Truth: The Enemy Within

The following article is NOT sarcasm, nor is it an early April Fool’s joke.  I am very serious about everything here.

As we approach April Fool’s, it seems natural to talk about truth and Truth. I use the cases to distinguish the simple definition (lowercase) from people’s attachment to the concept (uppercase).

Something is true if it corresponds to reality.  Sometimes people put a premium on this correspondence.  When they do, something ceases to be the truth and becomes the Truth.  This is odd.  So what if something corresponds to reality?  Why seek it? This isn’t to say that seeking the truth in some instances is unimportant; sometimes it’s very important.  But when it is important, it’s not because it’s Truth that matters but what it enables. In short, truth is a means to an end and not an end itself.

For instance, if there is an ongoing atrocity then knowing the truth about it can enable us to stop it. What is valuable here is not Truth, but the stopping of an atrocity. The truth gets its value only because it can help end it. Or take the desire to find the truth about God.  This is valuable because it can tell people how to live to achieve lasting happiness (in heaven) or even whether they should just favor this life instead.  In this case it isn’t Truth that matters, but happiness. Even a case of  “detached” interest, like knowing how a particle behaves is valuable not because knowing it would give us Truth, but because the subject is interesting to those involved (eg: intrinsic interest, grant money,  fame, support for a pet theory, …).

Truth is a tool like a hammer. A hammer is not good or bad, it can simply be put to good or bad uses. A hammer can build a house or break knee caps. (Most) people do not value hammers for their own sakes. (Most) people do not consider hammers intrinsically good and use them at every opportunity. In fact, there’s a saying: if your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.  Yet, this is how many people treat Truth. Rather than ask if truth is going to help or hurt, they regard Truth as intrinsically good and use it regardless of consequences.

Imagine someone with a belief that gives them comfort. Now imagine that this belief is not True, and revealing the Truth would end the belief and the person’s happiness. Why would anyone reveal the Truth in this case? Such an act seems pointless and cruel. Yet there are people out there who would do this out of good intentions. They would even do it knowing the suffering it would cause, yet still think they are doing the person a favor.  These people consider Truth more important than happiness.

Look at the people who speak patronizingly of “comforting delusions” and who try to “enlighten” those they consider deluded. Look at people who hurt themselves because of Truth.  Look at people who put themselves in harm’s way because of Truth. Look at people who adopt pain-causing worldviews because of Truth. All this to support a claim that is in line with reality?

Why does a correspondence with reality matter? Why is it worth striving for, dying for, becoming miserable for? So what if  something is not true? To even value Truth for its own sake is to hold some abstraction (what “really” is) over what really matters (how things feel). Maybe it’s this valuing abstraction over life that’s the root of our problems.

How many people suffer from grudges because they value the abstraction that a person is wrong over the reality that this feels bad? How many people question their spiritual practice because they value the abstraction that their practice is a placebo over the experience that when they practice, they feel better?

Unfortunately, we live in a world in which Truth has taken such a prominent role that people with happiness producing beliefs are often under assault and need to protect themselves. How does one find protection from Truth?

One can meet the problem head on.  When Truth comes knocking, fight it.  Of course this may lead to undesirable consequences, but with enough energy and tenacity one might be able to keep Truth at bay.

One can take inspiration from Star Trek’s Borg. Rather than fight Truth, alter one’s belief so it can absorb competing information and make it it’s own.  Not only would this prevent Truth from assailing happiness, but it can even be called in service of it.

If that is not possible, one can try to isolate from the unwelcome information.  Turning off the TV, cancelling one’s internet service and spending time with like minded people (or alone) may do the trick.  But how isolated can one get?

All these strategies have a problem however; they are still enslaved to Truth.  They use the Truth as a tool for their own ends and in doing so, they give it implicit authority over themselves. The knife cuts both ways. A safer solution is to be free of Truth. How is that done?

Avoid ontological commitments — claims about how things really are — for they are the door through which Truth enters.  What is the one place free from ontological commitments?  Experience. Experience isn’t this or that, it simply IS.

I will now assume that Science is the main challenger to comforting Truths both because it tends to tackle these Truths and because it carries the weight of authority.  However, I believe this argument can be adapted to other sources of competing Truths…

Science has never (to my knowledge) challenged experience itself, it simply challenged the things said to underlie experience (the ontological commitments).

Science cannot deny that I am happy now; it can only explain the happiness as biochemistry or challenge any ontological commitments regarding the source of my happiness.

Science cannot deny that I experience a sun moving across the sky.  It however can explain that what’s really happening is that the Earth is moving around the sun and then explain why my experience is the way it is.

