Just as our free will is constrained by physical realities, beliefs formed by direct experience, or lack thereof, are constrained by those experiential realities. This was the purpose of my free will analogy at #33.

    You wrote,

    “Take any belief at all – that the Earth orbits the Sun, or that dogs can’t talk, or that you have two feet. I assume you have firmly-held beliefs about these propositions, and also that you could not for the life of you simply decide to believe otherwise.”

    Each of those examples is an experience-constrained belief. That’s the reason for the introduction of definitions for the word. I can only repeat what I’ve already said: we don’t simply believe the sky to be blue, we experience it as blue. We don’t simply believe that we have two feet, rather we see two feet on most people and likely ourselves. We don’t simply believe that dogs can’t talk, we just never experience this in reality, so we have no experiential reason to believe they can (a single experience with a talking dog might cause an evaluation of either our supposition or our sanity). This requires that we parse the definition of belief, which is something you haven’t really done, as far as I can tell. It seems you’re treating all categories of belief as the same, so that there’s no apparent difference between, for instance, believing in a specific religious tradition and believing that humans have five fingers on each hand.

    If your argument boils down to this scenario, that we can’t positively change our beliefs about perceptual facts as we experience them, then there is no real disagreement. But there is more to “belief” than just those experiences. Other belief scenarios have factors that do not necessarily follow from direct perceptual experience.

    “You likely also have strong beliefs about more abstract propositions, like perhaps “lowering taxes generally spurs economic growth” or “Earth’s climate is warming due to human activity” or “Darwinian evolution fully accounts for biological complexity”. You might change your mind about these things based on things you hear, or read, or even by sitting alone and ruminating about evidence on one side or another. But you can’t simply make up your mind to believe the opposite of what you currently believe and then actually change your belief that way.

    Addressing the last emphasized sentence above, we don’t change our beliefs by an act of will in the same way we lift a glass to sip wine by an act of our will, no. This does not mean that belief modification does not result from acts of will. Addressing the first emphasized sentence above, that process requires that we a) open up such beliefs to our own scrutiny; b) actively take in information that we can use as a basis of reevaluation. Both of those are acts of will that serve to unprotect those specific beliefs and allow ourselves to evaluate new evidence.

    You can simply decide to pour a glass of water, or to yell “football!”, but you cannot simply decide to believe that dogs can talk. Nor can you change your desires – you experience your desires, but you don’t pick them.

    Here you presume that because a desire can’t be instantly changed or dispatched with, that they are not subject to the will. Sure, we experience desires, but we can also exercise control over them, choosing not to act on them, even to the point of changing them over time. It does not follow that just because one might need to engage in a non-instantaneous method to modify one’s desires, that the modification of desires do not come under the influence of our will. As a matter of fact, people do this all the time. Desires are another attribute of human experience that is subject to the influence of the will.

    Analogously, I cannot flap my arms and fly. This does not mean that I don’t possess free will. It means that my being exists within certain physical confines. If I want to fly I can build an airplane. So my choices are constrained, but such constraints do not imply that I cannot freely choose.

    We agree on this.

    The analogy to free will, and this specific example, was intended to parallel the constraints on belief modification. If we desire to fly, we might need to take an extended route, such as first building an airplane. There are no violations of free will just because we can’t instantly choose to fly. We are free to take the necessary, longer road to accomplish the task.

    In the same way, we may not be able to instantly choose to have another belief, contrary to one we might already possess, but we can certainly choose to embark upon a longer road, a process by which we allow certain beliefs to be impacted by a close examination of the evidence. This doesn’t violate free will either, or suggest that belief modification is not subject to the will. This is an important point. If we do not allow a cherished belief to be challenged, it will likely never be changed. This is an act of will. However if we are open to hearing evidence, we can expose a cherished belief to the consideration of additional evidence. This too is an act of will.

    …If that were not the case, and I lacked any knowledge of the Earth’s nature outside of my direct experience with a flat patch of ground, I would be free to believe otherwise. As a matter of fact, I could believe any number of things about the nature of the planet had I not seen pictures of it from space.

    Really? You could just make something up that you didn’t know was true, and decide to believe it, and then you would actually believe it was true? That doesn’t seem reasonable to me. Or perhaps you mean you might, based on faulty or incomplete information, arrive at a false belief. Well sure, we do that all the time. But still, if you arrived at a belief for whatever reason, you would not be able to believe its contradiction simply because you decide to. It really seems to me that it’s just not possible – it’s not the way our minds work.

    I wasn’t suggesting we could make up any old thing about the nature of the earth. I was suggesting that the logical possibilities which would fit the available evidence would be multiplied if the available evidence was limited. For example, my direct experience would be with the sun and moon orbiting the earth. Given a paucity of evidence, such an inference would be warranted. It might be reasonable to suppose that my flat patch of earth extended indefinitely in all directions, given I’d never encountered an end to it. With no knowledge of the nature of the heavens, I might suppose that the lights were suspended above, like a mobile spinning above a baby’s crib. Without specific evidences in my background knowledge, multiple alternate scenarios might fit the observations. Less evidence implies less constraint of reasonable possibilities. Of course this assumes that I have a personal commitment to rationality, and using logic and reason to arrive at the best conception of the truth about the nature of reality.

    “One is compelled by the evidence (and one’s predispositions, experiences, and so on) one way or another, and one comes to believe one thing or another, and that is not under volitional control. I can’t change what I believe just by deciding to change my standards of evidence. I may certainly argue that way, demanding more evidence for things I do not believe (it’s pretty normal for people to do that). But that still doesn’t mean I can start to believe something I don’t believe simply by deciding I don’t need much evidence to believe it.”

    One is compelled by the evidence, given one allows evidence to inform certain beliefs. This too is a choice. If we change our standards of evidence, then we don’t necessarily instantly go through massive belief modification. But changing our standards of evidence is a direct act of will, and will subject our beliefs to reevaluation. In every circumstance, our free will is involved. You appear to have invoked a technicality, that we cannot will our beliefs to change instantaneously, like we will our bodies to move, therefore we are not free to change our beliefs; nor can we choose to believe something that is contrary to direct perceptual experiences. I don’t think that’s a compelling argument against the predominance of will over belief, if we’re selective about what we mean by belief.

    “Well, the idea of “direct experience” is pretty dicey – all of our observations are mediated by our mental faculties… but let’s not go there. Let’s say we agree that we can’t choose our beliefs that are obvious from our repeated and uniform experience, yes?”

    To the first part of that paragraph, if our perceptions and our mental faculties are dicey, then we have no reason to trust them about much of anything. But such an evaluation also relies on dicey perceptual and mental faculties, so we have no reason to trust that conclusion. This is an epistemological dead end. I prefer to allow that our perceptions as filtered mentally do not provide, at any instant of time, a complete picture of reality, but are generally reliable if subjected to reason’s rules and logical thought. This provides a more sound basis for arguing and reasoning about anything at all.

    As to the last part of that paragraph, we are far less free to alter beliefs that are informed by direct perceptual experience, such as the color of the sky, or the existence of water, or the number of our fingers and toes. Other beliefs might be less constrained. Just as free will has significant constraints with regard to the laws of physics, beliefs have significant constraints with regard to direct perceptual experience. It does not follow that the entire category of beliefs are not subject to the influence of our will just because we can’t change all beliefs, or change any belief instantaneously.

    Anyway, it appears unlikely we’ll reach any additional agreement, but it’s been an engaging dialog. Thanks much.

    Best,
    Chance

  54. 54
    StephenB says:

    RDFish

    By the way I’ve read “Man’s Search For Meaning”, and found it tremendously insightful, but nothing he says has anything to do with the issues being discussed here.

    I am surprised by your comment. The theme of Frankl’s book refutes your claim. He insists that we can, through the power of will, change our beliefs.

    I’ve said many times now that our beliefs and desires change all the time, and are obviously affected by other choices we’ve made. But nobody can simply choose, using their will, to believe something they do not believe, nor desire something they do not desire, or vice-versa.

    Did you notice that the point of your first sentence (our beliefs and desires are affected by the choices we make) is contradicted by the point of your second sentence (we cannot affect our beliefs and desires with our choices)?

  55. 55
    RDFish says:

    Hi Chance,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’ll try to be succinct in my response and illuminate our differences.

    1) Just because we cannot choose to change any of our beliefs at will from one moment to the next, it does not follow that belief modification does not result from acts of will.

    That is true, but I’ve also pointed out that even if we consider the case where we choose to expose ourselves to new influences in hopes that our beliefs will change over time, we can’t predict whether or not it will work – we just have to wait and see. This seems to be very different from a volitional choice. Moreover, that which changes our beliefs (or fails to do so) is not actually our original choice, but rather the influences we’ve chosen to subject ourself to. And finally, the choice to try and change our beliefs by subjecting ourselves to new influences is itself a choice which arose from beliefs and desires that we did not choose.

    You are also saying that we ought to keep our minds open and pay attention so that our beliefs are well justified. I completely agree. But keeping our minds open and subjecting ourselves to new influences is simply not the same thing as willfully choosing one belief over another.

    2) Just as our free will is constrained by physical realities, beliefs formed by direct experience, or lack thereof, are constrained by those experiential realities. This was the purpose of my free will analogy at #33.

    I understand that you are arguing that while we can’t choose whether or not to believe our sense impressions, we can choose whether or not to believe more abstract propositions. However, I’ve given examples of abstract propositions that we cannot choose to believe or disbelieve as well. I’m certain, for example, that your will is not capable of engendering the belief in your mind that humiliating children for comedic enjoyment is a moral and wholesome pastime, even though that proposition (and its contradiction) is certainly abstract and not directly perceivable via our senses.

    Sure, we experience desires, but we can also exercise control over them, choosing not to act on them, even to the point of changing them over time.

    When we choose not to act on some desire, presumably we do so for some reason, and that reason derives from other beliefs and desires, which are likewise outside of our conscious volitional control. And if we have no reason for our choice, that does not seem to be volitional either – it seems random (or determined by unconscious factors).

    Without specific evidences in my background knowledge, multiple alternate scenarios might fit the observations. Less evidence implies less constraint of reasonable possibilities.

    If I understand you, you are here saying that while we can’t choose something to believe something that contradicts our knowledge or experience, when faced with a number of plausible alternatives, we can choose to believe one over another. But either you have some reason for choosing one over another (and that reason must depend on yet other beliefs), or you are choosing one for no reason (which is irrational).

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  56. 56
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    The theme of Frankl’s book refutes your claim. He insists that we can, through the power of will, change our beliefs.

    I would say that Frankl’s book is complex and multi-faceted, but the main theme is that life has meaning (specifically that religion, love, suffering, and other things give life meaning), but perhaps you remember other passages that deal with how we can freely choose to believe various things.

    RDF: I’ve said many times now that our beliefs and desires change all the time, and are obviously affected by other choices we’ve made. But nobody can simply choose, using their will, to believe something they do not believe, nor desire something they do not desire, or vice-versa.
    SB: Did you notice that the point of your first sentence (our beliefs and desires are affected by the choices we make) is contradicted by the point of your second sentence (we cannot affect our beliefs and desires with our choices)?

    No, there is no contradiction. Let’s look at my two points again, in more detail:

    1) In my first point, I observe that some choices we make (whether or not those choices are “free” in whatever sense) may (or may not) subsequently affect our beliefs. For example, if I choose to go to school, my experiences in school may result in changes to my beliefs about astronomy, biology, chemistry, and so on. We cannot predict how our beliefs will change beforehand – we have to wait and see if and how our beliefs change because of our exposure to the class materials. It could be that we find the curricula unconvincing, for example, and our beliefs don’t change at all.

    2) My second point is that this is completely different from making a volitional choice about what we believe. Nobody can simply choose to believe something by sheer power of will. If you don’t agree, just try it! Think of something you don’t believe – for example, that Darwinian evolution successfully accounts for biological complexity. Now, try to use your power of will to make yourself believe it. Did it work? No, of course not.

    Hopefully you can see now that my points were not contradictory at all, and that they are quite evidently (and demonstrably) true!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  57. 57
    StephenB says:

    RDFish:

    I would say that Frankl’s book is complex and multi-faceted, but the main theme is that life has meaning (specifically that religion, love, suffering, and other things give life meaning), but perhaps you remember other passages that deal with how we can freely choose to believe various things.

    Frankl’s main argument is that we have the power to choose hope (the belief that life has meaning) over despair (the belief that life has no meaning) even under the worst possible circumstances. Frankly, I question whether this type of heroic virtue is possible without God’s supernatural help, but the fact remains that it is possible.

    In less dramatic circumstances, we can routinely choose to change our beliefs and desires by simply changing our behavior. Aspiring public speakers conquer their fears and negative beliefs through the power of choice and disciplined practice. Habitual smokers confront their unhealthy desires by replacing old habits with new habits.

  58. 58
    tjguy says:

    So lets take creationism as an example. Many people believe it is an irrational idea and they could never believe it. They think it is so irrational that they are not even open to examining the issue. But that is their choice. One might choose to examine the issue and another might not. The choice to examine it may or may not result in a change in belief. Some might choose not to believe it to protect themselves from ridicule. Others might be more concerned about the truth and so they are willing to believe it if they become convinced it is true. Sometimes it costs is something to believe something. Some of the Pharisees that witnessed Jesus raise Lazurus from the dead choose to follow Jesus and others who witnessed the same miracle chose to plot to kill Jesus. They couldn’t deny the miracle, but they chose to reject Jesus. Just as the law holds people for their choices/actions, so God holds us responsible for our choices/actions.

  59. 59
    JLAfan2001 says:

    I have some questions concerning consciousness for the theists here. It seems that there is agreement that evolution and naturalism isn’t sufficient enough to count for our consciousness and that our minds, beliefs, free will etc is more than brain chemistry. From a theistic perspective, where does it all come from? God? If so, when did he fuse humanity with it since science, through anthropology and genetics, has proven that we didn’t descend through a first couple? When and how was it passed on to the rest of us? Through the genes, DNA? Which ones? Does He fuse us with it individually instead of as a whole? When does it happen? Does it happen at conception, birth, embryo development, one year old? How do we find it? Is it in our body, our brain, our genes?
    It seems to me that theism has a hard time defining where our consciousness comes from just as much as atheism or scientism. At least with science we may, in principle at least, find out where it does come from an our it originated. All we have with theism is that God did it.

  60. 60
    DonaldM says:

    Chesire in #48

    But the problem is that if consciousness is merely reduced to matter, then concepts such as free will and morality cease to exist. Matter can’t make decisions. Matter can’t be “right” or “wrong”. There is no such thing as an inherently “evil” chemical reaction. Matter is simply what it is. There is no such thing as an “evil” rock or a “wise” rock. There is simply a rock that is bound to it’s intrinsic properties. Yet materialists are essentially arguing that the only differece between you and a rock is the arrangement of the atoms. But simply rearranging something doesn’t suddenly confer upon it the ability to have free will or morality.

    What people like Coyne don’t understand is that when they preach reductionism as forcefully as they do, they’ve pulled the rug out from under themselves when it comes to having any conversation about choices and morality. In Coyne’s eyes, for example, i’m unbelievably stupid (if not immoral) for advocating intelligent design. But his own reductionist position makes these words meaningless and impotent. How can I be stupid or immoral if that’s simply the reality of me as matter?

    This is an excellent point and quite valid. I’m reminded of this (in)famous quote from Dawkins, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Why would he rather not consider “wicked” (or stupid or insane)? I suspect part of the reason is because the very concept of “wicked”, implying as it does the existence of actual ‘evil’, is not ground Dawkins wants to defend, given his materialistic worldview. As Chesire clearly points out, how can one be “wicked” due to the mere arrangement of matter that makes them human rather than, say, rock? The most Dawkins (or Coyne or any strict materialist) can say is “I prefer E, and anyone who denies or rejects E, or prefers D instead of E, is, in my opinion, ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked.” But why ought Dawkins’s personal preference or opinion matter or be the guideline from which to judge what is or is not “wicked”?

    If logical consistency were the standard, then Dawkins et.al. could not even answer the question. There simply is no Darwinian evolutionary pathway that confers the trait of rightness or wrongness onto anything. There is no gene that produces rightness. According to the Darwinian story, as amplified by Dawkins, Coyne and so many others, biological systems merely conserve those traits that confer fitness into the next generation. Natural selection does not consider, indeed can not consider, what is right and what is wrong in any meaningful, moralistic sense. To think so is just utter nonsense…or, ignorant, stupid, insane or…wicked…which I’m happy to consider!

  61. 61
    StephenB says:

    tjguy:

    So lets take creationism as an example. Many people believe it is an irrational idea and they could never believe it. They think it is so irrational that they are not even open to examining the issue. But that is their choice. One might choose to examine the issue and another might not. The choice to examine it may or may not result in a change in belief. Some might choose not to believe it to protect themselves from ridicule. Others might be more concerned about the truth and so they are willing to believe it if they become convinced it is true. Sometimes it costs is something to believe something. Some of the Pharisees that witnessed Jesus raise Lazurus from the dead choose to follow Jesus and others who witnessed the same miracle chose to plot to kill Jesus. They couldn’t deny the miracle, but they chose to reject Jesus. Just as the law holds people for their choices/actions, so God holds us responsible for our choices/actions.

    These are both excellent examples of the will’s power to choose belief. Quite often, a chosen belief is facilitated by a willful ignornace of the facts that would cause that belief to change. If, for example, the committed atheist suspects that reason might lead him to a belief in God, he may choose to reject reason’s rules. It happens every day on this site. None of this is to say that one can, in every circumstance, choose to change his belief. The point is that it often happens that way.

  62. 62
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    On one hand, you say

    Quite often, a chosen belief is facilitated by a willful ignornace of the facts that would cause that belief to change.

    On the other hand, I presented you with some facts that might cause your belief to change (@56), and you seem to have ignored them! (I’m referring to my point about your inability to change your belief regarding something you actually disbelieve, simply by choosing to).

    You point out that Victor Frankl writes that we have the power to choose hope over dispair. I think his book is insightful regarding people’s ability to cope with suffering, and inspiring in that regard. I would submit that hope and despair are emotions rather than beliefs, however. Likewise your example of someone overcoming their fear of public speaking: It is stretching the meaning of “belief” to say that fear of public speaking is a “belief” – again, most people would say that fear is an emotion.

    You might argue that emotions are types of beliefs, thereby contradicting my observation that we cannot choose our beliefs. But besides the fact that emotions are not really the same as beliefs (the latter being a conviction regarding some fact claim in the sense I’ve been using it), it is also clear that people cannot simply choose their emotions – otherwise, wouldn’t we all simply choose to be hopeful, fearless, and happy all the time? What people do is – as you say – try to replace old habits with new habits, or exercise “disciplined practice”, in hopes that these behaviors will change their emotions, because we cannot change them by simply by choosing. The same is true of our desires.

