Belief as a choice is a trending topic within the LDS world. Presumably this is the response to the many undergoing faith crisis as difficult facts about LDS historical origins are being publicized as of late.
It feels like the believers are pointing fingers at non-believers, saying “You chose not to believe!” implying some moral deficiency as the reason why. Non-believers don’t view their loss of belief as a choice and would like to not be harshly judged for changing beliefs. In this article, I will summarize the philosophical literature to determine when/if we can say belief is a choice. I add some distinguishing clarification of historical vs religious truth in the LDS context. Finally, I will review recent LDS conference talks in light of this information to determine what the brethren might mean and whether their assertions on belief as choice jibes with academic understanding.
This is not a simple concept, and I am not a philosopher, but I’ll do my best here to summarize the generally accepted concepts. Control is traditionally divided into two parts. Direct control is something you can do at whim, ie raise your arm. Indirect control is something you can accomplish over time by doing other actions which lead to the outcome, ie you have no direct control to lose weight but you can change your diet and exercise and over time you can manage your weight.
Further complicating matters is how to define “belief”. The most common definition is a thought that one affirms, ie something you think that you think is correct. I believe the Earth is round, because I have a thought that the Earth is round, and I think that is correct. That is the definition I will use to review the literature, but keep in mind that is not a 100% agreed on definition. Some philosophers regard beliefs as dispositions to act in certain ways, unrelated to whether they think of the belief as true. This is more similar to the religious concept of faith.
An additional complication is that we sometimes have a hard time understanding our own brain enough to know our beliefs. When we are perceived as having a belief, we may a) actually have that belief b) think we have that belief but actually do not and after further introspection we discover the truth about our belief c) we state we have belief and act as if we have belief but we are consciously aware we do not have the belief.
Philosophers generally agree we do not have control over our beliefs. Beliefs are generally thought of as involuntary reactions to evidence. However, there are some rare exceptions in the direct sense and more common exceptions in the indirect sense.
Doxastic Voluntarism — Direct Control
Philosophers nearly universally say belief is a not a choice, in terms of direct doxastic control. Case in point, if I offer you $10M to believe in something obviously not true, and if there was a truth machine that we could test you with, and even if you valued money over truth, you would not be able to will yourself to believe it and pass the truth machine test. But there are a few important exceptions to this.
- When the evidence is inconclusive. This does not mean it’s not 100% against the proposed belief. It means it’s 50-50, and you have no possible way to make a determination of evidence. Going into the BYU-Utah game, if you think the evidence shows there is a 50-50 chance either team could win, you may be able to choose which team you think will win outside of the evidence and state “I believe BYU will win.”
- When the evidence is not overwhelming, and the subject has a huge motivation to take on the belief. ie my wife dies and I’ve never been religious before, I can convince myself that she is living in the afterworld and I will see her again.
- When the outcome is a “belief determines truth” wager. ie the measure in which I believe determines the outcome. ie I’m in a tennis match against a superior opponent, but I know the only way I have a chance to compete is to go whole-heartedly into the effort, so I believe I will win, which helps me play stronger, actually giving me a chance to win.
However, these are all controversial exceptions because many philosophers still believe the subject has not successfully willed themselves to believe. They are exercising faith or “acting as if” they believe but don’t truly believe, and the truth machine would out them. If they have exerted mind control through an indirect process (as discussed next), this would not be easy to retain.
Doxastic Voluntarism — Indirect Control
Philosophers agree humans have indirect control over their beliefs, in some cases. The most common example is believing a light is on. I can believe a light is on in a room, because I can perform an action (walk in room, turn light on) which affirms the thought.
Another example is when further research results in evidence affirming the thought. If I don’t currently believe that the Earth is round, then I have control over the process of obtaining evidence. Since the evidence supports the fact the Earth is round, by reading and studying the issue I can will myself to come to the belief that the Earth is round.
The gray area in this is when evidence does not affirm the thought. Philosophers are divided. Can I come to a belief that the Earth is flat? Philosophers do not believe we have ability to choose how we interpret evidence. The brain does this at a level we can not control. But we can attempt to will a belief by selectively obtaining evidence. I can selectively choose the study material that only affirms the Earth is flat and ignore the counter material. I can surround myself with others who believe the Earth is flat. There is strong support for the idea that I can will myself to this belief. However, the problem is that my mind understands that I went about this process in a conscious attempt to will myself to the belief. So unless I can force my mind to forget that manipulation or suppress the knowledge of it, then I still will not be able to retain this new belief long term.
