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Choice, Belief, and Cognitive Dissonance November 9, 2018

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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A thought occurred to me today while having a conversation on Facebook.

I know, I know…why am I wading into Facebook conversations? It never solves anything, right? Right. Nonetheless, here we are.

So, the question was whether we choose our beliefs or not, and my position is that we do not choose our beliefs, and gave a brief explanation why. But something that someone said made me wonder whether cognitive dissonance is related to the feeling of having chosen a belief, and then something clicked home for me.

Let’s set the stage….

 

Choosing Beliefs: free will

So, whether we choose what we believe is related to the question of free will. I mean, if free will weren’t real, then of course we don’t choose our beliefs because our beliefs would be a function of our will which is not free, right? This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which essentially states that if the action or cognitive state reached is consistent with the desires and aims of the entity which performs said act or concludes the said idea, then the act is said to be “free” insofar as as it is what the entity wants.

In other words, if you eat ice cream and you wanted to eat ice cream, even if it were the case that you could not have done otherwise, then because the act was what you wanted to do then the act was chosen “freely.” Alternatively, if you were coerced or forced to do so by another person, then it is not a free choice. If someone force-feeds you ice cream, whether or not you wanted to do so the act was not “free.”

Let’s put the larger question of general free will aside. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our will is free in some meaningful sense. So that when I pick up my phone to look at it, I chose to do so (and am not merely addicted to my phone, like some haters might argue). Where does this leave us in terms of beliefs?

 

What is a Belief?

If you believe something, you are accepting it as true that a thing is real or true. One does not need absolute certainty to believe something, although perhaps it’s good to have a good epistemological foundation upon which to support that belief.

Of course, an astute reader might stop me there and say “Hold on! If you’re claim is that we don’t choose our beliefs, wouldn’t saying that we should have good reasons to believe something pull the rug out from under you, from the start? Wouldn’t it imply that you should only choose the well-supported ideas as your beliefs?”

And that astute reader may have started to see where I’m going with this post. We’ll get there.

For now, what I want to define is what I think a belief is, and not how we should get there. If I say that I believe there is a cat in that box, then I’m saying that I accept it as a real state of the universe that this particular box has a cat in it. It does not mean I can prove that there is one, necessarily, or even that the available evidence is sound or even available to be evaluated. It merely means that I have accepted it as a fact, or a true proposition, but it does not necessarily mean that I know it. (Knowledge is another can of worms, completely).

It has no necessary connection to the truth of whether there actually is a cat in the box; I could be wrong, but I currently believe that there is a cat in the box. My reasons are not relevant to the mere question of belief per se.

 

Epistemology

Epistemology is the philosophical study of why I’m right and you’re wrong. OK, it’s not quite that, but it’s the study of how we know, why we know, and ultimately it studies the tools we use to create justifications for the truth of propositions.

So, you believe there is a cat in the box. Why do you believe that? How did you come to that conclusion? Does it feel true to you? Can you see a cat in the hole in the box? Is there a meowing sound coming from inside the box? Did you open the box and see a cat in there?

There are gradations of evidence for the belief, and some of them will be more rationally justified, and convincing to people, than others. If you merely feel like there is a cat in the box, but when we shake it it feels light and no hissing and cat noises ensue, then maybe your feeling is wrong. Maybe the meowing sound is a recording being played on a speaker in the box? Maybe it’s a fake cat you see through the hole in the box. Maybe you’re hallucinating both a cat and a box, and in reality there is not even a box at all. Maybe you’re in the matrix, and there is also no spoon.

In short, epistemology is the study of whether the belief is justified but it is also the study of how we come to conclusions which are justified to different extents.

So, how did you come to this belief?

Are you even consciously aware of how you came to believe in your theory of cats in boxes? Did you earn a PhD in cat-in-box-ology? Did you try to open the box and pet the cat? Did you take the cat out of the box because you were trying to put something else in it when your cat decided the box belonged to her? What was the method you used to come to this belief?

And that leads into the next question.

 

What would it be like if you were wrong?

If it weren’t the case that a cat was in the box, what would that imply about other things you believe and would it affect you in some significant way? If the cat were an illusion, or otherwise just not there, would it shatter your worldview? Would it be painful or somehow life-altering if it were the case that your belief were not true?

