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Of course, when you need to describe reality or make predictions about it, it's important that the beliefs correspond to reality, but say a religion makes an unfalsifiable and unverifiable claim. Does it really matter whether it's true if you (currently) have no way to know? If the belief drives good behavior, is it okay to believe such a thing? I'm thinking of William James's "Will to Believe."

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    But isn't the definition of "good" behavior typically contained within the belief system? How can you assess your behavior as good or bad without first believing? i.e. what is your moral foundation prior to accepting a religious view? Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 16:58
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    Money is a fictional belief system: youtu.be/nlni04mpDdg?t=575. The discussion is between Yuval Noah Harari and MSNBC host Ari Melber concerning the concept of "fiction" or "belief in stories". Harari argues that money is fiction, we believe the fiction, and this motivates or influences human behavior in context. The concept of harm, to self or others, arises in the context of interpersonal interactions. Hugh Gibbons, my Torts professor, says legal harm can be organic (physiological) or interference with the will (intentional activities) of another person. So harm is psychological. Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 20:27
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    Who gets to decide if the belief is good or not?
    – armand
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 23:31
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    @armand we could put you in charge of that :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 11:09
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    I'm a professional engineer. Nobody here will find this useful :-) : "All models are wrong. Some models are useful." - George Box. || "There are no true beliefs. Just beliefs that may be truer." - Me. Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 12:03

13 Answers 13

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  1. Your title question asks about true beliefs. But the body of your question speaks about an unfalsifiable and unverifiable claim.

    This prompts the remark: If the claim is unfalsifiable and unverifiable one cannot know whether it is a true belief.

  2. Hence I consider only your question:

    If the belief drives good behavior, is it okay to believe such a thing?

    To find an answer one could ask oneself:

    • Which arguments support the truthfullness of the believe, which arguments speak against its truthfullness?
    • Which arguments support the claim that the believe fosters good behaviour, are there arguments which speak against this conclusion?
    • Do I want my children to be socialized on the basis of this unfalsifiable and unverifiable belief?
    • Could one achieve the good behaviour also on the basis of a different consideration?
  3. The book by William James was highly controversial.

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    I took “true beliefs” to mean a totally pure belief, as in a belief without any evidence for it. True meaning a true definition of belief. If I’m wrong I’ll have to modify my answer. Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 15:50
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    @notwithstanding I would call the kind of belief in your first sentence an "arbitrary belief". Your second sentence is not clear to me. Concerning the remark in your third sentence: You can complete your answer by explaining your use of the word.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 15:55
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    My second sentence was describing how I thought the word ‘true’ was used in the context of the question, taking into account their description of “unfalsifiable and unverifiable claim” being a ‘true’ definition of a belief. Arbitrary belief is a better term for what I thought OP meant. Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 15:58
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You first want to have a good methodology for finding true beliefs and distinguishing them from false ones. You need that methodology to accomplish practical goals such as obtaining food and shelter, avoiding danger, and so on.

Then, once you have that methodology, it becomes a habit to apply it to everything, including questions that do not have a direct practical use in your life. You discover that when you don't apply it, you feel an unpleasant, nagging doubt. This doubt originated because it helped you to solve practical problems, but now it exists on its own and has become part of you.

The methodology involves logic, seeking evidence, searching for contradictions, making comparisons, evaluating sources, and many other cognitive skills.

You obtained the methodology in part due to innate abilities granted to you by your genes, in part due to your education and social environment, and in part from thinking about things by yourself.

The methodology appeals to you because of your genes, because of your past practical successes when you applied it, and because high-status people in your community favor it, and your genes have given you an urge to imitate high-status people in your community.

The methodology does not appeal to everyone equally. Some people, perhaps most people, are perfectly content to accept many of their beliefs uncritically, such as religious or political beliefs, without applying the methodology. Some people did not learn a very good methodology in the first place.

Philosophy is for those who do have a developed methodology of truth-seeking, and a desire to apply it in all domains. If you didn't have that desire you wouldn't be here asking the question.

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  • Self-reinforcing tendencies like the 'methodology' you describe are known as ego by some systems, like Buddhism. It is best to be free of things within us that we don't have control of.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 23:18
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    @ScottRowe Are there things within you that you do have control of? What is the thing that has control over those things?
    – causative
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 23:27
  • It is a question of whether you can choose to do or not do something and make it stick. Is there a better standard?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 23:38
  • @ScottRowe What is doing the choosing? Why do you give power to that thing doing the choosing?
    – causative
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 23:39
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    @ScottRowe Re "You will know when you've found it" - I've found that in introspection it is surprisingly common to think you have found some deep truth about how your mind functions, but then you look at it from a different angle or from a different state of mind, and you find it wasn't as true as it seemed before.
    – causative
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 0:35
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This might be unsatisfactory but might help somewhat. My answer also assumes you mean an unjustified believe without evidence as a ‘true belief’. However my answer also applies to the belief you describe in the elaboration of your question too. I'm going to focus on this part in particular:

If the belief drives good behaviour, is it okay to believe such a thing?

