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Oct 12 2011

I get email

This one isn’t crazy. It’s from an atheist, so it’s also properly spelled and punctuated, with good grammar.

The point is that many (sophisticated) religious advocates would argue that if everyone dedicated themselves to following certain religious codes of conduct, this would improve the world, and whether a God actually exists is largely irrelevant. Terry Eagleton discusses this position in Reason, Faith and Revolution.

This leads on to an interesting philosophical question: if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs, whereas if people only held true beliefs the world would be more conflicted and painful – then which scenario is preferred? This question is philosophical and I can’t see how science alone can adjudicate on the answer.

Science can’t, directly. This is a matter of values, and I, for instance, value truth very highly — so highly that the world logically cannot be a more fulfilling place for me if I were driven by false beliefs. That, I would admit, is a personal idiosyncrasy and I can easily imagine people who don’t give a damn about the truth of their beliefs. Picture the Joe Pantoliano character in The Matrix, Cypher, who sells out his friends in order to be reinserted into the computer fantasy simulation. Notice also that he’s portrayed as a bad guy.

You see, living a lie is nearly universally considered a bad thing. Even the people who most devoutly believe in the most wacky fundy beliefs, or scientologists, or Mormons, do not argue that their ideas are false but that they believe in them anyway — they all argue that they are literally true. The truth of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or whatever is considered very important, but they’ve simply deluded themselves into believing that they are true (and we know that they can’t all be true, since they’re mutually contradictory).

I would also argue that an intellectual foundation built on false beliefs is inherently less stable than one built on true beliefs, because there is the continual risk that the falsity of that foundation can be found by its proponents, reducing their confidence. I presume that stability contributes to “peaceful and fulfilling”, although maybe some kind of chaotic anarchy would form a stable attractor in the great state space of possible social worlds. Unfortunately, my personal values intrude again: I don’t want to live in an anarchic state built on lies. I want to live in a totalitarian Dominionist state built on lies even less, though, so maybe you could make a “lesser of two evils” argument.

94 comments

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  1. 1
    OgreMkV

    We already live in a system built on lies (many based on religious principles) and it’s not working out for us so well.

    Perry advocates abstinence only sex ed because he thinks that if he talks enough kids won’t have sex. Yet Texas has among the highest teen birth rates in the country.

    He knows this. It’s a lie to support abstinence only as a good policy based on facts.

    This is true of the majority of our politicians, laws, etc.

    Would you build a relationship, a marriage with children, based on a lie? I guess many people would, but I wouldn’t and I wouldn’t want to stay with someone who did.

    Do we tell our children there are no such things as monsters… then take the to a Catholic school?

    Miserable truth or pleasant lie?

    At with the miserable truth, you know where you stand.

  2. 2
    John K.

    Faith based beliefs are also very rigid when it comes to change, and our understanding of the world is always changing. Any religious dogma that made people behave better than they would if they know the “truth” would not stay that way indefinitely, or would be doomed to stay static as the world passed it by.

    Argument from benefit fail.

  3. 3
    ButchKitties

    If good effects on behavior are enough to justify believing a lie, why do all the people who make this argument eventually tell their kids the truth about Santa?

  4. 4
    Zeno

    A more literary person might be able to identify the origin of a short story or novella once cited to me by Martin Gardner: He described the dilemma of a family working through the effects of a recently deceased member — a much admired and respected pillar of the community who had served as pastor of a large congregation. The mourning family members discovered the pastor’s private journal, in which he recounted his personal conflict at preaching Christian love and comity while concealing his atheism. Despite having lost all vestiges of his faith, he had concluded that his work as a pastor was contributing to the peace and tranquility of his community, and that revealing his disbelief in God would create discord and unhappiness rather than spark enlightenment and self-responsibility. Thus he had decided to live a supposedly productive lie, while struggling with his decision in the pages of his journal.

    Not having read the story myself, I cannot tell whether the author expected the reader to conclude that the pastor had made a mistake or whether the author was making the argument that a noble lie can be a good thing, even on such a life-deforming scale.

  5. 5
    Allienne Goddard

    Well, I do sometimes wonder if we need to take the religious at their word when they suggest that the non-existence of god implies that rape and murder are fine. I do think morality without an absolute foundation is a problem for many, and I just don’t know what percentage are actually held in check by religion-based morality. Nihilism is a very real risk when absolute foundations of value are undermined, and it seems naive to imagine that everyone will spontaneously become a humanist once they accept the absence of the gods. I don’t want to get into a philosophical argument, because I have the flu and should be either sleeping or working, but I think Nietzsche’s insights into the effects of god’s death on our systems of values are worth pondering.

    Also, bacon.

  6. 6
    postmodernslavepoet

    Truth is always better than falsehood. If you base decisions upon falsity all manner of rubbish will ensue.

    As Bertrand Russell observed, if, for example, you assume that 2 = 1 then any nonsense can be proved as true.

    When subsequently challenged to prove that he was the Pope, he replied along these lines: ‘The pope and I are two, therefore the pope and I am one and thus I am the pope.’

  7. 7
    d cwilson

    Taking this out of the realm of the hypothetical, such a premise is flawed from the start. It requires 100% conformity of belief in order for the world to be peaceful. One only has to look at the long history of factionalism in Christianity and Islam to see that, even when people share the same essential mythology, they will still fight and kill over the minutiae.

    Take Christianity. Even when everyone believes that they will obtain immortality by eating the imaginary flesh of their zombie sky friend, they had fierce battles over questions of whether the zombie sky friend was wholly human, wholly sky faerie, or some combination of the two.

  8. 8
    Kevin

    Argument from utility. It appears to be popping up all over the place these days.

    I admit this one vexed me a little bit at first.

    And then I remembered Nancy Reagan. Remember her? Wife of the President. Took astrology very, very seriously. Apparently quite seriously tried to influence public policy based on the “star charts” she had done for Ronnie.

    No. Batshit crazy, even in the service of a noble purpose, is still batshit crazy. Doesn’t work on any level.

    I certainly agree that the liberal branches of Christianity — those whose god says “judge not” instead of “thou shalt not”, are easier to deal with, and that it would be nice if everyone else converted their god into that guy. Two problems: 1) snowball’s chance in a volcano of that happening; and 2) you still have the issue of deluding or lying to yourself and others in service of a noble cause.

  9. 9
    GG

    Even the people who most devoutly believe in the most wacky fundy beliefs, or scientologists, or Mormons, do not argue that their ideas are false but that they believe in them anyway — they all argue that they are literally true.

    This is peculiarly phrased. The people who most devoutly believe are almost by definition the ones that think their beliefs are literally true. Most Christians I’ve come across will (when pressed) concede that it’s perfectly possible that the things they believe are false, but that they believe them anyway.

  10. 10
    remyporter

    I’m currently reading Cat’s Cradle, so all I can say about the email is “busy, busy, busy.”

  11. 11
    Dianne

    if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs, whereas if people only held true beliefs the world would be more conflicted and painful – then which scenario is preferred?

    This is a counterfactual speculation as can be quickly demonstrated by, say, a quick look through European history. Which is more peaceful: the current, largely secular, EU or the largely Christian medieval Europe? Additionally, theoretical considerations suggest that it should be false: Happy, comfortable, well fed people are less likely to be violent that people who are starving, being driven crazy by various diseases, or are being told that their neighbors will suffer eternally if they aren’t converted to the true religion (TM) by any means necessary. Secular science gives us more, higher quality food to prevent starvation and malnutrition, cures for syphilis and treatments for schizophrenia, and teaches us about ourselves. Which sounds theoretically more likely to result in a more peaceful and fulfilling world?

    So, I like your answer and agree that the truth is important but don’t lose sight of the fact that religion never has and probably never will result in a more peaceful and fulfilling world.

  12. 12
    Iain Walker

    if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs, whereas if people only held true beliefs the world would be more conflicted and painful – then which scenario is preferred?

    Hmm. Are they acting in accordance with the same, or overlapping set of, false beliefs, or are those false beliefs in conflict? Because that’s not a recipe for general peace and fulfilment. Whereas if people held only true beliefs (or at least held beliefs that could be epistemically justified by the same common, and fairly strict standards), one might reasonably expect there to be fewer points of conflict.

