September 11, 2019

When Believing False Things is Comforting

dream catcher

I'm sure that most of us can easily identify several things we'd like to believe but don't because we know (or at least suspect) that they are not true. Some of them are things we'd like to believe because it would make us feel better to do so. Some of them are things we'd like to believe because we really wish they were true. But we do not generally believe things we know (or suspect) to be false, do we? Actually, I am not sure about that.

If you are familiar with the sort of street epistemology popularized by Anthony Magnabosco, you have undoubtedly encountered the claim that most people are interested in believing more true things and fewer false things. It is a claim in which I would very much like to believe. Believing it would make me feel better about humanity, and I'd also very much like it to be true. Unfortunately, I am not at all convinced that it is true. In fact, I suspect that it is not true for many religious believers when it comes to religious belief.

The most frustrating conversation I've ever head with a religious believer is one I've had several times with several different religious believers. The common thread and what makes it so frustrating is that they are willing to place their personal feelings (i.e., the comfort they derive) above truth when it comes to their religious belief. To their credit, many have been very open about this.

I recognize that what I believe might not be true, but I believe it anyway because it makes me feel good to do so.
This is the point at which it becomes clear that continuing the conversation has little point. I mean, what does one say to that? If someone is content to believe things that they acknowledge might be false merely because it makes them feel good, we are coming at the question of belief in such different ways that I am not sure we will ever find common ground. It does not seem like these religious believers are willing to subject their religious beliefs to any real consideration about whether they are true. Even if they did, it is unlikely that they would change their belief as long as it produces positive feelings.

This issue here is not that I have any difficulty understanding why someone would like to feel good. Who doesn't want to feel good? As I mentioned above, there are plenty of things that I'd like to believe because it would probably make me feel good to do so. I cannot do so, however, if I suspect they are false. Even if I might sometimes wish I could do so, I have not figured out how to make myself do so. Similarly, there are all sorts of things I really wish were true. It would be great to be able to believe that at least a few of them were true. But once again, I have not figured out how to believe this when I suspect they are false.

What do you think about the claim that most people are interested in maximizing their true beliefs and minimizing their false beliefs? Is this true of most people? Is it true of most religious believers?