This depends on what ethical system you want to evaluate this behaviour with. If, like you say, the belief drives good behaviour and only has good outcomes, it would be permissible or desirable in utilitarianism to have the belief. That is because utilitarians are concerned with the outcome of the action, and not the reasons nor the reasoning behind it.

In virtue ethics, there may be an argument that making ethical decisions based on arbitrary belief - without consulting reason or thinking through a problem - might not be desirable even if the outcome is positive. That's because, to be good in virtue ethics one needs to act in accordance/balance with the virtues (see here for more information about virtue ethics). Being irrational by placing arbitrary faith in something you do not truely know would not be acting in accordance of wisdom or prudence, perhaps (from Aristotle's virtues). Different philosophers agree on different virtues though, so what might not be permissible in Aristotle's idea of virtue ethics might be permissible in others (like Kaufmann's).

These are just two examples of ways to answer that particular part of your question. I know this isn't a complete answer to why having true beliefs are important (if they are at all!), but I hope it sheds some light about the ethical consequences of the true belief you're describing.

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I would argue rational people acknowledge two types of truth.

  • 'True by definition' is entirely within the realm of ideas. Truth depends on interpretations of words with logic applied. Eg 'a triangle has 3 corners'.
  • 'True in reality' means conforming to reality, and never reaches 100% certainty. These truth claims require empirical evidence, and new evidence will update the certainty.

A third type of 'truth' is rejected by rational people:

  • wishful truth. Religion falls in that category. You label it as true because you want so, or want the consequences. These claims are false reality claims, lacking evidence. Apologists often attempt to 'upgrade' a definitional truth to a reality truth. (eg. define something into existence)

Rational people have no need for wishful truth, as they distinguish truth from morals. Morality is not written into reality, reality has no purpose, it simply is. Morality is our choice and responsibility. Religious people delegate their morals to an external authority (the clergy inventing god/gods) but this by itself is a choice too.

And though one can argue religion provided some people with good morals, the opposite is definitely also true. And when judging evil religious behavior, them hiding behind a fake truth claim is simply dodging responsibility. Something I, based on my morals, find immature at best but repugnant at worst.

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    I find it's not very rational to purport to speak on behalf of "rational people" while putting forward such rehashed pop philosophy stances which many intellectual heavyweights find weak, but surely you're more rational than I am so it's you who are right.
    – Mutoh
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 15:02
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    +1 Your response is spot-on. The first truth you list is related to the coherent theory of truth and is often called an analytic truth. The second is essentially the correspondent theory of truth. As for religion, that sort of truth is often called a meta-narrative, the one that provides people personal truth and meaning.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 16:51
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    Is the term "wishful truth" part of the philosopher's lexicon, or did you just make that up to insult people of faith? Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 18:16
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    The argument for "rational people" is a "no true Scotsman" fallacy. There are plenty of people who are rational in most topics except religion. And there are plenty of irrational people who deny religion. And there are even plenty of people who are otherwise rational, except they believe Fox "News" and other conspiracy theory sites as if they were a religion. Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 21:10
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    re your " ... wishful truth. Religion falls in that category. ..." --> No. Rather, some portion of some religion may fall in that category. For very widely variable values of some, some and may :-). I'm a committed Christian & professional Engineer. Much of my god understandings don't need to be "proven valid reality claims". It's unimportant and irrelevant in a god free reference frame. BUT some of my beliefs/understandings (a very very small but useful fraction) are based on hard 'engineering' statistical 'truth', with in some cases many more 9's of probability than we found our lives on. Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 12:22
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What's important is to have useful beliefs, and that depends on your goals.

If you're trying to create a rocket to fly to the moon, the design and engineering should be consistent with physical reality, so your beliefs need to be true (within an acceptable margin of error).

But if you're just trying to get along in society, truth is often less important than agreement with the concensus. If you live in an extremely religious society, you may need to express agreement with the religious doctrines to avoid punishment (as Galileo did when he recanted his beliefs about the Solar System). And to avoid cognitive dissonance or just "slipping", it's helpful to actually agree with them. So most people accept the indoctrination they receive when growing up.

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One problem with believing things that are unfalsifiable or unverifiable is what is unfalsifiable and unverifiable changes over time. If you happened to pick one that changed status you might get proven wrong.

