Is Love a Good Reason to Believe?

Hi Pascal,

I want to address a few points you made in Smaller(er)(er?) bites. I got a bit carried away again. I know this is long, redundant and scattered, but I’ve been promising you something for days and I just need to get something up before you get bored and march off into Romans 2. 🙂 You were thinking about it, weren’t you?

I’m covering some topics in this post that could easily be interpreted more harshly than I’m intending them. I’m not criticizing you. I only intend to share the way I think about love, faith, motivated reasoning, and beliefs. I’m talking to myself as much as you in this post and don’t know of anything negative that applies to you that doesn’t also apply to me. 🙂

In Confessions you said…

Why do I still believe and why have I not met you tit for tat, query for answer? I’m in love. There. I said it. The Bible has always been a love letter to me. Even if, especially because, it argues with itself. Thats a very Jewish, very Christian, very human thing to do. I’m in love. The wizard carpenter of Nazareth is so real to me that I call him big brother God. And being in love I know that I may not be thinking clearly.

I get it. I miss that feeling more than I can express. I addressed some of your points here in Love, Gray holes, Supernatural Ladybugs, and Scripture. But the conversation continued in Smaller(er)(er?) bites and that’s where I want to pick up. You asked…

Is love special pleading?

Not in itself. Love can be defined many ways, but in order to center on something we can discuss I’m going to talk about it in terms of a complex set of experiences – including an irrational emotion and a rational commitment. I don’t believe that love, the way we normally think of it, is special pleading. However, when we try to use “love” as a defense for why we trust something or someone, I believe that defense is special pleading.

The belief equation

This is represented by the belief equation mentioned in several other posts.

Belief = objective evidence (i.e. weight of objective evidence in favor – weight of objective evidence in opposition) + subjective desire (i.e. desire to hold or preserve belief – desire to deny/reject belief).

The reasons for each of our beliefs stand on objective rationality (what science advocates) + some amount of desire. One problem is that desire is negatively correlated with truth because the things we desire are the things we are less likely to critically examine. This doesn’t always get us into trouble – sometimes we’re able to do our objectively rational homework before buying into the desire (i.e. in the case of dating someone before choosing to marry them) and sometimes we are able to continue to critically assess our beliefs despite the desire. However, in the case of indoctrination (or maybe just childhood influences), the former requirement isn’t met. We are in dangerous waters when we love X partially because we were brought up that way and we’re too attached to examine it critically. “Love” (or any desire) sometimes adds unjustifiable weight to the subjective portion of the belief equation, diminishing the dependance upon objective, rationally defensible evidence. Scientists can be men and women of faith, but there’s a reason they (usually) don’t apply their faith in the lab.

Science and love

This is why science has been so successful. In the development of science we have come up with a methodology to reduce the role that desire plays in our beliefs. This has led to more objectively justifiable, falsifiable, predictable, testable, repeatable, and consistent beliefs on the whole than any process of knowledge which places more weight on desires. Yes, this is an assertion and I don’t like making assertions. It could be wrong and I suspect you may want to challenge it. I welcome your thoughts.

Do we trust people because we love them?

We can each love people we don’t trust and trust people we don’t love. We don’t trust our spouse because we love them (or desire to trust them) — at least not at first. We trust things (including people like our spouse) because of previous objectively rational experience (evidence) that indicates they are worthy of that trust. We may desire trustworthiness in a spouse so that could lead us to care more for them, but trust should lead to love, not the other way around.

When does love lead to special pleading?

The degree to which we allow our desires to add weight to the appropriate objective level of trust given previous actions is the degree to which we engage in special pleading. An appropriate level of trust is that which is proportional to the evidence (not the desire). When the weight of empirical evidence is against our desired belief but we choose to preserve the belief because of how that belief makes us feel (e.g. because we’re in love and we’d feel pain if we found that belief was false), that is special pleading. In those circumstances we’re trying to make an exception to rationality in order to maintain a desired belief. This is the power, and the danger, of motivated reasoning.

Science vs scientists vs emotion

Does that mean there is no room for love in science? Yes. Science is just a process and is free from emotion. Does that mean there is no room for love in scientists? No. As subjective humans, we can, should, and must feel (that reptilian brain is inescapable and inextricable at a base level from our perceptions of the world). Many science experiments test emotion, including love, hate, spirituality, beauty, fear, etc. These things are subject to experimentation, but the process underlying the discipline of the experiments is not emotional in itself.

