What It Would Take to Not Believe

April 14, 2014 | 47 comments
By

There was one question in response to my last post that I particularly wanted to answer, but wasn’t able to at the time. This is the question, which was posed by Sebastian Dick: “What would it take to convince you that (in as much as you know anything) propositions such as God exists or the BoM is historical are false? Or do you consider such propositions unfalsifiable?” This post is my answer.

It is not a trite cliché that everyone has to believe in something. It is the literal truth. When your life has ended and you look back and see the decisions that you have made along the way, the pattern of choices will imply a corresponding constellation of beliefs. Those facts and principles that you affirm as relevant and true because they are made logically necessary by your actions are the things that you believe.

This perspective is a generalization of the economic theory of revealed preferences, so we can call it the theory of revealed beliefs. It eschews subjective feelings about what is true for the simple reason that we often do not know our own feelings. We sometimes think that we believe in something, but then behave in ways that contradicts that belief. These instrumental or fictitious beliefs are not, in my mind, the genuine article.

2014-04-14 Paul SamuelsonFor the same reason, Paul Samuelson (who invented the theory of revealed preferences in 1938 and became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics in 1970) didn’t hand out surveys to ask people about their preferences. In his quest to provide an empirical basis for the concept of utility, he determined that the best route was to allow folks to reveal their preferences through their choices. These revealed preferences could then be represented by utility functions, and the rest of the discipline could chug along on top of this new foundation more or less as before.

According to the theory of revealed beliefs, preferences are just one of a variety of beliefs that we reveal (or perhaps create) as we make choices in our lives. The challenging decisions and sacrifices we face in life are there by design to force us to reveal/create our beliefs in a more granular way. If you’re rich enough, then paying tithing doesn’t force you to differentiate between obedience and material comforts. Scarcity of time and resources force us to make meaningful choices, and these reveal what we really believe.

One consequence of the theory of revealed beliefs is that it makes sense to talk about a person’s beliefs independently of that person’s opinion about his or her own beliefs. As long as a person acts in a purposeful way, then the collection of principles required to rationalize their behavior constitute their beliefs.

Of course this set of beliefs changes over a lifetime and obviously people are not always rational, but certain principles and concepts will show up repeatedly and consistently over extended periods of a person’s life, and those principles and concepts constitute a minimum for a person’s set of beliefs at that point in time.

So everyone has to believe something. You don’t get to opt out. As long as freedom is inevitable (which it is), choice is inevitable. And as long as choice is inevitable we will make purposeful decisions that reveal our preferences and also our beliefs. The only possible alternative is to engage in purposeless, random action. But even if that were possible over a long period of time (which I doubt) it is a kind of belief that has a name: nihilism. Therefore: That we will believe is not in question. The question is what we will believe in and, even more importantly, why.

2014-04-14 Karl PopperIn our society, it is common to promote science as a model for general belief, but this is neither feasible nor advisable. So I disagree with the implied dichotomy of the original question: that either nothing can convince me that God does not exist / the Book of Mormon is ahistorical, or that those propositions must be falsifiable. Falsifiability, especially as advanced by Karl Popper, is not a general prerequisite for a thing to be held as true. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The null hypothesis in any experiment must be falsifiable, but it is never confirmable. That is why any statistician will tell you that we either reject or fail to reject the null hypothesis, but we never accept it.

More importantly, Popper’s philosophy of science is not a Swiss Army epistemology. He used falsifiability as the line of demarcation between science and everything else, where “everything else” is the category containing every proposition or principle related to philosophy, religion, interpersonal relationships, metaphysics, history, art, and so forth. There are many, many things which are not falsifiable about which we can reasonably hold beliefs. All this tells us is that not everything that is reasonable is also scientific.

In practice, it is quite hard to prove a negative such as the non-existence of God or the ahistoricity of the Book of Mormon. In that sense, these beliefs are not independently falsifiable in the same way that a formal scientific hypothesis must be independently falsifiable. But that doesn’t mean that they are unassailable. My belief in God can only survive as long as it is the belief that best explains the experiences and evidence I have available. When a competing belief better explains them, then I will relinquish belief in God in favor of that superior belief.

In this sense, a change in belief should always be a kind of growth and never a retreat. We have to believe in something. So which ever theory best fits my experience: that is what I will believe. Even if it doesn’t fit perfectly and even if I can darn well see that it doesn’t fit perfectly, I will still cling to it—warts and all—until my experience, my understanding, or both change to the point where I have some better model I can upgrade to. The two key points are these: we should be tolerant of some degree of error in our beliefs and we should seek to change beliefs only by upgrading. (We might get it wrong, of course, but we should always be attempting to move onward and upward.)

Some critics of Mormonism or religion in general seem to discount the inevitability of belief and therefore miss these two key points. Rather than criticize religion in comparison to some competing belief, which is rational, they sometimes engage in purely negative attacks with no alternative belief specified, which is not. This implies that they believe some degree of error in a person’s belief is sufficient to abandon that belief. In favor of what alternative? Some never say, or at least not until they have first attempted to get you to discard your current belief.

But all beliefs are flawed by definition because we, who conceive and hold those beliefs, are flawed. Belief is a model of the world, of what is relevant and what is true, and we know axiomatically all models are wrong. I read somewhere that it is not only banal but vulgar to criticize a model for being wrong, and though I’ve been unable to find the original source I passionately agree with the sentiment. The question is never between erroneous belief and pure, unsullied truth. It is always between different sets of competing erroneous beliefs. Don’t just try and tell me that what I believe is wrong. Tell me what I should believe that is better.

Of course there are times when some piece of evidence that we had viewed as reliable turns out to be unreliable, and in that case we do need to adjust our beliefs to accommodate less evidence than we had before. Even in that case, however, we ought not to fool ourselves into thinking that we can simply stop believing. We can only believe in different things. So a consciously embraced religious belief that is discarded without a consciously embraced alternative results in an alternative that is embraced unconsciously. We become alienated from our own beliefs and no longer actively involved in determining the constellation of principles that will guide our actions. This is regress rather than progress.

This may explain some of the trauma that people experience in faith-crisis, and it accounts for the necessary period of rebuilding that follows thereafter. Whether we keep our faith or discard it we eventually have to reconstitute a set of beliefs. To the extent that rebuilding is conscious that is a good thing. But separating the decision of whether or not to maintain our current beliefs from the question of what beliefs to adopt instead can have deleterious ramifications.

For example: let’s say someone convinces you to stop believing in God with a purely negative argument. Suppose it’s a good argument, like the problem of evil. Now you’ve got a gaping hole in your system of beliefs, and that’s painful. There’s a horrific sense of loss, almost like a physical amputation. Sometime later, you find that it’s time to rebuild. As you look for a way to fill the hole or realign your beliefs around the hole, you may naturally rule out any belief in God. And that’s the problem: what you abandoned was one particular conception of God. There are lots more, and perhaps some would have served as a replacement. But because you didn’t look for a replacement until after discarding the existing belief, you may never be able to consider alternative theistic beliefs. This is just a thought experiment, but it illustrates the possible peril of evaluating beliefs based only on correctness and not on a comparison with the available alternatives.

