Bret Weinstein on Metaphorical Truth

Published: Feb 8, 2019
Updated: May 3, 2021

I recently stumbled upon Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast. His interview with Bret Weinstein was very interesting and fun. Just before the 2 hour mark, they get into the topic of metaphorical truth. Although I don’t fully agree with everything said, it really resonated with me. The following is my lightly paraphrased version of the conversation.

Dax: …I really like your thing about metaphorical truth, and just, explain that to us.

Bret: Sure, metaphorical truth is a concept I came up with to solve a problem. Which is that it’s clear religious belief in particular is driving a tremendous amount of human behavior, at least historically. And a lot of expense is spent on it, right. Elaborate buildings, rituals, time taken away from productive activities is spent on these belief structures. And the belief structures, I think we can say, they just aren’t an accurate description of the universe. Many of them are unfalsifiable, but there just isn’t any evidence for the things described in these religious texts. But these texts cannot be nonsense. If they were nonsense, then those who simply didn’t believe them would have a massive advantage because they weren’t spending all of that on buildings and rituals and time taken out of their schedule.

All of these most amazing phenomena. All of those things would be nothing but a vulnerability if these things were just purely not true. So if they’re not true at a factual level, what are they? Well the answer, I believe, has to be that they are functional beliefs. Which is to say, if you act as if they are true you come out ahead. Ahead of where you would if you acted as if they were false. What I said in class is, “literally false, but metaphorically true.” Metaphorically true just means it’s a belief that provides you an advantage.

The nice thing about this is it’s a continuum, you know. The degree to which something is functional but not factual can be slid all over the map. But all we need to know is that for an expensive belief to travel through history with some population over a long period of time, it must be paying its way somehow. And so that means we are now justified at looking at those traditions. And asking what function it may have been serving. And asking if that is still relevant to us or isn’t it. Maybe it’s something we can afford to jettison. Or maybe it’s something we have to replace with something that’s functional in our circumstance…