    It appears to me that you are invested in the idea that we have the sort of free will (perhaps with supernatural assistance, as you say) that enables us to choose our beliefs at will, and that my arguments and examples will not affect your that belief of yours. That’s fine, but again, I hope you can see now that you were mistaken to assert that my points were contradictory, and realize that our difference boils down to semantics: You consider emotions to be a sort of belief, and you consider volitional choice to consist of behavioral changes that may (or may not) over time have an affect on those emotions. I on the other hand was using “belief” to mean “opinion regarding a factual proposition”, and was talking about free choice as the sort of thing that we can accomplish with our power of will alone, as when we choose a component for something we’re designing, or choose to say or act one way instead of another.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  63. 63
    JDH says:

    JLAfan2001

    You write

    It seems to me that theism has a hard time defining where our consciousness comes from just as much as atheism or scientism. At least with science we may, in principle at least, find out where it does come from an our it originated. All we have with theism is that God did it.

    I will not ever pretend to speak for all theists. But I will speak for myself. Again since we are talking about immaterial stuff I will give a material analogy.

    Here is what your argument sounds like to me. Assume we were a primitive people who did not know how rockets were made and had no hope of discovering the technology. IOW we were primitive people as ignorant about rocketry as natural science is about the spiritual.

    I say to you, “I read a book about people who made it to the moon using rockets.” You say, “Well, we can’t really know anything about rockets, but I do know about wooden ladders. At least wooden ladder technology has the possibility of someday getting us to the moon. You people who say they did it with rockets don’t know how to build a rocket, so I am going to stick with building better wooden ladders.”

    I think its a pretty accurate analogy. There is just no way possible to make it to the moon with a wooden ladder.

    Every single day you do things which CANNOT be attributable to natural means. Its not that science has not discovered how consciousness works, it is that it can’t. I will try to explain to you why.

    Free will, consciousness, the soul, whatever you want to call it has the great, “I won’t”. It has the ability to say NO. Natural processes only have available to them two types of processes.
    1. Processes which are contingent or necessary. If A then B.
    2. Stochastic processes. If A then .

    Neither of these are “NO”.

    Natural processes therefore can not create any information. Because in order to create information you have to do something where a choice is possible. You have to have had the opportunity to answer differently. Where there is not choice, no new information is created. By definition a choice can not be random or necessary.

    Thus the only option available to scientism is to either deny that choice exists or to try to explain choices by a complex pattern of random events and contingent events. But trying to construct a choice by a series of random events and contingent events is like trying to reach the moon with a wooden ladder. It just can’t be done.

    SO… since in typing this response I made a lot of choices that were neither random nor contingent, I rightly believe that there is free will. I have created a lot of information here, and you will probably respond with a lot of information. That information which we generate is proof that the will is not the result of natural processes.

    So “science of the gaps”, arguments ( like what you posit above ) are really ineffective. You can’t say, science doesn’t know yet, but someday it will, therefore scientism. Science can never account for the generation of new information. Science can never account for choices.

    I choose to believe in God because even though I recognize that I can never figure out God by my knowledge, I recognize that he can choose to communicate to me. He can also create something in my world that can never be explained without him. Human free will is something created by God that I can’t explain except by God. Not that I don’t know how it works by natural processes, but it can’t ever work by natural processes.

    Of course, you can CHOOSE to disbelieve this, but to do so would mean you have exercised your will. That you don’t see the self-contradiction there is absolutely amazing to me.

  64. 64
    Phinehas says:

    RDFish:

    That is true, but I’ve also pointed out that even if we consider the case where we choose to expose ourselves to new influences in hopes that our beliefs will change over time, we can’t predict whether or not it will work – we just have to wait and see.

    Why can’t we predict whether or not it will work? I understand that we might not be able to predict with 100% accuracy, but I routinely predict the outcome of certain actions with a very high rate of success. Every time I sit in a chair, I predict that it will hold my weight. Any time I have intent behind my actions, I am predicting a certain outcome. Sometimes what I intend does not occur, but the vast majority of the time it does.

    This seems to be very different from a volitional choice. Moreover, that which changes our beliefs (or fails to do so) is not actually our original choice, but rather the influences we’ve chosen to subject ourself to. And finally, the choice to try and change our beliefs by subjecting ourselves to new influences is itself a choice which arose from beliefs and desires that we did not choose.

    Your last sentence makes no sense at all as supporting evidence for your premise in the first sentence. According to what I understand you to be proposing, it would be just as accurate to say that the choice to do something of your own volition would also be a choice that arose from beliefs and desires that you did not choose. So how can this be used to show the two are very different?

    If you strip that out, you are left with that it “seems” very different (which is apparently not a perspective held by most of the other posters here) on the basis that its influence is not direct. This seems like a technicality to me. Is murder for hire very different from actually pulling the trigger? (After all, you can’t predict with 100% accuracy that the hireling will follow through, right?) In order for the two to be very different, I think you have to first throw out the primacy of intent. And perhaps this gets to the heart of the difference in perspectives. Either denying or assuming the importance of intent could run very close to denying or assuming free will, which is the very thing at issue.

    Hopefully you can see now that my points were not contradictory at all, and that they are quite evidently (and demonstrably) true!

    Of course we can see that, in the sense that we are not logically precluded from doing so. Interestingly, however, you would appear to be logically precluded from being persuaded otherwise.

    Consider this: If you believe that you cannot change your beliefs, then it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving you stuck in a loop from which you cannot break free. If, on the other hand, you believe that you can change your beliefs, then there is no constraint against either continuing to believe the same or believing otherwise.

    I choose to believe the latter, and quite enjoy the freedom it brings. Unfortunately, you are forever incapable of doing the same, doomed by your own belief in its impossibility. 😉

  65. 65
    StephenB says:

    RDFish

    You point out that Victor Frankl writes that we have the power to choose hope over dispair. I think his book is insightful regarding people’s ability to cope with suffering, and inspiring in that regard. I would submit that hope and despair are emotions rather than beliefs, however.

    Emotions are based on beliefs. Despair follows from the belief that either life is meaningless or is no longer worth living; hope follows from the belief that life has meaning and is worth living. To change an emotion, one must first change the belief that spawns it by behaving in a way that is consistent with the belief or emotion that one wants to attain. That is why a wise counselor will tell someone in the throes of depression to go help someone who is worse off than he is.

    What people do is – as you say – try to replace old habits with new habits, or exercise “disciplined practice”, in hopes that these behaviors will change their emotions, because we cannot change them by simply by choosing. The same is true of our desires.

    We choose to believe that the behavioral change will work. Otherwise, we would not go to the trouble of uprooting bad habits and replacing them with good habits. As a chain-smoker, one chooses to quit, believing that the new behavior will eliminate the unhealthy desire, which it does.

    I on the other hand was using “belief” to mean “opinion regarding a factual proposition”, and was talking about free choice as the sort of thing that we can accomplish with our power of will alone, as when we choose a component for something we’re designing, or choose to say or act one way instead of another.

    For centuries, every major Christian denomination accepted the traditional belief that artificial birth control is evil. By 1930, all denominations, except for the Catholic Church, had caved in to social pressure from the secularists, deciding that there is really nothing wrong with the practice after all. They simply chose to change their beliefs simply because they found the teaching too hard to bear. While the Universal Catholic Church held the line during the 1960’s and the advent of the pill, many local bishops, priests, and laypeople participated in the corruption and caved in as well. As of now, over 90% of Catholics, (and a significant number of bishops and priests) have rejected the teaching of their own church, which never changes and never will. Most Catholics and non-Catholics simply, and with no rational justification, decided to change their beliefs to match their lifestyle. I could provide hundreds of similar examples.

    “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave. .—Fulton J. Sheen

  66. 66
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    RDF: …[I]f we consider the case where we choose to expose ourselves to new influences in hopes that our beliefs will change over time, we can’t predict whether or not it will work – we just have to wait and see.
    PHINEHAS: Why can’t we predict whether or not it will work? I understand that we might not be able to predict with 100% accuracy, but I routinely predict the outcome of certain actions with a very high rate of success. Every time I sit in a chair, I predict that it will hold my weight.

    I was clearly referring to predictions regarding which of our beliefs, if any, will change when we expose ourselves to new influences. I was obviously not talking about prediction in general. Yes of course we can make all sorts of predictions about all sorts of things, and some of those predictions will be quite certain.

    But the issue here is whether or not we can freely choose our beliefs and desires. Several people, including yourself, have argued that while we may not be able to choose our beliefs and desires directly and immediately, we can choose to open our minds and arrange our circumstances in such a way that we allow our beliefs and desires to be changed over time. I am pointing out that this is not really using our will to choose our beliefs and desires in the normal way we think of volitional action. With volitional action, we actually choose what we do – we do not just put ourself in some circumstance and wait to see what happens.

    According to what I understand you to be proposing, it would be just as accurate to say that the choice to do something of your own volition would also be a choice that arose from beliefs and desires that you did not choose. So how can this be used to show the two are very different?

    I am not arguing that all of our decisions follow logically from our beliefs and desires – they clearly do not. What I am pointing out is that we do not choose our beliefs and desires, and so to the extent that our choices are entailed by our beliefs and desires, our choices are not free.

    Let’s agree that volitional choices are the conscious, willful choices that we make all the time. You can make a choice right now, for example, regarding whether or not to respond to this post. Let’s agree that this choice is free, by which I mean here that you have the power to act in either way – you can start typing a response if you choose to, or you can refrain from doing so, and which one occurs is entirely under your conscious, willful control. Agreed?

    In contrast, you have no such control over your beliefs and your desires. Nobody can simply change their beliefs and desires by making a conscious decision to do so. We can only decide to act in different ways that may or may not end up changing our beliefs or desires in one way or another.

    If you strip that out, you are left with that it “seems” very different (which is apparently not a perspective held by most of the other posters here) on the basis that its influence is not direct. This seems like a technicality to me.

    Ok, but to me it seems utterly different, because instead of using your will to change your belief you are using you will to put yourself in a situation where you’re hoping something else will change your beliefs for you. It would be like you claiming that you are able to solve difficult problems in mathematics, when in reality all you can do is find the answers by asking other people or looking them up. You may (or may not) end up with the answer you’re looking for, but not by virtue of your internal ability to do math.

    Either denying or assuming the importance of intent could run very close to denying or assuming free will, which is the very thing at issue.

    I might intend to rid myself of my desire to eat doughnuts, but it is not in my power to do actually do so. I can only refrain from actually eating them, but my desire remains.

    Of course we can see that, in the sense that we are not logically precluded from doing so. Interestingly, however, you would appear to be logically precluded from being persuaded otherwise.

    This is actually the opposite of what I have been saying (over and over again!). Of course people might be persuaded to change their beliefs, and we can even sometimes (but sometimes not) persuade ourselves to change our own minds by reflecting on and reanalyzing the evidence. What we cannot do is simply decide to believe something we do not believe, or desire something we do not desire, instead of being persuaded.

    Consider this: If you believe that you cannot change your beliefs,…

    Please read what I’ve said: It is perfectly obvious that everyone’s beliefs change quite frequently! My point is that when we speak of free will, we are talking about being able to freely choose things, not trying to set up circumstances where what we hope will happen might happen.

    Unfortunately, you are forever incapable of doing the same, doomed by your own belief in its impossibility.

    It is considerate of you to express sympathy for me, but I’m afraid it is quite misplaced. Fortunately, I am just as capable of doing what I want as you are!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  67. 67
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    Emotions are based on beliefs.

    I would argue that this is not the case. For example, it is undeniable that your emotions (fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, etc) can be altered (even against your own will!) by pharmacological means, or by neural trauma, or by targeted neural stimulation, but these means will not necessarily alter any of your beliefs. Two people may have very different emotional responses to the same belief, and one person may have different emotional responses to the same belief at different times, and so on.

    Despair follows from the belief that either life is meaningless or is no longer worth living; hope follows from the belief that life has meaning and is worth living.

    But the same person, with the same beliefs and the same life circumstance, may at one point feel hopeful and happy, and at another time feel despairing and hopeless, and be incapable of changing their emotional state simply by act of will. We all experience this, but of course people with bipolar disorder exhibit these emotional changes much more dramatically, and their transitions are not obviously not brought about by changes in their belief systems.

    To change an emotion, one must first change the belief that spawns it by behaving in a way that is consistent with the belief or emotion that one wants to attain. That is why a wise counselor will tell someone in the throes of depression to go help someone who is worse off than he is.

    And that same wise counselor would never tell somebody to simply change their beliefs or desires or emotions by act of will! “If you want to be happy, then simply choose to be happy! If you want to stop desiring cigarettes, simply choose to no longer desire them! If you want to believe you can fly, simply believe it!” Clearly, these sorts of admonitions are misguided, because nobody can choose their beliefs and desires by acts of will.

    We choose to believe that the behavioral change will work.

    I disagree completely. I believe that behavioral changes are effective in helping people overcome depression, for example, because I have both experienced this and seen it many times in other people. I could not possibly change this belief of mine simply by choosing to, and I’m certain this is true of you as well: Could you simply decide that you believe otherwise, and then as a result be actually convinced that behavioral changes do not work in this regard? Of course you could not.

    By 1930, all denominations, except for the Catholic Church, had caved in to social pressure from the secularists, deciding that there is really nothing wrong with the practice after all. (my emphasis)

    Yet again, you give an example of people changing their beliefs because they are persuaded to, and not because they simply chose to. Could you, by sheer power of will, decide that artificial birth control was a great boon to wholesome and healthy lives? I’m guessing this would not be within your power, even on pain of death. You could say you believed it, and you could act as though you believed it, but inside yourself you would know that you do not believe it, and there is nothing your will could do about it.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  68. 68
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    RDFish,

    I’m trying to better understand your position. In essence you seem to be arguing that belief is always preeminent over other conscious faculties. If that is the case, the exercise of our free will is always subject to our beliefs, and never the other way around.

    Can you give us more to go on here? I’d like to ask a few clarifying questions. If the exercise of our will is always subject to our beliefs, how do we root those beliefs ontologically — what causes our beliefs? Is this cause physical, experiential, spiritual, some combination, or something else entirely? How does this cause account for the similarity of some beliefs between people, such as the blueness of the sky or the five-ness of our fingers and toes, as well as the differences in our beliefs, such as whether or not God exists, or whether the intentional termination of a pregnancy can morally be considered wicked, ambiguous, or praiseworthy.

    Do you see meaningful differences between beliefs resulting from direct perceptual experience, those formed from uniform and repeated experience, and the more abstract beliefs you allude to, such as political or religious ones, or are all beliefs made of essentially the same stuff?

    Why is belief a better place to root our conscious existence and behavior than free will is?

    To motivate my reason for asking that last question, let me put something forward. Metaphysically, I can terminate the conscious existence in pure will — our ability to choose between alternatives — a kind of uncaused cause. This is not to say that our beings are uncaused, but rather the moment to moment expression of our selves is caused by this same self, whose most primary property is the will. However if instead belief is necessarily antecedent to the exercise of our will, then the expression of self is always subject to this entity called belief that must either be caused or uncaused. Since it doesn’t seem logically possible for beliefs to be uncaused — they must succeed perception and experience — it follows that they must be caused. One might be tempted to impute this same limitation to free will. Yet if any prior causes of the expression of free will exist, then that will is not free, but rather it is determined. So it appears to me that free will must be an uncaused expression of self by definition.

    Now one could certainly take issue with my reasoning above, which may indeed be flawed, but the question is still significant. Why is belief a better place to root our conscious existence and behavior than free will is? Beliefs themselves appear to need a cause, and it’s still unclear what you think this cause is. If our will is subject to our beliefs, and our beliefs are determined by another cause, then it doesn’t seem at all clear that we actually possess free will, because that will becomes determined by other factors.

    As a footnote, it seems to me that your position follows either from physical determinism or Calvinism. Are you willing to say whether either of those are the case?

    Thanks in advance for whatever answers you’re inclined to provide.

  69. 69
    Phinehas says:

    Ok, but to me it seems utterly different, because instead of using your will to change your belief you are using you will to put yourself in a situation where you’re hoping something else will change your beliefs for you.

    Right. And murder for hire is utterly different from murder because, instead of pulling the trigger yourself, you are giving someone else money and then hoping that they will pull the trigger for you.

    On the other hand, they are not so utterly different because the intent, the goal, the entire point is exactly the same. In the same way, if the intent, the goal, the entire point of an action is to change a desire or belief, the indirect nature starts to look an awful lot like just a technicality.

    Smiling as an act of will can change your outlook or beliefs about your emotional well-being. This can be predicted. If you choose to smile with the intent to change your beliefs, it starts to look like hair-splitting to point out that it was the smile that changed your beliefs and not the choice. It brings to mind the murderer who rationalizes that it was the hit man who did the actual killing.

    I might intend to rid myself of my desire to eat doughnuts, but it is not in my power to do actually do so. I can only refrain from actually eating them, but my desire remains.

    Most folks desire to eat doughnuts. Most of them also desire to be healthy. To live a long life. To look good in swimwear. To be attractive to the opposite sex. Etc.

    By your lights, when is it rational to eat doughnuts? And when is it not? How would you calculate this?

    On the other hand, I confidently predict that if you choose to refrain from eating doughnuts, refrain from looking at doughnuts, refrain from smelling doughnuts, and refrain from hanging out in doughnut shops, your desire to eat doughnuts will be less than if you choose to do the exact opposite. This isn’t just hoping. I’m saying it is highly likely to happen. Not a certainty, but very nearly so.

  70. 70
    vjtorley says:

    Hi RDFish,

    Thank you for your response. You write:

    Actually no, I am not assuming there is sufficient reason for our behaviors. Rather, my point is that to the extent our actions are rational (by which I mean proceed by reason from our beliefs and desires) then they are compelled by factors we do not freely choose.

    Now, if you had said that to the extent that our beliefs [correction: choices] are rational, they are entailed by our beliefs and desires, then you would have at least had a defensible position. But then you spoil your case by making a logical leap from “entailed by” to “compelled by”. And that simply doesn’t follow. It’s perfectly possible that whenever I choose rationally, my decision follows logically from my beliefs and desires, without its being the case that those beliefs and desires necessitate my choice. Putting it simply: I can still choose whether to be rational or not, on this particular occasion.

    You then add:

    …if you make a choice, and you don’t know why you’ve made the choice, then your choice might as well have been random (or determined by inaccessible neural processes)

    The reason why, when I select one good out of a multitude of competing goods that I have no time to evaluate, my choice is not a random one, is that I re-orient my plans accordingly, and adjust them to my new end. A blip in my brain wouldn’t do that.

    And I’m sorry but I have a hard time believing that you could persuade yourself of some point religious dogma that you do not currently believe simply by choice. If you could, can you give an example?

    Sure. Let’s say that a Catholic living in 1869 is open-minded about the doctrine of papal infallibility but does not actually believe it. The following year, the Church defines it, and he happily accepts it, because he happens to believe in the infallibility of the Church. Cardinal Newman did that. It seems to me that his belief was a choice.

