Thursday, July 16, 2009

Conversions and Changing Your Mind

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...


  1. I believe along with many of the wise men of the psst that there is always the option or possibility of every man to wake up to to the hidden ground of reality within which all men are in constant contact with. But in actual reality this will never take place because mass man has been so indoctrinated into a very limited and abstract way of experiencing reality and this negates any possibility of man having faith in a higher type of consciousness.

    It is Plato's cave allegory in real time.

  2. Jack: "waking up" is a very nice example here. But think about literal "waking up" (in the morning). I'm not sure what it means to wake myself up in the morning. We talk about drinking coffee to "wake up," because we're still "half-asleep." However, I can't drink coffee until I'm awake. I suppose lucid dreamers might say that they are able to wake themselves up, but for my part, I don't wake myself up; my eyes open (or, the light in my mind comes back on...).

    Now I can do things like going to bed at a decent time, which makes it easier to wake up at some particular time the next day. But waking up happens to me; it's not something I do as an agent (i.e. intentionally). If waking up in the metaphorical sense carries some of this non-agent-based connotation with it, then "waking up to the truth" will be similar to descriptions of conversions.

    (At the same time, the existentialist--or my wife for that matter--might still insist that in metaphorical wakings-up, you have to decide to see the truth as the truth, or accept it as such, or whatnot. So, the distinction between conversion and change of mind, at least in some cases, will not be a hard distinction between distinct events, but differing aspects under which we might see the same event, each of which allows us to say something significant about what's happened...)

  3. Matthew,

    Whenever I speak of waking up it is always in the context of being which is always hidden from view and yet is that by which all views are possible. At the highest level of all the major disciplines such as Philosophy, Religion and Zen we are always at the level of being. Being or Spirit is as the song says,"The Wind Beneath Our Wings."

    We are all so much like Helen Keller in her blindness, deafness and muteness as we share her difficulty in understanding accurately the deeper meaning of our wisest teachers thoughts.

    Being is the very ground of life and to come into a fully conscious intimate contact with being is mans ultimate goal.

  4. Fine Jack. My point was just that the language of waking up has various sorts of use (which are related).

    Let's bring this all back to my question (and keep the cart on the rails). Supposing I do have an "awakening" of this sort--I come to see reality under, what to me is, an entirely new aspect. And I see that this is the correct (or deepest or truest, etc.) aspect under which to understand, say, "the nature of reality."

    A question I'm interested in here concerns the way we describe what's happened to me. Have I been converted or have I changed my mind? (Or can we, with equal accuracy, describe the case with either phrase?)

    You could say (and my wife would say) that I've changed my mind about the true nature of reality. But if this new way of seeing things is new to me, then I haven't changed my mind about it. (Up to now, I was not "of a mind" about the correctness of this perspective because I'd never "occupied" it.) You could say I've changed my mind about my prior perspective: that I no longer agree with some past conception of reality I had.

    But it seems to me that sometimes experiences (or ways of seeing) force themselves onto us in a way such that the work of deciding seem to be done for us. In such cases, I want to say that we don't decide to embrace the new perspective--it, as it were, pulls us in. And that is something more like a conversion than an instance of our changing our own minds.

    Certainly, there can be other cases where two perspectives seem to me to have roughly equal merit, and then deciding might play a more obvious role. If I was previously committed to one of the perspectives, encounter the other--but am not completely overwhelmed by it, but do see its merits--then I might be faced with a choice about whether to change my mind or not...

  5. Hi Matthew,

    I would first like to say something to you off topic in this comment before I attempt to get my cart back on the rails in my next comment. By the way I totally agree with your above statement which made me smile but I think that it may take further restating before it finally sinks into my habitual mind,so please don't be shy.

    What I want to say is that I admire your clarity of thought and even more then that, I am most impressed by your spirit of inquiry and I pray that you never let it die.

  6. I understand the core difference between changes of mind and conversions to be mainly related or motivated by the different underlying unconscious forces or powers by which man acts without his always being fully conscious of their workings. It is in the domain of the intellect, heart and will where I see the the main divide to exist. Intellect is forever imprisoned within an abstract subject, object dualism which it can never escape. The heart however is freer to act then the intellect and it is indeed much closer to the very core of mans being.The problem is that the intellect is more then capable of leading the heart and thus the will into untruth and that is always the greatest danger for man. I agree with you that conversions are more holistic but only when the heart is most intimately working and that implies authentic living love.

  7. I tend to distrust conversions because they are so easily to come by,for instance when the emotions come into play and the conditions are right for them to rise up.

    I think the most authentic conversions are most likely to take place when a man has run out of all of his options and he is more or less forced to face the cold hard facts of reality.I would not doubt at all that death bed conversions are the most intense of all.

  8. I've started reading the chapters on conversion in W. James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, and what he says agrees very much with your thoughts above, Jack.

    I have some reservations about your phrase, "when the emotions come into play," insofar as it might seem that emotions are always "in play" in our moral (and spiritual) lives. But there surely is a question about whether the emotions are "fitting" or not--whether they are appropriate to the situation. It's certainly going to be hard to tell from one's own perspective (as one is being "overwhelmed" by a particular experience or way of looking at things), since conversions seem to be attended by a feeling (or sense) of certainty (or, as it were, conviction). The difficulty is that this sense of certainty has no "precedent" in one's perspective up to that point. (I.e. there's nothing against which to "check" one's conversion in one's own life, which is why we surely find a "common language" of conversion--esp. of the religious sort. We "check" our experience against the fact that others have had something similar happen to them, too. But there's a lot of trust that takes place here: both in what others have experienced and said, and that one's own experiences are, as you might say, "authentic".)

    (Perhaps this is the truth in the line my wife holds to--that you do "make up/change your mind" to accept the legitimacy of this new perspective, or not to question the legitimacy of the experience/feelings...)