Motivated reasoning — one of my biggest fears

Motivated reasoning is what I’ve been building up too during this whole blog. It is, in my opinion, the chief cancer assaulting and distorting appropriate probabilities in beliefs, and it is the culmination of The Problem. I unintentionally employ motivated reasoning regularly, so like much of the rest of this post, this is not directed to you. I’m offering a window into how I filter the world.

Definition of motivated reasoning from http://www.skepdic.com/motivatedreasoning.html

Motivated reasoning is confirmation bias taken to the next level. Motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe, while ignoring contrary data. But it also drives people to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify holding beliefs that logic and evidence have shown to be wrong. Motivated reasoning responds defensively to contrary evidence, actively discrediting such evidence or its source without logical or evidentiary justification. Clearly, motivated reasoning is emotion driven. It seems to be assumed by social scientists that motivated reasoning is driven by a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. Self-delusion, in other words, feels good, and that’s what motivates people to vehemently defend obvious falsehoods.

Warning against motivated reasoning from Why I Respect Pascal (an excerpt from Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide To Critical Thinking Skills)

“It is important to apply the rules of critical thinking to yourself most of all. The famous physicist, Richard Feynman, famously said, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.’ But there are barriers to being more critical thinking ourselves. Once you invest, for example, your ego into a conclusion, then motivated reasoning will kick in and distort and bias your critical thinking into that direction. In the end, your education, your knowledge, and your critical thinking skills will still lead you to the wrong answer, you will just be much more confident in your error because you have rationalized it in a much more sophisticated way. Unless, of course, you really apply that critical thinking to your own beliefs.

If, on the other hand, you invest your ego in the process of critical thinking and not in any particular conclusion, then you’ll be more free to follow the logic and evidence wherever it leads. You will, in fact, take pride in your ability to change your opinion as new information becomes available. Being called on using erroneous logic or biased reasoning or incomplete data, that will be what you will fear. And in order to seem consistent, and in order to meet the emotional needs of your ego, you will focus on getting the process correct, not on being correct in any conclusion that you have set your stakes into.”

Excellent article about motivated reasoning from Yale School of Law

This looks like a great read for both of us. I’m presently asking myself to what degree point #4 applies to me. http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2013/5/15/motivated-reasoning-its-cognates.html

My thoughts about motivated reasoning

As I’ve mentioned above (and in The Solution — Part 1, The Solution — Part 2, and Why I Respect Pascal), The Problem, leading up to motivated reasoning, is the primary reason the scientific method was invented and has become so successful. Science is our primary weapon against those non-intuitive fallacies (including the chief among them — motivated reasoning). The discipline of science keeps us from viewing reality solely through the filter of our own desires by forcing us to challenge even those beliefs that are dearly held. Further, the process of science doesn’t trust that we subjective humans will remain unbiased toward our own desired beliefs (despite our attempts to be objective), so it subjects our beliefs to the wider network of scientific experts who don’t all share our dispositions.

I don’t think I should engage in that [love] if it is [special pleading].

It’s OK. We should engage in love. As I’ve mentioned, love in itself is not special pleading. We just need to be aware that strong feelings like love can deceive us about reality by preventing us from critically examining those beliefs. This was the reason for the crossword puzzle analogy with the penned-in answers. Desire (especially love) is a perfect example of a penned-in answer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love. We should just be careful to make a special effort to critically examine all of our closely held, desired beliefs if we care about truth. If we love things that aren’t independently supported by evidence and then use that love to justify our beliefs, we run a heavy risk of building a lattice-work of strongly-held but false beliefs. That limits our perceptions of the world by closing our mind to possible Truth’s that conflict with what we desire to be true.

My point was to remind you that not everything requires or survives a probabilistic, strong rational approach. My bride has had reason to leave me in the last twenty years. Perhaps rationally defensible reasons. I have been selfish, uncaring, unloving at times. And yet she stays. I’m so thankful for that. But, no. I won’t avoid difficult issues in scripture because I’m in love. I will say this. From what I know of you and your husbandry, I don’t think you would put your marriage on the triple beam balance. That would be off limits.