    Cheers.

  71. 71
    RDFish says:

    Hi Chance,

    I’m trying to better understand your position. In essence you seem to be arguing that belief is always preeminent over other conscious faculties. If that is the case, the exercise of our free will is always subject to our beliefs, and never the other way around.

    Here are some things I’ve posted about that:

    “Again, no, I really was just talking about rational choices needing to be reasoned from beliefs and desires. And I’ve said many times that I’m well aware that humans are not uniformally (or even usually) rational.”
    and
    “So, to the extent we base our actions upon our beliefs and desires, our choices are not under our volitional control.”
    and
    “Actually no, I am not assuming there is sufficient reason for our behaviors. Rather, my point is that to the extent our actions are rational (by which I mean proceed by reason from our beliefs and desires) then they are compelled by factors we do not freely choose.”
    and so on…

    So, as you can see, I’ve consistently been saying that we are all perfectly capable of acting in ways that are not in accordance with our beliefs and desires, and we do it all the time. However, to the extent that our choices are rational according to our beliefs and desires, in that case they are entailed by things we do not consciously choose.

    If the exercise of our will is always subject to our beliefs, how do we root those beliefs ontologically — what causes our beliefs?

    And again: Our will is never subject to our beliefs, because we are always free to act irrationally.

    Is this cause physical, experiential, spiritual, some combination, or something else entirely?

    First, I’m not taking a position on metaphysical ontology here. Perhaps our mental faculties operate according to special immaterial causes that transcend what we think of as physical cause… or perhaps not. I really am agnostic about such things, and I won’t argue them. Clearly, though, our beliefs are affected by our experiences – I doubt you’d argue that. So I think it is safe to say that what engenders beliefs in our minds is a combination of the totality of our experience combined with our innate and ideosyncratic cogntive faculties, and I think it is also safe to say that we don’t understand very much at all about how our minds work (that is, we don’t know much about how thinking proceeds, including memory formation and retrieval, belief formation and revision, inference and problem solving, language generation and understanding, and so on).

    My point about beliefs, desires, and volition make no assumptions about ontology or the fundamental operation of minds; it really is just a statement that I think can be ascertained by anyone via a brief introspection.

    How does this cause account for the similarity of some beliefs between people, such as the blueness of the sky or the five-ness of our fingers and toes, as well as the differences in our beliefs, such as whether or not God exists, or whether the intentional termination of a pregnancy can morally be considered wicked, ambiguous, or praiseworthy.

    How do I account for the similarities and differences among what people think? I’m not sure what you’re getting at, but I really don’t have any particular theory about that.

    Do you see meaningful differences between beliefs resulting from direct perceptual experience, those formed from uniform and repeated experience, and the more abstract beliefs you allude to, such as political or religious ones, or are all beliefs made of essentially the same stuff?

    Without talking about what beliefs are “made of”, I think it’s clear that some beliefs (what goes up comes down, water is wet, fire burns, ice melts in the sun, etc) are held by virtually everyone (and so we call them “objective facts”), while people’s beliefs vary widely vary about other propositions we call “subjective”: (Angelina Jolie is beautiful, John Stewart is funny, mathematics is interesting). Still other propositions (tax cuts spur economic growth, man-made climate change is real) seem like there ought to be “objective” answers to, but there is still wide disagreement about.

    I’m certainly no expert in epistemology, though, and none of these things have to do with the truth of my observations. Again, I think it’s clear that if you consider any belief that you hold (something you’re sure you believe in), you cannot alter your belief by deciding to believe differently.

    Why is belief a better place to root our conscious existence and behavior than free will is?

    I actually don’t understand this question, but I can see that it isn’t germain, since I am agnostic regarding what you call the root of our conscious existence (experience).

    To motivate my reason for asking that last question, let me put something forward. Metaphysically, I can terminate the conscious existence in pure will — our ability to choose between alternatives — a kind of uncaused cause. This is not to say that our beings are uncaused, but rather the moment to moment expression of our selves is caused by this same self, whose most primary property is the will.

    We could certainly talk about reasons to believe or disbelieve in contra-causal volition, or about the nature of conscious experience, but again that isn’t what I’m talking about here (and I personally find these sorts of metaphysical discussions don’t seem to go anywhere). That’s why I’m trying stick to things we all agree about: We all experience beliefs and desires, and we know what it is to make a conscious choice, and so we can all try and see if we can change our beliefs and desires by consciously choosing them. I’m saying that I find it impossible to do so, and I don’t think other people can do it either.

    And from there, I point out that to the extent that our choices are based on our beliefs and desires, we find that our choices are based on factors that we do not choose.

    As a footnote, it seems to me that your position follows either from physical determinism or Calvinism. Are you willing to say whether either of those are the case?

    With the caveat that I am not interested in (or able to) defend whatever metaphysical speculations I may offer, I’ll tell you my inclinations. I think most of the metaphysical questions we ask (the relation of mind and matter, the nature of consciousness and free will, and so on) are not answerable in the way we ask them, in the same way we cannot answer the question “Is a photon a wave or a particle”? Photons are neither of these things – they are something else that we can’t conceptualize. So, for example, I do not understand what people mean by “materialism”, since it seems to me we do not understand what “material” things are made of. As for determinism (of various flavors), I simply have no idea.

    Thanks in advance for whatever answers you’re inclined to provide.

    Please believe that I’m not being coy here; I’m not a closet Calvinist or secret physicalist or anything. I just think about questions like these and come to the conclusion that I don’t know what the truth is about them. My beliefs about the fact that our rational decisions are not freely chosen just seems obvious to me based on personal experience.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  72. 72
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    Right. And murder for hire is utterly different from murder because, instead of pulling the trigger yourself, you are giving someone else money and then hoping that they will pull the trigger for you.

    They are obviously different in some ways, although the result is certainly the same (the victim dies!). I think the main difference that I was talking about is that when we make a conscious choice to do something, we know what we have decided to do, and we can act accordingly. But if we are just hoping to have our beliefs changed by subjecting ourselves to outside influences, we don’t know if our beliefs will change or not. That’s why I say the former constitutes willful choice, while the latter is more like seeing where the chips fall. It’s like the difference between choosing to go into a particular profession, or just going to a job fair to see if somebody offers you a job.

    On the other hand, they are not so utterly different because the intent, the goal, the entire point is exactly the same. In the same way, if the intent, the goal, the entire point of an action is to change a desire or belief, the indirect nature starts to look an awful lot like just a technicality.

    A lot of people are saying things like this here, but I haven’t seen any examples of this. People talk about changing their emotions (e.g. overcoming fear or sadness by the power of positive thinking), or choosing one belief over another when there is no reason to pick either one (which doesn’t seem like a rational choice). But nobody talks about having a real belief (like “you shouldn’t eat animals” or “fish can breath under water”) and, by making a conscious decision, believe the opposite thing.

    Smiling as an act of will can change your outlook or beliefs about your emotional well-being. This can be predicted.

    And yet again, this really isn’t what we’re talking about. If you are feeling sad you can’t say to yourself “I choose to be happy!” and then feel happy. Instead, you have to search ways to try and make yourself happy: You might choose to start smiling, or take drugs, or join a religion, or start exercising… but none of these techniques is the same thing as “choosing to be happy”.

    Most folks desire to eat doughnuts. Most of them also desire to be healthy. To live a long life. To look good in swimwear. To be attractive to the opposite sex. Etc. By your lights, when is it rational to eat doughnuts? And when is it not? How would you calculate this?

    I don’t know if these decisions can be calcuated (i.e. by means of a formal system). When I say “rational” here I’ve said that I mean in accordance with your beliefs and desires, but I’ve also made clear that we often are not rational, and that we cannot explain how our minds actually work. What I am arguing is that to the extent our choices are based upon our beliefs and desires, they are based on factors we do not consciously choose.

    If you choose to smile with the intent to change your beliefs, it starts to look like hair-splitting to point out that it was the smile that changed your beliefs and not the choice. It brings to mind the murderer who rationalizes that it was the hit man who did the actual killing.

    On the other hand, I confidently predict that if you choose to refrain from eating doughnuts, refrain from looking at doughnuts, refrain from smelling doughnuts, and refrain from hanging out in doughnut shops, your desire to eat doughnuts will be less than if you choose to do the exact opposite. This isn’t just hoping. I’m saying it is highly likely to happen. Not a certainty, but very nearly so.

    And I confidently predict that if you inject heroin, you will feel happy (for some finite period of time). But it is not the same as becoming happy by smiling – it is a very different thing. Just because the intent and the outcome is the same does not mean the two means of achieving the ends are equivalent.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  73. 73
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    RDFish, thanks for taking the time to answer at #71. I think we agree that changing one’s beliefs is not under the same sort of volitional control as bodily movement, for example. I think we also agree that we can choose to act contrary to our beliefs. Beyond that it’s unclear, but I’ll spend more time with your answers at #71. Thanks again.

  74. 74
    RDFish says:

    Hi vjtorley,

    Now, if you had said that to the extent that our beliefs are rational, they are entailed by our beliefs and desires, then you would have at least had a defensible position.

    I believe you meant to say “…to the extent that our choices are rational, they are entailed…” here, did you not? Assuming you did, that is precisely what I have been saying.

    But then you spoil your case by making a logical leap from “entailed by” to “compelled by”. And that simply doesn’t follow.

    Ah, I see. Actually, I have used both of these terms (“entailed by” and “compelled by”) interchangeably, but I have never said or meant “determined by” or “caused exclusively by” or anything to that effect. That would be mistaken, as I’ve indicated (because we can also choose to behave in ways that are irrespective of our beliefs and desires).

    It’s perfectly possible that whenever I choose rationally, my decision follows logically from my beliefs and desires, without its being the case that those beliefs and desires necessitate my choice. Putting it simply: I can still choose whether to be rational or not, on this particular occasion.

    I agree completely, and believe I have consistently said just that, many times over (to you and others). If I have been unclear somewhere (entirely possible!) I apologize.

    You then add:
    …if you make a choice, and you don’t know why you’ve made the choice, then your choice might as well have been random (or determined by inaccessible neural processes)

    The reason why, when I select one good out of a multitude of competing goods that I have no time to evaluate, my choice is not a random one, is that I re-orient my plans accordingly, and adjust them to my new end. A blip in my brain wouldn’t do that.

    I’m sorry but I do not understand what you are saying. Faced with a multitude of goods, and insufficient time to evaluate which of them best suits your desires according to your beliefs, you pick one of them. You say that this still doesn’t mean it is a random choice, which I agree with – it might be determined by something else, for example by unconscious brain processes (what you seem to call “a blip”). But then you seem to be saying that unconscious brain processes would not allow you (or cause you?) to re-orient your plans to whatever choice you made – but I certainly don’t see why your unconscious brain processes would not be able to re-orient your plans according to a choice you just made!

    Let’s say that a Catholic living in 1869 is open-minded about the doctrine of papal infallibility but does not actually believe it. The following year, the Church defines it, and he happily accepts it, because he happens to believe in the infallibility of the Church. Cardinal Newman did that. It seems to me that his belief was a choice.

    So this Catholic person initially disbelieves the Pope is infallible, but believes that the Church is infallible. I would of course say at that point he would be utterly incapable of simply deciding to alter his beliefs by an act of sheer will. Then he hears that the Church says that the Pope is infallible, and this added evidence changes his mind so that now his belief has been changed. Yes, that is precisely what I mean when I say that outside influences, new evidence, and even re-evaluation of existing evidence may (or may not) lead to changes in one’s beliefs. But what certainly does not lead to changes of one’s beliefs is a conscious, willful choice to change that belief.

    Anyway, thanks for your responses. The more responses I get regarding this observation I made, the more certain I am that it is not only correct, but also of some importance. You suggested that my ideas were Hobbesian, but I actully think he was forumulating an account of our behaviors vis-a-vis our beliefs and desires, which is not what I am talking about. If you know of any philosopher who has made the same point I am making, I’d be interested to hear it!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  75. 75
    bornagain77 says:

    as to desires:

    Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

    Brooke Fraser- “C S Lewis Song”
    http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=DL6LPLNX

    The Argument From Desire
    http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.htm

  76. 76
    Phinehas says:

    Most folks desire to eat doughnuts. Most of them also desire to be healthy. To live a long life. To look good in swimwear. To be attractive to the opposite sex. Etc. By your lights, when is it rational to eat doughnuts? And when is it not? How would you calculate this?

    I don’t know if these decisions can be calcuated (i.e. by means of a formal system). When I say “rational” here I’ve said that I mean in accordance with your beliefs and desires, but I’ve also made clear that we often are not rational, and that we cannot explain how our minds actually work. What I am arguing is that to the extent our choices are based upon our beliefs and desires, they are based on factors we do not consciously choose.

    Which desires? The desire to eat doughnuts? The desire to be healthy? Or the desire to be attractive?

    First you’ve defined rationality in a way we both agree is problematic. Then, upon that shaky foundation you’ve added the qualifier “to the extent.” And finally, you’ve admitted that, well, you’re not really sure how you’d go about calculating the extent that is your qualifier.

    Have you considered that you may very well have defined rationality in a way that makes your “to the extent” qualifier practically zero in the vast majority of cases.

    I’ve also made clear that we often are not rational, and that we cannot explain how our minds actually work.

    The issue isn’t so much whether someone can be irrational. We’ve agreed that they can. The issue is whether or not, under your definition, it is even possible for someone to be rational. And how could we tell if it were possible or not?

    In other words, it could be true under your definition of rationality that we all act irrationally all the time. Therefore, free will has primacy over our beliefs and desires.

  77. 77
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    RDF: What I am arguing is that to the extent our choices are based upon our beliefs and desires, they are based on factors we do not consciously choose.
    PHINEHAS: Which desires? The desire to eat doughnuts? The desire to be healthy? Or the desire to be attractive?

    We do not have the ability to consciously choose any of our desires. We all know what it is to experience desire for something, and we know what it is to make a conscious decision. And if you think about it, you’ll find that if you try to make a conscious decision to desire something you do not already desire (or vice-versa), it won’t work. This is true for any desire.

    First you’ve defined rationality in a way we both agree is problematic. Then, upon that shaky foundation you’ve added the qualifier “to the extent.” And finally, you’ve admitted that, well, you’re not really sure how you’d go about calculating the extent that is your qualifier.

    I have been quite consistent, since the beginning of this discussion, in saying that it is our beliefs and desires that are not under our conscious control. That is why I have consistently held that to the extent our choices are based on our beliefs and desires, then our choices based on factors that we have not freely chosen. I did agree with you that the concept of “rationality” could be defined in multiple ways, so I agree that the statement “Rational choices are not based on factors under our conscious control” would have to be qualified with regard to what definition of “rational” was being used.

    And finally, regarding my comment about not being able to calculate a decision, this had nothing to do with the extent to which we base our decisions upon our beliefs and desires. You had asked me how we calculate our decisions, and I replied that I was not convinced that our decisions were calculated (i.e. that our minds worked like formal systems, e.g. calculators or computers).

    So you seem to have thought I may have changed my argument, or qualified or hedged or softened it… but no, I really haven’t at all. My position is exactly the same as when I first stated it. I will say it yet another way: Since our beliefs and desires are not under our conscious control, when make choices according to our beliefs in order to attain what we desire, our choices are not free.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  78. 78
    StephenB says:

    RDFish

    Yet again, you give an example of people changing their beliefs because they are persuaded to, and not because they simply chose to.

    The people alluded to did not change their beliefs about artificial birth control because of social pressure. If you believe that, then you don’t believe in free will. They changed their beliefs at a time of social pressure. It is not the same thing. Outside pressure in the form of persuasion can never be the cause of a moral decision, just as inside pressure in the form of temptation can never be its cause. The cause is always in the operation of the person’s will. Everyone faces pressures and temptations, but it is the choice to yield to them that can prompt a changed belief.

    Could you, by sheer power of will, decide that artificial birth control was a great boon to wholesome and healthy lives? I’m guessing this would not be within your power, even on pain of death.

    Not directly and not instantaneously. A firmly held belief that is held for a good reason cannot easily be uprooted, nor should it be. In the moral realm, a changed belief is contingent on the moral condition and intellectual integrity of the one who makes the change. There are only two classes of people—those who follow the light they are given and those who do not. If an individual seeks the truth and behaves morally, he will gradually abandon false beliefs and embrace true beliefs. If he does not seek the truth and behaves immorally, he will militate against true beliefs and embrace false beliefs. If, for example, I began to commit adultery, I would soon start rationalizing my behavior. If I continued to ignore my conscience, my intellect would become compromised and my will would become perverted. In time, I would likely choose to change my belief about artificial birth control so that it was consistent with my behavior. If a man doesn’t behave as he believes, he will end by believing as he behaves.

  79. 79
    Phinehas says:

    RDF: What I am arguing is that to the extent our choices are based upon our beliefs and desires, they are based on factors we do not consciously choose.

    PHINEHAS: Which desires? The desire to eat doughnuts? The desire to be healthy? Or the desire to be attractive?

    RDF: We do not have the ability to consciously choose any of our desires. We all know what it is to experience desire for something, and we know what it is to make a conscious decision.

    I would have thought that, in context, my meaning was clear, but evidently it wasn’t. I’m not asking about which desires you think we can consciously choose. I’m quite clear on what you believe to be the case. I’m asking about, as it relates to your doughnut example, which desires a choice must be based on in order to be deemed rational. It is here that I am struggling to find any clarity in your argument.

    Fred chooses to eat a doughnut. In your view, Fred is only acting rationally to the extent that he made this choice based on his beliefs and desires. But this is rather vague and simplistic. There could be several underlying realities.

    A. Fred desires to eat doughnuts. Either he has absolutely no competing desires regarding health or attractiveness, or he firmly believes that eating doughnuts will not adversely affect his health or looks.

    It seems clear to me that in this instance, given how you’ve defined rationality, that Fred would be acting in a rational manner. Setting aside the issue that rationality so defined is at odds with how we would naturally evaluate such a scenario, it seems to me that the described case is highly unlikely to the point that, practically speaking, it doesn’t really exist.

    B. Fred desires to eat doughnuts. Fred also desires to be healthy and attractive. Fred believes that eating doughnuts could result in health issues and weight gain.

    Given that Fred ate a doughnut and given the ambiguous definition that rationality is acting based on beliefs and desires, do we conclude:

    1. Fred acted rationally because he desires to eat doughnuts?

    2. Fred did not act rationally because he desires to be healthy and attractive?

    If (B) is a much better reflection of reality than (A), then a philosophy based on (A) might be, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

    If (B.1), then perhaps you’ve defined rationality in a way such that we all act rationally all of the time, in which case (B.1) might be, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

    If (B.2), then perhaps you’ve defined rationality in a way such that we all act irrationally all of the time, in which case, (B.2) might be, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

    If none of the above, then please lay out how one would go about determining whether Fred eating a doughnut was rational or not, since, until you do, it will be difficult to discern whether you are saying something meaningful or not.