As long as I stay firmly in experience I am fine.  It’s when I make ontological commitments — even ones supported by Science (or any other source of Truth) — that I run into problems.  These problems can be challenges or even worries about challenges.

I don’t need to make ontological commitments, for the things I value are experiences.  Happiness is an experience.  Misery is an experience.  It’s the experience itself and nothing beyond it that I find intrinsically desirable or un-desirable.   So why posit anything beyond experience?


1. If you knew someone with untrue beliefs that brought them joy, would you reveal the truth knowing it would hurt them and would never give them anything positive in return? If so, why?

2. Would you want to know if someone you care about betrayed you, assuming the betrayal itself would have no bearing on your well-being?  For instance, maybe it’s a cheating spouse, back-biting friend, etc… If so, why?

3. Take a belief that is important to you: would you want this belief challenged? If so, why?

4. How do you feel about Truth?  If someone called you deluded (in the sense that what you believe is not True), how would that make you feel? Would you willingly delude yourself if you knew it would bring you happiness?

22 thoughts on “Truth: The Enemy Within

  1. **Spoiler alert** Don’t read any further if you use homeopathic remedies!

    I have friends who believe in homeopathy. I don’t, but I do believe in the placebo effect so I’m happy for my friends. I don’t try to persuade them (with scientific arguments about dilution) that homeopathic pills are just sugar. I might be wrong about water not having a “memory”, etc. I just can’t believe it. So who’s worse off? Me, the holder of the Truth!

    1. I tried to read your new post but your blog seems to be private again so I can’t get in… didn’t know how to get in touch until it occurred to me to comment here (sorry, bloggingisaresponsibility.)

      1. Parfit came up in class today. Just barely. I believe you’ve written about him? Someone has.

      2. I just got on. Both David Yerle and I mentioned Derek Parfitt. Whether we’ve actually written about him… not sure. There are a few free online articles you can read. If you are interested, please let me know and I’ll try to dig them up for you.

      3. I don’t know if I’ve actually written about him, but I’ve definitely mentioned him and my post on personal identity is basically a rip-off of his ideas. I do recomment reading Reasons and Persons, especially the part on personal identity (the part on morality is a little less exciting.)

  2. You may not be surprised to learn that I disagree with most of this. In fact, it’s going to be a long, long reply… sorry about that. Also, this doesn’t mean I didn’t find the article thought-provoking, as usual. I wouldn’t write such a long reply if I hadn’t.
    First, I disagree with the fact that making ontological commitments is avoidable. For example, you look to the sides when you cross the street. That is because you believe something called a car may run you over and hurt you. I’m sure it’s possible to come up with an explanation of why you do this without ontological commitment, but it will be a pretty convoluted one. Having absolutely no ontological commitments is not only borderline impossible but probably undesirable.
    Second, I think you’re considering how having a belief affects the individual. However, I don’t care how that individual’s belief affects them. I care about how it affects the rest of us. For example, the woman who died in Ireland because she wasn’t allowed to get an abortion she needed died because of someone else’s belief. I couldn’t care less if that belief makes that someone else happy. It lead to the death of a person. It is a wrong (both ways: not related to truth and immoral) belief. Similarly, my everyday life is affected by the baseless beliefs of millions of people in a negative way. Their beliefs make me unhappy, because a fundamental part of their belief is that they have the right to enforce it on me. If people with absurd beliefs kept to themselves things would be just dandy. But unfortunately they don’t. They go and make laws and force the rest of us to abide by them.
    The fundamental problem with a belief is that it’s not restricted to the individual. It affects other people. If having a belief was sterile, that is, had no consequences outside the individual, I would be perfectly happy to condone it. But beliefs often affect others in a negative way. When that happens, it is OK to challenge those beliefs, not because of the belief itself but as the root of some undesirable behavior.
    Let me give you an example. Imagine I’m a Jehovah witness and I refuse to get a blood transfusion. I would say that’s a harmful belief (I’ll die from it) but I’m willing to accept it as harmless. It stops being harmless when I don’t let my child get a blood transfusion either. It becomes even more harmful if I try to pass a law forbidding blood transfusions.
    There’s something else. In here you seem to assume beliefs are voluntary: I choose to believe this because it makes me happy. However, that’s not the way things usually work. Most beliefs come from our families and are forced onto us from birth. Some of those beliefs may make us scared or unhappy. Many Christians, for example, suffer greatly because of the thought of Hell. That is not a comforting belief. If they could choose, they probably wouldn’t have it. But they didn’t have a choice. The same goes for sex: I know some people who suffer from terrible remorse every time they have sex. One of these people used to be Catholic and quit her faith but still cannot get over the guilt, even though she knows it’s baseless. How does that make her happy? People don’t choose their beliefs in general. Beliefs are forced upon people. They were forced upon her. She had no say in it.
    Finally, I think you underestimate the power of a belief. People don’t change their minds if they don’t want to. For example, nobody turns into an atheist against their will. People change opinions when they are willing, not when they are forced to by the “power of reason.” I have never ever heard of someone who was “forced by the evidence” to stop believing in God against their will.
    For example, maybe my belief that the pursuit of Truth is a worthy goal makes me happy. In this blog post, you’re attacking this belief. I could choose not to read your post. I could choose to read it and disagree. Or I could choose to read it and agree. You’re not forcing me to do anything: I choose to read this and confront my beliefs and that is fine. It’s certainly much better than covering my ears and singing “tralalalalala.” But the thing is, if I don’t want to be convinced, I won’t be. No matter how many arguments you throw my way. So it is pointless to worry about people getting their happy beliefs challenged: if they choose to stick with them, they will. If they choose to challenge them, they will. It’s their choice. Challenging their belief, I’m giving them one. Smiling and nodding, I’m not. I’m actually assuming they won’t enjoy or appreciate the challenge. I am making the choice for them, assuming I know what’s good for them better than themselves.
    So, to wrap things up:
    1. I think ontological commitment is almost unavoidable and probably desirable to some extent.
    2. Belief unfortunately has a tendency to go beyond the individual: there are very few “harmless” beliefs. Hence the need to challenge them even if they make the individual happy.
    3. People don’t change their minds unless they want to. Their “delusion” is safe from external influence. There is no need to shield people from dissension: people shield themselves well enough.
    4. By engaging in a discussion you give these people a choice between changing their minds or staying the same. You present a new point of view they may not be familiar with. Whether they choose to embrace it is up to them (skeptics and atheists still haven’t made laws forcing Catholics to have abortions or marry gay people, that I’m aware, for example.)
    5. Challenging someone’s belief you’re assuming they’re mature/confident enough to handle it. It is a sign of respect. For example, if I chose not to engage in this discussion to not “challenge your beliefs that make you happy” I would be disrespecting you, assuming you’re not intelligent or mature enough to take the criticism and respond without feeling attacked. It would be a sign that I feel intellectually superior to you and do not deem you worthy of engagement (something which, to be completely honest, I do with other people. Not that I’m proud of it.)
    You probably won’t agree with all of my points (or any) but at least I hope to have made some sense.
    As always, a pleasure!

    1. It’s always good to get a long response from you 🙂

      I agree with your points on ethics and ontological commitments required for functioning.

      I didn’t mention ethics because I took that as a given. I often include ethical asides in my posts, but decided to just treat that as understood in this post. That may have been a mistake; perhaps I should have been explicit about that.

      The beliefs I was talking about were beliefs on the order of “the universe is orderly” or “I can achieve enlightenment”. Beliefs about cars hitting me or stepping off of cliffs may require an ontological commitment, but they are more the kind of daily functioning beliefs that I don’t think are happiness-affecting on any grand scale. They’re also not the kinds of beliefs likely to be challenged in daily life, nor are they the kind of beliefs I’m likely to get insecure over 🙂

      What you write about belief not being voluntary is interesting. I’m still struggling with this. Are beliefs involuntary? How do we originally get beliefs? Are they something put in us that we passively accept? Do we on some level accept them? Do we analyze them in terms of other beliefs? If for instance, we assume desire is a belief that something is worth having, then wouldn’t advertising work on belief, and if it does, are we passive victims of advertising? Or does it appeal to our pre-existing beliefs? If that’s the case, what beliefs are fundamental and can we use that to our advantage? I might just have to blog these questions 🙂

      However, if for the sake of argument, we assume beliefs are involuntary then this both reinforces and undermines some of my points. I think this reinforces my points in that if beliefs are involuntary, then a change of beliefs is involuntary which means a happiness-producing belief can be challenged by unwelcome information which a person would do well to protect against. On the other hand, meeting the belief head-on in the case of an involuntary belief may not be tenable, and some questions arise about the effectiveness of other strategies for dealing with beliefs.

      I’ve been considering blogging about beliefs, but I need to learn more before I feel I can delve into anything resembling detail on this.

