Can we choose our beliefs?

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Dworkin's picture
Can we choose our beliefs?


This question is an old chestnut in undergraduate philosophy, but maybe still worth a look.

As a realist, I would like answer ‘No’, but I may be wrong. Consider the following: A person is diagnosed with terminal cancer, with 3 months left to live. The person, by an effort of will, refuses to accept that they will die and holds onto that belief. After 2 months the person suddenly dies in their sleep.

Well, this person has chosen a belief, albeit wrong, and has never had to face the truth that their belief was wrong. So, it would seem reasonable to admit that they had chosen their belief in this case. There may be other circumstances in which this dynamic plays out, and I am interested in the pathology.


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Sheldon's picture
We cannot not, not choose to

We cannot not, not choose to not believe, and we cannot not, not know if we cannot not, not choose to not believe...or not.

I think that doesn't not, not disprove my point, or not, though I'm not prepared to claim I don't know it cannot not, not disprove it, or not.

I think that is definitely not, not unclear enough to everyone, or not.

Cognostic's picture
@Sheldon: I was attempting to

@Sheldon: I was attempting to write something very similar but failed. Just got lost in my own attempt.

Whitefire13's picture
I do not, not “get you”...

I do not, not “get you”... Sheldon


Attach Image/Video?: 

Whitefire13's picture
The Japanese add a depth to

The Japanese add a depth to this culturally...

"I think the Japanese tend to try to maintain a veneer of calm and not breech topics that might be alarming or insulting (emphasis added). For example, until recently, it was the norm for families not to tell a family member who had cancer (about the cancer) just to save suffering on the part of the family member ...”

Perhaps “refuses to ACKNOWLEDGE” is more accurate...

Dworkin's picture


Yes, I have heard of this in Japan and also many years back here in Britain, often with the collusion of doctors. It raises a different question in moral philosophy, which is 'Can it be right to tell a lie'.


Whitefire13's picture


Off topic (new thread) perhaps??? But as an indulgence...

Depends doesn’t it? (Not the adult diaper)

algebe's picture
@Whitefire13: For example,

@Whitefire13: For example, until recently, it was the norm for families not to tell a family member who had cancer

I don't know what research that writer did, but I've never encountered that behavior in the many Japanese families I've known over the past 50 years.

Realistically how could you conceal from someone that they have cancer? They're going to know something's going on when the doctors start giving them chemo and radiotherapy or hook them up to a morphine drip.

Whitefire13's picture
I have no fucking clue how it

I have no fucking clue how it could be hid “slip pain meds in their tea?!?!”

But: In Japan, historically, physicians have withheld discussing cancer diagnoses directly with patients [9]. However, since the early 1990s, due to the increased understanding and adoption of informed consent policy and practice, physicians have gradually begun to inform patients of their cancer diagnosis in clinical practice [10, 11]. In many cases, however, details regarding prognosis are still concealed from patients, especially if the condition is incurable

The article was written 8 years ago so some of the embedded links are broken, but these two worked.

It appears this practice has lost ground over the past 20-30 yrs.

David Killens's picture
@ Dworkin

@ Dworkin

As a theist, can you, this very moment, change your belief in a god and sincerely believe a god does not exist?

Let us take this intellectual exercise and put it to practice to see what happens.

p.s. what is happening is that I am testing, and not just wondering.

Dworkin's picture


Good question. As an Agnostic I don't feel that I could choose to believe that I know whether God exists or not. As I am neither an atheist or theist I don't feel that I could choose to believe that God does not exist or does exist.

I think that there are people who have chosen to believe in atheism or theism in the way you describe, but I have not been able to do that myself. I guess I am just a hard realist when it comes such matters.

However, I do feel that I can choose to believe my car is still parked in my garage, although I don't know that for certain (it might have been stolen while I'm here in the house). So, in this case I can't choose to know, but I can choose to believe.


