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On Motivation December 16, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, Skepticism.

Our discussion recently in I Must Be Dreaming of whether God speaks through dreams or not has brought up an interesting point that I want to explore further. Some commented that:

…those who don’t believe God will speak through dreams will probably never be spoken to or at least won’t hear Him. Some may, but that’s not the norm. It often requires the belief or hope first, then the result second. Why? Because God operates through faith. For those who need the proof first, I’m truly sorry I have nothing to offer here except that God is faithful to those who TRULY trust in Him.

(By the way, I’m not looking to pick on this specific commenter. Instead it seemed to me that this was a pretty consistent sentiment expressed across the board and I thought this was the most concise quote.)

 This is a great comment which I think we can agree has broad implications far beyond the issue of divine dreams.  There’s a strategy implied by faith which assumes that truth is most accessible to those willing to hope and trust.  “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”( Hebrews 11:1)

Further, I would agree that ‘believing before seeing’ certainly makes one more inclined to the supernatural but could this inclination lead us to believe things in error?  Does the strategy of ‘believing before seeing’ make for a good approach when pursuing truth?

To explore this question a bit deeper I want to reference a study by social psychologist Ziva Kunda with Princeton titled “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” in which she argues that:

There is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want [hope] to arrive at, but their ability to do so is constrained by their ability to construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these conclusions.

In short, Kunda argues that we all bias the ways we interpret evidence in order to arrive at the conclusions we most desire to be true.  However, we try to avoid the logical dissonance that arises if our desires are too far removed from reality so we will often feign objectivity by inventing, manipulating or wrongly remembering evidence in order to support our claim.  Ah, the pitfalls of human reason!

Kunda breaks the term ‘want’ into two classes of motivation.  When trying to determine truth one can either be motivated to arrive at an accurate conclusion or motivated to arrive at a particular, directional conclusion.   The difference between the two being that,

…accuracy goals lead to the use of those beliefs and strategies [ie. evidence] that are considered most appropriate, whereas directional goals lead to the use of those that are considered most likely to yield the desired conclusion.

That is, when motivated by accuracy goals we are more likely to prioritize arriving at conclusions which are factual regardless of our emotional investment in the answer.  Conversely, directional goals are those for which there is an emotional payoff in arriving at a specific conclusion and are the more error prone of the two motivations because we have a greater personal stake in skewing evidence to support our hopes.

I would argue that the faith issues at hand like dreams, healings and miracles are questions which fall into the directional goal class of motivation.

Directional motivations can skew our decisions and lead us to believe false claims in a number of subtle but important ways.  Thomas Gilovich in “How We Know What Isn’t So” summarizes some of these influences which commonly lead to errors.  Motivations will influence our beliefs by…

…skewing the kind of evidence we seek towards that which supports our claim.  We are likely to ask ourselves, “What evidence is there to support my belief?” which provides an initial bias away from any evidence which may contradict our belief.

…skewing the outside opinions we choose to consult.  We generally surround ourselves with people who believe very similar things to ourselves.  On the example of divine dreams, does it surprise anyone that by sharing these dreams at church or bible study that there is generally no challenge to their supernatural origin?

…skewing not only the kind of evidence we consider but also the amount.  Gilovich explains that, “When the initial evidence supports our preferences, we are generally satisfied and terminate our search; when the initial evidence is hostile, however, we often dig deeper, hoping to find more comforting information…By taking advantage of “optional stopping” in this way we dramatically increase our chances of finding satisfactory support for what we wish to be true.”

It seems that having a motivation to arrive at a directional conclusion like ‘God spoke to me through my dream’ or, dare I say, ‘Jesus was born of a virgin (Merry Christmas!)’ can seriously handicap our pursuit of truth by heavily skewing the evidence we consider.  In other words, the mere act of wanting our faith to be true almost removes any chance of actually being able to judge if it is true.

It is an unfortunate reality that the things we are most invested or motivated to believe are the very things we are the most prone to be wrong about and consequently the areas we must be most vigilant in guarding ourselves from bias.

