Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Skeptical Heresies #8

April 19th, 2011 Posted in Creationism, General Science, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion

8. People don’t care enough about the truth

It’s taken as pretty much a foundational principle of scepticism that the truth is a valuable commodity and it’s something that we should all aim towards. The argument is that we should always aim to know what is true, because then we can decide how to deal with the world as it really is, rather than kidding ourselves that it is otherwise and hence making suboptimal decisions.

But what’s fairly evident is that human beings really don’t operate this way. We don’t make decisions based on pure logic – we decide to a great extent based on emotion, and then back up what we want to believe using logic. Science is the process we have invented to aim to get over these shortcomings of the human mind in our quest for knowledge.

But is truth really all it’s cracked up to be? Is it really the ultimate goal? Or, at least, should it be seen as such by everyone? Anyone who has ever argued against a creationist or any other fundamentalist or conspiracy theorist will know that truth doesn’t seem to enter into their way of thinking about the world. They believe that they are going after the truth, of course they do, but they deliberately avoid it with great energy, and they choose to investigate the Universe in such a way as to ensure that they will reach the answer they want to reach, regardless of whether or not it happens to agree with reality. I’ve heard it said several times – and I’m still not sure exactly what the best argument against this is – that it’s better to be contented and wrong than to be correct and unhappy. i.e. “Ignorance is bliss”. But is it really?

Dawkins approached this subject to some degree in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow”. Does science really lessen the experience of awe by explaining the processes causing natural phenomena? I truly believe it does for some. Perhaps for the majority. And this is what people like Dawkins don’t seem very keen to approach – the very real possibility that most people genuinely prefer fiction to reality, and that the ‘truth’ strikes them as cold and heartless. Not just that most people really don’t want to know how things work, but that they actively want not to know.

I believe that we spend far too much time attempting to appeal to the scientific side of the public – we talk about the things that make the study of science attractive to us – but those things may not matter to other people. Perhaps it’s their education, perhaps it’s their upbringing, or perhaps it’s just who they are. And I’m not entirely sure I can say that they’re wrong – after all, why prefer knowledge over ignorance if ignorance really is bliss? The argument must be that knowledge allows us to create a far more pleasurable life for the future – seeking the truth has enabled us to develop modern medicine and other technological marvels. But arguments about “things we may have in the future” rarely have the same pull as the feeling of pleasure and comfort right now.

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