Matt Dillahunty was joined by Aron Ra on The Atheist Experience on July 20. The last caller had a specific objection to something Matt had said in a debate that he’s also said many times before, enough times that it’s something of his catch-phrase.
The quote in question was the following: “If a person believes as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible, then they will lead a better life.”
The gist of the quote is clear and forms an important basis for debate. If agreed upon, it says that believing things, for example, because they feel good or because everyone else does, is not good enough to be a justified reason. It short-circuits those arguments by emphasizing truth. But I’ve always had qualms with my understanding of the quote on the fringes of its meaning, on its broad nature.
The caller did, as well. He asked what evidence Matt found that convinced him of this position. Matt used the “person who drinks battery acid” and “falsely believing you’ll win the lottery” examples as evidence for better life outcomes with accurate knowledge about health effects and statistics. Which are obviously true. You’ll make better choices not spending money like you’re going to win the lottery. Or not drinking battery acid.
The problem is that in reading the quote, it’s very easy to interpret it as saying “the truth is always better” (like I did, until writing this). Other phrasings of this quote may lean more towards this meaning, in fact. This is an idea I have struggled with for years, because there are times and situations, especially involving learning about or interacting with other people, where perfect truth may not always be preferred.
Let’s continue exploring this (mis?)interpretation of Matt’s quote, to see where the objection comes from. If there is even one example when a lie benefits a person more than the truth, then the caller’s interpretation of Matt’s line is falsified. (The truth isn’t always better.) So what are some lies or untruth that may make your life better?
- Socially-acceptable rejections/responses: “Sorry, I’m busy that night.”; “Yes, I’m doing well.”; Lies by omission.
- White lies: “Nothing special planned tonight.”; “I haven’t picked out a gift for you yet.”
- Childhood imagination: Belief in magic or the supernatural.
Now I can imagine arguments for how some of these are in aggregate harmful to society as a whole. Perhaps if society were structured in a way where direct rejection or honest responses to “How are you doing?” were expected, we’d take better care of one another. Maybe if kids had their imagination channelled back to reality, we’d be better thinkers. But I know of no evidence for these claims, so they remain to me as an interesting, if questionably desirable, hypothetical.
In the caller’s interpretation of the quote (“the truth is always better”), the claim reaches extraordinary status through the absolute nature of the way it’s phrased. If we wanted a clearer, if less punchy version, perhaps it could be something like, “Believing more true things and fewer false things will likely lead to a better life.”
This version is weaker and may fail to capture the essence of the original’s meaning in looking for honest truth everywhere. This is especially true when using it to argue against claims that are so often considered exceptions to this rule (spirituality, the supernatural). So I’m not suggesting a replacement for the original, but trying to shed light on its true meaning. I own that shirt, after all. The caveats I’m presenting may not amount to much to question the efficacy of the phrase.
But I think my lighter quote illuminates the idea that it’s about the net effect of adopting the truth-seeking principle, not about every single instance of receiving accurate information improving lives, which is debatable. It’s quality of life being measured over all beliefs. It’s looking at things in aggregate. Matt said to himself on the show that he could imagine situations where the truth is not beneficial. The caller asked him for those, but Matt didn’t want to get into it.
So Matt probably has this understanding of the quote, about the strong (but not absolute) heuristic of truth correlating to happiness. But I don’t think he understood this easy mistake that the caller made, and that I made before writing. Sure, the caller didn’t present the argument extremely well, and ventured outside the scope of this post into the subjective nature of happiness. But both hosts were too dismissive towards the caller for my taste.
I think it’s important to address some of the basic tenets of our positions, and not shut down when something basic is questioned because it seems ridiculous. I learned my go-to response about propositions of nihilism or solipsism (AKA “How do we know anything is real?”) from The Atheist Experience, for example. But sometimes on the show, when basic questions on those subjects come up, the hosts respond by shutting down a bit, or being incredulous. Which I understand, given it’s a call-in show, that you never know how excruciating a call will be or how long you’ll want to be on the line. You never know if the caller will be useful to talk to or agonizingly belabor the point. But that technique makes it rare to get to the root of objections or misunderstandings like the subject of this post.
I don’t know if I completely agree with the literal exact quote of my shirt anymore. But I can take its spirit, its meaning, and embrace that. Because in the same vein of being practical, not absolute, about truth in my life, I can be practical about interpretations of what I read and appreciation of what I wear.