“The Conversion on the Way to Damascus” Caravaggio, 1601, Oil on Canvas


What we believe influences our taste, our most consequential choices, our self-esteem and sense of our own weight in the world.

When we are viewed from outside and classified, what’s typically picked out are the inherited features (“nature”) and the conditioning (“nurture”). The parts actually played by nature and nurture are not easy to calibrate – especially since their shaping power mostly passes beneath conscious awareness.

There is, however, one shaping factor that does enter consciousness relatively undisguised: our beliefs about our nature and nurture.

For a belief change to deserve the name “conversion,” it must reach toward the fundaments – the beliefs that underlie and support our surface opinions. That being so, conversions must be major events in the drama of who we are.

How does a conversion happen?

Is it a result of second-order conditioning, a new layer of stimulus-response that blankets the primary layer? If we have volunteered for a conditioning process (so that we can stop smoking or stop procrastinating), then our very beliefs are what made the therapeutic process available to us. Our habits have been changed but not basic views.

If on the other hand we’ve been coerced (as in brainwashing), that’s not a conversion. In such a case, we’ve been terrorized, shamed or tortured to the point where we’ve “confessed” to what we don’t actually believe. (If we believed our confession, all those coercive preliminaries would’ve been superfluous.) Of course, once we have said XYZ under duress, and been made to perform some action that demonstrates fake sincerity about XYZ, a reinforcing mechanism takes over the human psyche. We will try to make future verbal and physical performances line up consistently with XYZ. Achieving this miserable kind of consistency, we can come to think we are what we have heard ourselves say and seen ourselves do.

A real conversion is not like that. In it, we come on a fundamental level to think differently from how we thought before. That changes our idea of who we are – and used to be – and will be. Why? Because – as we now think (given a higher vantage point, a better connector for the dots, a refuting instance) – we were mistaken before and can see truer now.

But how could we ever allow such a deep, self-wrought transformation to happen? It must be terribly costly. Our sense of who we are will be threatened. Our friends and supporters may pull away. So many fine threads of being are still tied up with our now-rejected beliefs that, when these fine threads too get rewoven, we may wonder whether our former friends weren’t right after all. It may cross our minds that we’ve now become our own worst enemies.

It is not a small thing to change a fundamental belief.

I have been a fervent Fidelista, a conservative, an atheist, a theist, a determinist, a believer in free will, a gnostic, a Jew, a traditional woman, a feminist (though not a party-liner).

It’s been “conversion” after “conversion,” each one carrying the pains and costs itemized above. I regret none of it. It was a search for truth – the Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth of life. Whether or not we have some innate ability to recognize truth (or at least to self-correct when we become aware of false notes), we certainly aren’t born knowing it. Still, as Aristotle said, it is truth that:

All [men and women] by nature desire to know.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to “Conversions”

  1. M&JD says:

    Ah, another excellent topic for a long brunch. And thank you, Aristotle, for pointing out that it may be in all of our innate programming (nature) to want to know Truth. So might all the rest be commentary? Nurture’s conditioning, and then conversions because more explanation (mind) and/or connection (heart) works better for the individual? And thank you, Abigail, for pointing out that self-correcting, when aware of false notes, is a healthy part of the process. To be continued……

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks as always, Judy.

      You are absorbing this like it’s second nature. No doubt what’s kicking in is your “gift for meaningful experience.”

  2. Mary says:

    This is a very complex post. You neatly distinguish conditioning and coercion from conversion, and that is important, for each can wear disguises that need to be seen through lest we mistake either for conversion.

    The harder part to understand, and this is because it involves beliefs and values that can live deeper down than we can ever reach, is what lies behind, causes, a conversion.

    When some of what is deep down is reached and rejected (is it always this, might it not be modified, recast?), it is, to my mind, worth the world to know just how that came about.

    Your 3 examples–a refuting instance, a better connector for the dots, or a higher vantage point–are sketchy. A refuting instance seems not enough unless it were cataclysmic. A higher vantage point could be a point from which one can see more because of having more information or experience or a wider conceptual frame. If it means anything more, it is problematic because but the very notion of “higher” is value laden, and a conversion in fundamental beliefs can convert what had been higher to something lower. The “better way of connecting the dots” is a wonderful way of putting it, but leaves open how one comes to this better way.

    Less convinced than you that the real is rational, and comfortable– perhaps too much –with the idea that the most true and real and worthy of respect or awe is intimated at most, to be heard whispering offstage, I suspect that a conversion would be the result of something like a song not sung, but briefly heard, or a clap of thunder or what toppled Paul from his horse.

    Your openness to conversions is part of the wonder of you. I fear that the reader of the post will not get that, but will briefly hear the voices murmuring offstage or the song not sung and so get an intimation of you.

    The wonder of you for me is that you move me to put on virtual paper what I rarely say or rarely acknowledge. Thanks for that and for these posts, and the super images that accompany them.

    • Abigail says:

      Mary — many thanks. This is such a thoughtful and — I dare say — deep comment. By way of response, I’ll just touch on a few of your notes. I agree with all your caveats in regard to my three examples of how fundamental beliefs are changed. The refuting instance can’t be run-of-the-mill; it must be “cataclysmic.” The higher or better vantage point I meant would bring in more information or allow a wider conceptual frame. No judgments of moral value need be involved. But if they are involved, I agree that a change at the stratum of fundamental belief can degrade as well as elevate. Not every such change is a good change. And the question of how one gets to better connect the dots is a fascinating but open question.

      How do such changes come about? It seems that this question arises equally in philosophy of science. Any new theory that gets adopted comes trailing its own cloud of anomalies. What makes one additional anomaly “cataclysmic”? What makes it the one that can’t be borne, the refuting instance?

      Perhaps we would see the question better if we shelved trailing attachments to Cartesian certainty or the rationalist’s logos of the cosmos — the complete and coherent account of reality. These ideals haunt us all to some degree and may lead us to give unfair ratings to such human knowledge as we can acquire. Your very Comment is nuanced enough to bear the earmarks of a good deal of knowing.

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