Friday, May 17, 2013

Do We Choose Our Beliefs?

Steve Perry asks:

Hey Spencer,

           Where do you get the idea that we do not choose our beliefs?


My answer:

Beliefs are formed at a preconscious level, and seem to be tied up in the region of the brain (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) that pertains most to sense of self. Beliefs can change, but only as the sense of self is altered by the environment and new information. We're incapable of changing our minds simply based on new information; the new information also has to relate in some preconscious way to our survival instinct. A good example is this: on a conscious level, I know there are no ghosts in my house. On an instinctual, preconscious level, however, there may be a stronger subconscious belief that will present itself after I've watched The Exorcist at one o clock in the morning and am home alone.

Within any given context individuals only have so many variations of things that they can believe and ways they can behave. We are capable of changing these ways, but external factors have to be conducive to such changes, and must apply enough internal pressure to create the impetus for change.

My definition of faith is derived from this understanding. It is the desire to attain or preserve a belief that is in flux by creating an environment that is conducive to the creation or preservation of that belief. True beliefs do not require such safeguarding and reinforcing. My belief in gravity requires no assistance. Gravity is consistent in almost every Earthbound environment. My belief in Marxism, however, does require a certain amount of reinforcement, because there is enough historical evidence and contrary opinion out there to force me to entertain doubts about it. The same goes for my atheism: it has to be something I consider on a conscious level. It too requires reinforcement. As does your religious faith and political ideas.

At least that's my understanding. We can also probably get into a discussion about free will, but I'm in much shallower territory there.


steve perry said...

What source are you relying on for this information? I want to fully understand where you are getting your information so I can respond appropriately.

Spencer Troxell said...

I draw most of my inspiration on this issue from biological psychology and dialectic materialism. This particular formation may be more or less unique.

Steve Perry said...

Thanks for clarifying Spencer. I have found you to be an ardent believer in the humanist tradition and wonder what it would mean to you to be told you really have no control over that? It seems like you are accepting an impoverished view of human agency in order to try to ghettoize belief as some kind of distinct phenomena. Thus, delegitamizing belief through a kind of conceptual slight of hand. I don't find this to be particularly helpful or edifying as far as forwarding human rights or the dignity of individuals is concerned. Have you read any in affect theory or neuro-psychology in relation to identity and belief formation? It would be worthwhile and definitely challenge what you have offered here as a theory.

Spencer Troxell said...

I tend to be sympathetic with the compatibilist school when it comes to issues of determinism and free will. I don't think this view delegitimizes or ghettoizes belief. I think it clarifies it.

Steve Perry said...

I struggle to find the connection you are making between the free will debate and concept/belief formation. How are you making that connection if I might ask? It doesn't make sense to me as it stands.


Spencer Troxell said...

If we're predetermined by genetic makeup to only have the ability to behave and believe within a given range in a given environment, the free will debate becomes pertinent.

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, I find the genetic argument woefully inadequate as it relies on a bottom up causation that is scientifically untenable. It takes no account of emergent properties which is a huge aspect of the brain and the way it functions.