Monday, March 24, 2014

Motivated Reasoning: Implications For Contemporary Buddhists

Tartullian, the Christian apologist, in the year 208, could actually write: “the Son of God died; precisely because it is absurd, it is to be believed. And that he was buried and rose again, it is certain because it is impossible.” Nowadays, post-scientific revolution, we tend not to hear people making such claims. Today, even the wildest woo-miesters, as well as conventional religious believers, attempt to apply at least a veneer of rational justification and what they believe to be evidential support. Even Mormons and Scientologists! And even those who adhere to the myriad versions of quantum-woo. As Ian Hayward Robinson writes in “Exploring the Limits of Christian Rationality” (Free Inquiry; Feb/Mar 2014): “We can’t believe in just anything that takes our fancy if we are to demand intellectual respectability.”

Robinson bases his assertion on the very interesting and provocative research of Ziva Kunda, whose seminal 1990 paper, “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” established that “People do not seem to be at liberty to conclude whatever they want to conclude merely because they want to. Rather…people motivated to arrive at a particular conclusion attempt to be rational and to construct a justification of their desired conclusion that would persuade a dispassionate observer. They draw the desired conclusion only if they can muster up the evidence necessary to support it. In other words, they maintain an ‘illusion of objectivity.’”

The main point of Kunda’s paper is that there are two distinct orientations that people can take toward examining and analyzing evidence that depend upon one’s motivation. If your motivation is to be accurate, you will be more likely to use analytical cognitive tools (critical thinking) that are most appropriate to the context, regardless of the possible outcome. It requires not a commitment to a particular outcome, but rather a commitment to the process of determining the most accurate outcome regardless of any preferences one may hold. It is, as Gil Grissom often reminds his C.S.I. team, the commitment to “follow the evidence” and to not let personal beliefs waylay you.

Studies have shown that those who are motivated by “accuracy-driven reasoning” expend more cognitive effort on issue-related reasoning, attend to the relevant information more closely, and engage in deeper processing of the information, often using more complex rules. As may be evident by now, this is the orientation of science.

The research suggests that, on the other hand, if your motivation is to arrive at a particular, preferred conclusion, you will be prone to account only for those beliefs, and to follow those investigative strategies that you may consider most likely to yield the pre-determined conclusion. People so committed will mold the path to the desired conclusion through the way they frame the question they are “investigating;” in the type of evidence they take into account and find acceptable; and in the amount of evidence they settle for.

Obviously, religious adherents, especially theologians and apologists, are by definition engaged in a process of arriving at a particular set of conclusions determined by their particular religious dogma. Such an orientation begins with how the investigation is framed: they do not start the investigation and reasoning in order to see if their religious dogma is true, but to demonstrate that it is! The important point to consider here is that they do this not necessarily motivated by any desire to convince unbelievers, but to prove to themselves that their beliefs can be intellectually accepted. When I was studying the philosophy of religion in college, this was made vividly clear in Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways” to establish the existence of god. He wasn’t out to convince anyone that god existed; he was writing to reassure his followers that their belief was not irrational and that it could find intellectual justification.

Of course, we see the same dynamic at work with committed buddhist and yoga true-believers, as well as those in the new-age movement, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and those who rile against science-based medicine and technology – even while, ironically, posting their diatribes on the internet that is made possible by science and technology.

Stephen Batchelor writes about his experience as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and the “debates” he was taught to engage in. He notes that it soon became evident that the debates were actually training grounds for cleverly coming up with ways to come to the pre-ordained conclusion the particular school of Tibetan Buddhism held as true. Genuine doubt and questioning was not encouraged, nor welcome. I too experienced a similar dynamic, though my teacher was more open to my critiques then Batchelor’s Tibetan lamas. In zen, we are often told to keep questioning: “Great doubt, great enlightenment.” And yet, as my training progressed, I began to see that there were some areas where questioning was not actually appreciated by the tradition, and that if you came to any conclusion not in line with doctrine, your position was marginalized and rejected out-of-hand as simply “wrong.” It was suggested that you had not practiced deeply enough or correctly, that your understanding was still unripe, or otherwise you would surely have come to the same conclusion held by the zen schools.

One issue where this comes up again and again is that of karma and rebirth. Those who believe in rebirth set out to find ways to rationally justify their belief. Those who have rejected rebirth, most often come to that conclusion – often reluctantly – because they have engaged in accuracy-motivated reasoning. Over the nearly 40-years I have been practicing, I have had to let go of quite a few beliefs I’d have preferred to hold as true and accurate, but I cannot honestly do so without jettisoning my commitment to “follow the evidence” regardless of where it may lead. I am quick to add that because I've had to change my beliefs several times over the years, I am under no illusion that my understanding is fully formed and settled. If anything, I know I can expect further study, practice and investigation to force me to reconsider my beliefs and I find great value in this.

Glenn Wallis details categories of buddhist believers: the following are examples of those who often use reason to justify their faith commitments, but are not really engaged with a no-holds-barred investigation. What they have in common is the tendency to flinch in the face of the truly radical implications of the buddha “event”:

                Apologists. For whatever reasons, these figures seek to have x-buddhist teachings, theories, practices, etc., come out on top—always. Thus, they act in defense of x-buddhism. Quite often, they must resort to logical contortions and, more seriously, omission of contrary evidence. But not always, of course; sometimes they do indeed correct misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
                Conservatives. They are disposed toward the status quo—of whatever school/text/practice/community/ institution/teacher, etc., they hold sacred.  And they do tend to hold it all sacred. Everything in the universe changes except, of course, whatever the conservative x-buddhist holds dear.
                Fundamentalists. They are the gardes suisses at x-buddhism’s holy vallation. Their reasoning for, say, the truth of rebirth, is hyper-precise. They are master exemplifiers. Scripture, after all, is always on their side, even when it isn’t. And how they know their scripture! Thumpers here to put Stomp! to shame. Sutta-thumpers, sutra-thumpers, Shobogenzo-thumpers, Lotus-sutra-thumpers–thumpin’ their way to certainty—messy reality be damned!
                Interpreters. They explain, clarify, expound on the teachings of the literary conceit known as “the Buddha.” They make it all make sense, even when it doesn’t. They tend to be benign. They value description over analysis, since the latter, done well, veers toward the dark depths of critique.
                Post-traditionalists. Like traditionalists, they uphold the values gleaned from the Asian dispensation of x-buddhism. However, they seek a renovation of the archaisms and (certain) superstitions favored by their Asian patriarchs. They do not want a new house, only a freshly painted one with, perhaps, a modern kitchen.
                Secularists. They claim the values of modern scientific methodology, such as evidence-based claims, critical thinking, rigorous debate, and the light of reason. But they hesitate to test their cherished beliefs against these values. They do do so; but not too robustly, lest the house collapse. While respecting tradition, they seek a contemporary application. Yet, what they have produced is just the same old thing. Nothing new here.
                Traditionalists. They are committed to the forms—doctrines, practices, beliefs, etc.— that are preserved in Asian institutional structures. Some of these structures are of ancient or medieval origin, some are modern. They espouse pre-scientific worldviews. They axiomatically adhere to archaic cosmologies. They often believe in a world animated by spirits and hidden forces. They know no other possibility.
                True Believers. They raise the (western) x-buddhist banner. They heart Buddhism, though “Buddhism” is always proscribed by their particular school. Some true believers, of course, literally love all things Buddhists. This person, I think, is a peculiarly recent, North American type. They subscribe to some version of “One Dharma,” and are desirous of finding unity in diversity.