Why is choosing beliefs more problematic than choosing actions?

There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow: Yet it was the schoolboy who said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

“Believing what you know ain’t so” — if it is true that we choose our beliefs and are morally responsible for them, then it ought to be possible to do just that.

We are certainly morally responsible for our actions because, knowing (or thinking that we know) what is right, we are nevertheless capable of choosing to do otherwise. We are able to do what we know is wrong — to judge a particular course of action to be wrong and to do it anyway. This is possible because judging a deed to be right is one thing, and actually doing it is another. Without this distinction, the idea of sin would be incoherent.

When it comes to belief, though, no such distinction is possible. To judge a belief to be right just is to believe it. “Believing what you know ain’t so” is, pace the schoolboy, meaningless. To believe something just is to think it is so; if you don’t think it’s so, you don’t believe it. Thus, the idea of sin is incoherent when applied to beliefs. We cannot be held morally responsible for our beliefs because there is no internal standard against which to judge them. Of course, there is the external standard of what is objectively true, but that’s not good enough. A man may do something which, as a matter of fact, is wrong — but if he doesn’t know it’s wrong, he is still innocent. Likewise, a man who believes something false is innocent unless he knows it’s false — but if he knew it was false, he would eo ipso not believe it.


And yet, and yet — that can’t be the whole story. At some level, everyone understands exactly what Twain’s schoolboy is talking about, which is why his definition of faith makes us smile knowingly rather than scratching out heads. “Believing what you know ain’t so” is not simply meaningless, or it would not even register as a witticism. Somehow, despite the contradictions it seems to involve, it is possible to willfully — culpably — believe something you know is false. As for what exactly that means, though, I confess that I’m still at a loss. Further research is, as they say, indicated.


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology

6 responses to “Why is choosing beliefs more problematic than choosing actions?

  1. Interesting post. I have been pondering much the same thing of late, after being in a meeting where someone described herself as “being blessed with a believing heart.” I do think that faith (or belief if you prefer) comes more easily and naturally to some than to others. But I also think that we do in fact choose our beliefs. After all, we decide which belief systems we are willing to even consider. Being a person of faith, it is my conviction that, as we sincerely explore belief systems, we have the right to divine guidance and inspiration in recognizing which to embrace.

  2. That’s pretty much the conclusion I’m coming to — that, while we cannot choose our beliefs directly, we do exercise a degree of indirect control over them by choosing what to consider, what to pay attention to, etc.

    As for “being blessed with a believing heart,” it’s not exactly an unmixed blessing. Such a person has to be careful what ideas he exposes himself to, since anything he attends to is likely to sway him. It’s like being “teachable” — a blessing or a curse, depending on what sort of teachers come your way.

  3. Lou Tychonievich

    “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” is in my opinion the most profound thing Mark Twain ever said. I found a similarly profound statement in the movie Secondhand Lions: “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most – that people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.” Now you might think that I would disagree with the statement that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, but that is in fact what makes it so profound.

    I believe there are two notions at play here: what you might call fact vs. truth. Fact is the thing pursued by science, while truth belongs to the realm of religion. Facts are almost universally treated as solid, dependable, and immoveable, while truths are thought by many to be nebulous and arbitrary. But this seems to me to be the reverse of the way things really are. Every physicist would agree that most of the scientific facts of 100 years ago were wrong and that many of today’s facts will undoubtedly be seen to be wrong 100 years from now, while the basic truths of the gospel have endured unchanged for millennia. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein left this world holding very different facts about the universe, but the truths of Adam and Abraham and Moses and Jesus still apply today.

    At various points in my life, I have been forced to choose between facts and truths. For example, different experts have told me that the Salamander Letters were proven to be authentic and that Amber’s lungs were absolutely incapable of functioning properly. These facts contradicted the truths of the gospel, and I was completely unable to disprove them. However, in each case I consciously decided to believe what I knew wasn’t true. Or in other words, I decided to believe in truth in spite of contradictory facts. I decided that my inability to refute those facts just didn’t matter.