Now I understand that we can never really remove motivation from our decision making.  None of us, especially not me, have any hope of being truly objective.  But perhaps we can mitigate the pitfalls of directional goal motivation if we are mindful of our hopes and effort to be motivated by accuracy instead.

That is, when we think God has spoken to us in a dream (or when considering whether someone’s testimony of a miraculous healing is true, etc.)  it is vital that we at least consider: “Could my belief be based on skewed evidence which is an artifact of my personal motivational bias instead of an actual interaction with the divine?  Is it possible that my hope is drastically inflating an otherwise benign natural phenomenon?”

The quote at the beginning of this post implied that asking these kinds of questions may disqualify those with the gumption to prode because they run counter to faith and trust.  But what does it say about a phenomenon, supernatural or otherwise, if it disappears when one looks critically at it?  Is the ‘truth’ of God’s interaction in these experiences so fragile that even cursory questions can keep us from recognizing it?

No, I hold that if truth is anything it is robust.  It doesn’t depend on our hopes or trust to reveal itself.  I’ve written before that “if our faith is true, in the cosmic sense of true, the everlasting and omnipotent brand of true, then it certainly should not be threatened by our prodding.”  Further, if propositions of faith (like divine dreams) disappear with critical investigation isn’t it more probable that evidence which initially supported them is an artifact of confused perception which, when corrected for by considering our motivations, should not be used to reasonably support belief?

Part of being personally vulnerable for me is being willing to admit when there is insufficient evidence to ground my beliefs and letting those things go which may have only stood on my hopes instead of reality.



1. whytey - December 17, 2008

It’s an interesting aspect of this post… Casey, I would say that I would agree with many of the points that you make throughout the text (ooh it makes you sound so academic)… especially through the poetic and well crafted “skewing” section… I would heartily agree that sometimes dreams are not from God… to a certain extent. I think it’s probably worth noting, that as a believer in a divine Creator, the functional ability to dream is from God and as a result, even if dreams are not, at the time, a direct line of communication from Him, they can certainly be used by Him.

But on to what I feel is the interesting aspect… I think it’s healthy to realize that in as much as I desire dreams to be a viable means of communication from God (and I do, I’ll make no bones about it… even though I’ve pretty much only had nightmares for most of my life, but that’s another post)… I think you want, or already believe, communicative dreams to not be a factual reality… and so I think you highlighted one of my central struggles with Valence at times… I think you are directing (maybe intentionally, maybe subconsciously) the posts towards validating the aspects of faith that you are comfortable with or are willing to accept. I’m not saying that’s bad or good, but I do think that it will have an impact on the way that you are able to receive and process posts (i.e. if a post is a favorable response to your blog it will be more easily assimilated into the store of data that you found your current state of belief on)…I just think it’s interesting that in a post in which you highlight the dangers of motivated reasoning for validating a belief in dreams you are essentially turning repeatedly to motivated reasoning (i know you already acknowledged this, but it’s nagging at me so I commented)

as far as the dreams thing goes, I don’t so much validate it on whether or not I want it to be true… here’s what I mean… the dreams that I emotionally “want” to be true are rarely the ones that have been used through communication… it’s more often the ones that I was like… “wow that was a goofy dream, no more pad thai for me” and then when sharing it with someone offhand, see the fruit of the dream. In fact, I’ve had a lot of dreams that I wanted to be true that I shared with friends and they, in love, basically said, “dude, I think that’s just a dream” and I think that’s a healthy response to the whole chestnut…

2. caseyww - December 17, 2008


Great comment. Two ideas here:

First, I can appreciate that you pointed out that my blog posts are essentially large exercises in motivated reasoning. It’s something I struggled with while writing. But from that end all arguments have some kind of motivation behind them which skew our ability to process evidence. You’re certainly right that I would tend to highlight favorable comments in my subconscious but the point of Valence is to try and compensate for that bias by opening myself up and intentionally exposing myself to a wide variety of opinions. I want to try and be motivated by accuracy vs being motivated towards a direction. The point of this post was to show that there is a big difference. That is, I’m not claiming that my post doesn’t have a motivation, instead I’m arguing that recognizing our motivations can help us correct for the pitfalls of confirmation bias. Now you can call this an infinite regress if you like because my previous sentence itself had a motivation but I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere chasing that rabbit.

