What if Belief isn’t Volitional?

Imagine you walk outside under a beautiful blue sky, the sun warm on your skin. Now someone comes up to you and tells you that you must believe the sky is orange and the air cold. Can you do it? If not, does that mean your beliefs are freely chosen? Can you choose to believe?

So many of our assumptions assume that somehow belief is up to us. But it’s not. At least not usually. We convince ourselves we have control because we control what we look at and where we inquire. We’re free to control our movement, our focus, and our attention. I am extremely skeptical we have the kind of control we so often assume we have.

There are implications of this.

First, I think it gives a new emphasis to passages such as D&C 46.

To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful. (D&C 46:13-14)

Note that here belief is a gift from God (and thus presumably also not volitional). Exactly how belief and knowledge are here distinguished isn’t clear. My sense is that it’s more akin to Alma 32 rather than how philosophers usually conceive of knowledge. For them knowledge is justified true belief with justification being the key focus.

Rather than focus on justification and for that matter knowledge I want to focus on belief.

Belief is probably best seen as a happening. A consequence of action. 

We ask if something is true. We study it, looking at evidence, reasoning from them. Yet the conclusions are not our own. 

The effect of belief is action. Again a thought experiment is helpful. You have a cup of water in front of you and someone tells you there is poison in it. Perhaps you disbelieve and drink it anyway. Perhaps you are unsure and think discretion is the better part of valor. Perhaps you fear it is true. What seems clear is that your actions are determined by the belief. In the same way whether you bother flipping the light switch to turn on the light is determined by your belief.

None of this is too unique to Mormon thought. We see it in the Lectures on Faith. “Is not faith the principle of action in spiritual things as well as in temporal? It is.” (Lecture 1)

Most of the Lectures were almost certainly composed by Sidney Rigdon based upon his previous understanding in his Baptist and Campbellite history. Still I’ve long thought that they had some interesting insights. I think it worth considering faith/belief as a certain habit or tendency towards actions entailed from the belief being true. The strength of our belief is how likely we are to do those entailed actions. A microbiologist may have an intellectual belief in the effectiveness of a vaccine, but if they don’t act on that belief beyond mere words then the belief likely is nothing but a kind of verbal assent. Thus by examining the consequences of belief we can learn what our beliefs are.

This again perhaps varies somewhat from the traditional approach where belief is a kind of assent to a proposition. This switches it around to see the consequences of the belief.

What are the religious effects of such an assumption? First, I think it suggests the big choice we have is where we place our focus. Much of the rest develops indirectly out of those choices. Second, it gives us a fairly good way of evaluating ourselves in terms of our belief. What are we prepared to act on? So many of us – especially those most likely to be reading blogs – emphasize the intellectual over the practical. That might be mistaken. Finally I think this understanding of belief is helpful in understanding passages like Alma 32 or reducing theological issues like the faith versus works conundrum.

55 comments for “What if Belief isn’t Volitional?

  1. ji
    April 22, 2016 at 11:31 am

    Would you say that the gifts given in D&C 46 are forced upon the receiver? No, volition is certainly involved — the person first willingly desires the gift, and even if not, the person willingly accepts and magnifies the gift.

    Yes, you’re right — emphasising the intellectual over the practical might be misguided. I like the practical religion emphasis of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and others, even down to today (even if in a seemingly diminished manner) — it is practical and lived faith, hope, and charity that saves souls. Understanding doctrine is important, but that by itself doesn’t save souls.

  2. Clark Goble
    April 22, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    We’re not forced to use them and we can loose them.

  3. April 22, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    “Belief is probably best seen as a happening. A consequence of action. ”

    I already disagree.

    The problem that I’ve always had with the original pragmatists is that they view “belief” in a very non-social, amoral kind of way. The idea that belief is nothing more than a pattern or rule of behavior makes our beliefs no different in quality from those of a solitary chicken who never has any need to discuss, debate or defend their “beliefs”. Since none of us are Robinson Crusoes of this type, I find it very unhelpful to think in these terms.

    Instead, I choose a much more Wittgensteinian line of thought that make beliefs – at least the ones that matter most to us in any moral sense – as being unavoidably discussable, debatable and defendable – in other words social and linguistic. Our gospel related beliefs clearly fall in this latter category rather than in the asocial and amoral former.

    Thus, what matters is what role volition plays in the way that we go about discussing, debating and defending our beliefs and actions. If we simply go to the scriptures, we find that volition actually plays little, if any role at all. Nietzsche insists that volition didn’t play any role in our organized efforts at assigning praise/blame, and it seems very difficult to me to refute him on this point.

    In short, it seems perfectly plausible that we could appeal to some concept of “volition” when we don’t actually have it in some deep, metaphysical sense, and we could have it in this deep sense without even having a concept for it. Indeed, it is demonstrably true that at least one of these options has been employed within some societies and cultures without any serious problems arising. Thus, neither one of these options seems obviously and categorically problematic.

  4. Rachael Givens Johnson
    April 22, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    This has been on my mind a lot the last year or two, especially in how we talk about the moral value of belief. Your comment about belief being a product of what we focus on–and that being where volition (and perhaps the moral content) comes in– reminds me of William James’s comment, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.? Only those items which I n?otice s?hape my mind.” I think there’s a lot to think about there. The moral value would then be more an issue of how we think than what we think.

