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.