Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

The Obvious Intrinsic and Instrumental Values of Truth

It is prejudicial and fallacious to assume that the world is an inherently just place and that all the traits we idealize as virtues will always lead to the best possible outcomes. So if we are to be honest and realistic in assessing those traits which are usually so good that they are worth esteeming as virtues, we must make difficult assessments of the nature, extent, and limits of their worth. Specifically, in this post, I want to apply rigorous honesty to the question of the relative value of truthfulness and truth themselves.

It should go without saying that truth is, in general, indispensably good in many crucial areas of life. Truthfulness is integral to effective and ideal scientific and philosophical activity. It is an intrinsic and absolute good in these endeavors taken on their own terms. And sober, or sometimes even ruthless, honesty with oneself is both shrewd and vital if one wants to figure out the most necessary and the most efficient means to accomplishing most of one’s ends in life. Spheres of action from economics to politics to medicine to morality are best determined by truthful thinking.

I could go on and on praising the many wondrous benefits of truth and truthfulness. So, let’s stipulate that truth is usually better than falsehood for humans and that truthfulness is one of the most admirable, desirable, and useful virtues a human can have. Let’s also stipulate that when distinctly faith-based false beliefs which are not even metaphorically true infect practical spheres (like medicine, economics, politics, science, and morality) that this is a dangerous thing. In this post, I mean to deny any of this or in any way to disparage truth. But instead I want to analyze exactly how valuable we think it is and why we might value it so highly, and what all of this might say about what our value priorities really are if we value truth in some ways rather than in others. In particular I want to explore the problems utilitarianism has in doing justice to the worth of truth and briefly in the end indicate why a perfectionist account of value, such as my own, can endorse the value of truth with less qualifications than utilitarianism can while still making the necessary qualifications of truth’s value that strict deontology cannot.

The Prima Facie Paradox For Anti-Faith Utilitarian Atheists

I think many atheists, if asked about how they reason about what is most valuable and what is most moral, will say that whatever conduces to the greatest human happiness is what is morally best and most valuable. By happiness, I think most people mean some combination of great quantities and strong qualities of pleasure and/or something like a state of enduring satisfaction and contentment with one’s overall life.

Additionally many atheists—especially those who are most vehemently opposed to either faith-based religion, or even to religion itself—are committed to the value of truth as an intrinsic good which overrides other goods. When confronted with evidence that religions make at least certain people happier or contribute to longer living on average, such atheists often consider this irrelevant to the value of religions. If a religion is false, it should be rejected—regardless of whatever ancillary benefits it might have for particular individuals, or even for people in general.

Prima facie, it looks like there might be some cognitive dissonance in the mind of the anti-faith utilitarian atheist who both claims that moral goodness is determined by what leads to the greatest happiness while rejecting that religions should be accepted as good in the cases of people who find their happiness increases from participating in them. There are several strategies this kind of atheist might employ to resolve the apparent contradiction.

The Intrinsic Pleasures of Truth

1. The anti-faith utilitarian atheist can argue that regardless of how happy some religious people report being, if only they were dispelled of religious delusions this would necessarily make them happier, as having the truth is intrinsically more pleasing for all people than not having the truth.

Now, for some people, seeing the truth more clearly increases their happiness. It did for me. I think I am even happier knowing some harsh truths than I would be were I deceived about them. At least when I imagine ignorant bliss on the one hand and imagine being deflated by harsh truths, on the other, I viscerally prefer the prospect of being deflated than deluded. In some way, the qualitative satisfaction of having the truth strikes me as more desirable—at least in my imagination—than great quantities or strongly qualitative pleasures that depend on deceptions.

The experience of learning and understanding intricate truths about the world is one of the most satisfying kinds I have. Even sometimes making troubling discoveries has a tinge of excitement, just from the accompanying rush at newfound rational clarity. Plus, emotionally I am naturally a relatively upbeat person who can boost my mood over the good parts of the truth and not let the bad parts of the truth determine my feelings. I am generally good at finding the true good parts of situations and feeling in accord with them and resigning myself to the bad parts of things and treating them as not worth getting upset about.

But I have talked to many people who are not like me—people who admit to viscerally feeling a preference for great quantities or stronger qualities of pleasure to truth, and even at the expense of truth. And there seem to be many people who are explicit in claiming that they find the prospect of atheistic truths unbearable. Perhaps were these people to become atheists they would find their outlook and their feelings would actually change, and they would embrace some atheistic conception of the world as being pleasing and encouraging and ennobling after all (as I do, and as I knew was possible even when I was a Christian). But at least some people might not. And some atheists even report sadness over not believing in the hopeful delusions of the major world faiths, regardless of whether other atheists (like I) wish rather fervently that they wouldn’t.

So, if the ultimate good is really human happiness, the anti-faith utilitarian atheist needs to concede that remaining in faith-based religions is both morally and pragmatically the best course of action for those people who would actually be happier, on net, in their lives if they kept their delusions—at least for as long as those delusions did not interfere with medicine, politics, economics, morality, in net harmful ways. But is there a better strategy for arguing for truthfulness on utilitarian grounds? Let’s see if the next strategy fares any better.

Can Delusions Be Contained?

2. The anti-faith utilitarian can argue that since religions involve believing falsehoods about the world, they inevitably have damaging effects on people’s abilities to successfully interact with the world and, therefore, to successfully figure out how to live happily in the world. Therefore, on net, the truth is always a surer route to happiness and, therefore, always more desirable.

While I think it is generally the case that false beliefs lead on the whole to deleterious effects on overall happiness, it is unclear that particular people may not live more happily with certain well-contained or strategically employed delusions than they would with the truth. Consider a particular person who has masterfully cultivated a shrewd business sense that earns her a lot of money, a meticulous scientific rigor which leads to impressive success in the laboratory, and a gifted knack for interpersonal relationships that makes her an exquisite friend, family member, citizen, colleague, and acquaintance. We might imagine a genius entrepreneurial scientist politician whose reason functions in every manner of practical life expertly well. And then she also has delusional religious beliefs which are a source of ecstatic delights and calming comforts in her life. For her the benefits are as comparably rich and well-contained as retreats into the falsehoods of literature or movies are for some or as the responsibly controlled, non-addicting mind alterations of drugs are for some others.

It is possible, and quite likely, that many modern people do indeed contain their ludicrously false faith-based beliefs such that they are a net source of pleasure and emotional satisfaction which never significantly undermines in a net negative way any of their successful functioning in all the other areas of life where having truth makes a measurable practical difference in life. We don’t live in a perfect moral world where self-deception is punished with misery. Happy self-deceived people with exquisitely well-compartmentalized lives exist. If happiness is the ultimate good, what moral or practical reason do these well-balanced, shrewdly compartmentalizing modern people have to abandon their happiness-increasing faith-beliefs? Particularly if doing so would mean a loss of total happiness in their particular cases? And especially if doing so would somehow disrupt their overall equilibrium and mess with their abilities to function so well in all the other areas of life?

In order to answer this objection, I think that the anti-faith utilitarian has to move from the level of the individual to the level of society and argue that we have social obligations which overrule personal happiness.

Demanding Truthfulness for the Greater Happiness

3. The anti-faith utilitarian can adopt a rule-utilitarian argument such that even if a particular false belief (or a practice which is integrally based on a false belief) may increase an individual or a group’s happiness in the short term or for the long term but only in their limited case, it would still not be morally justified because where false believing is condoned in general it demonstrably leads to overall greater misery that cancels out the moral worth of short term happiness or the happiness of a subgroup that benefits from false beliefs.

