Is There Evidence for God?

skeptic, evidence

Summer, 1998. I traveled to Europe (Hungary, to be precise) and sat down in a little restaurant one day for a bite. I ordered the “Greek salad.” I love Greek salad! I’ve eaten many Greek salads growing up in Florida: shredded lettuce with cucumber slices, beets, feta and shrimp. To my horror, what emerged from the kitchen was a bowl full of chopped cucumber and tomato, with feta, onion and Kalamata olives. No lettuce at all! This was most definitely not a Greek salad.

Greek salad, evidence

But I was wrong! 20 years later, I found myself in Athens, Greece. To my surprise, I discovered that my salad in Hungary was authentic. Succulent chunks of cucumber and tomato, mixed with onion, feta and olives. It turned out that I needed to adjust my definition of ‘Greek salad.’

I often hear skeptics say things like, “there’s no evidence for God.” But I think this view arises from some confusion about what evidence is. The search for evidence resembles my blunder with Greek salad. When we look for evidence, most of us don’t know what we’re looking for. We follow a mistaken notion of evidence, and finding none, we proclaim its absence. So what is evidence, exactly?

What Is Evidence?

smoke, evidence

“Smoke is evidence of fire.”1  I think this makes sense to most of us. When we say this, I think we mean something like this: “Well, fire causes smoke, and I’ve always seen smoke with fire, so I think it’s pretty likely that we’ll find fire where that smoke is.” The reason this kind of logic works is because evidence raises the (epistemic) probability of what it supports (e.g., a hypothesis). In this case, the presence of smoke raises the probability that there is a fire. Does it guarantee the presence of fire? No. It is possible to have smoke without fire. But nevertheless, when we see smoke, we are quite rational in thinking, “there’s a fire over there.” So evidence is something that raises the probability that a hypothesis is true.

Kinds of Evidence

What are these “somethings?” Evidence comes in a variety of kinds. Philosophers typically recognize five sources: perception, testimony, memory, inference, and introspection. The smoke example is a combination of perception (seeing the smoke) and inference (making a logical or causal connection between smoke and fire). Many of our beliefs rest almost solely on the support of evidence from our five senses, like my belief that the coffee I’m drinking is hot. Others, like mathematical and geometrical beliefs, are backed up by pure reason.

restaurant, evidence

Another illustration: The other day, I thought I remembered visiting a certain restaurant with my kids. But one of my kids said he’d never been there. So, I asked two of my other kids, and they both agreed with kid #1. So, what do I do? I have conflicting evidence. My memory of visiting the restaurant raises the probability that we went there, but the testimony of three other people lowers the probability! My total evidence suggests that it is unlikely that I took my kids to the restaurant. 

Introspection comes into play when we think about the contents of our own mind, or of various bodily states. When I feel a sensation of pain, or have a feeling of sadness, that evidence makes it 100% likely that I am in pain or sad. If someone were to tell me, “You’re not in pain,” my introspective evidence would override them. I have special, private access to the states of my own body and mind.

All of these come to us via some kind of experience. Perceptual experiences (hearing, seeing, etc.), introspective experiences (self-awareness), inferential (cognitive) experiences, and perhaps religious experiences. And all of these are subject to error, so some caution (but not paranoia) is important. The rule of thumb is: trust your faculties unless you have clear reason to doubt them, e.g., you just took an hallucinogenic drug.

Evidence and God

court room, testimony

So how does all this apply to God? Well, our evidence for God can come in all five of these forms. I can hear or read testimony from someone else who has experienced God in some way. It’s like court testimony. I’ve served on one jury, and the jury’s eventual belief in the defendant’s guilt was based largely on the word of several witnesses, including the victim. Hearing a credible witness testify that “X happened” raises the (epistemic) probability that X happened. It works the same way with testimony about God (including written sources, like the Bible).

I can infer from various experiences of my own (“religious experiences,” perception of order and design in the universe, etc.), or from other facts (everything that begins to exist must have a cause) that God exists. The logic of the Kalam Cosmological argument or the Fine-tuning argument raise the probability that God exists. Religious experiences, when the best available explanation is the presence of God, also raise this probability. Such experiences may even come to us via  introspection; perhaps it seems that God is “speaking” to me in my mind. This is defeasible, of course, but until it is shown to be faulty in some way, it provides a probabilistic lift to the God hypothesis.

Skeptics, Don’t Worry!

This accumulating evidence by no means settles the issue or “proves” there is a God. Several other factors come into play which may “cancel out” the sorts of evidence I’ve described. First, there’s plenty of evidence against God as well. Two examples: the apparent existence of unnecessary suffering in the world, and perhaps the confusion about God that persists in the world. These may counter evidence in favor of God. (Whether they are enough to outweigh the evidence in God’s favor, is debatable.) Second, our cognitive faculties can make mistakes. We can “perceive” things that aren’t there and “infer” things that don’t follow logically. Surely some of what we think supports our belief in God will turn out to be faulty. (Note: this also applies to any support I might have for atheism.)