    I unexpectedly found something profound in V.S. Ramachandran’s book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. It was a statement that he made almost as a footnote: “We are not angels, we are merely sophisticated apes. Yet we don’t feel like that. We feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, forever craving transcendence, trying to spread our wings and fly off. Really a very odd predicament to be in, if you think about it.” It is sad to think that he could feel the truth so clearly and yet chose to treat it as merely a curious mental aberration, much like Scrooge’s undigested bit of beef.

    In spite of what many loudly proclaim, in this life we have to live by faith. And that goes for facts as well as truth. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find truth. We can, but it isn’t found in a laboratory or a classroom or sitting in front of a computer. It is not found by science or philosophy or even theology. It is not seen with your eyes nor defined with your intellect. Truth is whispered in a still small voice “in your mind and in your heart”. It develops and grows as we try our best to live according to those whispers, in serving others and forgetting ourselves. And that, my son, is the truth.

  4. But “facts” and “truth” are not two different things. If they were, there would be no contradiction in saying something like “It is a fact that the Salamander Letter is authentic; but it is true that it is a forgery”; there would be no need to choose between the two, because they would be talking about totally different things (something like Stephen Jay Gould’s bogus “non-overlapping magisteria”). There is just one notion involved here — truth — and facts are just things that are true. Science, philosophy, and revelation are different ways of trying to figure out what those things are. They offer different kinds of evidence, not different kinds of truth.

    With regard to the Salamander Letter, you weren’t choosing to believe something you knew wasn’t true. Rather, you had a situation where there was evidence of various kinds on both sides, and you made a judgment the strong (primarily religious) evidence that the SL was fake outweighed the (primarily physical) evidence that it was authentic. You never would have said “I know for a fact that the SL is authentic, but I believe that it is a forgery” — because that’s not what was happening, logically or psychologically.

    I’m also not so sure about your statement that religious “truth” is more stable than scientific “fact.” Surely the differences between the beliefs of Moses’ and Jesus’ disciples — that is, between Judaism and Christianity — are at least as striking as the differences between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. Moses, like Newton, is still considered to have been correct on a great many important points, but on other important points his doctrine has been superseded.

  5. Pingback: Another James-related synchronicity | Bugs to fearen babes withall

  6. i’ve always ( ? ) held that meerkats that claim to believe something because of their ‘faith’ in it; is actually paraphrasing a longer argument that would state that they simply do Not have a ready response or sound argument prepared to defend their beliefs.
    Most everyone ( ? ) readily acknowledges that they experience a wide spectrum of quixotic phenomena or events that demonstrate an element of synchronicity from time to time; But some meerkats are so perturbed by these circumstances that they seek to affiliate themselves with an organized ‘religious’ structure to help them account for them.
    Such as; Any otherwise Minor or Trivial Miracle that they may experience; They find it ‘comforting’ to attribute it to The Intervening Actions of Angels, Jesus or gawd himself.
    ( fill in your own deities if these are inappropriate )
    Allowing for this, Then; Beliefs that may be attributed to ‘Faith’ are in fact based on well-founded Personal Experiences which, While ‘Explained’ or ‘Accounted for’ by their Religion, are left ‘wanting’ to some degree.
    There is however another Class of ‘Beliefs’ which i find ‘more’ confusing; And these are ‘Beliefs’ that are Not Personally Experienced, Nor do they have any ‘Foundational Causality’ or External Structure to Account for them. They are just ‘Statements’ which are, When Examined, Even Superficially; Are Empty Nonsense.
    Such as; “Jesus Christ Died for our Sins on The Cross”
    Given that you understand The Context of this Statement; It is still completely without any Prior or Post Argument to account for it in any way. The closest we might come to somehow Vindicating It; Is to compare it to The ‘Other’ kinds of Sacrifices commonly held throughout The World; in which a meerkat kills an animal in their possession, on The pretext that by doing so; they have diminished their own wealth, security or well-being.
    Of Course; The Great Flaw with Jesus Dying on The Cross was that he didn’t really die at all. What or whom was Sacrificed ? A Being that lives ( has lived ) eternally, can hardly be said to have experienced any measurable discomfort by suffering much less than many children of this temporal world do, for years & years; for only a few hours. The idea that Jesus’ suffered at all is rather dubious.
    But i digress.
    Most meerkats that ‘believe’ something for No-Reasons ( Faith ), Usually have very good ( but ill-defined ) Reasons for Assuming their Confidences.

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