At this point, the anti-faith utilitarian has an empirical case to prove such that if all people were honest and eschewed all comforting delusions whatsoever (and not just those usually associated with religious beliefs) that the truth really would lead to greater psychological benefits for the balance of humanity. To prove this, we need empirical evidence, that not only scrupulous truthfulness in scientific, economic, medical, and other pressing real world pragmatic matters increase likelihood of happy long term benefits (which I think can be supported quite easily), but also that either truthfulness in metaphysical beliefs or rigorous abstention from overreaching metaphysical beliefs, would lead most people to sufficiently greater quantities and qualities of pleasure than well-contained deluded, comforting, or enthusing beliefs about such matters would.

This may be a tall order to be confident of on actual empirical grounds, and not just by hope in the power of truth (or, worse, by faith in truthfulness). The best argument I see for the value of scrupulousness in metaphysical belief is that it is too hard to keep delusions in such matters from seeping in and infecting beliefs in pragmatic areas. Religious metaphysical delusions currently threaten the teaching of good science, for example. Dogmatic, badly reasoned, metaphysics leads to some dangerous value judgments from the dominant world religions.

Also, we can imagine that in a world in which the dominant religions’ current influence was drastically diminished, people might no longer find the same things pleasing or displeasing, or necessary for pleasure or displeasure. Perhaps the prospect of permanent death would be far more easily accepted emotionally in a culture where Christians were not promulgating the idea that anything less than everlasting life is cause for despair. So it is possible that some ways that current religious believers may be inconsolable as atheists might not translate into ways that a more thoroughly atheistic society would be on net more miserable. But there is also a question as to whether some of the extra delusion-induced pleasure gains (and not just pains avoided) can be replicated in rationalist contexts. Possibly truer metaphysics, truer values, wonder at actual realities, enjoyment in art’s less deluded falsehoods, etc. can all adequately compensate for the bonus delights that at least some people currently get from faith-based falsehoods.

So the argument may not necessarily have to be that people with contained metaphysical delusions would certainly not be as happy as people with no delusions, but rather that religiously held metaphysical delusions are too hard to effectively contain and keep from infecting practical value judgments and practical beliefs, and so need to be discarded altogether for the greatest ultimate happiness. This argument assumes that the millions of moderate religious people who currently, to a large extent, are able to check the influence of fundamentalism could never completely stamp it out sufficiently to have faiths be compatible with total net happiness. And the argument might also be that the end of even moderate fantastical religion might also spell the end of any special psychological benefits of fantastical beliefs. And it might open up the way for replacement psychological benefits of truthful perspectives even in the class of people who presently do not get them.

These are interesting empirical questions about (a) just how much truth all people (and not just rationalists) can be happy with, (b) whether truths can make the average person even happier than they are with the delusions that billions presently judge are worth clinging to even at the cost of immense cognitive dissonance, and (c) whether post-faith people might find different truer ideas pleasing enough to adequately replace currently pleasing false ideas.

Is it Intrinsically Worse to Harm with a Lie than with a Truth?

4. The anti-faith utilitarian atheist might take another strategy though. She may argue that even were we to discover empirically that the majority of people actually were on net happier with irreplaceable, well-contained delusions, nonetheless there would inevitably be some people who were harmed by the presence of these delusions, no matter how well contained they were in general from interfering with the overall well functioning, technological society. There inevitably would be some people who found religious falsehoods deleterious to their happiness. There would be those who would feel negative effects from the faith-based religious beliefs and practices of those around them, no matter how generally well-contained they were. There would be some who would find the religious falsehoods they were taught troubling or confusing or disruptive to their individual abilities to function well, even as they hypothetically did not disrupt the general society’s functional workings.

The anti-faith utilitarian may judge that a hypothetical high overall happiness level in society which was achieved through widespread, but generally well-contained delusions, would not be worth the increased misery for those who were nonetheless harmfully affected by internalizing false, faith-based beliefs. In this case the anti-faith utilitarian might judge the value of the greatest total aggregate of social happiness should not be taken as more important than the value of the happiness of those who would suffer because of falsehood. In this way it would be worse to suffer for a lie than to suffer for a truth and it would be worse for fewer people to suffer for lies than for more people to suffer for truths.

But if the anti-faith utilitarian so judges that avoiding harms for a minority that come from falsehoods is more important than either the loss of total happiness or the increase of total pain for the majority, then the anti-faith utilitarian seems to be taking a step towards judging that truthfulness is intrinsically more valuable than falsehood, and not only more valuable than it as a means to happiness. It seems to me, unless I am missing something, we need such a principle in order to judge that a hypothetical 5% of people being harmed and/or less pleased because of falsehood is less conscionable than a hypothetical 25% of people being harmed and/or less pleased by awareness of truth.

I want to consider two more strategies for defending the intrinsic, overriding value of truth. One is deontological and the other is perfectionist. They both abandon utilitarianism, by judging it unable to guarantee the necessarily intrinsic and overriding value to truth. They judge utilitarianism leaves things too open that possible empirical results in our imperfect world would sometimes justify certain falsehoods if they stubbornly proved more conducive to a majority’s effective happiness.

The Deontological Option: Truth as Absolutely Valuable, Irrespective of Consequences 

5. The anti-faith, truth-prioritizing atheist could abandon utilitarianism and argue that truthfulness is simply a matter of absolute dutifulness, which takes no account of considerations of benefits and harms. The case would then be made somehow that we must be truthful simply because that is what is inherently and unavoidably required by morality and/or rationality. Truth would be not only an intrinsic good but a supreme and overriding value in all cases, regardless of the consequences.

This view has some serious drawbacks. It is easy to multiply cases in which lies are invaluable to creating the good in practice. There are also places where absolutism about truthfulness is clearly stifling. A great deal of art, strictly speaking, involves falsehood. Is it bad because of the way it lets us indulge in suspending true believing? What about practical jokes? What about imprecise but pleasing metaphors? What about courtesies of politeness which express respect and concern for each other sometimes precisely by avoiding or denying the truth, either fully or partially? What about “white lies”? What about the heroic or pragmatic lies of spies or statesmen which unambiguously stave off evil consequences and promote the ultimate flourishing of the greatest number of people? What about lies to save human lives on more individual levels?

On and on, we can think of imprecisions, fabrications, and outright lies which could make the world a better place. It seems irrational to discard them all out of an unjustified commitment to truth as an absolute good in all cases. That smacks not of hard-nosed empiricism but of faith—an unjustified belief that runs contra-evidence. This would be, perversely, a faith in truth itself—something that I find unnerving, as a rationalist lover of truth.

Perfectionism Rather Than Utilitarianism or Deontology

6. Instead of abandoning consequentialism altogether, the anti-faith atheist could modify her consequentialism and shift from utilitarianism, which prioitizes happiness as the good worth maximizing, to rather prioritize human perfection as the good worth maximizing instead. My moral philosophy is already of this kind. I am an indirect consequentialist perfectionist. I think the highest good for humans is not happiness—important as that is—but rather human perfection. I think our highest, most intrinsic imperative is to be as functionally excellent and maximally powerful as we can. I think that on this ground being truthful is intrinsically valuable as a way to function both rationally and courageously as a human being in numerous fundamental respects. I think it is intrinsically better for a human being to exercise her rationality as much as possible and to face the truth as courageously as possible precisely because in our exercise of truthful rationality and in our exercise of courage in the face of harsh realities we fulfill our potential excellences of reason and bravery as much as possible and these are constitutive powers of our very being—ones as fundamental as any others. By being rational and truthful we do not merely pump up pleasure in our brains but we realize our most essential being itself.

So, I am willing to recommend, on moral and ontological grounds that in most cases and contexts humans should strive to be truthful even at the possible expense of happiness. I think we live intrinsically better lives when we live this way and that people should be challenged to realign their pleasures to correlate to their true goods of being rational and courageously honest even in those cases where doing so is initially downright painful. I can accept that in some cases, being a braver, more well-rounded, and more powerful human, or one who more greatly empowers others, will require subordinating one’s truthfulness to other pressing virtues in specific contexts. But truthfulness should almost never come second place merely to the desire for feelings of contentedness or pleasure. And, I would go so far as to define happiness as not even being a matter of having pleasure, contentment, and/or satisfaction themselves but rather as having those states of mind in conjunction with the experience of successfully growing in excellent functional power as a human being.