    I was at a seminar with a visiting Yale professor the other week reading Pascal’s Pensees, particularly his chapter on the means of belief. At one point Pascal says that “It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by reason. Faith is a gift of God; do not believe that we said it was a gift of reasoning. Other religions do not say this of their faith. They only gave reasoning in order to arrive at it, and yet it does not bring them to it.” When I asked the professor and fellow students– all Catholics– where the moral responsibility of belief (or irresponsibility of disbelief) comes in if it is gifted and not willed, I didn’t get any answers. Thoughts on that?

  5. EBK
    April 22, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Very interesting post Clark. If knowledge is a gift that God can decide to give us, and faith is a gift that God can decide to give us, then are there people who do not believe because God has decided not to give that to them? If faith is the first principle of the gospel does that mean faith is required in order to find exaltation? Does that mean that there are some people who cannot find exaltation because God has chosen not to give them belief?

  6. Mortimer
    April 22, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    There are FOUR lights! (Jean Luke Picard)

  7. April 22, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    During a time when I was personally struggling, I came to a realization. If belief has moral consequences (and it clearly did) then belief must be an exercise of moral agency. During that time, when I was struggling immensely (and I was agnostic in the truest sense — I didn’t know anything and my faith had been deconstructed nearly out of existence), I said a prayer to a Father that I wasn’t certain was there. It was a simple one — “God, if you are there, I choose to believe in You.”

    Since that time, I have been blessed immensely. What was originally a choice, made in darkness, has brought light to my entire life. What was once an area of doubt and concern has become an area of strength and surety. Speaking from my own personal experience, belief and faith is a choice. Had I chosen to disbelieve, I could easily have found myself working against the Church and the Lord. It is humbling to me how close I came to being lost, and how fortunate I was that the Lord never let go of me even as I was seemingly struggling to get away from Him.

  8. Mark Clark
    April 22, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    Clark, I agree that belief is not entirely volitional, and it cannot be argued to be either according to LDS doctrine (according to which the Holy Spirit causes someone to believe) or secular methods of inquiry (according to which social environment, a person’s psychological state, and different neurological factors cause belief).

  9. Clark Goble
    April 22, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    Jeff (3) That’s interesting as typically Wittgenstein and the pragmatists are seen is quite similar in this regard. I’m not sure I’d say belief is somehow divorced from the social. Far from it. Indeed the meaning of belief would be rather wrapped up in social practices that give meaning to it. Perhaps that a bit more Heideggarian reading of Peirce but if so it’s a common one. Peirce and in large degree both James and Dewey saw inquiry as inherently social. It is thus social practice resulting in the universe acting on people such that their beliefs become fixed. Science in particular was seen as a social practice which was generally seen as the height of belief formation by the pragmatists.

    Where the pragmatists disagree is the more extreme thrust that belief is merely social practice divorced from how reality acts on the believer. That’s usually disparaged as solipsism. Inquiry works because there is something that reacts to our inquiry beyond ourselves and our community.

    Certainly we can discuss our beliefs. Discussion is part of the process of inquiry as is argument and experiment.

    As to what degree we have volition in discussion and inquiry, if nothing else we often have volition about where we put our attention, what we entertain, what we focus on.

    Rachel (4) Yes, I think focus has a lot to do here. James was coming at the problem from psychology as understood at the beginning of the 20th century but I think he’s basically right. It’s interesting comparing this to D&C 93 where light comes but we can reject it – that is not attend to it with our focus. I don’t want to read pragmatism too much into D&C 93 as I don’t think it ultimately fits too well. But there definitely is a component where things happen to us and we can hide from those happenings.

    Regarding volition overall I suspect the way I’d put it is that we rarely have direct volition but rather we control ourselves in a mediated indirect fashion. However often our control of things are mediated. When I drive a car I turn the steering wheel and press the pedals which in turn control the wheels which in turn move me. When that control is in sufficient harmony it seems invisible and actually disappears from my awareness. However it doesn’t take much for the illusion of direct volition and control to break. Say an empty pop bottle rolls by your feel – always scary. Suddenly you’re wrenched back into attending to the way things really are.

    I suspect with regards to “ourselves” this was brought home to me most clearly when I was near death in a hospital and my body and even mind just didn’t do what I wanted. That function of myself as equipment broke down and suddenly I saw how it was mediated through my body. It’s a scary situation since often our embodiment is so invisible to us. It seems like everything is volitional. Then you try to breath and it doesn’t work. You see things quite differently.

    To the more existentialist point. There’s a part of existentialism I like whether it be Pascal, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard or even perhaps Heidegger. Yet there’s an other part that seems off. It seems undeniable that faith is not purely my choice. But I still do not want to go so far as Pascal does. I’d prefer to say that the gift of God is always being given and that I can choose in a radically free way to accept it or reject it. If I accept it that enables more. I don’t want to go as far as say the Calvinists in making God pick the elect. There’s a danger in the balance of faith as gift that can push us over into the Calvinist camp if we aren’t careful. Likewise there’s a danger that faith becomes our choice and we’re pushed over in the Sartrean camp. It’s a balancing act.

