Can we choose what we believe?

Can we choose our beliefs? Hold out your hand and look at it for a moment. You see it there in front of you. Now, believe that it is not there. Can you do that? No, neither can I.

It seems as though beliefs are the inevitable result of the “facts” we have available to us. If you want to change my beliefs, you’ll have to show me something new that changes them. You can’t just ask me to believe differently.

Yet … I don’t think that is right. I think we choose what to believe lots of the time.

The point is that we are rarely absolutely certain that something is true, or that it is false. We believe things when they are reasonably sure enough that we can accept them as true, without being absolute certain. If we set the bar for evidence high, we won’t believe much. If we set it low, we’ll believe a lot of things. We don’t know exactly how high the bar should be set, but we have beliefs about how high is definitely too high and how low is definitely too low. Within those bounds, we can choose to set the bar at different levels. I can say, “Well, I guess that’s enough. I’ll accept that as true.” Or I can say, “I just don’t think that I’m going to believe without more compelling evidence.”

If something is really obviously false, like “my hand isn’t there”, then I probably can’t choose to set the bar that low. I end up just rejecting it no matter what I want to believe. But overall I think we have a lot of choice about what to believe and what not to believe.

(Here, I write about how this affects the certainty of Christian beliefs.)

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