Friday, September 28, 2007

Sam Harris on Belief and Evidence

Sam Harris has written a new column, and new instances of his writing never fail to give me something I want to quote because I wish I had said it so clearly myself. Here's the recent case in point:

Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence. If you doubt this, imagine hearing the following account of a failed New Year’s resolution:

“This year, I vowed to be more rational, but by the end of January, I found that I had fallen back into my old ways, believing things for bad reasons. Currently, I believe that smoking is harmless, that my dead brother will return to life in the near future, and that I am destined to marry Angelina Jolie, just because these beliefs make me feel good and give my life meaning.”

This is not how our minds work. To believe a proposition, we must also believe that we believe it because it is true. While lapses in rationality can often be detected in retrospect, they always occur in the dark, outside of consciousness. In every present moment, a belief entails the concurrent conviction that we are not just fooling ourselves.
This relates to the question of whether beliefs about the world are subject to our free will. Can we choose what we believe and what we don't? I think the answer to this question is obvious -- no, we can't -- but the denial of this is central to the Abrahamic faiths, which set forth rewards and penalties (here and hereafter) for holding and rejecting certain beliefs.

We can certainly make assertions, and identify propositions we'd prefer to be true, and thereafter seek to locate supporting evidence and seek to undermine contrary evidence. In the course of this hunt-and-peck evidence game, we can become more and more adept at decreasing the likelihood of encountering contrary evidence -- instances of the latter would be a Christian who habitally avoids reading David Hume or Sam Harris, and an atheist who habitually avoids reading C.S. Lewis or Lee Strobel.

We can do these things, but this still concedes the link between evidence and belief. Wanting to believe something -- however strong the motivation, up and including the desire to avoid an eternity of fiery torment -- is perhaps necessary, but never sufficient, to flip that switch in our mind that indicates "yes, that's true."

This explains why the faithful so eagerly embrace instances where reputable evidence supports, or appears to support, a tenet hitherto buttressed only by faith. They prattle about faith as the glorious evidence of things unseen, and nanner about 'spiritual truth,' and wax on about a warm Jesus-like feeling in their little hearts, but they come running and salivating when something like the James Ossuary makes headlines. (Then quietly vanish again when it's found to be a hoax.)

Maintaining shaky beliefs requires pushing inconvenient evidence out of sight, but there's an everpresent risk that the contrary evidence, being out of the will's control, will wander back into view. This willing of belief can only take the human mind so far.

But maybe I understate the power of faith and overstate the power of evidence. Maybe, with the aid of a vividly-drawn portrait of hell, you could come to believe (not merely assert) that you don't have eyes or hands, or that you're actually an opposum, or that the last piece of bread you ate became human flesh. I have my doubts.

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