  10. Clark Goble
    April 22, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    EBK (5) I think it’s hard to read D&C 46 without realizing not all will know and perhaps not of themselves. I often bring that up when I teach it in Sunday School or Priesthood. It’s a very radical point I’m not sure we really think through well. However I think the basic LDS stance of the plan of salvation demands it. This life is a freely chosen probationary state where we face a somewhat unique set of demands we need to develop. The fact that God has presented the gospel in such a veiled way where, until recently, few even had a part of it as we understand it is key. That means that in this earth life a lot of the blessings we have perhaps aren’t as essential for everyone’s development. The real place of missionary work and teaching of the gospel will be in the Spirit World.

    Jonathan (7) I don’t want to say everything around belief is unchosen. If we can not make ourselves truly believe, I think we can still exercise our faculties in order to hope. (Alma 32:21) If we exercise that hope and open ourselves up to God it may well be that belief happens.

    Perhaps this is a subtle semantic point, but I think it important. What we call choosing to believe is more a opening ourselves up to the possibility of belief so that we prepare a place for that belief. We have to make a clearing so that belief is possible at all. Perhaps we might call this choosing to believe but I think it’s useful to distinguish it from belief.

    I’ll be following up in a subsequent post the question of this clearing as I think it’s important in scripture on numerous levels but also in philosophy. (Those familiar with Heidegger will have already picked up some of the imagery I’ve used, but there’s similar imagery in Alma 32 and D&C 93)

  11. April 22, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    I think the difference between Jeff G and Clark Gobble’s views on belief can be summed up in this description by Swedenborg about the difference between angels in the top two kingdoms of heaven, the celestial and spiritual kingdoms:

    “The celestial angels do not reason about truths of faith, because they perceive them in themselves; but the spiritual angels reason about them whether they are true or not. As soon as they (celestial angels) hear Divine truths, they will and do them, instead of storing them up in the memory and afterwards considering whether they are true. They know at once by influx from the Lord whether the truth they hear is true; for the Lord flows directly into man’s willing, but mediately through his willing into his thinking.”

    For Jeff G., belief is “unavoidably discussable, debatable and defendable” but for Clark G, it is “best seen as a happening. A consequence of action.”

    Both are legitimate approaches, but Swedenborg would say that Clark’s is the superior of the two, as “celestial angel” belief is a byproduct of an intimate connection with the Lord, which flows directly into them without reason. But I myself am more of the “spiritual angel” type. Like Jeff G, I like to reason about spiritual truths, and I find myself constantly refining and changing my beliefs in response to my changing reasoning.

  12. Martin James
    April 22, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    The religious experience for me is not particularly volitional or even less moral. It is much more cosmological or ontological. It doesn’t seem to me that discussing, defending and debating changes very much in terms of volition, particularly if the terms one uses or the positions one experiences are set the limits of the discussion. It seems to me a bit like choosing dinner from a menu, yes it is volitional in a sense but if someone else determined the menu, it is a weaker rather than a stronger form of volition.
    For the people that think faith is a gift of God, do you also think that faith in other Gods is a gift of those other Gods? Why would the process be different? I’ve always thought that Pascal’s wager is much tougher to make in a religiously pluralistic situation. One does not only have to believe in God, but pick a God to believe in. The arguments that belief is a product of socialization are extremely strong. If the only experience we get is a completely socialized one, then it seems to me just collective solipsism.

  13. Martin James
    April 22, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    What would my behavior have to do with me?

  14. April 22, 2016 at 7:26 pm


    I think the big difference between me and the old pragmatists, is that I see beliefs much more in terms of signals of communication rather than mere descriptions of behavioral patterns (which surprisingly places me pretty far from Dennett and his mentor Ryle). Thus, it’s not that I disagree with our attributing beliefs and desires to people and things along the lines you and Pierce suggest (I’m actually very much on board with it), it’s just that I don’t think it gets us anywhere interesting. It would be like trying to predict the flow of traffic using nothing but Newtonian mechanics.

    When it comes to baring our testimonies or presenting a missionary discussion or answering worthiness interview questions, I simply do not think we can understand beliefs in this way. If anything, the meaning what is being shared (Are beliefs being shared? If you disagree, then we aren’t talking about the same thing.) then the meaning has far more to do with the behavioral patterns of the listener than it does the speaker. I think the pragmatists miss this entirely. (They almost certainly can incorporate it, but only by adding a lot of explanatory epicycles.)

    Thus, while I would agree that inquiry is clearly and always a social matter, there seems to be a massive difference between the pragmatic theory of action and the pragmatic theory of meaning. I very much accept the first, but am very suspicious of the latter. As far as meaning goes, I think the behavioral patterns that belief-attribution are supposed to track are secondary (at best) to the interests that are being pursued through the communicative act. Communicative signals are attempts at influencing the incentives faced by the audience, not some mere tracking of practical patterns.

    Again, I am discussing beliefs insofar as they are shareable through communicative signals – which would clearly include the gospel. Your account is probably right for any non-communicative aspects, but I don’t think those would include the gospel.

