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"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to
  one who is striking at the root."
- Henry David Thoreau
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I went through a "wilderness experience" twenty years ago. I don't recall spending much time thinking about religious matters during my three-year religious hiatus. Rather I turned my focus to a study of what made the rest of the world tick: business, psychology and other practical matters. At the end of this period I relearned in a forceful way a truth that I had known since I was a teenager: initially, you don't choose what you believe.
     That's right, belief is not a matter of choice, at least in terms of the belief itself. Belief is a gift bestowed (or thrust) upon you. You may discover what you believe, but you do not decide what to believe.  What you believe is a synthesis of your personal history, the ideas you have heard, the context of hearing those ideas, how you interrelated them and the force with which you were struck. The term ideas may be way too strong. These may be fleeting thoughts, impressions, emotions and may well up from within you or waft over you like a gossamer cloud.
- anonymous

Three Levels of Volition
Updated: 02/29/2020

There is a lot of truth in the quote above, but it is using confused terminology--choose and decide are conflated--and it applies only to the usual person who has not taken control of his own belief process.

VOLITION n: a three tiered structure of potential in the Homo Sapien, which like language and other abilities and facets can be awakened to nurture the spiritual growth of a Human Being. It can be simplified in this way: 1) On the deepest level we can exercise our personal sovereignty, stop letting ourselves be programmed by the existing agencies, and CHOOSE to seek the truth of what to believe and CHOOSE our purpose, 2) Based on our belief and purpose we CAN affect our attitude and our WILL on how to be and feel, and 3) We DECIDE what to do. The operation of the latter depends almost TOTALLY upon the first and second levels and external and internal factors outside of our conscious control.

Masters of Destiny

Are we ineluctably trapped in the syndrome described in the banner paragraph above?

Humans like to think of themselves as volitional beings, where if not in total control of their destiny, they have a significant influence on it. Enough influence through volition to generally make the difference. However, this "destiny" for our life on earth is understood to have severe limits put on it by the 'Human condition". Given an average lifespan in western civilization for those that survive childhood of about 70 years, we can through judicious decisions about a long list of things "significantly" affect that number by plus or minus 30%. And since there is no guarantee that a person is not going to die in the next minute, hour, day or year, you can judge this to be significant or not.

It is in this context, of the severely limited influence that we have on this life span, that the idea of an afterlife gains a lot more traction. We feel that surely our striving to use our volition properly should have more effect than just affecting 30% of 70 years. Religions that posit an afterlife attempt to maximize this traction, and Christianity takes the carrot and the stick to the extreme with an unimaginably swell eternal heaven and an unimaginably awful and eternal hell.

The elephant in the living room is the overwhelming evidence that our volition doesn't overcome or counter the vast preponderance of factors that tend to control us. These range from our genetic tendencies, traits and characteristics and run through hormone levels in the body, gender, health, and intelligence, to religious and cultural value programming, conditioning, training and habits, all not especially due to our own control. Not to mention the situation that we may find ourselves in, with pressure, whether light or unbearable. Especially eloquent in speaking to this reality is St. Paul in Romans where he says, "...but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."

The result of all of these factors in pushing us, controlling us is so powerful that humans, from the ancients to modern man, have a tendency to think in terms of God, the devil or demons controlling us. There is a large part of Christianity that believes we can turn control over to some kind of reified Holy Spirit. Modern psychology has come along with a movement that either denies we have any volition at all or makes it very obscure as to where and how it operates.

Nevertheless we also operate under the widespread understanding that we are accountable, and can be held accountable, for our actions and behavior. This accountability also rests on the foundation that a person has volitional control over their behavior. Even though we have many situations where we conclude this isn't so, we have no other handle on accountability outside of a persons actions.

So, we clearly have 3 levels on which we can exercise our volition, or to which we can point it:

  1. On the foundational level we have our conceptions, values and beliefs. Overwhelmingly most people are just programmed by their spiritual environment as children–their parents, teachers and religious leaders–to NOT think for themselves and NOT use their volition on this crucial level but to just accept the prevailing religious environmental package. However, we CAN take control on this level and choose concepts, values and beliefs. These greatly influence and effect the next level
  2. This is the level on which our emotions and feelings operate, and these come largely automatic and unbidden. However, we can learn to take some control over feelings and emotions and counter or override them. However, this is very difficult and damaging if done to any significant degree, and makes a person seem somewhat mechanical or emotionally cumbersome. Much better to deal with the first level and have feelings and emotions come "naturally" that do not need to be curtailed or modified. Of course feelings and emotions overwhelmingly effect what we decide to do, our behavior.
  3. On this third level, that of our behavior, we do have some semblance of minimal control, but it has already been largely determined by what we believe and by our conditioning, and it is now motivated by our feelings and emotions. It takes an almost superhuman effort to abort what our feelings and emotions are telling us to do. Much better to take control on the foundational level in the first place.

A simple analogy would be like we live in our own tree. The roots would be our potential to internalize authority, take up personal sovereignty so as to exercise CHOICE over what to believe, to seek the truth and determine for ourselves what it is, and to choose our purpose and basic attitude of being a constructive human being. The trunk would be our WILL, a combination of our feelings, attitude, needs desires, ego and emotions. The branches would be our habits, decisions, actions, and behavior. The thing is, we can actually not only prune our tree but if it is in danger of dying from lack of nutrients, we can uproot it and plant it in different soil in a different location. This latter is quite traumatic and destructive unless the "tree" re-grows to an extent greater than the potential it had before.

Much if not most of psychological counseling and psychotherapy are concentrated on and directed toward changing specific behavior rather directly or doing it through changing how we understand and feel about specific things. It seems to be dimly understood that the most powerful solution to changing things across the board lies in changing the foundation or wellspring through taking control of the value and belief system, changing what is believed. This can only be done on the most basic and powerful volitional level by taking personal responsibility and using volition to choose what you believe.

It must be quickly noted that psychological counseling and psychotherapy operate in potentially dangerous territory. It would probably be considered unethical in the medical profession to try to change a person's religious foundation or belief, and yet this may be the most fruitful level to address for certain problems. It would probably be considered ethical to help identify, clarify and encourage humane values, but this would still be skating close to the line and open to criticism. Yet, both of these areas can ethically be addressed by asking careful questions and careful challenges.

Choosing is not retaining

Choosing what to believe is quite different from getting in touch with what we have been programmed to believe.  Most people never choose what they believe but rather expend their energies upon defending what they have been given in the process of growing up.  In contrast to retention of what was injected into us, real belief is practically synonymous with understanding and is based upon the inward journey to understand oneself; and it is an active choosing of a position on the major issues (these are issues for which there is no compelling external influence or evidence) and in the extreme being willing to stake your life on your choices.  It is pro-active, not passive and is not controlled or determined by “fleeting thoughts, impressions, emotions, etc.  Most people have never even done the thinking to identify the major issues, much less are they able and willing to stake their life on their choice.

Finally, we do NOT have to be just complex programmed, externally controlled meat-sticks, but for those that don’t exercise their volition on the CHOICE OF BELIEF AND PURPOSE LEVEL that is largely what they wind up being. This is the essence of the significant difference between being a mere homo sapiens (a species of animal) and a spiritually developed human being.

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