So, in summary, the answer to can we choose our beliefs is “Directly, no. Indirectly? For beliefs that evidence affirms, yes. For beliefs that evidence does not affirm? Maybe kinda, but only through severe self manipulation.” I’m sorry I don’t document my sources, but if you want to do your own research, start at these two articles and then drill into the referenced material. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/ and http://www.iep.utm.edu/doxa-vol/
Religious Truth vs Historical Truth
On the topic of determining religious truth, it’s common to hear something like “you can never disprove Mormonism because you can’t prove religious truth. You can only prove or disprove religious truth through the Spirit.” I can accept this. However, it’s usually misapplied.
Let’s define religious truth as something that can be validated only through religious means and historical truth as truth that can be validated through normal human evidentiary methods.
A religious belief would be: “God exists”.
The tricky thing is when you bring historical truths into this, ie “God exists and he created the world in six days.” The part about creating the world in six days can be evaluated historically and scientifically.
A religious belief would be: “The Book of Mormon contains doctrine that can bring one closer to God.” Religious truth.
Now you add historical claims when you say: “The Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith from gold plates, which contained the writings of Ancient Americans.” This is not a religious belief (the way I define it here). This is a historical belief, which can be evaluated the way historical truth is usually evaluated.
“God answers prayers”. Religious truth.
“God came to Earth and appeared at church to all the members in my ward building at ABC address on XYZ date.” This is a historical belief. I can interview the people in attendance that day. If it were shown that I wasn’t even in church that day, I was away on business, it could disprove the belief.
In the discussion of whether a belief can be willed or not, religious truth is more likely to fit into that model than a belief that is heavily weighted to historical truth.
Some may take the position that spiritual evidence should always be discounted, and only natural evidence should be used to evaluate any truth. I disagree. I think it’s obvious that whether or not the spiritual evidence is valid, people do take into account spiritual evidence. If I look at historical evidence of a religious claim, and it’s inconclusive or even if it’s against the religious claim, but then I pray about it and have a spiritual experience that I interpret as evidence for the religious claim, this can definitely lead me to believe the claim in an evidence based way. Further, I think this can be rational.
Belief as a Choice in an LDS Context
So, now let’s evaluate what the brethren are saying on this subject and try to put some context to it within this understanding of beliefs and human ability to will them. Before I do this, let me say that I support the brethren. They inspire and uplift me. I do this to seek to understand what they mean, not to tear them apart. edit: this section has confused people. I don’t include this as material that supports the philosophical review of doxastic voluntarism. That analysis is finished, and now I’m moving into reviewing LDS material in light of this information.
The genesis of the “belief as choice” trend seems to be Terryl Givens’ writings and lectures over the past few years. In a Mormon Stories interview in 2011, he said.
You are not free to believe or disbelieve the Law of Gravity. It’s there. The evidence is so abundant that you are compelled to accept it. So, as a result, there’s no virtue that attaches to your belief in that law. Similarly, if I were to offer you a million dollars to believe in the Easter Bunny, you wouldn’t be able to do it. So, in both of these cases, belief seems to operate outside of the moral sphere. We don’t have control that we can exercise to believe or to disbelieve.
But what I’m saying is that faith is what operates or what unfolds in a middle ground, between the compulsion to affirm and the compulsion to deny. And I believe that God has structured our lives here on this Earth in such a way that, when it comes to those issues of eternal import, we have to be free to affirm or to deny. And therefore, there has to be a balance of evidence, both for the veracity of the Gospel, and against it. It’s essential to God’s divine purposes, and to the flowering of freedom itself, I believe, that there have to be compelling reasons to reject the Book of Mormon, to reject Joseph as a prophet, to reject the existence of God Himself. But they have to exist alongside compelling reasons to affirm those things. Only in those circumstances can we call upon our will and choose to believe or not to believe. And I think in those moments, our choice reflects the most important things about us: our souls, what we love, what is it that we choose to affirm. And so that’s how I think faith operates.
My analysis of what Dr. Givens is doing:
- He may be conflating belief and faith. Faith can exist outside of belief and can be easily shown to be a voluntary action. For example, I am held captive and told I can choose from five doors. Four will result in death. One will result in escape. I choose a door. By opening the door and walking through it, I am demonstrating faith that door is right. But I know I only have a 20% chance in being right, so I don’t believe the door was the right one.
- He may be using a non-traditional definition of belief, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. This is more in line with the traditional definition of faith or to “act as if”.
