Bad Ideas, Belief, Biases, Cognitive Biases, Human Nature, Ideas, Intellectual Honesty, Knowledge, Logic, Philosophy, Reason, Skeptical Thinking, Thinking, Truth

Finding Truth in All the Wrong Places

SUMMARY: The post examines the notion that we can reliably decide what is true or not according to whether or not an idea “feels true”.

(About a 3 minute read)

“Suppose truth really is a woman”,  Nietzsche asks at the beginning of one of his books.  “Has not the history of philosophy proven that philosophers are clumsy around women?”

Nietzsche was among the first Europeans to recognize how problematic is the notion that we humans seek truth.  About the same time, in America, the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce was developing Pragmatism — a school of philosophy resting on the observation that we do not seek truth, but rather seek the psychologically comfortable state of belief.

That is, Peirce noticed that it is emotionally uncomfortable to be in a genuine state of doubt about something.  For instance, you would most likely feel uncomfortable if you were genuinely undecided about whether or not god existed or even about whether or not we could know if god existed.  You’d naturally attempt to escape from that discomfort by arriving at a belief either that god existed, didn’t exist, or could not be determined to exist or not.

As a rule, the more genuine our uncertainty is, the greater is our emotional discomfort.

It is easy to convince oneself that one has an open mind about something that one actually has a pretty firm belief about.  But most of us tend to come down on one side or the other of nearly any question just about as soon as we hear it.  You more or less need to force your mind open if you want to be truly open-minded about something.

In addition to the apparent fact that we do not seek the discomfort of truth so much as we seek the peace and quiet of a firm belief, we have a closely related tendency to judge whether or not something is true according to whether it “feels true” — that is, according to whether it makes us feel comfortable to believe it.

There was a time many years ago when that was widely recognized for what it is, an unreliable means of deciding what is true or not.  But in the 1960s, it became a popular notion.  It has — apparently — only grown in popularity since.

In practice, it amounts to accepting as true what we are predisposed or prejudiced by our existing beliefs to consider true.  If we think Obama was born in Kenya, for instance, we are most likely prejudiced to believe that Obama doesn’t have the best interests of the country in mind when he proposes health care reform.  The more emotionally comfortable position might be to see his proposal as some sort of nefarious plot to undermine the insurance industry.

Again, if we believe that natural events always have natural causes we are most likely prejudiced to believe that the Big Bang came about in some natural fashion than that it was caused by deity.

The point here is not that Obama’s health care plan was an innocent attempt to benefit Americans, or that the Big Bang came about by an act of god, but that our existing beliefs predispose or prejudice us to feel comfortable with logically consistent beliefs, and uncomfortable with logically inconsistent beliefs.

Of course, logical consistency is an indication that something might be true.  Consequently, it can be accepted as reasonable evidence of truth.  Put differently, there are times when our “instinct” to think something which “feels like it’s true” is true is not a wholly bad way to judge whether a thing is true or not.

Certainly, it would be hard to go through life doubting every feeling that something was true.  For sure, that would slow things down a bit.  “It feels true to me that the tickets I bought will allow me to get into the concert, but shouldn’t I doubt that until I have actual evidence that it’s so?”  It would probably be impossible to keep that attitude alive for a full day, let alone a full lifetime.

At the same time, it would seem worthwhile to avoid assuming something is true merely because it feels true when it comes to questions that are crucially important to us to get their answers right.

At that point, it would be best for us to assess the questions on the basis of logical reasoning and empirical evidence.

Questions? Comments?


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