    Thing is, it’s hard to see how a world could be made a better place if people lived by competing Noble Lies, unless most or all of those Noble Lies emphasised tolerance for other Noble Lies. And that’s not normally in the nature of Noble Lies. And if everybody is supposed to live by the same Noble Lie, then that’s hard to achieve without coercion. But living as much as possible by epistemically justifiable beliefs doesn’t require coercion, because the ultimate arbiter of belief is not other people but reality.

  13. 13
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs, whereas if people only held true beliefs the world would be more conflicted and painful – then which scenario is preferred?

    This is such an implausible scenario, that I doubt it is worth taking the time to consider it seriously. The reality of the Matrix world is exactly the same as the reality of whatever we’ll call the world where people aren’t deluded*. People in the second world can choose any path to happiness that people in the Matrix world can**, but the oppposite isn’t true.

    Also, I think it is clear that religion does not really make people do good or charitable things. Certainly, there are religious people who do, and believe that they do these things because God wants them to. However, when you remove the religion, the behavior doesn’t change; just the motivation that the people acknowledge. People do good*** things because millions of years of evolution as a social primate has reinforced these behaviors.

    *They haven’t made any movies about this fictitious world****.
    **“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” ― David Foster Wallace
    ***I don’t mean anything too specific by this.
    ****But now that the idea exists, I wonder if rule 34 holds. Specifically, has a world of clear-thinking, reality-embracing people ever been the setting of pornography? I realize that this question is entirely empirical. Nonetheless, I have decided not to gather data. If your researches indicate that this idea stands in defiance of rule 34, please credit me with formulating the experiment, if not actually discovering the falsifying evidence.

  14. 14
    jeebus

    A more literary person might be able to identify the origin of a short story or novella once cited to me by Martin Gardner

    It sounds vaguely like “St. Emmanuel the Good, Martyr,” by Miguel de Unamuno. Although it could be Graham Greene. Both are examples of an odd breed of “Christian Existentialist” popular in the early 20th Century. Talk about willfully living a lie, or at least an oxymoron. But they’re still both great writers. But whereas Art strives for “truth,” Science has a more adult job to do, and that is to to deal with fact and reason.

  15. 15
    Paul Havlak

    What PZ and John K. said about instability and rigidity… and it’s not a philosophical question, it’s a practical one, that we see played out every day.

    Lies are not robust. They oversimplify the universe, and compensating with small course changes (more lies) leads to contradictions with no good method of resolution.

    Science, like democracy, is often messy. Even though some issues get resolved (gravity, slavery), the way forward isn’t always clear. Having a foundation for truth (the real world) or legitimacy (the populace) doesn’t make life perfect, but it makes it easier to get out of short-sighted mistakes.

  16. 16
    simoncorderoy

    If this is one of those things where you get ‘inspiration and guidance’ from a story even though it’s patently untrue then I suggest ‘The Princess Bride’ as a superior falsity: the characters are more engaging, their place on the good -> evil scale is more clear and there is more variation on how ‘good’ you can be.

    Alternately, you could try “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Simpsons” or “Gasuraki” or Clint Eastwood movies or “Powerpuff Girls”or self-help books or porn-clown school texts.

    Hell, they all offer hope. The measure however, is how much, and how real will it be?

  17. 17
    joed

    “if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs, whereas if people only held true beliefs the world would be more conflicted and painful-”

    This is not a fair set up. Big difference ‘tween “could”
    and “would”.
    Seems to me that if people held only true beliefs(which is not going to happen) then humans would act just as they do now. same with false beliefs.
    How do beliefs create or dictate or “cause” people to act. What is the relationship ‘tween belief and action.
    Not everyone could live with false beliefs. Some folks are compelled to seek rational beliefs and compelled to empathy and concern for others.

  18. 18
    Deen

    There is one more reason to suspect that following false beliefs would create a better society: if we all followed false beliefs, how do we prevent disagreement about which false beliefs to follow? Think about it.

  19. 19
    joed

    Also, there is an article by W K Clifford titled,
    The Ethics of Belief

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/w_k_clifford/ethics_of_belief.html
    Just the first part will give an idea of the philosophy of a great mathematician from the 1870″s. And Clifford discusses the morality involved in beliefs/action.

  20. 20
    Anri

    This sounds a lot like an argument for a benevolent dictator: What if the world would be a better place if it were absolutely ruled by a fair, kind, just and wise master… wouldn’t that be a better result than the pandering hurly-burly that public opinion-based leadership seems to generate?

    Well, yes.
    Sorta.

    The problem arises when we ask ‘But what if the ruler stops being good?’ Or better yet, ‘If we unquestioningly accept the ruler’s goodness, how will we tell if the ruler is ever not being good?’

    It’s an exercise in question-begging. If a creed is not reality-based, how can we determine if it is a net positive? By observing reality? If this is the answer, and the creed is ever found lacking, what do we do?
    If we correct it, we’re admitting that the creed must bend to reality, which wrecks our premise. If we let it remain, we’re admitting that the creed could be better if it were more reality-based, which again, kills the experiment off.

    This argument assumes that the faith-based creed:
    1) Didn’t arise from reality-based observations,
    2) Is superior to any reality-based observations,
    3) That (2) will apply forever.
    I don’t think these are realistic assumptions.

  21. 21
    Louis

    Okay, I’ll play philosophy 101:

    The question is: Is it better to live a noble, productive lie than a ignoble, unproductive truth? And to a lesser extent how can science help to decide this question.

    1) How do we decide whether the noble lie is better that the ignoble truth? I’m guessing we’d want to investigate at this point. Studies, research, data gathering, hypothesis testing, sounds remarkably familiar.

    2) How do we decide between conflicting, mutually contradictory noble lies? Gee, I wonder. I guess some form of testing, maybe some research?

    3) How do we decide if our optimum noble lie performs better than ignoble truth? Erm, that’s testing and research again right? You know there’s word we use for this, it’s on the tip of my tongue.

    4) How do we, in fact, decide that the truth is really ignoble? WAIT! I know this one, begins with “test”, includes research. Oh wait, it’s science!

    Science might not be able to say which one of an ignoble truth and a noble lie is morally the best choice, or ethically the best choice absolutely for all time everywhere. But it sure as hell can tell you that, for a given set of ethical or moral axioms which we can agree in advance and take as assumptions open to revision if we like, which of a series of noble lies/ignoble truth will get you closer to the results you agreed were the goal at the start. THAT’S the secondary question answered. Be clear and up front that you are stating a moral assumption, then work out how best to fulfil the goals that assumption has. Does it provide absolute, universal right answers? No, of course not (see part about moral assumptions) but then {deep breath} NOTHING FUCKING DOES EVEN IF SOMEONE CLAIMS IT DOES.

    Science can’t tell you what to value in the absence of any framework within which to act. It certainly can tell you, once you have that framework, which solutions work better than others.*

    Oh, and that’s not relativism sensu strictu, it’s a recognition of the limitations of what can be accomplished here.

    As to whether science can determine between the effects of a noble lie and an ignoble truth, well of course it can! Do people really want me to list endless trivial example of how this can be done? Science is a tool, not an authority, there are whole subject areas dedicated to deciding just these sorts of questions.

    As for the religious apologists that trot this line out every time, here’s something for you:

    How do you know? How do you know the ignoble truth is out performed by the noble lie? How do you choose between noble lies? More than that how do you know the ignoble truth will not in fact out perform the noble lie? How do you know more ignoble truths will not improve things?

    A quote from Marx actually illustrates this:

    “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

    The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

    Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun…”

    Bolding mine.

    That’s the bit I want to highlight. I’m not assuming more ignoble truth = better outcomes, but I’d like the opportunity to test it. The question in the email assumes that noble lies outperform ignoble truths, and I really, REALLY think that needs to be established FIRST. Is there for example, a critical mass of ignoble truths at which a reality based worldview would start to outperform a fantasy based one? All this and more can reason, logic and evidence address. The epitome of that process is science. Science is but one digit on the hand of reason.

    Now, that all said, there are various aspects of psychology that lead me to think noble lies are potentially productive. Think of, to name a few examples, the noble lies that help combat depressive realism, or the “fake it ’til you make it” attitudes frequently encountered in successful people. These things do have value, but, as PZ notes, they are fragile.

