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Do You Care Whether the Religious Ideas You Believe in Are True or Not?

Here's what I'd like to say to people who are less interested in what's really true about the universe than they are about their personal interpretation of it.

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I'm not saying the insides of people's heads aren't important or interesting. Of course they are. They're what make art interesting, and literature, and so on. And they're what make psychology and neuropsychology interesting as well. The insides of people's heads are fascinating. And they matter.

But the world inside a person's head is just one tiny fragment of the vast, ancient, wildly freaky complexity of existence. Why would I give that tiny fragment greater priority than the vast, freaky complexity? Even if the head that this tiny fragment is inside happens to be my own? To me, that seems like the absolute height of arrogance.

In fact, I'd argue that it's more than just arrogant, it borders on unethical. Understanding that our own experience is not the only one? That other people matter to themselves as much as we do to ourselves? That none of us has a pipeline to truth? Understanding that we are not the most important being in the universe; having the ability to view life from an outside perspective, and acknowledge that we don't, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else? That is the core of human ethics.

To argue that our personal view of reality is every bit as important as reality itself? To insist that it's valid to frame reality any way we like, without regard to the actual evidence about it? It's placing ourselves at the center of the cosmos. It's saying that our personal experience really is the most important one. It's defending the validity of being out of touch, of living inside our heads.

Perspective is more than an intellectual discipline. It's a moral obligation. The willingness to step back from our experience, to examine our beliefs about the world and let go of them when the evidence contradicts them, is a huge part of how we gain the humility we need to see our true place in the world. Caring whether the things we believe are true is a crucial part of caring, period.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

This isn't just about philosophy, though. It isn't even just about the vital branch of philosophy known as ethics. There are purely pragmatic reasons for caring whether the things we believe matter.

We need to understand reality, so we know how to behave in it.

If we believe things about reality that aren't true, we're going to make bad decisions. If we believe that we failed our English test because our teacher has it in for us, we're not going to study harder for our next test. If we believe that we keep getting stomach-aches because we hate our job, we're not going to quit having Doritos and Red Bull for breakfast. If we believe that we can turn on the TV by hitting it with a rock, we're going to miss "America's Best Dance Crew." It's like data processors say: Garbage in, garbage out.

And this applies to religious and spiritual beliefs as well. If we believe that we failed our English test because Mercury was in retrograde, or that our stomachaches are God's punishment for thinking impure thoughts about Lady Gaga... we're still not going to study or knock off the Doritos.

Understanding reality is how we know how to behave in it. Understanding cause and effect, which causes lead to what effects, is how we make better decisions -- decisions that are more likely to lead to outcomes we're hoping for.

And if we're going to understand reality, we have to care whether the things we believe are true. We can tell ourselves that we create our own reality until we're blue in the face... but if we don't create our personal reality based on the best possible understanding of the larger reality around us, if we don't create our personal reality by eating a healthy diet and doing our English homework and so on, reality is going to bite us in the ass.

 
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