On Choosing Belief – Letter to Peter Boghossian (Part 2)

Dear Peter,

Why is it you cannot bring yourself to believe we had a beer in Dresden last month? Your answer is that this belief has no ‘moral valence’, and your community doesn’t support it. By contrast, beliefs about Neanderthals have strong moral valence for your religious student. That’s why he can simply choose to believe, while you can’t.

I’ve been thinking about your argument about ‘moral valence’. The problem I see is that a belief can have moral valence for one person but be morally neutral for someone else. Millions of people feel a moral obligation to believe that there once was a talking snake that convinced a woman to eat an apple, while others feel a moral compulsion, equally strong, to believe that a flying horse once transported a guy from Jerusalem to Mecca. For others still, like the two of us, neither belief has any moral valence, and both are in fact equally preposterous. 

The ‘moral valence’ of beliefs about talking snakes (or Neanderthals) derives from a prior belief, namely that the Bible is the infallible word of God. If you don’t have that belief to start with, you won’t care about talking snakes. If you do, you will. But is belief in the Bible itself a matter of choice? Here I stick to my guns. People cannot simply choose to believe that some book is the Word of God. Even with a gun put against your head, you couldn’t bring ourselves to believe something like that, through sheer willpower. 

Now, it may be true that, once people believe that the Bible is the word of God, some ‘choose’ to ignore Neanderthal fossils, because this contradicts the creation story in the Bible, and the Bible cannot possibly be wrong since it’s the word of God. But this is not a ‘choice’ in the sense you are I were discussing (doxastic voluntarism). It’s simply a matter of someone whose prior belief in the Bible is so strong that he’s prepared to dismiss anything out of hand that seems to contradict it. I’m pretty sure your student didn’t simply ‘choose’ to believe in the Bible at some point in his life. Probably, this belief has been instilled in him since he was young (by his parents, tutors, friends), and he has accepted it on authority ever since. Or perhaps (but less likely) he was an unbeliever for most of his life, but then had a sudden religious experience which convinced him that the Christian God really exists. These may be preposterous reasons for believing, but they are reasons no less. Sam Harris has written eloquently about this in The End of Faith. Religious believers inevitably play the same “game of justification” as the rest of us in ordinary life.

If you insist that people can simply choose to believe in God, because religious beliefs have moral valence, I have a question for you: how do you account for the people who regret ‘losing’ their faith (notice the phrase), and who wish to go back but can’t? How do you account for the phenomenon called ‘crisis of faith’? Some people really wish they could believe in heaven, and are trying the best they can, but they just can’t pull it off. These people surely have very strong moral reasons to believe in God, as per your first criterion. If such beliefs were merely a matter of choice, wouldn’t we expect them to have a much easier time believing?

Finally, I want to respond to your objection against my own criterion for wishful thinking, namely the ‘ring of plausibility’. What I meant is that people can only bring themselves to believe X provided that X is not flatly contradicted by the evidence. The less falsifiable, the better. Applied to talking snakes: it’s much harder to believe that a snake slithering right in front of me is talking than to have the same belief about a mythical snake that lived long ago in a far-off place. 

By the way, you’re right that fundamentalist Christians would be equally surprised by a talking snake in their own garden, but that doesn’t show that, deep down, they don’t believe in the Genesis story. Christians know full well that the biblical snake is a very special snake, living in a very special time. Indeed, the ‘counterintuitive’ nature of the story, as Pascal Boyer pointed out, is exactly what makes it attention-grabbing and exciting. If people believed all snakes had the power of speech, the specimen in Genesis wouldn’t stand out. Here are some other examples: ‘All human die, but here’s a very special person who’s immortal’. ‘Most mountains are just lifeless, but here’s a very special mountain that can be angry and spew fire.’  

Your example of the woman who, halfway on the road to Seattle, convinces herself that she really did lock the front door, actually illustrates my point about the ‘ring of plausibility’. It’s relatively easy to bring yourself to believe something about a door that is far away and currently invisible, and to ‘massage’ your only source of evidence about that door, namely your indistinct, vague memory of having locked it. It’s much more difficult to believe something comforting about a danger that is staring you right in the face, like a dangerous talking snake or an armed robber (that was the morale of my Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses). In fact, it’s even difficult to choose to maintain a comforting belief if you have a vivid memory that contradicts it (as opposed to a vague, indistinct one). People who have experienced trauma often try to forget what happened, in other words, to nurture a false but comforting belief about their personal past. But they can’t, or not so easily, since belief is not under voluntary control. The betrayed husband cannot simply choose to believe that his wife is still faithful to him after he read the emails to her lover, even if that belief would surely ‘palliate his anxiety’, as you put it.