What is belief? – Belief is an acceptance that something is true or that something exists. There are many kinds of beliefs ranging from positions on morality, to the existence of Bigfoot.
How do we come to hold positions of belief? – The threshold for acceptance may vary from person to person. Age, gullibility, rationality, and bias, may each play a part depending on the claim, but generally, the position of belief is arrived at when sufficient evidence has been presented to positively support the claim. Mundane claims may be accepted on the basis of very little evidence. However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Is belief a choice? – This seems to be an ongoing debate. The position held by the majority is “no”. Some theists may argue out of necessity that beliefs are in fact a matter of will, because in order for non-believers to be considered “sinners”, and for believers to be considered righteous, beliefs must be a choice. However, I assert that arriving at a belief is more complicated than a simple choice. For instance, consider the belief that the world is a spheroid shape (I personally do believe this, and I’m assuming most people share this belief). If belief is a matter of will, then choose now to believe that the world is flat. If you are being honest with yourself, I think that surely you will find this exercise futile (for me, it is). Someone may force you to proclaim that you believe that the earth is flat, be it by gunpoint, torture, or some other form of persuasion that doesn’t involve reason and evidence. But choosing to say that you believe does not constitute a choice to actually believe (or disbelieve). I think that disbelief and belief are more accurately described as gradations on a continuum, with the lack of belief being a default position apart from the continuum. The movement from one to the other in either direction should require a kind of process involving some form of evidence either in support of or contrary to the claim being assessed. Again, this is far from a simple matter of choice. There are people who, right now, do believe that the earth is flat (see the Flat Earth Society). I would assert that these individuals have not chosen to believe this, but rather while assessing the claim, they have chosen to only consider the evidence that supports what they want to believe, they have chosen to deny any evidence contrary to their desired position, and after arriving at their position, they have chosen to look no further. Reasons and evidence, not just simple choices, are ultimately responsible for holding or not holding a position of belief.
Are there good and bad reasons to believe something? – Acknowledging that belief is more than a choice, it follows that there must be a reason for the formation of a belief. Positions of belief (and disbelief) are held for both good and bad reasons. Research into a claim using properly applied skepticism, and requiring authoritative sources of independent verification regarding a properly designed repeatable experiment, usually qualifies as sufficient evidence to warrant belief. This is an example of a good reason to believe a claim is true. Another good reason for belief is when a trusted person makes a claim of the mundane sort, however, if the trusted person makes an extraordinary claim, in addition to trust, some evidence in support of the claim should be necessary for acceptance. Holding a belief on the grounds that it feels good to believe it, is a bad reason to believe something. Emotional appeal is not evidence that a claim is true. Something that “feels good” does not equal “something that is true”. We can be confident in believing that the person does, in truth, feel good because of “something”, and we can ask about why it feels good to believe this “something”, and get a truthful answer from the person who is enjoying the feeling. But the question we should be asking is “why is the ‘something’ true?” There is no good reason to believe that a claim is true before sufficient evidence has been provided. In other words, to accept a position of belief prematurely, and then to search for evidence to support that belief, is backwards, and leaves a person vulnerable to believing untruths. Another example of a bad reason to believe something is in the case of an unfalsifiable claim. If a claim is necessarily safe guarded from being proven wrong, i.e. if it is impossible to conduct repeatable experiments on, or the object in question is impossible to observe or interact with, then it should follow that it would be impossible to gather sufficient evidence to believe that this claim is true. There is no good reason to hold a position of belief regarding claims of this nature.
Check back for more thoughts on belief in the future.