So let me recap here at the end to ensure I am answering the question directly. First, we all have a model of the world. This model constitutes our set of beliefs, and it is revealed through our actions. All models are wrong, but—because we need some model to operate by—belief is inevitable. The question of what to believe is therefore a question of which among many competing, flawed sets of beliefs we should embrace. We should answer this question squarely by being tolerant of errors in our beliefs and by always striving to replace a current set of beliefs only with a better set of beliefs. A set of beliefs is better when it is at least as good in terms of correspondence with evidence and experience, internal coherence, and explanatory / predictive power and is strictly better in at least one category. I also happen to believe that what is more true is more beautiful, but perhaps that is not necessarily the case.

In any case: that’s my paradigm. And, according to this paradigm, the thing that would convince me that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical or that God does not exist is a competing set of beliefs that, while flawed, was at least as compatible with my experiences and evidence and also offered more internal coherence or explanatory power or what have you. This could happen because I encounter new evidence that makes a model I’m currently aware of but do not consider viable to suddenly seem more viable or because I encounter a new model I’d never considered before or some combination of the two.

I have more to say about this paradigm as it relates to faith crises (1,598 more words so far, to be exact), but it will have to wait for a week or two.

Tags: , , , ,

47 Responses to What It Would Take to Not Believe

  1. Dave K on April 14, 2014 at 7:57 am

    As always, a very thoughtful post. Thank you Nathaniel. I’m not entirely sure my approach matches yours (I hope it does), but when time is tight I typically answer the question “what would it take for you to leave the church” with the response “I would have to find a better one.” Unfortunately, I find that most members dislike that answer. They tend to focus on the uncomfortable proposition that there could be something better, rather than implied evidence (from my continued membership in the church) that in my judgment the church is the best thing going.

  2. Nathaniel Givens on April 14, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Dave K-

    I find that most members dislike that answer. They tend to focus on the uncomfortable proposition that there could be something better, rather than implied evidence (from my continued membership in the church) that in my judgment the church is the best thing going.

    I had fears, as I was writing this, about being misunderstood in the same way. To say “I’m all for the Church until something better comes along” sounds like the antithesis of faith in the sense of fidelity. But the thing is, the “better” thing that comes along cannot merely wipe away the experiences I’ve had that have led me into the Church. It has to account for them too. There has to be a sense of unifying integrity, as Adam described it in a comment to my last post. He wrote:

    This sense of faith is a form of literal integrity, the determination that I will be a whole with my past selves. The me that prayed about the Book of Mormon and got a divine answer is still me, even when I feel like entropy is the only real thing.

    So there’s nothing mercenary or fickle about it. I will follow the set of beliefs that offers the greatest sense of integrity with all that I have seen and understood. The belief is therefore constantly changing and evolving because what I see and understand changes and evolves, but so far it has always kept me within the Church, and I do not foresee a day (though I admit the possibility is real) where it will lead me outside. If it does, however, it will be for the same reason that I stayed in all these years.

  3. Troy K on April 14, 2014 at 9:38 am

    This is really excellent. Hurry and post the rest.

  4. Nate on April 14, 2014 at 9:38 am

    Excellent. I especially like the point about errors and beliefs. We are all mistaken all the time. This doesn’t mean we are stupid, irrational, ignorant, or the like. It just means that reality is devilishly complicated and we don’t fully grasp it. Those that claim to be in some other position vis-a-vis reality and their beliefs are mistaken. It means that religious believers should be a bit more humble about their beliefs and far less upset when it turns out that they are mistaken.

    (BTW, Nathaniel, you might find this post from long ago making similar points interesting: “Walking by Faith with Popper and Quine”

  5. Guy Murray on April 14, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Nathaniel–spot on. Very helpful, powerful, persuasive, and practical . . .

  6. Nathaniel Givens on April 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Nate,

    Thanks for pointing me to your post on Popper and Quine. I really, really enjoyed it. I’m happily digesting some of the ideas from that post, and in particular the emphasis you placed on the relationship between beliefs that make up a belief system. I used some words and phrases (like “constellation” and “set of beliefs”) that implied there was some sense in which beliefs relate to each other in a coherent whole, but I didn’t really take the time to consider that question head-on. I really like that you did, and in particular I liked your observation about the moral component that is introduced when we consider relationships between beliefs.

    I’m reminded of some of the reverence which J. R. R. Tolkien had for what he called “sub-creation.” Sub-creation referred to the work he did inventing fictional languages and histories for Middle Earth. This activity is typically called “world-building”, and both terms (sub-creation and world-building) have echoes of divine activity. And I think there is something to that.

    As we construct our own model for the world we inhabit by choosing which beliefs make most sense in relation to each other and to the constraints imposed by objective reality, we are in a very real sense each building our own worlds. Belief is about constructing the reality that we inhabit. And I think it is a profoundly moral activity, and one that does have echoes of divinity like toddlers playing fireman.

    Obviously what is true matters: our constructed reality must conform to the real world or we’re just living in la-la land, which is pointless. But that constraint doesn’t always bind. We have a great degree of latitude. And what we do with that latitude is really important, I think.

  7. SilverRain on April 14, 2014 at 10:14 am

    I like this, Nathaniel. It puts form to my answer, which would have been “a commandment from God.”

    Perhaps the only difference is that I don’t ultimately trust my ability to know what is “better” so I leave at least part of that up to Him.

  8. Steve Smith on April 14, 2014 at 11:08 am

    I don’t know if belief in God and belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon can quite be equated. The definition of what God is supposed to be can vary greatly. There is a big difference between believing God to be a physical personage and to be synonymous with nature. Different belief systems have different conceptions of God, but it’s all called God. However, there can really only be one acceptable conception of the Book of Mormon. I can’t point to a fruit tree and say that that is the Book of Mormon to me. But I could do that and claim that it was God or a representation of God to me.

    Furthermore, the correspondence of some historical claims to reality can be more tested than others. The exact origins of all matter and life are anyone’s best guess. No one has been able to generate matter or life out of nothing, to do this day. Furthermore, what could we possibly gather as evidence and counterevidence to prove or disprove claims about the history of the origins of the universe? It is something we will never know for sure. However, we have lots of archaeological evidence that give us insight about who humans were and how they lived around the world between 600BCE and 400CE. We have some idea of what sorts of technology those humans would have used, the languages they spoke, their DNA, their beliefs, their systems of government, their trade patterns, and the sorts of plants and animals that would have existed along side them at that time. We are far from a perfect knowledge, and we will never achieve such. But we can most certainly understand that period of time more clearly than the time of the origins of the universe.

    Also, you are right about everyone believing something and that people who question some beliefs should provide an alternative set of beliefs. This certainly works in the case of God. What are we to believe in if not a God, no matter how the concept of God is to be defined? But there is a counterbelief to an ancient Book of Mormon, and that belief is a nineteenth century Book of Mormon, which was written not by people who lived in the American continent 600BCE-400CE, but by Joseph Smith or by other people who produced writings that were available to Joseph Smith, which he copied (either directly or in his own style). People who subscribe to the idea of a nineteenth century BOM do attempt to provide ample evidence in support of their beliefs. The historicity of the Book of Mormon is much more objectively verifiable than the question of the history of the universe or the existence of God.

  9. Nathaniel Givens on April 14, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Steve-

    You’re right that there is greater latitude in what we mean by “God” than in what we mean by the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but when you suggest that there is “only…one acceptable conception of the Book of Mormon” you go much, much too far to try and make your point. There are many, many different ways that a person could reasonably construe the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Certain core concepts are non-negotiable (e.g. that a man named Lehi and his family went from Jerusalem to the New World around 600BC) but others are much more flexible. Do you subscribe to a limited geography model or a hemisphere-spanning history? Do you take the translation of army-sizes as literal or as figurative? Do you consider the possibility that some apparently misplaced terms are incorrect names given by actual Jews in the New World, or insist on word-for-word literalism?