Strong probabilistic approach?

I’m not sure what you mean by “a probabilistic, strong rational approach.” I think everything requires a probabilistic approach of necessity insofar as I believe that is how we all reason. Beliefs also require a rational assessment, depending on what you mean by “rational.” I’m not a “rationalist,” but I do employ what is commonly meant by rational thought. In the most inclusive sense of the term, I think we each use rational analysis to come to our beliefs, so this too is inescapable. So, everything out of necessity requires a probabilistic rational approach, loosely speaking, in my view of those terms. I think the key is the word “strong”. You must be meaning something specific by this – probably something to do with empiricism. I want to communicate my position effectively. I hope you’ll clarify so I can properly evaluate my position in the framework you’re describing.

What is love? (I’m so sad I wrote this because “baby don’t hurt me” has been in my head for the last 30 minutes. I now offer you that gift. You’re welcome.)

The love I have for my incredible wife truly seems boundless. She is a dream to me. In many ways, she is the numinous. However, I don’t view my marriage as being off-limits from critical thought. Like you’re evaluation of the Bible, I don’t question everything my wife does. I just trust her because she’s demonstrated she’s trustworthy for the things she claims. I can’t say that’s true for the Bible. Also, if someone has hard questions about my justifications for the trust I have in my wife, I’d like to believe I can easily consider and respond to all of them rationally with objective reasons they could verify and agree with (e.g. that aren’t dependent on my love for her).

I’m sure you agree that, on average, the marriages that are dominated by rational thought (the commitment side of love) thrive for longer and are more substantial than those entirely dominated by irrational thought (the emotional side). We need both in good proportion, but we usually stay in a marriage for the rational reasons. I haven’t read any material on the subject but my view of the balance of irrational and rational love is this. In the end, the commitment side of love is probably largely based on a rational analysis (usually subconscious) of the positive vs negative consequences of those irrational emotions between now (the short-term) and in the distant future (the long-term), both for ourselves and those we care about. Is it really so simple as each persons intuitive and natural attempt to optimize the balance between the immediate and long-term release of endorphins and other hormones? As much as I wish it weren’t so, I see nothing compelling that would require more of an explanation than this provides. I do not like that explanation. I like poetry. But I must admit that evolutionary programming alone seems sufficient to explain the “rational” commitment side of love.

Rational vs irrational and meta-cognition

Your wife may have had some rational reasons for leaving you at some point. We all have reasons for leaving. I don’t believe that the combined weight of the rational and irrational reasons for leaving was greater than the combined weight of the rational and irrational reasons for staying. The reason I say this is that she is still with you. It wasn’t just her irrational emotions that kept her with you. The rational and irrational feed off each other. The short-term is often governed by our immediate irrational emotions (that reptilian brain), but the long-term is an amalgamation of the conditional responses to those short-term emotions and rational hopes for future emotions (again, for ourselves and those we care about). Yes, my marriage is imperfect. I am imperfect. But my marriage is not above rational assessment. I doubt that anyone lives differently than that. They probably just haven’t thought about it in those terms because our minds assess such things intuitively. It is only meta-cognition that brings us to an awareness and admission of what we are sub-consciously doing all the time.

My wife on the triple beam balance

What about the triple beam balance? If, by that you mean that I wouldn’t critically examine every minute detail of my wife’s actions, you are correct. I trust her like you trust the Bible (like I used to). I do not trust her because I love her. I trust her because she’s exceeded my expectations of consistency and validated that trust over multiple experiences. My trust of her is proportional to my experiences of her behavior.

The Bible on the triple beam balance

If you’re wondering why I now critically examine the Bible rather than trusting it, remember that I used to trust the Bible entirely without question. I think we both admit that love is blinding. When I did trust the Bible I did not understand the danger of The Problem and motivated reasoning, so I failed to examine it critically and the level of desire I had for it to be true blinded me. I found what I was looking for (confirmation bias). My need trust the Bible drowned out everything else and enabled me to rationalize the problems and ignore them. I did not put it on the triple beam balance when I should have. I needed it to be true for so many reasons. However, I began noticing small things here and there that provided evidence that it wasn’t as trustworthy as I’d thought. It wasn’t until the weight of evidence was insurmountable that I was even able to seriously consider that my Bible might be untrustworthy.