  15. Clark Goble
    April 22, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    Jeff (14) but aren’t “signals of communication” themselves a type of behavior. It’s fine say belief only counts in terms of what one would say or write. Indeed in certain ways that is the way typical cases of belief end up dealt with. That is one distinguishes the intellectual assent or rejection of a proposition as true. This doesn’t really explain degrees of belief which I think are pretty significant – especially when we apply them to faith in places like Alma 32. (Not to give too much away from next week’s post but I also distinguish between faith and belief)

    Regarding pragmatic theories of meaning, we must of course distinguish Peirce here from Dewey, James and most certainly the neoPragmatists of Rorty and Putnam. For Peirce meaning is wrapped up in how we verify meanings. Thus hardness’ meaning is exhausted by the potential ways we could determine something is hard. This extends rather naturally into religious topics I should add.

    Nate (11) I’m not sure I’d appeal to Swedenborg for much, although he is often has insights I wouldn’t be surprised he arrived at spiritually. My sense is that Jeff and I fundamentally differ what is a matter of negotiation in communication and the “why” negotiations work. Jeff doesn’t think that why matters whereas to me it is the key issue. Beyond that there’s actually a surprising amount of agreement.

    Martin (12) an other way of putting your question is to ask whether faith is always a gift from God. That is, should faith be reduced to belief or is it something in part determined by what it is about. In the same way philosophy traditionally distinguished between the objects of our intentionality as things “out there” or things within our mind. It ends up (to me) to be quite important which it is. Again going to my disagreement with Jeff he thinks it’s within our mind, albeit a social collective. I think that meaning is fundamentally about the entities themselves. (Although there is a certain semantic ambiguity at times)

    The traditional argument for this ends up being comparing two people with beliefs about water. One has lived their entire life in virtual reality (the Matrix) while the other is in the real world. Is the content of their belief the same? This ends up distinguishing the phenomenal from the real.

    To me at least some thing have their meaning wrapped up in the objects they are about. Thus it matters and more importantly makes a difference whether we are talking about phenomenal water, virtual water or real water.

    This then leads to a further question. At what point are our religious beliefs picking something out in the real world? (Albeit perhaps with poor descriptions and beliefs) So, to put it differently, is the God of Islam and the God of Mormonism the same entity? If they are, when do we start picking out a different entity?

    This ends up being a more complex topic than it first appears. An other way of putting it is in terms of love. Do I love my wife because of the properties she has or because of who she is? If I say the properties, does that mean if she lost some of those properties I wouldn’t love her? But if I say it’s because of who she is, does that mean she could change her behaviors to me without affecting my love? (Say cheat on me or the like) The same sort of question really is behind your question on faith. So it’s a very deep question.

  16. April 22, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    When I saw the title of this post in my RSS feed list, I was really excited, but I think most of it and the following discussion are over my head.

    But I want to ask a series of questions regarding the mentioned thought experiment from the post:

    The effect of belief is action. Again a thought experiment is helpful. You have a cup of water in front of you and someone tells you there is poison in it. Perhaps you disbelieve and drink it anyway. Perhaps you are unsure and think discretion is the better part of valor. Perhaps you fear it is true. What seems clear is that your actions are determined by the belief. In the same way whether you bother flipping the light switch to turn on the light is determined by your belief.

    Does belief always entail avoiding the poison? As in, if you believe it is poison, would that always necessarily involve not drinking it?

    What if you are thoroughly convinced it is poisonous and that you will surely die if you drink it, but drink it anyway? Does that mean you didn’t really believe it was poisonous? Or does that necessarily mean that you intended or wished to die?

    For me, it doesn’t seem like beliefs are consciously, voluntarily chosen. I agree that we can direct our attention one way or another, but this seems to me to be like saying, “Well, you can’t win a lottery unless you buy lottery tickets” — certainly, that’s true, but if you happen to win, then that’s not really “choosing” to win the lottery.

    The connection between beliefs and actions seems somewhat straightforward at first. (In other words, I’d be inclined to agree that one’s belief about whether the cup of water is poisoned is going to be taken into consideration for their actions that they take regarding that cup of water.) But it seems to me that I perceive more volition in action than in belief. In other words, I can still drink the cup of water even if I believe I will assuredly die. Why would I be motivated to do that? I think that gets into complications. Is my motivation another belief about the first belief? (And if so, was that motivation chosen?) If that motivation is also an involuntary belief, then what’s the analog with religious faith? Is hope that one might come to believe if they stick at it long enough another involuntary belief?

    Calvinism personally makes more sense to me at the end of the day.

  17. Steve S
    April 22, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    I think the reconciliation between the various viewpoints as I understand them, to me is summed up in the reconciliation of free will and a determinism. i.e. Beliefs are chosen (true) and also beliefs are determined (also true).

    I believe LDS theology is uniquely positioned to answer the how of this reconciliation, and I believe it describes reality.

  18. April 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

    In the weeks following discovery of the Policy (November 2015) I found myself unable to take the sacrament. As the tray passed in front of me my body shook and my hand would not move. This was a surprise, not a planned response. I believe it was an outward manifestation of anger. Others might use a “Spirit restrained” rationale. However explained, volitional would not be a likely part of the explanation except that I could have chosen not to pay attention the week or two prior. To serve my fellow human beings in quiet humility, to practice charity, to celebrate the risen Lord, and not to read or discuss or even know about temporal Church actions.
    What is my moral responsibility here? I have a tentative (but actionable) sorting for myself, but not to preach.

