I've been reading about changes of mind and conversions (not just of the religious sort). My wife thinks it's all bunk (of the "distinctions without a difference sort"), but I'm not convinced. Or should I say that I haven't been converted to her view yet? There's the rub. Some of what I've read (articles by Annette Baier and Daniel Dennett) make a distinction between changes of mind and conversions, but there seem to be two different axes along which the distinction runs.
We could call one the part-whole axis: we change our minds about lots of things--plans, beliefs, etc. But changes of mind are constrained to discrete beliefs or plans, not our whole way of life or worldview, it seems. On the other hand, if I have a religious experience, give away my possessions, and dedicate myself to prayer and a life of poverty, I've converted.
This last example is one that drives my wife crazy. She says: then you've changed your mind about your whole worldview. But is that right? Conversions of this sort are so, as it were, holistic, that I don't exactly know what I changed my mind about. One could say: everything. But I don't know how to do that, even though I do have some idea what it would be to change my mind about a lot of other things. So perhaps the difference is that a lot of things still stay fixed when I change my mind--say, my overall identity. But identity seems to be the core of what changes in the case of a conversion.
The other axis is active-passive. Dennett says of Saul's conversion that Saul's mind was indeed changed but that Saul did not change it; rather, his mind was changed for him. That is, there's something passive (think of the language of submitting to God) about conversion; whereas, changing one's own mind involves a more active willing on one's part: you have to change your judgment (or plans, etc.) to change your mind. When you change your mind, you're still in charge of the change. When you're converted, something, as it were, overwhelms that control and changes you.
The distinction still seems shaky, at least in terms of the active-passive part. I might be "overwhelmed" by Singer's arguments for vegetarianism and change my mind about what I'm going to eat from now on. But I change my mind as a result of reading, and accepting, his arguments. On the other hand, I might become a vegetarian after certain experiences like visiting a slaughterhouse. Here, too, I'm "overwhelmed" but not by an explicit argument, but by my own experiences. (Of course, reading or hearing an argument is an experience, too, but what I have in mind is that that slaughterhouse experience is not as "propositional" as reading a philosophical argument.) So I'm wondering whether there might be a third distinguishing axis, roughly, propositional-experiential (or cognitive-conative (emotional)) at work here, too. Conversions can be hard to put into words. But if I change my mind about eating meat after reading Singer, I can put my reasons into words.
Maybe a simpler way to put this: if I change my mind, it makes sense to ask, "Why did you change your mind?" And if I don't have anything to say to justify the change, that looks weird (at least in cases that matter). But if I've been converted, it might not make sense to ask, "Why did you convert?" At any rate, it's going to be a very different kind of story. (And it might well be a story, rather than an argument.) (Note that the question puts the verb in active form, and if conversions involve a significantly passive element, then the question itself is not well-formed.)
So, as I've got it so far, changes of mind are more active, involve fewer moving parts, and are grounded in expressible reasons; whereas, conversions are more passive, involve a great deal of a person's psychic economy (even the whole), and are less amenable to "reason-giving." These are axes, so there's room for fuzzy cases. Does the distinction make sense? Or is my wife right?
And apologies to my wife. At the same time, her skepticism has driven me to thinker harder about all of this. I probably won't be able to get her to change her mind, but maybe I can convert her...