Second, you noted that the dreams you most want to be true a rarely the ones that are. While this argument was sparked from a discussion about dreams I really think it has broader implications for any directional motivation concerning the supernatural. In the case of deciding whether to believe if God speaks through dreams at all I don’t think our motivation is limited to any one particular dream but instead to a larger directional goal of affirming the presence of a supernatural God who interacts with us…or chesnuts.

Overall, bravo, you found the two points I was most concerned about having not treated completely enough. Thanks-

3. whytey - December 17, 2008

Casey, truly appreciate your post… I’m just trying to work out how we keep accuracy from becoming a direction. Because I think that it could be fairly easy to settle on a version of accuracy that feels like fact but is more like bias. I’m not so much saying you’re doing this, I’m more intrigued by how we develop a litmus for when we need to change or modify our perceptions of accuracy…

As far as directional motivation with the supernatural, I understand that you don’t desire to limit the conversation, but I think what I’m saying in some ways that I don’t know that having a directional goal of affirming belief is a bad thing if you had an initial experience that was not in any way directional. Essentially, if I have an experience that I didn’t ask or search for that changes my paradigm, I don’t think it’s bad persay to seek after validation for that experience. I’m not saying that I should shrug off all evidence to the contrary and insulate yourself from conflicting evidence, I’m just of a mind that it’s okay to hope in the search for truth. I can think of several scientific searches for evidence that, while remaining open to conflicting evidence, were hopeful towards a specific goal (e.g. the search for black holes and the famous Hawking Bet… Hawking bets against the existence of black holes to hedge his evidence but maintains that he hopes they exist)

4. caseyww - December 17, 2008

whytey-Your comment soars on the wings of eagles.

You’re absolutely right that hope isn’t limited to just the faith based argument that I’m making and is rightly extended to all human reasoning including science. In fact the study I referenced by Kunda actually has a section dedicated to the ways motivation can affect scientific research. I also don’t think hope is a bad thing as long as we are mindful of the ways it may skew our processing of evidence. I view the scientific process as actually compensating for an individual’s hope by requiring repeatability and falsifiable evidence from a larger scientific community and not just one scientist.

That is, I don’t see a problem with Hawking personally hoping his theory was correct as long as he deals honestly with the evidence presented by the larger physics community. Also, doesn’t you’re example of Hawking betting against his own theory show that he was motivated more by accuracy goals instead of directional goals? Either way, it’s not Hawking’s hope that validates the theory of black holes it’s actually all those physicists out there who are trying to prove Hawking wrong. If they can’t falsify his claim then we proceed under the assumption it is true. Ah, science!

5. Eric - December 17, 2008

I agree with Whytey here — at least, with the last bit in comment #3 just above, that a little hope in the pursuit of truth is not a bad thing (as long as, as Casey keeps reminding us, we are willing to abandon that hope in the face of what we may reasonably consider to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

Along these lines, I was struck by this paragraph of Casey’s post:

It is an unfortunate reality that the things we are most invested or motivated to believe are the very things we are the most prone to be wrong about and consequently the areas we must be most vigilant in guarding ourselves from bias.

Is it true that we’re most likely to be wrong about that which we are most motivated to believe? I’m not so sure. True there is typically only one right answer to a question, and many, many wrong ones (simple example: 2 + 2 = 4, not 3, 5, 6, 7, …), so in that sense there are more ways to be wrong than there are ways to be right — is this what you mean, Casey?

6. Doug Anderson - December 17, 2008


I agree with you that we should all stay open to the possibility of being wrong about anything we hold to be true, especially faith in the divine. But I don’t think that means we need scientific proof in order to hold beliefs (not necessarily what you’re saying either). Does my belief in Jesus grant me all the answers? Obviously, no. Do I still have questions and doubts? Obviously, yes. Do I think I need all the answers to remain confident in Christ? Nope.

I’ve heard a lot thrown at my beliefs over the years and have yet to find any evidence or argument that knocks me off my belief in Christ. And I will claim that I haven’t turned an ignorant mind, blind eye or deaf ear to any arguments.