    To pin your hopes to a false certainty is to be forced to endure that certainty’s constant assault from reality. It is to act in denial and cognitive dissonance. It is to act in bad faith. These too have psychological consequences, negative ones. The shifting sands of a ignoble truth, a reality based outlook might have their pitfalls, their peaks and troughs, but they have advantages too. Not least of which is the encouraging of epistemic humility in the face of the evidence. A very freeing experience. No longer is being in error a crime, instead it is an opportunity to not be in error. To free oneself from the very tyranny and fear of exposable fantasy.

    Louis

    *Incidentally, this is a source of my major frustration with this “debate”. It’s actually possible to sit down with someone of a very different outlook and agree points of commonality and work from their. If people state their exceptions, assumptions and biases up front and clearly, it’s actually relatively easy.

  22. 22
    joed

    OK, sorry I am not prepared.
    Clifford lays down a moral rule with his article,
    “To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

    He makes a good case for his statement. When he says “wrong” he means in the moral sense.

  23. 23
    Deen

    @Alienne Goddard in #5:

    Nihilism is a very real risk when absolute foundations of value are undermined, and it seems naive to imagine that everyone will spontaneously become a humanist once they accept the absence of the gods.

    I don’t know about that. First of all, I don’t think most people are naturally inclined to nihilism, or that if they were, that religion could prevent it (and some religion is pretty nihilist itself, especially those that believe in predestination). But more importantly, while people may believe they use an absolute foundation for morality, but in reality they don’t. They’ll happily accept that moral decisions depend on context and circumstances (which they sometimes will even use to defend why God orders the killing of people in the Bible). That’s not to say that absolute morality is easy to give up, of course, but I doubt it is absolutely impossible for the majority of people.

  24. 24
    Iain Walker

    Allienne Goddard (#5):

    Nihilism is a very real risk when absolute foundations of value are undermined

    It’s only a risk if one’s values really do presuppose the truth claims of the religion. And I’m honestly not sure that this is the norm for most religious people. I suspect (but have no actual data in support of this suspicion) that most people internalise their ethics and their religious beliefs with a certain amount of independence, even though they may superficially appeal to the latter as grounds for the former. In which case, losing the latter needn’t have catastrophic consequences for the former.

    However, that’s an empirical question – what are the actual effects of the loss of religious belief on a person’s ethics? Did anyone here go through a period of moral nihilism after giving up their religious beliefs?

    A propos of which, it occurs to me that one of the things that often leads people away from religion is their dissatisfaction with religious ethics – i.e., they have an ethical sense that is at least as deeply rooted as their religiosity, and which in fact trumps the latter.

    Nietzsche’s insights into the effects of god’s death on our systems of values are worth pondering.

    Nietzsche can be a lot of fun, and I agree that his insights are not without some merit, but I do find him (and also existentialists like Sartre) eye-rollingly melodramatic on this topic. Chill out, guys. It’s not that cut and dried.

  25. 25
    Louis

    Ok, work from there, not work fro their. So many typos and errors, so little time!

    Louis

  26. 26
    Iain Walker

    Oh, almost missed the quote-mine opportunity:

    “I want to live in a totalitarian Dominionist state”
    - PZ Myers

  27. 27
    A3Kr0n

    This reminds me of the guy who said he didn’t care what people said about God or Jesus, it keeps him sober, and that’s good enough for him.
    Well, he is sober and has been for decades.
    That is not a bad thing.
    For me personally though, it is.

  28. 28
    Ing

    This reminds me of the guy who said he didn’t care what people said about God or Jesus, it keeps him sober, and that’s good enough for him.
    Well, he is sober and has been for decades.
    That is not a bad thing.
    For me personally though, it is.

    And all you had to give for it was an obedience to the biblical law and reflexive deference to the authority of preachers.

    If there is a Devil, religion is his greatest mechanism for the purchase and trade of souls

  29. 29
    Robin

    Even the people who most devoutly believe in the most wacky fundy beliefs, or scientologists, or Mormons, do not argue that their ideas are false but that they believe in them anyway

    The most devout don’t, but I’ve definitely heard what equates to “I know it’s false but I believe it anyway” many times from the woollier type of religious person we tend to have in the UK. It’s typically wrapped up in something woolly like “There are different kinds of truths” or “I just use another part of my brain for thinking about religion.”

    That religious people do value belief above truth explains why they are more often reviled by atheism than they are by other religions.

  30. 30
    brucegee1962

    The Good Lie

    You and a friend are staying in a remote cabin in the wilderness, and your friend breaks his arm. You’re trying to arrange to get him back to civilization, but in the meantime, he’s in a huge amount of pain. You look through the first aid kit in the cabin, but can’t find any pain killer other than generic aspirin. However, you are well aware of the placebo effect. Should you give your friend the aspirin and tell him it’s codeine, hoping that would do more to ease his pain, or would that be unethically dishonest?

    Example 2: You meet someone who used to be a violent criminal. As a committed nihilist, he once committed all the worst crimes imaginable. In prison, though, he “got religion.” Now he’s out, and spending his time volunteering in a soup kitchen to help the homeless, and he tells you that he’s a lot happier than he was before. As an atheist, do you tell him that the foundation his newfound life is built upon is a lie?

    I’m one of those “closet atheists” — I go to church and even teach Sunday School. Partly I have family reasons for that, but I also think that, on the whole, organized religion does more good than harm in the world. The good comes, not from the leaders pontificating about intolerance, but from everyday people in congregations around the world, helping their neighbors and caring for the poor and hungry. Basically, I think that most people have a lot of trouble being good, and need all the help they can get. If they see “God” as a metaphor for “good,” and it helps them to do good if they believe that the poetic personification is a real being, then I don’t feel comfortable trying to talk them out of it. Thus, I think the letter-writer has a good point.

  31. 31
    Sour Tomato Sand

    Does anyone really think there is any utility in dealing with pure hypotheticals? There is no situation where humans adhere one-hundred percent to a single ideology, without exception or variation. No situation anywhere, ever, and there never will be. Therefore it’s a waste of time to even pretend a valid argument is being made.

  32. 32
    Louis

    This is more about “Belief in belief” than belief. Dennett nailed it.

    Louis

  33. 33
    nazani14

    This isn’t a philosophical question, it’s completely testable. Dispatch two teams of anthropologists, one to an Baptist bible camp, one to Camp Quest. Record incidences of common misbehaviors such as lying, stealing, bullying, etc. Observe and record cases of psychological distress. Compare at the end of two weeks. Repeat at any large religious convention v. TED Talks.

  34. 34
    Ing

    Does anyone really think there is any utility in dealing with pure hypotheticals?

    Hypothetically?

  35. 35
    rturpin

    Anyone who is forwarding beliefs for their purative benefit, rather than their truth, is dishonest in their communication. And likely in their own evaluation of the facts. At some point, the question becomes, “why should I believe you take your own arguments seriously, when you’ve already admitted your belief isn’t based on veracity?”

  36. 36
    Deen

    @brucegee1962 in #30:

    As a committed nihilist

    Why would a nihilist be committed to anything? What’s the point?

    As an atheist, do you tell him that the foundation his newfound life is built upon is a lie?

    False dichotomy. Do you really think that’s the only alternative? No. You could also tell him that his new life was built on his own accomplishments, that he clearly had more potential than he thought, and he won’t need the crutch of religion anymore.

  37. 37
    Inaji

    Louis:

    This is more about “Belief in belief” than belief. Dennett nailed it.

    QFT.

    brucegee1962:

    Should you give your friend the aspirin and tell him it’s codeine, hoping that would do more to ease his pain, or would that be unethically dishonest?

    If all I had was aspirin, I’d say all I have is aspirin. I don’t see the point in lying about it. It’s a bit silly to assume that most people wouldn’t be able to distinguish between an aspirin tablet and a codeine tablet, either. If I have told my friend I’m going to do my best to take care of them and then obtain help and start out with a lie, well, that’s not very comforting, is it?

    You meet someone who used to be a violent criminal. As a committed nihilist, he once committed all the worst crimes imaginable. In prison, though, he “got religion.” Now he’s out, and spending his time volunteering in a soup kitchen to help the homeless, and he tells you that he’s a lot happier than he was before. As an atheist, do you tell him that the foundation his newfound life is built upon is a lie?

    A committed nihilist? Really? You need better scenarios. These are ridiculous.

