Is Untruth a Condition of Life?

A better way to think about belief

Photo by Ahmed Hasan
We are golden averages, volitant stabilities, compensated or periodic errors, houses founded on the sea. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you look at most issues right now you’ll notice a consistent theme: both sides, and there are typically only two, believe that the other view is irrational. You can tell belief is at work when legitimate contrary evidence only further entrenches original opinions and eventually makes utterly unthinkable the idea that the other side might actually be in the right. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Gun control advocates think increasing gun ownership is irrational: look at the correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths by country. Critics find it irrational to block law-abiding citizens from buying guns because guns don’t kill people, people kill people, right?
  • Religions find it irrational to not believe in their specific god. I mean, do you want to go to Hell? Others find it irrational to believe in a vengeful anthropomorphic genie in the sky.
  • Abortion is murder because life starts at the moment of conception. But, then again, you know that it wouldn’t be a tough choice if you had to decide between saving a 5-year-old or one million zygotes from a burning building.

Thus we convince ourselves of the other view’s irrationality. However, such a position misses the point entirely. Here’s why: Irrational beliefs can lead to rational and productive actions which themselves reveal that we may not even believe what we profess.

The human brain does its job by building mental models of the world around us. There is far too much information for us to process, so these models act as somewhat faithful representations and are, for a fact, never completely accurate.

Far before cognitive bias theory took root in psychology, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche explained that these models operate as instances of untruth and irrationality which are actually vital for rational action. Here’s his aphorism #333 from Beyond Good and Evil:

“The falseness of a judgement is not necessarily an objection to a judgment… The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding; and our fundamental tendency is to assert that the falsest judgments (to which synthetic judgments a priori belong) are the most indispensable to us, that without granting as true the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a continual falsification of the world by means of numbers, mankind could not live — that to renounce false judgments would be to renounce life, would be to deny life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that act alone, beyond good and evil.”

In other words, what we consider truths are in any case mostly illusions which we’ve merely forgotten are such, and so are the beliefs in relation to them.

What may be worse is that people probably don’t even believe what they think they do. For example, Jorge Borges points out that despite religion the actual belief in immortality is incredibly rare:

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive. And let’s not forget that one century is 0% of infinity.

Hence, despite what they profess, they are revealed by the emphasis they place upon action.

So beliefs can’t be taken seriously in general and people probably don’t even believe what they think they do. What then can we make of this? Should we all become nihilists?

Not quite.

The answer is that we should test beliefs not based on truth or rationality but by whether they motivate actions which serve the goal of preserving or enhancing human life.

Are the actions of those who hold the belief life-affirming or life-denying? Are they a resilient people who have lived through thousands of years of adversity, such as the Jews?

Warren Buffet would agree with this since his investment strategy is based upon the fundamental principle of first not losing money. Everything else, including making money, is absolutely secondary. This same filter, this same principle of first avoiding destruction, can be applied to assess any belief or system of beliefs.

Take climate change for instance: is this truth or untruth? Doesn’t matter, what does matter is that if we preserve the environment we thereby preserve our lives and those of our children while if we don’t then we all die. There’s no getting around that. Seems pretty damn simple to me which belief is more valuable.

Let us then focus on the rationality of the actions to which beliefs lead by determining whether or not those actions preserve or enhance human life, rather than making judgments about the rationality or truthfulness of the beliefs themselves.

What you do is all that matters.