Wednesday, June 19, 2013

False Beliefs

False beliefs are bad.

Desirism accounts well for the badness of false beliefs. People seek to objectively satisfy their desires, but act so as to objectively satisfy their desires given their beliefs. In other words, they act in ways that would have objectively satisfied their desires in a world where their beliefs are true.

(Note: To say that a "desire that P" is "objectively satisfied" is to say that a state of affairs has been created in which P is true.)

My standard illustrative story about the problem of false beliefs is that of a thirsty jogger taking a drink of what she falsely believes is clean water. Her act would have objectively satisfied her desire in a world in which her beliefs are true, but not in a world where the water has, in fact, been poisoned.

On this model, I have said that liars are parasites. They infect their victims with a false belief so as to harvest their victims' efforts for their own ends. People generally have many and strong reasons to punish and condemn liars.

Desirism also identifies intellectual recklessness as a moral crime. A person who points a gun and pulls the trigger, falsely believing it not to be loaded, is reckless. A person properly concerned that his actions cause no harm to others will double-check important facts that risk bringing harm. We may condemn those who do not do so for their lack of concern.

Religions are full of false beliefs. As such, they cause people - even good people (meaning by this, people with desires people generally have reason to promote, and lacking desires people generally have reason to inhibit) to fail to fulfill and to sometimes thwart other desires. It is not the case - as Steven Weinberg claimed - "For good people to do evil things - that takes religion." What is true is that for good people to do evil things - that takes false beliefs.

A good person is not intellectually reckless. An intellectually reckless person is not good. But some false beliefs seep in regardless of an agent's intentions.

There are limits to our epistemic powers and, from this, to our culpability in the case of error.

Nobody has held all of their beliefs to the careful light of reason. It's impossible.

Our first beliefs are handed to us. We do not even have the capacity to reason. For those who claim they will not "indoctrinate" their child - what are you going to do, lock them in a dark, soundproof room until they have the capacity to reason? How do they gain such a capacity?

Even when we can think about our beliefs, holding a belief "up to the light of reason" means comparing beliefs to other beliefs - some of them having just been picked up.

We take shortcuts. We have to. Lacking time or ability to objectively verify and continually reverify everything we know, we use methods that are "good enough".

If a society was 95% atheist, my bet is that the bulk of that population will be atheists for exactly the same reason most are Christian in some countries today or Muslim in others. They will simply pick up the beliefs common in their society substantially without question. Later, when they apply the light of reason to future beliefs, much of that will involve comparing those beliefs to this arationally adopted base set and determine if they match or do not match. This is one of our shortcuts. This is how the human species survives. Sincerely, one of the things we can say about those standard beliefs is, "They got us this far."

When people focus on "religion" rather than "false belief" they open the door to two types of avoidable misakes - desire-thwarting mistakes, which is why I write against them.

First, they put too much too much emphasis on religious beliefs that are not causing people to behave in ways harmful to others. And, second, it takes the spotlight off of false beliefs that are not religious. As such, it takes efforts away from battling beliefs that cause greater harm and focuses effort on condemning those whose beliefs are relatively harmless.

Allow me to assume that everything I have written about desirism is true and that all other moral theories contain significant errors - just for illustrative purposes. It is quite possible to be a theist and still accept desirism. For example, one can believe that there is a god creator of the universe who created a universe in which some desires are malleable and we have been given the social tools of praise and condemnation to promote useful desires and inhibit harmful desires. At the same time, the atheist can believe in Marxism, Objectivism, Act Utilitarianism, Common Moral Relativism - or any of a dozen other error-ridden theories prompting, in some cases, "good people to do evil things".

And, yes, I consider Marxism, Objectivism, and Moral Relativism more destructive than some religions. Act utiltarianism fails to be dangerous because it simply cannot be put into practice. Human beings do not work the way that act utilitarianism requires.

There are a whole lot of false beliefs out there. Some are religious, some are not. Some are dangerous, some are not. The practical thing to do is to focus on those that are the most dangerous, not necessarily those that are the most religious.


Ben Pace said...

So, Alonzo, how do we figure out/calculate which are the most damaging?

Emu Sam said...

Sociological research. Millions or billions of tests into the future, we'll have some semblance of an idea.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Substantially the same way we (should) determine which government policies are best and which desires people have the most and strongest reasons to promote. In some cases, the answer will be clear; others, it will be difficult and we will have to make our choices in the absence of perfect information.

That's life.

GeoPorcupine said...

I've been using the terms goal (or end) actualization versus desire satisfaction. The difference is belief. If I trick my vagus nerve, then I no longer desire to eat, but the end I could say that that desire meant (was about), in this case having nutrients / food, has not been actualized.

Nick said...

Reminds me of Sartre's concept of 'bad faith'- the only responsibility a person has is to figure out a consistent and robust philosophy by which to live their life.

Anything else and they are living in 'bad faith' and lying to themselves.

mojo.rhythm said...


What is your take on orthodox Marxism’s claim (held basically universally by all Marxist theoreticians, scholars, economists, and the like) that none of the ideology advances moral arguments for uprooting capitalism, but a strictly economic (or descriptive?) one? I myself think this specific claim is a pile of horseshit (one of the more dumb political statements I have heard in my lifetime) and have attempted to demonstrate this to fellow lefties at my weekly political branch meetings. Unfortunately all efforts fall by the wayside. The premises and conclusions are not met with rebuttal so much as blithe dismissal and a gentle prod in the direction of the Marxism 101 bookshelf next to the water urn; i.e. they just assume I don’t understand basic Marxism―when I’m actually well past the intermediate stage―rather than taking even five seconds to consider the legitimacy of my reasoning.