    So there’s actually quite a wide spectrum, and those who insist on “one acceptable conception” are most likely to be those who are hostile to the book’s historicity and are seeking the most advantageous grounds for a fight.

    I do grant that you are absolutely right about the competing beliefs, however. To the extent that we care about this issue at all, one cannot merely suggest that the Book of Mormon is false. One has to explain the facts of its existence by presenting an alternative theory, such as the idea that it’s a 19-th century forgery / hoax. It is precisely because those theories fail so spectacularly (in my mind, at least) to explain the relevant data (which, for me, includes everything from textual analysis to private spiritual experience) that I am confident in the Book of Mormon’s historicity, despite clear-eyed awareness of problems with that theory.

    Just a final note: I really am not interested in turning this particular conversation explicitly into an exercise apologetics. For me, the belief system which includes the historicity of the Book of Mormon is superior to the belief system which includes 19th century fakery. Others may reach the opposite conclusion. The point of this post is not to argue against that position. It is simplythat we need to be making the comparison.

  10. brucecharlton on April 14, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    @NG – That’s very good!

    *

    However, after thinking about it and doing and observing science for about 30 years, I concluded that nothing is ever falsifiable in science either!

    Maybe it should be, but in practice it isn’t; because there are always ‘reasons’ for rejecting any piece of evidence or reasoning (or simply not understanding them). In other words, one man’s falsification is another man’s ‘bad science’ – written off because presumed incompetent or corrupt (and maybe it is).

    Also, much science is so ill-defined and imprecise as to be unfalsifiable, or evolves that way 9e.g. when an hypothesis of ‘anthropogenic global warming due to rising CO2 concentrations’ evolved into ‘climate change’)

    Nor are theories abandoned or taken-up only when it leads to progress – sadly the reasons are often mundane and anti-scientific: such as careerism/ fashion/ power. But then of course that isn’t actually science.

  11. Jared on April 14, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Nate-I very much enjoyed this post. I’ve been reading in the Bloggernacle for nearly 8 years and I think this may be the best post I’ve read among the major blocks.

    I’m looking forward to your follow up post.

    I would be interested in reading about the evidences you personally hold to that allows you to be faithful in the era of the internet. Why has your faith been maintained now that the varnish has been removed from church history and doctrine.

    I maintain that no ones faith can stand without the workings of the Spirit being manifest in some degree allowing for conversion at some level. Otherwise, they are cultural Mormons whose “faith” is based on non-spiritual evidence.

  12. Steve Smith on April 14, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Nathaniel, you’re missing my point. There is virtually no variance as to the actual nature of the Book of Mormon. It is a written-down piece of prose that has been copied, translated in many languages, published, and distributed. Anyone who believed that the Book of Mormon didn’t exist could well be proved wrong. No one debates its actual existence or the nature of its manifestation. Another huge difference between the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the question of God is that the vast majority of human beings have never heard of the Book of Mormon or have a formulated opinion as to the question of its historicity, much like most Mormons don’t have a formulated opinion about the Baha’i holy book, Kitab-i Aqdas. However, virtually every human being has formulated an opinion about God. All belief systems take into consideration the existence and nature of God.

    Lastly there are really only two opinions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Either it is 19th century text or an ancient text. There is no middle ground. Even if you believed that Joseph Smith made up the entire Book of Mormon except one word, which you believed to have ancient origins, to have been revealed to Joseph Smith, and to not have been available to him through other ancient texts which he had access to (such as the Bible), then your belief on the historicity question would be that it is ancient (hence Blake Ostler’s “expansion theory” is just another way of saying that the BOM is ancient). And yes, you can simply suggest that the Book of Mormon is false without providing any evidence or alternative theory. Someone can say, “I believe the question of historicity to irrelevant, but if I must take a position, I believe it to be a hoax,” and then just leave it at that. Mormons do that all of the time with other religious texts, the Qur’an, the Vedas, etc., even if they do so just implicitly.

  13. Nathaniel Givens on April 14, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    Steve Smith-

    Nathaniel, you’re missing my point

    I don’t think I’m missing your point, Steve. I’m pretty sure I understand it. I just disagree with it.

    Your contention is that the proposition “the Book of Mormon is historical” is binary, but that the existence of God is not because there are so many different interpretations of what God means. This contention doesn’t work because there are also different interpretations of what “the Book of Mormon is historical means.”

    I’m not claiming that there the concept of BoM historicity is equally as varied as the concept of God, but it is certainly more varied than “virtually no variance”.

    Look, the question: “Does God exist?” has a binary answer, but not really. Because different people have different things in mind for “God.” And the question “Is the BoM historical” has a binary answer, but not really. Because different people have different things in mind for “is historical”.

    Some folks maintain that the BoM is a hemisphere-spanning history, and that therefore the last battle involved a million+ combatants and took place around the same hill where Joseph Smith later dug up the plates. That is an interpretation of ‘historical”. Other folks adopt Sorenson’s limited geography model. This is a different interpretation of “historical”.

    Thus there is variance within both propositions, even if there is obviously quite a lot more within the idea of “God.” When someones says “there are really only two opinions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon”, it seems as though they might by trying to create a hyper-rigid definition because rigid definitions are easier to break. It’s the same as if I were to say “there are really only two opinions about the existence of God.” It’s technically true, but more misleading than illuminating.

    Maybe you could help me out by explaining what you hope to prove with your argument? Other than posturing to make a case against BoM historicity, I don’t understand why someone would adopt the double-standard you appear to be applying.

  14. Nathaniel Givens on April 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Oh, one more thing Steve:

    Mormons do that all of the time with other religious texts, the Qur’an, the Vedas, etc., even if they do so just implicitly.

    I don’t think that’s a fair representation of what all Mormons think. I have not read these books myself, and so I maintain no strong opinion about them, but I would be inclined to be far more generous and nuanced in my approach than your almost militant either-or logic which you apply to the BoM historicity question and (apparently) all other sacred texts as well. (But not, for reasons I do not yet apprehend, to theism.)

  15. Dave on April 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Interesting as always, Nathaniel. In particular it is nice to see emphasized the idea that there are two sides to any critique of belief in general or of LDS beliefs in particular. There is the belief being critiqued or criticized and then there is whatever alternative is being proposed. Funny how unconvincing and unappealing those alternative proposals can be.

    Revealed preferences work well for economic analysis, but preferences over different sets of beliefs seem to involve a much broader, even amorphous, set of choices than over different bundles of goods. I suspect belief preferences are much less stable than economic preferences. If people change their beliefs frequently, it gets harder to talk about preferences as some sort of stable but unobservable and unarticulated set of beliefs that drive the observable choices that supposedly reveal those stable beliefs.

  16. christiankimball on April 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Excellent and ‘true’ (by which I mean that it either confirms what I already thought in better words, or adds to what I think now having read it). Of course, putting Nate Oman’s earlier piece side-by-side reinforces that reaction.