    If the subject came up, I wouldn’t have any problem expressing my views on the matter. What’s wrong with sharing the viewpoint that rather than goodness coming from some nebulous external source (for which there is no evidence whatsoever), that the goodness is from making changes, discovering empathy and compassion and seeing things from a different perspective?

    Shorter words: I’m not a fan of lying, truth is of value.

  38. 38
    Pan

    Let’s assume we had the perfect book. It contains all the answers to our questions. “How do we minimize suffering?”, “Is X ok – and if it is, are there any exeptions or limits?”, “How should we organize our society?” etc. Why? GOD!
    If such a book exists, ALL the rules in there are explicable by secular arguments as well. No faith is required, just some logic thinking. There are plenty of non-theistic reasons why “Thou shalt not kill” is a pretty good thing, but e.g. “slaughter a cow and sacrifice it to god by burning it” doesn’t have any justification outside a particular faith.
    Reason will get us to the very same results as a coincidentally perfect faith, but reason does neither contain the risk of people following “false prophets” nor the additional freight of burnt offering or worshipping a nonexistent entity.

    If it comes to less … real things, there is another problem: Different people want different things.
    Some people can’t deal with their own mortality. At the same time we can’t propose an eternal afterlife, because some people definitely WANT to cease to exist. If you include the possibility to die forever whenever you are ready for it, you have to face the problem that your great-great-[...]-grandson still wants to chit-chat with you, even though you really don’t want to live another second. You can’t please everybody, not even with fairytales. So why bother with them at all?

  39. 39
    RamblinDude

    This leads on to an interesting philosophical question: if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs, whereas if people only held true beliefs the world would be more conflicted and painful..

    It may be an interesting philosophical question, but why would one suppose that this would be the case? It is, and always has been, untrue beliefs, a lack of critical thinking and acumen, that is tearing the world apart, not honesty and perceptiveness and accuracy in thinking.

    And then there’s the sheer creepiness of the conjecture: Wouldn’t you be happier being a well-kept and deluded slave and not have to think for yourself?

  40. 40
    Ing

    You meet someone who used to be a violent criminal. As a committed nihilist, he once committed all the worst crimes imaginable. In prison, though, he “got religion.” Now he’s out, and spending his time volunteering in a soup kitchen to help the homeless, and he tells you that he’s a lot happier than he was before. As an atheist, do you tell him that the foundation his newfound life is built upon is a lie?

    I reject the premise. I have never personally met someone who was turned around 180 by religion. more often I have seen people use religion to “reform” and find a more socially acceptable way to abuse those around them.

  41. 41
    backfrommars

    Picture the Joe Pantoliano character in The Matrix, Cypher, who sells out his friends in order to be reinserted into the computer fantasy simulation. Notice also that he’s portrayed as a bad guy.

    Which is a little ironic here because Cypher is trying to escape from a religious awakening. Of course, The Matrix is quite existential in its approach to that.

  42. 42
    Louis

    Brucegee1962 #30,

    Both of those examples have a lot of context. As it’s closer to my speciality I suppose I could deal with the placebo question first.

    There is actually a very live, very real debate within medicine about the clinical value of the placebo effect. Is it ok to give Mrs Smith, who is in the GP’s office for the umpteenth time this week, some old sugary jollop and send her on her merry way after listening to her kindly for a few minutes? I, and many other people, would argue that it isn’t for at least two reasons. Firstly, and most trivially, it opens doors best left shut. Exploitation of the placebo effect, whilst medically potentially useful, is the prime domain of pseudoscientific alternate medicine like homeopathy. It would be very hard indeed to fight the aggressive quackish demands for medical parity from that quarter if science based medicine deliberately engaged in the same kind of thing.

    Secondly, if medics patronise patients in this paternalistic fashion it is actually strongly disempowering. It prevents the patient from acting in an informed way. It sets the medic up as an authority to be obeyed, not as an expert to be engaged with. It also trivialises (or permits trivialisation of) the patient’s symptoms. Say Mrs Smith is always banging on about her bowels being a bit painful. She does this day in day out, but in the absence of any other symptoms (and after duly diligent basic scans etc which show nothing), the doctor humours her every visit. This actually encourages negligence.

    I am, in my spare time, a mental health advocate. I work with patients’ groups and individuals to get better care/help out of the UK NHS. This is mainly because I think mental health is one of the great unaddressed (or at least poorly addressed) problems of our times. One of the hardest things to get across to people is that they don’t simply have to take what their doctor says at face value. Get second opinions, go in there with research papers and books, go in there with an advocate or a trusted technically literate person if you can get one (incidentally, I think people in the relevant scientific and clinical fields should be offered the option to do paid advocacy as part of their work. The same goes for public understanding of science advocacy, but I digress). The empowering of patients is vital to the success of any healthcare system. It helps keep medics on their toes (good thing), it helps keep pharmaceutical companies honest (and I WORK for a pharma company, I know how bad they can be, more honesty would be a blessing from the heavens!), in the case of mental health the very feeling of being involved helps people more than it hinders, and it contributes to the public understanding of science/medicine. Over exploitation of the placebo effect counters all of that.

    Your example, however, is very narrow. If it’s the difference between getting your friend off the mountain and dying, then go for it. Sometimes lies work, this we all know. But extension of a very narrow, very context dependant example to a wider theatre is very, very dangerous. So, sadly, I don’t think your example works. Under those narrow circumstances, yes, lying might have utility, hell it might even be the best option. It doesn’t follow that you can then extend what applies in a well defined, narrow context to a less well defined, more global context.

    As for your second example and subsequent paragraph, there’s one theme I wish to draw out. Your violent criminal who is prevented from violence by religious belief and your belief that most people have trouble being good and that a noble lie might prevent them from running amok, to these things I say “really?”. Seriously, REALLY? If all that is preventing that criminal or ANYONE from running amok is a fictional belief, GET THEM PSYCHIATRIC HELP NOW!

    There is a welter of data from psychology and neuroscience that empathy, social conditioning and a whole slew of other things keep us in check. You are not giving a good reason for noble lies, you’re giving a good reason to section the majority of people! In reality, it’s far more pleasant than you assume. People don’t have as hard a time being good as you might suppose because there are a myriad of tiny influences tugging at us all constantly. One overarching fiction is not the way to go. Religion demonstrably does NOT prevent people from doing great evil, even minor wickedness is not less prevalent in religious populations. This is an absurd fiction, and one which requires a thorough stomping! ;-)

    Louis

  43. 43
    Kevin

    @27…yeah, I hear that a lot, too.

    Especially YouTubers. There are a lot of “ex” drunks/druggies on YouTube who have substituted addiction to Jesus for addition to drugs. It’s probably cheaper and better for their livers.

    This is argument from personal experience. And, of course, it’s one of the most difficult to deflect. Because you can’t denigrate their experience. After all, their experience is real — no kidding, it is.

    What isn’t real is attributing the experience to an external source. Their ability to stay off drugs is really all in their heads. They did it — no invisible crutch needed.

    But that doesn’t track well with these folks. They’re convinced that this talisman is what got them off the booze.

    For those folks, I merely say “well, I hope you stay sober” and point out that if god worked in this way to keep people sober, that violates every Christian theological notion of “free will”. God is quite literally enforcing sobriety.

    And if he can do that with one person, why is it that everyone isn’t similarly sober? A god who chooses to enforce sobriety in this way is cheating those who can’t/won’t stay sober. It’s an obvious limitation on god’s omnipotence and his omnibenevolence, both of which are extremely important to these characters.

    And why didn’t god stop them from being a drunk in the first place? Why didn’t he use his omniscience and put a distaste for drink/drugs in their system from the outset? Why put them through all of that pain just so they come out on the other side all busted up but with “Jesus”? What makes them so darned special that they get treated like shit for most of their lives, when plenty of other people “find Jesus” through completely benign paths?

    They’ll get very angry with you when you use these arguments, however. “LALALALALA I can’t hear you” angry.

  44. 44
    tsig

    How can one claim morality when their life is based on a lie?

  45. 45
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Moral behavior has always been defined by the tribe. Since tribes of hominids go back a couple of hundred thousand years, it has been talked about for as long as hominids could talk. The purpose of the morals is tribal cohesiveness. Those that work best are those that are cooperative in nature. Help each other out. Do your share. Don’t kill each other. Don’t steal your neighbors goods and equipment, etc. These got written into books a couple of thousand years ago, and became “absolutes” handed down by god, and punishments typical for the time period they were written down in. The problem with absolute morals is that they can’t change as the situation and knowledge changes. Nihilism isn’t really an issue if absolute morals go away, as without absolute morality, it falls back to tribal (now societal) discussion and consensus.