What about you? Do you accept my perfectionist ethics and my commitment to truth on its grounds? Or do you think your commitment to truthfulness can be squared with a commitment to utilitarianism and the prioritization of happiness (conceived of as pleasure, contentment, and satisfaction)? Do you think a utilitarian anti-faith atheist can meet the empirical burden necessary to morally chastise happy believers without contradiction and without implicitly and hypocritically relying on faith when doing so? Or do you think that a deontological commitment to truthfulness as an absolute duty can be justified?

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral


About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • consciousness razor

    Interesting article. Lots to sink my teeth into, but for now I’ll take just a few nibbles.

    It is possible, and quite likely, that many modern people do indeed contain their ludicrously false faith-based beliefs such that they are a net source of pleasure and emotional satisfaction which never significantly undermines in a net negative way any of their successful functioning in all the other areas of life where having truth makes a measurable practical difference in life.

    That’s not really the issue though, as I think you’d agree. It’s more relevant whether they significantly undermine their moral actions (not merely their successful functioning) negatively. One might suppose a delusion wasn’t undermining Hitler’s “successful functioning” in terms of how it affected his own life, but clearly it’s also important how it affects everyone else (whether their happiness, functioning, perfection, etc.). Perhaps “functioning” is supposed to convey a lot of things I don’t normally associate with it.

    Happy self-deceived people with exquisitely well-compartmentalized lives exist. If happiness is the ultimate good, what moral or practical reason do these well-balanced, shrewdly compartmentalizing modern people have to abandon their happiness-increasing faith-beliefs? Particularly if doing so would mean a loss of total happiness in their particular cases? And especially if doing so would somehow disrupt their overall equilibrium and mess with their abilities to function so well in all the other areas of life?

    Well, I don’t think happiness is the ultimate good… But how do these specific people you’re talking about identify themselves as such in the first place? Are we supposed to assume that in addition to their exceptional ability to compartmentalize, they are also exceptional at introspection and are fully aware of what the consequences of their false beliefs would be (assuming they did know which are false)? I don’t see how they could possibly distinguish themselves from other believers who should abandon their beliefs because they (for whatever reason) have an overall negative impact.

    So this argument just doesn’t work to defend anyone’s delusion, except for a hypothetical person and without the kind of details that could provide the reasons their false beliefs should probably be abandoned. I realize you’re not arguing for it, but I don’t understand why you seem to think it poses a problem.

    While I don’t have big problems with what you said, I also don’t really understand why your perfectionism is supposed to be better, except in the sense that I that happiness as “pleasure, contentment, and satisfaction” is too limited to convey everything that we should and do find valuable.

    Now, “perfection,” on the other hand … well, that sounds just perfect. It’s right up there with “Be excellent to each other.”

  • Ariel

    You seem quite skeptical about the prospects of a utilitarian approach, and in this I’m with you. One comment about your part 3.

    Possibly truer metaphysics, truer values, wonder at actual realities, enjoyment in art’s less deluded falsehoods, etc. can all adequately compensate for the bonus delights that at least some people currently get from faith-based falsehoods. So the argument may not necessarily have to be that people with contained metaphysical delusions would certainly not be as happy as people with no delusions, but rather that religiously held metaphysical delusions are too hard to effectively contain

    Yeah, possibly. That’s a rather big “if”; but anyway … what I’ve always found a bit repulsive in utilitarianism is its readiness to treat (groups of) people as collateral damage. You know, from my point of view it’s important how a given society treats the weakest ones. How does it treat the poor, the terminally ill, the people who painfully discovered that nature red in tooth and claw is still with us (in general: what does it offer to those who are beyond this particular comforting illusion that everything is right because the sabre-toothed tiger has been extinct for so long). I’m inclined to think that in our calculations such people deserve a special handicap. I’m not a moral philosopher and it’s not a very utilitarian thought, I guess. Anyway, in my private calculations the needs of such people take precedence over “adequate compensations” enjoyed by the rich and the safe. And if religion offers them something, then the fact that it’s hard to “effectively contain” may be a price worth paying.

    As to your own views:

    I think the highest good for humans is not happiness—important as that is—but rather human perfection. I think our highest, most intrinsic imperative is to be as functionally excellent and maximally powerful as we can (…) I think it is intrinsically better for a human being to exercise her rationality as much as possible and to face the truth as courageously as possible precisely because in our exercise of truthful rationality and in our exercise of courage in the face of harsh realities we fulfill our potential excellences of reason and bravery as much as possible and these are constitutive powers of our very being—ones as fundamental as any others. By being rational and truthful we do not merely pump up pleasure in our brains but we realize our most essential being itself.

    This is all very vague. Why are reason and bravery “excellences”, in contrast with pleasure and comfort? Is it just that you listed them under the heading “excellences”, or perhaps there is something more to it? What’s the content of the claim that being rational and truthful “realizes our most essential being”? How to settle the discussion between you and someone who says “no, you are wrong, our most essential being is best realized by making us as comfortable as possible”? What such a discussion would be about, really? And why is someone who is deluding himself about (say) eternal life is not so “functionally excellent and maximally powerful” as he can?
    (To be sure: I’m not quarreling with you here; I just don’t understand what you are saying.)

  • ACuriousMind

    So, let’s stipulate that truth is usually better than falsehood for humans and that truthfulness is one of the most admirable, desirable, and useful virtues a human can have. Let’s also stipulate that when distinctly faith-based false beliefs which are not even metaphorically true infect practical spheres (like medicine, economics, politics, science, and morality) that this is a dangerous thing. In this post, I mean to deny any of this or in any way to disparage truth.

    I think you mean “I don’t mean to deny any of this…” in that last sentence.

  • ACuriousMind

    And now, to the point. I think your thoughful dismissals of utilitarianism and deontology as justification for seeing truth as an absolute value (but not too absolute, in the case you make for art, or “white lies”) are quite concise and well-founded, but I do not grasp in how far “perfectionism” provides a way out, as it seems very difficult to me to decide which attributes of a human being are worth maximising, and how I can weigh different attributes against each other if I am given a moral choice that always increases some and diminishes others. “To be maximally powerful” or “to be brave” are two of the attributes you mention which are very…uncertain to me:
    In how far is maximising Power a moral obligation? Am I morally required to strive to rule over my fellow-men? Or am I morally required to excercise my body to gain physical strength? Or do you mean something completely different by power that I do not know as I have not read the entirety of your archives?
    And what is bravery? This is a notion that is very subjective. Some call humans that go alone into woods to hunt dangerous animals with archaic weapon brave, but I would not agree. Can you deliver a notion of “bravery” that is free of subjectivity (especially cultural influence)? Or is perfectionism not aimed at effecting the same moral choices for every conscious being, regardless of his/her/its culture/subjective notions?
    In other words, in how far is “perfectionism” a moral framework that is as rational and objective as utilitarianism or deontology?

    • Enkidum

      The standard response to this comes from Aristotle, which is that the goal isn’t to maximize the virtues in the sense of having as much of each of them as possible. Rather it is to possess the virtues in their finest form, which for him is always a balance between two extremes. E.g. a one of the virtues for him is magnaminity – being generous with your money (extremely generous, by our standards). You have to balance this between being stingy and running yourself into debt. At any given time, figuring out the right thing to do requires the exercise of careful judgment, determining the act which will keep the various virtues balanced in this way.

      Of course there are still various problems here, some of which you’ve mentioned. Chief among them seems to be how you decide what qualifies as a virtue, and why. Most virtue ethicists do some hand-waving about biology here, but it tends to be pretty hand-wavy. I’d be interested to know Daniel’s take on the matter.