    When you say “without a consciously embraced alternative . . . become alienated from our own beliefs . . . regress rather than progress”, it feels unnecessarily disparaging of the moments of doubt. Especially since I believe that finding oneself alienated from one’s own beliefs is part of the human condition, that no amount of conscious effort or instruction will let us completely avoid the experience of alienation. Instead, what we can do is learn and teach and practice ways to move through, in less time, more usefully, with happier outcomes. Toward that end, I appreciate the lesson that the process is not all about negation but better thought of as affirmatively explicating a new conscious set of beliefs.

  17. Nathaniel Givens on April 14, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Dave-

    Revealed preferences work well for economic analysis, but preferences over different sets of beliefs seem to involve a much broader, even amorphous, set of choices than over different bundles of goods.

    You’re absolutely right on that score. Revealed preference (the economic concept) has always been more interesting to me as a philosophical approach than as a stable, empirical tool. In particular the IIA requirement is routinely violated in the real world, so the economic model has very real problems at a foundational levle. (IIA = Independent of Irrelevant Alternatives http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independence_of_irrelevant_alternatives)

    So my theory of revealed beliefs is much less about an attempt to actually go out and figure out what people think based on watching how they behave (especially because a lot of the important behavior is unobservable) and much more just a way of thinking about what it means to believe something. Even if we can’t measure it in any practical sense, I think it is useful to think of beliefs as the principles that are logically implied by your actions. And yeah, that’s going to be an amorphous and contradictory set, but so what? People are messy. What else could we expect? :-)

  18. Nathaniel Givens on April 14, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    christiankimball-

    When you say “without a consciously embraced alternative . . . become alienated from our own beliefs . . . regress rather than progress”, it feels unnecessarily disparaging of the moments of doubt.

    “Doubt’ is a very loaded term these days, but I can tell you that it certainly isn’t my intention to castigate folks who are uncertain. I’m uncertain.

    All I was trying to convey is the importance of realizing that, since belief is inevitable, we ought to be transparent with ourselves about what it is that we are choosing to believe. Nature abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes, and so if we abandon a current belief without embracing something to replace it, the replacement is going to be something we didn’t consciously choose. That’s not a criticism of doubt. It’s a warning against giving up ownership of our own principles.

    In any case, it’s not meant to condemn or judge any person. There’s no way, from the outside, to tell when someone is changing their belief to adopt something they view as higher (progress) and when they are changing their belief to avoid something uncomfortable or painful (regress). Since we can’t judge: we shouldn’t try.

  19. Steve Smith on April 14, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    “Maybe you could help me out by explaining what you hope to prove with your argument? Other than posturing to make a case against BoM historicity, I don’t understand why someone would adopt the double-standard you’re clearly applying.”

    My point is not to make a case for or against the historicity of the Book of Mormon. My point is that the question of the Book of Mormon being historical (unless you mean something different than the question, “does the Book of Mormon have ancient origins?”) is totally different than the question of the existence of God. I don’t find my position on the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon much different than that of the LDS church leaders. They claim that either you accept Joseph Smith as a prophet or as a fraud, the BOM to be the word of God or not, etc. It is a contradiction to believe that the Book of Mormon has ancient origins, which Joseph Smith could not have known about except through revelation, and then believe that the Book of Mormon was a completely non-revealed construction of Joseph Smith, which he either invented in his own mind or copied from some other source available to him. Yes, if you believe that the BOM has ancient origins, then there is a great degree of acceptable variation of how it is historical. If you believe that the BOM is a 19th century text, then there is also a great degree of acceptable variation over how you explain its origins. However, you cannot coherently believe that the BOM was a revealed ancient text and a non-ancient invented text at the same time. And if you believe it to be mostly invented except for a few verses, which you believe to be ancient, then we will mark you down as believing an ancient origin. Either the Golden Plates (or some other ancient text from which Joseph Smith transmitted the BOM) actually existed or they didn’t. These are either/or questions.

    As for my points about the Qur’an and other holy books, you’re confirming my point. You don’t have a strongly formulated opinion about them. And that is how the vast majority of humans view the BOM, if they have heard of it. But suppose you were confronted with the question of the words of the Qur’an, “In blasphemy indeed are those that say that Allah is Christ the son of Mary,” being the word of God. Would you be willing to accept that God himself transmitted those very words to Muhammad and that believing Jesus to be God or the son of God is blasphemy? Why or why not? Isn’t it incoherent to believe that Jesus is divine and then also believe that Jesus is not divine? Again, this is an either/or question. However, you don’t live in an environment in which people around you are forcing such a question into relevance.

  20. thelogicalmormon on April 14, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    That’s a hard question to answer, and you did so eloquently. Thank you. I have published a link to this post on my blog… http://thelogicalmormon.com/2014/04/14/on-the-nature-of-belief/

  21. Martin James on April 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Nathaniel,

    1. In our society, it is common to promote science as a model for general belief, but this is neither feasible nor advisable.

    Actually, I don’t think it is common at all to promote science as a model for general belief. Almost everyone, promotes feelings or social relationships or ideologies for general belief. if Some people offer science as an explanation or as a refutation but almost no one proposes a scientific model of belief.

    2. There seems to be a bait and switch going on with action and belief. On the one hand, you seem to be saying our choices and actions are our real beliefs, but then you sneak rationality back in with all of these references to rationality, choices, necessity, etc.

    Your working model of what we must do in life, already contains layers and layers of beliefs that support your beliefs. Conscious versus unconscious behavior, the reality of choice, regression and progression metaphors, etc.

    3. There are paradoxes galore in trying to understand belief. One of the most significant is what we know about confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. How does one escape the paradox of ones own belief in confirmation bias, isn’t it biasedly confirmed. Or that if we are sincere in a belief that we lack free will, what do we make of the illusion of choice?

    You seem to be saying that since we don’t have a better alternative to bias in our own favor, we should believe our beliefs. But why not say that of our course our beliefs are in error and that we don’t believe in them but that we’re just addicted to them?

    4. How do we know what actions mean. What belief is implied by smoking marijuana or riding a bike or voting for Ron Paul or reading comic books or liking Thai food or moving to South Carolina?

    I can’t make any sense of what you mean.

  22. Gary on April 14, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    ” This is just a thought experiment, but it illustrates the possible peril of evaluating beliefs based only on correctness and not on a comparison with the available alternatives.”

    I would argue that correctness is the only way to evaluate beliefs. It’s all about the truth. I don’t believe in the Book of Mormon because there is no persuasive evidence for the Book of Mormon. The consequences of transitioning to an alternative belief system are irrelevant to the truth. Maybe I do have a “gaping hole” in my belief system and maybe it is “painful” when I change beliefs but the truths of the universe are not altered just because I feel bad about it.

  23. Martin James on April 14, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Gary,

    I’ve seen and held a Book of Mormon. They are real.

  24. Andrew S on April 14, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    How does one reveal a belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon through actions?

    How does one reveal a belief in the truth claims of the church through actions?

    For the second question, it seems like one might say, “If one believes in the truth claims, then one will do things that the church asks.” (e.g., pay tithing, attend services, etc., etc.,) But how could we separate someone doing this because they believe in the truth claims vs someone doing this because it is a habit from childhood? (Or are these one and the same?) How could we separate someone doing this because they believe in the truth claims vs. someone doing this to avoid harm to social relationships? (Or are these one and the same?) For, say, a BYU student, or someone in employment with something related to the church, how could we separate someone doing this because they believe in the truth claims vs. someone doing this to avoid losing their standing in their university or job? (Or are these one and the same?)