  46. 46
    Anri

    You and a friend are staying in a remote cabin in the wilderness, and your friend breaks his arm. You’re trying to arrange to get him back to civilization, but in the meantime, he’s in a huge amount of pain. You look through the first aid kit in the cabin, but can’t find any pain killer other than generic aspirin. However, you are well aware of the placebo effect. Should you give your friend the aspirin and tell him it’s codeine, hoping that would do more to ease his pain, or would that be unethically dishonest?

    The problem with creeds that ignore reality is what happens when your friend turns out to be allergic to asprin. If you and he truly believe it’s codine, there’s no reason to stop giving it to him, right?

  47. 47
    Inaji

    Louis:

    Religion demonstrably does NOT prevent people from doing great evil, even minor wickedness is not less prevalent in religious populations.

    A great many theists are practiced liars, they lie all the time. We certainly see plenty of Liars for Jesus™ here. Religious belief itself requires lying to the self, it’s the reason why religious belief needs ritual and constant reinforcement, so that the cognitive dissonance doesn’t cause those pesky brain explosions.

  48. 48
    Louis

    Incidentally, to sort of add to what I’ve said, on an individual basis I am comfortable with a “whatever get you through” approach.

    If you think that magic baby jeebus prevents you from murdering your toddler, then all power to you. Use whatever crutch you need to keep that toddler alive. However, if you seriously tell me that’s all that prevents you from infanticide, I’m calling a shrink. Because when your imaginary chum stops telling you to make a cup of tea and cuddle the toddler, and instead to sacrifice it because it has demons in it, you have a dead kid.

    My experience is that when people say this they are simply blissfully unaware of what is really keeping them from whatever wickedness they are trying to avoid. If as a recovering alcoholic the 12 steps work for you, grand. Pretend that the group sessions, the counselling, the strong reinforcement of staying sober, the socialisation are not contributory, and I will tell you you’re in denial (at the appropriate moment). Pluck the imaginary flower from the chain, remove the chain, proffer the real flower.

    Of course much of life is a process, of course individuals are at different points on different journeys and of course ripping away delusions is not always appropriate for all individuals everywhere. So? That doesn’t somehow mean that globally, universally at all times for everyone delusion and illusion work. What it means is that as we narrow down, as we define contexts ever more finely we can decide on an individual basis whether or not NOW is the moment to pluck that imaginary flower. Context, as always, matters. Extension from narrow and specific to general and vague doesn’t work.

    More than this, to treat people as being capable of dealing with unfiltered (or minimally filtered) reality is to empower and respect them as your equal. And we need more of that in this world.

    Louis

  49. 49
    helenaconstantine

    In Civilization and Its discontents, Freud says that the only thing that keeps the poor from rising up and destroying the exploitative upper middle class and wealthy portions of society is the fact that they are bound by religious belief. So the rich either had better start figuring out how to give workers enlightened middle class lives or else resign themselves to keeping religion in place, false as everyone recognizes it to be (and in his upper middle class European fin de siecle audience, almost everyone did recognize that). In the absence of either of those, there would inevitably be a revolution when the poor realized how they were being ill used by the rich.

    We see how that is playing out now.

  50. 50
    Lynna, OM

    When a single religion dominates, as mormonism does in the Morridor, the negative effects of organizing one’s life around a set of false beliefs multiply. Those negate effects aren’t balanced by other beliefs. There’s a reason why female lawyers in Utah earn about 1/4 the salary their male counterparts earn. And it’s not because the female lawyers want to be at home taking care of the kids.

    In addition to misogyny that is more pervasive than elsewhere, mormonism literally teaches the flock to be gullible. As a result, they are prey for all manner of fraudsters.

    As for peacefulness, another skill the flock learns is to hide mormon criminal activity, breaches of ethics, and strife. The surface may look more peaceful, but trouble seethes underneath. The mormon community always seemed surprised when criminality breaks the surface.

    Teaching entire communities how to not think is bound to have negative effects in a host of ways, including those not immediately associated with the religion.

  51. 51
    jacobfromlost

    I don’t think lying about reality to help us deal with reality makes sense, at least not in any context discussed here so far.

    The best chance we have to be healthy, successful, and happy as a species is to cooperate and collaborate to the best of our ability. Lying about reality doesn’t help the group solve anything, especially when the lie is often based on an assumption by ONE individual that the problem cannot be solved…or that the problem is limited to one instance and isn’t systemic. In any case, things that an individual cannot possibly know.

    Many heads are always better than one in solving problems, but if the nature of the problem is only known by one head that can’t imagine what the solution could be so lies about the existence of the problem in the first place so it is never presented to “many heads” that may be able to ameliorate or solve it…

    …well…that’s an even BIGGER problem that has the potential to harm many.

  52. 52
    NoAstronomer

    As Iain Walker points out the only way this works to promote peace and tranquility is if everyone is following the exact same set of false beliefs.

    However that’s an unstable state.

    Inevitably some people will change their beliefs. Maybe they realize the false beliefs don’t match reality. Maybe the environment changes, either due to natural forces or human activities, making it necessary to adjust the beliefs to accommodate the new situation. Naturally some people will want to adjust in one way, others in a different way.

    Presto! People aren’t following the same beliefs any more.

    What’s happening in the Amish community in Ohio right now is a classic example.

    Mike.

  53. 53
    Anteprepro

    Oh, wow. Seriously? The old “religion gives people morality” schlock? Bullshit. A lot of religious people like to believe their morals come from their religion, because it makes their religion so extra special. But here are the three problems (at least those relevant to Christianity):

    -The good morality the religion does offer could easily be arrived at by other means. They are mores that are mostly consistent across cultures (“The Golden Rule” as a description of empathetic reasoning, the prohibition of murder and thievery).
    -The religion also manages to offer up other “morality” that is incredibly backwards among the few gems(Sexism, homophobia, tacit support of slavery, ridiculous prohibitions [Kosher laws, no mixed fabrics, no working on Sabbath, etc.], excessive punishments for religious crimes).
    -We have distinct moral rules that are deemed to be common sense by even the religious, and this is credited to religious morality despite being conspicuously absent from religious doctrine (Egalitarianism regarding gender and race, acknowledging sex with children and rape as crimes, not punishing arbitrary rule breaking [no stoning disobedient children or Sabbath breakers]).

    All three of these issues show that religion is at best irrelevant to arriving at the moral rules currently accepted by our culture, and at worst is a throwback to an older morality that we have now outgrown. Those with religion are too blind to realize that these problems exist and they just assume all of their morals ultimately came from their religion, and that their religion couldn’t possibly be used to justify the kind of defective moral codes they associate with the non-religious. So what’s the excuse for the non-religious people falling into the same trap? Why do so many people who don’t believe in the laughable doctrine still manage to believe in the laughable claims about the doctrine by those who still follow it?

  54. 54
    Deen

    @helenaconstantine in #49: seems like a nice summary of the different ways the progressives and conservatives in the US want to address this issue. What’s more, some of them seem to be aware that that is what they are doing. How often have you heard a conservative calling liberals silly for thinking we could all be rich?

  55. 55
    Sour Tomato Sand

    As per the aspirin-codeine question:

    There’s a very good reason you wouldn’t give a person with a broken arm aspirin: it’s an anti-coagulant, and if it were an open fracture you’d worsen the bleeding and delay clotting. If it’s a closed fracture you still wouldn’t want to give it because it’s likely there’s some internal bleeding. And if you, the person claiming the aspirin is codeine didn’t know that, and you told the person you were giving it to that it was codeine, he wouldn’t be able to tell you, “no, stop! You shouldn’t give aspirin to someone with a broken arm!”

    And therein lies the problem with the good lie: you can’t make good decisions if you’re not aware of reality.

  56. 56
    Deen

    @Anteprepro in #53:

    A lot of religious people like to believe their morals come from their religion, because it makes their religion so extra special.

    Or because it makes their morals extra special (read: better than everyone else’s).

