Belief & Volition: Truth, Choice, and Epistemology
In discussions about freedom of religion, belief in [G/g]od(s), and the like, an assertion is often made, on both sides, that belief or non-belief in deity, in received morality, in any metaphysic, is something that one chooses.
I'm here to categorically reject that notion.
I've often compared the way that one can choose one's religion, but no one's foundational beliefs, to the way that I choose the life I live with my wife without actually having chosen to love her. I choose to devote myself to my wife by virtue of the love that I did not choose; I chose to marry her and spend my life with her; I choose to tolerate her annoying qualities and celebrate her amazing ones; I choose to behave differently for her benefit; I choose to share my triumphs and defeats with her, and to share in hers, in turn; I choose to cook her dinner when I'm not in rehearsal.
She wasn't the only one for whom I’ve ever “fallen,” but I chose to make her the one to whom I dedicated myself. I'd even say I choose to nurture the love I feel for her by behaving lovingly even when I don't feel like it (because I know from experience that I will feel like it again, eventually). In that sense, I "chose" her, and she "chose" me. But the thing that made her something to me other than just another acquaintance, that made these choices something other than an act borne of the compassion I, as a Buddhist, am to cultivate for all things, had nothing to do with choice. Rather like I don't choose a plant into existence; I merely water it to keep it alive. Or, more in line, like love, I don't choose my aptitudes; I only choose to foster them into recognizable skills. Likewise, I can choose much about my love--what I do with it, whether it grows or dies, etc. But that it exists at all ... that isn't up to me.
To distinguish between "love" as a noun and "love" as a verb, I'd like to distinguish between "love" and "loving action." What I choose to do is behave lovingly toward my wife--the outward expression, not the inward feeling. By choosing to do these things, I am choosing to behave lovingly towards my wife; I am choosing to foster the love I feel for my wife. Our actions based on love are many things, all of which relate to love. Love itself is the basis for the action; it is the phenomenon that is constantly nurtured by and kept in play by the action. But love is not the action; the action is not, in and of itself, love. Love without action or expression, even if useless, is still love. Loving action without basis in feeling is many things--even many wonderful, positive things--but I would not call it love. Compassion, maybe.
One could argue that true love is forged by the weathering the storms with one’s beloved. This is a poetic truth, though, more than a definitional one; it confuses result with reason. Yes, that weathered companionship is what has enriched and enlivened the love I feel, and it certainly would not have come about without our efforts and choices. But that's confusing what we've done for and with the thing to the thing itself. We oughtn’t confuse attendant phenomena with the phenomena they attend. Through choice, through action, through work & effort, we foster the love we feel, we nurture it, we shape it, we determine its mode of expression. But without something to foster, to choose to nurture, to express, these actions amount to little more than ritual. I've got nothing against ritual, but I'm going to call it what it is. It amounts to the same thing as praying, abstaining from sin, committing good works, and going to church, all the while knowing, deep down, that nothing you know of reality jibes with the notion of theism.
Look at it this way: You could say I've chosen my body, and that would be just as correct (that is to say, just as incorrect) as saying that I've chosen to love my wife. After all, as a physical performer, acrobat, martial-artist, and personal trainer, I've taken a lot of responsibility for the current shape of my body; as a marijuana user, moderate-to-heavy drinker, etc., I can also take a little blame for such; I can even take some credit for its decoration by way of my piercings, tattoos, and shaven head. But it would be a mistake to suggest that I've chosen my body. My body, after all, is the meat to which I have given all this time and effort. That takes nothing away from that time and effort, of course; it only shines a light on how we use our terms.
Love, belief, and preference are, as far as I'm concerned, mere reaction to stimuli--material, chemical, neurological responses. A function of the aforementioned meat, if you will: strictly phenomenological. All actions and choices that proceed from that are volitional (or are, at least, apparently volitional, which I'll accept as being actually volitional for argument's sake, though I find Spinoza's arguments against free will rather compelling), but I hold them distinct from their bases, their sources. I can choose to (or not to) take aspirin when I have a headache; I cannot choose whether aspirin does or does not relieve that headache. Likewise, our experience of the universe is largely chemical.