    However, even if we have a question for the second one, the first one doesn’t seem to be “actionable.”

  25. Carey on April 14, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    RE: Gary

    “It’s all about the truth”

    Agreed, which is why must pick the best representation of it that we can find. IMHO Nathaniel isn’t saying that we simply pick the one that does the least harm to our current beliefs regardless of the evidence, instead he’s making the argument that you should pick the best model that represents all the evidence, and not abandon the entire model just because you suddenly realize that the model isn’t the pure unadulterated truth.

  26. Kaimi on April 14, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    Interesting discussion, Nathaniel, and a lot of interesting points. A few thoughts in reply:

    1. The flip side to “everyone is a believer” is, “everyone is an unbeliever.”

    Even believers are 99% unbelievers. You don’t believe in Zeus, you don’t believe in Zoroaster, you don’t believe in Catholic Jesus or Baptist Jesus or Mohammed or a hundred other possibilities.

    Why _don’t_ you believe in them, anyway? Have you really deeply considered the possibility that Zoroastrianism is the way to go? Probably not. Heck, we don’t have _time_ to really consider our believer/unbeliever status across almost all of the available axes.

    2. It’s an intriguing idea that we can’t really say no to belief without saying yes to another belief. But I’m not sure that it’s a Mormon belief; and I’m not sure I agree.

    Alma talks about belief beginning with a sense that an idea is “delicious to me.” I think that we can rule on that without having to replace it. Right?

    That is, I ask you, “do you like sardines?” And you can say, no. _Regardless_ of whether you like anything else in the alternative.

    So, “I’m not sure what I do like, but I definitely _don’t_ like sardines” is a coherent view for someone to take.

  27. Steve Smith on April 14, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    Kaimi (26), great points. We are all doubters of some religious tradition or other. It is not possible for people to believe in the possibility of all propositions about God being true. Also there is room for a “don’t know/don’t care” position. So I should correct my previous statement that there are only two possible positions on the historicity of the BOM. There are three: it has ancient origins, it has no ancient origins, and I don’t know/don’t care.

  28. Gary on April 15, 2014 at 12:50 am

    Re: Carey

    I wholeheartedly agree that we should pick the model that represents all the evidence. Is there more evidence for Zeus or the Mormon God? Ahura Mazda or Allah? How do you decide when there is no clear evidence for any god?

  29. Nathaniel Givens on April 15, 2014 at 3:20 am

    Andrew S-

    How does one reveal a belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon through actions?

    I think that someone who views the Book of Mormon as historical will approach it in ways that are very different from someone who thinks it is a hoax and that are still different, if not as drastically, from someone who thinks of it is a spiritually edifying work of fiction. This approach would be manifest in certain actions, like the questions we ask about the text or the way we interpret it in our lives.

    But I think that there’s a risk of missing the point if we focus too much on individual beliefs and individual actions. One of the things that I was trying to emphasize (and that Nate Oman addressed more explicitly in his post) is that a set of beliefs is not just a grab-bag of random propositions. It’s a cohesive whole. We don’t just assert that a laundry list of potential facts are true, we also have to allow those facts to accommodate each other.

    By the same token, it’s not about being able to easily map THIS action to THAT belief. It’s more about having a pattern of actions that would only make sense in light of a compatible system of beliefs. There’s a quote I really like that I think hints at this notion:

    To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist. – Cardinal Suhard

    So there’s this idea that if you really believe something, that you will live in such a way that your life can’t make sense without those propositions being true. And, like I said in the post, I think that a lot of the trials and sacrifices we face in life are engineered precisely to force us to make the hard decisions and draw the fine distinctions that sketch our beliefs out more starkly than we might do if left to leave more comfortable, less confusing lives.

  30. Dave R on April 15, 2014 at 7:07 am

    Nathaniel, I enjoy your posts a lot.  But, I’ve found great peace in doing the opposite of what Cardinal Suhard proposes (“live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist”).  I live in such a way, that if the day before I died, I found out with a perfect certainty whether or not there was or was not an afterlife, I’d look back on my life choices and be happy either way.  And although i don’t believe in ancient origins of the BofM, and I suspect there may not be life after death, I’m quite content continuing to be active in the church (including paying tithing and attending the temple).  If there is life after death, I’ll be pleased I tried to live my life embracing all that’s good.  If there isn’t, I’m likewise happy that I tried to make the most from this beautiful moment.  I find this helps me love more deeply and helps me be fully present in my relationships with my wife and young children.  However, I realize that my way of living a meaningful life, may not bring happiness to someone else.

    Also, I think I like your idea that, “that what is more true is more beautiful”, but I find it sometimes difficult to distinguish between that which is comfortable and that which is beautiful. 

  31. Martin James on April 15, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Nathaniel,

    “A set of beliefs is better when it is at least as good in terms of correspondence with evidence and experience, internal coherence, and explanatory / predictive power and is strictly better in at least one category.”

    I believe that it is key to your model what counts as evidence.

    One part of our model of the world would seem to be an explanation for why people have the beliefs that they do.

    The overwhelming evidence is that we hold the beliefs we do because of the structure of our brains and how our past changed our brain. The truth of our beliefs plays almost no role in why we hold those beliefs.

    You like to talk about flawed models and toleration of errors, but then you persist in wanting to talk about “truth” as something we can assess based on our own experience and rationality. No models and no people are both consistent and explain much of the evidence. Most people have moved on to accepting that we are irrational and accept that our competing truth claims are competing claims about which types of evidence we will live by.

    I think the answer to your question is that you would cease to believe in the book of mormon if belief if your belief in the book of mormon caused you to not believe in it.

  32. Nathaniel Givens on April 15, 2014 at 10:34 am

    Martin James-

    The overwhelming evidence is that we hold the beliefs we do because of the structure of our brains and how our past changed our brain.

    I’m as fascinated by and familiar with irrationality and cognitive biases and so forth as the next man-on-the-street, but the degree of fatalism you seem to be taking it to is far beyond what the evidence clearly supports (to my knowledge) and in any case seems to be fairly self-annihilating. If our beliefs are wholly determined by strict physical determinism, then the whole discussion seems moot, does it not? Suffice it to say the can of worms you’re prying open presents much more fundamental concerns than the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I’m with Raymond Tallis on this one: physical determinism of mental states doesn’t just negate free will, it negates the existence of the self in any meaningful sense.

    Unfortunately, if you believe that these mental states are physical states then, some neurophilosophers have argued, they too must be the product of other physical states. They have a causal ancestry that reaches beyond anything that you would regard yourself as being. You — your brain, your mind, your consciousness — are wired into the universe. And the wiring does not simply connect you to your body, or even to your immediate environment; it goes all the way back to the initial conditions of the universe. In short, you are stitched into a seamless flow of material events subject to the laws of nature. Your actions cannot be in any way exempt from these laws. You are just a little byway in the boundless causal nexus that is the material world.

    Also, just FYI, you’re welcome to post a rejoinder but I won’t go any farther down the road to a free-will disucssion on this thread just for the sake of having some semblance of keeping things on topic. (Not trying to pre-empt your response: go ahead with that, just letting you I don’t plan on taking this branch of the discussion farther than what I’ve just written.)

  33. Nathaniel Givens on April 15, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Dave R-

    But, I’ve found great peace in doing the opposite of what Cardinal Suhard proposes (“live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist”). I live in such a way, that if the day before I died, I found out with a perfect certainty whether or not there was or was not an afterlife, I’d look back on my life choices and be happy either way.

