Edited by Nigel Warburton
Most of us have views on politics, current events, religion, society, morality and sport, and we spend a lot of time expressing these views, whether in conversation or on social media. We argue for our positions, and get annoyed if they are challenged. Why do we do this? The obvious answer is that we believe the views we express (ie, we think they are true), and we want to get others to believe them too, because they are true. We want the truth to prevail. That’s how it seems. But do we really believe everything we say? Are you always trying to establish the truth when you argue, or might there be other motives at work?
These questions might seem strange, offensive even. Am I suggesting that you are insincere or hypocritical in your views? No – at least I’m not suggesting that you are consciously so. But you might be unconsciously influenced by concerns other than truth. Nowadays, most psychologists agree that rapid, unconscious mental processes (sometimes called ‘System 1’ processes) play a huge role in guiding our behaviour. These processes are not thought of as Freudian ones, involving repressed memories and desires, but as ordinary, everyday judgments, motives and feelings that operate without conscious awareness, like a mental autopilot.
It seems plausible that such processes guide much of our speech. After all, we rarely give conscious thought to our reasons for saying what we do; the words just come to our lips. But if the motives behind our words are unconscious, then we must infer them from our behaviour, and might be mistaken about what they are. Again, this isn’t a revolutionary idea; for centuries, dramatists and novelists have depicted people deceived about their own motives. (For more on the nature and limits of self-knowledge, see my earlier Aeon article.)
It’s easy to think of motives that might prompt us to express a view we don’t really believe. We might want it to be true, and feel reassurance when we argue for it (think of the parents who insist that their missing child is still alive, despite the lack of evidence). We might associate it with people we admire, and assert it so as to be like them (think of how people are influenced by the views of celebrities). We might think that it will get us attention, and make us seem interesting (think of teenagers who adopt provocative views). We might profess it to fit in and gain social acceptance (think of a university student from a conservative background). Or we might feel that we have a duty to defend it because of our commitment to some creed or ideology (we sometimes call this attitude faith – belief in the religious sense).
Such motives might also be reinforced by other factors. As a society, we tend to admire people who know their own minds and stick to their principles. So, once we have expressed a view, for whatever reason, we might feel (again, unconsciously) that we are now committed to it, and should stick with it as a matter of integrity. At the same time, we might develop an emotional attachment to the view, a bit like an attachment to a sports team. It is now our view, the one we have publicly endorsed, and we want it to win out over its rivals just because it is ours. In this way, we might come to have a strong personal commitment to a claim, even if we don’t really believe it.
I am not suggesting that we are never guided by concerns for truth and knowledge (what philosophers call epistemic concerns), but I suspect that these sorts of emotional and social factors play a much larger role than we like to think. How else can we explain the vehemence with which people defend their views, and the hurt they feel when their views are challenged?
Is it bad if we sometimes say things we don’t believe? It might seem not. The aims I’ve mentioned – seeking social acceptance, for example, or cultivating a self-image – are not necessarily bad ones, and since they are unconscious it is arguable that we shouldn’t be held responsible for them anyway. There are dangers, however. For in order to achieve these aims we must convince our audience that we genuinely believe what we say. If they thought we were saying something merely in order to create an impression on them, then we wouldn’t succeed in creating that impression. And when our aim is to make some impression on ourselves – like the parents who insist that their child is still alive – we must convince ourselves that we believe it too. As a consequence, we might need to back up our words with deeds, acting as if we believe what we say. If there were a glaring disparity between what we said and did, our insincerity would be obvious. In this way, unconscious desires for acceptance, approval and reassurance can lead us to make choices on the basis of claims for which we have no good evidence, with obvious risks of frustration and failure.
Is there, then, any way of telling whether you really believe a claim? It might seem that conscious reflection would settle it. If you consciously entertain the claim, do you think it is true? Even this process might be unreliable, however. Many theorists hold that conscious thinking is simply talking to oneself in inner speech, in which case it can be guided by unconscious motives, just like outer speech. And, as I mentioned, unconscious desires can prompt us to deceive ourselves, telling ourselves that a claim is true even though we don’t really believe it.
Despite this, a thought experiment might help us detect what we genuinely believe to be true. In real life, there might be few contexts where truth really is our dominant concern: maintaining a comforting view or upholding a cherished ideology or self-image might almost always be more important to us than truth. But suppose you were being questioned by the Truth Demon – a super-powerful being who knows the truth on every topic, and will punish you horribly if you give a wrong answer or fail to answer at all. If you continue to assert a claim when the Truth Demon asks you if it is true, then you do really believe it, really think it is true. But if you give a different answer when under threat of torture by the all-knowing demon, then you don’t really believe the claim. This gives us a practical test for belief: imagine the situation just described as vividly as you can, and see what you would say about any of your views. But do be careful not to give too much conscious thought to the matter in case you start telling yourself what you want to hear.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
I like the gist of this article (along with the author’s previous article), but the Truth Demon (a.k.a. God) thought experiment could use some work. It’s too easy to deceive and delude oneself, even under imagined duress. It’s also unclear if many people would be “punished horribly” while expressing their false beliefs in good conscience. As mentioned by the author, a good judge of honest belief is one’s actions, but there is a difference between honest belief and truth itself (or is there?). Although the author’s final word is on point, I prefer Nietzsche’s thought experiment: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”
We don’t know ourselves, we knowledgeable people—we are personally ignorant
about ourselves. And there’s good reason for that. We’ve never tried to find out who
we are. How could it ever happen that one day we’d discover our own selves? With
justice it’s been said that “Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as if we were born winged creatures—collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with only one thing, to “bring something home.” As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call “experience”—which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we’ve been “missing the point.”
Our hearts have not even been engaged—nor, for that matter, have our ears! We’ve
been much more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear
the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at
once wakes up and asks himself “What exactly did that clock strike?”—so we rub
ourselves behind the ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and embarrassed “What have we really just experienced? And more: “Who are we really?” Then, as I’ve mentioned, we count—after the fact—all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, our lives, our being—alas! in the process we keep losing the count. So we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we have to keep ourselves confused. For us this law holds for all eternity: “Each man is furthest from himself.” Where we ourselves are concerned, we are not “knowledgeable people.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche,
When subjectivity, inwardness, is the truth, the truth becomes objectively determined as a paradox, and that it is paradoxical is made clear by the fact that subjectivity is truth, for it repels objectivity, and the expression for the objective repulsion is the intensity and measure of inwardness. The paradox is the objective uncertainty, which is the expression for the passion of inwardness, which is precisely the truth. This is the Socratic principle. The eternal, essential truth, that is, that which relates itself essentially to the individual because it concerns his existence (all other knowledge is, Socratically speaking, accidental, its degree and scope being indifferent), is a paradox. Nevertheless, the eternal truth is not essentially in itself paradoxical, but it becomes so by relating itself to an existing individual. Socratic ignorance is the expression of this objective uncertainty, the inwardness of the existential subject is the truth. To anticipate what I will develop later, Socratic ignorance is an analogy to the category of the absurd, only that there is still less objective certainty in the absurd, and therefore infinitely greater tension in its inwardness. The Socratic inwardness that involves existence is an analogy to faith, except that this inwardness is repulsed not by ignorance but by the absurd, which is infinitely deeper. Socratically the eternal, essential truth is by no means paradoxical in itself, but only by virtue of its relation to an existing individual.
― Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript