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 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. 

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

Researched By

Spencer Giel

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