- He may be isolating the belief in question to something more purely religious, with little ability to prove with evidence. As I discuss above in the religious vs historical truth section, he may be appealing to questions like “does God exist?”, “does the Book of Mormon teach the correct doctrine about God?”, “does following Mormonism bring joy and value?” These beliefs are more easily (but still not definitely!) attributed to the category of beliefs that could fit into the exceptions of doxastic voluntarism, because the physical or natural evidences to test the belief are not easily found.
- He may be talking about indirect control. ie we can intentionally manipulate our evaluation of evidence in a way that over the long term we can create the belief. And then we can retain that belief by forgetting or ignoring the fact that we came to this belief subversively. I don’t think this is what he’s talking about, but this is a possibility if we include all the ways we can will a belief.
- If he’s not doing any of the above, then he may be misapplying the exceptions stated above in the direct doxastic control section. My understanding of the literature and the examples given by philosophers is that they would typically reject his interpretation if that is what he is arguing. I think we can rule out very specific religious beliefs that incorporate historical facts from being in our direct control, such as “the Book of Abraham was written by Abraham and translated by Joseph Smith from the papyri” or “the Old Testament contains true, literal, historical events.” These statements would have enough evidence to evaluate consciously which comes with subconsciously performed decisions on the truth of the statements. That is not to say all would come to the same belief. Everyone evaluates evidence in different ways and can come to different conclusions. But one doesn’t have control over those evaluations.
L. Whitney Clayton, April 2015, “Choose to Believe”
Just as Sailor had to believe that she would find safety in that distant light, so we too must choose to open our hearts to the divine reality of the Savior—to His eternal light and His healing mercy.
In Sailor’s case, he’s talking about faith not belief. Next, he’s talking about being choosing to be open to the evaluation process not choosing to believe.
Prophets across the ages have encouraged us and even implored us to believe in Christ. Their exhortations reflect a fundamental fact: God does not force us to believe.
I agree God does not force us to believe. Let’s back up and review case by case to see why and how and what prophets have implored us to believe in or about Christ. Generally, I think they are talking about faith in Christ or being open to the evaluation process, not commanding them to affirm a thought.
Instead He invites us to believe by sending living prophets and apostles to teach us, by providing scriptures, and by beckoning to us through His Spirit. We are the ones who must choose to embrace those spiritual invitations, electing to see with inward eyes the spiritual light with which He calls us. The decision to believe is the most important choice we ever make.
Here I think Elder Clayton is talking about a belief in a very basic religious truth, ie “God exists” or “Following God is good”.
Belief is something we choose—we hope for it, we work for it, and we sacrifice for it. We will not accidentally come to believe in the Savior and His gospel any more than we will accidentally pray or pay tithing. We actively choose to believe, just like we choose to keep other commandments.
I’m not sure what exactly he means here. He may be talking about a belief in a general religious truth. He may be talking about faith not belief. If he’s talking about a specific, religious claim that’s wrapped up with evidence based historical and scientific claims, then I think he’s asserting this mistakenly.
We are choosing to believe when we pray and when we read the scriptures. We are choosing to believe when we fast, when we keep the Sabbath day holy, and when we worship in the temple. We are choosing to believe when we are baptized and when we partake of the sacrament. We are choosing to believe when we repent and seek divine forgiveness and healing love.
The person doing these things is demonstrating faith or acting “as if” one believes. One could do these things without belief and without coming to a belief after doing these things. With this statement, I’m more inclined that Elder Clayton has been talking about belief as faith in this talk, and not using the traditional definition of a thought that one affirms.
Neal Anderson, Oct 2015, Faith Is Not by Chance, but by Choice
Elder Anderson gave a powerful talk on faith as a choice. He mentions belief only once in the talk.
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is not something ethereal, floating loosely in the air. Faith does not fall upon us by chance or stay with us by birthright. It is, as the scriptures say, “substance … , the evidence of things not seen.”5 Faith emits a spiritual light, and that light is discernible.6 Faith in Jesus Christ is a gift from heaven that comes as we choose to believe7 and as we seek it and hold on to it. Your faith is either growing stronger or becoming weaker. Faith is a principle of power, important not only in this life but also in our progression beyond the veil.8 By the grace of Christ, we will one day be saved through faith on His name.9 The future of your faith is not by chance, but by choice.
The footnote number 7 where he uses the word believe is for Whitney Clayton’s talk referenced above. Since, his entire talk was about faith, and in this paragraph he uses the word faith 8 times and believe once, and since he is referring to Whitney Clayton’s talk where we have just discussed the faith-belief interchanging, I am taking this as strong support that Elder Anderson is using the alternate faith “act as if” definition for belief.
