You can’t choose what you believe.
By the end of this, hopefully you’ll agree with me that although you can choose to do many different things, what you cannot do is choose what you believe. (If you end up disagreeing with me about this, which of course you might, then your belief that I am wrong could have been the fault of mine or yours, but either way it wouldn’t have been your choice.)
Napoleon Hill, pictured above, wrote the book ‘Think and Grow Rich’ in 1937. The self-help guru took 25 years to complete the work – suggesting, before the first page is turned, that at least some things cannot be thought into existence. A stupid book, it amounts to a splurge of self-manifesting advice, most of which is based on the rather vague idea that some combination of faith and love and sex can create vibrations which induce a response from the ‘Infinite Intelligence’… yeah… but anyway, in amongst Napoleon’s pages and pages and pages, this forecaster does have six concrete steps he advises you take to get rich…
First. Fix in your mind the exact amount of money you desire. It is not sufficient merely to say “I want plenty of money.” Be definite as to the amount. (There is a psychological reason for definiteness which will be described in a subsequent chapter.)
Second. Determine exactly what you intend to give in return for the money you desire. (There is no such reality as “something for nothing.”)
Third. Establish a definite date when you intend to possess the money you desire.
Fourth. Create a definite plan for carrying out your desire, and begin at once, whether you are read or not, to put this plan into action.
Fifth. Write out a clear, concise statement of the amount of money you intend to acquire, name the time limit for its acquisition, state what you intend to give in return for the money, and describe clearly the plan through which you intend to accumulate it.
Sixth. Read your written statement aloud, twice daily, once just before retiring at night, and once after arising in the morning. AS YOU READ – SEE AND FEEL AND BELIEVE YOURSELF ALREADY IN POSSESSION OF THE MONEY.
With these six easy steps outlined there shouldn’t have been much more to say… but books don’t sell themselves… it’s not like you can just think and get rich… and your craven publisher needs more than just a page, after all.
Six “easy” steps? Not so fast, says Napoleon.
There are millions of people who BELIEVE themselves “doomed” to poverty and failure, because of some strange force over which they BELIEVE they have no control. They are the creators of their own “misfortunes,” because of this negative BELIEF which is picked up by the subconscious mind and translated into its physical equivalent.
The problem of frauds and self-help gurus and right-wing boot-strappers is that they all present the world as if it were under a mass delusion, before stating immediately how easy it is everybody to escape it…
Napoleon’s lame answer to a lack of crucially important self-belief? Just believe.
If a man repeats a lie over and over, he will eventually accept the lie as truth.
There might be something here. For one thing, some people don’t seem to care much about the truth, but even for people who do there are cases where they can form beliefs through repeating lies. Take the placebo effect – positive medical outcomes result because a patient’s belief in a particular pill, rather than because of the pill’s properties – and note that this works on humans even when the person knows and understands that what they’re taking is nothing but a placebo. This has led researchers to speculate that the ritual itself of taking a treatment can have a positive effect.
Moreover, he will believe it to be the truth.
Only, is that what’s really going on with the placebo effect? Are people lying to themselves in ways which, as Napoleon suggests, results in them genuinely believing something?
If it were true that by repeating lies you could genuinely come to believe something to be true, then you could make yourself believe anything in theory. But you can’t. Look outside. It’s not snowing, is it? Now close your eyes. You’d probably bet quite a lot of money that it isn’t snowing. If, however, beliefs can be chosen, then you should be able to convince yourself that is snowing outside. Only, you can’t, because if given the chance to bet that it was snowing, you wouldn’t end up betting. Why? Because you can’t convince yourself in any meaningful sense.
You can’t choose to believe something.
The placebo effect may make you feel better, but it won’t cure your cancer, and choosing to believe that it will won’t either, although there might be other (even medical) benefits to being able to believe such a thing. Just as you cannot think, and cure your cancer, you cannot think, and choose to believe that thinking alone will cure your cancer. This is not a mere semantic difference.
Pretender Napoleon is basing his think-rich nonsense on the (harmful) claim that you can choose your beliefs. Not all pretenders are frauds though. There are some situations where you can pretend to believe – and this does have a use because sometimes, by choosing to pretend, we can arrive at a place where we can honestly say that we believe something to be true without having to pretend any more.
A good example of this type of genuinely productive self-deception is when someone ‘chooses’ to believe in absurd things (usually abstract concepts). Take the possibility of further dimensions: we know we live in 3D space; we know that there are three dimensions that we call Length, Width, and Height. Imagine, though, that we lived in Flatland, a 2D space, and that our whole world was a piece of A4 paper in the same way that a circle drawn on an A4 sheet of paper exists in 2D space. Flatlanders wouldn’t be able to conceive of an unrecognised dimension called Height. (Read the first Chapter of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, for a beautiful explanation on how this works.)
To help the Flatlander out, we can try explaining what Height looks like by drawing something in Flatland that looks like a 3D object, but within the confines of a 2D computer screen made of pixels. This would be hard for the Flatlander to fathom – they’d be looking at a 2D drawing of a cube from their 2D world, and some authority figure would be telling them that it represents a real 3D thing.
Similar to a person who lives in Flatland, we find it absurd to try to visualise the fourth dimension to Space – but why shouldn’t we pretend to believe that it exists, when that is exactly the advice we would give to someone who thought it absurd to think about Height as existing. We can think about the 4D when we suspend instinctual reasoning, and believing that there isn’t another dimension makes it impossible to think in such a way that such a dimension might be tested or explained or even drawn in 2D.
With abstract concepts, then, you might want to pretend to believe something, or, to be more accurate, pretend to choose to believe something. Act in ways opposite to what you think, therefore, because believing in something crazy can move the conversation on to more interesting places… the people who talked about the quantum mechanical ‘Double Split’ experiment before it had occurred, must have sounded pretty unbelievable, after all…
This type of pretending to choose to believe does occasionally drip into our everyday lives. The phrase – “I choose to believe you” – comes up a lot in common expression. Usually the meaning is pretty clear. It is not that the speaker believes the person. It is not that the speaker does not believe the person. Instead, the speaker says this when they do not know whether to believe the person (this is the real belief). However, rather than say this bluntly, we use the expression that we “choose” to believe the person, because using such a strictly non-sensical proposition neatly reflects the awkward position that the person across from us has put us in (maybe they claim that they didn’t eat our chocolate bar).
A good-will shortcut. A heuristic. A useful way to get to places where we actually do believe.
Just because you can’t choose to believe something, doesn’t mean you can’t pretend to choose to believe something. In its more infuriating formulation: you can always pretend that you believe that you can choose what you believe, but you cannot just choose to believe.