Monday, August 23, 2010

The value of truth

Geoff Arnold does some good philosophy:
Dr. Vallicella’s “life-enhancing illusions” are not free. They have baggage. And they are incompatible with a commitment to reason. They do not “enhance” my life, nor that of countless others.
There's good a slippery slope argument here:
  1. We can't know some statements at all (God exists), so it's OK to believe what you want, either way.
  2. We can't know some statements with confidence (extraterrestrial intelligence exists), so it's OK to believe what you want.
  3. We don't care whether some statements are true or false (insert some arcane fact here), so it's OK to believe what you want.
  4. We can't know some statements with certainty (vaccines are safe), so it's OK to believe what you want.
If religion and other forms of woo-woo were explicitly regarded by billions of their believers as life-enhancing illusions, we skeptics might look askance at such people, but it would hardly be a topic of fervent social controversy. If you're going to murder abortion doctors, cut off women's noses, imprison or execute homosexuals, excuse and protect rapists, child molesters and child abusers, and then justify these acts by appealing to your God, you don't get to escape criticism by arguing your beliefs about God are just life-enhancing illusions.

The morality of truth is not like other ethical beliefs. It does not simply consist of arbitrary rules that have evolved to manage interpersonal relations. The fundamental principle of truth morality is to not fool yourself; if you don't bend over backwards to avoid fooling yourself, all the ethical "rules" in the world aren't going to help you. Indeed the rules won't help you even if despite your best efforts you still manage to fool yourself.

Most of us believe as true what we are taught to believe; most of anyone's beliefs are received. It's "economically" impossible for each individual to independently subject every belief, or even most beliefs, to full, rigorous skeptical inquiry. Hawking says that black holes emit radiation, and I believe it. I know enough physics to follow his argument, and it seems plausible, but I certainly have not investigated every scientifically plausible alternative hypothesis. The best I can do is keep my eyes open, and if I chance across a counter-argument, to evaluate it with an open mind: to look at the argument itself, and not prejudicially dismiss it because it contradicts what I already believe.

The problem is that the religious and the woo-woos assert as true statements that are either false or neither true nor false. They say God really does exist; they say vaccines really do cause autism. The present their beliefs as firmly in the realm of truth, but when pressed for justification they retreat to the realm of preference (and often outrageously assert that skeptics are indifferent to the truth). Anyone who actually cares deeply about the truth can see this position as nothing more than rank hypocrisy and outright fraud.


  1. I love the website, go day to see him ever again post. Congratulations and published as yet.
    How about the article, is that other, very interesting.Maybe you'd let you comment on my site.
    Anyway, blog is great. Good luck!

  2. It has been said before and by others when you push your WooWoo by any name into the realm of reality and into my life then you had better have LOTS of proof that it is true.
    The black hole example is good for another reason. Let's say the black hole radiation is WooWoo, it don't matter cuz they are not here or influencing our politics. But if you claim that the radiation is deadly and everyone must wear tin hats, you better have lots of proof.
    If the religious REALLY believed in a personal way then who cares, but they don't - they try their best to shovel it done everyone's throat.
    We must keep up the good fight.


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