Fooling Ourselves into Believing Things

A New York Times piece I'd had in my backlog writes about an issue most atheists struggle to understand: how does one come to believe something one does not believe? Can we make ourselves have faith?

I was struck by the piece because as time has gone on, I've seen how real this phenomenon can be–and how it may even be something useful to rational people. I've experienced moments when I've thought of getting myself to believe something I did not believe or feel something I did not feel.

Most saliently, as with most gay men, I tried to be straight. I took it a step further in college and did a program called the Vaad, which attempted to turn Yale students into Orthodox Jews. They were damn good at it, too, full of references to the surprisingly difficult fine-tuned universe argument and Kurt Vonnegut. Some people in the program did go on to go to Israel, study at Yeshiva, and so on, and from what I hear there are many others like that. And of course, in some ways, I've done or seen this in animal advocacy. I've thought for a long time that the evidence on pretty much every tactic is weak, yet I tried to show more confidence than I had in the past.

As I reflect, though, I think that some version of convincing ourselves may be important for rationalists, too. Reason and science sometimes lead us to difficult conclusions or ones that are hard to hold in our head. It might be that saving or helping someone far away is as important as or higher impact than helping someone near you, or maybe that some sport or activity is nowhere near as dangerous as it seems (or much more dangerous than it seems). Holding this in our head requires a sort of self-commitment. We need to keep an idea with us against countervailing winds. I do wonder if this is something similar to faith. At the very least, I think rationalists can take guidance from people like Kierkegaard.


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