How does it feel, and what thoughts do you have, if someone tells you there is no cat in the box? Does it make you curious? Angry? Do you feel pity for the poor deluded fool who can’t perceive the cat? Also, can you actually perceive the cat yourself, or are you inferring it from something else? Maybe you were raised in a home where everyone believed there was a cat in the box, and so you just sort of accepted it from an early age and so the idea seems natural, automatic, and, well…did you ever really choose to believe that the cat was in the box?

I mean…of course you did. Right? You looked at the box. There was something moving in there. You thought you heard a meow. Besides, the box says “cat inside,” and why would someone write that on a box with no cat in it? You really thought about this, and you decided that a cat was in the box. You’re sure. Mostly.

Ok, let’s forget about the damned cat for a minute, and let’s talk about something else. You decide to pick up a newspaper, and you see that it says that your local baseball team won the game last night. Great! that’s awesome. And you believe it, because the newspaper said so. I mean, newspapers make mistakes, but not often of more trivial and easily provable things like this, so you accept it as true, even if only provisionally, because there is evidence which is generally reliable to support it.

But what if someone said “hey, the newspaper made a mistake about last night’s game, and they actually lost in the bottom of the 9th”? What happens then? Did your belief in the outcome of the game waver or change? Did you choose that wavering or shift in belief? Did you, consciously, say to yourself that the question of the result of the game is in the air, epistemologically, and you now choose to believe that they in fact lost? Or did the belief just sort of shift, without you seeing the process take place, and appear in your consciousness without any actual conscious process driving it?

Or this. You see a man steal a candy bar from a convenience store. Did you consciously choose to accept this as reality, or were you convinced by the direct evidence that you saw with your own eyes. I want to emphasize the word “convince” here, because it indicates something happening to you, not you doing something. You became convinced by an experience.

It’s possible you mis-saw what happened; maybe the man actually paid for it already and is just grabbing it now. Maybe he’s the owner of the store, and it’s really his candy bar. But you believe he just stole it, because you saw the evidence (even if you might be wrong). Could you choose to believe that he didn’t steal it? You could conceive of alternative explanations, but until you actually become convinced, whether through rational analysis* or through new information that he didn’t steal it, you will believe that he stole it.

Did you choose to believe that you cannot fly like superman?

You did? Great. Now choose to believe that you can fly like superman.

You can’t, can you?

What’s the problem? You did choose in the first place, right? You were convinced by the evidence of the possibilities of such things, and then chose to believe it, right? Or was it that the belief appeared in your consciousness because of the evidence in its favor? And the only way you could believe otherwise is to see new evidence of your newfound ability to fly.

You do not choose your beliefs. You become convinced of things due to feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Your inability to simply hop from genuine (as opposed merely asserted) belief to belief at your mere whim demonstrates this.

So how is it the case that people believe things that are wrong? If beliefs are the result of evidence, then shouldn’t we only believe things which are evident? Ideally, yes, but there are all sorts of cognitive biases, errors on thinking and perceptions, and deceptions (both external and internal) at play here.

 

Being Wrong

You believe that someone at work hates you, and is trying to ruin your career. You have seen all the evidence and it worries you. They are always short with you, snippy even. And you had that idea at the meeting which they shot down immediately in front of everyone. She didn’t come to the after work happy hour you organized, even though she came to the other one last month. She never talks to you. She probably plots and schemes at home on how to ruin your life. The evidence is obvious, right?

Well, maybe she doesn’t like you. Maybe she despises you even more than your worst fantasies could ever conjure up. Or, maybe, all of these pieces of evidence have other explanations, and she actually thinks you’re a good employee and thinks highly, or maybe just neutral, about you. It’s very easy to have beliefs that are incorrect for all sorts of reasons.

But you’re convinced anyway. Another co-worker says that you are reading into things too much, and she’s short with most people most of the time. She is always speaking up in meetings with ideas and being critical, even with her best friend who she sees all the time after work for drinks. That’s just who she is.

No, you believe she has it out for you. You’ve become convinced and invested in this belief, and if the belief is challenged then a part of your brain sort of reacts against the other evidence and rejects it, perhaps almost imperceptibly. It’s not quite painful, but it’s uncomfortable. The claim just bumps up against your belief and bounces off. You are experiencing cognitive dissonance.