  19. April 23, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    I definitely acknowledge that there is a lot of overlap between Clark and I…. Sadly, I think he understands how we differ much better than I do – he seems to have a decent handle on my views (very unusual), but I don’t feel like I’ve got his down very well.


    As for degrees of value, I’m not sure that your approach really does do better. Whereas your account would probably understand such degrees in terms of some probability of successful action (or something like that), mine would be what we are willing to endure before we deny our allegiance to some person(s).

    But I’m guessing that you would probably see this more as “faith” rather than “belief”. Again, I think our different understandings of the word cut really deep here (whereas you made these ambiguities sound fairly peripheral to Martin). For me, the concept “belief” originally and quintessentially points to humans and their socially regulated interactions/communications. It is from this core that the concept was generalized to animals – and it is only that part that we can generalize to animals that your account takes as central. Thus, while I’m sure that your account can bring a lot of precision to the matter, I don’t think it will ever be accurate.

    As for the claim that our attempts at altering the incentive which our audience faces are themselves a type of action that can be built into the Piercean maxim, I’m not really sure either way. I think that your account is pretty good for understanding our unconscious beliefs (again, our animal behavior) which certainly have an enormous influence over our conscious beliefs (the human aspect that my account it more focused on). I think my problem is that the Piercean approach is trying to cover FAR too much phenomena with one and only one concept by reducing the latter to the former. Personally, I just prefer to separate the two sets of phenomena and focus on the latter which (to me) clearly seems more relevant to the gospel..

  20. April 23, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    P.S. This discussion has really helped me sort through a few of my own confusions. In roughly Freudian terms, I think your account works pretty well for the unconscious “id”, but mine is a better account of the conscious “ego”. While the former clearly influences the latter, Pierces account is less useful that it otherwise would be since it ignores the causal influence of the “superego” (which I equate with the moral community).

    While I’ve been putting off reading him for far too long, I get the impression that G.H. Mead would be VERY informative in this discussion. Goffman’s Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life also comes to mind.

  21. Joel
    April 23, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    When I lost my faith 15 years ago, I soon resigned myself to agnostism, and remained for 14 years. A reason for that stasis is my agreement with Clark’s view of belief. I can’t choose to believe something contrary to my assessment of the evidence. And if I can indirectly choose to believe by selecting only faith-promoting data and favoring it, why would I? That’s not a search for truth; it’s an explanation for why most people in the world adhere to the religion of their parents.

    I was stuck.

    I’ve recently managed to dislodge with a different concept of faith. Faith as trust. If I can’t choose to believe, I can choose to exercise trust with hope. For example, I can lend money to someone with bad credit with the encouragement, “I have faith in you.” Then, when I’m paid back, I have a data point on which to start building genuine belief. I can do the same with God.

    Perhaps belief is merely one manifestation of Faith.

  22. April 23, 2016 at 2:14 pm


    “I can’t choose to believe something contrary to my assessment of the evidence.”

    This is exactly what I thought when I left the church, which is why I am so over-the-top hostile towards it now. We absolutely have a choice in how we interpret any set of data, and the standards by which we evaluate it. This becomes much clearer when we expose the intrinsically social nature of epistemological justification. We only feel stuck because we have been led to believe (falsely, I might add) that not only are there no other *valid* interpretations (I can, after all, still choose to do and believe invalid things), but no other *possible* interpretations. Such claims, however, are total ideological bunk.

    To be sure, we can’t just flip our convictions on the fly, but we absolutely can choose to do (or not do) certain things by which we would internalize one communities rules of doubt/justification rather than those of another.

  23. Mark Clark
    April 23, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Joel, I’m in the same boat. Once I realized that I did not have full control over what I believed or the available data around which my beliefs took shape, I realized that agnosticism made more sense to me, or in other words, caused the least amount of cognitive dissonance with the data that my brain had determined was relevant. I’m still an agnostic.

    On faith, the term appears to have a number of connotations, among the most common being: 1) belief in one’s own or another’s capabilities in the face of the adversities (much in the way you used it in saying that you had faith that someone with bad credit could pay back a loan), 2) belief in a proposition about history or nature on no evidence, 3) belief in a proposition about nature or history on evidence that is extremely private, 4) belief in a proposition about history or nature on evidence that does not have broad recognition by other people, particularly intelligentsia, as valid evidence. I claim to have faith in the first sense, but not the other three.

    Jeff G, I agree that we have some indirect control over what we believe, but it is not much. I have come to the belief that I may not remain agnostic for the rest of my life. My inner interpretive mechanism may change. My beliefs could evolve back towards accepting Mormon claims about history and nature. The range of possible interpretations of data is vast. What is considered valid depends on the group of people. Clearly, a large group of believing LDS people believes interpretations that the LDS leaders’ claims about history and nature are valid and that knowledge acquired by the spirit is valid.

  24. April 23, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    I’m curious Jeff G., if belief is as volitional as you say it is, doesn’t that reduce our faith in the actual truth of that belief? If belief is a choice, then that would make it more optional in our minds, thus reducing that belief into mere subjective interpretation.

