Chapter 5: Old Style — Belief as “truths”

The last chapter closed with discussion of belief as an active wager.  A person does have the ability to choose  both to wager AND upon which horse to bet, or which flavor of ice-cream to pick today, or whether to order chicken or beef.  So by my criteria, we do choose our beliefs, because we choose our actions from a range of options.  Let’s compare that to a common, current use found in Dawkins’ and Harris’ approach.

I think Harris, in saying “Choosing beliefs is not something rational minds do,” is trying to say something like, “You cannot choose to believe 2+2=5,” or “You cannot choose to believe you can stand on a train track when the 4:05 commuter express rolls through and not be laid low by the laws of physics.”  In this way Harris adopts Dawkins’ position that “Choice should not come into belief.”  To me it seems they are conflating belief with some other concept, like “confirmed knowledge.”  Their implicit definition of belief is focused on the “truth” of the belief existing in some independent way, as a  “thing,” and you thus cannot “choose” to believe contrary to these realities.

But, if I might be allowed to bash the “straw-Harris” I’ve just set up, indeed a person CAN choose to believe AND act counterfactually; counter to established “knowledge.”  Let’s consider the choice to believe in something unprovable, first.  Remember the “Heaven’s Gate” cult… er, group of believers.  They chose to believe that committing suicide as the Hale Bopp comet passed would allow their souls to be reunited with the “mother-ship” travelling behind the comet, like Bertrand Russell’s famous orbiting teapot. (We can’t PROVE the mothership wasn’t there.)  We, safely ensconced outside of this group, might say, “You can’t act on such outlandish theories?”  But they did.  They chose a belief and acted.

But let’s consider Harris’s point: You can’t choose to believe in counterfactuals.
Take the case of a person who believes they can survive standing on the railroad tracks during the passage of a southbound Acela shuttle from New York City to Washington DC.  The person will not live to know their belief was deluded, but they surely can choose to believe it and act on the belief.[1]  It is entirely possible to CHOOSE to act as if unassailable, obvious, self-evident, verifiable “facts” presented by others are false.  We call this willful ignorance or delusion in some cases, and I offer “The Black Knight” scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail as comedic/observational proof.

King Arthur:  “Your arm’s off!”

Courtesy Monty Python's Holy Grail.

Courtesy Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Black Knight:  “No it isn’t.  ‘Tis merely a flesh wound.”

In other instances we call it a difference of opinion.   The Stock market is full of people acting on differing beliefs about the value of the very same stock.  Some “believe” the stock will fall, others “believe” it will rise… and the only ones actually “believing” are the ones acting on the belief in an effort to achieve the more desirable position of being better off after the act of buying or selling the stock than they were before it.  Both cannot be right, but both truly “believed” by buying or selling the stock.


[1] I must note here that Harris has also recently released a small book titled “Free Will” in which he argues, essentially, that no one chooses anything: we don’t have free will.  I will set his objections aside for another day and act as if we do make choices (free or not) of which actions to take.


2 thoughts on “Chapter 5: Old Style — Belief as “truths”

  1. Your blog sounds interesting and inspiring .. hope to see more. Thank you for sharing and best wishes always … 🙂

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