    There’s more than a little bit of circular reasoning here…

  57. 57
    Sour Tomato Sand

    One correction: I should have said it’s an antiplatlet, not an anticoagulant. But you get the point.

  58. 58
    Dianne

    You and a friend are staying in a remote cabin in the wilderness, and your friend breaks his arm. You’re trying to arrange to get him back to civilization, but in the meantime, he’s in a huge amount of pain. You look through the first aid kit in the cabin, but can’t find any pain killer other than generic aspirin. However, you are well aware of the placebo effect. Should you give your friend the aspirin and tell him it’s codeine, hoping that would do more to ease his pain, or would that be unethically dishonest?

    Yes, it would be unethical. However, asking him if he has any allergies or adverse reactions to medications and if he says “no” saying, “Here’s something for your pain” and giving him the aspirin is not. Aspirin is a pain killer and an anti-inflammatory so you’ve made a true statement. But if he asks what you’re giving him, say aspirin. Placebo effect is a pretty weak thing to count on doing much anyway and honesty is more important in the long run.

  59. 59
    Dianne

    Also, sour tomato is right about the anti-platelet effect, but in an otherwise healthy person with a simple break, it’s probably not that big a deal. A healthy person on aspirin has only a mildly increased bleeding time. Especially if you’ve already got the helicopter or whatever on its way. Go for the pain relief unless you think he might also have a subdural hematoma (bleed in the head) or something.

  60. 60
    Glen Davidson

    In the West, at least, religion teaches that Truth, or truth, is what ultimately matters.

    So it is always self-refuting to, for instance, claim that “Darwinism” leads to great evils, a recent fad in IDiocy. Yes, well, don’t you also say that lies lead to great evils?

    Then why should your lies be preferred to the truth over some supposedly evil consequences of the latter?

    Of course they actually claim that ID is the truth, but, if it were, why do they have to poison the well via a moral condemnation of the other side? And that moral condemnation is there from the beginning to the end, suggesting that they have their doubts about their “Truth.”

    The idea that falseness is bad is often turned around by them, hence they try to convince themselves that “Darwinism” is morally bad, so must also be false. Science cannot abide that, however, except in the breach (breaches are inevitable, but had better not be dominant), so we’d have to ask whether we can dispense with science for the noble lie.

    Otherwise, OK, if religion and the noble lie stay away from science, perhaps a science-dependent society can have both it and science. The trouble is, religion with its “noble lies” can never be depended upon to keep away from science, very obviously not in the USA.

    Glen Davidson

  61. 61
    otrame

    Okay, first:

    Louis, it is good to see you at full speed ahead. You have always been one of my favorite commenters because you are funny and sensible and thoughtful. *hugs*

    Second: The only stability to be found is to base your image of the world on as much truth as you can discern at any given moment and keep up the search for more details of truth. Reality it out there. It will bite you on the butt real hard if you ignore it. For example, as someone upthread mentioned, if your friend is violently allergic to aspirin.

    Third: Instead of lying, why not tell the truth? Tell your friend that all you have is aspirin, which will help reduce the swelling a little and staying still and not causing more muscle damage will reduce the bleeding, which is what is causing most of their pain. Tell them that staying as relaxed as possible will help with the pain too, and mention that concentrating on relaxing muscles, starting at the toes and working up and then back to the toes in a cycle not only helps control pain with the relaxation but also helps take their mind off the pain while they concentrate on the muscles, which reduces how much the pain will bother them. You then help them by talking them through the relaxation process. This is all truth and the kind of pain you get from even a badly broken arm really can be helped this way.

    Fourth: The reformed criminal needs to be weaned off his religion, if only because doubts could lead to another bout of mental illness (yes, “nihilism” is a mental illness). I don’t mean you get in his face every minute, but he needs to begin to understand that the strength to end the madness was HIS strength; it is HIM who works in that soup kitchen every day and he doesn’t need to believe a lie to stay where he is. Being mentally ill hurt. That was why he wanted change it. Working for the good of his fellow humans feels good because he has several million years of evolution as a social animal running through his DNA. Being a violent criminal hurt, helping others feels good. He should be able to do the math (though he may need to sing a quite a few bars of LA LA LA LA LA first).

  62. 62
    Louis

    Otrame,

    {blush}

    Fiver to the usual account? ;-)

    Louis

  63. 63
    Shibujiro

    A lot of hand-waving over a simple question. The answer is yes. If there were a lie that would make life better on average forever and ever, I think it would be immoral not to tell that lie.

    I think what people are arguing is not this question, but the question of whether such a lie could actually exists. It probably couldn’t, but that’s not really the question.

  64. 64
    evilisgood

    I’m one of those “closet atheists” — I go to church and even teach Sunday School. Partly I have family reasons for that, but I also think that, on the whole, organized religion does more good than harm in the world. The good comes, not from the leaders pontificating about intolerance, but from everyday people in congregations around the world, helping their neighbors and caring for the poor and hungry. Basically, I think that most people have a lot of trouble being good, and need all the help they can get.

    Do you realize how condescending this is. To be good, you don’t need to believe in false things, but “most people” do? What makes you so different from most people?

    This argument annoys me so deeply that I had to come out of lurking to point it out. Thanks for your time.

  65. 65
    truthspeaker

    brucegee1962 says:
    12 October 2011 at 2:04 pm

    The Good Lie

    You and a friend are staying in a remote cabin in the wilderness, and your friend breaks his arm. You’re trying to arrange to get him back to civilization, but in the meantime, he’s in a huge amount of pain. You look through the first aid kit in the cabin, but can’t find any pain killer other than generic aspirin. However, you are well aware of the placebo effect. Should you give your friend the aspirin and tell him it’s codeine, hoping that would do more to ease his pain, or would that be unethically dishonest?

    When you finally get him to the hospital, and they ask if he’s taken any medication, do you stay silent when he replies that he took codeine, or do you speak up and admit that you lied to your friend because you thought it might help?*

    There are times when lying is desirable (phone conversations with my mother, for example), but religion requires people to commit to the lies, and I don’t think that’s good.

    *It’s a trick question – it doesn’t matter what you tell the admitting nurse, the doctor won’t read her notes anyway.

  66. 66
    Inaji

    evilisgood:

    This argument annoys me so deeply that I had to come out of lurking to point it out.

    I’m glad you did. You should delurk often.

  67. 67
    Anteprepro

    Shibujiro: How is it “hand-waving” to point out false premises or to call into question the plausibility of hypothetical situations used to defend religion? The elements assumed as part of the question are fair game, because it is such a “simple question” about such a complicated subject. It’s a word game, to get us to say “yes” to the situation where a universal false belief is better than the truth in order to let religion off the hook. We say “yes” despite the fact that “universal false belief” doesn’t resemble the multiple sects and religions of the real world, and the likelihood of falsehoods being consistently better than the truth is implausible, both of which are points addressed by others. Challenging these points are perfectly legitimate responses to a “simple question” that distorts reality in order to get those who answer it directly to concede that religion is A-okay.

  68. 68
    Marnie

    The point is that many (sophisticated) religious advocates would argue that if everyone dedicated themselves to following certain religious codes of conduct,

    Well, there’s the flaw in his reasoning right there. What are these “religious codes of conduct?” Which religion? Who gets to pick the “right” ones? And what about the codes of conduct that are rejected, like those supporting slavery, forcing young girls into marrying much older men, killing disobedient children, and on and on.

    The “religious codes of conduct” that he’d probably choose are codes of conduct that are largely universal and therefore cannot be considered religious based. The way we choose which “codes” to follow is not with religion but with reason.

    So his argument illogical. Countries that impose strict religious based law are the least peaceful and ethical to its people. It is secular reasoning that allows us to make better choices for people as a whole. It is only religious people who think that you cannot come to the conclusion that raping and pillaging is bad without being eternally damned.

  69. 69
    truthspeaker

    Blockquote fail, here we go again:

    brucegee1962 says:
    12 October 2011 at 2:04 pm

    The Good Lie

    You and a friend are staying in a remote cabin in the wilderness, and your friend breaks his arm. You’re trying to arrange to get him back to civilization, but in the meantime, he’s in a huge amount of pain. You look through the first aid kit in the cabin, but can’t find any pain killer other than generic aspirin. However, you are well aware of the placebo effect. Should you give your friend the aspirin and tell him it’s codeine, hoping that would do more to ease his pain, or would that be unethically dishonest?

