I had a fascinating conversation recently regarding belief. It got me to thinking about the nature of belief and faith and knowledge.
I am very interested in knowledge, what we know, how we know it and how we model it. But knowledge has, for humans, an emotional component. That is, while you know what you know (to an infinite level of recursion by the way) you also have an emotional response to that knowledge we call belief.
Why do I classify belief as an emotional response? Because belief is our emotional response that defends, in a way, our model of the universe. Those things we know very well we come to believe.
Of course belief can be mistaken and it can be changed. We may believe something very strongly, but cease to believe it when presented with strong evidence to the contrary. So, for many years people believed there were only 8 planets in the solar system. Then in 1930 people had to change their belief to accommodate a 9th planet. Many people took quite some time to accommodate this.
We are actually watching a similar belief transition now as people come to terms with the new knowledge that there is a 10th planet beyond Pluto.
But the conversation I was involved in centered around a belief in God. And the person I was in discourse with wanted to know why anyone would not simply choose to believe. He referred to Pascal's Wager which is an argument attributed to Pascal justifying belief in the Christian God on the basis of probability. Essentially, the argument states that one should believe because if one is correct there is an infinite reward to follow whereas if one is wrong there is no harm in having believed during life.
The core problem with this argument, of course, is that we do not CHOOSE to believe. We are drawn to belief, we are coerced to belief by evidence. If I do not find sufficient evidence to believe in a god, I cannot choose to believe in one anyway. In contrast, if I do find sufficient evidence to believe, I cannot choose to NOT believe. Believe is not a choice, it is a coercion.
Tim Holt's website http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/pascalswager.html has a good analysis of the objections to Pascal's Wager of which this is the third.
Belief may be coercive, but it also IS plastic. As evidence accumulates in one direction or another a belief can shift. This is typically, for complex issues and decisions, not a binary switch but rather a continuum that takes the person from a strong belief into the area of doubt, then ultimately to an accolades of the new belief.
But, again, belief is coercive. The accumulation of evidence will ultimately one to a conclusion and a belief even if that is in opposition to previous belief. How many parents honestly believe their child cannot have done THAT (whatever THAT is) only to finally have to acknowledge that the child DID do THAT in the face of more and more incontrovertible evidence.
However, there IS that issue of evidence. While one is coerced to belief by an accumulation of evidence, one's INTERPRETATION of evidence IS a matter of choice. Well, to some degree, anyway. For some things, the evidence is fairly incontrovertible. Or, as Holmes said, "circumstantial evidence my be virtually convincing, as when a trout is found in the milk."
But bigger issues typically have much less clear evidence. So where one person may see evidence of a god in a grain of sand, another may see evidence of complex forces driven by random events. And there is an emotional component to this interpretation as well. We often WANT to believe in particular positions which DOES color our interpretations of evidence even when we try to minimize this.
So where does this leave us? Well, it probably means there is very little chance of people with completely polarized beliefs will be able to convince each other based on current bodies of evidence. And since the interpretation IS colored by other emotionalaspects such as a need or a desire to believe a particular outcome, it is very difficult to move from one point of view to another based solely on improved interpretations. Rather, more and more dramatic evidence is needed. And it is seldom forthcoming.