Tin-Man's picture
@Dworkin Re: "As I am

@Dworkin Re: "As I am neither an atheist or theist I don't feel that I could choose to believe that God does not exist or does exist."

...*blank stare*... Ummmm... I don't want to sound harsh, so I'm going to try to put this as gently as I can....

I believe you are an idiot.

Whitefire13's picture
Dworkin ... “ However, I do

Dworkin ... “ However, I do feel that I can choose to believe my car is still parked in my garage, although I don't know that for certain (it might have been stolen while I'm here in the house). So, in this case I can't choose to know, but I can choose to believe.”

How about I show you my garage. I ask you, do you believe I have a car in there?

You say “I don’t know, is there?”

I say “Yes! Believe me now?” (door is still closed)

You say “I’m going to withhold belief until you open the door and show me your car parked in the garage.”

I go “oh” ... you would be an atheist! “Withhold belief”

dogalmighty's picture
"However, I do feel that I

"However, I do feel that I can choose to believe my car is still parked in my garage, although I don't know that for certain (it might have been stolen while I'm here in the house). So, in this case I can't choose to know, but I can choose to believe."

That's because cars have been demonstrably and objectively evidenced to exist in reality.

Cognostic's picture
@Dworkin: FUCK! How fucking

@Dworkin: FUCK! How fucking ignorant can one human being be?

1. Still does not understand the word "Agnostic."

2. It has been clearly demonstrated that you do not choose beliefs. If I put a red card in front of you on a table can you choose to believe the card is blue? (No. Not even if someone threatened you or offered you a reward. *You are too dense to get the heaven or hell reference here so I have spelled it out for you.*
You may be able to make yourself say “that ball is blue”, but that will not qualify as believing. You assert your car is in the garage based on knowledge and evidence. Belief is allocated to the degree of evidence provided.

Even if you had no idea at all where your car was, the assertion "It is in the garage" is believable. It is believable not based on "choice" but on the simple fact that all the evidence we know of suggests cars are often kept in garages. Can you look at the car in your garage and then force yourself to believe the car is not yours? (This is different than a psychopathology. In the event of a mental disturbance, one might believe the car is a duplicate planted by aliens. This person has no more choice in their belief than you have in yours.)

It is impossible to choose to believe in something knowing that it is false. (KNOWING IT IS FALSE) Belief is something we have no control over; as it is simply the result of information we feed our brains. *I would like to say the "result of evidence" but clearly the brain does not know the difference between evidence and simple information.* (Your own ignorance is the perfect example.)

You can lead a human to knowledge but you can't make them think! Go sit on your car that is parked in the garage and convince yourself that it is not there!

David Killens's picture
@ Dworkin

@ Dworkin

"So, in this case I can't choose to know, but I can choose to believe."

But you can go to the garage and see it, touch it, lick the tires. No one can do anything comparable with a god. So that is a poor analogy.

But a belief in a god is a MAJOR life position, it can influence every aspect of the rest of your life, and influence everyone around you. So that position should arrive after considerable thought.

Dworkin, you either believe there is a god, or not. There is no middle ground, you believe or you do not. So your fence-sitting indicates to me that either you are internally confused, or not being honest with yourself and/or us.

Sheldon's picture
FYI, it seems pretty obvious

FYI, it seems pretty obvious that in the OP scenario the man is not choosing to believe something, but choosing to disbelieve something, in this case an objective medical fact. Irrational denial is also quite a common response to news that you're terminally I'll. So it's a poorly chosen example.

It's also a bit facile, as people generally make multiple steps towards a belief, rather than just a single choice, the more complex the belief the more complex the cognitive path to belief or disbelief.

I did not choose to be an atheist, i was born one, and the more I have examined theistic claims the less compelling they become, and they simply don't meet any objective burden of proof.