I think you’ll agree when I say that faith should only prove stronger after considering and weighing dissenting arguments. So, I have no problem with hearing the contraries to my faith.

One last idea I’ll throw out which is semi off topic. The Bible repeatedly talks about loving the Lord with heart, mind, body, soul, strength, etc… so I think its shoving God into too small a box to keep our perception of the divine in our heads. Discussion and critical thinking without emotional distraction is good, but not complete. So when the head fails to sway one way or the other, the “heart” can be useful.

Unfortunately work is really busy so this might be disjointed and I may have to re-word what I said later…

7. caseyww - December 17, 2008

(RE: Comment #5)


Ya, I see where this post may have come across a little harsh against hope. If you’ll notice I decided to remove my attempt at humor with the demotivational poster. I’m really not looking to denigrate hope as an emotion…but instead trying look at the logical fallacies that we are prone to when motivated by hope.

You were asking about my quote. I do think that the areas we are most personally invested in are the areas we are the most prone to be wrong. Example: We wouldn’t allow family members on a jury to decide if their brother was guilty of murder or not. We recognize that there is insane opportunities for bias and that their motivations are certainly going to cloud their judgment.

I don’t think 2+2=4 is really comparable. Where is the motivation (personal investment) in the answer being different? You’re not motivated to skew the evidence because there is no real directional goal in finding 2+2 to equal anything else.

Also, Kunda’s point is that we will subtly skew evidence by our motivations but we still seek to appear objective and reality based. That means there must be some evidence that your directional goal could be true and by picking and choosing which evidence to consider you can fool yourself into thinking the evidence is compelling. Since most of this reasoning is done subconsciously we can’t skew the evidence too far or else we would end up with logical dissonance. If one did have a directional goal to overturn arithmetic I don’t think there would be evidence available to skew in the first place.

Am I making sense? Feels like I’m rambling a bit.

8. Eric - December 18, 2008

Casey — thanks for clarifying. The “rambling” helps. You’re right that the 2+2=4 example isn’t sufficient; I just meant it as a super-simplified way to say that there are more wrong answers than right ones. I also agree that you don’t want family members on a jury — not because they’re more likely to come to the wrong conclusion, but because they’ll come to some decision for the wrong reasons. Suppose, for example, that the person in question is innocent of the relevant crime, and suppose that the family members on the jury are predisposed to believe in their brother’s innocence. Then the family members would come to the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons! So do you see my question/issue here?

9. Nancy O. - December 19, 2008

Signing off the computer for a few weeks to devote my time to my family. Before I do, I want to say that I hope all you have a peaceful few days off of work/school next week.

I never thought I would “care” as I do about people I do not know, but I do, and I hope all of you have a wonderful time next week (and always) with your families and friends!


10. Ruly - December 31, 2008

A friend sent me a link to your top 10 scientific discoveries, and to my surprise I find a wealth of great discussion as well. I apologize for posting this comment 11 days after the last comment, but I couldn’t resist!

I absolutely agree that our hopes and motivations can color our perceptions. Certainly, we can trick ourselves into believing not only what is uncertain, but what can be objectively proven false as well.

Yet, this idea that because we seek the truth and do not want to be clouded by hopes, we should therefore abandon the claims of the Gospel that do not find grounding in “reality,” is troubling. I agree that we should rigorously question the Gospel, we should wrestle with God, we should never be afraid to test and analyze with our minds that which may appeal to our hearts; but in the end who holds the final authority for our faith? Us? or God?

I argue that the Lord is the author and perfecter of our faiths. If we believe only what is “real” our faith will be lacking. Personally, I believe the less we try to manage and cultivate our own faith, the more space we provide for God to grow it.

I have lots of questions about Christianity and the Gospel of Christ. I try to find answers through the Bible and yes, through logical reasoning. But at the end of the day, I find I have a choice. To submit to God, or not. I choose to submit, and live by faith that what the Bible allows me to hope for, I may believe.

11. Nancy O. - January 1, 2009


I fully agree with you!

Have you or anyone in this forum read the book, “Knowing God” by J.I. Packer? I’ve heard a lot of good things about it but I don’t want to invest the money in the book until I’ve heard a few objective reviews about it.


