On Motivation December 16, 2008Posted 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.