  • Marta Layton

    Dan, there’s a lot to think about and respond to here. Honestly, as I read it I got the distinct feeling that you did not really understand religious experience (or at least not my experience of religion), which I know is almost never the case. So I think there is something I am getting hung up over, and I can’t quite really figure out just what that is. I may reread it in a day or two, after I’ve had time to sit with some of what you’re claiming.

    The thought I keep coming back to in my mind are extreme cases. In particular I’m thinking of an experience we had in my family dealing with a child’s cancer diagnosis, treatment, and eventual death. (And I honestly am not saying that to try to win an argument through sympathy; but I think that context isn’t separable from my thoughts on this topic.) In that context, “truth” seemed cruel, and also not particularly important. I’ve seen similar things with other families living with child cancers I know through volunteer work: there is a true need for less reality, not more of it. And I would be hard-pressed to condemn that response. In many ways, not being fully exposed to the truth of the situation has practically good consequences (it lets you enjoy what time is left, for example, and save grieving for later). But more than that, I think the need for reality-avoidance is simply an existential need. I’m not sure the situations in my mind admit to analyses of good or bad, because that seems to imply that not avoiding reality was really an option.

    Now, to be fair I do think of truth as a good, and not just on utilitarian grounds. I think humans are essentially knowing, choosing things, so anything that helps us do that only helps us be the best humans we can be. Obviously that requires truth. But I suppose I’m all too aware of the limits of the human psyche to bear up under absolute truth, and in that case I’d say pure truth can actually be a hindrance to knowing a situation. So I guess while I think of truth as a good, I don’t necessarily think it always outweighs every other good.

    • Enkidum

      I feel for your loss (I have children of my own, and am frequently terrified of having to go through what you’ve gone through). But I don’t agree.

      At the end of the day, we’re all worm food. What happened to your beautiful child is, with minor changes in the details, the same thing that is in store for each and every one of us. This is, presumably, the kind of absolute truth you’re talking about.

      Obviously, many people refuse to acknowledge this, and presumably this is one of the main driving forces behind religion. But lots of us do acknowledge it. Does this make our lives less enjoyable? Does it make our psyches more vulnerable?

      You spent (I’m extrapolating a bit) pleasant times with your child in their final days. Surely those times were pleasant in and of themselves? The fact that you were deluding yourself about their survival wasn’t what made those times pleasant, and with that delusion absent it’s not like they would necessarily have been awful.

      I’ll readily acknowledge that for all of us, there is a great pressure towards self-delusion. But there’s a difference between a pressure and a need.

    • Enkidum

      Ah – I just realized I think I misunderstood your point. The delusion isn’t necessarily yours, but the child’s, right? They had to believe they were going to survive in order to keep themselves strong and happy for the short time they had left.

      In which case yes, you’ve probably got a point there, at least for children. But I don’t think it generalizes to adults very well.

    • Marta Layton

      Thanks for your reply, Enkudim. To be perfectly clear, I was talking about my cousin’s child (really more of a sister; I spent a good part of my childhood living in her house) rather than my own. While it was a rather hellish period regardless of the biological relationship, I didn’t want to claim something that wasn’t true.

      I don’t deny that we’re all worm food, as you say, but I wonder whether being reminded of that fact at certain points won’t make it harder to flourish as a human rather than easier. (That’s the idea of ethics I have in mind, I think.) Certainly, knowledge and truth are crucial to human flourishing because humans are unique in their ability to reason and think. That’s impossible without truth. But there comes a point when for whatever reason a person cannot absorb any more knowledge. That is why I brought up my situation, because I think it’s a good example of one where being exposed to more truth will only have bad consequences, both for happiness and human flourishing. A person in such a situation cannot really make sense of more reality beyond a certain point; it will simply make the person seem more surreal.

      Perhaps I made a mistake in describing this situation as a need. I didn’t mean it as the opposite of a want, but rather an non-negotiable fact that the human mind cannot absorb a clearer picture of reality. When the reality is so unpleasant, it will only put pressure on the person in question – perhaps more pressure than they can absorb and make sense of. In that sense exposure to more truth is not only unhelpful but can be downright cruel. If I’m right about this, then I think it supports the idea that truth is a good but perhaps not the good, and certainly not the end-all that many philosophers (including myself!) tend to portray it as.

    • consciousness razor

      But I suppose I’m all too aware of the limits of the human psyche to bear up under absolute truth, and in that case I’d say pure truth can actually be a hindrance to knowing a situation.

      This I definitely don’t understand. What do you mean by “pure truth” such that it hinders “knowing a situation”?

      In your example, were you referring to knowledge the child has (as Enkidum suggested), and what specifically do you think would be harmful to know?

    • Gwynnyd

      And who has the right to decide how much “truth” you ought to know? For a child, a parent may have that right. For an adult, it seems quite presumptuous and demeaning for someone else to tell them what “amount of truth” they can and can’t know.

    • Ariel

      In that context, “truth” seemed cruel, and also not particularly important. (…) And I would be hard-pressed to condemn that response. (…) I think the need for reality-avoidance is simply an existential need.

      This is. By the way, it seems to me that by endorsing such a worldview we situate ourselves outside of the humanist camp. (I say “we”, because I agree with you here, which is probably clear given my earlier comment.) Not that I have a problem with that; treat it only as a side thought.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I think I made clear that in some ways it does not. If it would damage one’s overall functioning too severely to be truthful, this would take down too many of one’s perfections through which one flourishes and be counter-productive. The post has mechanisms for dealing with your example. But not every case of truth being connected to sorrow would make truthfulness unjustified as a utilitarian might have to say.

  • JeseC

    I’m guessing you subscribe to some version virtue ethics. I’m curious if you would accept that ethics leads to human flourishing? Or do we need a particular reason why we ought to do what’s right?

  • Beth

    What bothers me about this post is the assumption that you are in possession of truth (atheism) and that all religious believers are deluded. Perhaps it would help if you were more specific about what ‘truths’ you are referring to in this post. You seem to be referring to unfalsifiable religious beliefs, so the remainder of my comment is based on that assumption.

    For example, when discussing the ‘life after death’ beliefs, whether one believes in heaven or that we are no more than wormfood, no one has certain knowledge about the ability of the soul/ego to continue after the death of the physical body. Whatever the belief, it is a conclusion based on the same observations that we all have access to, not a truth that some possess while those who disagree are deluded.

    In the end, I can only say that I prefer a society filled with people who hold different and even contradicatory beliefs because it shows that in regard to unfalsifiable propositions, everyone is allowed to decide for themselves what they think is true. I think this quality of freedom for each person to determine Truth for themselves (i.e. freethought) has a far higher utilitarian and consequential value than an insistence on any particular belief is actually the Truth regarding unfalsifiable metaphysical beliefs.

    • ACuriousMind

      Ah, the good old point of “You don’t know for certain they are wrong!”.
      I wonder what truth then means to you, if you claim that, regarding unfalsifiable statements, one can have a stance on whether they are true or not. How would one obtain such a stance, if there is no evidence to be collected for either side? It seems to me that propositions which are unfalsifiable can be neither true or false, but are statements to which these attributes cannot be applied meaningfully. However, there are claims that are in principle falsifiable, but not in practice.
      Take, for instance, Russell’s Teapot: The claim that there is a teapot orbiting the sun so tiny that we cannot see it with any telescope and so small that its gravitational and other effects are undiscoverable by our means is certainly an unfalsifiable claim. But do you suggest that one can reasonably suppose that it exists, let alone defend that supposition?
      “Life after death” beliefs are just that: Claims based on nothing but wishful thinking, and clinging to the dualist notion of a soul existing disconnected from our bodies whilst (neuro-)science increasingly shows that there is a close entanglement between the physical state of our brains and our mental condition. It is the “soul of the gaps”, the notion that until everything is explained, monism has not won, though there is overwhelming data indicating (but not proving, as science can never do that) that at the end of the day, we really are just worm food, and therefore the exact analogon to the “god of the gaps” so many creationists worship.
      In regard to unfalsifiable propositions without any data to guide us, we should suspend judgement. But if everything seems as if the claim in question is false (that is, if supposing it is false would lead to the same prediction of the behaviour of observables as would supposing it is true), as there is no data that would need the claim as an explanation, then it is certainly not reasonable to suggest that it is equally reasonable to think of it as true as it is to think of it as false. (Occam’s Razor suggestively winks to us here…)

    • Beth

      I wonder what truth then means to you, if you claim that, regarding unfalsifiable statements, one can have a stance on whether they are true or not.

