On the problem with keeping false beliefs for psychological comfort (#165)

There’s a whole side of argument that supports the idea of keeping false beliefs for psychological consolation—beliefs that act as some sort of a placebo. There are a couple of holes in this argument that make it a bad explanation which I wish to point out in this blog post.

Many people (atheists including) argue with atheists that belief in God has a deep spiritual and psychological importance for human beings. This, of course, does not reveal that God exists (facts don’t care about your feelings and everything) but it is something to consider. Believing in a supreme power provides many people with a sense of relief and consolation. So should we believe in God for the psychological benefits?

First let me point out an obvious fact that you cannot fake belief. You can’t know that God does not exist because there’s no good explanation for him to exist and the evidence is certainly all against him and at the same time believe in God just to reap the psychological benefits. It doesn’t work like that, I’m sorry.

Yet, the argument still lies: why not let believers do their thing if they get a great sense of spirituality and consolation in their believing?

Well, firstly, the same belief can have a very bad effect on one’s mind too. The psychological effect of committing an apparent sin can be tremendous if one thinks they’re going to have to go to hell for it. Or that one’s soul is going to be reincarnated in the body of an insect. It doesn’t all have to be pretty and consoling—false belief can work in the other way too.

Secondly, a seemingly spiritual edge does not weigh strongly in the battle against what is true. And I say “seemingly” because trying to understand the Universe the way it actually is in its natural realm without invoking anything supernatural can have a deeply spiritual effect too. I won’t say it is spirituality. Because the word is clouded with a religiously implicit meaning. But the effect that people may get from a spiritual experience can happen without invoking the supernatural. So often I am struck with awe when I ponder the vastness of the cosmos, when I read a passage in a book that seems to expand the horizon of my consciousness, or when I’m just having a very deep conversation with a friend. A monk need not invoke “the spirit” yet can still gain a much greater psychological effect than when someone feels at one with the spirit or God.

Anyway, I digress there. The point I want to make is that that which is true wins over that which only makes one feel good. A placebo eventually fails to do its job. There’s no guarantee and any good explanation for every placebo to even work. Ignorance may be temporary bliss. But in the long run, you’re better off correcting your misconceptions instead of staying with dogmatic ones.

I don’t know why I’ve stuck with God as an example for explaining the problem I tackle in this post so far but any kind of argument that follows along the lines of “Isn’t it still good to believe in X because it can provide with confidence / comfort / consolation / etc.?” contains holes I’ve already mentioned.

If you believe in a lucky pencil, there’s no good advantage in that. For starters, if you forget that pencil on the day of your examination and then realize so only when you have entered the exam hall, your mental anguish might make you fail the test. Then, let’s say you did use the pencil. Getting an outstanding grade then would only make you perhaps believe more in the power of the pencil; ignoring all the long nights you cranked up in preparation of the test.

All in all, believing in something for psychological benefit is a bad explanation for why someone ought to stick with that belief. It forgets the opposite effect that belief might have and also the importance of taking into consideration only good explanations with reasonable evidence (a truth-based lens instead of a psychologically pleasing one).

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