    LDS culture emphasises “knowing” more than “believing.” This knowledge is based on objective and literalist assumptions about our spiritual experiences. Choosing to say “I believe” would mean that we actually have doubts about the objective, literal nature of those experiences, and I would say that most of the faithful in the church don’t go through life harbouring doubts about the church’s core doctrines. Perhaps people like us, who have doubts, MUST make belief a choice, if we are going to stay in the church. But I don’t see it as the experience for the core membership.

  25. April 23, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    Mark Clark,

    That sounds about right.


    I’m not following. Since disbelief is a sin, I really don’t see how some degree of control could be a bad thing.

    “Perhaps people like us, who have doubts, MUST make belief a choice, if we are going to stay in the church.”

    You might be right.

  26. April 23, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    Since disbelief is a sin, I really don’t see how some degree of control could be a bad thing.

    But even believing that “disbelief is a sin” requires a choice. Basically, you are in Pascal’s wager territory. Is that a bad thing, no, but it is not the place where most faithful members are.

  27. Terry H
    April 23, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    I can’t help but ponder. I don’t know if “disbelief” is a sin. “Unbelief” certainly is. I believe there’s probably a difference.

  28. April 23, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    When Jesus tells us about he that believeth not, it certainly sounds like there’s a choice.

  29. Nate
    April 23, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    Jeff G, to believe because we are commanded to believe requires a pre-existing belief in the authority commanding us. So how do we get that belief in the authority? It sounds like you are just kicking the can down the road.

    If you believe in Jesus as an authority figure, chances are your acceptance of His authority was never a “choice” but rather a “call,” a call based on your unique cultural upbringing, or a call based on a spiritual experience. But without “the call” you would have no reason to obey a random religious figure from the distant past.

    If you try to obey Christ’s command to believe, that effort is probably motivated, not by your choice to accept His authority, but by the fact that you feel “called” to accept it. And so here we are back to Clark’s definition of belief as a gift, not a choice. A call is not a choice either.

  30. EBK
    April 24, 2016 at 8:27 am

    Here is my problem with choosing to believe. I have a lot of experience in this area considering I’ve been trying to do it my entire life. I have to practice severe cognitive dissonance in order to believe in a religion that makes definitive promises of “if you do A, you will get B.” The problem arises when B doesn’t follow A. And the more you choose to believe the more you try to force B to follow A. And every single time B doesn’t follow A you lose trust in either yourself or the authority of the person who told you B would follow A. Which in many cases is essentially every leader you’ve ever had.
    To be more specific, the promise in Moroni 10, which has been reiterated to me by every bishop, every seminary teacher, every YW leader, every mission leader, every apostle. I calculated it out once and determined that I have performed this experiment somewhere between 4000 and 5000 times. B has never followed A. At some point, I must conclude that either the promise doesn’t really apply to everyone (which would contradict what ia’m trying to choose to believe), the promise isn’t real (I.e. B doesn’t follow A), or there is something inherently wrong with me (that is a really unhealthy attitude to force myself to perpetuate).
    It is easier to choose to believe in a religion that makes no promises until the afterlife, or only makes broad unspecific promises that can’t really be tested.

  31. Steve S
    April 24, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    I don’t think belief being a choice means that a person can sincerely believe whatever they feel like. Likewise, just because one cannot arbitrarily believe any given idea or claim, does not mean that belief is not a choice.

    I think we do choose our beliefs. That is I think we receive external input, and that which seems reasonable enough to be convincing we choose to put our trust or belief in that thing. Again, this does not mean we can then will ourselves into believing something that is genuinely unconvincing. And a hard attempt to do such a thing is a recipe for the counterfeit of self-deception, or at the very least stunted growth (being governed by other fearful or selfish desires rather than true integrity to oneself).

    So I guess sure, that kind of arbitrary belief is not volitional, but what value would there be in such a thing anyway? I see value in freedom of will, which I believe we have, and don’t see much value in freedom from will, which I don’t believe we have – although many may desire such a thing (which I believe often roots in not wanting to be accountable to one’s true beliefs).

  32. Observer
    April 24, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    “I would say that most of the faithful in the church don’t go through life harbouring doubts about the church’s core doctrines.”

    This made me chuckle. In a gentle, friendly way. :-)

  33. Observer
    April 24, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    Does this make sense to anyone? I feel like I’m getting stupider the further I get down these comments.

  34. April 24, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    I think that it’s getting at the perceived difference between “not believing something is true” and “believing something is false”. I would guess that Terry H’s use of “disbelief” means the former, while “unbelief” means the latter.

  35. Observer
    April 24, 2016 at 7:29 pm


    Thank you. I feel better after reading your comment.

  36. Josh Smith
    April 24, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    To my mind, belief only becomes an issue when we’re presented with evidence to the contrary. For example, we wake up every morning with a basic set of beliefs about how the world operates. We don’t question these until we take our first physics class. Rather than debate whether a belief is volitional, I think it makes more sense to ask, What do we do with a belief when presented with evidence to the contrary?

    I think there are some things we all do to protect and build up our beliefs (whatever they may be).

    Repetition. I think we can choose to repeat something enough times that our minds will defend the belief in the face of conflicting evidence.

    Community. I think we can surround ourselves with others and bolster a belief so that our minds will defend the belief in the face of conflicting evidence.