The unfortunate friend

Imagine a friend deeply in love with his spouse and blind to what many others see – when he isn’t around she is extremely cruel and unloving to your friend and their children and obviously having affairs. Your friend refuses to acknowledge your warnings because of their complete love, devotion, and trust (belief). It would take much evidence before your friend would begin to examine the possibility that the spouse isn’t as trustworthy as they thought, whereas it would take a comparably trivial amount of evidence to cause an unattached outsider to doubt mistrust the spouse.

Can your friend with the spouse love his wife? Yes. Is it special pleading? No. Can your friend continue to strongly believe that their spouse is trustworthy even after they’ve seen overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Yes, this is the power of love (motivated reasoning). Is it special pleading to do so? Yes. Love (or desire) has added unjustifiable weight to the subjective portion of that belief equation and is allowing your friend to maintain faith in their spouse in spite of the stronger objective evidence against their trustworthiness. They have a penned-in answer in the crossword puzzle of life and their are unwilling to change it for fear of the pain of loss (and the further pain and confusion caused by the other dependent beliefs that would also have to be changed).

The competing faith

For another analogy, imagine a Mormon in love with the Book of Mormon (or pick any religion). Is it special pleading to love or hold absolutely trust or faith in the Book of Mormon? No. What about to use love as the reason for believing the book is completely trustworthy after they have acknowledged overwhelming, demonstrable evidence that the book is likely untrustworthy? Yes, that would be special pleading.

Hold standards of evidence inversely proportional to likelihood of claims

What about my wife? She doesn’t claim to be perfect as most believers claim the Bible is. As much as I love and trust my wife, she doesn’t claim to be supernatural. Therefore, the level of trust we need in this life to staying rationally committed to our wives is far less than we would need in order to objectively justify belief in any specific deity.

Pandora’s box and the slippery slope

Another problem with love or desire as a defense is that it can (and is) used for just about anything. Think of any belief for which the reason given is love. The adherent can always claim love as a defense, but how likely is it that their belief is true if their reason for belief is love rather than objective reasons?

The process of religion

It’s been my observation that all religion I’m aware of operate in a similar fashion. They (and many other areas of strong polarized opinions including politics) seem to survive almost entirely by employing the following fallacies (at a high-level)…

Indoctrination –> motivated reasoning –> special pleading in order to preserve the belief in the face of evidence against it (e.g. scripture that contradicts with reality or science, the lack of supernatural evidence, the unlikelihood of targeted involvement from such an outside force, etc.).

While it isn’t commonly viewed this way, I think an assessment of all religions would uphold the idea that preserving the belief is the chief utility of faith (at least in terms of the survivability of the religion over time). If the religions of the world were entirely objectively justifiable, motivated reasoning in the form of faith would not be a tenant.

What does it mean to say we believe something because we’re in love?

“I believe because I’m in love” (this isn’t a direct quote from you, and I’m talking about myself as much as you) sounds very similar to “I believe because I have faith,” which is seems like “I believe because it would be too painful to not believe.” Desire has influenced each of us in our reasoning. The concept of love as a defense means to trust profoundly, more than is objectively warranted, because to abandon that defense and find the desired belief untrue would be too heartbreaking to accept. It is motivated reasoning which leads us to maintain our desired beliefs rather than to obtaining beliefs that are more likely true (by proportioning our belief to the evidence). Each place it is invoked as a defense is special pleading. Each place it is used makes it more likely that we will build a latticework of further false believes on top of it.

When our defense is “love” we’re saying that there is compelling reason to change our belief but we’re choosing to preserve our belief due to desire. If there wasn’t compelling reason to change our belief our defense would consist entirely of the objective reasons we have. It is only when these reasons are overwhelmed by the counter-evidence that “love” needs to be invoked as a defense. “Love” as a defense is equivalent to “trust” or “faith” as a defense. It is that subjective part in the belief equation that is invoked in order for belief to be preserved, but it is unjustifiable and it is counter to science. According to science, the belief should be abandoned. According to the individual scientist, some such beliefs must be preserved because life would be hard otherwise. Unfortunately, “the universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.” – Carl Sagan

When is love a good idea?

