Sunday, June 01, 2014

The problem of motivated reasoning

The problem I am posing here is whether one side or the other of the religious debate can be accused of being more influenced by non-truth-conducive considerations than the other. Is there anything to be gained on either side by saying "you only believe that because you want to." It is my contention, going back to C. S. Lewis, is that these wish considerations pretty much cancel each other out. and nothing is to be gained by motivational speculations. We are not in a position to judge our opponents' thinking as "motivated" while our own position is free from motives.

17 comments:

planks length said...

"We are not in a position to judge our opponents' thinking as "motivated" while our own position is free from motives."

You only say that because you want it to be true!

Dave Duffy said...

I'm lost when philosophical arguments boil down to guessing what motivates others thoughts. Who in the hell knows what "motivates" someone's thinking? What device can I use to know what people wish for?

jdhuey said...

As I see it there are the four possibilities:

1. The argument under consideration would be convincing to any unbiased qualified observer but your opponent refuses to be convinced.
2. The argument under consideration would be convincing to any unbiased qualified observer and your opponent is convinced.
3. The argument under consideration would not be convincing to any unbiased qualified observer and your opponent is indeed not convinced.
and finally,
4. The argument under consideration would not be convincing to any unbiased qualified observer and your opponent just happens to be convinced.

Situation 4, is just sad but it obviously happens. Some arguments appear sound and are convincing but are actually unsound -and people just get suckered in.
In the case on situation 1., I think it is safe to conclude that your opponent is either unqualified to judge the argument or he has a bias against the argument that prevents him from accepting its soundness. So if he should be qualified then it seems safe to infer that he is biased.
Situation 2, would be considered proof that God actually exists because that would be a miracle. (For the humor impaired, that is a joke. Situation 2, is what we are striving for.)
Situation 3 is the one that I think is most common. Someone puts forth an argument that is unsound (in fact, might be obviously unsound) and your opponent dismisses the argument.
So, this brings us to the rub: as a participant in the argument and not an unbiased observer, how to decide if the situation is a #1 or a #3?

BTW - I don't believe that I have ever inferred that someones argument was unsound because. they were motivated to accept the conclusion but rather I've concluded that the only explanation for why someone would accept such unsound arguments is because of their motivations.

Dave Duffy said...

Really, there are four possibilities for people coming to a conclusion on a particular topic? We're talking about people right?

Jakub Moravčík said...

Although I am really not an adherent of motivated reasoning, I am always trying to invent opponent´s argument. So I think that a christian may appeal to motivated reasoning because of christian (catholic) doctrine of original sin by which influence people are attracted more to do evil than good in general, which he will proclaim as universal, pre-religious experience. So he could say: the religion which repels your pride and selfishness the most is true just because of this repulsion you feel. And it is my religion (as I´ll explain to you now) and you are not accepting it just because you feel that it is the worst for your pride and selfishness and so you are motivated not to accept it.

What would you reply him?

B. Prokop said...

Jakub,

That sort of thinking doesn't restrict itself to religious discussions. I remember arguing with a Maoist way back in the 1960s (dating myself here), when he told me that my very rejection of Maoism was in reality an affirmation of it!

Papalinton said...

Just as your rejection of atheism is in reality an affirmation of it!

I get it.

B. Prokop said...

So... you admit that atheism and Maoism are really the same thing??? (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)

jdhuey said...

We're talking about people right?

Dave,

Not really, the four possibilities are more of an abstract idea. I didn't bring in the motivations that either the proponent or opponent have. That makes things much more complicated but still contained in the four possibilities scheme.

jdhuey said...

"... the religion which repels your pride and selfishness the most is true just because of this repulsion you feel."

So, if you find Islam more repulsive than Christianity then Islam is true?

Victor Reppert said...

I think an argument can be good even when it isn't strong enough such that it ought to convince any unbiased person. An argument might provide some evidence for its conclusion, which might be sufficient or insufficient given someone's personal prior probabilities.

jdhuey said...

"I think an argument can be good even when it isn't strong enough..."

Victor,

I agree. In my mind, I call these 'suggestive but not definitive'. And if you get enough suggestive evidence then it is reasonable to accept the conclusion but only on a provisional basis. Of course, how much is enough should depend on how serious the consequences are of accepting the conclusion.

oozzielionel said...

@Jakob: "the religion which repels your pride and selfishness the most is true just because of this repulsion you feel"

I agree with your sentiment here. It is easy to explain in Christian theological terms (especially from a Reformed stance), but more difficult to make the point for this audience.

It is not a matter of degree since I would expect a greater repulsion for Green paganism for various reasons. Likewise, rejection of Islam and Shariah law would have another motivation. However, when the reason for the repulsion lies in the unwillingness to replace personal autonomy with submission to God, I think you may be correct. However, even though perhaps correct, it is not helpful since this is its own type of Bulverism. If there is rejection, it is likely more helpful to look for inadequacies of the messenger. Before we assume a rejection of Christ, perhaps we should consider first if it is a rejection of Christians.

I suspect also that the strength of the argument does not usually carry the day. Faith may involve both faith in God and trust in the person making the argument.

Jakub Moravčík said...

Anyway, I am suprised (and glad) that bulverism was invented by C.S.Lewis. I have read only a few of his books but it gave me an impression that he would something similar to Bulverism regard as correct way of argumentation, especially when defending Christianity. And that is just because his books are oriented to human (including his own) wills, motives and desires, it seems to me, more than "cold reasoning" ...

Obsidian said...

Motivations don't exist!
Eliminative materialism ftw!!

(jk)

Papalinton said...

Oh! Boy!
What is Christianity coming to?
Have a look AT THIS, a sign erected outside a church in the city of Auburn, Alabama.

Oops! I wonder what the motivated reasoning was behind this?

Dave Duffy said...

Mr. Papalinton,

The billboard is supposed to demonstrate a contrast. Yes, everyone who believes in something wants the next generation to carry on the tradition. Woo Woo!