Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Motive Fallacy and the reincarnation of Steve Jobs

The "Motive Fallacy" is the assumption that because someone has a motive to say something, that has a bearing on the truth value of what they've said.  The canonical example of the Motive Fallacy is the child who shows his mother a drawing he's made, and asks Mom what she thinks.

"It's beautiful, honey," she says.

"No, it's not," the little boy responds.  "You're just saying that because you're my mother."

The little boy assumes that because the mom has a motive to spare his feelings, she must be lying -- when in fact, the drawing could be either brilliant or terrible, and the mom's motive for saying it's good has no effect on that one way or the other.  She could be lying; she could be telling the truth.  It's impossible to tell.  And assuming that her motive gives you more information is a fallacy.

I ran into a great example of the Motive Fallacy, not to mention a rather bizarre example of woo-woo, a couple of days ago.  The Wall Street Journal ran an article (here) describing how a group of Thai Buddhists have decided that Apple founder Steve Jobs has been reincarnated.

The whole thing apparently hit the news when Apple software engineer Tony Tseung contacted Phra Chaibul Dhammajayo, the abbot of the Dhammakaya Temple near Bangkok, to find out what happened to Jobs following his death.  So the abbot put his mind to it, and finally Tseung got his response last month.  To everyone's immense relief, it was good news.

"After Steve Jobs passed away, he was reincarnated as a divine being with a special knowledge and appreciation for science and the arts," Phra Chaibul said, in the first of a series of lectures that have been made available by the Dhammakaya Temple.  "Everything is high-tech, beautiful, and simple, exactly the way he likes it, and he is filled with great excitement and amazement."  He then went on to say that Jobs now has a full head of hair, sleeps on a floating hover-bed, and if he wants to eat, one of twenty servants immediately brings him what he would like, and if he thinks about his favorite song, it starts playing.

Well, that sounds happy enough.  I mean, my only question would be: how do you know all of this?  But so far, no one seems to be asking this.  All we have is the pronouncement, all too typical with religious leaders, that Phra Chaibul has direct and specific knowledge of something that is unavailable to the rest of us slobs.

What makes this situation more interesting is the response of Phra Payom Kallayano, a Thai religious authority.  He said that Phra Chaibul was only saying all of this as a publicity stunt, because he wanted to attract more followers to the Dhammakaya Temple, and thus more money.  Phra Chaibul, in other words, is only claiming that Steve Jobs was reincarnated because he has a motive to make that claim.

Really?  That's the only problem you see here?  Of course Phra Chaibul has a motive; the Dhammakaya Temple is one of the wealthiest in Thailand, and caters to well-educated, modern Buddhists, virtually all of whom use computers on a daily basis.  Integrating modern technology into religious beliefs is never a simple matter, and Phra Chaibul's statement that Steve Jobs has been reincarnated as a "powerful warrior-philosopher" must give some comfort to Buddhists who worry that today's electronic world bears little resemblance to Nirvana.

But stating that Phra Chaibul has a motive to make the claim is a pretty weak objection, and overlooks a much bigger difficulty, which is that there's not a shred of evidence that it's true.  Isn't it curious that no one in the temple seems to be saying, "Can you show me any proof that Steve Jobs is living in a floating glass house with twenty servants?"  Which would have been the first thing I'd have thought of.  It's what I always think when people make strange claims, even when those claims are part of a well-respected, organized religion.

Maybe the reason for this is that the Motive Fallacy points fingers at specific people, whereas the demand for evidence knocks the pins out from underneath the entire belief system.  If Phra Chaibul is making up the Steve Jobs story so that his temple will get donations, that says something about Phra Chaibul himself, but allows you to leave alone the belief in reincarnation and everything else it implies.  Once you say, "Show me your evidence that this has happened," you've changed the ground rules -- and placed a demand that can be applied to any other statement that the religion has made.  In fact, don't just show me hard evidence that Steve Jobs is living in bliss as a reincarnated warrior-philosopher; show me evidence that reincarnation happens at all.  We know you religious leaders have motives for saying what you do; however, that statement is irrelevant.  Give me some solid reason to believe that god, heaven, hell, and all the rest exist, other than pointing at a passage in a book and saying, "It says so right here."  I'm going to hold your claims to the same gold standard of evidence that I do every other claim about how the world works.

Prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously said that science and religion were "non-overlapping magisteria" -- separate ways of understanding the world, whose methods (and thus standards for establishing truth) were different.  Science is primarily external, and verifiable; religion internal, and unverifiable.  While Gould was a great writer and a brilliant man, I've never thought this made the least bit of sense.  Science's stance -- that our understanding of how the universe behaves is discoverable, and can only be based upon hard evidence -- is really the only reliable protocol we have.  Saying that religious statements don't have to meet the same standard of evidence as scientific ones means that religious leaders can make any damnfool claims they want, and they can't be challenged to prove what they're saying.  But the weak, Motive Fallacy response that Phra Chaibul got after his bizarre public statement is an indication of how few people really want to go there.


  1. Can I offer an alternative interpretation of the scenario? One that at least makes sense of Phra Payom Kallayano's response from his own perspective?

    Let's assume that, however cynical they may be about it's real-world implications, both Phra Chaibul and Tony Tseung are sincere in their faith (actually, we don't need to assume this of Tseung - he could just be curious about what this strand of Buddhism says).

    This would mean there's an implicit qualifier in the question - it's tacitly prefaced with 'according to our/your faith...'. And 'According to our/your faith, what has happened to Steve Jobs now he's dead?' is a legitimate question, quite possibly with a determinate answer, similarly prefixed (i.e., the answer is of the form 'According to our faith, Steve Jobs is...')

    And while I don't know anything about the particular strand of Buddhism practiced at Dhammakaya, I do know that the Buddha himself said that one should never ask, nor try to answer, questions about where people were or will end up in their other lives. So Phra Chaibul's statements are (as far as I know) false *according to his faith*. And so Phra Payom Kallayano is entirely right - according to his faith - in rebuking Phra Chaibul.

    Why is any of this important to an atheist? (and I'm not an atheist, but that's a debate for another time) It's important because if you believe, as you seem to, that theism is in all cases a barrier to knowledge, or involves a knowledge standard you don't countenance (and speaking as a philosopher of religion, I can outline ways in which both complaints may be avoided), then quite rightly you should oppose theism. But that doesn't mean being ignorant of the structure of theism or rejecting all religious statements instead of treating them as qualified.

    In fact, it means exactly the opposite - if you want to argue against theism in a productive way, a way that actually stands a chance of changing people's minds (and I certainly accept that there are pernicious and dangerous forms of theism out there which need challenging), you have to understand the psychology of theism *from the perspective of theists*. You have to understand how religion works. In this case, you have to understand that Phra Payom Kallayano's comments make complete sense from his perspective.

    Yes, Phra Chaibul's statements aren't subject to empirical testing and are thus at best highly dubious from something approaching an 'objective' point of view. But they are *also* wrongly motivated and misleading relative to appropriate qualification of the question. And Phra Payom Kallayano is thus right not only to protest the inaccuracy of Phra Chaibul's statements, whether or not his employment of the motive fallacy has any bearing on the issue (and Buddhism is a religion all about motive).

    Sorry, long comment is long, and still only a sketch of my objection to your position.

    1. Hi Rik,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post.

      I agree with you that Phra Payom Kallayano's comments make sense from within the system. Since he obviously buys the rest of the Buddhist interpretation of the world, his only basis for an objection would be Phra Chaibul's motives.

      However, coming (as I do) from outside the system, I have no way to understand Phra Chaibul's statements EXCEPT as a direct claim about how the universe works, and as far as I can see, the whole system falls based on a complete lack of evidence that this really IS how things are. So perhaps my pointing at Phra Payom Kallayano was wrong, because of course he would see nothing wrong with the basic assumptions of the system.