The problem with doing this as a religious belief is it shakes your faith. Do the same thing as a scientist and you've simply advanced knowledge in your field. They prove theories wrong all the time.

So whether this is a bad thing to do completely depends on the attitude you take with it.

The other problem is what Occam's razor addresses. The more unnecessary fluff in your beliefs the more time gets wasted on unnecessary fluff. So don't do this unless you happen to enjoy your fluff.

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That I no more, with aching brow, Need speak of what I nothing know; That I the force may recognise That binds creation's inmost energies;

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust - part 1

Because we yearn for truth, about the world, about goodness. We want to be good, and we want to understand reality.

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Answering the question generally, having true beliefs is important because it is the telos of our intellect: to grasp truth. To believe is to hold something as true, and it would be contrary to the intellect's nature to hold something as true which isn't. So a false belief would be harmful to the intellect insofar as it would mean a frustration of the realization of its ends, and we wish to avoid harm.

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In asking your question here, you make two claims about the first claim: that it is unfalsifiable and unverifiable. Which of them do you make in response to the person making the first claim? Whichever it is, the burden of proof is with you to prove them. On the other hand, if you do indeed prove that it's unverifiable, it's back to the original claimant to defend their claim.

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  • I guess this is why people tend not to counter religious claims, it gets thrown back at you.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 11:13
  • There is a significant difference between religious claims and religious beliefs. Be careful that you don't confuse them! Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 19:06
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A false belief that leads to good behavior could sometimes be a good thing for the world. ("I believe that if I help others, the Flying Spaghetti Monster will reward me.") But there's no particular reason to believe that false beliefs will lead to good behavior - once you have lost touch with reality and started believing in lies, there's nothing to protect you and the world if these beliefs are harmful. ("And those who do not believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be put to death.")

An optimistic view of the universe is that true beliefs would ultimately lead to good behavior. ("I understand that other people exist, and they are just as important as me, so I have no right to act selfishly. If I do the right thing, I will help to create a world in which everyone can be happy, including me.") But I suppose this is impossible to prove.

However, it's not hard to think of subjects where it's fairly easy to see that the truth is extremely valuable. Consider recent arguments about climate change, electoral fraud, the safety of vaccinations, and so on. Being wrong on these subjects could lead to global disaster, tyranny, or your own death. False beliefs are dangerous.

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  • I think it's a mistake in reasoning to assume that truth will always lead to positive outcomes. True beliefs can be dangerous. For example, Eugenics. Forced sterilization to eliminate bad genes is based on facts about genetics and can be argued for based entirely on factual premises, but that doesn't make it right.
    – Beefster
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 20:44
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Truth is useful because it allows for coherent communication between people despite their difference in perspective. It acts as an anchor or reference point, and without some element of truth being present in a philosophy, it becomes very difficult for it to spread. Beliefs lacking in truth or those that are full of contradictions will eventually be ripped apart by critical scrutiny. And often this means that any nuggets of wisdom contained within their narratives will be thrown out alongside the rest ("throwing the baby out with the bathwater"). And since the internet has a way of accelerating this scrutiny, it's more important than ever for one's beliefs to be backed by truth, or internally consistent narratives at the very least. Either that, or you have to be comfortable with not caring to scrutinize your beliefs (honestly, this is most people, and that's ok), but if you're looking at this question, you probably aren't the kind of person who can do that.

Not all truths are verifiable and not all falsehoods are falsifiable. There could very well be a teapot orbiting Saturn, but there's no way of detecting it with our current technology. But such a fact would not be useful for living one's life. Belief in a god or gods is, of course, the classic example of this and the existence of deities may have huge implications on the way you should live your life. Unfortunately, there's not really any way to know for sure which god or gods are real or what they expect from us if one or more gods exists and cares about and judges humanity.

Not all truth is useful and not all useful things are literally true. A great example of a very empowering belief that may not be literally true is the concept of free will. There is evidence to suggest that a belief in free will makes people stronger because it increases their sense of agency and empowers them to act. Likewise, those who do not believe in some sense of free will tend to be depressed and nihilistic because they believe everything that will happen is completely deterministic and a product of their circumstances.

Even though it may seem, based on evidence, that atheism is the most likely truth of the universe, that does not mean that religion has no merit. Religious beliefs have very interesting impacts on society regardless of their truth. The longest-lasting religions of history have practices of self-denial, tend to reject hedonism to some extent, and often encourage having lots of kids. Meanwhile, the religions that people largely no longer believe or practice tend to be much more decadent (Greek/Roman mythology, Mesopotamian Paganism, Norse mythology, etc...). Religion seems to be one of the most reliable ways to steer the masses toward a lower time preference and a culture which will reproduce itself, which seems to be required for stable and productive civilization.