I'm responsible for my actions, not my thoughts or feelings ... because I choose actions. I have loved many whom I have not so much patted on the shoulder; in that sense, I have chosen the terms of many relationships without necessarily choosing how I felt about the people involved. I have learned to appreciate certain music, theater, and cinema, and have chosen to support such, despite lacking--through no choice of my own--any real love for or interest in the art at hand.
I actually came to this understanding over the matter of musical taste. I'm a musician; I had quite a bit of training in classical and jazz before I came to the theater and began to focus more on acting and playwrighting. I've taken more music theory and appreciation classes than some music professors. But here's the thing: While I can learn to appreciate anything, what I like, what I love, boils up, volcanically, from my blood. There's no choice I could make that would make Vivaldi or Ellington interesting to me for more than a few songs; there's no choice I could make that could prevent the sweat from beading on my brow, the pulse from racing, when I hear the opening strains of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control," Throbbing Gristle's "Hamburger Lady," or Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's "The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion."
As a dedicated aesthete and professional performer and writer--as one who believes that our capacity for art is the ONLY thing that differentiates us from mere bacteria, from flatworms with incidental, opposable thumbs--I don’t see these “loves” as being part of separate discussions. That it's a different kind of love than what I share with my wife, which is in turn a different kind of love than I share with my friends, or with my colleagues, I grant you; that all are love, I do not doubt. Moreover, I believe that, as emotion and knowledge are anthropogenic functions, they function according to similar processes and can be examined on the same bases ... as can faith (which is, after all, arguably just another epistemic system).
Life is composed of the phenomena in which we're stewed and the choices we make about them. It's possible, of course, that our choices are just another among many phenomena, no more "ours" than food that enters our body and exits as excrement, blood, and discarded skin cells. But that's probably another discussion. Suffice it to say that if you walk under a building as an anvil is falling, and it beans you, you did, obviously, choose to walk that sidewalk, that day, under that building. The anvil, though, could hardly be said to have fallen according to your choice.
As applied to belief ... Belief is the assertion of truth, an assertion based on what aptitude applied to appearance indicates is true. We have a certain amount of choice as to that aptitude (we can increase it by studying more) and appearance (by looking at things from another perspective), but what's true is true. I do not choose to believe in gravity. If I claimed not to believe in gravity, I wouldn't be choosing non-belief--I'd be choosing to behave counter to what is readily apparent. Belief is rooted entirely in the appearance of truth; if it is not, it is no more belief than wearing a gorilla suit is being a gorilla. Behaving as though there is a [G/g]od is not belief. I may choose to behave a certain way based on either belief or non-belief; I may choose to study more to challenge or reinforce my belief, or to see how another belief might align itself more thoroughly with the facts on the ground. But I can't choose to believe in [G/g]od(s) for the same reason I can't choose to believe I'm made of cheese. There's enough evidence for my NOT being made of cheese that, while I can say I believe I'm made of cheese, while I can even act as thought I were composed of cheese, I'll never really believe it; what I know to be true about my composition will always contradict that facade.
By the same token, I could say that I believe in [G/g]od(s), but the sheer counter-intuitive nature of the posit--according to my particular epistemic aptitudes, according to what I see--would make any such statement false. I could choose to feign belief, but I could not choose to believe. I suppose we could make a game of it and suggest that one has to, at least, "choose" truth over untruth, but one who deliberately chooses untruth over truth isn't actually exercising belief, but, rather, the facade of belief. To ignore truth is not to believe in untruth; it is only to declare belief in untruth. This distinction matters more where truth is more apparent (say, where we're talking about gravity or being made of cheese), but will matter so long as the appearance of truth is at stake (which is at all levels of belief). Declaration of belief does not equal belief. Choosing untruth is not belief, but self-deception. I can only choose to feign belief in a lie. Unless I'm really, really stupid, in which case my belief is still not volitional, because it reflects a shortfall in capacity.