    When you finally get him to the hospital, and they ask if he’s taken any medication, do you stay silent when he replies that he took codeine, or do you speak up and admit that you lied to your friend because you thought it might help?*

    There are times when lying is desirable (phone conversations with my mother, for example), but religion requires people to commit to the lies, and I don’t think that’s good.

    *It’s a trick question – it doesn’t matter what you tell the admitting nurse, the doctor won’t read her notes anyway.

  70. 70
    fcaccin

    I have not read all comments (as I usually do), so forgive me if I am repeating someone else’s:

    if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs

    It C A N N O T work. Ever. It never did, it does not, it never will.
    Unless one manages to cull out anyone who harbours a glint of doubt. Or prevent their birth somehow. Or curtail everyone’s ability to think. Sounds familiar?
    Which is why it does not happen now, you moron.

    End rant.

    Sorry

  71. 71
    shripathikamath

    PZ, I’d ask your daughter to weigh in on this one. I suspect that this is a solved philosophical dilemma, and is really utilitarianism in sheep’s clothing.

    “Maximal good for the greatest number” has often been justified as the panacea. And as it turns out, such panacea can be obliterating poison.

  72. 72
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    I’m one of those “closet atheists” — I go to church and even teach Sunday School. Partly I have family reasons for that, but I also think that, on the whole, organized religion does more good than harm in the world. The good comes, not from the leaders pontificating about intolerance, but from everyday people in congregations around the world, helping their neighbors and caring for the poor and hungry. Basically, I think that most people have a lot of trouble being good, and need all the help they can get.

    Ugh. Hypocrite!

    What do you think non-hypocritical atheists do? Do you think we shun the company of others? That we aren’t part of communities that care for the poor and hungry? Do you think that we don’t have trouble being good? That our self-sacrifice isn’t without cost? You are an unreflective jackwagon.

    I don’t know what kind of church you belong to*, but if I were you I’d check myself. Are you doing/saying things that promote misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, tribalism, or sexism? Are you promoting the belief in hell as a just reward? Dominionism? Ordained roles of men and women? An apocalyptic return of the messiah? Dangerous yet meaningless circumcision rituals? Or any of the million other harmful beliefs that are ensconced in their final bastion of religion? If so, you are an asshole, regardless of the warm and fuzzy feelings you get from your status in your community.

    Stop. Just stop.

    *If it’s a UU, maybe this is over the top. If not listen up.

  73. 73
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    I’m one of those “closet atheists” — I go to church and even teach Sunday School. Partly I have family reasons for that, but I also think that, on the whole, organized religion does more good than harm in the world. The good comes, not from the leaders pontificating about intolerance, but from everyday people in congregations around the world, helping their neighbors and caring for the poor and hungry. Basically, I think that most people have a lot of trouble being good, and need all the help they can get.

    ugh

    retch

    This is about the most milquetoast hypocritical bullshit I’ve ever read.

    When they line us up and ask who you want on your side, I’m pointing at you and screaming Not him.

  74. 74
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    fuck you blockquote. FUCK YOU!

  75. 75
    MudPuddles

    PZ, I like a lot of your response but I find that these questions are largely irrelevant to modern life and are used too often by theists and their apologists to present a positive argument for religion.

    Your emailer states:
    “This question is philosophical and I can’t see how science alone can adjudicate on the answer.”
    … and you reply “Science can’t, directly.”

    Those statements would only hold true if we are talking about an utterly simplistic fantasy world. Human lives, livelihoods, civilisation – whatever you want to pinpoint – are immensely complex even in their most rustic or primitive expression, and scientific understanding is essential to securing human well-being and arguably has been for almost as long as we have been around. Neither philosophy nor religion can address the core issues affecting modern human life as we must live it. Therefore, if we are talking about some smblance of reality it is not a philisophical question, and absolutely can be (and can only be) directly addressed by science.

    Take, for example, the major interconnected issues of this century – emerging infectious diseases, the global food and energy crises, global economic instability, climate change, and biodiversity loss. (As a side note, it can be demonstrated that many aspects of these current challenges have actually been fostered or perpetuated by certain religious codes of conduct – such as those which promote unchecked population expansion and over-consumption – “thou shalt have dominion…”, etc). It is true that there are many philosophical challenges at the heart of current debates about [i]how[/i] we will deal with these issues (should corporate entities be given the same rights over resources as individual citizens; is it right to regulate for nutrition… and so on). But practical solutions, or indeed the knowledge that such solutions are needed, do not require philosophical input. Science clearly points the way, regardless of what moral standpoint you take (e.g. whether or not you follow Sam Harris’ contention that the correct moral choice is always the one that promotes equity in human well-being).

    The suggestion that any false belief system could be a catch-all to trump a rational scientific understanding of the world as a route to a utopia unencumbered by such modern challenges – some of which I would argue are unavoidable for a species such as ours – is of course entirely irrational, and understanding that point requires a scienctific approach, not philosophy. In fact, without science to tell us that such problems as I’ve mentioned are problems at all, what philosophical issues would one address in that context?

    There is no possible code of conduct that could address the facts and difficulties of life as we must live it (other than perhaps something like “thou shalt go to sleep and never wake up again”), and therefore the question is only philosophical if we are talking about a totally fictitious world where the realities of human existence on Earth simply do not exist – from the changing patterns of weather systems to our need for living natural resources, and from the vagaries of inter-personal relationships to simple human foibles (without which we would be little more than a race of spaced out happy zombies).

    All of that is just to illustrate my point that such arguments are a largely pointless and quixotic exercise. About as useful as debating the impact of yellow on Harry Potter’s mood.

  76. 76
    abb3w

    BTW: the issue of whether believing fictions might sometimes lead to “better” consequences than believing the truth dates back at least to Plato’s Republic; “noble lie” seems to be the usual term in philosophy parlance.

    While PZ notes how a foundation of lies has an inherent instability due to the philosophical potential for people to grasp the actual truth, he neglects that a foundation of truth may also have an inherent instability due to the practical potential for people to fail to accept the truth when it is presented to them – particularly if the reasoning leading from accepted premises is protracted, and if it leads to unpalatable conclusions. The risk to stability from the clever realizing the foundation is made of lies must be counterbalanced against the risk to stability from the stupid failing to accept a foundation made from truth. While stupidity probably isn’t quite as commonplace as hydrogen, it seems close sometimes.

    The depressing application is in ethics; and particularly, in correct conclusions reached from incorrect premises. Most here would agree that some degree of social altruism is a good thing. Most here, however, would not agree with the reasoning that “What God commands is good; God commands altruism; ergo, altruism is good”, nor the reasoning that “Avoiding an eternity of agony is a good thing; if you are not altruistic, God will cast you into hell for eternal agony; ergo, altruism is good” — you don’t accept the premises, even though you agree with the conclusions. However, given the number of Social Darwinism fixated dolts apparently about, I infer that the actual reasons for why altruism is a “good” thing are harder for some people to grasp, and in contrast many people (at least if first taught in childhood) seem to find the authoritarian theological justifications easy to grasp.

    Which way the balance lies, I’m not sure. However, the notion among elitist atheists that religion is the best way of instilling morality in the doltish masses is not a new one. Contrariwise, I don’t see any reason to stick with old fictions rather than trying to design newer fictions that might be less frequently harmful.

  77. 77
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    People need to remember that the supposed social benefits of religion do not come without a cost.

    The most religion or any other “ism” can supply is a moral code, not morality. And moral codes, thankfully, change over time. If they did not, we’d still be keeping slaves, burning witches and generally being primitive.

    As Voltaire said, “If they can make you believe absurdities, they can make you commit atrocities.?”

    There is also an epistemological cost to belief in the supernatural. It provides an “out” for dismissing inconvenient facts. It is how many creationists dismiss fossil evidence.

    The truth matters. Even Gandhi said that if he had to choose between truth and god, he would choose truth.

  78. 78
    dahduh

    There’s a simple ethical argument why anything other than the truth is a bad idea. If you are the best intentioned person operating on a false premise or theory, your actions carry the risk of negative unintended consequences. Therefore, in order to avoid harm one must do everything one can to understand how the world really works. QED.