    Authority. I think we can revere authority (people, positions, traditions, and books) and that authority enables one to defend the belief in the face of evidence to the contrary.

    As some have mentioned above, sometimes it is painful to hold onto a belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. I think the term is dissonance or cognitive dissonance.

    Personally, like EBK, I’m inclined to trust my own experience. I like the term “gentle agnostic.” I like to think that I can set boundaries in my own life and tell people that I don’t share their beliefs, but do it in a gentle way that gives them plenty of room to have their own experiences. That’s where I’m currently at.

  37. Josh Smith
    April 24, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    Following the conversation …

  38. Observer
    April 24, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    Andrew S.,

    Like the difference between being an atheist and an agnostic? The atheist says, “I don’t believe in God.” The agnostic says, “I have no way to know if there is a God.”

    It’s a sin to be an atheist but not to be an agnostic???

  39. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    Or there’s a choice that makes the conditions where belief happens. I can have responsibility over things even if I don’t have direct control.

  40. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    Any action involves multiple often competing desires, understandings and other such things. So doing things we know are false is common, the question might then be what is competing with our belief. That is why did I drink the poison if I knew it was poisonous. Without knowing that it’s hard to say.

  41. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    The type of determinism most typically object to is the idea that things are uniquely determined by the earlier state of affairs. I don’t believe that is the case. In religion it’s usually the idea that God determines every single event. I most definitely don’t believe that. Nearly universally the idea of God determining events ala Calvinism is rejected. The bigger question that still gets debated even within Mormonism is whether there are truths about the future that God knows. That entails a more limited kind of determinism that many see inherently in conflict with what they see as free will. Those debate though almost always end up resting upon the semantics of what knowledge or free will mean.

  42. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:20 pm

    I don’t really think there’s anything to Freud nor his categories. So I’ll not comment there. If by unconscious we simply mean processing that we might interpret in terms of intents or beliefs that we’re not aware of then that’s fine. I think most thought is unconscious. In Peircean terms of semiotics it really doesn’t matter if we’re aware of signs or not and any sign can itself be broken down into component signs. Not really what you were addressing but an important issue if you’re simply critiquing Peirce.

    The moral value of a belief seems independent of what I’m talking about. I confess I’m not quite sure how to tie morality into things that are not volitional. We’d probably have to discuss what we mean by moral in such contexts. (Certainly we talk of things like an exploding volcano as evil but it seems there’s just a metaphoric connection to the way we say a murderer killing someone is evil)

    I think it’s more useful to talk about how strong a belief is. But then as I said it seems the meaning of that can only be in terms of what the belief would potentially do.

    As to the difference between faith and belief, I’ll save that for my next post in this series. Don’t want to give too much away.

    To what I mean by consequences of belief, I mean that extremely broadly. I’d not distinguish between say enduring for belief, successful action for belief or unsuccessful action for belief. After all what counts is the attempt since success is always always a product of the environment in which I act.

  43. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    I think trust with hope is very much a part of faith. I’d say it entails a level of belief, albeit perhaps not a strong one. But even in cases where my belief is weak, associated beliefs such as trust in a person can still do a lot.

    To your final point, as I said I don’t want to give too much away but I think belief definitely can be a consequence of faith that is practiced long enough. (That’s how I read Alma 32)

  44. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    It goes in both directions. I recall a period in my life when I was very much in a trial of faith. It would have been far, far easier and arguably beneficial in the short term to not believe. Yet in various situations when push came to shove, I believed and could not deny what I knew, even if perhaps I wanted to.

    I personally have far more respect and appreciation for those who in a trial of faith find they don’t have many beliefs yet persist and stay. I’m all too aware of the things that pull us away from the gospel. To stay always takes a certain kind of faith even if perhaps those exercising it don’t know it’s true.

  45. April 24, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    Well, if I understand the typology correctly, I think that some folks would define agnostic as saying “I don’t believe in God [because i have no way of knowing either way]” whereas they would define atheism as the much stronger claim “I believe there is no god”.

    And in this system, the latter would absolutely be considered worse than the former.

    does that make sense?

  46. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Nate, I agree we emphasize knowledge more than belief. I’d note D&C 46 includes both and sees both as gifts. I think we should be careful assuming too much by those who say they believe rather than know. That’s partially because I sometimes wonder how many of those who say that they know really do know. It’s very easy to treat these things in Mormonism as a kind of language game in which we say the right things to get expected results. Yet do we truly know?

    While I don’t think we need opposition to know, it sure tests our knowledge and helps us know that we know.

    I’d add (and I’ll probably go in more detail on this in a subsequent post) that just because one knew in the past it doesn’t mean you know in the future. Our memories are odd things. When we recall we are effectively recreating that memory again with what we understand when we remember it. That means every remembering is transforming that memory. If we are not as in tune with the spirit that means those memories can significantly shift in meaning. One day we may recall an earlier spiritual experience and have transformed it so much, that we no longer believe. That’s why I strongly feel a testimony can only function as a testimony when it is continually questioned and renewed.

  47. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    If we are commanded to light a barge, it doesn’t follow that somehow we snap our fingers and there is light. Commands require us to inquire and figure out how to fulfill the command. Typically that comes by figuring out indirect means. Say finding some rocks and having someone make them glow.