Tin-Man's picture


I think I believe I know what you mean, but I'm not too sure I know if I believe what you say. You see, if I don't believe I know something, then how am I suppose to know what to believe? For instance, you have regularly demonstrated you believe you are an intelligent troll who knows he doesn't know what he should or shouldn't believe. Yet, at the same time, you claim to know what you believe we (atheists) don't believe. As such, that leads me to question my beliefs about your knowledge of beliefs, because I know why I don't believe what you think you know I do believe is something that can truly be known only by me. For even if I tell you what and why I don't believe what you think you know I might believe, you may not believe me because you don't really know for sure if that is really what I believe.

So, with all of that in mind, I will once again offer a word or two of advice. Namely, I still believe you suck at trolling. Do you believe me? Perhaps fingerpainting would be a better hobby for you.

Whitefire13's picture
LOL ...

LOL ...
Self-isolate and read “Alice In Wonderland”

For Dworkin Syndrome

dogalmighty's picture
I do not, not know, what to

I do not, not know, what to think about dorkin.

Whitefire13's picture
I do not, not know that “they

I do not, not know that “they” do not, not pick appropriate names! *Dork* ‘in ...

Cognostic's picture
@Tin! That was close! I

@Tin! That was close! I actually popped in to respond to dip... I mean Dwork but you missed me again! Ooo Eee Aaaa Aaaa!

Tin-Man's picture
@Cog Re: "...but you missed

@Cog Re: "...but you missed me again! Ooo Eee Aaaa Aaaa!"

... *cackling witch laugh*.... I'll get you next time, my pretty! And your little dog, too!... *cackling laugh*... *vanishing in puff of smoke*...

algebe's picture
@Dworkin: Can we choose our

@Dworkin: Can we choose our beliefs?

Nope. You can't choose what you believe, what you like, what you desire, or whom you love.

If you're lucky, you may discover these things, but that requires taking risks and seeking out experiences. Or you can just pretend.

boomer47's picture


Can you and I, as rational human beings choose our beliefs?


However, theists tend to do exactly that in effect.

In his chilling book, "1984" George Orwell coined the term "doublethink" . IE the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once and believe both to be true. Today we call that ability 'cognitive dissonance ' . True believers of all kinds have the ability. Christians are especially adept . Add confirmation bias and you have a belief system impervious to reason or facts. We get such victims here regularly.

Imo, we humans can and do convince ourselves of the truth of ANY proposition if we want to badly enough . This ability is called' ' rationalisation'. It is first cousin to 'intellectualisation'

Do we truly believe in such cases? I don't believe so, but it's moot. Human beings regularly use rationalisations to justify the most appalling behaviour. You know, like the current US White House administration ..

It just occurred to me that future years, comparing a thing with Trump & minions may replace Godwin's
Law (reductio ad Hitlerum)

Calilasseia's picture
The question that properly

The question that properly requires answering, is not "can we choose our beliefs?", to which the answer is an emphatic "yes" (I shall expound upon this later), but should we bother with belief itself?

The reason I present the latter question as the proper question to answer, arises from the large body of observational data, provided by the usual suspects among the mythology fanboys, that belief is nothing more than uncritical acceptance of unsupported assertions, and as such, is actually a violation of the proper rules of discourse. As a corollary of "belief" being thus defined, upon a rigorous examination of the available data, the answer to the second question is a resounding "no". We should instead, in accordance with the proper rules of discourse, subject all assertions to test wherever possible, and only accept as valid those assertions passing the requisite tests, whereupon said assertions cease to be mere assertions, and instead become evidentially supported postulates.

We can, by definition, choose to treat assertions uncritically as fact, but doing so is fatuous, also by definition. Instead, we should exert effort to treat unsupported assertions with proper suspicion, and subject assertions to test wherever possible. Untestable assertions by definition remain in that limbo called "truth value unknown", and should continue to be treated as such. Assertions that are falsified by relevant proper test are kept only for pedagogical purposes. Assertions that are supported by relevant evidence become our evidentially supported postulates, and form the proper basis of our knowledge base.

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