  80. 80
    vjtorley says:

    Hi RDFish,

    I think I’ve at last figured out what’s wrong with your analysis of human choice. You’ve assumed that in paradigm cases, our choices are determined by our beliefs and desires:

    What I am arguing is that to the extent our choices are based upon our beliefs and desires, they are based on factors we do not consciously choose.

    You then give an example:

    If, for example, I desire to rob a bank but choose not to because it was immoral, this would mean my desire to be moral is stronger than my desire to steal money, and not that some transcendent decision-maker overrode my desire.

    I should point out in passing that a desire is for something (some “good”), towards which we are pulled or attracted – typically, goods such as food, sex, worldly possessions, or friends. The “proper form” of a sentence containing the word “desire” is not “A desires that p” (where p is some proposition) but “A desires X” where X is some good. Hence to say that I desire to be moral doesn’t really make sense: “being moral” is not an object, as such, so it’s incapable of “pulling” you. I might wish to be moral (because a wish is typically for a state of affairs rather than an object), but I can’t desire it, strictly speaking, because there’s no “it” to desire. I can of course desire Heaven, and be averse to Hell – and that might serve as a powerful motive for not robbing a bank. So would the desire for the goods which I currently enjoy (a family, a job, a home, etc.), all of which I may lose if I rob a bank.

    I might add that you still haven’t provided any independent yardstick for measuring the strength of a desire: the sole measure you propose is a subjective one – namely, what I feel pulling at me, right now.

    Getting back to the point: what’s wrong with your account of action is that it assumes that a rational choice is explained by the beliefs and desires that underlie it. What I’m saying is that the “belief-desire” account of actions is only true for the kinds of decisions that non-rational animals make, where the desire is for some goal, and the belief functions as an internal map to steer the animal towards that goal. One would expect, then, that the selections made by any healthy animal would be based on its beliefs and desires – and if they weren’t, we’d probably assume that the animal was sick and/or brain-damaged.

    What I’m proposing is that for human choices, it’s a different kettle of fish. Desire by itself doesn’t move us when we’re in command of our rational faculties, and neither does belief coupled with desire. There is a third vital ingredient: commitment. Commitment cannot be reduced to or explained by our beliefs and desires, although these can certainly constrain the commitments we are capable of making.

    A commitment is typically to someone or some group of people (e.g. when we make a promise, pledge or vow to our spouse, family, employer, or community), and it involves a way of life that we publicly pledge to follow – e.g. a faithful, monogamous lifestyle; a healthy lifestyle; a regular work/study routine; or a lifestyle mandated by a religion. While it is true that I cannot commit myself to a way of life that conflicts with my beliefs, it is also true that the commitments that I make in life – my choice of marriage partner, choice of lifestyle, choice of religious practice [as opposed to creed] and so on – cannot be predicted from, and are not entailed by, my beliefs. Nor can they be predicted from my beliefs and desires, taken together. For I can certainly commit myself to a way of life that is utterly at odds with my desires – I may make a commitment simply out of a sense of duty. You will no doubt be tempted to reply that in that case, it is my desire to do my duty which is over-riding my other desires. Please, resist that temptation: it over-simplifies the human psyche. Desires, as I explained above, are essentially directed at objects, and a duty is not an object in any meaningful sense of the word.

    Typically what we find when we make the really big choices in life is that there is a variety of competing lifestyles (and sometimes competing persons) that we can commit to. To say that the rational choice is the one which is entailed by our beliefs coupled with our strongest desire in that particular situation begs the question, in three ways:

    (i) not every desire of ours is actually in our best interests (think of drugs);

    (ii) in some everyday situations we cannot meaningfully speak of a “strongest desire”; and more importantly,

    (iii) a commitment doesn’t require an underlying desire to validate it or make it rational. Rather, what it requires on the agent’s part is a vision of the good life (a life-plan, if you like), which incorporates the lifestyle the agent commits him/herself to, as well as the person to whom he/she is making the commitment. The lifestyle being committed to must also be consonant with the agent’s beliefs.

    A choice may be irrational insofar as it is based on epistemically flawed beliefs, or a commitment to a goal that is not in one’s long-term interest, or one’s interest as a human person (as opposed to a mere animal). But whether we make a rational or an irrational choice, it is not determined by our beliefs and desires. Commitment is an irreducible and ineliminable component of every human choice we make.

    (Thanks for correcting my typo, by the way. I did mean to type “choices” in that paragraph in #70.)

  81. 81
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    The people alluded to did not change their beliefs about artificial birth control because of social pressure. If you believe that, then you don’t believe in free will. They changed their beliefs at a time of social pressure. It is not the same thing. Outside pressure in the form of persuasion can never be the cause of a moral decision, just as inside pressure in the form of temptation can never be its cause. The cause is always in the operation of the person’s will. Everyone faces pressures and temptations, but it is the choice to yield to them that can prompt a changed belief.

    According to you, then, our choices (including our choice of what to believe) are not based on our experiences, nor on our beliefs and our desires, but rather our choices are based soley on our will. You think “will” is something that operates independently from our beliefs and desires. In that case, is there anything that our will takes into consideration, besides the things we believe and desire, when it makes a choice? What might that be?

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  82. 82
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    Fred chooses to eat a doughnut. In your view, Fred is only acting rationally to the extent that he made this choice based on his beliefs and desires.

    Here is what I said in my last post to you:

    I did agree with you that the concept of “rationality” could be defined in multiple ways, so I agree that the statement “Rational choices are not based on factors under our conscious control” would have to be qualified with regard to what definition of “rational” was being used.

    And I’ve said many times that what I mean here by “rational” is acting in accord with our beliefs and desires. Since this has caused such confusion, let’s drop the problematic term altogether. What I am saying, then, is that when we make choices we can either make them for some set of reasons, or for no reason at all. If our choice is reasoned, then the reasons are comprised of things we believe and things we desire, but these things are not freely chosen by acts of our will.

    A. Fred desires to eat doughnuts. Either he has absolutely no competing desires regarding health or attractiveness, or he firmly believes that eating doughnuts will not adversely affect his health or looks.

    Let’s agree arguendo that everyone has competing desires, and that everyone desires doughnuts, and that everyone knows they’re bad for our health and looks, and that furthermore everyone desires to be healthy and look the best they can. OK?

    Now, Fred is confronted with a doughnut, and must make the choice of whether or not to eat it. He might base his decision on no reason at all (he might flip a coin, or perform the mental equivalent of choosing one act or the other for no reason). Alternatively, he might base his decision on his beliefs and his desires.

    If Fred bases his decision on his beliefs and desires (and this is what I’ve been calling “rational”, but again we can drop that term if it is confusing), then he is basing his decision on factors that he has not freely chosen (because nobody can freely choose what they believe or what they desire).

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  83. 83
    RDFish says:

    Hi vjtorley,

    You’ve assumed that in paradigm cases, our choices are determined by our beliefs and desires

    What I am saying is that while our choices are not necessarily based upon our unchosen beliefs and desires, if they are not then it is difficult to see what else they may be based upon if we are to be rational.

    Hence to say that I desire to be moral doesn’t really make sense: “being moral” is not an object, as such, so it’s incapable of “pulling” you.

    In your view, it makes no sense to say “I desire to be moral”, because being moral is not an object. Likewise, I assume, you would say it makes no sense to say “I desire to be loved” or “I desire to be healthy” or “I desire to be happy” because these things (love, health, happiness) are not objects. If that is your view, I must respectfully disagree: Virtually everyone I’ve ever known has desired these things, and I’m certain that I do. These things “pull me” more than anything else – certainly a great deal more than things like houses, money, or other worldly posessions!

    I might wish to be moral (because a wish is typically for a state of affairs rather than an object), but I can’t desire it, strictly speaking, because there’s no “it” to desire.

    Again, this directly contradicts my experience and knowledge of people. We desire all sorts of things that are not objects! Some people desire fame or recognition, and this drives much of their behavior. People can desire knowledge, or freedom, or peace… none of these things are concrete objects – they are all abstract notions – but I hope you agree that people are powerfully motivated by their desire for these things!

    If you’d like to substitute some other term (like “wish for” or “yearn for” or “want”…) instead of “desire”, that’s fine, as long as the meaning is the same. But people do typically use the term “desire” for these abstract desires (you can confirm this with internet searches!)

    I might add that you still haven’t provided any independent yardstick for measuring the strength of a desire: the sole measure you propose is a subjective one – namely, what I feel pulling at me, right now.

    Indeed – I have no inkling how we might formalize our thought processes in the way you suggest. We feel our desires, each of us – do you deny this? I cannot quantify desire – nor love, hate, curiosity, boredom, or any other aspect of our mental life. I suppose some cognitive psychologist could operationalize these things like they tend to do (We measure desire by how many times per hour the subject mentions it or some such thing) but I’m not interested in that, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with my point here.

    One would expect, then, that the selections made by any [non-rational] healthy animal would be based on its beliefs and desires… Desire by itself doesn’t move us when we’re in command of our rational faculties, and neither does belief coupled with desire. There is a third vital ingredient: commitment. Commitment cannot be reduced to or explained by our beliefs and desires, although these can certainly constrain the commitments we are capable of making.

    I would certainly agree that human reasoning is qualitatively different from any other animal. The abstract things that we routinely think about and desire (respect, camaraderie, accomplishment, etc) can’t be understood and reflected upon by other animals (but I’d say some abstract things, like social acceptance, are perceived by some animals). I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of animal cognition (as fascinating as that topic is!), but I would say that “commitment” certainly falls into the category of abstract social constructs that we value (allegiance, altruism, kindness, fairness, generosity, honesty, and so on). I know that I desire very strongly to exhibit these qualities myself (although maybe you’d rather say that I “wish” I have these qualities).

    While it is true that I cannot commit myself to a way of life that conflicts with my beliefs, it is also true that the commitments that I make in life – my choice of marriage partner, choice of lifestyle, choice of religious practice [as opposed to creed] and so on – cannot be predicted from, and are not entailed by, my beliefs. Nor can they be predicted from my beliefs and desires, taken together.

    I think a commitment is a type of communication: When I make a commitment (or promise), I communicate my intent to somebody to do (or not do) something. I can then either honor or break that commitment. Let’s say I subsequently choose to honor my commitment. I make that choice either for some set of reasons, or for no reason at all. If I honor it for no reason, I am not being rational. If I honor my commitment for some reason(s), then I would say these reasons are comprised of beliefs and desires. What other sorts of reasons could be involved?

    To say that the rational choice is the one which is entailed by our beliefs coupled with our strongest desire in that particular situation begs the question, in three ways:
    (i) not every desire of ours is actually in our best interests (think of drugs);

    I’ve remarked elsewhere in this thread that the notion of “rationality” can be more complex than “acting in reasoned accord with one’s beliefs and desires”. That is why I provided this particular, qualified definition for rationality in this discussion. But deciding for someone else that that attaining their desires is not in their best interests is obviously tricky business: I would say that dangerous mountain climbing is not in people’s best interests, but others would disagree. So I’ll stick with my qualified definition of rationality here.

    (ii) in some everyday situations we cannot meaningfully speak of a “strongest desire”;

    I’ve already responded that I’m not proposing some objective calculus that accounts for how we weigh our desires; I don’t think minds work that way. Still, I submit it is undeniable that when we act rationally we do base our decisions on what we think and feel (our beliefs and desires).

    ..and more importantly, (iii) a commitment doesn’t require an underlying desire to validate it or make it rational. Rather, what it requires on the agent’s part is a vision of the good life (a life-plan, if you like), which incorporates the lifestyle the agent commits him/herself to, as well as the person to whom he/she is making the commitment. The lifestyle being committed to must also be consonant with the agent’s beliefs.

    Again, a commitment is a promise regarding future behavior. If I promise to behave in some way that contradicts my beliefs and desires, why might I choose to do that? Either I have reasons for that or I don’t. If I don’t, I am being irrational. If I do, I would say the reasons are based on my beliefs and desires. You say that other things, including a “lifestyle” is involved, but I don’t understand what a “lifestyle” is aside from a set of choices regarding behavior.

    Human beings are complicated, and our beliefs and desires are highly abstract. We deeply believe things like “my wife loves me” even though we can’t quantify or objectively explain such things. We desire things like “to be respected in my community” even though the object of that desire is not a material object at all, but rather it refers to the subjective opinions of other people. And because of our ability to communicate abstract ideas with language, we can tell other people what we believe and desire, and make commitments to others to behave in certain ways – and these commitments may indeed affect our future choices, just as other acts we engage in can affect our future choices.

    Still, after all our discussion, I honestly believe that with regard to our behavior and free will, if we are to act in a reasoned fashion, we base our behaviors on our beliefs and our desires, which we are not capable of choosing by acts of will. And otherwise, we are acting without understanding our reasons, which is what animals do.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  84. 84
    Phinehas says:

    Since this has caused such confusion, let’s drop the problematic term altogether.

    Yes! Let’s! (But I see you’ve slipped it back in in your response to VJT above.)

    Now, Fred is confronted with a doughnut, and must make the choice of whether or not to eat it. He might base his decision on no reason at all (he might flip a coin, or perform the mental equivalent of choosing one act or the other for no reason). Alternatively, he might base his decision on his beliefs and his desires.

    I believe that the following are true dichotomies:

    Either Fred eats a doughnut for no reason, or he eats it for a reason.

    Either Fred eats a doughnut based on something other than his beliefs and desires, or he eats it based on his beliefs and desires.

    But the following formulation is a true dichotomy if and only if the set of what qualifies as a reason is exactly the same as the set of Fred’s beliefs and desires:

    Either Fred eats a doughnut for no reason, or he eats it based on his beliefs and desires.

    Haven’t you just replaced “rational” with “reasonable?” In order for this to be a true dichotomy and not a false one, there can be no reasonable choices outside those based on Fred’s beliefs and desires, which gets us right back around to basically defining what is reasonable based on Fred’s beliefs and desires.

    To me, the weight of your argument rests on pejoratives like “irrational” and “unreasonable.” That’s why these notions keep finding their way back into your formulations. Without the intimation that making a choice based on something beside beliefs and desires is in some way irrational or unreasonable, you are left with the rather uncontroversial claim from above that:

    Either Fred eats a doughnut based on something other than his beliefs and desires, or he eats it based on his beliefs and desires.

  85. 85
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    In order for this to be a true dichotomy and not a false one, there can be no reasonable choices outside those based on Fred’s beliefs and desires, which gets us right back around to basically defining what is reasonable based on Fred’s beliefs and desires.

    In my view, “beliefs” comprise everything one thinks is true, from “doughnuts taste good” to “fire can burn you” to “Jesus died for our sins” and on and on. And “desires” comprise all of our articulated motivations, from “I want to eat doughnuts” to “I want to be well-liked” to “I want to go to heaven” and on and on.

    I presented this as a true dichotomy because of my belief that every reason one might articulate for anything might do would necessarily be expressed, in the end, in terms of our beliefs and desires. So I will ask you, what other sorts of reasons might Fred offer for his eating (or refraining from eating) doughnuts that are not essentially references to any of his beliefs or desires?

    (Let’s not bring up scenarios where people are physically coerced, as in “Fred ate the doughnut because he was tied to a chair and force-fed”).

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  86. 86
    Phinehas says:

    So I will ask you, what other sorts of reasons might Fred offer for his eating (or refraining from eating) doughnuts that are not essentially references to any of his beliefs or desires?

    Fred might offer up his own volition as the reason. 🙂

  87. 87
    StephenB says:

    “The people alluded to did not change their beliefs about artificial birth control because of social pressure. If you believe that, then you don’t believe in free will. They changed their beliefs at a time of social pressure. It is not the same thing. Outside pressure in the form of persuasion can never be the cause of a moral decision, just as inside pressure in the form of temptation can never be its cause. The cause is always in the operation of the person’s will. Everyone faces pressures and temptations, but it is the choice to yield to them that can prompt a changed belief.”

    RDFish

    According to you, then, our choices (including our choice of what to believe) are not based on our experiences, nor on our beliefs and our desires, but rather our choices are based soley on our will.

    No doubt all those elements contribute to the environment in which the decision is made, but that is not the issue. The issue is this: Who, if anyone, is responsible for that decision. Recall that you originally argued that no one has the power to change his beliefs. Against that assertion, I pointed out that millions of people chose to change their belief about the morality of artificial birth control. You responded by saying that the people who made that change were not responsible for their decision, claiming that outside pressures were the cause, in effect, denying free will. I pointed out that neither outside pressures or internal temptations are responsible for our moral choices or our changed beliefs. Our will is free to resist or override those external pressures and internal temptations.

    If you don’t believe in freedom of the will, please just say so and we can be done with it. If you do believe in free will, then you need to explain why you assigned the cause of changed belief to external pressures and not to the individual who made the change. Your current comment does not address that point.

    You think “will” is something that operates independently from our beliefs and desires.

    The intellect and the will are both faculties that function for a purpose. The intellect is for apprehending and conceiving; the will is for preferring and choosing. The intellect asks, “What do I know? The will asks, “What do I love?” A desire or appetite is something that the will can either choose to satisfy or reject, based on the intellect’s assessment of its worth and the will’s power to say yes or no. A belief is something that the intellect can understand and the will can embrace. Hopefully, both faculties will work together, but sadly that is not always the case. The intellect, for example, can say, “You really ought to stop smoking,” but the will can say, “But I just don’t want to.” To be morally healthy, the intellect must be fed (to know the truth) and the will must be trained (to prefer the truth).

    The intellect provides the moral target, so to speak, and the will shoots the arrow. Some targets are not worth shooting at: Not every desire is good (in conformity with the truth); not every appetite is healthy (contributing to life); not every belief is true (worthy of intellectual assent).

    My thoughts and feelings come from me, my genes, and my environment, but my will is solely mine. I can distance myself from my thoughts of destruction and my feelings of hate, but I cannot distance myself from what I decide to do about them. From a moral vantage point, I am what I decide–not what I think–not what I feel.

    In that case, is there anything that our will takes into consideration, besides the things we believe and desire, when it makes a choice? What might that be?

    What should I believe? What should I desire? What should I decide? What is good for me? What is good for others?

  88. 88
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    Fred might offer up his own volition as the reason 🙂

    Hahahaha! Yes, or he might have said “Oh, I just felt like it” or “Because that’s the kind of hairpin I am” or “Go figure!” or any number of different “reasons”.

    These sorts of statements can “explain” anything, of course, so they really aren’t articulated explanations that account for anything. I guess what you’re saying is that our decisions are opaque, inexplicable things that do not derive from what we know, what we believe, what we value and desire, or anything else – they just are what they are, kind of like how other animals might make decisions. That’s ok, but it’s a bit pessimistic I’d say; I guess I just hoped that at least sometimes people can actually provide some sort of justification for their actions besides “My will made me do it!” 🙂

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  89. 89
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    No doubt all those elements [experiences, beliefs, desires] contribute to the environment in which the decision is made, but that is not the issue. The issue is this: Who, if anyone, is responsible for that decision.

