Should Beliefs Aim at Truth?

Sunday, November 10, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, May 14, 2017

What is it

If beliefs can be described as having a goal or purpose, then surely that is something like aiming at the truth. Yet we all hold many false beliefs too. Do these false beliefs fail to meet their goal? Or are there some things we believe simply because they make us feel good? Could the goal of beliefs sometimes be to provide comfort? Or must all beliefs—unlike, say, desires and wishes—be based on some kind of justification or evidence? Josh and Ken truly believe their guest is Ray Briggs from Stanford University.

Listening Notes

Do the things we believe need to be true? Or can beliefs still be valuable if they make us happier, more successful, or offer some other boon? Stanford Professor of Comparative Literature Josh Landy stands in for John on this episode of Philosophy Talk, in which Josh and Ken tackle these questions. Josh suggests that information that depresses us might not be worth knowing. On the other hand, Ken claims that he would rather know the truth and be depressed than be deluded. Is some degree of self-deception acceptable, if it makes our lives better? Might deception even be necessary for happiness -- what with the many depressing truths of the world?

Josh and Ken are joined by R.A. Briggs, professor of philosophy at Stanford University. Ken poses the question: assuming that false beliefs can help us achieve our goals, is there anything wrong with holding them?  Josh pushes the question further, giving examples of self-deceptions that are ostensibly harmless. R.A. agrees that these types of beliefs can be instrumental for various aims, but they miss the point of belief itself.  The aim of belief is truth -- even if that aim conflicts with other aims. R.A. admits that the aim of belief is likely not the aim of life, but provides reasons for seeing truth as the aim of belief.

Our hosts welcome callers and their questions to the show. One caller asks about the difference between scientific facts and other forms of truth, like ethical or poetic truths. The conversation moves on to discussing how the psychological distinctions between "System One" and "System Two" thinking can affect our search for truth and account for our aversion to falsehoods. Ken contends that, rather than strive toward truth, most people arrange their beliefs so that they may justify their own actions. The conversation ends in an effort to come up with practical ways to make ourselves and others successfully seek the truth more often.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:49): Liza Veale speaks with cognitive linguist George Lakoff about the way that beliefs form in the brain from birth to adulthood.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:05): Ian Shoales speaks about the way in which beliefs have recently become replaced with belief systems and claims that dancing to a hippie band indeed makes you a hippie. 

Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 1, 2019 -- 11:46 AM

I read something by John

I read something by John Dewey: Beliefs are personal affairs. Personal affairs are adventures. Adventures are, if you please, SHADY. (emphasis, added). He also used the word, catholic (with a small 'c'), as an adjective. I was not familiar with that sort of usage for that word. Well, you learn something new everyday. Sometimes, two new things...if you are paying attention. Anyway, as far as beliefs are concerned: they might be true. But it ain't necessarily so...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 -- 12:38 PM

If we think about the

If we think about the 'Deweyism' concerning beliefs, we, it seems to me, have to consider beliefs to be less interested in truth, and more interested in interests. Most any belief system one might think of illustrates this, whether it is based on religious or non-religious principles. If I believe in UFOs or moons made of green cheese, I don't have any objective proof to demonstrate the 'truth' that such belief(s) claim to represent. I don't even have to assert their truth if all I want to do is garner a following, be that financially advantageous or no. And so, the question: Should beliefs aim at truth?, is misplaced, at best. Whether or not a set/system of beliefs is about getting at truth misses the point of having that system in the first place. There are all sorts of individuals and groups who would recruit followers to share and support certain beliefs. If these say anything at all about the truth of their enterprises, it is an afterthought, especially where the exchange of financial resources is a primary goal. Show me the money. Or the prestige. Or the limelight glow of public acclaim.

A few days ago, I said I would have something to share regarding pride, hubris and vanity. This seems as good and pertinent a place as any other to offer the following:


Your servant, Neuman.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, November 9, 2019 -- 10:17 AM

I have already mouthed-off on

I have already mouthed-off on the truth issue and how it relates (or fail to relate) to belief(s). So, I'll not bore anyone with further harangue on the topic. Rather, I'll try to amuse with a little poem, written recently after thinking long and hard about people people whom I have met and people generally. You see, there are those who take pleasure in irking us---it is a dark place in the psyche of many, although they might heartily deny it as anything more than 'getting even' for all the injustice they have faced and inequities they have experienced. So, here's the verse---in its' poignant brevity:

Where ever you go; whatever you do,
There are dubious idiots who aggravate you.

It follows, of course; as the cart with the horse,
An oblivious few are disgruntled with you

Believe what you wish. We are just "trying to get used to it" (Bob Dylan, from an earlier millennium). Truth is a bit like the difference between the real world and the way people want it to be...a gross simplification, that, but useful in examining truth vs. everything else. Searle refers to direction of fit in some of his writings: 'mind-to-world'; 'world-to-mind' and all of that. Which is, largely, his way of saying there is only one way things really are---everything else, whether deemed true, or merely desirable, is just the ways we would like things to be.. (OK. I lied about further harangue. So shame on me then. As Bill said, some years ago, everybody lies. And, we go on living, little the worse for wear...because we are USED TO IT...)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, November 14, 2019 -- 7:41 AM

I responded to the Blog post

I responded to the Blog post which went political as did this podcast maybe if much more delicately and with a point toward truth. My post started with a John Perry-ism which I have adopted wholeheartedly wrt belief. I'm cross posting here if only because I get confused on the Blog/Podcast postings on PT. It is a wonderful confusion but here it is...

I don't mean to threadjack, and I certainly don't mean to get political - NTTAWWT

Here is my response there and to this podcast which I loved.

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.


R.A. Briggs, Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University

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