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.