    If that is the issue you are focussing on, I would think we agree: Everyone is responsible for their own decisions. The issue I was discussing was not that, but rather under what conditions our choices could be seen as being determined by our conscious, willful decision-making.

    Recall that you originally argued that no one has the power to change his beliefs.

    Well, if you review my statements, you’ll see I have always said that nobody has the power to change his beliefs by an act of conscious willful choice. People can change their beliefs by other (unpredictable) ways – by exposing themselves to new influences, by taking drugs, by sustaining brain damage or neural stimulation, and so on.

    Against that assertion, I pointed out that millions of people chose to change their belief about the morality of artificial birth control. You responded by saying that the people who made that change were not responsible for their decision,…

    First, let me be clear that I believe that everybody is responsible for their own actions. In fact, the very first thing I wrote in this entire thread, @2:

    RDF: Coyne’s denial of moral responsibility is completely wrongheaded – of course we are responsible for our actions! Of course people choose their actions, and – if they are not coerced by someone else – those choices are free.

    With regard to people’s beliefs about birth control changing over time, I was simply observing that you related this to pressure from secularists. I did not say the secularists were responsible for this change, or that they caused this change; rather, I echoed that the secularists persuaded people to change their views. I really was just paraphrasing your account of how this happened (I was treating “persuading” and “pressuring” as synonyms here).

    …claiming that outside pressures were the cause, in effect, denying free will.

    Again, you’ve mischaracterized my comments. I was agreeing with you, for the sake of argument, that people were pressured (or persuaded or influenced) to change their minds. But of course people often resist pressure (i.e. resist persuasion or influence), so I would not equate this with a deterministic cause.

    I pointed out that neither outside pressures or internal temptations are responsible for our moral choices or our changed beliefs. Our will is free to resist or override those external pressures and internal temptations.

    Yes, we agree on this. You just misread my comments.

    If you don’t believe in freedom of the will, please just say so and we can be done with it.

    I assure you I have been as clear as I possibly can be on the matter. As anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the problem of free will knows, there are plenty of different varieties of “free will” that people believe (or disbelieve) in, so one can’t simply say yes or no to the question and be understood. As I’ve said from the outset, I believe that our actions are freely chosen, and that we are each morally responsible for our own actions, even in circumstances where we have been affected by disease, abuse, drugs, or other factors.

    The intellect asks, “What do I know? The will asks, “What do I love?”

    You characterize intellect and will as things that can ask questions, like a person or an agent. I believe you are being metaphorical here, trying to elucidate how you understand these terms. But since these concepts are at the heart of what we’re discussing, I think it would be helpful to be as literal and specific as possible about what you think these terms refer to. In my view, “intellect” is what we call our mental faculties that store and retrieve memories, make inferences, generate and maintain beliefs, solve problems, generate plans and designs, and so on. And “will” is what we call our consciously deliberated decision making.

    A desire or appetite is something that the will can either choose to satisfy or reject, based on the intellect’s assessment of its worth and the will’s power to say yes or no.

    You do actually seem to believe that the “will” is an autonomous agency that operates independently, making decisions seperately apart from the rest of the mind. But agents typically are endowed with beliefs and desires. Do you believe that our wills have their own beliefs and desires? If not, on what basis do they make decisions?

    A belief is something that the intellect can understand and the will can embrace. Hopefully, both faculties will work together, but sadly that is not always the case. The intellect, for example, can say, “You really ought to stop smoking,” but the will can say, “But I just don’t want to.” To be morally healthy, the intellect must be fed (to know the truth) and the will must be trained (to prefer the truth).

    I’m sorry, but honestly I find this personification of the various aspects of our minds to be terribly confusing. In my view, I make decisions, not my intellect nor my will nor my brain nor my gut nor anything else. Yes, to better our understanding we characterize ourselves in terms of various different components, at various levels of abstraction, but in the end the responsibility for our actions is due to us, and not one or another of these components. I do not blame my amygdala for my losing my temper, nor my will – I blame myself.

    My thoughts and feelings come from me, my genes, and my environment, but my will is solely mine.

    But you’ve characterized your will and your intellect as making independent decisions and having competing ideas and goals… as though they were little homunculi fighting for control inside your head. Why is one of these components “soley yours” and the other only partly yours? How do you know your will isn’t also affected by genes and environment, the way your intellect is? And finally, if all these components are independently thinking entities that you possess, what exactly is you?

    RDF: In that case, is there anything that our will takes into consideration, besides the things we believe and desire, when it makes a choice? What might that be?
    SB: What should I believe? What should I desire? What should I decide? What is good for me? What is good for others?

    But of course the answers to these questions are themselves beliefs.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  90. 90
    Phinehas says:

    I guess what you’re saying is that our decisions are opaque, inexplicable things that do not derive from what we know, what we believe, what we value and desire, or anything else…

    Not quite. I think there is a big difference between “caused by” and “influenced by.” I believe there are a lot of things that can influence our decisions, but only one thing that can cause them, and that is our own volition. (Others have pointed out some of the challenges in believing otherwise.)

    I don’t think that the decisions we make are solely a matter of summing the strength of various beliefs and desires and picking a winner. I don’t think that our volition could be replaced by a sophisticated hill-climbing algorithm scaling to some peak formed by an amalgamation of beliefs and desires.

    It seems to me that, given your admission that we have the ability to make irrational choices, you might want to agree with some of the above. I’m curious to know: What do you believe to be the origin these irrational choices? Have you considered that, even in your coin-flipping example, it could be argued that you are choosing based on your desire to flip a coin? Are you sure you can formulate a truly irrational choice given your position?

    That’s ok, but it’s a bit pessimistic I’d say; I guess I just hoped that at least sometimes people can actually provide some sort of justification for their actions besides “My will made me do it!”

    People try to provide justifications or rationalizations for their actions all the time in an effort to avoid the conclusion that, “I did it!” We usually label these folks irresponsible. 😉 I don’t really see it as pessimistic to believe that I am better understood as my choices than as the result of a long series of cause-and-effect leading inevitably to my current beliefs and desires.

  91. 91
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    I think there is a big difference between “caused by” and “influenced by.” I believe there are a lot of things that can influence our decisions, but only one thing that can cause them, and that is our own volition. (Others have pointed out some of the challenges in believing otherwise.)

    I believe that our minds are the cause of our decisions. The various components of ourselves that we give names to – our intellect, our will, our instinct, our nature, our personality, our character – these are not actually things, in my view, but rather they are constructs that use for the benefit of our understanding. I think it is perfectly meaningful to talk about whether or not this or that is the result of conscious deliberation (which is what I have been meaning when I speak of volitional choice), but to say that volition is a cause per se – rather than an aspect of ourselves – is a reification error in my opinion. I understand others may disagree (i.e. dualists), and I don’t want to get into metaphysics, so if you disagree we’ll just agree to disagree on this.

    I don’t think that the decisions we make are solely a matter of summing the strength of various beliefs and desires and picking a winner. I don’t think that our volition could be replaced by a sophisticated hill-climbing algorithm scaling to some peak formed by an amalgamation of beliefs and desires.

    I agree (and have said here several times) that I don’t think minds can be formalized in this way. But just because choices do not arise algorithmically from beliefs and desires does not mean that they are not based on them. Again – what else might they be based on? If you say that “volition causes decisions”, do you insist that it does so without considering beliefs or desires, or do you think it causes decisions on other things besides beliefs and desires?

    It seems to me that, given your admission that we have the ability to make irrational choices, you might want to agree with some of the above. I’m curious to know: What do you believe to be the origin these irrational choices?

    Well, that’s the point: If choices are irrational, then there is no accounting for them! I do not know how minds work, so I can’t give you a mechanism that explains how these decisions actually get made, but by definition we can’t explain irrational decisions by giving reasons for them.

    Have you considered that, even in your coin-flipping example, it could be argued that you are choosing based on your desire to flip a coin?

    If it is really a felt desire, then like all other desires it would be something we experience unbidden and not something we consciously chose! If I really desired to flip a coin, I could not simply desire not to flip a coin simply by deciding it.

    People try to provide justifications or rationalizations for their actions all the time in an effort to avoid the conclusion that, “I did it!”

    In my view, we are always responsible for our actions, even if we are under the influence of drugs or disease or stress or twinkies or bad parenting or peer pressure or anything else. Justifications don’t alleviate responsibility.

    I don’t really see it as pessimistic to believe that I am better understood as my choices than as the result of a long series of cause-and-effect leading inevitably to my current beliefs and desires.

    I would say our best understanding is that our choices result from consciously deliberating over our beliefs and desires, but our beliefs and desires themselves are not chosen in this way. We can’t explain the way we come to a decision except for our subjective experience of the process and the verbal justifications we report to ourselves and others. Thus, either our decisions are reasoned in a way we can understand them (and yes, I’ve been referring to these as ‘rational’ decisions), or they are not reasoned in any way we can understand (which I’ve called ‘irrational’). To the extent they can be explained and justified, they are based on factors that are beyond our conscious control.

    I’ve really done my best to listen and respond to all criticisms of this idea, but at this point I’m not sure I can make my point any clearer.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  92. 92
    Phinehas says:

    Hi RDFIsh,

    Since I am still curious about this…

    Are you sure you can formulate a truly irrational choice given your position? How could you argue against a position that you’ve defined things such that all choices are rational choices.

    Well, that’s the point: If choices are irrational, then there is no accounting for them! I do not know how minds work, so I can’t give you a mechanism that explains how these decisions actually get made, but by definition we can’t explain irrational decisions by giving reasons for them

    I’m not asking for a reason. I’m asking for a cause. In a strictly cause-and-effect world, every effect has a cause. So either irrational decisions are uncaused, or they have a cause outside beliefs and desires. What is that cause?

    It makes no sense to appeal to ignorance about how the mind works at this point when we’ve been talking all along about how the mind works. It also makes little sense to say that you don’t want to get into metaphysics, when most of those you are conversing with would say we’ve been neck-deep in metaphysics for the past 90 posts. 😉 After all, the refusal to get into metaphysics assumes we’ve only been talking about physics, which may be the primary point of departure in our discussion in the first place.

  93. 93
    StephenB says:

    RDFish

    With regard to people’s beliefs about birth control changing over time, I was simply observing that you related this to pressure from secularists. I did not say the secularists were responsible for this change, or that they caused this change; rather, I echoed that the secularists persuaded people to change their views. I really was just paraphrasing your account of how this happened (I was treating “persuading” and “pressuring” as synonyms here).

    The issue on the table is whether or not an individual can choose to change his beliefs. You argued that it is not possible. In response, I pointed to millions of people who did, indeed, choose to change their beliefs about the morality of artificial birth control. We both agree that outside pressures (or persuaders) were not the cause of the changed belief. My reference to those pressures was simply an incidental description of the historical circumstances, so there is no reason to re-introduce it back into the discussion. If my comments about the distinction between intellect and will are not helpful, then we can dispense with that topic as well. So, lets’ return to our theme: Do we now agree that it is possible for an individual to choose to change his beliefs and that my example confirms the point? If so, then the issue is resolved.

  94. 94
    StephenB says:

    RDFish

    I assure you I have been as clear as I possibly can be on the matter. As anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the problem of free will knows, there are plenty of different varieties of “free will” that people believe (or disbelieve) in, so one can’t simply say yes or no to the question and be understood.

    I am well aware of the many different versions of free will, most of which are attempts to manipulate words and phrases in an attempt to reconcile it with determinism. I define free will as libertarian free will. Do you accept libertarian free will?

  95. 95
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    Are you sure you can formulate a truly irrational choice given your position? How could you argue against a position that you’ve defined things such that all choices are rational choices.

    I’ve read this three times now and still don’t get what you’re saying. I’m sorry.

    RDF: Well, that’s the point: If choices are irrational, then there is no accounting for them! I do not know how minds work, so I can’t give you a mechanism that explains how these decisions actually get made, but by definition we can’t explain irrational decisions by giving reasons for them.
    P: I’m not asking for a reason. I’m asking for a cause. In a strictly cause-and-effect world, every effect has a cause. So either irrational decisions are uncaused, or they have a cause outside beliefs and desires. What is that cause?

    It makes no sense to appeal to ignorance about how the mind works at this point when we’ve been talking all along about how the mind works. It also makes little sense to say that you don’t want to get into metaphysics, when most of those you are conversing with would say we’ve been neck-deep in metaphysics for the past 90 posts. After all, the refusal to get into metaphysics assumes we’ve only been talking about physics, which may be the primary point of departure in our discussion in the first place.

    Here is what I know through introspection:
    1) I know what it is to experience conscious awareness, and what it is to make a consciously deliberated decision.

    2) I know that I can choose to act one way or another by means of consciously deliberated decision.

    3) I know what it is to experience a desire.

    4) I know what it is to hold a particular belief about something

    5) I know that I cannot change my beliefs and desires by means of consciously deliberated decisions

    If you’d like to consider these claims to be metaphysical, be my guest. I don’t, but I don’t think that matters.

    I proceed from these facts and inductively infer that other people are likewise incapable of changing their beliefs and desires by means of consciously deliberated decisions. Finally, I observe that either our choices are based on our beliefs and desires or they are not. Unless someone can propose what else we might base our choices on, I conclude that we either base our choices on factors we do not choose or we base our choices on nothing at all.

    Now, I would not say (and have not said) that beliefs and desires cause our rational decisions. I have said what I mean by “rational decisions” is that they follow from our beliefs and desires, or that they are entailed by them, or that they are based upon them or compelled by them. Frankly, I would say I need to be more precise with my language here, so I’ll pick a single word that means just what I mean: I will use the verb “predicate”

    predicate(v.tr.) To base, found, or establish: I predicated my argument on the facts.

    To say one predicated an argument on the facts does not imply that the argument is expressed in a formal system (e.g. formal logic or mathematics) and that the conclusion follows ineluctably from the facts. However, it does mean that the conclusion is consistent with the facts, and that given the facts, the conclusion can be seen by reason to follow.

    I fear you will still accuse me of evading your question: What causes us to choose the doughnut instead of the broccoli?!? I have enjoyed our discussion and hate to disappoint, but I simply do not know how to answer your question, because I do not know how minds work. I don’t know how we make rational decisions, nor how we make irrational decisions, nor how we add two numbers, or design a machine, or figure out that the photons hitting my retinas just bounced off the face of my grandmother. I’m certain that nobody else understands how we accomplish these things either (all of the fascinating results of cognitive science notwithstanding).

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  96. 96
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    The issue on the table is whether or not an individual can choose to change his beliefs. You argued that it is not possible. In response, I pointed to millions of people who did, indeed, choose to change their beliefs about the morality of artificial birth control.

    In order to support your claim, you would need to hear from these people just how their beliefs changed. If they said “I decided I to believe that artificial birth control was moral rather than immoral, and upon making that decision, my belief changed”, then I would tend to agree with you. However, I suspect that is not at all how these people experienced their change of mind, nor would it be how they describe it. Instead, they would almost certainly provide a set of reasons – beliefs that they held and desires that they felt – which they believe justified that artificial birth control is moral after all (it doesn’t hurt anybody, they really want to have lots of sex, they should be able to have sex without making more babies, and so on). In that case, I would argue that their choice was based on a set of desires and beliefs that they did not consciously choose to hold, and that these beliefs were based upon their experience (e.g. because they experienced sex as being really fun) or upon things they heard from other people (perhaps secularists persuaded them that artificial birth control didn’t hurt anybody).

    Do we now agree that it is possible for an individual to choose to change his beliefs and that my example confirms the point? If so, then the issue is resolved.

    No, Stephen. Respectfully, I think that our discussion has revealed some level of confusion in your model of how decisions are made. In my previous post to you, I responded to your comment thus:

    RDF: In that case, is there anything that our will takes into consideration, besides the things we believe and desire, when it makes a choice? What might that be?
    StephenB: What should I believe? What should I desire? What should I decide? What is good for me? What is good for others?
    RDF: But of course the answers to these questions are themselves beliefs.

    What I see you doing is assigning our decision-making ability to something you are calling a “will”, and then describing the will as though it was a person or agent – an homunculus. But homunculi theories don’t succeed at illuminating decision-making any more than they help us to understand perception. In this case, you say that the will uses beliefs (such as those regarding what is good for you or for other people) in order to come up with decisions. But this doesn’t help you to negate the conclusion that we base our decisions on beliefs that we do not consciously choose. On the contrary: Whether you attribute the decision-making to the will or to the person, you’ve conceded that beliefs are the basis of our (rational) decisions. Since I believe we can easily confirm that beliefs are not under our conscious control simply by introspection, it would appear that it is my viewpoint that has been confirmed.

    I am well aware of the many different versions of free will, most of which are attempts to manipulate words and phrases in an attempt to reconcile it with determinism. I define free will as libertarian free will. Do you accept libertarian free will?

    I’m sure you’re aware that even libertarianism comes in quite a few very different flavors, and if you put five different libertarians in a room and asked about ontology or interaction or antecedent cause or control or compatibilism or… you’d get ten different answers ;-). Given the plurality of views and sub-views in this and other areas of metaphysics, and given how long people have been at it, I find debating metaphysics never really seems to get anywhere.

    Still, I do not wish to appear evasive, so I will give it an earnest, if brief, try. In terms of ontology, I hold that physicalism/materialism is philosophically underspecified because it has not coherently incorporated results from modern physics (in particular the denial of local realism). And it is clear that phenomenology can never be reduced to objectively described mechanism. But it also seems to me that dualist interactionist solutions to libertarianism are unattractive because positing an ontologically distinct class of causeless cause not only encounters the interaction problem and denial of event-causation but also serious issues with parsimony and ad hocism. In general, I lean toward re-conceptualizing both agency and cause itself in a way that makes it compatible with physics. I’m sympathetic to David Chalmers’ ideas regarding the development of a property-dualistic framework based on a new understanding of supervenience.

    Chalmers also provides an analogy that expresses my overarching view very well. To paraphrase: Trying to explain mental causation with our current conceptions of mind, material, and causation is like trying to explain electrical phenomena based on Newtonian mechanics before the advent of Maxwell’s equations (or, now, quantum electrodynamics). It’s clear that something is going on that transcends our current understanding of physical reality, but it just doesn’t help much to describe something simply in terms of its effects and provide no characterization other than it is uncaused and irreducible and somehow accomplishes the phenomena in question. Some day we may be able to say something more about how mental causation fundamentally proceeds, but for now we just can’t.

    I suspect you’ll be disappointed at my answer, since I can’t give you a yes/no reponse to such a complicated question. But those are my sincere thoughts on the matter.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  97. 97
    StephenB says:

    The issue on the table is whether or not an individual can choose to change his beliefs. You argued that it is not possible. In response, I pointed to millions of people who did, indeed, choose to change their beliefs about the morality of artificial birth control.