And the more contradictory information you receive, perhaps the more your belief sticks. And maybe, just maybe, as the evidence starts to mount against your belief the feeling of believing it starts to feel more and more like a choice. The more evidence that she likes you–she invites you to lunch with some people, she compliments your work, she nods her head at the next meeting in reaction to your idea–the more the belief that she actually hates you and wants to destroy you starts to feel like you are choosing to believe it because you are actively maintaining it, even if only unconsciously.

And if I came to you on a day or time while you were thinking about your co-worker and asked you whether we choose our beliefs you say yes; you do choose your beliefs. Perhaps not all of them, but this belief feels like a choice right now, and you are a free, curious, and intelligent person not merely subject to the random whims of random chance in terms of what you believe about the world. Your beliefs are rational, reasonable, and you have given them thought, so of course you choose them.

But that doesn’t address how you came to believe it in the first place. Because the initial question is not “are you choosing to believe this now,” it’s “how did you come to this belief?” It’s well-known that many of our reasons for our beliefs are post-hoc rationalizations, and not the reason we originally came to the belief itself (as I have written about before) ; not how to hold onto, rationalize, or explain your beliefs, but how you came to accept it as true. In other words, we need to be able to distinguish between the origin of a belief and our mind’s ability to maintain, defend, or rationalize a belief after it has made a home in our brain.

And in most cases, I don’t think we know how we started to believe something, especially when it comes to things like religious, political, or larger worldview beliefs. If you really think about where your beliefs come from, you may often be left without a clue. All the justifications that start to perculate up are an after-the-fact rationalization of the thing that’s already there, even if your belief is actually true, rational, and strongly evidenced. You didn’t choose it, you became convinced for good, bad, or mixed good/bad causes and reasons.

 

Beliefs: Rationalizations versus origins

As I reflect on some of my more certain, core beliefs, I don’t feel a sense of defending or actively maintaining the belief. I feel no cognitive dissonance when I think “this computer is in front of me” or “the world seems like a collection of material things interacting in complicated ways.” But I do feel some cognitive dissonance if I think “Nas’ Illmatic is the best rap album of all time”.

See, I love that album, and I have a fair amount of emotional investment in thinking it’s the best rap album because of my love for it. But I’m also aware that there is evidence out there that it’s not the best rap album. There are some pretty damned good Wu-Tang albums, for example. Also, there are a lot of good albums I probably don’t know about which may be better. I feel, while thinking those words, that I’m actively rationalizing the answer in real time, mostly unconsciously, and it feels more like I’m choosing that belief. I feel the power of having made that choice, but the feeling of having made the choice is not the origin of the belief, it is the experience of rationalizing the belief.

I’ve been fooled to think I chose the belief because of the process of rationalizing the belief, which probably isn’t the reason I came to that belief, is associated with the origin of the belief in my mind. Now, it might be the case that Nas’ Illmatic is in fact the best rap album of all time, but that’s not really relevant here. What’s relevant is that this belief came about through processes I’m not conscious of at all and perhaps could never understand, so it couldn’t possibly be a choice. The rationalizations I come up with later, consciously, may have nothing whatsoever to do with the initial reason. But even if it did, there is no way for me to know this, at least not completely.

And while it’s important to be able to justify our beliefs and be open to allowing those beliefs to change (notice that this is, again, something that happens to us and not something we do) based upon further information and experience, we should be aware that this process is separate from how the belief came to exist in the first place. So, if we have free will and can choose the rational processes by which we justify our beliefs, because we don’t have access to the processes by which the belief formed, we can’t have chosen the belief.

 

OK dude, what’s your point?

Perhaps it is the case (and I’m not convinced of this yet, and therefore do not believe it, but it’s a compelling thought) that there is a correlation, and mayhap even a causal relationship, between the sensation of choosing a belief and the presence of cognitive dissonance. Therefore, the strength of the feeling of choosing a belief is a sign of the belief itself being in jeopardy.

