Our brains evolved on the African savannah, but are now expected to deal with complex statistical information and other intricate concepts every day.
Should your beliefs aim at the truth? Or should you just believe whatever makes your life better, whether it’s true or not?
These are the questions we’re thinking about in this week’s show.
You might think that the answer is obviously that our beliefs should always aim at the truth. But consider this—sometimes it’s actually to your advantage to have some false beliefs.
Psychologists study a phenomenon called “positive Illusion,” happy beliefs that can have powerful effects, despite not being true. For example, imagine you’re competing in a race and you have a false picture of your own abilities. You consider yourself the fastest runner, though that is not true. Research shows that having this positive illusion can actually lead you to do better in the race than you would have done had you had a more realistic assessment of your own abilities. So here is an example where a false belief leads to better outcomes, given a set of goals, than a true belief would.
Does this example by itself prove anything one way or another about whether our beliefs ought to aim at the truth? No, because the reason why you perform better believing a positive illusion may have more to do with feeling confident and avoiding anxiety than holding a false belief. It’s not a stretch to see how feeling confident could have benefits for performance, even if the confidence is ultimately unwarranted. If you lack confidence, you might be anxious and distracted, and that could easily interfere with your performance. Whereas if you feel confident, you’ll be more focused and less likely to self-sabotage.
Let’s consider another example, then. Would you be happy believing that all your friends adore you? What if the reality was that most of your friends merely tolerated you, and only hung out with you from a mixture of pity, charity, and a misguided sense of loyalty? Would you really want to know that? Or would you rather keep believing the happy illusion?
On the one hand, acknowledging the truth in such a case could lead to depression. On the other hand, there's something about the truth that makes it intrinsicly appealing, even when utterly depressing.
Granted, we believe for all sorts of reasons. We believe to make our lives easier, to motivate our projects, to reinforce our values, to develop connections. Is believing the truth and nothing but the truth the best way to achieve all those goals?
Whatever the limited instrumental value of certain types of self-deception, we cannot deny the enormous value believing the truth brings. We need true beliefs to achieve our most basic goals in life. If there’s something I desire, I am better off knowing realistically how to satisfy my desires rather than having an unrealistic picture that only leads me astray.
If your beliefs don't aim at the truth, then you're going to be frustrated a lot. Of course, there may be some lucky accidents—positive outcomes that result from false beliefs. But, in general, believing falsehoods isn’t a reliable way to get what you want in life. You need a realistic picture of what you need to do—what actions you need to take—to get what you want. Your beliefs need to track the truth. Otherwise it’s just a shot in the dark; and occasionally you might get lucky.
That’s not to say that realism and truth are always a good thing. It would be hard to get out of bed in the morning sometimes if we only believed true things. It would be too depressing. Of course, we don’t have to dwell on all the unpleasant truths in life. There are plenty of happy truths to consider too.
Believing the truth, it seems, is a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes there are benefits to believing falsehoods, which is not to say that we ought to aim for false beliefs. That would just lead to frustrated desires. But too great a focus on some truths could lead to depression.
So, where does that leave us? What is the answer to the question with which we started—should our beliefs aim at the truth?
A better question might be whether our beliefs could ever aim at anything else? Consider how ridiculous it would be to say, “I believe it, but it’s not true.” If you think something is not true, then it makes no sense to say that you believe it. You would be contradicting yourself. If you think it's not true, then you don't believe it.
Truth is bound up in the very nature of belief—to believe is to take something to be true.
To a philosopher, that may seem like an obvious, inescapable truth about beliefs. Poets, on the other hand, have much greater tolerance for contradictory beliefs. Interestingly, our guest this week—Ray Briggs—is both a philosopher and a poet. It will be curious to hear what her position on these questions are.
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 and you can make up your own mind about whether our beliefs should always—or only sometimes—aim at the truth.
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor'd youth,
Unskilful in the world's false forgeries.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although I know my years be past the best,
I smiling credit her false-speaking tongue,
Outfacing faults in love with love's ill rest.
But wherefore says my love that she is young?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O love's best habit is a flattering tongue,
And age, in love, loves not to have years told.
Therefore I'll lie with love, and love with me,
Since that our faults in love thus smother'd be.