    RDFish

    In order to support your claim, you would need to hear from these people just how their beliefs changed.

    How they changed their beliefs is a separate and irrelevant question, given the fact that they did, in fact, change their beliefs and that they chose to make that change. My claim is supported by the historical fact that they did, indeed, choose to change their belief, which is the very thing that you claim cannot happen.

    If they said “I decided I to believe that artificial birth control was moral rather than immoral, and upon making that decision, my belief changed”, then I would tend to agree with you.

    If they decided to change their belief, then their belief obviously changed with the decision.

  98. 98
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    How they changed their beliefs is a separate and irrelevant question, given the fact that they did, in fact, change their beliefs and that they chose to make that change. My claim is supported by the historical fact that they did, indeed, choose to change their belief, which is the very thing that you claim cannot happen.

    As I’ve said ad nauseum now, my point is that people cannot change their beliefs or their desires by means of willing them to be different. People’s beliefs do change, however, as a result of exposure to new ideas, new experiences, and even reflection and re-evaluation of the evidence. Review this long thread and you will see that I have said these same things over and over again.

    History certainly does not show that these people changed their beliefs simply by means of their conscious will, the way we can initiate actions with our conscious will.

    Here again is what I was saying about how we might assess whether these people’s beliefs changed by means of sheer will or not:

    If we asked these people how they came to their new belief regarding birth control, and they replied “I decided to believe that artificial birth control was moral rather than immoral, and upon making that decision, my belief changed”, then you would be right: I would agree that these people did actually change their beliefs simply by willing it.

    But I do not think that these people would say that! On the contrary, they most likely would reply with something like “After talking with these secularists I’ve come to believe that birth control doesn’t hurt anyone, and there is no actual prohibition about it in the Bible, and for these reasons I now believe it is moral.” And so my position would be correct.

    You see, they did not simply will themselves to believe something new. They did not choose a new belief in the way we choose to perform some action. Rather, they reasoned from their other beliefs and desires and found that their belief about this had changed.

    I hope I have been sufficiently clear this time!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  99. 99
    Phinehas says:

    RDFish:

    I have enjoyed our discussion and hate to disappoint…

    Me too, and no worries. I wore my big boy pants today. 🙂

    Finally, I observe that either our choices are based on our beliefs and desires or they are not. Unless someone can propose what else we might base our choices on, I conclude that we either base our choices on factors we do not choose or we base our choices on nothing at all.

    Since I am still curious about this, I’ll try to ask it another way. Do you believe it is possible to base/predicate our choices on absolutely nothing at all? If so, could you give an example?

    The reason I’m asking this is that I am trying to figure out whether “beliefs and desires” as you’ve defined them so cover the entire gamut of human experience that you’ve left no room for alternatives on which a choice might be predicated. It’s kind of like the old joke: I know every language but Greek. [Can you say something in Russian?] Russian is Greek to me!

    I know that I cannot change my beliefs and desires by means of consciously deliberated decisions

    Of your five points, this is really the only one with which I’d take issue.

    Since I believe we can easily confirm that beliefs are not under our conscious control simply by introspection, it would appear that it is my viewpoint that has been confirmed.

    I cannot easily confirm this simply by introspection. Introspection confirms for me that beliefs are not directly under my conscious control. And experience confirms for me that beliefs are indirectly under my conscious control.

    5a) I know that I cannot change my beliefs and desires directly by means of consciously deliberated decisions

    Can you explain to me how (5a) is a poorer description of reality that your (5)?

    If you’d simply concluded that we base our choices on factors we do not choose directly, then I might be inclined to agree.

  100. 100
    Phinehas says:

    Hey RDFish:

    You see, they did not simply will themselves to believe something new. They did not choose a new belief in the way we choose to perform some action.

    I don’t believe that saying they did not choose a new belief in the way we choose to perform some action is the same thing as saying they did not choose a new belief. You seem to be making the jump from the former to the latter with ease, but it seems a substantial chasm to me.

  101. 101
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    Since I am still curious about this, I’ll try to ask it another way. Do you believe it is possible to base/predicate our choices on absolutely nothing at all? If so, could you give an example?

    What I mean when I say a choice is predicated on nothing is that there are no reasons that account for our choice. If someone making such a choice is asked why they made that particular choice, they could not articulate a relevant reason (again, aside from “Oh, I just did it” or “Why not?” or the reason my father would have given: “Shut up”, he’d explain).

    An obvious example would be the sorts of choices made by subjects of the well-known experiments on free will conducted by Libet and others, where they were instructed to choose when to press a button, or decide which of two buttons to push, purely at their voluntary discretion.

    These decisions seems analagous to random mutations in a way. A random mutation caused by, say, a cosmic ray hitting a DNA molecule is random with regard to fitness, but it is not random with regard to the source of the cosmic ray, the physical chemistry of the collision, etc. Similarly, I am not saying these unpredicated choices are causeless; I’m saying their cause (whether they be physical or “immaterial”) is not related to the choice that is made.

    The reason I’m asking this is that I am trying to figure out whether “beliefs and desires” as you’ve defined them so cover the entire gamut of human experience that you’ve left no room for alternatives on which a choice might be predicated. It’s kind of like the old joke: I know every language but Greek. [Can you say something in Russian?] Russian is Greek to me!

    That’s a good one. I’ve tried to think of other sorts of reasons, but in my view they really do boil down to beliefs and desires. One may attribute choices to instinct or genetic predisposition, but obviously that doesn’t suggest any sort of freedom at all. Or one might say that values could explain a choice, but it seems to me that we mean the same thing by “I value this good (or state of affairs)” as we do by saying “I desire this good (or state of affairs)”.

    I cannot easily confirm this simply by introspection. Introspection confirms for me that beliefs are not directly under my conscious control. And experience confirms for me that beliefs are indirectly under my conscious control.

    Let’s look at this. Imagine I decide to arrange things such that I will eventually believe in Scientology, even though I do not believe in it now, and I cannot simply will myself to believe in it. I voluntarily start attending Scientology meetings and reading Dianetics, in hopes that I will begin to believe that we are inhabited by souls of dead Thetans and so on. At some point, let’s say (although this is not assured) I actually do find that I hold these beliefs.

    Is this an example of freely – albeit indirectly – changing my beliefs by conscious will? I still don’t think so. Why, we can ask, did I make the decision to change my beliefs in the first place and start going to Scientology meetings? Well, here we go again: Either that decision was predicated upon unchosen beliefs and desires, or it was predicated on nothing at all.

    I don’t believe that saying they did not choose a new belief in the way we choose to perform some action is the same thing as saying they did not choose a new belief. You seem to be making the jump from the former to the latter with ease, but it seems a substantial chasm to me.

    Right – sorry but this is more of my sloppy language. I need to be careful to qualify that “choose” here means “choose by means of conscious will”.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  102. 102
    Phinehas says:

    RDFish:

    The thing is, as a recovering addict, I have lived first hand through the process of slowly changing beliefs and desires over time by ongoing, daily acts of the will. Pointing out my desires to be free, healthy, a good father, a good husband, and a good person doesn’t really undermine this truth for me. Those desires were with me all along, but they were never enough. I have experienced the power that surrendering to something outside of myself can bring to a man who was powerless to deny his own desires or to overcome his tendency to do the wrong thing. And I know this surrender inevitably leads me to a life that is more rational, not less.

  103. 103
    StephenB says:

    RDFish

    As I’ve said ad nauseum now, my point is that people cannot change their beliefs or their desires by means of willing them to be different. People’s beliefs do change, however, as a result of exposure to new ideas, new experiences, and even reflection and re-evaluation of the evidence. Review this long thread and you will see that I have said these same things over and over again.

    You seem to forget that many people do not base their beliefs on ideas, experiences, reflection, or even on rational evidence, but on the hope and desire that their belief might be true. This desire can cause them to choose a belief that is congenial with their inclinations, as opposed to a belief that if grounded in rationality.

    This gets back to my earlier point, which you have not yet addressed. It is just as true to say that our conduct influences the way we think as it is to say that the way we think influences our conduct. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “rationalization. It is very common part of the human condition, and it plays into the formation of many of our beliefs. I am very surprised that you do not acknowledge this point. Sometimes, we form (and change) our beliefs simply because we want to. One such belief is manifest at this site quite often, namely the irrational notion that universes can just pop into existence without a cause. Clearly, this is an example of choosing a belief, because it militates against experience, reason, and reflection.

    Returning to my earlier example on birth control, I relate my recent experience with an ordained minister. In a very polite way, he said that he disagreed vehemently with the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. So I responded with these exact words: “What do you understand that teaching to be?” He didn’t know the first thing about it. In fact, he had chosen to believe against something that he could not even explain, presumably because he wanted to. So it was with those nominal Catholics that I alluded to earlier, whom I found to be equally uninformed on the subject. They had chosen to believe what they believed. Otherwise, they would have at least been aware of the countervailing arguments against their position–arguments that they simply didn’t want to know about.

  104. 104
    StephenB says:

    RDFish

    What I mean when I say a choice is predicated on nothing is that there are no reasons that account for our choice. If someone making such a choice is asked why they made that particular choice, they could not articulate a relevant reason (again, aside from “Oh, I just did it” or “Why not?” or the reason my father would have given: “Shut up”, he’d explain).

    Do you make your choices without any reason?

  105. 105
    RDFish says:

    Phinehas,

    Maybe your experience is something like this hypothetical account:

    I find my actions are not suited to my desires to be healthy and happy, but I am unable, by act of will, to change my behavior. My desire for change grows stronger, and even though I have no certain belief in a God (and cannot change this even though I try), I find that I am increasingly open to new things to satisfy these desires. And so, I choose to surrender to something outside of myself, to see if it will help. It helps tremendously, and my life turns around. This experience, in turn, convinces me that God exists, and now I believe it.

    I see this sort of experience as being utterly consistent with – even supportive of – my views here. My point has never been that we cannot effect positive change in our lives through our choices – only that it is not our conscious will that is capable of changing our beliefs and desires.

    And so, from outside yourself, I congratulate you on your good choices, and I wish you continued strength, health and happiness.

    RDFish

  106. 106
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    You seem to forget that many people do not base their beliefs on ideas, experiences, reflection, or even on rational evidence, but on the hope and desire that their belief might be true. This desire can cause them to choose a belief that is congenial with their inclinations, as opposed to a belief that if grounded in rationality.

    I haven’t forgotten; I just disagree. We can’t actually believe something just because we desire it to be true.

    Since we disagree, let’s settle our disagreement by appeal to a simple experiment. Ready?

    1) Think of something you do not currently believe to be true, but you wish (hope and desire) that it was true. I will do the same – for me, this will be “I desire that there be no more crime in New York City”.

    2) Now, take whatever it was that you desire to be true, and choose to actually believe it is true.

    3) Done? Ok, let’s take a look at the results. Do you actually believe that it is true now? I can tell you right now, for me the experiment failed. As much as I’d like it to be the case that there be no more crime in NYC, I still don’t believe that is the case.

    Did it work for you? If not, it seems that we have thus disproven the notion that we can simply and successfully choose to believe something we desire was true but do not already believe.

    I haven’t been very successful in communicating this idea to you, so I’m going to try a different tack. Here’s one analogy:

    I can consciously choose to open my eyes, or to close my eyes. This is analogous to consciously opening one’s mind to evidence, or refusing to look at evidence, which may affect one’s belief. However, once I choose to open my eyes, if I see a mudpie, I cannot consciously choose to see a birthday cake, no matter how much I desire that it was a cake instead of mud. This is analogous to the fact that we cannot consciously choose to believe something simply because we desire it to be true.

    The point seems utterly obvious to me. If I consciously chose to believe in a tooth fairy, I would know that this belief came about simply because I chose to believe it, and not because there is actually a tooth fairy. I would thus know that I had no reason to trust my belief, and I would not really believe it.

    This gets back to my earlier point, which you have not yet addressed. It is just as true to say that our conduct influences the way we think as it is to say that the way we think influences our conduct. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “rationalization. It is very common part of the human condition, and it plays into the formation of many of our beliefs. I am very surprised that you do not acknowledge this point.

    No need for surprise here, because I have acknowledged this over and over again. Here’s just a few of the times I’ve acknowledged (and addressed) this point upthread:

    RDF: You can choose to reflect on your beliefs, or seek different perspectives from other people or books and so on, and these choices may lead you to believe new things of course.
    and
    RDF: We make all sorts of choices that affect our lives, and these may affect our future beliefs.
    and
    RDF: The point is, we can take actions that might influence our future thoughts in all sorts of ways, but that is completely different from choosing our beliefs.

    Sometimes, we form (and change) our beliefs simply because we want to.

    Here’s where we disagree still – please re-run the experiment I just outlined to convinced yourself that this really is impossible.

    One such belief is manifest at this site quite often, namely the irrational notion that universes can just pop into existence without a cause. Clearly, this is an example of choosing a belief, because it militates against experience, reason, and reflection.

    I certainly do not want to change the topic to speculations regarding the origin of the universe(s). But I’m afraid your point here is mistaken: Just because you find such a theory preposterous in no way implies that adherents to such theories chose to believe it by an act of conscious will. Likewise, I’m certain that whatever your particular beliefs are about the origin of universes would seem preposterous to other people, but they would not be justified in assuming that you simply chose your beliefs rather than feeling compelled by experience, reasons, and reflection.

    Returning to my earlier example on birth control, I relate my recent experience with an ordained minister. In a very polite way, he said that he disagreed vehemently with the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. So I responded with these exact words: “What do you understand that teaching to be?” He didn’t know the first thing about it. In fact, he had chosen to believe against something that he could not even explain, presumably because he wanted to.

    If you mean he had consciously decided to adopt his belief simply because he wanted it to be true, again I must insist that people really are not capable of doing that. Please see for yourself by performing the experiment I’ve described.

    So it was with those nominal Catholics that I alluded to earlier, whom I found to be equally uninformed on the subject. They had chosen to believe what they believed. Otherwise, they would have at least been aware of the countervailing arguments against their position–arguments that they simply didn’t want to know about.

    Here is what I said to Chance upthread about this sort of situation:

    RDF: [P]erhaps you mean you might, based on faulty or incomplete information, arrive at a false belief. Well sure, we do that all the time. But still, if you arrived at a belief for whatever reason, you would not be able to believe its contradiction simply because you decide to. It really seems to me that it’s just not possible – it’s not the way our minds work.

    Do you make your choices without any reason?

    Certainly I make choices for which I cannot coherently articulate a reason – we all do. We also confabulate reasons, of course (there are fascinating experiments with split-brain patients that illustrate this with painful clarity). What’s your point here?

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  107. 107
    StephenB says:

    RDFish

    Since we disagree, let’s settle our disagreement by appeal to a simple experiment. Ready?

    OK

    1) Think of something you do not currently believe to be true, but you wish (hope and desire) that it was true. I will do the same – for me, this will be “I desire that there be no more crime in New York City”.

    OK

    2) Now, take whatever it was that you desire to be true, and choose to actually believe it is true.

    OK

    3) Done? Ok, let’s take a look at the results. Do you actually believe that it is true now? I can tell you right now, for me the experiment failed. As much as I’d like it to be the case that there be no more crime in NYC, I still don’t believe that is the case.

    My belief has not changed.

    Did it work for you? If not, it seems that we have thus disproven the notion that we can simply and successfully choose to believe something we desire was true but do not already believe.

    No, we haven’t proven or disproven anything. We have proven only that I cannot choose to believe anything at all, at a moment’s notice, with no motivation. No one gets up in the morning and says, “Well, I am bored. I think I will change a belief today.” They need time and some kind of justification or motive. I am surprised that you fall into such an egregious logical error.

    Now let me give you an everyday example of someone who chooses to believe something:

    From a psychological study: “People who start to smoke again after quitting for a while perceive smoking to be less dangerous to their health, compared to their views when they decided to stop’ – thereby averting their ‘post-decisional regret through their new rationalization.”
    The message is clear. A person behaves a certain way and then chooses a belief that conforms to that behavior. Notice also, that the changed belief that was chosen does not occur instantaneously.

    I haven’t been very successful in communicating this idea to you, so I’m going to try a different tack. Here’s one analogy:

    OK

    I can consciously choose to open my eyes, or to close my eyes. This is analogous to consciously opening one’s mind to evidence, or refusing to look at evidence, which may affect one’s belief. However, once I choose to open my eyes, if I see a mudpie, I cannot consciously choose to see a birthday cake, no matter how much I desire that it was a cake instead of mud. This is analogous to the fact that we cannot consciously choose to believe something simply because we desire it to be true.

    Same logical error as above. No rational, sane person could persuade himself to believe that that a mud-pie is a birthday cake, either instantaneously or over time. On the other hand, I just might delude myself someday into believing that young, hot chicks physically dig old men because the latter possess so much wisdom and experience. Indeed, I talked myself into it while I was writing. Do you grasp the difference?

    The point seems utterly obvious to me. If I consciously chose to believe in a tooth fairy, I would know that this belief came about simply because I chose to believe it, and not because there is actually a tooth fairy. I would thus know that I had no reason to trust my belief, and I would not really believe it.

    What is obvious to me is that you are missing the point rather spectacularly with your impossible to believe examples.
    [The way we behave can affect the way we think]

    No need for surprise here, because I have acknowledged this over and over again. Here’s just a few of the times I’ve acknowledged (and addressed) this point upthread:

    Let’s find out if you have, indeed, acknowledged the point—or if you even grasp it.

    RDF: You can choose to reflect on your beliefs, or seek different perspectives from other people or books and so on, and these choices may lead you to believe new things of course.

    That is not nearly the same as trying to reconcile your belief system with your behavior. Not even close.
    and

    RDF: We make all sorts of choices that affect our lives, and these may affect our future beliefs.

    Again, not even close.
    and

    RDF: The point is, we can take actions that might influence our future thoughts in all sorts of ways, but that is completely different from choosing our beliefs.

    Again, this has nothing to do with rationalization.

    If you mean he had consciously decided to adopt his belief simply because he wanted it to be true, again I must insist that people really are not capable of doing that.

    You can insist all day long, but you will be wrong. I can illustrate the point from a number of different perspectives. Let’s begin with this one:

    From Wikipedia on Rationalization:

    “A rather different, but perhaps complementary, approach to rationalization comes from cognitive dissonance. ‘In 1957. Leon Festinger…argued that when people become aware that their attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs (“cognitions”) are inconsistent with one another, this realization brings with it an uncomfortable state of tension called cognitive dissonance ‘.[19]

    One answer to the discomfort of the situation is that ‘their minds rationalize it by inventing a comfortable illusion’.[20] Thus for example ‘people who start to smoke again after quitting for a while perceive smoking to be less dangerous to their health, compared to their views when they decided to stop’ – thereby averting their ‘post-decisional regret'[21] through their new rationalization.
    In a similar way, acts of aggression will often be seen as ‘reasonable, well justified, even necessary…rationalizing their self-interest in these ways’; so that, to cite ‘Martin Luther King, Jr….”It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their act”‘.[22] The same may be said of the collective scale. ‘When groups commit aggression, they, too, rationalize their acts with high-sounding words…rationalizing their own self-interested desires’,[22] so that, for example, ‘The own God is the right God. The other God is the strange God….Our own soldiers take care of the poor families; the enemy rapes them’.[23]

    Such collective rationalizations come close perhaps to the communal illusions of which Freud wrote as ‘derived from human wishes…Must not the assumptions that determine our political regulations be called illusions as well? and…may not other cultural assets of which we hold a high opinion and by which we let our lives be ruled be of a similar nature?’.[24]”

  108. 108
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    No, we haven’t proven or disproven anything. We have proven only…

    😉

    …that I cannot choose to believe anything at all, at a moment’s notice, with no motivation.

