Should Beliefs Aim at Truth?
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? Our host philosophers truly believe their guest is Ray Briggs from Stanford University.

Listening Notes

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

Joshua and Ken are joined by R.A. Briggs, professor of philosophy at Stanford University. Ken poses the question: assuming that false beliefs can truly be helpful in achieving our goals, is there anything wrong with holding them?  Joshua pushes it further, giving examples of useful 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 itself is truth -- even if that aim conflicts with others. R.A. admits that the aim of belief is likely not the aim of life, but provides reasons for agreeing on truth as the point of belief.

Our hosts welcome callers and their questions on 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 our aversion to falsehoods. Ken contends that rather than striving for the truth, most people simply arrange their beliefs around self-justification. 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. 

Get Philosophy Talk


Sunday at 11am (pacific) on KALW 91.7 FM Local Public Radio, San Francisco


Individual downloads via CDBaby and iTunes. Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via iAamplify


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

Researched By

Spencer Giel

Upcoming Shows

21 January 2018

Fractured Identities

Despite tremendous strides made towards civil and political rights in the United States, discrimination and exclusion based on race, class, gender,...

28 January 2018

Frantz Fanon and the Violence of Colonialism

Frantz Fanon is a thinker who has inspired radical liberation movements in places ranging from Palestine to South Africa to the United States. Most...

04 February 2018

Why Propaganda Matters

Governments and other political institutions employ propaganda to sway public opinion, instill ideas, and exert a degree of control over people....