  79. 79
    Leon

    More to the point, as Greta Christina points out: when people (usually the moderate religious) suggest it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not because the effect is more important, they don’t really mean it. Once their beliefs are no longer being questioned, they’re right back to certainty that their beliefs are true. It’s just a trick to stop people questioning the validity of their beliefs, and an alarming number of us fall for it.

  80. 80
    Ichthyic

    if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs

    oh, PLEASE tell me someone has already mentioned:

    HOUSE OF CARDS

    ?

  81. 81
    Ichthyic

    AE says:

    “unreflective jackwagon”

    jackwagon?

    I rather like that!

    I have now added another epithet to my repertoire.

    please tell me that didn’t actually come from a Geico commercial, as the urban legend suggest?

  82. 82
    Ichthyic

    oh, also, has anyone mentioned this yet:

    WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

    because the idea that we can replace truth with fiction for societal control purposes is a rather large theme in that book.

    It was also a rather large theme of this guy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Strauss

    hopefully at least some of you recognize who that is, and what his significance is.

    If not, here’s a tidbit for you:

    http://www.alternet.org/story/15935

  83. 83
    Ing

    Basically, I think that most people have a lot of trouble being good, and need all the help they can get.

    Thank you for providing comfort and support to the idea that religious==good. People like Pat Roberston, Glen Beck, Uganda Fag bashers, Bachman, Palin, and many many others thank you for helping them/

  84. 84
    LykeX

    This leads on to an interesting philosophical question: if the world could be a more peaceful and fulfilling place because people acted in accordance with strictly false beliefs, whereas if people only held true beliefs the world would be more conflicted and painful – then which scenario is preferred?

    Allow me to address it as a philosophical question, then.
    First, clearly wishful thinking is not a viable strategy in general. Countless examples can be found of people propagating a lie and it blowing up in their faces.
    So, even if this approach is possible, it obviously only works in limited circumstances.

    Second, assuming that it does work, we would first need to discover the truth in order to then decide under which circumstances falsehoods might be beneficial.
    Since we clearly don’t have sufficient knowledge to make such decisions now, our current situation dictates a search for truth. Whether we will later agree on an adherence to a beneficial illusion or not, we should, at this moment, embrace the search for truth.

    In short, even if you’re right, you’re wrong.

  85. 85
    Hazuki

    Didn’t HL Mencken nail this one flat almost a century ago? “When people say we need more religion, they mean we need more policemen?”

    Of course, given how the police act now I wouldn’t endorse this…but his essential point is that when people say we need more religion, they mean they want to see less antisocial behavior. Given what we know about the genesis and propagation of same, and religion’s role in it…

  86. 86
    fatpie42

    I didn’t read all the comments, so I apologise if this has all been said already.

    First of all, I think someone already mentioned Russell, but I don’t know if anyone mentioned a particular section of Bertrand Russell’s book “Why I Am Not A Christian”. He criticises the hypocrisy of certain people who claim that religion must be kept BECAUSE it produces good actions in followers (as opposed to because it’s true).

    Russell notes the hypocrisy in this. The people making the argument have obviously actively considered the possibility of not following the religion anymore and in many cases may actually no longer personally believe. So how arrogant must someone have to be to say that they don’t PERSONALLY need religion to be good, but EVERYONE ELSE will become selfish deviants if it is taken away.

    Turning to your example from The Matrix, I feel the need to bring up a different philosopher (whom the Wachowskis almost certainly had in mind) called Robert Nozick. Nozick considers the thought experiment of the Hedon machine (or “hedonistic experiences machine”). If you had the choice to go into a machine which provides fake happy experiences producing the utmost content for the rest of your life (including fake relationships with seemingly real people), would you go into it? (The thought experiment also involves erasing the memory of making the deal so you would not realise that the experiences were illusory.) Nozick argues that most people would not accept such an opportunity because ALL of us care too much about truth. We need to believe our experiences are real, so actively choosing fake experiences (even if we wouldn’t realise they were fake later on) will not be appealing.

    I suppose in the end we all want a sense of control, a sense of power. Everything is tied to a need for autonomy and power drives one way or another if you think about it. Religion’s power drives are so strong that even non-believers can find themselves attracted to notions of giving religion control for-our-own-good. Didn’t the OP rather gloss over why accepting religion would have any positive benefits at all? After all, if we haven’t become drastically different people, morally-speaking, as a result of our loss of religion, why would anyone else?

  87. 87
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Ich: My aunt used to say that in lieu of jackass. She also liked “jerkwater”, which I use from time to time.

  88. 88
    Jek

    Basically it comes down to how much of yourself you should sacrfice for the greater good of society. I think it only works, if, like the priest who’s really an athiest story from earlier, you choose to make that sacrfice yourself. If you’re told you have to do XYZ against your will for the stability of society, then I think that stability becomes less of a payoff.

    Especially if you imagine if the entire world followed a strict, literal interpretation of Christianity. The world would certainly be more ‘stable’, in that it would be more rigid and ordered and as someone said earlier, static, but it would be at the expense of the rights and freedom and happiness of about 80% of people who are disadvantaged by the Bible’s teachings, like women and children and gay people and such.

    Stability is important obviously important to keep us all safe and whatever, but this benefit seems to become less and less the more you have to sacrifice personally for it, especially against your will (in this case living a lie). It comes down to balancing the needs of individuals with the needs of society, and I think the best way to do that is by dealing with reality rather than a lie.

  89. 89
    Gregory Kusnick

    The flaw in this sort of conundrum it that it’s not beliefs that make the world a better or worse place; it’s behavior. People can believe what they like so long as they behave well. So if someone comes up with a code of behavior that can demonstrably improve the world, there’s no need to couple it to a system of counterfactual beliefs (e.g. by claiming that it was handed down by God). The only belief we need couple it to is the (demonstrably true) belief that following this code will make things better. That should be sufficient to get all the practical benefits without any of the philosphical angst.

  90. 90
    Ichthyic

    Ich: My aunt used to say that in lieu of jackass. She also liked “jerkwater”, which I use from time to time.

    jerkwater I have heard before, but the jackwagon thing was definitely a new one to me.

    I get it though, as a substitute for jackass.

    where’s your ass?

    why, you pull it behind you when you walk.

    what else can you pull behind you?

    a wagon.

    not sure if that’s the “etymology” but it makes sense to me, so that’s what I’m going with.

  91. 91
    AJS

    The problem with well-meaning bollocks is, it’s still bollocks; and believing things that are not true will get you into trouble eventually.

    If you don’t see how this is a problem, imagine spending a night halfway up a mountain in the freezing cold with very little dry firewood, only one match and a friend who believes that urine is inflammable.

  92. 92
    shm

    @Alienne Goddard in #5 and @deen in #23:

    I totally agree with you deen, many clain to base morality on an
    absolute principle, but in practice they infuse their own moral
    into it. In some ways religion is a language that you can use to
    talk about morality. The problem is the language is kind of
    static.

    The main difference though is that you can discuss the principles
    of secular morality. for example the golden rule:

    jesus: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”
    epicurus: “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing ‘neither to harm nor be harmed’”

    You can discuss the position of Epicurus. His viewpoint is only
    valid if you actually think it is of value to live a pleasant
    life.

    So the reason for the golden rule in Epicurus is to achieve the
    pleasant life, but the reason given as to why we should follow
    Jesus is because it pleases God (and you wont go to hell of
    course). There is no room for discussion here.

    There is no causal connection between humanism and atheism, but
    we have the advantage that we can talk about and discuss
    morality, which make it possible to evolve our moral
    viewpoints. We don’t have to accept everything or nothing.

  93. 93
    KenJa

    Here’s an illustration that will show why there can never be one religion. Music by Rush

  94. 94
    Sal

    Actually this poses some very tricky situations that I doubt anyone could easily resolve. For example, my mother, who is a devout catholic, has told me countless times that her belief in god has greatly helped her face adversity. Suffice to say, I, being an atheist, could never take that away from her, not only because I love her, but that I feel it is an inherently negative thing to do. In fact, I fear that she could very well go through a severe depression if I told her just how idiotic her beliefs are. Be that as it may, I have found that by making my case in incremental steps, I have been able to slowly erode away some of her more nonsensical beliefs, an eternal physical hell for example. The point is, living a lie in of itself is harmful, but if it is so deeply ingrained in the mental framework of a person, there can be destructive consequences if those beliefs are abruptly taken from them.

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