Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Will, Belief, Experience

Do we consciously choose what to believe?

It seems to me that I cannot choose to disbelieve that the world exists, in the same way that I cannot disbelieve that my throat is sore (at this moment, it actually is sore). There's something about the immediate presence of certain stimuli and observations that seems to force states of mind upon me, states which dictate that "things are a particular way".

Now, I can sort of construct an artificial barrier between myself and the belief. I can do some dialectical footwork to maybe convince myself that what I'm thinking of as "being sore" really isn't. Or maybe my throat (or my conscious self at all) doesn't exist, so there's nothing to be sore. Or, maybe, I can detach myself slightly from the experience: focus on other things or meditate on the painful sensation in such a way as to attenuate its sting.

But I can't seem to rid myself of this persistent belief that there is something painful I am experiencing. I can't simply decide, "I no longer believe that it hurts when I swallow"--because somehow all that I feel at a given moment conspires to reject that belief as untenable? ... Or something?

Maybe it's not "belief" that I'm talking about. Maybe it's a primal awareness, and I'm simply attributing implicit "beliefs" to any states of awareness at all. But okay then, does that mean when I decide, "My throat no longer hurts", I really do now believe that my throat doesn't hurt, in spite of the continued discomfort I feel? That seems obviously wrong, somehow.

Probably, I can't convince myself that there is no table in front of me (unless I have good reason to believe that it's an illusion). I can try, and I can reach forward as though to swipe my hand clear through the illusory table without resistance. But I will be lying to myself as I do so, because I will know (or at least strongly believe), in some sense, that my hand will in fact meet resistance.

Really, all I'm doing is convincing the conversational (logical?) part of my mind, whereas the neuro-hardware that processes these things remains unconvinced. Probably it needs other triggers.

Can I look down at a patch of grass and convince myself that I'm looking at trees and vegetation from two miles up, thus inducing vertigo?

How is it that being told "X was just in this room" can elicit such an emotional response in me, whereas simply thinking "X was just in this room" in isolation, when I have no good reason to actually believe it was true, elicits nothing? Why can't I manufacture conviction artificially?

{Is there a connection between sanity and "proper" beliefs?}

Beliefs like, "The world is round/flat" and "God does (not) exist". For these propositions, I don't see anything which sticks out so obviously as a barrier toward changing belief; they're much too abstract. Maybe I really can change these through will alone. But in these cases, there's still a corpus of other beliefs and actions which conflict with my supposed espousal of a contrary belief: I can declare "I was an atheist just one moment, but now I fervently believe in the Judeo-Christian God", yet I won't really accept or embrace that conclusion. I won't feel the truth of it, yet I will feel like a duplicitous moron when praying or trying to act as though God really did exist.

Is, then, a vital component of belief feeling? The experience of certainty?

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