21. Coming to Believe

Why It Took Another 17 Years to Know

My principal area of expertise as a philosopher is called epistemology. It's the study of belief and knowledge. Even though I completed my PhD earlier this year, I've been doing epistemology for a while now. My MA work was on theories of justification: what makes a belief a good belief? My PhD work was on what role epistemic concepts like evidence, belief, truth, and knowledge have in what we say to each other (speech acts called assertions). I'm interested in all sorts of aspects of what we know, how we know it, and what we do with knowledge (e.g., testimony, assertion, practical reasoning). I also teach epistemology, particularly in introductory philosophy courses, and when I get to teach stand-alone epistemology courses.

metamorphosis_changingthelights.png I'm also really interested in decision making (a field called decision theory). Part of that interest led me to study some of the psychology behind decision-making (through graduate work in the Psych department), partly because I think that decision theory is sometimes unrealistic in how it understands agents' abilities to decide.

One topic that bridges epistemology and decision theory is whether one can choose to believe something, even if there's a good argument supporting it. There's a famous argument about whether it's rational to believe in God, called Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal, someone largely responsible for probability theory, was a converted Christian and wanted to construct an argument for why atheists should believe in God. He knew that there was no point trying to convince Christians, as they already believe. And he framed the argument with a particular audience in mind: gamblers. Pascal's development of probability theory, and the beginning of decision theory, was partly as a result of being commissioned to figure out how to beat a particular gambling game of his day. (He succeeded.)

The idea was to frame the decision to believe in God as a wager, and he argued that the safe bet is on believing in God. It's a simple argument, really. There are only two options: either God exists, or God doesn't exist. And there are only two options regarding your belief: either you believe in God, or you don't. Now, taking the Bible somewhat seriously, if you believe in God, and God exists, you go to heaven: the payoff is infinite happiness. If you don't believe in God, and God exists, you go to hell: the payoff is infinite unhappiness. (Or, you merely lose the chance to go to heaven; either way, it sucks.) Now, if you believe in God, but God doesn't exist, then at most you lose out a little on the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll you would've enjoyed. (Pascal thought that you'd still gain a little, because being an observant Christian is good, even if God doesn't exist.) And if you don't believe in God, and God doesn't exist, then you gain some finite amount of pleasure by being the heathen you want to be.

The key here is that the potential payoff in believing in God is infinitely positive, and the potential payoff in not believing in God is only finitely positive. And, in decision theory, as long as there's a non-zero probability that God exists, you must believe in God: any non-zero probability multiplied by infinity equals infinity. But any non-zero probability (even a very high probability) multiplied by a finite number equals a finite number.

So Pascal thought it was painfully clear: atheists should, rationally, believe in God. Not doing so would be irrational. Now, of course, there are objections galore to Pascal's argument (Diderot's "Many Gods Objection," for example), but let's set those aside. Do you think, if you're convinced by Pascal's argument, that you could simply come to believe that God exists on the basis of his argument?

Well, Pascal wasn't so naive to think that you'd instantly come to believe in God, even if you were utterly convinced that you should. What was Pascal's solution? If you don't immediately (or quickly) come to believe in God, just fake it for a while. That is, go through the motions of belief: socialize with other Christians, go to church, act as though you believe, and eventually you will.

Some time goes by, and a philosopher and psychologist by the name of William James comes along. He writes a beautiful paper directly taking on the psychological (im)plausibility of Pascal's claim. James argues that in order for a proposition (e.g., "God exists") to be a candidate for willful belief (where we choose to believe), it must minimally satisfy three criteria for being a "Genuine Option."

An option is a choice, and the candidates for choice are called hypotheses. In order for a hypothesis to be a candidate for being a genuine option, it must be live, forced, and momentous. A hypothesis is live if it's actually a possible candidate of belief for you. We'll all have individual differences here. For me, it's unlikely that I'll ever believe in Tea Party ideals. Those hypotheses are "dead," in that they're not legitimate candidates for belief for me.

A hypothesis is forced if one must choose between it and another: one must not have the option to choose not to choose. Pascal was right about something: from the point of view of his 2×2 decision matrix, choosing not to choose (i.e., agnosticism) is the same as choosing not to believe in God. James's example of an "avoidable" option is whether or not to take an umbrella out today. I could either take an umbrella with me, or I could not take an umbrella with me…or I could choose not to go outside. Thus the choice whether to take an umbrella is avoidable: I can avoid having to make that choice. For Pascal, the question of believing in God is forced: you can't avoid having to come down on one side or the other: either you believe or you don't. You can't sit on the fence.

Finally, a hypothesis is momentous if it's life-altering, important, and rare. My decision to have coffee or tea this morning (come on, I'll have both) is not momentous, it's "trivial." I face this choice every day, and deciding one way or the other won't have a dramatic impact on my life. The choice to have children, or get married, however, is not trivial: it's momentous, on James's definition.

James's criticism of Pascal's wager is, simply, that the option to believe in God may not be a genuine option for everyone. I think that we can agree that the belief in God is momentous and forced, but it's not going to be a living hypothesis for everyone. So Pascal's argument won't work for these people. The second part of James's objection is that Pascal's suggestion to just go through the motions in order to come to believe is psychologically implausible.

Here's where I love this paper: he argues that coming to believe something, especially something so important as believing in God, isn't merely a matter of rationality: one can completely agree that one should believe in God (on the basis of Pascal's argument), and still fail to come to believe. Something's missing. What is it? James argued that there's a role for our emotions, our passional self, in belief formation. This is a fantastic claim, something that I don't think has received enough attention throughout the decades since (over a century, in fact). Coming to believe something isn't as simple as looking to what the evidence most supports, and then forming the belief: there's more to the story. It's not merely an issue of rationality.

OK, that was a lot of philosophy, I know. There's a point to this, really! My first memories of actively contemplating my gender and gender identity date back to around the age of 13. Now, this isn't the "traditional" trans narrative that you may have heard about: I didn't know by age 3 or 4. Lots of us don't. About 13 was when I first remember my thinking that I wanted to be female. The internet was still very young at that time, and we had just gotten it into our home. Certainly, my resources then were better than they would have been for someone 30 years ago. But all the same, much like nearly every trans* person, I had to figure things out for myself. So I looked for resources on what was the easiest interpretation of my experiences: cross dressing. I was, of course, aware of transsexuals, but for some utterly inexplicable reason, I never even considered that I might be one.

This is why I wanted to write about James's "Will to Believe." The only difference between me at 13 and at 29? It's merely that at 29, I actually considered being trans* as a live hypothesis: it was actually a possibility. And the moment that it was a live hypothesis, it just made so much sense. It was really one of those *click* moments. My past and present struggles with my gender (expression, identity, and so on) all fell into place and I went from not even being able to consider the possibility that I'm trans* (even though I was all along aware of such people), to instantly knowing that I'm trans*. It was really liberating.

I now "get" James's argument even more. I always liked it, because, intellectually speaking, I thought it was correct. But I hadn't really lived it. Now I have. I wonder if others have had similar experiences.

Yours truly,