Shaping belief and the illusion of choice

Nearly every week I have people ask me, some with good intentions, others as they peer down their nose, “Why did you choose to believe in atheism”? Of course, I understand (generally) what they’re stabbing at. I used to believe something in the neighborhood of their own beliefs, and now, some time later, I no longer do. The asker of the question usually wants to know what the intellectual vehicle was that took me from point B for belief to point A for atheism.

Before we can look at this with the attention it merits, we have to firm up our foundation. First, “atheism” is not a belief or an ideology. One cannot believe in atheism any more than they can believe in non-leprechaun-ism. Atheism makes one claim and that is that no evidence exists for any of the personal creator gods (Jesus, Allah, Jehovah, Baal, etc.) exists and therefore any claim to knowledge of intent or actions of these beings lacks any substance or import. Atheism doesn’t address human suffering. It doesn’t talk about ethical claims regarding genocide or slavery. It is not an ideology. So while we might embrace a philosophy compatible with our own views, whether it be Christianity, Islam or Humanism, atheism doesn’t even attempt to make claims in these arenas.

Since atheism isn’t a value-based philosophy or an ideology, we have to concede that one cannot “choose” to believe in atheism. Atheism isn’t that kind of belief. But let’s say that’s just semantics… What if we’re just getting bogged down in definitions. Can we still “choose” atheism or Buddhism or any other belief structure? Are we so self-aware that we can consciously select what beliefs we entertain in our psyche?

“Of course!”, you say. “I absolutely choose my beliefs!” Almost everyone I’ve spoken to makes this claim. “I choose to believe in God.” “I choose to believe in the good within us all.” “I choose to believe in progressive political philosophies.” It certainly feels like we select our beliefs, doesn’t it? But before we write that in stone, that our values are selected a la carte from some ideological smorgasbord, let’s try a few exercises.

Every day, we all receive and observe various claims that are made about the world around us. Our brain evaluates those claims and either validates them by accepting them, or we may dismiss a claim as unbelievable or not credible. This happens perhaps hundreds of times per day. “The weather will be snowy and cold.” “The economy is making a strong surge.” “Joe Politician deserves your vote.” “There are WMD’s in Iraq.” “Jesus loves you and is the only way to life.” You might be thinking, “Yeah, I choose to believe this or that, but not the other.”

To demonstrate the lack of choice in belief, though, consider the following statements which I think most will agree with: 1) The total area of water covering the earth is greater than the total area of dry land. 2) The Easter Bunny is a myth and does not actually exist. 3) 2+2=4. 4) If I jump out of an airplane without a parachute, I will almost certainly die.

Any problems with any of those statements? Probably not. If you do, the message of this post will be meaningless anyway. Now, since you (may) claim that beliefs are chosen, I want you to select one of the statements above and then choose to believe the opposite. You might say, “I can do that. I can tell people that I believe in the Easter Bunny.” What have you done there, though? Have you actually changed your belief or have you professed a belief that doesn’t actually conform to what you actually hold to be true in your mind? Every day people make outward professions of things they don’t actually hold to be true in their own minds. I’m not asking for a profession here. I want you to legitimately change your belief, for real, if even just for a moment. Can you do it?

“Of course not!”, you say. Those are obvious points with concrete answers. I can’t believe 2+2=5. I know that’s not true. You do? Why? Because you have been shown convincing proof, proof that you have accepted that has become so firmly rooted in the pathways your brain that you cannot EVER accept any other answer to that equation other than “4”. So is that a bad example? Does the strong evidence spoil it? If so, switch to the Easter Bunny. After all, there’s no evidence against the existence of the Easter Bunny. Yet I’m betting you’re a non-Easter-Bunny believer. Why? This isn’t factual like our math problem. Choose to believe (not profess) that the Easter Bunny is real. Did you do it? Did you choose your new belief?

“Don’t be silly with these silly math problems and nursery rhymes.” Okay. Let’s hike deeper into woods of non-objective belief. Let’s think about the issues of gay rights as it pertains to the rights of two adult gay people to marry legally in the US. For the purposes of the exercise, I’ll state my view. I believe that two gay adults should be able to marry legally in the US (and the world, but that’s not the point) and enjoy the same rights and benefits as a heterosexual couple. Do you agree? Do you have your viewpoint in mind? Why do you hold it? What are you basing that on? Good… now, at the count of three, choose to believe the opposite. Three… two… one… GO! Did it work? Are you ready to hold up your “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” signs? No? Why not. Beliefs are chosen after all. Surely, even if only for an exercise, we should be able to choose a different belief.

