Can you hold beliefs that are not true, but are useful? know that I talk a lot on here about trying to get as close to the truth as possible. But are there times when it is useful to believe something even if you’re not sure of it yourself?
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
— Marcus Aurelius
A few weeks ago I was listening to Derek Sivers who was a guest on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. They talked about a few ideas that I found very interesting and fit right along with stoicism and how our perspectives can shape how we view the world.
The overarching idea is called “Useful, Not True”, in that our perspective on something doesn’t have to be true, as long as it’s useful. In a way it’s a bit about self-deception, which is a little ironic after last weeks episode about how to be a little better about knowing when you are being lied to, and how to be little more honest. But self-deception is something that we all do, and as long as you are aware of what you are doing, there are times when you can believe something that may not be true, but is still useful.
Derek listed off a few ideas and I want to discuss each of them here. You can also find them here: https://tim.blog/2023/04/23/derek-sivers-transcript/
"Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them."
1. Almost nothing is objectively true.
Things in the physical world are generally things that can be considered objectively true. It is not something that you have to believe in. It is something that is true no matter what anyones opinion is about it. Things like, my water bottle is made of metal and plastic, the sun is a giant flaming ball of gas, and I am speaking right now are things that are objectively true.
Now, on the other side of that there are lots of things that people treat as if they are true, but are not.
Some examples of thing that are not true:
- My country is the greatest.
- Family is everything.
- AI is the future.
- That person is offensive.
- I would be more successful if I were smarter or better looking.
All of these things are just beliefs or opinions that we hold. They are not objectively true.
"We suffer more often in imagination than in reality."
“It is our own opinions that disturb us. Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss your judgment about an act as if it were something grievous, and your anger is gone.”
— Marcus Aurelius
2. Beliefs are placebos. You’ve got to believe whatever works for you.
This is what the stoics mean talk about the importance of our perspectives. It is our perspective on something that informs how we will feel and act. Let’s say for example that there is a traffic jam. One person might think the traffic jam is bad and get pissed off and angry about it and feel like the universe is getting in their way. Another might see it as some time to relax on a busy day, and sing along with the songs on the radio. Which belief is true? Neither. Either belief is just as valid, but most people would agree that the second one is certainly more useful.
Any time you say, “I believe…” whatever comes after that is something that is not true. Unless it is something that is evidence based or objectively true, it is simply our perspective. For example, I would never say that I believe in my water bottle because it objectively exists.
So why would we believe in something, even if we know that it is not objectively true? Because it can be something that helps you be better and accomplish something in the world. For example, Fred Rogers who created and starred in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood believed that kindness was the most important virtue in the world and that we should all be kind to one another.
Was he wrong in believing this because it is not objectively true? I don’t think so. Even though I can’t prove that we should all be kind to each other as an objectively true thing, I choose to believe it because I feel better when I’m kind to someone, and when others are kind to me.
Another example of believing in something that cannot be proven but is useful is believing in an afterlife. For some people, they have a belief in an afterlife because to think that there is nothing after this life is something that is terrifying for them. While I have no idea what happens after we die, I can understand why people want to believe there is something after we die. If that’s something that keeps you going and lessens the distress in your life, then I think it can be useful, even if it’s not true or knowable.
A prime example of how you can choose a belief that works for you is from Zeno of Citium, the founder of stoicism. He washed up in Athens after his ship was lost at sea and he lost all of his cargo. While trying to figure out what to do next, he spent some time at a bookshop. He was so taken by the teachings of Socrates that he asked the book seller where he could find someone like him to teach him philosophy. The bookseller pointed out Crates the Cynic who just happened to be passing by and Zeno became his pupil. He later said, “Now that I've suffered shipwreck, I'm on a good journey." Zeno’s perspective shows that fortune or misfortune is simply a perspective, an opinion.
Probably one of the most relatable ideas behind this sports superstitions. There are athletes that have beliefs that certain things are lucky and other things are not. It could be a lucky pair of sock, a mantra, a talisman of some kind, or having to get up on a certain side of the bed on game day. If it’s something that works for you and isn’t harmful, use it. Often, something like this is helpful for focusing your mind. There is nothing wrong with believing in things like this, but just understand that it is something that you are choosing to believe in. When it stops working you can let it go.
“You are not affected by reality itself but by your interpretation of reality. A change of perspective changes everything.”