    In the same way we can be commanded to believe (or be in a state of belief) but the way we bring that about is told to us in Moroni 10:4 and other places. We inquire and learn in the spirit.

    Saying that belief is a consequence of action rather than a volitional choice doesn’t mean that somehow we are not accountable for our beliefs. That’s like saying the drunk who has lost control over their deliberation and reason somehow isn’t responsible when they start the car and drive it. We frequently have responsibility over things we don’t have direct control over. If I leave the brake off in my car and it rolls down the hill and hits someone I don’t control it rolling, but I do control whether I put the brake on. Responsibility is almost always a matter of indirect responsibility.

  48. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    While I think Moroni 10 works, I take D&C 46 and many other passages to entail that it doesn’t work in the simplistic fashion some present it. Maybe it works that way for them. It doesn’t follow it works that way for everyone. That doesn’t mean we can’t know. But God puts us in situations where the process can take a long time. For people to say it happens the same way for everyone is simply to say that God’s plan and development for everyone follow the same path. That’s demonstrably false according to the key doctrines of the gospel.

  49. April 24, 2016 at 9:58 pm


    What are some hypothetical ways your answer could differ depending on “why” someone drank the poison?

    For me, ultimately, though, it seems that competing desires and understandings are not voluntarily chosen, so at best, our choice is working with whatever “hand” of cards we are given in terms of desires and understandings. So it doesn’t necessarily matter why someone drank the poison — because that motivation, however it competed with the knowledge (or just the perception, depending on if they are right or wrong) that the drink was poison, still wasn’t chosen.

  50. Steve S
    April 24, 2016 at 10:20 pm

    “the idea that things are uniquely determined by the earlier state of affairs”

    I do believe that is true. The alternative in light of choice, is that choices are determined randomly. I suppose that could be called “free”, but it’s no freedom of will if I do not determine my choices / my will does not not determine my choices.

    Free will cannot exist in a non-deterministic system (meaning if we accept free will exists, then it exists in a deterministic system, which yes, would mean and preserve the scriptural idea that God can and does know the future).

    Which in context of this conversation allows that beliefs can both be determined and chosen.

  51. Mark Clark
    April 24, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    This is why I stopped claiming to believe. B never followed A for me. And it seemed like the testimonies of believers were contingent upon that experience actually occurring. In other words, they were professing beliefs because they thought that they had some private externally-originated answer. Once I saw members of the FLDS church and other polygamist offshoots of Mormonism bearing a type of testimony that was very similar to those borne by LDS believers, I really began to wonder if some sort of combination of confirmation bias and groupthink was at play more than an actual witness. I am not sure for everyone, but I figured that that combination of factors was why I had been claiming that I actually witnessed something that I never did.

  52. Clark Goble
    April 25, 2016 at 10:36 am

    I’ve no doubt that many people claiming revelation have not had revelations. Whether that be wishful thinking, confirmation bias, or just bad interpretation probably isn’t our place to judge. However we should be careful in how we judge others. Heavens, I’m sure I’ve made those errors at one time or an other. The important thing is to keep inquiring – keep seeking.

  53. Clark Goble
    April 25, 2016 at 10:50 am

    Josh you might like this article by C. S. Pierce “The Fixation of Belief.” It underlies a lot that I’m working from.

    I should add that while Peirce rejects authoritarianism, I think the way in the Church we appeal to authority is somewhat different. Not all agree of course. (This is the major place Jeff and I disagree for instance)

    The question of when evidence is to the contrary is of course trickier since evidence on its own doesn’t indicate much. It’s evidence as tied to other pieces of evidence and conclusions we’ve already arrived at. To get a bit more philosophical, Peirce sees those conclusions as significant. It’s what he calls realism – the idea of these interpretations as inherently true and in the world.

  54. Clark Goble
    April 25, 2016 at 10:52 am

    I think we have to unpack what you mean by choice in the above. I think we can have indirect control – but here I’m more saying whether we can pick our beliefs by pure force of will. That seems impossible.

  55. Steve S
    April 25, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Yes, I think we’re on the same page there. I agree that we cannot pick our beliefs by pure force of will, that is to say I don’t think we can believe something contrary to our genuine beliefs just because we feel like it or it may be more convenient to do so.

    I think I get what you’re saying now too. We could say likewise, do I choose my preferences? Is the fact that I like green more than blue chosen by me? I might make indirect choices that effect the outcome of my preferences, but it seems the preferences are just outward manifestations of the intrinsic will as it encounters data (as filtered and mediated through the body). So also our beliefs may be said to be outward manifestations of our intrinsic will (or the self) as it encounters new data.

    In this view, as it is part of the will we would not want freedom from it, or the ability to choose outside of it, otherwise there is no self. What is valuable is what we choose to do with our genuine beliefs. Do we hide from it and enter self-deception so as not to be responsible for our beliefs to some selfish end (fitting in, not risking loss, getting ahead, etc.)? Or do we stay true to ourself despite personal consequences? I think this is the kind of belief that can be counted for righteousness or wickedness. There is no wickedness in being true to one’s genuine integrity which comes of light – whatever degree of light that might be.

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