What would it take for you to change a deeply-held belief, then? Let’s say it’s the 1980’s and you believed that AIDS was a gay-only disease, as so many of the time did. What changed the minds of an entire population (at least an entire population who believed that way)? Was it a choice? Did everyone say, “Man, this is a shitty viewpoint, I’m going to change it?” No. Evidence. Evidence changed the beliefs of an entire population. It didn’t happen all at once, of course. Why not? Since beliefs are based on the value of evidence in our own brains, different individuals valued the evidence at different times. Some folks took longer to convince. Was this a choice? Absolutely not! Consider the factors that went into that. Would a Baptist from Kentucky evaluate empirical evidence about AIDS and the homosexual population the same way that an anthropology professor from UCLA would? No. Ultimately, though, any intellectually-honest person had to acknowledge the facts of what AIDS was and how it was transmitted. No choice was involved. A tipping point is reached when the value of evidence becomes too strong and the brain has no choice but to embrace the new idea.

In the interest in full disclosure, I do have to say that I’m a few credit hours shy of my PhD in neuroscience (note the sarcasm, I have no neurological training beyond basic psychology courses in college).  However, from what I understand, there are countless studies that bear out what I’ve stated.  The pathways in the brain that influence decision making and the sensation we call choice all operate in the subconscious, doing their work long before we’re ever aware of their influence.  For example, think of someone you knew from High School.  Who did you think of?  Why?  Did you choose to think of this person?  Really?  Can you say what influenced you to “select” this person?  You can’t.  You requested this random information from your brain and it supplied an individual to remember.  Did you choose this person?  No.  This person appeared in your thoughts.  Don’t think so?  Move either your right hand or your left hand.  Which one did you move?  Why?  What led you to move the hand you did?  Think it was choice?  Had you been hooked up to an imaging device, you would see that your brain made the choice well before you were even aware of it.  This wasn’t your “choice”.  It occurred well before your conscious mind was engaged and aware of the hand that was going to move.

What does this mean for belief?  How fair is it to judge someone based on their beliefs?  I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be critical of bad ideas.  If someone believes something harmful, we should be able to be critical of that.  If people don’t choose their beliefs in the way that we assume they do, though, isn’t a larger portion of empathy and patience due? Won’t empathy, patience and a willingness to dig hard to find common ground the best way to grease the wheels of cooperation and community?   The atheist didn’t “choose” his “beliefs” any more than the young child of Christian parents “chose” to believe in a literal interpretation of the bible.  The child born in Egypt didn’t choose to become a Muslim.  This doesn’t mean these will be their respective beliefs forever.  Other influences in life may spring them from something they’ve held to be true for decades.  But their exit from that religion or ideology will be due to so many influences that are beyond the control of the individual.  A fundamentalist who ultimately accepts evolution does so, not because he or she chooses it, but because the value of the evidence in the brain finally overwhelmed the foothold of the previous belief in his or her brain.

This doesn’t mean that all choices are pointless or an illusion.  However, we should recognize that the influences in the pathways in our brain precede our conscious thought so much more than we’re aware of.  This should very much affect the way we interact with those around us.  The value of empirical evidence and the effectiveness by which we present it becomes infinitely more useful than any fervor by which we would otherwise criticize or attack their beliefs.  An attack doesn’t accomplish anything since those beliefs are embraced below the conscious mind.  Evidence is the only thing that can spring the trap.  It can take time, sometimes years for someone to alter deeply held ideas.  We’re still at the mercy of our own psyche, though.  Our species hasn’t evolved to a level of self-awareness that we can really choose what we believe.  So how will you treat those who profess different beliefs than  you?  Will you attack them?  Will you wonder why they “chose” an ideology so foreign to your own?  Or will you attempt to find common ground and use logic and respectful dialogue to whittle away the differences?  I would argue we should work those tendencies into our subconscious.  If ever there were a choice to be made, we should choose to embrace dialogue, honesty, logic, reason and respectful interchange.  This is the way forward.  This is how we evolve with better ideas until someday we really do have the self-awareness to choose what we believe.

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One Response to Shaping belief and the illusion of choice

  1. “In the interest in full disclosure, I do have to say that I’m a few credit hours shy of my PhD in neuroscience.” I knew it, though I thought it might be philosophy. I envy you getting your training when neuronal plasticity and even neurogenesis in the adult are part of what you get to work with when you talk about transforming beliefs. How something becomes, or ceases to be something you BELIEVE in a way that feels organic is not just a process of taking in new data – there is an impact on structure. I enjoyed this.

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