    I find the idea of following Christ even if there is no Christ to be tragically heroic, but–quaint or childish as it may be–tragic heroism isn’t enough. Beauty, alone, isn’t enough. The faith I crave is a faith that makes the literal resurrection as real to me as waking up from a night’s slumber.

    And so I confess that I have a hunger to take risks in what I believe. Not the kind of risks a fanatic takes, where the costs are always born by innocent bystanders, but personal risks. I have found that in my life many spiritual experiences come only after I have ventured out in such a way that I did care about the difference between a beautiful fable and an actual truth. There is something to be said for rendering ourselves vulnerable to error.

  34. Andrew S on April 15, 2014 at 11:06 am

    re 29,

    Nathaniel,

    To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist. – Cardinal Suhard

    So there’s this idea that if you really believe something, that you will live in such a way that your life can’t make sense without those propositions being true. And, like I said in the post, I think that a lot of the trials and sacrifices we face in life are engineered precisely to force us to make the hard decisions and draw the fine distinctions that sketch our beliefs out more starkly than we might do if left to leave more comfortable, less confusing lives.

    This is a very interesting quote.

    I sometimes see things a little bit differently (although maybe not so differently…maybe I’m just misinterpreting the quote) — the facts “on the ground,” as it were, are the same for everyone. What differs are the narratives we will put around them. Like, there are a ton of dots, but no instructions on how to connect them, so different worldviews represent different arrangements of dots.

    In this sense, different people can come up with radically different narratives to connect the dots, but they can’t change the dots themselves, if that makes any sense.

    Let me try to make an example.

    It seems that recently, many people notice some sort of inequality or inequity in the treatment and consideration of women in the church, in the world, etc., etc., So, these are the facts on the ground (although I recognize that even describing it this way is laden with narration, connotation, and so forth.)

    But what differs are the stories people tell about this. For some, these facts on the ground are wrapped up in a narrative that God has clearly established this as his doctrine. For others, these facts on the ground are wrapped in a narrative that this is not necessarily of God, but God works through imperfect humans, so it’s possible for God to exist but also for these non-divine things to exist. For others still, these facts on the ground are wrapped in a narrative that the presence of this perceived injustice doesn’t support the existence of God.

    I can buy that people will then act differently according to which narrative they buy into. I can also buy that because each narrative is a connection of the dots (just a different picture), talking about the truth or falsity of the narratives is a category error. What I mean here is that when we talk about truth or falsity of another’s narrative (or explanatory value or predictive power, etc.,) mostly what we’re talking about is whether it accounts for all the dots and has lines for them. But if different narratives each connect similar amounts of dots (and only differ in the arrangement of the “bigger picture”, as it were), then then really, switching narratives, changing beliefs, isn’t so much about reaching something that’s more true/has more explanatory value/etc., but about finding something that presents a picture we like better.

    But 1) this is a model where subjective thoughts drive actions, whereas your model is one where actions reveal beliefs, and 2) then the answer to the question of what it would take to not believe or what it would take to believe is similarly subjective — instead of finding a model with more explanatory value, it would be about finding a model that looked nicer to you.

  35. Joel on April 15, 2014 at 11:17 am

    I would generally agree with you about not abandoning belief until we find something better, if we are talking about those beliefs which determine part of our identity, which is true of God and, for Mormons, the historicity of the Book of Mormon. For people who stop believing in these identity-giving beliefs, it can be traumatic, because they are rebuilding their identity. Though I tend to think that we have very little control over our beliefs; they are largely shaped by our subconscious, driven by our pre-existing assumptions and environmental pressures, and then our conscious constructs a framework post hoc to justify them. When we come across new evidence, we subconsciously change our beliefs to accommodate the new evidence, or more often, subconsciously change or dismiss the new evidence.

    But for beliefs generally, I don’t agree with your premise. It is perfectly acceptable to reject belief in something and replace it with non-belief in that thing. And I don’t see why we should have to explain all the evidence, or come up with some logical grand theory that best explains the evidence, to do so. If a magician shows me a fantastic trick and then asserts that he used real magic to do it, I am completely justified in rejecting his explanation, even if I cannot begin to explain how he “really” did the trick. And with the Book of Mormon, suppose hypothetically we discovered a document proving that it was a 19th century production, like letters back and forth between Joseph and Sidney Rigdon arguing about plot points. Wouldn’t we be justified in rejecting the historicity of the book, even without having to address all the ancient parallels and complexity put forward by numerous books and BYU Studies articles?

  36. Nathaniel Givens on April 15, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Kaimi-

    Interesting discussion, Nathaniel, and a lot of interesting points. A few thoughts in reply:

    1. The flip side to “everyone is a believer” is, “everyone is an unbeliever.”

    What you’re talking about is swapping out the propositions in which people believe. Bob believes in God. Ergo Bob disbelieves in Zeus. The act of believing hasn’t changed in that example, Only the object of belief. That’s fine, but it’s not what I’m addressing.

    What I’m addressing is the difference between belief/disbelief (which are both forms of belief) and non-belief (which is proposed as an alternative to believing at all). I’m saying that non-belief, in a general sense, is impossible.

    Sure, you can simply not believe a specific proposition, and that’s OK. I could say “My name middle name is Gerald” and you could say “I don’t believe or disbelieve that.” Maybe because you just don’t care? Whatever. Clearly we don’t have to have an affirmative belief for or against every single proposition. That would be impossible.

    What I’m trying to get at, by contrast, is the fact that we don’t operate directly with the world. We have a model of the world that we use as an intermediary. This is literally true when it comes to things like visual perception: we use 2d cues to construct a 3d model of our reality that corresponds only approximately (at best) with the actual reality. But it’s equally true when it comes to every other aspect of our lives: we use shortcuts, abstractions, symbols, etc. to create a model of the world (e.g. system of belief) that is related to but not identical with objective physical reality.

    This model of the world is “our beliefs”. It’s not just a grab-bag of propositions we affirm. It’s a unified whole that consists both of the propositions we individually affirm and their relation to the world, but also their relation to each other. And what I’m saying is that: we all have one of these. And we believe in it. And it’s a kind of organic system. You can take out a minor belief here or there, an isolated factoid, without having any real impact on the whole. But if you change or remove or add a major proposition, then the entire structure is going to react to that change.

    That is the sense in which non-belief is globally not an option. On this or that discrete proposition we can take a pass and have no opinion. But when we’re talking about propositions that we have incorporated into our world view in any significant way: you don’t get to just walk away from those because they are integrated into a system. There will be repercussions. If you take it out, your beliefs are going to reorganize to form a new whole. You will have a model of the world. You can’t not have one. So when considering major changes, you can’t just consider big propositions in isolation. You ought to consider the full before- and after-picture of your structure of beliefs, and make your decision based on the hoslitic view.

    Why _don’t_ you believe in them, anyway? Have you really deeply considered the possibility that Zoroastrianism is the way to go? Probably not. Heck, we don’t have _time_ to really consider our believer/unbeliever status across almost all of the available axes.

