Wednesday, January 17, 2007

This I ... Believe?

My most recent attempt at describing where I stand on faith these days has been a criticism of the Christian concept of salvation being dependent on belief in Jesus. By and large all who call themselves Christian have a wide spectrum of beliefs regarding salvation, but at the core of them all is this one. Some doctrines hold that there are additional requirements for salvation (baptism, confirmation, etc.), but all these of course depend on some kind of belief in Jesus in order for them to be meaningful, so I think this argument can safely address most of Christianity, mainstream or otherwise.

Now here is how my travels have brought me to a place where this no longer makes sense: I have come to find that believing (or disbelieving) something is not a matter of choice. While this conclusion has been formulating in my mind over the past few years, I came upon the same idea expressed much more eloquently by both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and their arguments helped me to frame what I was feeling into words.

All of us have had something that we believed to be true at one time, only to find out later that we were wrong. For those who always get things right the first time, think of the many concepts that were once widely held but then later refuted — for example, the idea that the earth was flat. For a long period of time people could not help but believe that the world was flat. And yet, when more and more evidence appeared indicating otherwise, eventually it overwhelmed people to where again they could not help but believe that the world was round. Could they, indeed could we, still "choose" to believe that the world is flat? I suppose we could, but at that point we call this delusion or denial which is understood to be an unhealthy way to approach things. Certainly this is not the sort of faith that Christians would want to advocate anyway. In a sense it is making a distinction between what we "choose" to believe (voluntary) and what we "really" believe (involuntary). So even in this there is concept of something that we cannot help but believe.

If belief truly is involuntary, then how does the concept of a salvation based on belief fit into things? If belief is not something that we can choose, then salvation is not something we can choose either, and the point of exhorting people to choose it would be nonsensical. This to me is a conflict within the framework of Christianity that is beyond recovery.

Newtonian physics was a model that worked for a long time, but when Einstein came along he helped us see that the model fell apart when describing things approaching the speed of light; a new model was needed. In my experience Christianity has this same feel to it — I accepted it because as a model it made the most sense with what I saw and knew at the time. Belief as a choice was one key point that I accepted whole-heartedly; indeed I felt that anyone who chose not to believe was simply evading responsibility. Now however, I feel the model breaking down, this point of belief being one of many examples. Psychology, sociology, and science in general are better, more powerful models of describing the world, and they have proved more fruitful for my life in general.

Now I brought the idea of belief being involuntary up with Ben and he raised the interesting point that if belief is involuntary, that is, simply a product of experiences, then all choice is simply a product of experiences as well, since choice is determined by beliefs. Thus, he argues, the original assertion necessarily implies a deterministic world.

And this really got me thinking in a lot of different ways. Initially my response is to say that choice is not directly determined by beliefs, but that within a certain set of beliefs there are still an enormous, perhaps infinite, number of choices available to a person. While I think this is a reasonable idea, I also note that a deterministic world is not outside the (or my) realm of possibility. As my education is in computer science, this kind of thinking is not unusual. The theory that the world is in fact some kind of computer simulation has already been put forth, in fact.

What Ben's question really raises for me is the need for a closer examination of the concept of "choice." I haven't thought about it extensively but perhaps a materialist world — where the brain behaves according to rules of chemical reactions — denies the idea of choice altogether. What if historically "choice" was simply the label we used to describe the mysterious machinations that people undergo, producing behavior? Maybe it was simply our tool to describe what we could not yet explain accurately, on the level of "soul." Perhaps now we have a better model and so we should reexamine what choice means. After all, as I have brought up before, we did not choose to be born into this world. Is it that difficult to accept that choice as we know it is some kind of mysterious illusion?

The idea of a deterministic world is somewhat unnerving, I think because our traditional understanding of choice is so pervasive. It's interesting how I (and probably most people) immediately equate the obliteration of choice as a concept with a loss of rights, or some kind of authoritarianism, or as somehow turning us into robots. I suppose I may eventually quell my initial unease with relinquishing my definition of choice and wholeheartedly embrace the idea of a deterministic world. For now though I will consider it undetermined, *ba dum bump*.

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