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 (14)

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.

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, November 30, 2019 -- 12:04 PM

Should beliefs not aim at

Truth exists independently of us and our belief of it. That's how we know truth is real. Should beliefs not aim at truth just because they can never actually hit it? It's not whether or not they should or shouldn't. It's whether or not you should have the power to aim for others without having to suffer the consequences (or possibility) of being aimed at, yourself.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, November 24, 2019 -- 11:07 AM

As Ken Wilber was wont to say

As Ken Wilber was wont to say:: 'and just so...'

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, November 30, 2019 -- 12:10 PM

Partisan, bipartisan, non

Partisan, bipartisan, non-partisan, or anti-partisan. I choose the last as i know what "false dichotomy" is intended to mean, as well as, the actual facts of the matter.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, December 1, 2019 -- 10:43 AM

Have begun reading Gilbert

Have begun reading Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976). From a paper published in 1967. he wrote: "...We started off with the apparent paradox that though the teacher in teaching is doing something to (his) pupil, yet the pupil has learned virtually nothing unless (he) becomes able and ready to do things at (his) own motion other than what the teacher exported to (him)..." (The parentheticals are merely illustration. In today's lexicon, for reasons of propriety and/or social change, the terms his, he and him might be emended to her and she.)
Anyway, Ryle's assessment reminded me of my own notion, previously shared on the PT blog: We know what we are taught. We are what we have learned. Ryle's words are more elaborative, but mine, I think, capture an essence of the thought. We have all had teachers, some better than others. If any of them did their jobs, we somehow learned the 'how' of things other than those 'exported' to us. The best ones, though, did not try to tell us what to believe. I try to learn something from everything and hope to learn more from the late Mr. Ryle.

RepoMan05's picture


Monday, December 2, 2019 -- 7:09 PM

I dont think its the

I dont think its the ownership of the lesson thats important to the success of the teacher to teach the pupil (as i gleaned from your depiction) but rather with whether or not the student thinks the teacher is full of sht.

I think thats why i got all A's and full collegiate credit for my biotechnology classes in high school while consistently pulling low marks in english. I just couldnt put "argumentum ad populum" and "colectivist constructed psychosis" into words all on my own yet. Schools dont teach words like that. It undermines their english teacher's authoritarianism that they need to make it look like they're not completely full of subjective sht.

It takes a moron to think english teachers aren't chalk full of subjective sht. With word processors and spell checkers already well on the way, who could be bothered to memorise archaic nonsense for the next spelling b except a fool with no foresight?

And who would respect you after asking them to commit verifiably false nonsense to their deepest memory?

"Dan is the man in the van." This verse really pissed off a lot of people. You cant imagine how true it is, but who would believe it?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, March 7, 2020 -- 11:02 AM

I currently have my much

I currently have my much-edited-and-revised essay on knowledge, opinion and belief under review by a respected philosophy publication. Should it become a published work, I will advise PT and its audiences.---just in case they are still interested in this topic. The entire subject has always been fascinating to me, which is why I finally wrote something about it. If it gets a foot in that tightly-regulated door, I shall be elated and surprised. Wish me luck, fellow philosophiles. (although I have recently completed something about that too., entitled: ON LUCK;CHANCE;ABSURDITY AND CARL JUNG) More grist for the mill; more opportunity to either succeed---or fail.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, May 29, 2021 -- 2:46 PM

This is old grist, by now.

This is old grist, by now. Beliefs are, more-or-less, based on ideology, convenience, preference and so on. None of those bases are reliant on truth as their foundation. In fact, an opposing account is more likely. Things which are true, in themselves, stand without explanations or proofs. They need no approval, no artificial executions. Authentic truth needs no additional support. The notion of belief aiming at truth misses the point, or better, ignores it altogether. Belief and truth are mutually exclusive most of the time. Consider this: if belief and truth were synonymous, there would be no need for any distinction between them. All we would need would be universal agreement on some descriptor of 'how things really are'. Clearly, it is way too late for that.
Beliefs could never have AIMED at truth. That was never the point in having them in the earliest place. Beliefs are regional, provincial, cultural, theological, racial, and a whole lot more. Few are global. And that further isolates the reality. Things that are true are always true. Those that are not are always beliefs. Tanstaffl.(for the un-initiated: no free lunch)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, February 21, 2022 -- 7:07 AM

I am grateful for Davidson.

I am grateful for Davidson. When he classed certain attitudes as propositional, he explicated the maleability of belief. Propositions are, by their nature, conditional. This means they are not truth to anyone who confronts them; only those who subscribe to and accept their conditions. This is only complicated for those who do not see or accept the distinction, in other words, folks whose belief is unshakable, facts and proofs to the contrary, notwithstanding. See, at such times, people don't want to think more clearly: clear thinking would interfere with their belief. Can't have that.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, March 10, 2022 -- 3:13 PM

Beliefs are not supposed to

Beliefs are not supposed to aim at truth. They are intended to convince us that they ARE truth, whether we think so or not. This is not complicated. It is predicated on our reluctance to question.
The sheep mentality. Those who push belief rely on their skill to sell credibility. The more successful they are, the greater the number of adherents they can entice and convince. This is an ancient scam.
It is not, then, a matter of belief-aiming-at-truth, but one of belief selling itself as such. Hope this clears the matter up.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2024 -- 3:00 PM

When delving into research

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