It just seems to me obvious beyond all argument that Marx was making a moral case for his variety of non-libertarian socialism. Every third word in his compositions brim with explicit and unambiguous value-judgement, e.g. workers are “exploited,” they have nothing to lose but their “chains,” defenders of capitalism are “bourgeois apologists,” and so on. And let’s not forget that trying to artificially disentangle economic issues from moral issues is completely bogus right from the word go―a non-starter. But I won’t lay out my case in full; the reason I broached this topic is that I was curious as to what your personal take is on this issue. In the same camp as I? Accepting of the core Marxist claim? Agnostic?


Alonzo Fyfe said...


Sorry for the delay. I got burned out.

But . . . to answer your question.

"Workers of the world, unite" is clearly a moral imperative. It's not descriptive. It is not even a proposition. It is a command (or "commandment", if you will).

One can make the purely descriptive claim that, under the appropriate circumstances, the workers of the world will unite for those reasons and to obtain those ends that Marx describes. However, that does not prove that Marx's claims were purely descriptive.

We can do the same to the Bible, claiming that it, too, is merely descriptive of events that happened thousands of years ago - taking its commandments as nothing more than claims of the form "God commanded that . . ." which may be true or false, but which offer no moral guidance. Our ability to do this would not be sufficient to prove that the Bible was not written or intended to be a moral guide.

Sabio Lantz said...

I am a layman concerning all these ideas -- not systematic enough to count as educated in moral reasoning. Yet I have a few intuitions of beliefs which seem to be counter to normal, everyday uses. I listed them in this post.

And because of my view of belief, I see many non-empirical beliefs to be more signals for bonding, belonging, excluding or influencing than acting as cognitive truth maps. Such a view of beliefs undercuts much of atheist categorical generalizations about religion in much the same way that you are rejecting the categorical rejecting of religion, but asking for a deeper look at the functions of what we value.

Of the top of my head, I feel that false, empirically-testable beliefs are bad, but other beliefs, even if false, may not serve as truth-values but other social values too complicated to rule as bad when understood for their true function. The calculations on this sort of thing would be huge, of course.

Marinach9 said...

The Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus might, for example, seem relatively harmless to many but look a little deeper and you will find a state sanctioned cult that has preached Nationalistic hatred for centuries to its people with the resulting effect of disaster after disaster. And in my case I have had a life decimated but the a said Church - I lost a marriage and a Son to their fanaticism. In my Son's case a handsome multi talented and elite student who now fasts and prays all day. I'm far to tired at this time to go into too much detail but I argue that all religions are dangerous some more than others but only when speaking in a time frame - at some point they have all been as dangerous as any other.

Amanda Larsen said...

"Religions are full of false beliefs. As such, they cause people - even good people (meaning by this, people with desires people generally have reason to promote, and lacking desires people generally have reason to inhibit) to fail to fulfill and to sometimes thwart other desires. It is not the case - as Steven Weinberg claimed - "For good people to do evil things - that takes religion." What is true is that for good people to do evil things - that takes false beliefs."

Good people do not do evil things. Good people do good things. Evil people do evil things. Even good people who have false beliefs can reason through them and make good choices.

For example: My whole life I have been taught that in heaven there is a God(male diety) which is part of the holy trinity (three gods in one place and in all places all at once). I did believe this till I was about 14 and actually started thinking about it.

If it says in the scriptures we are made in God's image the belief above is ludicrous. It is more likely if you believe in God that he is a personage like you and I and that he has a wife. There is no other way for us to be in his image if the organization of our families are not in his image.

My conclusion was and is, I must have heavenly parents, brothers and sisters, etc.

Beliefs do not make us good or evil they just are.

Our choices are what defines in each of us goodness and evilness.

In my life i have had horrific cruelty inflicted upon me by my "earthly family". This could have influenced me to believe that a heavenly family would be the same but for that rational element I have in my head and my ability to observe other families and persons.

In order to judge for ourselves what is good and just we must spend time observing what people do and think and feel in relation to a belief. Only when we have armed ourselves with knowledge can we hope to actually emulate goodness.

Rich said...

"For good people to do evil things - that takes religion." What is true is that for good people to do evil things - that takes false beliefs."

Belief doesn't make us evil. Good people might become foolish to get involved in some rituals and superstitions, but do you really think it may completely convert a good person and make him evil?

Raul Pevere said...

As one who is waking up from the sleep of christianity, I can attest to the damage that is caused by false beliefs. I have escaped a psychological and emotional prison that kept me in fear and self-contempt for a better part of twenty years. While I cannot say that I consider myself completely free from this experience, I am in the process of re-evaluating my former beliefs in light of intensely vetted research. At this stage I will say that I am a non-practicing christian with an open mind to the fact that what I believed could be 100% bullshit. I have so many recollections and questions that have made me suspicious and I am not stopping my search until I am either a staunch atheist or an astute apologist. Any help to steer me in the right direction would be greatly appreciated.

- Raul