    As for motivation, you ought to have had a strong motivation, since I asked you to pick something to believe that you really wanted to be true. If you didn’t follow that part of the experiment, try it again, but this time pick something that you are highly motivated to believe, such as “I have won the state lottery and can provide financial security for my family in perpetuity” or whatever it is that would truly be meaningful to you.

    But beyond that, you complain that the experimental setup did not provide for sufficient time. But our experience of consciously willing other things is virtually immediate. Try, for example, willing your hand to wave – you’ll see you can do it in less than a second. But I’m perfectly open to the idea that willfully changing a belief requires more time and effort than willfully waving a hand. Do you think if you a few hours you could will yourself to believe that you had won the state lottery? A week?

    Finally, you suggest that you can only will yourself to believe some things, but not anything at all. I submit this is really the crux of the issue. What is it that distinguishes the things that you can will yourself to believe from the things you could not possibly will yourself to believe?

    I am surprised that you fall into such an egregious logical error.

    I will endeavor to refrain from falling into egregious errors (logical or otherwise) and from surprising you in the future. 😉

    From a psychological study: “People who start to smoke again after quitting for a while perceive smoking to be less dangerous to their health, compared to their views when they decided to stop’ – thereby averting their ‘post-decisional regret through their new rationalization.”
    The message is clear. A person behaves a certain way and then chooses a belief that conforms to that behavior. Notice also, that the changed belief that was chosen does not occur instantaneously.

    We seem to be cycling through the same pattern. I observe that nobody can consciously will themselves to change a belief, and you bring up some example where some people’s beliefs change in some situation or other, and then I point out that the people in question did not actually consciously will themselves to change their belief and then we start over.

    Perhaps the problem is we don’t mean the same thing by “consciously willing” something. What I mean by that is we are consciously aware of an explicit intention to do something or other. If I waved my hand by an act of conscious will, I would first think to myself “I’m going to wave my hand”, and then I would proceed to wave my hand. If you mean something different by “consciouslly willing” something, then we’ve simply been talking past each other, and we can correct that if you describe what it is you mean by “consciously willing” something.

    But just like last time around, I again would say that these smokers never actually thought to themselves “I’m going to start believing that smoking is less dangerous to my health now” and then proceeded to change their beliefs. No, I’m sure they didn’t do that. Rather, their beliefs changed without any conscious decision at all.

    Same logical error as above. No rational, sane person could persuade himself to believe that that a mud-pie is a birthday cake, either instantaneously or over time. On the other hand, I just might delude myself someday into believing that young, hot chicks physically dig old men because the latter possess so much wisdom and experience. Indeed, I talked myself into it while I was writing. Do you grasp the difference?

    You mean they don’t?????

    Anyway, the point I was making with the analogy between seeing and belief was this: There are some things that are under voluntary control, and there are some things that are not. We can open and close our eyes by consciously willing it, or wave our hand or tell a story. We cannot generally(*) exert voluntary control over our pancreatic function or our hair growing. Likewise, we cannot will ourselves to see something different from what we actually see with our eyes. It would not be logically impossible for us to do this, it is just empirically false. And neither can we will ourselves to believe something different from what we actually believe.

    (*) I just thought of something interesting that might undermine my own position here in a way. Tibetan monks famously train themselves to achieve voluntary control over bodily functions that are (in Western medical thought) assumed not to be controllable by conscious will, such as heart rate and body temperature. Perhaps most people are unable to exert voluntary control over their beliefs, but with training and meditation, one could learn to believe whatever one wanted to believe. I’ll have to think about this some, but at first blush it seems both plausible and depressing, since we really don’t want people to believe things that aren’t true.

    What is obvious to me is that you are missing the point rather spectacularly with your impossible to believe examples.

    So I guess you are saying that we can only will ourselves to believe things that we already believe are believable, right? Again, this is the crux of the issue, and I think you need to give this some thought.

    One answer to the discomfort of the situation is that ‘their minds rationalize it by inventing a comfortable illusion’.

    Rationalizations occur in the subconscious, Stephen, not in the conscious mind. It is not a voluntary, willful act. So it has nothing to do with our discussion.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

    P.S. I am enjoying our discussion and hope you are too. I will be away from my computer all day tomorrow but look forward to continuing if you are willing (pun intended).

  109. 109
    StephenB says:

    RD

    And neither can we will ourselves to believe something different from what we actually believe.

    I agree that we cannot will ourselves to believe something different from what we believe through one act of the will at one moment in time. That would be a contradiction. However, we can, through as series of willful acts, begin to pull away from a truth that we do not like, behave in a way that militates against it, and end by justifying our behavior with a new belief more in keeping with our actions.

    Rationalizations occur in the subconscious, Stephen, not in the conscious mind. It is not a voluntary, willful act. So it has nothing to do with our discussion.

    The act of choosing and reconciling one’s beliefs to one’s behavior occurs at both the conscious and the unconscious level. What matters is that the choice is coming from the person and not from an outside source. Informally, people characterize is as “kidding ourselves. It is not so much an attempt to instantaneously believe something that you don’t believe as it is in gradually seeking to believe something that isn’t true because you want it to be true. For example, it could manifest itself in your belief that you are prevailing in this discussion.

    Here are a few other examples:

    A man buys an expensive car and then tells people his old car was very unsafe.

    A person fails to get good enough results to get into a chosen university and then says that he didn’t want to go there anyway.

    A parent punishes a child out of anger and says that it is for the child’s ‘own good’.

    A cashier gives you too much money by mistake, and you keep it on the grounds that they have cheated you in the past.
    Remember this one? A Catholic starts practicing artificial birth control and decides that he doesn’t really agree with the Church’s teaching on birth control on the grounds that it “doesn’t really hurt anybody.”

    Or try this: Politicians practice what George Orwell called, “reality control” as a means of shielding themselves from “Inconvenient facts.”

    Or, from a different perspective, here are some more everyday examples:

    “I don’t eat any more than the average person, but I am 100 pounds overweight.”
    “I am not really an alcoholic, I just drink for amusement.”

    Here is yet another facet of this phenomenon. Many of the worlds most influential people had serious moral flaws and literally corrupted their culture by persuading people to sink to their level. They hated reality the way it was, so they sought, and to a great degree succeeded in changing reality.

    Alfred Kinsey, for example, was a sexual pervert who countenanced child rape in order to make immoral sex acts seem normal.

    Karl Marx, a moocher who never worked a day in his life and was likely the worst family man in history, managed to develop an influential economic philosophy congenial with his bad habits.

    And so it goes.

  110. 110
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    I agree that we cannot will ourselves to believe something different from what we believe through one act of the will at one moment in time.

    Indeed! Moreover, we cannot will ourselves to believe something different from what we believe no matter how many times we try. We must be convinced to believe something else, or else our beliefs remain unchanged. That is why you thought my examples were so annoying: I chose things you did not actually believe (such as that you had won the lottery), and so it was clear that no matter how hard you tried, no matter much time you spent, and no matter how much you wished it was true, you could never succeed at willing yourself to believe it.

    That would be a contradiction.

    It’s not a contradiction per se, it’s just an empirical fact about how our minds work. And a good thing, too: You’ve pointed out some of the cognitive illusions that people suffer from, and there are plenty more. If people could actuallychange their beliefs just by consciously choosing to then we’d really have a mess on our hands!

    The act of choosing and reconciling one’s beliefs to one’s behavior occurs at both the conscious and the unconscious level.

    No, it’s plain to see that it really is not a conscious process at all. In fact, people who rationalize like this will never report (even to themselves) that they consciously chose to change their beliefs! Instead, they will provide rationalizations for their beliefs, as though they arrived at them by evaluating evidence.

    And that is what it feels like to us when we do this (and all of us do it): It doesn’t ever feel like we are just believing what we consciously chose to believe. Rather, it feels like we believe what we think is true.

    (The exception to this, I’ll say, is when somebody is actually consciously lying about their reasons for something. The overweight guy who says he doesn’t eat more than normal people might just be saying that so people don’t make fun him, but inside his own mind he knows full well that eats way more than that. But this isn’t an instance of belief change, because the guy’s belief doesn’t actually change.)

    What matters is that the choice is coming from the person and not from an outside source.

    I agree that we are all morally responsible for our own choices, even though we do not consciously choose our beliefs and desires, and even though we are all constantly influenced by outside sources.

    Informally, people characterize is as “kidding ourselves”.

    Rationalization is also referred to as “self deception”. Obviously the part of the self that is doing the deceiving is not conscious, and the part of us that gets deceived is our conscious self – otherwise it wouldn’t work. Rationalization is an unconscious process.

    For example, it could manifest itself in your belief that you are prevailing in this discussion.

    Let’s say I’d be happy to leave that for the fair reader to decide 😉

    In any event, it’s not my desire to “prevail”, but I am interested in seeing if my arguments can have an influence on others’ beliefs. I think the point is important because it may change the way we think about others with views different from ours. For example, here is something you said previously:

    Sometimes, we form (and change) our beliefs simply because we want to. One such belief is manifest at this site quite often, namely the irrational notion that universes can just pop into existence without a cause. Clearly, this is an example of choosing a belief, because it militates against experience, reason, and reflection.

    Hopefully you no longer believe that people can simply choose to believe like this, simply because they want to – right?

    Now, it would be very aggravating to me to think that somebody is consciously adopting ridiculous views – I might want to knock them upside the head and yell “Hey! Cut it out!”. But knowing that they did not consciously choose these views, but rather have become convinced of them without any conscious, willful choice, I would respond instead with patient and courteous discussion, formulating a set of arguments that were as persuasive as I could muster, and hope for the best!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  111. 111
    PeterJ says:

    I have found this quite an interesting discussion, although I must admit it is at times a little confusing. But I read on regardless, trying my bbest to follow it.

    On belief, I would just like to throw in a personal testimony.

    When I was very young, perhaps 6-7years, I remember being asked if I believed in God. My only real knowledge of God at that time was what I’d seen on TV at Christmas, and what my parents told me about the Salvation Army people at the bottom of our road. I quickly understood the concept of this ‘invisible being’ who was responsible for the universe, and later when asked the question i replied that ‘I believed there was a God’. Now I didn’t have any evidence that there was a God, or particularly believed everything that my parents told me (for good reason too), but for some reason chose to believe.

    I never really gave it much thought thereafter, however, as I got older, many years later, I distinctly remember being asked that question and for some reason i changed my mind and decided that I no longer believed.

    The thing is though, without having made a reasoned decision, on each occasion I somehow knew that the answer I gave was what I firmly believed.

    I find that same belief today still (almost 40 years later). No matter how rubbish my football team begin the season I choose to believe that they will win the league. When getting romantically involved with a woman, regardless of experience, I will choose to believe that ‘she is the one’ etc.

    Belief can be a matter of choice, as far as my experiences go, and having been married twice aready (almsost 3 times, on two occassions), it isn’t always a good thing.

    However, there is one beliefe I chose, and that was at the age of 38 when I chose to believe in Christ. Well, I had a supernatural experience that changed my life completely, so thankfully some beliefs are benificial 🙂

    I know this won’t help at all, but having followed the thread just wanted to add my little bit.

    Thanks guys for an interesting discussion.

  112. 112
    StephenB says:

    RD, as I said, I can, when called upon to do so, point to a number of psychological strategies and cognitive therapies through which the individual can, in many cases (not all), program himself to strengthen, weaken, add, or eliminate a belief– on the condition that he will dispose himself to do so with his behavior. However, you have persuaded me that you would dismiss any and all such evidence, just as you dismissed the personal testimony of everyone on this tread. There is, therefore, no reason for me to include my own story. Ironically, you have, for some reason, chosen to believe that we cannot choose to believe anything. In any case, I will give you the last word, wishing you peace and blessings, coupled with my compliments for a gracious response to all my comments.

  113. 113
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    I agree that these strategies and therapies sometimes work, but I think that the reason we need them is because… we are incapable of changing our beliefs and desires by acts of conscious will. Anyway, as I think you know, these strategies only work when we already believe that we need to change, and truly desire to do so!

    You did introduce a key concept into our discussion, that of rationalization. I agree that it is indeed by this involuntary, unconscious process that many of our beliefs are formed. I see you found your list of rationalizations on changingminds.org, where they admonish all of us to watch out for own rationalizations, because we all do it, and because we are not consciously aware of it. (I notice that among the items you left out of the list that you found there was this: A person explains their religious beliefs as ‘God’s will’. I’m not chiding you, honestly – just saying we all rationalize).

    I certainly did not intend to “dismiss the testimony” of people on this thread; they have in fact helped to shape my beliefs now. PeterJ here appears to actually have exactly the ability I was denying: He has chosen for no reason that is apparent even to himself to believe in God (and then to disbelieve, and then believe again), and to believe that his football team would triumph despite the facts, and he reports that he really, truly believes these things simply by choosing to.

    I’ll end by admitting my own rationalizations here. I could never consciously will myself to believe something without what I thought was a good reason, and the thought that other people can simply choose to believe whatever they want without rational justification is frightening to me. This fear of mine unconsciously shaped my belief that nobody was capable of doing this. Looking at testimonies such as that from PeterJ has shown me I was probably wrong about that.

    Thanks for discussion, Stephen,
    RDFish

    P.S. PeterJ thank you for your comments, and best of luck on your next marriage!

  114. 114
    StephenB says:

    Hi RD

    You write,

    I agree that these strategies and therapies sometimes work, but I think that the reason we need them is because… we are incapable of changing our beliefs and desires by acts of conscious will.

    When I say that someone can choose to change his beliefs, I don’t mean to say that he can summon that change immediately or by a single act of the will. That would be unrealistic. I mean that he can choose to change that belief through some kind of process, either through a behavioral change or through some kind of cognitive strategy. I hold that desiring a belief and then choosing to use a strategy that will bring it about is to change that belief through successive conscious acts of the will.

    Anyway, as I think you know, these strategies only work when we already believe that we need to change, and truly desire to do so!”

    Well, yes, of course. It wouldn’t make much sense to strive for a belief that we didn’t truly desire.

  115. 115
    RDFish says:

    Hi StephenB,

    I hold that desiring a belief and then choosing to use a strategy that will bring it about is to change that belief through successive conscious acts of the will.

    Well, at least one person here reports that they can choose their beliefs by a single act of will. I know I can’t, and apparently you can’t either. But if you say you can use a series of conscious willful acts to change your belief, I’ll take your word for it.

    Well, yes, of course. It wouldn’t make much sense to strive for a belief that we didn’t truly desire.

    Right – but (I’m sure you see this coming): we do not choose our desires!

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  116. 116
    Phinehas says:

    PeterJ:

    I think it was you who mentioned you’d written an autobiography. And I think I read a portion of it on the internet and found it absolutely fascinating. If so, can you point me to where I could find the rest of the book? It sounds a bit weird to say it, but your life is a real page-turner. 🙂

    Thanks!

  117. 117
    StephenB says:

    RD

    Right – but (I’m sure you see this coming): we do not choose our desires!

    Some desires are outside the range of choice, others aren’t. I can’t change my natural appetites, to be sure, so I must manage them so that they do not manage me. Sometimes, that requires heavenly help.

    Other desires, among which are unnatural appetites acquired through bad habits (such as smoking cigarettes) or immoral desires related to selfishness (such as the desire to dominate or oppress), can be changed by choice, albeit with strenuous effort and persistence.

    With heavenly help, we can, by choice, replace the desire to do evil with the desire to do good, but it often involves the humiliation of falling down, getting back up, and falling down again. The victory, though it can be won, comes hard. Remember Augustine’s famous prayer?–“Lord give me chastity, but not yet.”

    “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force”

    Matthew 11:11-15:

  118. 118
    Phinehas says:

    RDFish:

    My point has never been that we cannot effect positive change in our lives through our choices – only that it is not our conscious will that is capable of changing our beliefs and desires.

    Yes, but you keep wanting to jump to our choices being the result of beliefs and desires we did not choose. If this is true, then how is it exactly that we can effect positive change in our lives? From what you’ve said about choosing actions that we hope will bring about the change we desire, the best that we could manage would be to effect some possibility of positive change. Life then becomes a crap shoot, but perhaps we’ll get lucky. That’s not how I’ve experienced things.

    And so, from outside yourself, I congratulate you on your good choices…

    Why? They were merely the fallout of my beliefs and desires, which I cannot choose. So, in what way can we call my choices good? I was merely fortunate to have the beliefs and desires I did, and fortunate that, when rolling the dice with my actions, my beliefs and choices were altered in positive ways. So are your congratulations the same thing as congratulating someone who’s just won the lottery?

    I’m curious to know where you are going with all of this. What do you conclude base upon your introspection? Where is it that you end up philosophically. I strongly suspect that it is your desires and the personal benefits of ending up wherever you end up that is driving your choices to believe the things that get you there.

  119. 119
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    Yes, but you keep wanting to jump to our choices being the result of beliefs and desires we did not choose. If this is true, then how is it exactly that we can effect positive change in our lives?

    Again, we can arrange our life situation such that we are exposed to new ideas and influences. The best way to understand, I think, is this analogy I brought up: We can voluntarily choose to close or eyes or keep them open, but nobody can (normally) voluntarily choose what they see.

    From what you’ve said about choosing actions that we hope will bring about the change we desire, the best that we could manage would be to effect some possibility of positive change. Life then becomes a crap shoot, but perhaps we’ll get lucky. That’s not how I’ve experienced things.

    We don’t always experience things the way they are. I don’t experience the Earth moving, and I don’t experience my mind playing tricks on me when I fall for optical illusions, and I don’t experience my subconscious concocting rationalizations to account for my bevhavior.

    RDF: And so, from outside yourself, I congratulate you on your good choices…
    PHINEHAS: Why?

    Because you seem like a nice guy and I’m happy for others to do well!

    They were merely the fallout of my beliefs and desires, which I cannot choose.

    Merely??? They sound pretty significant to me!

    So, in what way can we call my choices good?

    I thought you had said your life took a turn for the better. I would say that was a good thing. Am I wrong?

    I was merely fortunate to have the beliefs and desires I did, and fortunate that, when rolling the dice with my actions, my beliefs and choices were altered in positive ways.