12. caseyww - January 1, 2009

(RE: Comment #10 and #11)

First, thanks for the thoughts. I appreciate the comment.

That being said I’m a bit confused by your assertion (and Nancy’s agreement) that:

If we believe only what is “real” our faith will be lacking.

Can you explain? I feel like if God is anything worth trusting or following he should first and foremost be real.

13. Nancy O. - January 1, 2009

He is first and foremost real; I do not believe Ruly was impying God is not real at all – his statement should be clarified.

14. Nancy O. - January 1, 2009


I think possibly what you were getting at is “If we believe only what is “scientifically provable” our faith will be lacking.” Is this along the lines of what you were saying?


What are your thoughts about everything else Ruly shared?

15. Antony - January 3, 2009

Re: 10-14

Ruly brought up something that I’ve always had a hard time with, maybe someone can explain it for me.

Ruly said: “the Lord is the author and perfecter of our faiths.” This leads to the conclusion that the less we ‘cultivate’ our faith, the more room there is for ‘God to grow it.’

This seems problematic to me for a few reasons:

1. If the above is true, then ‘our’ faith is not really our own faith at all. It is up to God to fill us with faith or not. In which case, we move down a road that must deny free will and believe in predestination. God chooses to make some faithful and not others. We as individuals drop out of the equation entirely.

2. Under this thinking what is faith? Especially if it is not grounded in the ‘real.’ (I’m always nervous when people put reality in scare quotes).

3. I think these types of claims lead to some serious anti-intellectual conclusions. Every time we exercise critical thought or engage our faith, we are hindering God’s ability to ‘grow’ faith in us.

And the last thing is a more general question that I just have not been able to wrap my head around. Several people on this blog have said that they indeed wrestle with questions about Christianity, and this wrestling is solved by “submitting to God.” What does that mean?

It seems to me that submission here is tantamount to withdrawing your question. Or to ask questions as long as they does not challenge some basic set of assumptions: God is real; God is the Christian god; the Bible is the infallible word of God, etc. But any question that does not call these basic assumptions into question is not really a faith-challenging question at all.

For example, to begin with the assumption that the Bible is the infallible word of God is to load the deck in favor of the Bible so that one never has to look outside of it, AND one never has to look at the source itself and ask critical questions about what this compilation of religious texts is. No matter how it came into being, it is infallibly God’s word…what question cannot be solved by looking it up in there?

16. Antony - January 3, 2009

Re-reading my message, I just want to make something clear:

I don’t mean to sound combative. I mean the above as honest questions and as a serious challenge.

I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer to any of these questions and concerns, and I’m interested in what others think about this and how they’ve dealt with these questions…

17. Nancy O. - January 4, 2009


Submitting to God means being completely open to Him. When we submit to Him, we become receptive. In our receptiveness, He moves in our lives and we recgonize His presence; His spirit. When we recgonize His spirit, we get to know Him more and more. As we get to know Him, our faith strengthens. Through it all, we realize that He is, indeed, real.

18. Antony - January 4, 2009


I’m not really sure how to respond to your explanation. I guess it doesn’t really get at my questions. So I would follow up your statements with: What does it mean to be “open” and “receptive”? What does it mean that God “moves in one’s life”?

That is, let’s say something good happens in your life. On what grounds can one claim that it’s caused by God moving in their life as opposed to any other cause?

And the whole act of submission to God remains problematic to me because, again, you have to withdraw all questions that challenge the idea of a God that would be able to respond to your openness. So one has to go into this position of submission already with faith supported by a number of assumptions/beliefs – that is, you have to believe God exists; he is a personal God; and he intervenes in the universe. In which case, you don’t come to him with questions, you come to him by surrendering your questions.


19. Nancy O. - January 4, 2009


I have a couple of things going on tonight that I need to take care of…but quickly, I will touch on your last paragraph by disagreeing that it is necessary to go into a position of submission to God with an existing faith supported by a number of assumptions/beliefs. You do not have to first believe He exists, is a personal God, and He intervenes in the universe in order to find Him through submission and surrender.

I’ll explain what I mean and respond to your other questions tomorrow.

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