    In the followup piece (mostly written but too long to add to this one) I say something to the effect of: “If you haven’t seriously considered being something other than Mormon, how can you consider yourself a serous Mormon?” Time constraints make it impossible to examine every religion there is under the sun, but I absolutely think Mormons ought to take comparative religion very, very seriously and do at least a minimal amount of due-diligence in considering the competing religious claims of other belief systems. So, while I haven’t deeply considered every alternative religion out there, I have considered alternative religions in general and I do try to work hard to learn more about the most interesting of them with the same open mind I would hope to have in any earnest investigator of our faith. (For me, Sikhism is particularly fascinating, although I haven’t yet found a community to visit.)

    2. It’s an intriguing idea that we can’t really say no to belief without saying yes to another belief. But I’m not sure that it’s a Mormon belief; and I’m not sure I agree.

    I don’t see it as distinctly Mormon either.

  37. Ziff on April 15, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Dave R (#30), I love your comment. I think that’s a great way to frame decision-making in the face of uncertainty about a god or an afterlife.

  38. Nathaniel Givens on April 15, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Joel-

    But for beliefs generally, I don’t agree with your premise.

    That’s OK. I don’t either!

    The original question, keep in mind, was about the existence of God and the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Those are, for me at least, big questions. Those are kind of load-bearing beliefs in my structure of faith. So mostly what I was writing about was the general system of beliefs that a person has (their worldview, model, whatever) and what happens to that structure when load-bearing beliefs are added/replaced/deleted.

    The logic doesn’t really apply to incidental stuff like sports trivia or whatever.

    And yeah: I ddn’t make that explicitly clear in the OP. That’s part of why I like blogging. It’s in the discussion with folks that I learn what works and what doesn’t and what’s missing in my ideas. I’ll probably write another post in the near future explicitly about this whole worldview/system of beliefs/model/subjective reality concept itself.

  39. Nathaniel Givens on April 15, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Andrew S-

    In this sense, different people can come up with radically different narratives to connect the dots, but they can’t change the dots themselves, if that makes any sense.

    It definitely makes sense, and in general I agree with what you’re saying, but for me the big caveat is that I don’t think we actually do all have access to the same information. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m not a relativist. I do believe in objective realty. I’m not saying that one person can have their own reality where the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east and that’s equally valid. There are objective facts that just are and a lot of them are commonly accessible. This is why our private models of the world tend to be relatively commensurate with each others’.

    But some objective facts aren’t universally acceptable. The laws of physics are what they are, but a grad student in physics is going to have access to those objective dots in a way that a grad student in economics probably doesn’t.

    Moreover, I think the big problem is almost never finding enough information. It’s dealing with the deluge of (mostly useless) information that with which we are already inundated. What’s worse: we tend to be highly selective in what information we actually find and/or pay attention to.

    The point of all this is simply that there is a tremendous degree of latitude in constructing our personal beliefs, even if we stipulate that there is objective reality and the belief system has to be compatible with it.

    This also means that which belief system we personally view as “better” is going to largely depend on what criteria we choose to emphasize. Which is another way of saying that our belief systems will reflect our values. Which is one important way ethics and belief coincide.

  40. Martin James on April 15, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    No it doesn’t because we still experience a self even if we know the logical conclusion is that it doesn’t exist the way we think it does.

    But I’m not talking about theoretical free will models, I’m talking about everyday evidence about beliefs. One cannot understand the evidence of the world today without a very subtle understand of what we can control and what we can’t. Infant brains, people with dementia, people that are depressed, people that are hungry, people that have watched a lot of TV, people who are on meth, or alcohol or valium or steroids. Its not just a sideshow, its our reality.

    You said you are interested in other religions. Shouldn’t you be interested in how those religions have shaped the people who believe in them. Take Islam. Has anyone independently discovered they should pray facing Mecca without learning it from someone else? What kind of evidence are we going to count for the truth of Islam? What is your model for why people believe they should pray towards Mecca? Really, I want to know how you explain it.

    Its not just me that thinks you have to take things other than our individual belief quest seriously. Joel appears to have reservations. Nate Oman’s latest posts seem to be aimed at what conditions make certain questions real to people and trying to recreate what would make Mormonism a real possibility.

    You can say my train of thought is self-annihilating but look around. The belief that you can make sense of the world anymore believing that your beliefs are under your control just ins’t that practical. Mormonism has always had this tension. Peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, pornography have always been seen as things that limit choice.

    How we are raised and socialized has a tremendous influence on what we count as evidence as does our biological makeup. Ignoring that is as self-annihilating as not believing in free will. Its a one way ticket to fantasyland.

  41. Nathaniel Givens on April 15, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Martin James-

    The overwhelming evidence is that we hold the beliefs we do because of the structure of our brains and how our past changed our brain.[Martin]

    he degree of fatalism you seem to be taking it to is far beyond what the evidence clearly supports (to my knowledge) and in any case seems to be fairly self-annihilating. If our beliefs are wholly determined by strict physical determinism, then the whole discussion seems moot, does it not?[Nathaniel]

    No it doesn’t because we still experience a self even if we know the logical conclusion is that it doesn’t exist the way we think it does.

    So if I’m following the chain of logic, your argument is that we can’t influence what we believe because it is physically determined. My response is that (1) I don’t buy that evidence clearly establishes this position and (2) if it did, what’s the point? Without freewill there is no self. To which you respond that “we still experience a self even if… it doesn’t exist in the way we think it does.” But, to be clear, I’m maintaining (as was Raymond Tallis) that it doesn’t exist at all.

    As for the rest: I get it. We don’t believe things for the reasons that we think we do, nor do we do things for the reasons we think. Cognitive biases abound. Fictitious and instrumental beliefs lurk. Rationality is bounded if it exists at all. It’s gotten so you can’t swing a cat without hitting a blogger writing about how we are not so smart. Really, I get it.

    My question is: so what do you do about it?

    Just as we have relatively little control over our beliefs, we also have relatively little control over our day-to-day lives. We think we have control because, especially in the first world, are lives are by and large (1) routine and (2) comfortable. Aside from brief exposures to supreme contempt with which the laws of physics regard our concerns (during a car crash) or the alien indifference with which biology views human life (during a truly severe illness) we are insulated from our impotence. But we are, by and large, impotent.

    So what do we do about it?

    I agree with you that ignoring it won’t do us any good, but if you think I’m suggesting we ignore limitations on human rationality then you’re very, very unfamiliar with my work. My whole project can be summed up as: so we’re irrational and ignorant. Now what?

    Well, just as I don’t give up on self-determination in my life (although of course I do set more realistic expectations, I hope, and carry some humility around in consequence of my relative weakness) I am not willing to give up self-determination of my belies and thoughts. Not because I pretend my limitations don’t exist, but in spite of them. I have no illusion that just because I know about cognitive biases I can surpass them (there’s a bias for that, too) nor do I imagine that I can somehow stand outside my cultural and familial upbringing like some kind of intellectual colossus. I simply choose to struggle on anyway.

    I do hope that the struggle is effectual and that there is actually a purpose to my striving. I hope that despite the biases and flaws we can learn all more and understand more and progress, albeit by fits and starts. But I also think that just the attempt to impose one’s will on one’s own life and self and beliefs is intrinsically worthy.

    So if you’re here to tel me about all the limitations and frailties and weaknesses of the human intellect: got it. Message received. But then comes my question once more: what are you gonna do about it?

  42. Martin James on April 15, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    The main thing I’m going to do about it is to recognize that I’m a thing and do the best job I can reverse engineering the thing that I am to create more possible ways of being. If men are that they might have joy, then why shouldn’t we discover the most potent forms that don’t kill us or our offspring?