      But I can say that as someone who was raised in the Catholic church, by devoutly Catholic parents, even at a very young age I recall sitting in the pew and thinking, "Why on earth do you believe that? How do you know this is true?" Even for someone WITHIN the system, it still strikes me as odd that no one seems to stop and think, "Really? Show me your proof."



    2. You said, 'I have no way to understand Phra Chaibul's statements EXCEPT as a direct claim about how the universe works', but that's exactly what I was trying to offer; you can still, surely, understand them as statements about *some picture* of how the universe works (in much the way that I could recite and understand Newton's laws of motion despite their ultimate inaccuracy). It's an inaccurate picture, but that doesn't mean it's not useful to be able to understand it.

      As for people within the system and why they don't ask for proof, I'm not sure that's not a fallacy of definition. People who genuinely believe any religion don't do so without some motivation (and OK, sometimes it's a conscious decision to go with the flow of family or community, which is a separate phenomenon); often, I think it is simply that they have accepted an evidential standard which isn't purely empirical - it's quite plausible that you *have* to accept some such standard to believe.

      But by that understanding, if you hold to a purely empirical evidential standard, then you're already incompatible with the faith, so you're *not* part of it.

      So the question isn't 'why don't these people ask for empirical proof?', but 'why do they accept some non-empirical evidential standard?'. And that, I think, is a question for which psychology has a whole range of good answers, whether it's following authority, or confirmation bias, or something else (those are the two that come to mind, but I'm sure you can think of others). As a species, we often don't demand complete systemic empirical proofs for things (sometimes for quite good reasons) - the question is why some people allow exceptions for religion and others don't.

      I'm not making value judgements (at least, not here) about differing evidential standards, though of course that's a question which bears investigation in a big way. I've just noticed a trend among atheists to treat religions as dogmatic monoliths rather than interesting psychological phenomena which we need to understand. It strays dangerously close to dehumanising the people who don't ask the same questions we do (and yeah, I'm a theist, but I try to avoid straying from a strictly empirical evidence criterion within the empirical sphere, so I *am* asking more or less the same questions you are).

    3. The scientific approach requires no empathy. It just is.

      "...You have to look at it through their perspective to understand..."


      Accepting someone else's "beliefs" to provide the context for their motives is convoluted. The truth gets lost in the unnecessary conversation over the justification for unverifiable belief. I don't want to view something "through someone else's eyes." Mine work just fine. To then say that my lack of empathy has a dehumanizing potential, is ironic to me. Science humanizes us. Religion makes us God (succinct).

      As far as "dogmatic monoliths" are concerned, let me quote George Michael from the song "Freedom:"

      "Some mistakes were built to last..."

      Maybe if the Monolith wasn't covered in frescos of Spanish Inquisitors, Puritans from Salem, or Mujahideen, I might have a different perspective.

  2. I'm with Gould on this one. I see no harm in a bunch of people believing that Steve Jobs is in some boring techno-heaven, helping the electrons rece faster in their circuits. It helps them get through their day if they feel that the their iPhone really is holy, as they suspected all along. They won't do anything differently, but they might feel different about it, be less conflicted about whether they're living in accordance with their religion, and turn their worry to more productive uses. Or, if people get over their grief better by believing that their departed loved ones are not really gone, but have moved to some happy place, or that the stupid, random things that happen to them have some higher purpose, that makes them happier and more useful to society. No problem.

    Where religion makes claims that are testable, they're crossing Gould's fence. Claiming that prayer is a substitute for medical care, for instance, is departing from the "internal, unverifiable" sphere. No religion I know of adheres to that boundary, however. It would be a very unsatisfactory religion. The whole point for most people is to give them a sense of control. But once you claim to be able to control something, you can start devising tests for whether you really can.

    Humans are such pattern seekers that once you believe that there's a deity that oversees your life, you naturally, even unconsciously, start to look for messages from the deity. Omens. The random signs they manage to spot might influence their behavior. Fortunately, humans are best at spotting the patterns they want to spot, so it usually doesn't keep them from doing whatever they wanted to do anyway. "Ooh. Black cat. Well, let's try for two out of three."