    Yes indeed! I’m glad for the good fortune of others – aren’t you?

    So are your congratulations the same thing as congratulating someone who’s just won the lottery?

    Well, hearing my congratulations might encourage you to act in ways similar to those that had these good results, which would probably be a good thing. Congratulating you on winning the lottery wouldn’t really have the same sort of positive effect, since chances are good that you wouldn’t win it again.

    I’m curious to know where you are going with all of this. What do you conclude base upon your introspection? Where is it that you end up philosophically.

    Here is what I said about that:

    RDF: I am interested in seeing if my arguments can have an influence on others’ beliefs. I think the point is important because it may change the way we think about others with views different from ours. …Now, it would be very aggravating to me to think that somebody is consciously adopting ridiculous views – I might want to knock them upside the head and yell “Hey! Cut it out!”. But knowing that they did not consciously choose these views, but rather have become convinced of them without any conscious, willful choice, I would respond instead with patient and courteous discussion, formulating a set of arguments that were as persuasive as I could muster, and hope for the best!

    PHINEHAS: I strongly suspect that it is your desires and the personal benefits of ending up wherever you end up that is driving your choices to believe the things that get you there.

    I agree! I just happen to realize that those desires are not the result of my conscious choice.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  120. 120
    Phinehas says:

    RDFish:

    We can voluntarily choose to close or eyes or keep them open, but nobody can (normally) voluntarily choose what they see.

    That is a great analogy, and I think it nicely highlights the issue I am having with your claims. For me, if you can choose to close your eyes or keep them open, then you can voluntarily choose what you see. Again, the indirect nature of your control over what you see seems like a distinction without a meaningful difference to me.

    Further, I don’t think this gets you where you want to go. Suppose we are hanging out, and you’ve got to swing by an ATM to get some spending cash. Since you don’t really know me that well, you ask me to close my eyes while you enter your PIN. But then you notice in the reflection that I am peeking! Which reaction makes sense in this scenario?

    A. That’s OK, you say to yourself, After all, nobody can voluntarily choose what they see.

    B. I don’t really know this guy, you remind yourself, and his choice to peek while I was entering my PIN is awfully shady!

    Clearly, upon careful introspection, the second response is more appropriate to the reality of the situation. And just as clearly, the reason it is the more rational reaction is that I do have a choice about what I see.

    Perhaps you will split hairs and say that your reaction isn’t based on my choice about what to see, but on my choice to leave my eyes open. But is this really true? Suppose that I left my eyes open, but turned to look the other way. Would you still be upset? Would your suspicion still be raised the same way? Isn’t it clear that the crucial bit is what I chose to see and not what I chose to do, since any number of choices about what to do are either acceptable or inappropriate based on whether or not I see your PIN?

  121. 121
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    That is a great analogy, and I think it nicely highlights the issue I am having with your claims. For me, if you can choose to close your eyes or keep them open, then you can voluntarily choose what you see.

    If someone voluntarily opens their eyes and sees a chair, and then chooses to see an elephant instead, and then actually sees an elephant, we would say they are suffering from visual hallucinations. You can open yourself to new observations, influences, and beliefs, but you cannot voluntarily choose what it is you come to believe.

    Suppose we are hanging out, and you’ve got to swing by an ATM to get some spending cash. Since you don’t really know me that well, you ask me to close my eyes while you enter your PIN. But then you notice in the reflection that I am peeking! Which reaction makes sense in this scenario?
    A. That’s OK, you say to yourself, After all, nobody can voluntarily choose what they see.
    B. I don’t really know this guy, you remind yourself, and his choice to peek while I was entering my PIN is awfully shady!

    I’d say “Dude, what’s up with that? You planning on ripping me off or something?”
    But if you saw me enter 1-2-3 and chose to see 4-5-6 instead, and then actually saw that, I’d take you to the psych ward.

    Suppose that I left my eyes open, but turned to look the other way. Would you still be upset?

    No, because then you couldn’t see my pin – you’d be choosing not to (just like leaving your eyes closed).

    Honestly this analogy seems clear to me. You can choose not to listen to the news, and instead listen to rumors on Twitter, and that would shape your beliefs. After believing that Obama planted the Boston bomb because you read it on Twitter, you might change your mind and “open your eyes” and see on FOX news that it wasn’t really Obama. But you couldn’t choose to believe it was Nancy Pelosi, even if you really wanted to believe it. You simply couldn’t.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  122. 122
    Phinehas says:

    RDFish:

    I’d say “Dude, what’s up with that? You planning on ripping me off or something?”
    But if you saw me enter 1-2-3 and chose to see 4-5-6 instead, and then actually saw that, I’d take you to the psych ward.

    Right. And, to my knowledge, no one is really arguing otherwise. The issue I am having is that when you say something like:

    We can voluntarily choose to close or eyes or keep them open, but nobody can (normally) voluntarily choose what they see.

    It is too easy to equivocate on, “nobody can voluntarily choose what they see.” (Believe it or not, this kind of equivocation is seen a lot around these parts.) Sure, the truth of this fact is supportable using examples like chair/elephant and 1-2-3/4-5-6. But it is just as readily deniable using examples like closing your eyes or turning away. The worry is that you are using the phrase to support the latter, not the former. No one is arguing against the former. The equivocation, the sleight-of-hand, the philosophical bait-and-switch lies in any assumption that, since you cannot be held responsible for the former, you also cannot be held responsible for the latter.

  123. 123
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    It is too easy to equivocate on, “nobody can voluntarily choose what they see.” (Believe it or not, this kind of equivocation is seen a lot around these parts.) Sure, the truth of this fact is supportable using examples like chair/elephant and 1-2-3/4-5-6. But it is just as readily deniable using examples like closing your eyes or turning away. The worry is that you are using the phrase to support the latter, not the former. No one is arguing against the former. The equivocation, the sleight-of-hand, the philosophical bait-and-switch lies in any assumption that, since you cannot be held responsible for the former, you also cannot be held responsible for the latter.

    First, it sounds like you want to paint me with the same brush as some others you apparently see around these parts. I’m not trying to pull a bait-and-switch on anybody, and if I’m not being clear about some concept or distinction I assure you it is not because I’m trying to pull a fast one.

    Next, I have been 100% clear and consistent about responsibility: In my view, we are, each of us, 100% responsible for all of our own decisions and actions, and that holds true whether our decisions are conscious or not, or whether we are drunk or tired or hopped up on Twinkies or if we were mistreated as children or even suffering from a brain tumor. Only if we are directly coerced – forced – by somebody else would I ever consider that we could not be held responsible for some deed we performed.

    Now, the vision analogy doesn’t appear to have clarified anything, so I’ll drop that, and try to be as direct and clear as I can.

    We agree that nobody can, by act of will, directly choose their beliefs and desires. You are arguing that (1) we still can indirectly use our conscious will to choose our beliefs, and (2) the difference between directly and indirectly choosing our beliefs is relatively unimportant. Am I right so far?

    I believe we also agree (correct me if I’m wrong please) that even indirectly, we can’t consciously choose to believe anything, right? No matter what willful acts you performed, you could not successfully choose to believe unicorns live in the clouds, or that it is wholesome and healthy to molest children. Assuming you agree, your claim becomes “We can indirectly choose our beliefs, but this only works for some beliefs that we already believe are believable.” Is that fair?

    I’ll stop there to see if I’ve mischaracterized you views thus far.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  124. 124
    Phinehas says:

    First, it sounds like you want to paint me with the same brush as some others you apparently see around these parts.

    Not at all. I was more interested in painting “no one can voluntarily choose what they see/believe” with the same brush as “evolution is a fact.” I am assuming you understand how the latter is ripe for equivocation. If not, I can explain what I mean.

    Next, I have been 100% clear and consistent about responsibility…

    I don’t know about 100% clear and consistent.

    Now, it would be very aggravating to me to think that somebody is consciously adopting ridiculous views – I might want to knock them upside the head and yell “Hey! Cut it out!”. But knowing that they did not consciously choose these views, but rather have become convinced of them without any conscious, willful choice, I would respond instead with patient and courteous discussion, formulating a set of arguments that were as persuasive as I could muster, and hope for the best!

    Maybe I’m missing something, but this sure sounds to me like you would hold the first person responsible for their conscious, willful choice, but not the second. Else, how to explain the difference in your perspective and interaction?

    Now, the vision analogy doesn’t appear to have clarified anything, so I’ll drop that, and try to be as direct and clear as I can.

    Don’t drop it on my account! I actually found it very helpful.

    We agree that nobody can, by act of will, directly choose their beliefs and desires. You are arguing that (1) we still can indirectly use our conscious will to choose our beliefs, and (2) the difference between directly and indirectly choosing our beliefs is relatively unimportant. Am I right so far?

    At least unimportant enough to make, “nobody can choose their beliefs and desires,” problematic as a true statement for all cases. Further, I’m not sure that the act of giving mental assent to a proposition about which you can think of no immediate objections isn’t awfully close to the same thing as choosing a belief directly. But I can set that concern aside for the time being.

    I believe we also agree (correct me if I’m wrong please) that even indirectly, we can’t consciously choose to believe anything, right?

    In principle, yes. There may be some edge cases like the monks you mentioned.

    “We can indirectly choose our beliefs, but this only works for some beliefs that we already believe are believable.” Is that fair?

    I don’t think I would phrase it that way at all. I’m not at all certain that the majority of our beliefs are of the inflexible kind. In fact, as someone else pointed out, it seems to stretch the normal way we think of beliefs to include directly observed evidence that would basically require a psychotic break to be deniable. I’d be more inclined to say something like:

    We can indirectly choose many of our beliefs, but what we believe tends to grow increasingly inflexible as we approach the kind of certainty that typically results from direct observation or experience.

  125. 125
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    I was more interested in painting “no one can voluntarily choose what they see/believe” with the same brush as “evolution is a fact.” I am assuming you understand how the latter is ripe for equivocation. If not, I can explain what I mean.

    That equivocation is patently obvious. Less obvious to you, perhaps, is the equivocation inherent in the term “intelligent cause”, but please let’s leave that for another discussion 🙂

    RDF: Next, I have been 100% clear and consistent about responsibility…
    PHINEHAS: I don’t know about 100% clear and consistent.

    Really?? Here’s what I’ve said in this thread:

    RDF: Coyne’s denial of moral responsibility is completely wrongheaded – of course we are responsible for our actions! Of course people choose their actions, and – if they are not coerced by someone else – those choices are free.
    AND
    In my view, everybody is responsible for everything they do
    AND
    [W]hy would you say we have no moral responsibility? Of course we are responsible for our actions – who else is responsible for what I do??
    AND
    And I believe the blame, praise, and responsibility for each person’s actions are due to that person. I think I’ve made that pretty clear!
    AND
    I feel each person is fully responsible for everything they do – even if they say they have a disease, addiction, had bad parenting, or whatever other excuse they may offer. Hopefully that is clear.
    AND
    Everyone is responsible for their own decisions.
    AND
    First, let me be clear that I believe that everybody is responsible for their own actions.
    AND MORE…

    Really, now – could you tell me how exactly I could have been any more clear or consistent about this issue?

    RDF: Now, it would be very aggravating to me to think that somebody is consciously adopting ridiculous views – I might want to knock them upside the head and yell “Hey! Cut it out!”. But knowing that they did not consciously choose these views, but rather have become convinced of them without any conscious, willful choice, I would respond instead with patient and courteous discussion, formulating a set of arguments that were as persuasive as I could muster, and hope for the best!
    PHINEHAS: Maybe I’m missing something, but this sure sounds to me like you would hold the first person responsible for their conscious, willful choice, but not the second. Else, how to explain the difference in your perspective and interaction?

    Yes, what you are missing is that I hold everybody fully responsible for their own actions. Perhaps I haven’t been sufficiently clear and consistent on this matter 😉

    Of course we are each responsible for our own choices, but that doesn’t mean that we will respond the same way to every instance of what we judge to be bad behavior. As I explained in my first post here (@2), we do need to consider circumstances and motivations in order to figure out how to deal with people who do bad things: If somebody punched me in the nose, I would be really angry and want them to learn a lesson that they can’t get away with that. But if that person was then diagnosed with brain tumor that made them violent, I may (or may not) still feel angry with them, but I would say the appropriate response would be surgery and hospitalization rather than incarceration.

    Likewise, whether or not somebody consciously chose to believe in something stupid, they would in my view be fully responsible for their beliefs and the decisions and choices they made based on those beliefs. But depending on these other circumstances, I might do different things to try and change their mind.

    Further, I’m not sure that the act of giving mental assent to a proposition about which you can think of no immediate objections isn’t awfully close to the same thing as choosing a belief directly.

    I think it’s utterly different: I asked to you confirm that what I wrote matched your current belief, not whether or not you would chose to believe what I wrote!

    RDF: “We can indirectly choose our beliefs, but this only works for some beliefs that we already believe are believable.” Is that fair?
    PHINEHAS: I don’t think I would phrase it that way at all. I’m not at all certain that the majority of our beliefs are of the inflexible kind. In fact, as someone else pointed out, it seems to stretch the normal way we think of beliefs to include directly observed evidence that would basically require a psychotic break to be deniable. I’d be more inclined to say something like:

    We can indirectly choose many of our beliefs, but what we believe tends to grow increasingly inflexible as we approach the kind of certainty that typically results from direct observation or experience.

    Ok, in that case, I’m glad I checked with you that I was stating your position correctly.

    So you think we (indirectly) choose many or most of our beliefs. Now, it seems to me that there is clearly an infinite number of propositions that you could never believe, no matter how indirectly and hard you work at it, including:
    – My basset hound teaches calculus at Harvard
    – Jimma Hoffa lives in a condominium at the center of the Earth
    – Everyone in China has your picture on their bathroom mirror

    Why is it that you could never choose these beliefs? Obviously because of your pre-existing beliefs about dogs, the habitability of the Earth’s core, how many people in China know you, and so on. Obviously too some of these relevant beliefs are based on your direct experience and some not. And just as obviously (in my view), these beliefs were never consciously chosen by you.

    I don’t want to guess what sorts of propositions you would be able to indirectly choose to believe, so please give me a few examples, and then perhaps I will understand what essentially distinguishes them from those I’ve listed and how I could go about choosing to believe them or not, indirectly, of my own free will.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  126. 126
    Phinehas says:

    If somebody punched me in the nose, I would be really angry and want them to learn a lesson that they can’t get away with that. But if that person was then diagnosed with brain tumor that made them violent, I may (or may not) still feel angry with them, but I would say the appropriate response would be surgery and hospitalization rather than incarceration.

    The question is: Why would the diagnosis make any difference?

    For me, it is patently obvious that the diagnosis makes a difference because it calls into question whether the person who hit you in the nose was fully responsible for his choice to do so. What other explanation can there be?

    I don’t want to guess what sorts of propositions you would be able to indirectly choose to believe, so please give me a few examples, and then perhaps I will understand what essentially distinguishes them from those I’ve listed and how I could go about choosing to believe them or not, indirectly, of my own free will.

    I choose to believe that my wife loves me. I choose to believe that she is well-intentioned even when I am hurt by a choice she has made.

    I choose to believe that I can be a good father despite selfish choices I’ve made in the past.

    I choose to believe that I can rise above the dysfunction in my family of origin.

    I choose to believe that God exists and that my life and choices matter to Him.

    I choose to believe that God has the power to help me, especially in the areas of my life where I feel powerless.

    As to what essentially distinguishes these from the list you’ve provided: These represent areas in which I am sometimes tempted to believe otherwise. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some element of doubt is a prerequisite for any choice to believe. Without doubt, there can be no belief. Without doubt, there is only certainty.

    Of course, at least in some cases, how much you doubt may also be subject to willful choices.

  127. 127
    RDFish says:

    Hi Phinehas,

    The question is: Why would the diagnosis make any difference?
    For me, it is patently obvious that the diagnosis makes a difference because it calls into question whether the person who hit you in the nose was fully responsible for his choice to do so. What other explanation can there be?

    What is obvious is that the guy who hit me in the nose was the one responsible for hitting me in the nose. The reason the diagnosis would be important is because the more we understand about why he might have done that, the better we can figure out how we might keep him from doing that again. If he did it because he had a violent upbringing and his entire personality is aggressive and he has a long history of violent behavior, clearly he needs to be incarcerated. However, if a formerly well-adjusted and non-violent person had a brain lesion on a portion of the brain that normally inhibits aggression and medical experience confirmed that surgery would likely rectify his violent behavior, then we ought to do that and not put him in a jail cell.

    I choose to believe…
    As to what essentially distinguishes these from the list you’ve provided: These represent areas in which I am sometimes tempted to believe otherwise. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some element of doubt is a prerequisite for any choice to believe. Without doubt, there can be no belief. Without doubt, there is only certainty. Of course, at least in some cases, how much you doubt may also be subject to willful choices.

    Ok, Phinehas, I think we’ve clarified a lot.

    In my experience, and the way I talk about it, if I believe something I do not feel as though I could choose not to believe it, and if I disbelieve something I do not feel like I could choose to believe it. If I am not sure about something, then I’m more likely to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” rather than saying I believe one way or another about it. If I think about it, I realize that I probably do say “I don’t know” more than other people. What I have called here “flipping a coin in one’s head” to believe one thing or another feels to me like a disingenuous charade, but to others it feels like a changing one’s belief on purpose.

    So I think I was wrong to generalize my experience to others: Just because I am not able to experience my conscious will determining what I believe, it seems other people experience exactly that. The lesson for me here is that perhaps I should make my point prescriptive rather than descriptive. Instead of saying people can’t choose what they believe, I should say it is important to be aware of one’s reasons for believing one thing over another, and those reasons ought to be other justifiable beliefs rather than simply one’s desires.

    I don’t think it is a good thing to pick or stick to some belief just because we want it to be true. I’m not saying I don’t do this involuntarily – like I said we all suffer from all sorts of cognitive illusions. But I will say that it is better for people to try and distinguish these two things. If I choose to believe that Angelina Jolie loves me because I desire it to be true, my actions will not generally be rational and beneficial. Moreover, if we all believed whatever we wanted to believe, we would have no basis on which to come to agreements or compromises. One person says “I believe that God wants me to kill gay people!” and the other says “I believe that God wants me to kiss gay people!” If these beliefs are freely chosen rather than based on more fundamental shared beliefs, there is no starting point for coming together.

    This now reminds me of “The Secret” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_(book) ]. Here’s an interesting take on this whole idea that one can choose one’s beliefs to good effect: http://www.johnstackhouse.com/.....-good-bad/

    Again, it is certainly not my intent to tell you or anyone else that whatever is having a positive effect on your life is somehow wrong or illusory. In fact I’m saying nearly the opposite: You might believe that you are simply choosing your beliefs, but in fact they are being shaped not by conscious choice but instead by your experience that these beliefs guide you toward tangible and positive results. And I do certainly hope you continue on that path!

    Thanks again for the discussion,
    RDFish

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