top of page
  • Andrew Meluch

Are There Things You Should Want? Part II

Hello All -

After my “Are There Things You Should Want” article went out with the last newsletter, a relative responded to me with this:

"…Of particular interest is that you address a puzzle about belief I've thought about on and off over the years, and which I first presented to students in my intro to philosophy class 40 years ago:

Aliens arrive on earth. They propose to subject all humans to a simple test. The test consists of coming to believe an obvious falsehood (F), say, that the Earth is flat, or that humans have two heads. They are in possession of advanced technology -- a cerebroscope -- which allows them to inspect the beliefs of human beings. Those who succeed in believing F after a suitable period, say 10 days, are rewarded with infinite goodies: immortality, perfect health, immense wealth, etc. Those who fail receive terrible punishment: hunger which cannot be sated, bottomless despair, endless pain, and so forth. After 10 days everyone fails the test. Takeaway: Belief is not subject to the will. One cannot come to believe something which one knows is false.

One way out of this impasse which has occurred to me (and to some of my brighter students, who also happened to be devout Christians, and who saw the parallels this puzzle presented to their beliefs) is that one can, over time, through an act of will (and possibly, I imagine, through grace), come to accept beliefs which one did not, at the outset, hold. And even beliefs which one "knew" to be false. I referred to this phenomenon as "the plasticity of belief". Belief, we imagine, is "controlled" by experiences which have their origin outside the mind. But also it seems beliefs might be initiated, shaped, and changed by internal events, taking place within the mind.

I see that you're after a similar solution to this type of problem, generalizing it to other mental states seemingly immune to the will, e.g. desire. …"

I got carried away and wrote a very long response, which I thought other people might be interested to read as well. I wrote it for my relative, so the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the school, nor are they heavily researched. If I am at variance with Aquinas, I would be interested to hear it.

… I am glad to hear that someone agrees with this idea about belief - I think not everyone does, and I was a little worried about just asserting it and using it as an example here. Obviously, it would upset everyone's beloved Pascal's wager.

As far as shoring this up, think about this interesting comparison: Suppose the aliens devised a new cerebrometer challenge in which they would inflict hell unless you loved them for their own sake. Or, easier, they would inflict hell unless you would desire to eat hair soup for its own sake. No one desires to eat hair soup. You could easily desire to eat it conditionally and accidentally - as a way to get out of a trap or something. But I say that the humans would fail again. They cannot change which things they desire and delight in. This is interesting because of a sort of symmetry: We make choices. Some people like existentialists think choice can govern all. By no means! Choices are selections of means in pursuit of purposes set by desires, which themselves have to come from somewhere else. You do not choose what you want. Now how do we weigh the means? By what we believe about them. The two ingredients of choice are desire and belief. Without these, choice does nothing. Trying to voyage beyond or underneath these, choice suffocates in the vacuum.

I think it is pretty clear that we do have an indirect control over our beliefs. This is nothing odd, because we have an indirect control over our knowledge, our health, our feelings, our heartbeat, and most other things. As I write, I am trying to speed up my heartbeat by directly commanding the organ, and, let me check - yes - it is not working. But I can think about things that induce my heart to beat faster. I cannot will to stop being sick, and should not be faulted for being sick, even though my body is doing all the sick stuff, but I can do things to bring about health. If I believe that 234 * 399 is 93366, I cannot switch over to knowing it by pure choice - I have to go on a little mental journey and see the reasons why, just as to know that the grand canyon exists, I need to go to Arizona. I can't feel sad by direct will, but I can bring a cause of sadness to my attention by watching a movie, or by simply imagining it. Trying to imagine something to make me sad seems rather like the activity of contemplation or meditation in religion, where someone rests in front of an imagination or a conviction to get the response to seep in or magnify.

I think belief and appetitive or emotional responses are not too far different: For one thing, if your sincere feelings are unseemly, nevertheless, you are lying if you profess that they are otherwise because you would choose for them to be otherwise, and beliefs are the same. For another, they are in some measure a reaction to something. For another, belief often rests on trust, which has everything to do with emotions, and even when purely logical, is calculated and based on evidence not too different from those events that precipitate trustful feelings.

There seem to be two kinds of belief. Belief is distinguished from knowledge. Knowledge sees that something is true by sensing it or seeing reasons why, and sees that something cannot be otherwise. So belief can differ either because it is based not on seeing or reasons but on authority and trust, or because, though there are reasons, they are not sufficient to rule out that something could be otherwise. These do join up insofar as human behavior is somewhat predictable, and that someone said something can to some extent be treated as probable evidence one way or another like anything else. But to affirm this entirely might be to trample the whole notion of choice that is the reason for this extensive email.

As far as the second of these (when evidence and reasons makes things probable, but you do not know) if you want to change your belief, you have to get lucky. You need to find some evidence for your side without accidentally stumbling into evidence against it. If you need to believe in the grand canyon by Thursday, you are in luck - you can just drive there and see it, or do something a little less comprehensive since you only need to believe. If you want to believe that people all have two heads, you will have a hard time. The best way for this sort of thing is to find a rhetorician on your side who will sort out the arguments and evidence for you, and simply present you with all the good probable arguments and evidence. Note that this does not require trusting him about what he says. It only involves maybe trusting him to be good at giving you arguments and evidence before you listen to them.

Further, conviction does come from bringing evidence together in syllogisms. One can simply choose not to think about two things at the same time, since the imagination, though unruly, is somewhat directly subject to will.