      One can have a stance on whether they believe they are true or not. Truth means different things to me in different contexts. I’m not entirely sure what Dr. Fincke is meaning by it in this post. Hopefully he will clarify later.

      How do you define Truth in this context?

      How would one obtain such a stance, if there is no evidence to be collected for either side?

      Why do you assume that no evidence can be collected for either side? Certainly evidence can be collected, evaluated and conclusions arrived at. Science works by carefully phrasing hypotheses to match statistical tests and then including confidence levels to indicate the certainty one can have in the conclusion one draws regarding the carefully stated hypothesis.

      What we cannot do is have certainty that our conclusion is actually correct – i.e. the Truth. The farther our conclusions stray from the carefully phrased and tested hypothesis, the less certainty we can have in those conclusions. In the case of religious beliefs without empirical evidence, we can conclude those claims are false because they are contrary to our current understanding of the way the material world operates, but that is a conclusion and not necessarily correct.

      It seems to me that propositions which are unfalsifiable can be neither true or false, but are statements to which these attributes cannot be applied meaningfully. However, there are claims that are in principle falsifiable, but not in practice.

      I understand that there are some propositions that are theoretically unfalsifiable while others are merely beyond our current capabilities. However, if they are not falsifiable in practice, I consider them unfalsifiable for the purposes of this discussion.

      Take, for instance, Russell’s Teapot: The claim that there is a teapot orbiting the sun so tiny that we cannot see it with any telescope and so small that its gravitational and other effects are undiscoverable by our means is certainly an unfalsifiable claim. But do you suggest that one can reasonably suppose that it exists, let alone defend that supposition?

      Given that there are hundreds of millions of teapots orbiting the sun right now, why would anyone deny that fact. Oh, wait, you probably meant a teapot orbiting the sun that ISN’T on the planet earth, right? ;)

      “Life after death” beliefs are just that:

      I disagree. I don’t think it is reasonable to conjecture the existence of a man-made artifact orbiting the sun without some cause. I don’t find it a particularly good analogy for religious beliefs because, with the exception of the humans who claim direct revelations from god (e.g. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, etc.) those who are religious are accepting testimony from other humans as sufficient evidence for the things they believe in. If Russell’s teapot had testimonial evidence from persons otherwise considered sane, responsible and reliable results, – for example, if an astronaut were to confess that he/she had dropped one into orbit and explain how it happened – I would have a very different opinion about the plausibility of such a notion.

      Claims based on nothing but wishful thinking, and clinging to the dualist notion of a soul existing disconnected from our bodies whilst (neuro-)science increasingly shows that there is a close entanglement between the physical state of our brains and our mental condition. It is the “soul of the gaps”, the notion that until everything is explained, monism has not won, though there is overwhelming data indicating (but not proving, as science can never do that) that at the end of the day, we really are just worm food, and therefore the exact analogon to the “god of the gaps” so many creationists worship.

      But until everything can be explained, neither dualism nor monism can be considered ‘correct’. And, as you acknowledge, science cannot prove anything. It seem to me that neither the believer in heaven and the believer in worm food only can know with certainty the Truth. Thus, it makes no sense to me to consider one group universally deluded and the other in possession of Truth. Different people have simply come to different conclusions based on the same empirical and testimonial evidence combined with their basic foundational assumptions about reality.

      In regard to unfalsifiable propositions without any data to guide us, we should suspend judgement. But if everything seems as if the claim in question is false (that is, if supposing it is false would lead to the same prediction of the behaviour of observables as would supposing it is true), as there is no data that would need the claim as an explanation, then it is certainly not reasonable to suggest that it is equally reasonable to think of it as true as it is to think of it as false. (Occam’s Razor suggestively winks to us here…)

      I never said that ‘true’ and ‘false’ should be considered equally probable for all unfalsifiable propostiions. Occam’s Razor is a useful heuristic for coming to conclusions, but it is not an arbitor of Truth. What I’m saying that it is not appropriate to assume that ALL who have arrived at a different conclusion are deluded, indulging in wishful thinking, not being rational, etc.

      In fact, having that attitude about those who disagree on such questions strikes me as exhibiting a belief in an unfalsiable proposition that has no evidence to support it.

    • ACuriousMind

      Beth,

      my confusion arises from this:

      However, if they are not falsifiable in practice, I consider them unfalsifiable for the purposes of this discussion.

      and

      Why do you assume that no evidence can be collected for either side? Certainly evidence can be collected, evaluated and conclusions arrived at.[...] What we cannot do is have certainty that our conclusion is actually correct – i.e. the Truth.

      1. But there is an important difference between beliefs unfalsifiable in principle and in practice. Those that are unfalsifiable in principle are no meaningful statements about the real world, and therefore not subject to the categories of Truth and Falsehood. Those that are not falsifiable in practice, but in principle, can be subjected to the notions of “true” and “false” (and, as you reminded me, the “level of confidence” we have in our assessment of them) on the basis of the available evidence.
      2. If evidence can be collected, then the conclusion drawn from the evidence is what we should view as truth. Your “Truth” (which seems to mean absolute, unchangable truth) is an entirely intangible and inaccessible construct, a figment of our imagination which we can never claim to possess. (not sure if we agree on this one, but I wrote it anyway…)

      In the case of religious beliefs without empirical evidence, we can conclude those claims are false because they are contrary to our current understanding of the way the material world operates, but that is a conclusion and not necessarily correct.
      True. But that it is not “necessarily correct” does not mean that it is reasonable to believe otherwise. Because they are contrary to everything we see and know about the world, the truth (until new evidence arrives) is that they are false. It is not rationally defensible to believe in a proposition that contributes nothing to our understanding of the world and is inconsistent within our current most powerful explanatory framework.

      Given that there are hundreds of millions of teapots orbiting the sun right now, why would anyone deny that fact. Oh, wait, you probably meant a teapot orbiting the sun that ISN’T on the planet earth, right? ;)

      Well, you got me there…

      If Russell’s teapot had testimonial evidence from persons otherwise considered sane, responsible and reliable results, – for example, if an astronaut were to confess that he/she had dropped one into orbit and explain how it happened – I would have a very different opinion about the plausibility of such a notion. [Bold emphasis mine]

      You are very correct there. But the crucial part is that the testee (is that the right word? :P ) provides an (scientific, or rather: testable) explanation of how he obtained his alleged knowledge. We can reproduce the act of the astronaut dropping the teapot into orbit very easily in theory, and with a bit of effort, even in practice. But we cannot even begin to fathom how anyone could obtain knowledge about a mysterious “life after death”, and neither can anyone provide such an explanation, at least I have never heard of one (perhaps you have?). If it is impossible to reproduce the testee’s sensation through which he acquired his knowledge, it is worthless in the quest for (objective) truth, no matter how convincing his related story is.

      But until everything can be explained, neither dualism nor monism can be considered ‘correct’. And, as you acknowledge, science cannot prove anything. It seem to me that neither the believer in heaven and the believer in worm food only can know with certainty the Truth. Thus, it makes no sense to me to consider one group universally deluded and the other in possession of Truth.

