Peter Thiel says that there is one question he likes to ask of interviewees:
“Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on.”
Here’s my answer:
If we want to be rational, we shouldn’t aim to believe what’s true. We should aim to believe what’s good for us to believe.
Most people either think that this is false or moot. Those who think it’s false say that it’s always rational to aim for the truth, even if the truth hurts. Those who think it’s moot say that the two aims amount to the same thing because true beliefs and good beliefs are equivalent.
But both views are incorrect. In this post I’ll address these traditional views, and show that they can’t be right.
Traditional view 1: always aim for the truth, even if it hurts
Let’s start with the commonly-held idea that we should always aim for the truth, even if it hurts.
This can be analyzed into two separate claims: we should aim to believe all truths (pursue truths), and we should aim to believe only truths (avoid falsehoods).1Following Paul Horwich Value of Truth 2006 Neither is acceptable as a universal maxim.
Regarding the ‘pursue truth’ aim: very many truths are too trivial or too costly to be worth pursuing. Take, for example, the billionth digit of pi. Most people haven’t pursued this nugget of knowledge, even though it’s easy to do (it’ s 9). You’ll be forgiven for not pursuing a true belief on this matter (and many others like it).
Regarding the ‘avoid falsehoods’ aim: it’s not hard to construct scenarios in which any rational human would choose to aim for a false belief over a true one. For example, imagine you’re abducted by aliens who convincingly tell you that they will destroy Earth unless you come to believe that polar bears are green. They then offer you a pill and credibly inform you that taking the pill will cause you to believe that polar bears are green. Would you not be rational to aim for a false belief by taking the pill?
So the maxim that we’d be rational to pursue all and only truths fails. What we actually believe is that we’re rational to pursue some truths, and accept some falsehoods.
Traditional view 2: the true and the good are the same
The second commonly-held view is that aiming for the truth and aiming for what’s good amount to the same thing, because the truth is always good. The alien abduction scenario from the last section gives a counterexample. We might give a more earthly example to bolster the point. Imagine you’re being interrogated in a windowless room by a government agent. On the table between you is a folder. The agent credibly informs you that the folder contains information which would correct a false belief that you currently hold, if you were to read it. You are free to read it, he tells you, but if you do, he’ll kill you. What should you do? If you’re aiming for the truth, you’ll read the folder. If you’re aiming for what’s good for you, you’ll walk away. I think that this is sufficient to show that the truth is not always the good and the good is not always the true.
I believe these examples are sufficient to discredit the idea that we should always aim to believe the truth. In the next post I’ll address the objection that claims we don’t have a choice in the matter of what we believe.