There’s a post that I come back to on this site again and again. It’s something that I frequently link to when having discussions with believers and non-believers alike whenever they start getting their back up and feel that they are under attack when I’m pressing on their beliefs: we are not our ideas.
However, I’ve not always been comfortable with it in it’s entirety. I mean… ‘Hate the sin, not the sinner’ is clearly crap, but is there a significant difference between that and Crommunist’s ‘hate the belief, not the believer’? (my paraphrasing)
If I were confronted by a believer on this point, the apparent double-standard, could I respond effectively?
[Added 2pm GMT, Jan 31st, due to apparent necessity:
A "human being" as mentioned in this essay refers to and only to "any individual of the genus Homo, especially a member of the species Homo sapiens."
It is not a reference to 'self' or 'identity' or anything like that. If you're unsure, find a mirror: that's "a human being".]
I think that the difference between the two hinges on the notion of ‘belief’ versus ‘sin’, so these are the two terms that need to be nailed down. Which will take us into the realm of Free Will, so I guess I’ll start by opening that particular can of worms.
1. Free Will
Basically, if you’re committed to the idea that “Free Will” means that you can make any decision, anytime, and there are no antecedent events that will tell an outside viewer what your choice is going to be prior to your own conscious knowledge, then two things follow:
- Harris (and other neuroscientists) has rock solid evidence that this kind of Free Will doesn’t exist
- You are subscribing to an long-discarded notion of Free Will.
The version of Free Will that I commit to goes something along these lines:
- We have a set of beliefs.
- The origin of those beliefs is ‘the world’ (i.e. they are determined).
- Those beliefs cause us to have a certain disposition about the world.
- When we act on those beliefs, we can observe the results of those actions.
- The observation of those facts (‘knowledge’) interacts with our existing beliefs causing us to affirm or question those beliefs.
- This questioning causes us to maintain or change our dispositions. This questioning (reflection) is Free Will
Thus it’s undeniable that our acting in the moment is determined long before that moment occurs, but we have (in my opinion) some active role in the deliberation (conscious or not) of our beliefs, either affirming, questioning or discarding them. So Premises 5 and 6 are really the core of my argument, and where I diverge with Harris and the rest. Essentially, I am arguing that Free Will is something that’s entirely separate from our consciousness: Free Will is something that our brain has, while consciousness is something that our brain does.
So from this it should be clear that I hold the opinion that “we choose our beliefs”. We do not choose the starting set, but given the level of exposure to information that the average (European/North American*) human being receives through education and mass media by the time a person is in their (let’s say) mid/late 30s, they should have reflected on their beliefs to the degree where I’m comfortable in saying that “they chose their beliefs”. If you’re on board with this, you’ll probably want to skip the next section. If you’re not, hopefully the next section will address some of your concerns.
That said, however, your beliefs about the world are not simply inert idea-objects lying around in your mental space that you can simply pick up and entertain at your volition. You can’t simply decide that you Believe that humans have 17 arms, or that lemons taste other-than-what-they-do.
You can think that, sure, but you can’t Believe that.
So what am I talking about when I say ‘Believe’? How is this different from simply ‘thinking’? Is there a significant difference between “I believe that the sky is blue” and “I think that the sky is blue”?
In my opinion, the difference is that the first indicates a certain commitment to the thought, that it’s all but impossible for you to look at the sky and sincerely proclaim “I believe that the sky is yellow today”, whereas the second indicates a certain tentative knowledge claim. If, for example, it turns out that we’re wrong, having a wrong beliefs-about-the-world (just ‘beliefs’ from here on) tends to have a profound emotional impact on us, whereas having a wrong thought really doesn’t.
To illustrate this, think of a food that you hate. Absolutely loathe. Imagine you were in a conversation while having dinner, and the topic of this food came up. And as you enjoy your meal, the host casually remarks that, actually, the primary ingredient of tonight’s dish is that very food that you believed that you hate. Put yourself in that position, and experience the emotional consequence of having a belief over-turned. This does not apply to mere thoughts.
However, we CAN shape how we form and discard beliefs. For example, we can decide that our views will be formed from the best evidence, or that this particular book is always right, come what may. We can label these kinds of views also as beliefs, but for clarity I’m going to call them Axioms. We can consider them to be sort of dispositional states, of how we filter and manipulate the information that we receive from our senses, and how we interpret knowledge that we already have.
These Axioms are fundamentally different from beliefs, because these Axioms are beliefs-about-beliefs (aka ‘higher order beliefs’). While it’s true that many of these were formed as we grew up, and thus we don’t have a libertarian-style unfettered Free Will to discard or create new Axioms as we go, these Axioms are far more amenable to change and manipulation than our beliefs. Why? Because beliefs are rooted in these Axioms, and thus they ultimately can’t be changed unless the Axioms change. It’s possible that challenging that someone’s beliefs can cause them to challenge their Axioms, but if the Axiom stands, then the belief will probably stand (though it may change slightly in the face of the criticism).