As far as the first of these, though, trust seems a little harder to understand. It seems like you can choose to trust someone sometimes. People certainly get angry about not having been trusted, but they also get angry about other people's feelings. These seem to be some ways to get yourself to trust someone:

  1. Find out what other things they have said that are true. (Or times they were honest or cared about you)

  2. Hang out and do stuff with them

  3. Think more about whether you have good evidence that they are trustworthy.

But all of these involve something quite beyond our control - whether that person has already said impressive true stuff, and whether that person wins trust in company, whether it makes sense to trust. This contains all the hazards of looking further into evidence without a rhetorician to curate it for you, and have only a corresponding solution. But here are two other methods that do not share this difficulty:

  1. Meditate on motives for trust which you already know - good things about the person, things they did, impressive predictions, &c.

  2. Ask this person to supernaturally infuse a light into your will so you believe. (I say will because I think belief is in the will, but not something subject to choice)

In opposition to what I think is some honest analysis right here, modern Christians, especially many Calvinists, Pascall types, and I think Kierkegard people, tend to want to bulldoze all this and tell people to let emotions, or at least choice by unfettered willpower, demolish their contact with the uncontrollable believing and judging part of the mind, which seems to be rather in opposition to humanity and specifically honesty. Even my list of ways to believe more would really seem unnecessary for this mindset.

They tend to urge that such Faith and trust is necessary for life, or the good life, or Eternal life. But you are right! No matter how necessary it might seem to believe something, it is as absurd to say that you can believe it at will. You can only lie. What they should be urging is something quite distinct: It is necessary in life often to act on very meager belief. It may be necessary for Eternal life.

The Jewish Scriptures seem to make quite a different claim. They do not say "Believe so you can be happy" or any other variation of that, nor "believe because God wants you to." They say "trust in what God says because he has done so many cool things and predicted so much unexpected stuff correctly and has shown that he loves us and keeps his word," if I understand correctly.

Note that this is about belief having to do with trust, not the belief of probabilities.

This tradition recommends all the things on my list - though perhaps Rabbis would say I was adding #5 out of an Augustinian reading of their Scriptures, not from what the text means. But the Psalms are full of meditating on the Lord's goodness, truth, deeds of love &c. The tradition recommends studying the record of God's deeds to find more evidence of his trustworthiness, thinking about the evidence logically, and living life with God through prayer and an eye to his providence - at least the exemplary character seem to do this. Further, the psalms even seem to ask for more evidence at times.

I believe that Christ revealed the true meaning of these Scriptures and am convinced of what Augustine says about what Christ said, so what I will say about their claims is my own.

The Church Fathers add to this that the New Testament is saying that we should believe what God and Christ say because of the evidence of the Old Testament, and because of the miracles of Christ and the Apostles, and the fulfillment of prophecies in Christ and the Church. They say, if I am not mistaken, that this is enough reason to hold a partial - not necessarily an all-consuming and all surrendering - Faith in the teachings of the Church, and since acting on partial belief is necessary and prudent, to embark on such activities as praying to Christ and receiving the Sacraments. Whereas some protestants say that Christian life must begin in a choice of total Faith in the Kerygma, Catholics say that a suitable Faith in the Church and the Sacraments proportionate to the evidence while approaching baptism is a real beginning, and, I think, is sufficient for the Baptism to be valid. They then teach that, perhaps shockingly, however it happens chronologically, Baptism is the cause of supernatural Faith, which the Holy Spirit puts into the person, though God may also work beyond this as he pleases.

Catholics and Protestants with serious theology agree that you can have an unqualified, total, and fundamental Faith in whatever God says, the Creed & Incarnation, and all those articles, but that this comes from a supernatural gift, not through a personal choice made by force of will. In fact, people like Augustine assert that this distinction is so clear and important that it would be the utmost impiety, the utmost pride, and the worst idea ever to attribute this kind of Faith, the kind that is pleasing to God, to the work of one's own will and wisdom.

This is mirrored by the doctrine that the Holy Spirit can infuse Charity, by which one loves and delights in God for His own sake, which God changing not a belief, but the counterpart underpinning choice: Desire.

Where Protestantism or unofficial opinions of Catholics flourish without a sufficiently literate, spiritual, or Biblical backbone to understand these dramatic claims about Grace, emotion or weird phenomena of personal choice are designed to fill in the blank. Moreover, where people are embarrassed about the profession of miracles or credibility of antique sources, but retain an allegiance to the Faith, they are likely to devise things like the wager to get people to decide to believe for something other than good reasons.

So - I think you are right! You really cannot control what you believe, especially if you know the other way, though just as people can make people feel things through drama, desire things through advertisement, and convince people of things through rhetoric, one can choose to subject himself to the right probable arguments and rhetoric, and think about the right things to move towards conviction, and, if he is lucky with the circumstances, simply look further into the matter and get more evidence or experience. As far as trust, there are the means numbered above, though, which do seem to sound more like "plasticity." This is my account of plasticity which I think is a restricted business. Is there a plasticity of plants? One cannot make a plant grow just as he pleases by pure willpower. Neither can one create belief of any prescribed sort in himself by pure willpower. But he can cultivate a plant in accord with its nature and abilities and get it to do quite an impressive lot of things through gardening. Similarly, he can garden his beliefs, though some results might be just as out of reach as some things are for a gardener. God can create any plant. God can create Faith.

It does seem that there is a certain psychological world beyond what I have mentioned in which things like brainwashing live. I do not know too much about this sort of thing, but I see no reason why one might be able to brainwash himself. There does seem to be something ill going on there. We are not mistaken in understanding the relation of evidence to belief, even if our conclusions do not always hold for the insane, and I do think it is right to speak of health and illness.

Great to hear from you. God Bless,



bottom of page