Almost always. The danger is only when we set our beliefs largely on our desires rather than our objective evidence. When our desire tips the scales from an objective disbelief to an overall belief because we’re really want to believe, we know we’ve chosen to value comfort more than truth. Unfortunately, while this is usually — at least in part — an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance, it is often a failed attempt unless we can go all the way to full rationalization. Thus motivated beliefs compel more motivated beliefs.

Do I think I’m above motivated reasoning?

Not at all. But I fear it. I honestly do assess the reason for my conclusions to see how much desire us playing a part. I love deeply, but I attempt to measure how much those feelings affect beliefs. That’s why I’m moderate on most things. I’m much more comfortable admitting an uncertainty than committing to an incorrect belief. I know I’m subject to The Problem the same as the next person, though.

Why did I leave the faith when some many others more intelligent did not?

I certainly did not leave that level of faith easily. Perhaps I am not possessed of the same values or mental processes as many others. Perhaps it is a distinctive form of plasticity or physical genetic structure on which my contextual phenotype rests that is somewhat different from many of my loved-ones. For whatever reason, I have not the capacity to allow subjective desire to consciously influence my beliefs. Do they? Sure, quite often? But once I’m made aware of them, I do my best to analyze them and position my beliefs to be in-line with objectivity. I still maintain my desires and choose to hope for the best, but I am unable to avoid proportioning my belief to the evidence I know. My evidence is often misunderstood, lacking, and/or incorrect, but it is a Bayesian inference based on what knowledge I have.

How we reason — the thread that binds us

I don’t believe that my fundamental process of reasoning is any different than yours or anyone else’s (including non-human animals and really all living organisms with a mind). We evaluate patterns in our environment, through repetitive experiences make inferences about what is more or less likely to happen next (predictions and expectations), update those inferences through each subsequent experience, filter this through all stages between our emotional (immediate) and more cognitive (future-thinking) mental faculties, make further predictions, and repeat. Our neighbors dog, the mosquito that flew in my car, my daughter, and each of us follow this same process of reasoning.

How science helps

Science is a filter on top of that fundamental reasoning that tells us how and where this basic line of reasoning is likely to trip us up if left unchecked, and what checks we should put on it in order to come up with inferences that are more in line with reality. The scientific method is the ultimate (so far) culmination of those checks and balances that help us come up with a set of beliefs that have the best chance of being true (and tells us what degree of skepticism is appropriate for other beliefs). The Problem I’ve been talking about is a specific set of non-intuitive mental fallacies that have recently been uncovered by science, each-of-which is mostly unknown or misunderstood by the majority of people and each-of-which leave us exquisitely susceptible to false-beliefs. One of these problems is motivated reasoning, especially the kind that uses “love” as a defense.

More evidence for The Problem? I took this from http://zackgroff.blogspot.com/2008/08/strong-rationalism.html

Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that we cannot completely trust our senses to tell us the truth because the evolutionary process is bent on preserving adaptive behavior, which is not necessarily correspondent to the truth. This parallels the evolutionary assumption that false beliefs based on irrational fears and paranoia are more effective, in the long run, at helping an organism survive than beliefs based on the truth, which could lead us to let our guard down long enough to be eradicated by hostile forces.

Keller summarizes this concept with “Evolution can only be trusted to give us cognitive faculties that help us live on, not to provide ones that give us an accurate and true picture of the world around us.” Patricia Churchland puts it elegantly (and Keller quotes her as well), “Truth, whatever that is, takes the hindmost.”

Where does that leave me?

I don’t think love is a good defense for faith (if you were to try to use it), but I understand it. I’ve been there. It’s a constant temptation pulling at me even now. I want to believe almost badly enough that I could slip into it from time to time. I hope this assessment wasn’t too harsh. I don’t mean to be. Much of this is directed toward reminding myself why I should resist that pull.

I hope you have enough to chew on for a few days. Either way, I’ll try to post again soon. I want to get caught up. 🙂

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

4 comments

  1. I don’t think I disagree with anything that you wrote (although I’ll be honest…my attention span is not quite as long as I would like it to be, and I think I may have skimmed the last quarter).

    Your blog intrigues me, because you write from opposing points of view…yet I agree with and relate strongly to both of you. Sometimes I feel like the state of my heart with all of this depends on which one of you posted more recently.

    Liked by 2 people

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