The view that I’m outlining here is from Epistemology, and is known as Foundationalism.
Problems arise when several Axioms are interwoven, and become interdependent. This is known as Coherentism.
While it’s tempting to start painting with a broad brush (“all people like me are Foundational thinkers, all people who think differently are Coherentists”), this would be a mistake. The odds are that the thinking process for all people is a mix of both of these: some of our Axioms are interdependent, some of our Axioms are free-standing. Of course, if you take the interdependent Axioms as a group, they are also free-standing and (as a group) do not have any justification. Holding these Axioms is, in some limited sense, a choice.
If you poll the many folk who have changed religion (or dropped it altogether), you’ll notice that the pattern of change is predicated on how their religion posited something in contradiction to an different Axiom. Ultimately, the contradictions proved to be sufficient that the person had no choice but to drop either the religious Axiom or the non-religious Axiom. Take a look at PZ Myer’s segment ‘why I am an Atheist‘ for some examples of this point.
The take-home point here is that, to a greater or lesser degree, holding a set of beliefs about the world (yes, including Atheism) is a choice that we exercise, even if those beliefs are entailed by our Axioms, because those Axioms are a choice.
The notion of “Sin” is a bit of a mess. I’m going to be using the Christian framework to discuss this.
Whereas Beliefs are epistemological in nature, Sins are metaphysical. A Sin is an actual thing, an act that (allegedly) offends god. I’m not opening that can of worms (the non/existence of gods), so let’s move on.
The main issue with “Sin” is that it’s so poorly defined. At various points in the bible, a Sin is an act, yet sometimes it’s a thought. For example, having sex with the husband or wife of someone else is very clearly a sin, however it’s said elsewhere that if one has merely lusted after someone else’s husband or wife, then one has ‘sinned in one’s heart’ and that this is as bad as actually committing the act.
So what’s a homosexual to do? On the one hand, committing a homosexual act (he says, noting the language of guilt that is always used in this situation) is always a sin, so many churches preach that people who ‘resist’ their homosexual ‘urges’ (animalistic/atavistic language) are on safe ground.
Not so, proclaim other churches: if the homosexual lusts after someone of the same sex as themselves, then they have committed a sin in their heart.
But yet, to the best of our knowledge, a person who is attracted to members of the same gender/sex as themselves is biologically driven. This is something that is hard-wired at birth. I am not educated in the Sciences, but my meagre reading on these topics indicates that while there may be a spectrum of inclinations, those who are ‘full-on’ homosexual are so by biological necessity. While there may certainly be some folk who have sporadic interests who can choose to ignore them, the ‘full-on’ homosexual can turn off their attraction for their own gender/sex just as easily as the ‘full-on’ heterosexual can turn off their attraction for other genders/sexes: they can’t. It isn’t “a choice” in any meaningful sense.
Ergo, when something integral to a person is labeled ‘a sin’ (like having red eyes), hating that is indistiguishable from hating the person.
To put all that together would seem to indicate the following:
- Hating ‘the sin’ that someone commits is to hate something intrinsic to the nature of the person. It’s akin to saying “I don’t hate you, I hate the fact that you have two arms”. Fundamentally, ‘the sin’ is inseparable from ‘the sinner’: to hate the sin is, as a point in fact, to hate the sinner.
- Hating ‘the belief’ that someone holds is to hate something that can be discarded by the person in question. Beliefs should be held for rational reasons (or so say my Axioms), thus a belief that has no rational basis should be discarded. While someone may hold these kinds of beliefs, this doesn’t entail that they are terrible people. They may simply have not reflected on this particular belief. Thus hating ‘the belief’ is entirely seperate from hating ‘the believer’.
So at this point, I’m perfectly comfortable with the maxim ‘hate the belief, not the believer’. As trite as it may be…
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*I say this not because I believe that the education is so much less in other countries, but my experience in those other countries is insufficient to judge them on this note.
It’s been a long day, and I’m tired. This is going to be terse.
When I want to talk about something, I talk about it. When I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t. Seems simple enough, but it seems that multiple respondants in the thread have grossly misread what I’m talking about. So allow me to clarify:
I am not talking about “the self”, “identity”, “self-identity”, “personhood” or any other variation of that theme.
I take pains to make explicit what I consider the ‘tricky’ terms. I did not realise that “human being” was a tricky term. I have added this definition to the beginning of the article.
When I talk about biological imperatives (such as homo/hetero/a-sexuality), I am not discussing whether or not a particular individual identifies as a homosexual: their proclivities exist regardless of their self-identity. My argument is that these things are built into a human being at a biological level. As is ones inclination to feel rage, or hatred, or love.
Whether someone has chosen to self-identify with a particular belief is not something I give two whits about. Because they have chosen to self-identify with it.
All the comments that are arguing along these lines talking completely past the point of this essay. If inclined, I would suggest re-reading. And not filling in random interpretations of fairly simple words that have no bearing on what I’m talking about.