    I guess my main difference in outlook is to recognize that material changes and knowledge have made obsolete many of our approaches to living. Find new tools to cope that reflect that we know we are things.

    In simple terms, this is what people do when they exercise and eat right. They don’t assume that they can be healthy by just thinking happy thoughts. Its also what people do when they have breast augmentation.

    Mainly, I try to consider how I will respond to the brain changing options that we have.

    Discover how are people changing in response to various options available to them.

    Times and seasons and LDS cultural life in general is interesting because of the mix of what is taboo and not taboo for managing experience: The chemical and sexual addictions are frowned on, but materialism, status, sports, clannishness, and individualism all have varying degrees of adherence in mormon populations.

    Asceticism is an interesting one in our culture. it is typically valued in moderation only and not to excess. Thrift but not miserliness, sexual fidelity but not celibacy, fasting but only a day, etc.

    More than anything, I live in a world where everyone’s beliefs are unique. No two people have the same idea of God or truth or meaning. I believe a scientific understanding of why those differences exist helps me practice my religion better than does contemplating the historicity of the book of mormon.

    The laws of the universe are God’s laws. Knowing them is how I know God. Our crude understanding of free will and choice is an illusion that keeps us from understanding ourselves and understanding God.

  43. Martin James on April 15, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    More than anything I try to contain my excitement at all that is happening in the world. Traditions are crashing into each other like crazy at it is thrilling. Left and right is the USA. Russians and former Soviets, Shiite and Sunni. Military and civilian. Secularists and religionists. Libertarians and communitarians. Immigrants and the formerly immigrants. Clashes everywhere. The ultra-rich and the moderately rich.

    Its so wonderful!

  44. Clark Goble on April 15, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Just a note but Popper’s falsification obviously fails both as epistemology and as a demarcation of science. (I think the general consensus is that the demarcation problem is hopelessly unsolvable which is why not many talk about it anymore even though it was a big issue in Popper’s day) The reason it fails is because of course the experiment falsifying something is itself theory laden and confirmed in a positive way. So the Popper separation between positive evidence and falsification seems hopeless. That’s not to say falsification loosely speaking isn’t helpful. We obviously talk about null hypothesis and the like. Nor do we need to buy into say Kuhn as the alternative.

    What this has to do with religion is more complex. I just think modeling religion on science while sometimes helpful is also dangerous at times. I personally favor a more Peircean approach where there are things we doubt and things we don’t but we can’t control our doubts. Just our investigations and inquiries.

    In that model while we can speculate about what it would take us to believe or disbelief we honestly can’t be sure. All we can do is be honest about inquiry. I think in general more testimonies are lost gradually as the spiritual experiences confirming a testimony and making it live are lost and testimony becomes more about our memories and evidences that might shock us.

  45. Martin James on April 16, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Nathaniel,

    I’ve been thinking hard about this question of yours. “But then comes my question once more: what are you gonna do about it?”

    I take you at your word that you get it about irrationality and frailty and limitations.

    The core of the question for me is how central to “self”, “meaning” “being human” or even to being “moral” are the the cluster of concepts “will”, “choice”, “growth”, “purpose”, etc.

    My perspective is that once one is exposed to evidence that the voice in one’s head is an unreliable narrator, that it lies and deceives one faces a very, very perplexing situation.

    Your approach is to double down on the voice in the head: to assume the voice in your head is the important thing and to try to make what sense one can of that voice. You can’t imagine that the voice in your head is not yourself. Part of the complexity is that, this is most likely literally true. Your brain is so configured that you think that the conscious voice is you and can’t experience anything else. I can try to get it to change by having combinations of words enter your brain but likely its not going to change anything. We can”t be sure because we don’t know that precisely how words change the brain.

    Now, my brain is so configured that my sense of self, my experience, my being in the world is such that the concepts “will”, “choice”, “growth”, “purpose” are not central to my sense of self. They are just one part of it.

    Here are some analogies. Let’s compare a trip on train versus riding a bike or driving a car. Is it central to being a self that I am driving or steering the bike compared to riding in a train that I do not control? I would say no and furthermore that the cognitive attention that goes into driving and steering detracts from the experience of the trip. Cognitive resources are distracted from enjoying the ride.

    I don’t have a problem with people making those concepts (“will”, “choice”, “growth”, “purpose”) central to their lives. But that’s just because I don’t have a big problem with people lying to themselves either. But if one is going to be honest and have beliefs that are coherent and consistent with the evidence, then one needs to admit that for the most part those terms are a lie. They are not consistent with the evidence. They are not facing facts. Our sense of self is hiding what we really are from ourselves.

    i don’t think it is possible to live an honest and coherent life on your terms. For example, what happens when don’t believe life has a purpose? Well, we might die because we lose motivation to perform actions and starve.

    But is it impossible or lacking in dignity to admit that one is ignorant of the purpose of life but that one is hungry which feels bad and so one is going to find some food?

    Or similarly that one feels a need for purpose or experiences God and so responds to those feelings. What is the harm in naturalizing and recognizing the historical basis of our experience? Personally, I can’t see any other way to be honest and consistent with the experience.

  46. Karen on April 22, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Nate – Have you read any of John Hick’s work? In particular ‘The Fifth Dimension’. Hick’s talks about religious pluralism. His ideas may have some relevance here. Also, some would say that ‘truth’ doesn’t really ever exist because we all process information in different ways based on past experience etc. Our brains are simply not able to truly process reality. I’ve often heard it said by great academics “We simply live in a world of stories.” Perhaps our job when it comes to belief is to find a ‘truth’ that works for us and our own personal integrity. Just my thoughts.

  47. Don Hatch on July 29, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Nathaniel– you say several times “we have to believe in something”, as if that is axiotic or obvious. It seems to me there is something off about this statement. When someone says “I believe in” something, I hear “I think this is the one true model of the way things really are”.I think this is how most people hear and use the words “believe in”; i.e. I think it is the most common usage.

    But then you go on to say that you passionately agree with the statement that all models are wrong and that’s beside the point. I, too, passionately agree with that statement.
    So, in the common sense of the words, I’d say neither you nor I believe in anything: we switch between models more-or-less freely, using the model or models that we find most useful for the task at hand in the domain we are in with the people with whom we are trying to communicate at any particular time. A model doesn’t have to be a model *of* anything. I find this point of view quite freeing and more helpful than the alternative of feeling like I have to believe in anything.

    So it looks like you’re contradicting yourself, but from reading your surrounding text,
    I think the resolution is that you are using the words “believe in” in a different way from the common usage I refer to above. That is, when you say “we have to believe in something”, it looks to me like you mean simply “we have to use models to operate”, the latter wording being much less alarming/controversial to me.
    Does that sound right?
    If so, I certainly agree with the statement, but I would steer far clear of using the words “we have to believe in something” since those words sound like I’m saying something that I’m definitely not saying and in fact strongly disagree with. I think it’s a very important distinction to make.

    It’s particularly muddlesome since, in my experience, most people actually do seem to believe the statement “we have to believe in something” in the common-use sense in which I don’t think you are meaning it– they are extremely resistent (to the point of accusing me of lying) to my claim that I neither believe or disbelieve in the existence of God (or the existence of anything for that matter) or that I don’t think a model has to be a model *of* anything except sometimes perhaps another more-precise model.