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I can believe whatever I want! May 22, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Freedom.
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It has been suggested to me that this blog’s title is too extreme, and could seem to oppose freedom of thought. Let me explain why I think it is appropriate.

The only sense in which there might reasonably be a right to “believe whatever you choose” is the legal sense, and it should be clear that I’m not advocating locking anybody up just for disagreeing with me. Logically, though, I don’t think you can really choose what to believe – either you are convinced of something, or you are not. (Could I suddenly choose to believe in unicorns?) Of course, you can make a special effort not to examine certain beliefs too closely, or you can lie to yourself and others about what you really believe. I think we have a moral obligation to examine our beliefs rigorously and to do our best to make sure they match reality. That is the point of Clifford’s story: we have no right to believe things for which there is no good evidence.

Beliefs are not really as private as most people think, because beliefs have behavioral implications that affect us all. For example, there are significant consequences to the fact that many of my neighbors believe that the creator of the universe promised them the land of Israel, and that a far better world awaits after death. I think unjustified belief is the source of much evil in this world. It is essential that we demand of each other to provide reasonable justification for our beliefs — and that we publicly and incessantly criticize those who cannot.

As an afterthought, I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’s Electric Monk, a labor-saving device intended to believe things for you. The Monk encountered some trouble when it was accidentally connected to a TV.

So after a hectic week of believing that war was peace, that good was bad, that the moon was made of blue cheese, and that God needed a lot of money sent to a certain box number, the Monk started to believe that thirty-five percent of all tables were hermaphrodites, and then broke down. The man from the Monk shop said that it needed a whole new motherboard, but then pointed out that the new improved Monk Plus models were twice as powerful, had an entirely new multi-tasking Negative Capability feature that allowed them to hold up to sixteen entirely different and contradictory ideas in memory simultaneously without generating any irritating system errors, were twice as fast and at least three times as glib, and you could have a whole new one for less than the cost of replacing the motherboard of the old model.

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