      You are right, no one is in possesion of the Truth, as you call it. But one group (worm food) is holding a rationally defensible view as it is consistent with everything else we know about the world, makes no superfluous assumptions, and follows the hitherto available evidence (i.e believes in what we could call the scientific, the preliminary truth), while the other is just clinging to the fact that they cannot be disproven.

      Occam’s Razor is a useful heuristic for coming to conclusions, but it is not an arbitor of Truth. What I’m saying that it is not appropriate to assume that ALL who have arrived at a different conclusion are deluded, indulging in wishful thinking, not being rational, etc.

      Right again. There are cases in which there are several rationally defensible views (I, for example, am thinking of the different interpretations of quantum mechanics here). But in these cases, they rest not only on the thought that they cannot be falsified, but on evidence, albeit weighing it differently, or interpreting events differently. I cannot see that belief in life after death (or, for that matter, anything supernatural) is based on any evidence at all.

    • Beth

      But there is an important difference between beliefs unfalsifiable in principle and in practice. Those that are unfalsifiable in principle are no meaningful statements about the real world, and therefore not subject to the categories of Truth and Falsehood. Those that are not falsifiable in practice, but in principle, can be subjected to the notions of “true” and “false” (and, as you reminded me, the “level of confidence” we have in our assessment of them) on the basis of the available evidence.

      Can you explain why unfalsifiable in principle implies not a meaningful statement about the real world. For example, I consider moral propositions to be unfalsiable in principle but I don’t consider them to be meaningless statements.

      2. If evidence can be collected, then the conclusion drawn from the evidence is what we should view as truth. Your “Truth” (which seems to mean absolute, unchangable truth) is an entirely intangible and inaccessible construct, a figment of our imagination which we can never claim to possess. (not sure if we agree on this one, but I wrote it anyway…)

      In the context of this discussion, I was taking Truth to mean the absolute unchangeable truth about religious claims. If Dr. Fincke was refering to something else in his post, I hope he will take the time to correct my assumption regarding what he meant.

      True. But that it is not “necessarily correct” does not mean that it is reasonable to believe otherwise.

      To me, “not necessarily correct” means that it is unreasonable to assume other people are delusional, indulging in wishful thinking, etc. just because they don’t agree with your conclusions regarding the truth value of religious beliefs.

      Because they are contrary to everything we see and know about the world, the truth (until new evidence arrives) is that they are false. It is not rationally defensible to believe in a proposition that contributes nothing to our understanding of the world and is inconsistent within our current most powerful explanatory framework.

      I have to disagree with this. The proposition that “All (hu)men are created equal” can be easily demolized with empirical evidence. It is inconsistent with our current most powerful explanatory framework. But I’m willing to defend believing in it on a rational basis whilst granting that it clearly isn’t true from a physical perspective and is unfalsifiable from any non-physical perspective.

    • ACuriousMind

      Can you explain why unfalsifiable in principle implies not a meaningful statement about the real world. For example, I consider moral propositions to be unfalsiable in principle but I don’t consider them to be meaningless statements.

      I fear we’re running headlong into epistemology here, but so be it…
      If a statement is unfalsifiable in principle, it is impossible to devise a situation by which it could be disproven. It follows that it makes no predictions about the real world, as then we could, in principle, set up the situation it predicts something about and see whether it occurs or not. A statement that makes no predictions about any situation is not stating anything about reality. Therefore, truth or false do not apply to it. Moral statements are indeed a set of statements that are unfalsifiable in principle, but they do not contain any factual claim about the world. They are about what things ought to be, not what they actually are, and therefore “true” or “false” cannot be applied to their content.
      Morality is not knowledge.

      To me, “not necessarily correct” means that it is unreasonable to assume other people are delusional, indulging in wishful thinking, etc. just because they don’t agree with your conclusions regarding the truth value of religious beliefs.

      You seem to misread me. I am not claiming they are delusional simply because they do not agree with my conclusions, I claim that they are delusional because they have no reason to believe what they believe. Even if their belief would be true, it would not be justified, as there is no evidence to support it, and indeed all evidence rather points to the opposite of their belief.

      The proposition that “All (hu)men are created equal” can be easily demolized with empirical evidence. It is inconsistent with our current most powerful explanatory framework. But I’m willing to defend believing in it on a rational basis whilst granting that it clearly isn’t true from a physical perspective and is unfalsifiable from any non-physical perspective.

      This is very strange. Why would you defend that literal statement? I think you are implying that you would defend believing that “All should be granted equal rights.”, not the literal “All are created equal.”, and now the point becomes obvious that you are not at all making a factual claim, but a moral claim, which cannot be assigned a truth value in the same way a factual claim about reality can.

    • Beth

      This is past the nesting length, so this will be my last reply.


      You seem to misread me. I am not claiming they are delusional simply because they do not agree with my conclusions, I claim that they are delusional because they have no reason to believe what they believe.
      But that isn’t true! Religious believers generally have a reason they believe what they believe. Most are happy to share that reason if you ask. Assuming they have no reason to believe and are therefore delusional seems, well, not a rational conclusion to me.

      I don’t think I am misreading you. It is because your claimed reason is clearly false that I conclude you consider them delusional on the basis that they believe differently from you.

    • ACuriousMind

      Beth,

      This is past the nesting length, so this will be my last reply.

      That is a petty reason, but your choice, I assume.

      Religious believers generally have a reason they believe what they believe.

      Well, yes, they have a reason in the sense that they will answer the question “Why do you believe that?”. But from what I wrote you can see that I do not expect them to present an answer that will satisfy the standard of concluding rationally from the available evidence, and in fact, I have never encountered any theist (or believer in other spritual stuff, such as life after death or homeopathy, for that matter) giving a “reason” that would follow thoroughly logically from the available evidence. “Because this book says so.” (as an example) is an answer to the question “Why do you believe that?”, but it is not a reason in the sense that the belief would therefore become rationally defensible. It is a “reason” akin to trusting in a beggar on the street claiming he dropped the teapot into orbit without any further elaboration, to liken it to my previous analogy. Therefore I say “they have no reason to believe what they believe” as synonymous to “they cannot defend their view when assessing all the available evidence”. Not every answer to a “Why?”-question is a reason.

      I don’t think I am misreading you. It is because your claimed reason is clearly false that I conclude you consider them delusional on the basis that they believe differently from you.

      If they can show how their beliefs are a valid interpretation of the evidence, consistent with everything else we know, and not relying on other superfluous assumptions, then I will consider their view as a rationally defensible one. Until then, I will call them deluded (i.e. believing in something without any grounding in reality).

    • consciousness razor

      Whatever the belief, it is a conclusion based on the same observations that we all have access to, not a truth that some possess while those who disagree are deluded.

      Nope, that’s wrong. Whatever the belief — which is to say, among possible beliefs — one of them is true and the rest are false.

      There is no evidence for an afterlife, and it is delusional to think there is one, given all the evidence we do have about how the world works. It isn’t delusional because we assume what we think is true and what you think is false. It’s delusional because the reasoning employed to establish and reinforce the belief is invalid and contrary to the evidence.

      Truth for themselves (i.e. freethought) has a far higher utilitarian and consequential value than an insistence on any particular belief is actually the Truth regarding unfalsifiable metaphysical beliefs.

      Wrong again. Freethought doesn’t mean we should be relativists about the truth. It means thoughts should be free from dogmatic influences.

      It’s a separate issue whether everyone should be “allowed to decide for themselves what they think is true,” but most freethinkers wouldn’t argue that they shouldn’t be allowed.

    • Beth

      Nope, that’s wrong. Whatever the belief — which is to say, among possible beliefs — one of them is true and the rest are false.
      Okay. What I’m saying is that we do not know which one is Truth.

