Why it matters that we understand people’s true epistemic aim

It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Upton Sinclair

If we want to get a man to understand something, but he gets paid to not understand it, then what should we do? I think that the first step is to understand that this man is not trying to believe the truth. Only then can we start to develop decent strategies.

Smart people have observed that it’s harmful to a society to have members who hold false beliefs and employ enabling epistemologies. This is because all of our success, as individuals and as groups, depends on the quality of our reasoning. False beliefs and faulty epistemology lead to poor reasoning and bad decisions.

Religious institutions can be seen as propagators of false beliefs and faulty epistemology. The strategy that the so-called ‘new atheists’ typically employ is to use careful reasoning to show that the claims that these religions make about the world are false.

However, this strategy assumes that religious people are fundamentally aiming to believe what’s true, and are simply lacking information. I claim that in actuality, people are — and should be — aiming to believe what’s good for them. In that case, then the ‘new athieist’ strategy is missing the point and is unlikely to work.

Religious belief can provide significant benefits — things like existential comfort, community, and a psychological toolkit effective at dealing with life’s difficulties. It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his social and existential security depends upon his not understanding it.

If my answer to the Peter Thiel question is right, then the way to reduce the prevalence and limit the propagation of faulty epistemology is to reduce the switching costs and provide greater switching benefits.


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