Should Belief Aim at Truth?

13 May 2017

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.


Comments (7)

Ashley's picture


Sunday, May 14, 2017 -- 10:50 AM

Do we want the president to

Do we want the president to aim their beliefs at the truth? The current and former president's are examples of both extremes.

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, November 9, 2019 -- 4:36 PM

In short, don't parrot

In short, don't parrot leftist dixiecrats who're struggling to control your free speach and how you're allowed to use the internet. They use faux-altruism and lies.

Why even watch a democrat debate? Why not just read their playbook and save yourself the time?(dem playbook = list of common fallacies)

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, November 9, 2019 -- 6:13 PM

The only thing you can

The only thing you can actually have is a false belief. Since there is a clear separation between us and reality(truth exists independently of us and our belief of it) any belief can never perfectly fit reality. As soon as you believed something, you believed a lie. You can't change reality with your mind.

Try this on for size. Turn the sky pink. You actually can do this if you entertain a touch of yoga and try. Might take a hobbyist yogi ten minutes. Lay on your back and look-up at the sky. Entertain in your mind that you have control of your own little world. Concentrate on seeing the sky at its nearest shade of pink(purple spectrum of pink). After a short time it will be pink.

I actually got stuck like that for ~ten seconds once. Everything was pink.

Disclaimer. It's much less a yoga feat as much as biochemistry. Your retina gets desensitized to blue and instead sends signals as pink as it is the reverse of blue.

Proof by reversal of terms - If you sit in the sun with your eyes closed for 10 minutes, everything will be blue-ish when you open them.

It's just your retina getting tired.

The point is, no matter how convincing your belief, it's an independent psychosis. You use it as a model of actual reality. You use it for navigational purposes. It's both incorporeal and incomplete.

One thing that's verifiably immoral: forcing others to navigate by your own model, be it a collectivist model or otherwise.

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, November 9, 2019 -- 8:22 PM

Q) should beliefs aim at

Q) should beliefs aim at truth when there's no chance of it?

A) Sure, why not.

psychosis is often therapeutic and it's your only choice anyway.

Should people point their completely subjective beliefs at others tho? Only if they want to be objectively shot for their tyranny.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, November 12, 2019 -- 12:11 PM

I have commented on this

I have commented on this notion before. Your remark concerning whatever makes us feel good as being a belief worth holding to is most germane to my way of thinking, to wit: beliefs are as different from truth as night is from day. Some thing, based on belief, may (or may not) be true, whereas, truth stands alone and into itself. For example: the fact that most living things require oxygen and water is true unto itself, without need for any sort of belief saying it is fact. Dewey said beliefs were shady. He never said that the fact that day and night are different suffered from that discrepancy---at least not to my recollection of his writings. Of course, I have not read them all... I do not know what is gained from 'positive illusion' if , in the end, it is still illusion?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 -- 9:12 PM

A belief is an internal state

A belief is an internal state that motivates an action in conjunction with a desire that will satisfy the desire if the belief is true.

Philosophy is non partisan. It is the discussion of the common grounds of grounds themselves.
But... since this discussion went partisan... let's use it.

Use case one - President Obama believed he could save lives by drawing a line at the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
If only he had stuck to this belief it would have indeed saved many lives and costly migrations. Retrospect is brutal.

Use case two - President Trump believes that he can execute the law by holding himself above it, and in so doing, breaking it.
The silver cord is snapped, not to mention the golden rule.
Logic is even more brutal.

So what does this have to do with Laura's post? Should we aim at truth in our beliefs.

Use case one: Obama had a belief but let fear, another internal state that motivates action, get the best of him. Barack should have aimed at truth.

Use case two: Some people like to say Trump only believes in himself. The truth is ... he doesn't know what he desires, at least not consistently. Without consistent desire… there is no satisfaction in belief. Donald’s alternative fact is, in fact fleeting desire.

So… should belief aim at truth. Yes. As long as there is consistent desire. Where actions affect external states these desires should be common to all, or at least many.

Is there such thing as truth. Retrospectively there is. Presently and prospectively there is certainly logical truth. Let’s not deny truth when for the most part the problem is a lack of desire to do anything about it.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, November 14, 2019 -- 11:25 AM

Eloquently put, Mr. Smith.

Eloquently put, Mr. Smith. Thank you.