Around on the other hand, I could (re-re-re-)read the Bible and follow all the commandments (though people are always sketchy as to which ones matter; there are over 600 pronouncements in Mosaic law, and some say that they're all cancelled [or, in some nebulous way, fulfilled] by Christ, and that only the big 10 matter, which is odd, because most of them still have problems with homosexuality, whcih doesn't show up in the big 10 at all . . . but again, another argument); I could proclaim faith in the risen Christ; I could pray to the deity described therein. But this is the end of what is volitional. I can't choose to believe that the historical evidence for the resurrection (or even for the life of him resurrected) is convincing to me; I can't choose to believe that the universe appears, to me, ordered in such a way that it was likely to have been designed.
We accept truth on what basis? Even the most avid theist will insist that they believe based on apparent evidence. The nature of that evidence may vary, and one might say that we "choose" an epistemology . . . but even then, we "choose" the epistemology based on its apparent reliability, which has recourse to the phenomena that happened to transpire in front of use, the causes and effects which we have witnessed, and, again, our general capacities.
I distinguish between a belief system and a belief, between following a religion and believing in its premise. I choose to be a Buddhist, but I do not choose to believe in the eternal corporeal/eternal incorporeal, in fundamental unity; the evidence at hand (whether empirical, anecdotal, or intuitive) wouldn't allow me to believe otherwise, anymore than the evidence at hand would allow me to "believe" that gravity is not a functioning phenomenon. I choose to chant in front of the gohonzon, but I don't choose to believe that doing so serves a positive function in my life. I chose to devote myself to Nichiren Buddhism ... based on the pantheistic beliefs that I did not choose.
So far, then, as religion is a practice, a lifestyle, then yes, one "chooses" to live according to those tenets. But in a faith-based religion, much stock is placed on holding unverified events and assertions as literally true. This ignores that believing in truth is a matter of how the data adds up. You "choose" how you pursue the data, I suppose, or who you believe and who you don't, but even those choices will be predicated on the information made available to you, innate intelligence, level of exposure to contradictory ideas, etc. From an epistemic perspective, in addition to the "rules" and philosophical posits within any given religion (from which one can borrow, cafeteria style, if one doesn't assume that the metaphysical assertions or historical narratives of the religion are true), there are also arguably falsifiable assertions of truth. That is to say, there either is a god or there isn't; either Christ is the messiah, or he is not; either his crucifixion atoned for our sins, or it didn't. Since I don't believe in an anthropomorphic deity, in the resurrection, or in the historical veracity of the Bible per se, I have no objection to your "borrowing" elements of the Bible that suit you; after all, I believe that Christ was likely a bodhisattva, given that he obviously had enough charisma and influence to have a whole movement built around his purported philosophy (the catch being that, according to the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, we're ALL bodhisattvas, so his particular distinction becomes a little less monumental). But I'm not sure most Christians would agree. And that's where I take issue--for if we are held morally accountable for what we happen to think is true, then what is deity's obligation to make truth apparent? And if there is none, then what fealty can we possibly owe to so capricious a beast?
My interest here is to toss something out that asks us to question, for a moment, our assumption that people can be argued into accepting our viewpoints as true. One can't simply choose to reach the conclusion her opponent offers; at best, she can be convinced by an argument that makes sense within the framework of her own epistemology, her own experiences, her own desires. We're all practicing a kind of evangalism by debating or expressing. For whatever reason (none apparent, in some cases), we all believe that our views, and/or our mode(s) of expressing them, are compelling, convincing, powerful, amusing, what-have-you. Some of us may even be right about that. But we could all afford to learn better when to shift arguments to make sure we're even talking about the same thing, to abandon arguments that proceed from hopelessly different foundational premises (because all foundational premises are ultimately articles of faith, so far as they are active premises and not merely assumptions held arguendo for lack of anything better). After all, as unreasonable as some individuals' beliefs may be, they didn't choose them--they grew into them. And so far as there's any utility in trying to disavow them of such notions, you'll only do it by appealing to the paths by which they received them.