Humans seem to have a "god-shaped hole" that will tend to get filled with just about anything if it isn't filled with religious beliefs. People need meaning and purpose in their lives. Thus why so many atheists turn to political activism and ironically tend to espouse a set of beliefs that could be described as religious in nature. Doomsday narratives seem to be a very popular kind of meme that exists in all sorts of forms, with and without gods, from the Christian Rapture and Apocalypse to an impending climate catastrophe that will ostensibly kill humanity. It's all memetics, and that's ok. It probably makes sense to embrace the reality that humans are essentially religious creatures. We should accept that although truth is valuable and useful, it isn't everything.

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In my experience, having "true beliefs" has nothing to do with if they are unfalsifiable and/or unverifiable, but rather that you believe the exact same things as someone else, as in a clique. In a religious context, this would tend to be a sect of a larger religion or, in extreme instances, possibly a cult.

In fact, many "true beliefs" can be shown to be false, and others can be shown to have real negative effects to the believers and those around them. The reason some people use "truth" is because they want to be able to bend that "truth" to their benefits. The dictionary definition of "truth" is basically the same as that of fact, but many people refuse to either believe or understand that.

In the same way religious people may believe in "the one true god", they can also share the same "true beliefs" that brand them all the same for easy recognition.

Along with having the easy recognition of fellow "true belief" followers, they also have easy recognition of those who aren't the same, automatically adding segregation to their religion.

Humans tend to be pack animals, so having easy recognition of who is and who isn't in the pack is important to some people. The distinction between in and out of the pack can have many visible "religiously significant" manifestations, such has having a picture of their deity in their house, wearing a specific type of jewelry, wearing specific makeup or clothing, saying specific mantras/catch phrases/keywords, and more. There's countless of these types of religious artifacts around, so I won't try to list them.

If the belief drives good behavior, is it okay to believe such a thing?

That's a very broad question, but, in my experience, very little good behavior actually comes out "true beliefs".

For instance, the Catholic Church has a vast array of "true beliefs", yet they are also responsible for the Inquisition, various Crusades, quite a few other "holy wars", transphobia, homophobia, child molestation by clergy, and quite a bit of other acts of immorality, hatred, and killings.

Also for example, Sects of Islam have "true beliefs" that led to 9/11 in 2001, along with other suicide bombers, hostage taking, beheadings, stonings, and other acts of immorality, hatred, and killings.

In both of these religions*, the main beliefs are those of love, inclusion, peace, and kindness, yet these and other core values are often twisted by the "true beliefs". Some of these twists are subtle and some aren't.

Maybe you are encouraged to give to the homeless and needy, but only if they are somehow "worthy". Is their situation because they are alcoholics? Addicted to drugs? Are they good parents? Are they convicts? Are they of a different religion?

Maybe the rule is no killings, unless they are gay, of a different religion, are standing on your holy land without giving your religion the "proper" amount of respect, your holy leaders say it's ok, etc.

Maybe the rule is to love your neighbor, unless they are from a different country, speak a different language, have a different religion, have a different culture, etc.

In reality, having "true beliefs" all too often translates into hard rules that allow you to ignore others sufferings because "those people" don't have your same "true beliefs", which tends to lead to oppression, repression, hatred, and more that definitely isn't ok. There's really nothing that can balance out the negatives these "true beliefs" inflict.

Scientology is well known for it's "true beliefs" that leads to child and spousal abuse, corporate and other types of fraud, what can end up with effective enslavement of their followers, and threats/violence/assault against anyone who speaks out against Scientology. And yet, various programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narc Anon, and others were started by Scientology. But just because there's a spark of good deeds, it doesn't cancel out all the vast array of horrible things they've done in following their "true beliefs".

So, to wrap things up, no, it generally isn't ok to believe a "true belief" due to how often it is hypocritical and does more harm than good. What you don't know of it's side effects may actually hurt people directly or indirectly. And, like in the case of Scientology, it may cost you a lot of money to be able to say you have those "true beliefs".

* These are just two examples of religions that are easy to make because they are so visible and prevalent. Nearly all other religions have similar problems.

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The truth criteria in the gospels is the following:

Matthew 7:15 "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." 7:16 "Ye shall know them by their fruits."

So this is not a theoretical, logically deducible truth criteria, but looks at the real world consequences of some spoken statement.

So, I would argue about your statement

religion makes an unfalsifiable and unverifiable claim

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