      There is no evidence for an afterlife, and it is delusional to think there is one, given all the evidence we do have about how the world works.
      Nope, that’s wrong. There are plenty of testimonies from those who claim to have seen ghosts, communicated with the dead, had certain near-death experiences, etc. All of that is evidence. If you don’t find that evidence convincing, I won’t argue that it is. I don’t find it convincing either. My point is that evidence for life after death does exist and some people do find it convincing. We can’t conclude they are all delusional on that basis.

      It isn’t delusional because we assume what we think is true and what you think is false. It’s delusional because the reasoning employed to establish and reinforce the belief is invalid and contrary to the evidence.
      Can you verify that statement? I don’t think it is true and I refuse to accept it without evidence. ;)

      If you can’t verify it, doesn’t that mean that you are believing in an unfalsifiable proposition without evidence? In fact, I think your statement about it being delusional is invalild and contrary to the evidence. By your logic, I should now conclude you are delusional. I don’t. I just think you are wrong in drawing that conclusion from the evidence available. However, I don’t claim that I know the Truth. I just have an opinion and I could be the one who is in error.

      Wrong again. Freethought doesn’t mean we should be relativists about the truth. It means thoughts should be free from dogmatic influences
      It’s a separate issue whether everyone should be “allowed to decide for themselves what they think is true,” but most freethinkers wouldn’t argue that they shouldn’t be allowed.

      I’m not sure why you said this in response to what I wrote. I haven’t said we should be relativists about the Truth. I’m making the point that religious beliefs are usually unfalsifiable and therefore, it’s not appropriate to conclude that all those who disagree must be deluded, indulging in wishful thinking, etc. In fact, to hold such a belief seems quite dogmatic to me.

    • consciousness razor

      What I’m saying is that we do not know which one is Truth.

      Why not? We may have lots of evidence for or against a given belief, and it’s unreasonable to require that “knowledge” must mean “absolute metaphysical certainty.” That doesn’t get us anywhere.

      For example: the Earth is not flat. I Know™ that this is the Truth™. One could construct all sorts of meandering, irrelevant apologetics about how I don’t really Know™ for sure that anything outside my own mind even exists, including the Earth and its alleged non-flatness. But that has nothing to do with what most people mean when they say they know something. It doesn’t serve any useful purpose to have such a high standard in the first place, except to obfuscate inconvenient facts like the complete lack of evidence for a claim.

      Nope, that’s wrong. There are plenty of testimonies from those who claim to have seen ghosts, communicated with the dead, had certain near-death experiences, etc. All of that is evidence.

      Sophistry. Your standards for “truth” are unreasonably high, and your standards for “evidence” are comically low. No surprise. Try to bring them closer together so they work together rather than against one another.

      Or just say confusing things. You’re allowed to do that, if it pleases you.

      Can you verify that statement? I don’t think it is true and I refuse to accept it without evidence.

      To my knowledge, there is no valid argument or evidence to support the claim that there is some kind of afterlife. Since you refuse to provide any yourself, you can consider that further evidence if you like (since “evidence” appears to mean any old thing you like). It isn’t conclusive evidence, of course, and you may not be convinced by it. We can continually be more certain about it as everyone continues to evade the issue itself, which is the lack of evidence not your sophistry.

    • Beth

      Why not? We may have lots of evidence for or against a given belief, and it’s unreasonable to require that “knowledge” must mean “absolute metaphysical certainty.” That doesn’t get us anywhere.

      Where is it you are trying to go? The post was about the value of truth. My complaint had to do with classifying groups of people as delusional on the basis of unfalsifiable religious beliefs.

      If you accept that we can’t know the truth about religious claims with absolute metaphysical certainty, then I see no basis to conclude that other groups of people who hold to different conclusions are delusional just for believing as they do.

      To my knowledge, there is no valid argument or evidence to support the claim that there is some kind of afterlife.

      You misunderstood which statement I was referring to. I wasn’t talking about belief in the afterlife which would be a derail. I was talking about your statement, which I had quoted:

      It’s delusional because the reasoning employed to establish and reinforce the belief is invalid and contrary to the evidence.

      Can you verify that statement? I don’t think it is true and I refuse to accept it without evidence.

    • consciousness razor

      If you accept that we can’t know the truth about religious claims with absolute metaphysical certainty, then I see no basis to conclude that other groups of people who hold to different conclusions are delusional just for believing as they do.

      Not having absolute metaphysical certainty is not the same as having “no basis.” Try again.

      Or if you insist on it, then I will insist that this kind of black-and-white thinking is why we can’t have nice things.

      It’s delusional because the reasoning employed to establish and reinforce the belief is invalid and contrary to the evidence.

      Can you verify that statement? I don’t think it is true and I refuse to accept it without evidence.

      That’s what I mean when I say a belief is delusional. You’ll find that’s close to the way delusional disorders are defined in the DSM-IV, but this is not to suggest a diagnosis or that they need to be so extreme as to rise to the level of a disorder. That’s just how I’m using the word and describing when it would apply, in contrast to the application of it as believing anything which I assume is false.

    • Beth

      That’s what I mean when I say a belief is delusional. You’ll find that’s close to the way delusional disorders are defined in the DSM-IV, but this is not to suggest a diagnosis or that they need to be so extreme as to rise to the level of a disorder. That’s just how I’m using the word and describing when it would apply, in contrast to the application of it as believing anything which I assume is false.

      You’re still misunderstanding my question. I’m not asking you to verify the definition of delusion, I’m asking you to verify the claim that the reasoning employed to establish and reinforce the belief is invalid and contrary to the evidence.

      Also, I’m not assuming that you applied ‘delusion’ to any belief you assume is false, I’m assuming you are applying ‘delusion’ to any religious belief you assume is false.

    • consciousness razor

      You’re still misunderstanding my question. I’m not asking you to verify the definition of delusion, I’m asking you to verify the claim that the reasoning employed to establish and reinforce the belief is invalid and contrary to the evidence.

      Which belief? First, I thought you were asking about the belief in an afterlife. Then, after you didn’t offer evidence for it, it seemed you meant how I came to the general statement about delusions. Now, we’re back to how I verify my claim that “the belief” is a delusion, which depends on the belief in question, so without anything else to go on, it looks like you do want me to talk about the belief in an afterlife. So I’m lost. Would you give an example of the kind of response you want me to give? What do you think is problematic about what I said?

      Also, I’m not assuming that you applied ‘delusion’ to any belief you assume is false, I’m assuming you are applying ‘delusion’ to any religious belief you assume is false.

      You assumed wrong. Some examples: it’s delusional to believe in bigfoot or alien abductions. Those aren’t usually religious beliefs; and for cases in which they are, the fact they’re religious isn’t itself a reason to believe they’re not delusional.

      What makes them delusional is that people believe they’re true despite the fact that reason and evidence weigh heavily against the existence of bigfoot and the presence of aliens on Earth abducting people. I’m not assuming in advance these can’t be true, no matter what evidence there may be, or because these people “disagree” with me as you put it (as if this were a matter of opinion). It may in part be due to ignorance, dishonesty, carelessness in examining the evidence, and so on; but it’s because of the evidence that I’m coming to that conclusion.

  • Everett Attebury

    I have never seen it demonstrated that anything has intrinsic value.

    I don’t think of value as a noun, but a verb. *I* am the one doing the valuing. Things, people, concepts, do not have value until *I* assign a value to them. They are valuable to *me*. There will be properties intrinsic to something that will cause me to value it more or less, but it is only those properties which are intrinsic, not the value.

    Often, the value I assign will not be the same as the value that other people assign to them. Many times, though, it will be the same.

    If I let that fool me into thinking that the value of something is a property of the thing itself, it would be an instance of the Mind Projection Fallacy.