If I hold a belief, but the evidence seems to contradict or at least challenge it, then as I think about the challenge I have to actively justify the belief. This may cause the sensation of choosing it because I’m being forced to justify my belief fresh, which feels like a choice. But, maybe, if the challenges to my belief result in no sensation of choosing the belief, this might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is not present, and maybe I’m not seeing any conflict with my belief at all.

It could also mean I’m dense, stubborn, or simply not understanding the counter-evidence, but I’m finding it compelling that there might be a relationship here, which I will have to give more thought to.

When a challenge comes to a core belief, such as the earth being relatively spherical, from (let’s say) a flat-Earth proponent, I certainly do have to bring to mind the justifications for my belief, but he feeling of choosing this belief is weak if not nonexistent in this case. The attempts at counter-arguments simply don’t have enough power to bring about the sensation of choosing to believe the earth is round, it’s just there, unperturbed.

But how about whether psychic ability is real? I’m convinced it’s not, and I belief it’s a fraud or a delusion when people claim it’s real, but there is a sensation of the belief being chosen as I really think about it. It’s not inherently impossible, after all. I could imagine ways it might happen, given the right kinds of biological hardware and processes. There is enough room for doubt, that as I think about it the sensation of choosing this belief is more present. But, again, this is the sensation of the justification process, not the origin of the belief. To touch the core belief, the evidence would have to be overwhelming and that, if it ever happened, would be the cause of a new belief (a belief in psychic abilities) which would be new and never completely understood, but only later justified.

So maybe we should keep in mind that the belief that belief is a choice is a sign of cognitive dissonance? Or at least a sign that the belief is being justifiably challenged?Maybe I should try to believe that, and see how well it pans out.

I don’t know, I’m not quite convinced, but it’s an interesting idea to keep in mind and pay attention to, going forward. If it were true that the feeling of choosing a belief were related to a belief being exposed, threatened, and potentially subject to replacement, then it might be worth paying more attention to when people claim they choose their beliefs as possibly more open to having their minds changed.

Then again, someone who says they choose their beliefs and who are also convinced that they cannot be wrong are probably not worth talking to. In other words, I should stay off of Facebook.

 

 


*One might be tempted to point out that this internal rational analysis is the point where one chooses to believe. But even if we accept that the rational analysis itself was chosen, the belief comes as a result of the analysis, automatically, based on the soundness of the analysis and your ability to understand it. If you think 1+1=2, and you understand what all those symbols/words mean, then you have no choice but to accept it as true. You don’t choose to believe 1+1=2, you become convinced by the meanings of the symbols and their relation to each other, regardless of whether you chose to think that specific analytical thought.

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Comments»

1. Marvin Edwards - November 11, 2018

Beautifully done. The cat was especially fun.

The skeptic would question whether a box that had the label “Cat” on it actually contained a cat. He would likely examine the box more closely, as you suggested: listening for the meow, looking for an opening where he could see inside, or perhaps picking it up to test its weight and whether something inside would “hiss” at him.

So, we could reasonably say that, at the beginning, he was not willing to believe that there was a cat in the box without further proof. And he could have decided to leave the box alone, and go on his way, withholding his choice as to whether to believe there was a cat in the box or not. If someone asked him, “Hey, what about that cat in the box?”, he could say, “I don’t know for sure what to believe about that”.

Or, he could have chosen to pick the box up and shake it. Then he would know. And if someone asked him about the cat, he would either tell them, “Yes, I believe there is a cat in the box, and I have a scratch on my nose to prove it!” Or, he would say, “No, I don’t believe there is a cat in the box, because the box was too light and nothing happened when I shook it.”

His belief would be the reliable result of his personality (skepticism and curiosity) and whether he chose to obtain the evidence needed to resolve his uncertainty or not.

Like most people, he would be convinced by the evidence. However, he did choose of his own free will whether to obtain the evidence or not.

But what if the evidence were unobtainable? Suppose the box were not on the ground in front of him, but somewhere he could not get to it? Then his belief would be determined by his personality.

There are beliefs that are open to modification. A phobia, like the fear of flying, may be based on a belief that the plane will crash. The evidence needed to dispel that belief may be unobtainable because we can’t get her on the plane. But the person sees all her friends taking trips, so she chooses to go to a psychologist to change her underlying beliefs.


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