Dieter Uchtdorf, Oct 2015, Be Not Afraid, Only Believe
He introduces the subject with Daniel, discussing his faith and how he defended the truth and maintainted his standards–a very faith-centric notion. He then turns to the topic of belief.
Satan, our adversary, wants us to fail. He spreads lies as part of his effort to destroy our belief. He slyly suggests that the doubter, the skeptic, the cynic is sophisticated and intelligent, while those who have faith in God and His miracles are naive, blind, or brainwashed. Satan will advocate that it is cool to doubt spiritual gifts and the teachings of true prophets.
I accept this at face value.
I wish I could help everyone to understand this one simple fact: we believe in God because of things we know with our heart and mind, not because of things we do not know. Our spiritual experiences are sometimes too sacred to explain in worldly terms, but that doesn’t mean they are not real.
Agree completely. This is a very key point. Spiritual experiences are a type of evidence that we can’t discount.
When you and I talk to people about faith and belief, don’t we often hear, “I wish I could believe the way you do”? Implied in such a statement is another of Satan’s deceptions: that belief is available to some people but not to others.
This is hard for me to reconcile. I assume he must be talking about faith or belief in a very general religious truth and not belief in a specific, historically documentable religious claim.
He then teaches us the process how to obtain a belief.
There is no magic to belief. But wanting to believe is the necessary first step! God is no respecter of persons. He is your Father. He wants to speak to you. However, it requires a little scientific curiosity—it requires an experiment upon the word of God—and the exercise of a “particle of faith.” It also takes a little humility. And it requires an open heart and an open mind. It requires seeking, in the full meaning of the word. And, perhaps hardest of all, it requires being patient and waiting upon the Lord.
I agree this is a valid process to obtain a belief. However, I disagree that the subject has control over the outcome. Being open, being desirous, experimenting, behing humble, being patient, andk putting a lot of effort into it. That we can control. But at the end of it, it’s very possible the outcome will not be a belief in the hypothesis. I hope that we don’t run with the narrative that lack of obtaining or retaining the belief in the end is a sign of lack of humility, sin, lack of patience, pride, etc.
If we make no effort to believe, we are like the man who unplugs a spotlight and then blames the spotlight for not giving any light.
Very interesting example. I think this shows Pres. Uchtdorf is knowledgeable of the philosophy literature, since this is the most commonly used example for indirect doxastic voluntarism.
He ends with The Promise of Belief.
When we choose to believe, exercise faith unto repentance, and follow our Savior, Jesus Christ, we open our spiritual eyes to splendors we can scarcely imagine. Thus our belief and faith will grow stronger, and we will see even more. Brethren, I testify that even in the toughest of times, the Savior will say to you as He said to an anxious father on a crowded street in Galilee, “Be not afraid, only believe.” We can choose to believe. For in belief, we discover the dawn of light. We will discover truth. We will find peace. Because of our belief, we will never hunger, never thirst. The gifts of God’s grace will enable us to be true to our faith and will fill our soul like “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” We will experience true and lasting joy.
I love this promise. I add my testimony that I know that journey of choosing to exercise faith unto repentance, following Jesus Christ and finding true and lasting joy. The reason I have faith is that I have tested it as Alma and Pres. Uchtdorf suggest, and have found that it is satisfying to my soul. It is true. I count myself as one of the faithful of the LDS church. Yet I struggle with literal belief in some aspects of the restored gospel that others can believe. Is that a choice? My research suggests it is not.
After more careful analysis of the brethren’s remarks about belief as a choice, I have a few conclusions. When they speak of belief as choice they are 1) Nearly always using the word belief in the “acting as if” definition, referring to faith or an alignment to a proposition and not referring to belief as in a thought one affirms. In this sense, I agree with their intent that “faith is a choice” but feel the word belief is misleading in this context. 2) They frequently are talking about the choice to experiment on the word or to make the effort to evaluate the evidence. I agree this is a choice. I disagree that the outcome of that experiment can be controlled, thus in the end belief is not a choice but making effort to try to believe is a choice. 3) Sometimes, but rarely, I think they seem to be talking about belief, in the traditional sense, as a choice. I will try to suspend judgment on that, but I don’t see how it is possible given the way I understand belief.
My opinion is that faith is a virtue far greater than belief. We choose faith. Our beliefs, by the traditional definition, are formed at a subconscious level that we can not directly control. And to attempt to control indirectly would be a manipulation that I don’t think God would endorse. Faith is deep and nuanced, implies commitment, and empowers brave action. Through faith is how we come unto Christ and find his grace and goodness. I argue for adopting the word of choice on this subject as faith not belief.