    When people project in this way, it leads to confusion and prevents clarity. It leads to a situation where people talking about values start to sound like people discussing what God thinks or wants. Anyone can assert anything, and since none of them are referring to anything that exists apart from their own mind, it is impossible to do anything except come to a vague consensus that is arbitrarily and inconsistently applied, and not particularly useful or enlightening.

  • I amafreeman

    Daniel, Thank you for a great essay; it contained much of what I view as mostly the truth. Will re-read this many times as it contains much grist for the mill.

    A friend of mine from our halcyon days of studying and learning “the law”, is in a predicament brought about by what I amintain is his absolute refusal to see the world – that is, reality – from ANYONE’S POV except his own; by anyone’s, I mean the consideration of other possibilities and the “WORLD’S” (writ large) opinion of itself. As a consequence he has become an alcoholic and has now been “kicked out” of the half-ass, er, I mean Half-way House and is “homeless”, camping out in Northern California’s stormy season. He stopped by yesterday and told me the high winds and copious rains were “just punishing”. I hope by my look he understood that he is indeed being punished – for his adamancy.

    I describe this scenario in support of my position (POV) that reality is what it is and IT must be acknowledged. Whatever one wishes to do with that knowledge is one’s choice but it doesn’t alter the ACTUALITY of said knowledge’s existence. One can deny, self-delude, attempt to win over others to one’s self-delusions, or attempt to live a life based on absolute truth absolutely ALL the time. I lean toward the latter but it gets so dreary trying to be perfect – if you will – or in perfect concordance with reality.

    My preference is to seek and reach these “reality-based conclusions but to catalogue them as not really concluded; hence, I am always open to more facts and do not desire to be a slave to what I have learned is merely a temporary actualization; there is ALWAYS more info coming down the pike if one remains open and willing.

    Then I go about my daily life with a smile on my face and in my mind (most of the time) and simply enjoy what I have. An added benefit is that even the simplest of things and endeavors can bring a sense of joy – trust me, I am NOT what is commonly referred to as a “bliss-ninny”, far from it – but more like a retired warrior occasionally called back to active duty to resolve some new “conflict”. In the meantime, I just prune my roses and fruit trees and feed the animals, perform maintainence on my truck and leave the daily arguments to those who refuse to accept reality – all the while hoping never to miss an opportunity to correct humankind’s criminally incompetent inflictions of delusional bullshit on the “way things really are” while intoning, Tempus fugit, non coitus ex.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    “We don’t necessarily want accurate maps, we want useful ones. But accuracy is *extraordinarily* useful.” – David Gerrold

    • Enkidum

      Can you provide citation info for that? That quote is exactly what I need for some work of my own.

      That being said, I find it very hard to understand the connection to OP.

    • abb3w

      It appears to be a paraphrase excerpt from David Gerrold’s “The Middle Of Nowhere”

      “Let me underline that. Distinctions are the way we map the universe. Some of our maps are accurate, some are not. But even those that are not accurate can be useful if they still support us in producing results. So this isn’t about designing the most accurate map as much as it is about designing the most useful one.” And then he added with a wry grin, “You will find as we go, however, that accuracy is extraordinarily useful.”

      See also this excerpt from “Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy”.

      The connection to the original post is straightforward: accuracy is related to truth, value to usefulness.

      That said, I think the very phrasing of the original question may involve a fundamental category error (of the type of lattice ordering associated), or possibly an ambiguity (involving theorem versus certification).

  • Jesse

    The best argument I see for the value of scrupulousness in metaphysical belief is that it is too hard to keep delusions in such matters from seeping in and infecting beliefs in pragmatic areas. Religious metaphysical delusions currently threaten the teaching of good science, for example. Dogmatic, badly reasoned, metaphysics leads to some dangerous value judgments from the dominant world religions.

    Well, yes, but I could come up with a few examples where a belief in something demonstrably untrue actually led to a decent outcome. In Native American mythologies, there are lots of statements that are demonstrably untrue. (In the way that it is demonstrably untrue you can fly under your own power like Superman).

    But using those as a guide for living resulted in sustainable communities. For example, the conception that every object and tree has some consciousness or living essence I pretty difficult to demonstrate, and in some cases is demonstrably false. But it worked. One might argue that many ritualistic beliefs – kosher laws, for instance – were a way for people to reserve their health when they didn’t have the available scientific information. But again, it worked. By the criteria you laid out here (if I am understanding it right) it shouldn’t work.

    This is related to an earlier discussion we had about moral nihilism. I’m still not convinced there are any moral absolute truths, by the way, just rules of thumb that may or may not enhance our survival (and even by your criteria, flourishing) as a species. I said it before though: I think a dolphin, whale or chimp might differ with you on the value thereof.

    (You can’t argue the reality that atoms emit photons when hit with energy of some kind. You can argue all day about whether slavery is wrong, since it depends entirely on how you define what a person is, for starters, what right is, what wrong is. By itself that throws the whole idea into question, and after reading your posts I can only conclude you are just defining away the problem).

    But I digress. I brought up to you just now one example of demonstrably false beliefs leading to a good outcome (again, using your very own criteria) assuming you believe survival is better than not and that outstripping your local resources to the point where everyone dies would be a bad thing, too.

    So when you get into the value of truth, I’d say “it depends.” If you want to launch a rocket, truth matters. If you want to build a functioning society, well, I just gave an example of a society that functioned quite well based on some things that were false. In fact, I can’t come up with any group of people that embraced rational truth all the time, ever in all of human history. I might even argue that disregarding empirically demonstrable “truths” has been integral to advancing human knowledge, in some cases.

    To give a hoary example, Einstein disregarded the empirically demonstrable truth that time is not relative and that velocity plus reference frame velocity is additive. (That is, if Justin Verlander is in a car moving at 185,999 miles per second, and throws a baseball, relativity states that it is not thrown at 186,099 mph but a quantity that will never quite approach c). Now one could argue that he was getting a more true understanding but the fact remains it is empirically true that in the Verlander example, if I were in a car at normal speeds — say, 50 mph, and Verlander throws his fastball, it goes to 150 mph.

    And I’ll throw out a problem from economics (and why I think economics can be a dicey science). If truth is so great, why doesn’t everyone want it the way they want good-tasting food or good sex, or air? People (religious people often but others too) consciously reject true ideas all the time. But life goes on. Nobody’s head explodes and the car still turns on and the sun still rises. Stuff works.

    If I deny that gasoline is needed for the car it won’t move magically when I run out of gas. if I deny that gravity works and jump off the Empire State Building I am toast.

    But if I deny that you are human and say you are an alien from Zantar (are you?) my life goes on as before. So in some cases, I can deny truth (you are human) and everything is A-OK.

    Maybe I am stupid but I can’t get my head around how to solve this except to say the value of truth is highly dependent on context.

  • Ichthyic

    Prima facie, it looks like there might be some cognitive dissonance in the mind of the anti-faith utilitarian atheist who both claims that moral goodness is determined by what leads to the greatest happiness while rejecting that religions should be accepted as good in the cases of people who find their happiness increases from participating in them.

    sorry, but you didn’t actually analyze this from a utilitarian perspective.

    If you had, you would have included that those same religions that make SOME happy in participating in them, can also make many more UNHAPPY by imposing their dogma on others.

    In fact, it is not uncommon to see those that are made HAPPY by their regions doing so BECAUSE it enables them to act out their personal bigotries with support from peers.

    I would suggest you consider this when thinking about why utilitarian atheists consider religion to be anathema.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      You seem to have missed the rather long discussion where he does just that, and effectively limits the acceptable religion to those who don’t have it impact other things, like their relation to science. So, a theism like mine, where the behavioural impact is more that I go out and post about it on my blog and in comments rather than go out and impose it on anyone else. Of course there may be impacts, and that would have to be considered in totality as well — adding up the unhappiness from imposition and the happiness from imposition as well for all people — but that’s not something that he denies or ignores.


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