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Are They All False Beliefs?

We can easily understand the idea of beliefs that are not true, even if we do not all agree on which particular ones are false. Some of what people believe just doesn't fit the evidence that is available. But there is more to the issue of beliefs than simply deciding which are right and which are wrong. We might even say that all of what we believe is false in a sense, although it's more accurate to say that how we believe is the problem.

The following is not meant to suggest that there is no absolute truth, although it will probably seem like that to some readers. A tree exists, as do other "things." And even non-thing concepts, such as the relationships among things and people and neurons - love, justice and right and wrong, for example - are real in the sense that these concepts/words point to real interactions - even if they are vaguely defined and endlessly debated.

The problem in our thinking comes when we treat our words as though they are truth, rather than pointers toward truth. This distinction is a subtle one, but important. It may be convenient to say that a statement is true or false, but the truth is outside of the words, not in them. What does this mean? Let's look at a simple example. The following is from Chapter Three (The Language Trap) of Beyond Mental Slavery.

Premise #1: Taking food that belongs to someone without permission is stealing.

Premise #2: Stealing is immoral.

Conclusion: Taking someone's food without his or her permission is immoral.

...suppose a man's daughter is starving, and he wants to do what is morally right. The only way he sees to feed her in time to save her life is to enter a stranger's house and take some food. He believes the premises of the above syllogism, but nonetheless decides to take this food, and he feels this is the correct moral decision. Later he decides that stealing isn't immoral if it's the only way to survive. Essentially, he redefines "immoral" to exclude cases where the stealing is necessary to attain higher moral values (the life of his daughter).

You can see that he looked at reality, made the decision which presented itself as most correct, and then created a moral explanation to fit his action. If he were trapped by the words and definitions he previously accepted, he would have let his daughter die to avoid the "immoral" act. Instead, he changed his beliefs to fit what he saw as the truth, as opposed to what his logic said was true.

If you look at the purpose of concepts, the value of this approach becomes much clearer. If, for example, you agree that moral guidelines are meant to serve human life and not the other way around (you don't have to agree, but if you do…), then you see that they have to be adjusted or cast aside when they no longer do that. If any moral principle is meant to serve any purpose other than creating robots of humans, then that purpose is our measure for judging whether to follow that moral rule or not in a given situation.

Chapter Three goes much deeper into the problems of trying to "capture" the truth in words. And yes, it does seem to suggest that false beliefs are all we have, in the sense that all of them likely fail in some context. But notice that when I say we must "cast aside" even moral guidelines if they no longer serve us, I'm not denying the reality of good and evil. The concepts and words we have used are what is cast aside, not the intent to see the truth or do what is right. Nor does this deny the usefulness of moral beliefs, since we cast aside what we believe in favor of better ideas.

Consider the alternative. If our beliefs fail to point to the truth or to serve what is good - and we cling to them instead of replacing them, we are casting aside the truth and the good in favor of mere words.

It is not necessarily a problem to believe and say that stealing is wrong. The problem comes when we don't acknowledge that this is just a convenient way to say something more like, "Stealing is usually wrong except in those rare cases when it serves a higher purpose." Even that statement can be challenged (or expanded), because we can't find the whole truth in concepts and the words that represent them - we only can do our best while knowing that our words always comprise a less-than-complete understanding.

Truth Quote

Beliefs and the Meanings of Our Words

Apart from the matter of the context changing our verbal formulation of what we believe, there is the problem of the meaning we attach to our words. Most of the beliefs we argue about are not about physical things. If one man believes that spider silk is stronger than steel wires of the same weight, and another believes otherwise, a test can settle the matter. But what about less directly testable matters? Suppose, for example, that a man believes government economic stimulus is good, and another believes it is bad?

They may both be logically correct (which, interestingly, is not the same as being right). How is this possible? Because they use the same words, but they attach different meanings to them. We're all guilty of this. When we get away from words for things that we can touch, defining becomes less objective and less universal. When have we ever all agreed on what words like "love," "crime," "friendship," or "virtuous" mean?

Getting back to the example, the first man might point out that every dollar spent by government has to be taken out of the economy eventually, so there is no net gain in economic activity and a net loss occurs due to the non-productive and costly shuffling around of money. An action that hurts the economy must be bad in his mind, using his definitions and understandings.

I would tend to agree, but the second man can reasonably argue that even if government stimulus has a net negative effect over the long term, borrowing and spending money now can smooth out the otherwise worse near-term downturn. This smoothing of the ups and downs - even if it cost us all more in the long run - is seen as something good to him, using his definitions and understandings.

Both are logically correct perhaps, yet unless they can agree on exactly what is meant by each of hundreds of words (starting with "good," "economy," and "stimulus"), they'll continue to disagree. By their own words and logic, each sees that the other is wrong. In a sense they are "talking past each other" - as perhaps most arguments do to an extent. This is sad because the two men might actually learn something from each other if they were to get past merely trying to "prove" the truth of their beliefs.

Of course, it isn't quite fair to say that because of the frailty or limitations of language all convictions are false beliefs. After all, even if all beliefs are approximations, there will be those that are closer or further away from the truth (and so more or less useful). It is more truthful to say "fish live in water" than to say "fish don't live in water," even if we someday find a fish or two that live in mud or in trees. With whatever precision is possible using what words and understandings we have, we do our best to communicate.

Thus it is not necessarily a problem to have beliefs. But it becomes one when we take them to be something more than they are. They are words, logical constructions, temporary understandings - best efforts. It is how we believe that matters. When we hold tight to statements of belief as something solid and forever right, true and unchangeable no matter what evidence presents itself - then they are no longer being used to help us towards the truth. The truth has to take precedence over any verbal formulation meant to point to it.

So while it may be appropriate to point out inaccurate or untrue beliefs when we see them, it is a mistake to think that our better beliefs are meant to be left unchallenged and unchanged - that we have somehow captured truth once and for all in some scribbles on paper, lines on a computer screen or sounds coming from our mouths. The truth is out there - and our words and beliefs will perhaps get us closer to it - if we do not get too attached to them for their own sake.


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Are You a Mind Slave?

Beyond Mental Slavery examines how we become trapped in mental processes that limit the clarity and effectiveness of our thinking. The basic problems - and solutions - are spelled out in simple language. Stories and research are used to show how the mind works - or doesn't work. This book is a how-to guide for clearer, more powerful, and more useful thinking.

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