      1. I see we agree more than I thought then. The thing about beliefs being voluntary/involuntary is quite tricky. In some respects, some beliefs are involuntary: for example, most people vote right or left just because their family does the same. On the other hand, some of these people do change their minds over time, though they’re a minority (I read somewhere it’s like 10%).
        Maybe we’re more susceptible to embrace beliefs when we’re children because of evolutionary motives. That is, the child who doesn’t just “do as she’s told” ends up dead. Later in life questioning beliefs becomes safer from a survival point of view. That would explain why children are so gullible and tend to believe stories into adulthood. For example, when I was little some other child told me that, if I put a glass upside down, a spirit got trapped inside and got angry. I believed it. Even now, when I know this belief is ridiculous, I have to stop myself from leaving a little aperture for the “spirit” to escape. It’s just hard-wired in my brain!

      2. Good points…

        Maybe most of our beliefs are based upon other beliefs, with very few fundamental beliefs at the core? A child by definition would have few fundamental beliefs and therefore would be very impressionable. But then as you point out, when we go out on our own, our beliefs are most likely to be revised, so some aspects of dependency play into it, unless somehow the independence ties in with some of the fundamental beliefs…

        You’ve inspired me to dig into this. There are a few books out there, and one of them looks particularly promising…

  3. I’m not sure there is a big Truth. And even the little truths are often just thoughts and beliefs.

    I think I like my beliefs challenged (I’ve just spent an hour writing an anti-post to prove it).

    I remember cases where some idea I’d invested in came crashing down and I don’t feel damaged by it.

    These days, I often wonder if other people want to know about my truth (or, to be exact, my story) when it contradicts their own.

    Like with atheism: We atheists know what we’re on about, but that’s because we knew all along. I see theists comment on atheist posts, but that only seems to lead to a polite ‘agree to disagree’ ending or to one of the parties quitting. Who knows, maybe something does ‘click’ later. Often a casual observation becomes important later on. It’s just that sometimes I think it’s better to ask questions than to give answers. Maybe I’m turning into an old softie? 😉

    1. Preferring to ask questions rather than to give answers is a good place to be. In fact, turning into an old softie is a lot better than being an angsty young’un. I find preferring to ask questions and being an old softie are more conducive to happiness 🙂

  4. Boy did this get me thinking! Thank you for this post. On to your questions. I apologize for what I am sure will be a long-winded response.

    1.) Usually, no. If, however, I knew with some certainty that the ‘comforting delusion’ was also limiting them from further experience, I may. My grandmother, for example, is die-hard in her beliefs. I nod and affirm them. She has lived her years and found great happiness and drive in them. I am happy for her, and would never intentionally take that away. My cousins, however, raised into those same beliefs, are comforted by them, but also inhibited in many regards. They want to venture out into the world, and yet I can see that when they do, the anti-Christian friction they encounter causes them to retreat back into their community and seek validation, which is easy to find there. They could live their lives out in this community very happily, but I feel oddly responsible as ‘an elder’ to nudge them in the direction of the world, however unforgiving it may be. I do not call them out on their delusions at all, nor do I try to paint for them a godless world. I only (rarely) will passively speak on behalf of experiences I have had that I know they would enjoy, and let them do with those subtle suggestions what they will.

    2.) Having been in a situation like this, it is hard to say if I would want to know again. Probably, but I may be masochistic in that way. It would also depend on whether or not I would be at all privy to it. I find that when something is amiss in my life, even my unconscious awareness of it manifests in physical anxiety. However cold the truth may be, it does put me at an odd ease.

    3.) I always want my beliefs challenged, for it was in past challenges that my present beliefs were wrought. I grow tired of stagnant thoughts. Let them be cut down!

    4.) If someone called me deluded, I would have to agree. I’d call them the same. We all have our delusions. I do not like the negative connotations of the word. I believe that the small fictions we create to describe the world are all we really have to navigate it, and that they can be beautiful. It is what makes us human, and each of us unique. Those little narratives distinguish one person from the other. They allow for love and cooperation. They also allow for hatred and war. Truth exists for me not as an end, but as an impossible ideal toward which I strive happily, for it is in those vain strides that I find drive and inspiration and development and words. So, yes. I willingly delude myself on a daily basis.

    1. Long winded responses are fine by me — thanks for answering those questions

      I agree with what you say about delusion; in fact I touched upon that (if not written about it) in some other articles. We are all deluded, and for me the question is whether we have a happiness-producing or misery-producing delusion.

      The word “delusion” is a pejorative, and that’s why I used it. Wanted that emotional aspect of judgment present in being called deluded. However, I do think we should move away from this word, although we should be prepared to embrace it if it’s used against us.

  5. Your questions definitely got me thinking. And I don’t know about 1, 2 or 4… Sometimes ignorance is bliss. But for #3, I would most certainly want my beliefs challenged. In fact, I strive to challenge them myself every moment. Sometimes they hold up, sometimes they are forced to change… but overall, the constant revamping keeps me connected with what I believe!

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