3. Rules and norms are arbitrary games that can be changed.
There are all kinds of rules that become part of our culture that are treated as how things are supposed to be. Some of these rules include the idea that in order to live a happy life we need to go to college, get married, have kids, and get a job. Or, that to be considered successful, you to have a lot of money, a big house, and a nice car. Or that in order to be successful you have to hustle all the time.
In short, any rule that comes from the expectations or the opinions of others is one that you don’t have to follow. As long as you don’t break the law, the rules are bendable and can often be ignored. You choose what works for you.
Religions are great examples of things that are taught as if they are true, but are not. They set up a system of rules that they think that everyone needs to live by in order to please some deity and keep people in line. I grew up believing that the Mormon church was the only true church and that everyone else’s beliefs were wrong. I believed that I had to marry someone else who was Mormon, or I was betraying my faith. I believed that if I left the Mormon church that I would go to hell because only bad people left the “true” church. Because of these beliefs, I was unhappy for a long part of my life, and didn’t see any way out of it.
Once I realized these was just a belief and not the truth, I left. Once I left, nothing awful happened to me. In fact my life got much better. I was mentally healthier because I was making choices in my life that worked for me, not because some old conservative guys in Salt Lake City said I should behave a certain way.
With that said, we need to keep in mind that while norms and rules can evolve, many have developed for practical reasons. We should be thoughtful about breaking rules, and consider their original purpose and potential consequences. Sweeping dismissals of all norms may cause problems. Be smart about what rules you choose to follow and those you disregard.
“If anyone can refute me‚ show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective‚ I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after.”
— Marcus Aurelius
4. Refuse ideology. You need to accept ideas individually.
No organization or ideology is 100% true and therefore should not just be swallowed whole. Even stoicism. There are some religious aspects to stoicism that I don’t follow. In many of the stoic texts, they refer to believing in god as a core aspect of stoicism. I don’t believe in god, but I find that there are so many good parts of stoicism that are so helpful that it doesn’t really matter.
Does this make me a lesser stoic? Maybe. But I’m not a follower of stoicism for others to judge how good or bad I am at it. Having grown up in a very dogmatic religion, I don’t take any ideology as a whole. I take the ideas that help me live a better life and do my best to apply them. If something doesn’t work for me, I do my best to try and understand it, see if I need to adjust what I’m doing, and if it still doesn’t fit me, I let it go.
This mindset also keeps me open to all kinds of ideas from other sources. I find that there are a lot of ideas in Buddhism that are very useful. Some of them are a little “woo woo”, and I may not believe in the metaphysical aspects of them, but I can still use them if they are useful.
Probably the most obvious idealogical organizations are religions. The biggest problem with most religions is that they have a whole set of beliefs and expect you to believe all of them. They don’t like it when you pick and choose which things to believe in and which not.
I certainly saw this growing up and found that there were plenty parts of the Mormon religion that I disagreed with and had really hard time believing. While there are some aspects of the church that I think are laudable, their views on the role of women in society and homosexuality were ones that I just never really agreed with.
When I got older and learned about the history of of Joseph Smith, I started poking holes in the ideology. I found out that he had made up the text of the Book of Mormon, that he couldn’t translate Egyptian like he had claimed, and that he would send men out on missions and marry their wives. I finally reached a point where I realized that it wasn’t true. It was made up by someone who took advantage of others for money and sex. From that point on I decided that I would never follow any ideology without examining each piece and use what works for me.
There is very little in this world that is objectively true. The stoics remind us this a lot when they remind us that our perspective informs how we judge reality. We are the ones that choose what we think reality is. There are a lot of beliefs in this world that we just take on as being true, even if they aren’t. It’s important to learn to objectively look at what you believe and decide if it’s helpful. There are also time where we can’t objectively prove something is true, but it’s still helpful to believe it. But, be aware that beliefs that contradict evidence are unlikely to be helpful long-term. When we look at things through a balanced, evidence-based perspective that incorporates objective truths along with our subjective viewpoint is likely to yield the most accurate and useful understanding of reality.
Hello friends! Thanks for listening.
Want to take these principles to the next level? Join the Stoic Coffee House Community!
Like the theme song? You can find it here from my alter ego. 🙂
Lastly if you know of someone that would benefit from or appreciate this podcast, please share it. Word of mouth is the best way to help this podcast grow.
Thanks again for listening.