Is truth the highest value?

Atheists seem to take the point of view that you should avoid non-evidential beliefs even if holding them provided material benefit. Doesn’t this mean placing truth above well-being? Is this accurate? If so, how do you justify this position?

Posted: November 30th 2009

flagellant www

This sounds like a variant on the theme: 'non-evidential belief makes people feel better so it is a good thing’.

Just because something makes you feel better, it doesn’t justify acting as though it’s true. If you put well-being above truth, it means that you can believe any old nonsense, just for the sake of well-being. You can demonstrate the foolhardiness of this by analogy: if you spend the majority of your time in a drunken stupor, it may make you feel better at the time but it doesn’t make drunkenness preferable to sobriety.

Many people use their religious comfort-blanket as an excuse for failing to engage with a situation. One should face up to reality, however unpleasant it may be.

Personally, I try to engage with the World, without illusion. For example, I know that I’ll die one day and that there is absolutely no evidence of an afterlife. I have learnt to accept the fact that I shall totally cease to exist one day. People who believe in an afterlife are guilty of rating wishful thinking above truth; it may make them feel better, but it doesn’t accord with the World as we know it.

Life is like a lovely and enchanting garden, but it cannot be improved by imagining that there are fairies at the end of it (to adapt Douglas Adams’s argument).

Posted: December 7th 2009

See all questions answered by flagellant


Focusing on getting the best answer with the knowledge at our disposal does not exclude emphasizing well being.

The quest for getting reality down as best as possible is on-going – it is not a single bullet projectile, an encapsulated nugget of value, but rather a process fraught with all kinds of difficulties, challenges, and rewards.

Many atheists I know share this approach, and therefore, anecdotally, I can say that well being is considered to be a part of maintaining a reality-based view.

Take the pathetic case of Mother Teresa. Her communion with her god ended rather abruptly, sending her into a tailspin of blackest depression which lasted decades. Because of her lack of skill dealing with reality coupled with the same ignorant inability shown by church authorities, she continued to struggle with great emotional pain for a long time.

Her tortured inner state and her inability to realize that she, herself, with professional help, could at least take the edge off her clinical depression, played an important role why she failed miserably in ensuring the well being of her charges as the only way she knew how to handle her lamentable condition was to glorify pain. If pain purified her, then it would so for the many poor, homeless, destitute people who were under her non-professional and uninformed care.

A person in throes of an addiction – and that is what I regard faith to be, an addiction like narcotic abuse or alcoholism – does not know well-being from a deep, damp, dark, fetid hole in the ground. For an addict, bad is good, and that is what Mother Teresa’s psychology was all about with her distorted relationship with pain.

Some of the most miserable people I have known are self-described 'happy’ religious believers. Their so-called happiness is often betrayed by their emotional inconsistency, their fragility when confronted with reality, and their dependence on authority figures to make up their minds and guide them.

A robber can amass material benefit also. Should we then just let the robber go on her merry way? Or instead demonstrate to her the reality of the consequences of her actions?

Certainly there are cases where religious belief is so vague (these believers are equivalent to social drinkers) that its negative aspects are hardly present and nothing significant is gained by working to dispel those last wisps of an once dangerous cobweb. The only detriment is that such murky believers still insist on placing non-evidential beliefs on a pedestal.

Posted: December 1st 2009

See all questions answered by logicel

Dave Hitt www

Truth sounds a concrete, accurate description of reality, but it’s not. It is subjective. My wife is beautiful – that’s the truth. If you disagree, that doesn’t make you a liar. It just means your truth is different from mine.

I grew up in a cult that refers to their belief system as “The Truth.” Believers were “In The Truth.” People who escaped (like me) “Left The Truth,” or “Fell out of The Truth.” Quite a few cults use this phrase, and their truth is pure unadulterated nonsense. As a result, when anyone claims to have The Truth, I put my hand on my wallet and back away slowly.

I’m not interested in someone else’s Truth. I just want Facts. Facts are concrete. They can be tested and/or verified. Give me the facts, and I’ll figure out The Truth for myself.

Posted: December 1st 2009

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bitbutter www

If I met a person who did not already agree with me that truth is intrinsically valuable then I wouldn’t have enough common ground with them to begin trying to persuade them otherwise.

When I try to persuade a person I’m assuming that they care about the truth. If I were to find out otherwise, the conversation would be over.

So no, I can’t justify my belief that truth is valuable. But the point is moot because I don’t think any situation exists in which it would be useful to try to defend that belief.

Posted: November 30th 2009

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brian thomson www

I think it’s still important to ask whether a proposition is true or not, and judge it accordingly. That does not mean that I’m certain of what the truth is, or that such a thing can be accurately determined, but if I follow some basic baloney detection kit principles, I don’t find it difficult to see when claims of truth by others are baseless.

That’s a good start. It’s a bit like being a movie critic, I think: you don’t have to be an expert in all aspects of film-making to criticise the finished result – though knowledge does help explain the choices made by others in the process.

I’m a bit confused by your statement “you should avoid non-evidential beliefs even if holding them provided material benefit”. But: if there is a material benefit, then that is evidence of something – namely, whatever is leading to that material benefit. Such things don’t just happen: they happen for a reason, and if you hold a scientific view of the world, you try to find the real cause. Not the first easy answer that comes to mind, not some spurious explanation that doesn’t actually explain anything (e.g. “god of the gaps”, Again, there is no guarantee that you will find “truth”, but it’s important to try, because we understand (based on evidence) that accepting such lazy non-explanations has real consequences to the well-being of people. (There are several other questions here that cover that topic!)

As for “placing truth above well-being”: whose well-being? Yours or mine? Must the two concepts work against each other? I’d say that being true to yourself and to others, and not indulging in delusion (self- or otherwise) both supports and indicates well-being.

Posted: November 30th 2009

See all questions answered by brian thomson


I avoid words like “truth”. Philosophers have been arguing about the nature of truth for more than 2500 years and show no sign of stopping.

Your question implies that belief is a choice, when it’s really more of a conclusion. I look at all the data out there, and based on my evaluation of the data, decide that it is insufficient to warrant belief in god. I can’t change how I get to that conclusion – that’s how I decide things, and I make it a point to try to follow that for all things (how close I get to it is another discussion…)

But I’ll ignore that now and see if I can answer. I don’t know exactly what you mean by “material benefit” or “well-being”, but I’m going to assume that you’re referring to some studies that suggest that those with strong religious faith are happier. My comments are:

Such studies are notoriously hard to do well, and the data is always suspect. People mis-remember and lie regularly on surveys. If you look at church attendance, you’ll find that roughly twice as many people say they go weekly as actually go weekly.

I also think they are making a subtle (or not-so-subtle) error – they (or, more likely, people looking at the surveys) are assuming that the happiness of those who are currently religious is a predictor of how happy people who are religious will stay.

But people who aren’t happy being religious tend to become less religious, which skews the results.

Secondly, such studies never discuss the opportunity cost of belief. If I had stayed a devout christian, I would have spend countless hours in church and given lots of $$$. Being an atheist, I have the opportunity to give money to causes that I feel are important, and enjoy a ton of Sunday mornings on the ski slopes. Not to mention the fact that I don’t worry about my own personal thought police judging my every move.

But even if all of that weren’t true – if the data was true and I could make the choice to believe – there are things that I place higher than self interest, and this would be one of them. I think it’s obvious why it’s better to have strict evidentiary requirements for belief, and that’s been covered in other questions.

Posted: November 30th 2009

See all questions answered by Eric_PK


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