What does it mean to believe in God?

When I ask what it means to believe in God, I am really being superfluous, because it is impossible to say what it means to believe in God without first answering what it means to believe. Stating it means to believe something is notoriously difficult. One hypothesis is that beliefs are thoughts about facts that occur to us in the form of sentences. For Descartes, thoughts that weren’t expressed in language were not thoughts at all, though they may be passions or feelings.

The first objection, though, may be that not all thoughts or beliefs are actually expressed in sentences but that they could be. For example, most everyone believes that a regular-sized automobile is larger than a normal basketball, but few people ever express that belief in the form of a sentence. It is averred that someone holds the belief if they would answer “yes” when asked whether a car is larger than a basketball. We might complicate things by asking whether a dog would believe a car is larger than a basketball, and it seems many dogs act as if they believe cars are bigger than basketballs, but they can’t express it in a sentence, even when queried.

So, is it enough to “act as if” something is true to substantiate belief in that something? Back to the original question, can we say someone believes in God if that person acts as if God exists? So, we might say someone believes in God if we see them praying, avoiding sin, or something else. On the other hand, we might run into serious conflict. Most people claim to believe in God and that God will provide a blissful afterlife. In other words, they express these beliefs in sentences. Their behavior, on the other hand, tends to reflect a general dread or terror of death or the afterlife. The behavior of many but not all self-proclaimed believers would indicate that they think death is the finality of life or the beginning of an awful punishment rather than a reward for a life well led.

Or, perhaps, these same people sincerely proclaim their belief in God, but their actions reveal a hidden belief that their lives have not been properly spent.

How free can we be?

I’m a little behind the curve on this, but a Jan. 2 article by Dennis Overbye in The New York Times deals with free will and the latest developments in cognitive science regarding free will. Overbye cites the work of Benjamin Libet who demonstrated (to his satisfaction, anyway) in the 1970s that people act before becoming consciously aware of their choices. Consciousness and apparent free choices seems to follow the mechanism we call our body rather than direct it. It is compared to a monkey riding the back of a tiger and making up a story about how the monkey directed the tiger’s actions.

The no free-will bus campaign
The no free-will bus campaign (Photo credit: morgantj)

To some extent, I guess we all believe that actions are caused by physical laws and past events. Whenever someone commits a horrible crime, we ask, “What would cause someone to do such a thing?” We believe there is an answer, and scientists seek the answers. People who argue most strenuously for free will will generally back off when confronted with their own shyness, depression, impatience, or other trait they’ve tried for years to modify.

A simple test for free will involves the compulsion to crunch on ice. For reasons I don’t understand, people with an iron deficiency will crunch ice compulsively, annoying co-workers, family members, and passers-by. Give them iron, and suddenly they “choose” to stop crunching ice all the time.

English: Daniel Dennett at the 17. Göttinger L...
English: Daniel Dennett at the 17. Göttinger Literaturherbst, October 19th, 2008, in Göttingen, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, is this cause for despair or optimism? Understanding the causes of our actions gives us more tools to help control them (giving iron supplements, for example). At the same time, knowing our actions are caused makes us doubt the free will of the soul (or mind, if you prefer). We feel a loss of dignity, for some reason. Daniel Dennett argues consistently and persistently that recognizing and understanding causal relationships gives us more freedom, not less. When he says “more” freedom, though, he really means more than none, which isn’t comforting to the hard-core indeterminists in the world.

One problem is that punishment becomes meaningless if people are not free, or so it is claimed. Baruch Spinoza answered this by saying that you would control the actions of a rabid dog in the same manner regardless of whether the dog chose to be rabid. The same, he claimed, should apply to humans. Punishment is no longer retribution, though, it is now simply a necessary condition of life.

William James
William James (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the other hand, William James claimed that we are forced to believe in free will because we are forced to make choices every day. If we do not believe in free will, we cannot make any choices, so we are paralyzed. From a practical standpoint, we feel we are free and must act as if we are free.

This may be as good as it gets.