Skeptics may also worry about really weird cases where people claim to have evidence. UFO sightings (and abductions), ghost encounters, and other bizarre phenomena also involve alleged evidence. Must we also concede that their beliefs are evidence-based? Well, perhaps. If I’m concerned about a claim of this sort, or about a Christian who claims to witness a miracle, I will investigate. I’ll use the same general approach as Prof. Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he was presented with Lucy’s fantastic tale about visiting Narnia.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”
“Oh, but –” began Susan, and then stopped. . . “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That’s the funny thing about it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up till now, I’d have said Lucy every time.” 
“And what do you think, my dear?” said the Professor, turning to Susan.
“Well,” said Susan, “in general, Id’ say the same as Peter, but this couldn’t be true–all this about the wood and the Faun.”
“That is more than I know,” said the Professor, “and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed.”
“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan. “We thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”
“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.” [The children don’t know what to think at this point!]
“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”
2

Now, before you dismiss this example as fanciful fiction and irrelevant, consider what is going on. The Professor simply asks the children to examine how they formed their beliefs, and urges them to apply logic, no matter where it leads.  As I will explain below, there is no rational, unprejudiced way to rule out supernatural explanations prior to unbiased examination.

Misleading Evidence

As I have said, having evidence doesn’t settle the issue. Sometimes, even when we follow the evidence, this rational method fails us. How can this happen? Evidence can mislead us. According to Princeton philosopher Thomas Kelly,

 E is misleading evidence for p just in case (i) E is evidence for p and (ii) p is false. Thus, misleading evidence is genuine evidence in that it satisfies the conditions for being evidence (whatever those conditions turn out to be). In this respect, it contrasts with apparent evidence or fake evidence, which seem to satisfy the conditions for being evidence but do not. The fact that misleading evidence is genuine evidence is why beliefs based on misleading evidence can be reasonable, given that what it is reasonable to believe depends on one’s evidence.3

evidence

So if it turns out there are no gods, then all the theist’s evidence was misleading, like evidence used for a false conviction in a court. But before the skeptic proclaims our evidence misleading, she should consider a couple of thoughts.

  1. We can’t know that our evidence for God is misleading without first knowing whether God exists! This means that a skeptic cannot rationally say that a theist has no evidence, nor can she say that the theists’ evidence is misleading, unless the skeptic has first proven that God does not exist. And even if the theist turns out to be wrong, she may still be quite rational. You might have a worry like this: “But does this also imply that I don’t know if my evidence is legitimate unless I can prove God’s existence?” The rational approach, it seems to me, is this: as long as the evidence points toward a hypothesis, and there are no live defeaters (see below), then we should consider it legitimate. Without this assumption, science, law, etc. would be impossible. 
  2. The skeptic certainly can work to show that the theists’ evidence is fake or apparent evidence (rather than misleading). The best way to do this is by introducing defeaters, either by showing that the means of acquiring the evidence was flawed or unreliable, or that the evidential belief is itself false. But one must be careful to avoid circular reasoning here. For example, one cannot argue that (A) religious experience is fake/unreliable because (B) there is no God, since God’s existence is the very claim under dispute. Arguing this way would be like the following exchange. Sally: The earth is flat. Harry: But photographs from space show a spherical earth. Sally: No, those are fakes. Harry: Why do you think they’re fakes? Sally: Because the earth is flat! That is circular reasoning. What Sally ought to do is give an independent reason to think that Harry’s perception is unreliable or that his evidence is “fake.”
flat earth, evidence

Conclusion

Skeptics and believers both should recognize that evidence for God abounds. The task of the careful thinker is to evaluate the quality of the evidence and weigh it against counter evidence. If a person’s total evidence significantly raises the probability that God exists, isn’t defeated, and isn’t swamped by counter evidence, then belief in God can be quite rational.

Can Atheism Be Justified?

skeptic's only, justified, athiest

In October, I started conducting interviews in the “free speech zone” at the University of Missouri. I sit at a table with a sign inviting “Skeptics Only” to come and talk about why they are skeptical about God or religion, and I offer them $5 for their time. A line of waiting interviewees often forms next to the table. Some aren’t even interested in the $5! Some sound justified in their views, and some struggle to articulate the reasons for their skepticism.

Ironically, an atheist friend inspired me to try this. Anthony Magnabosco, a nationally-known practitioner of “Street Epistemology,” runs a YouTube channel with 28,000 followers. He expertly engages in Socratic conversation with people, encouraging them to re-examine the reasons for their most deeply-held beliefs. While I disagree with him about God, I applaud how he models friendly conversation about religion and other touchy subjects.

Pleasant Surprises

believe, belief, think, rationalThe biggest surprise has been people’s candor and willingness to have their story filmed and put on YouTube. I was also pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness and depth I heard in many of their responses. Some point to Christians behaving badly as evidence against the faith. Some bring up perceived conflicts between science and faith. Others suggest that a loving God would not allow good people to suffer. These can serve as justifications for atheism.

Some atheists and skeptics, in an effort to gain an edge in the debate about God, will insist that they don’t need to offer support for their view. But nearly all the people I’ve interviewed can offer coherent reasons for their disbelief. I think this is how any rational person ought to respond. Whatever your position is on God, you ought to have a rationally justified basis for that position. You ought to have reasons for your view. Otherwise, it’s no different than blind faith.

A Real-life Example

In the video below, Lacey raises several legitimate reasons for her skepticism.

  • Religion often seems to conflict with science.
  • Christians fail to live up to the ethic of Jesus.
  • Good people suffer for no apparent reason.

Based on her experience and reasoning, she seems quite justified in her rejection of the Christian faith. Her “total evidence” can be construed to point in the opposite direction. But she also seems open to acquiring new evidence and re-thinking her conclusions. This openness further demonstrates her rationality and intellectual virtue.

resurrection, justifiedI probed for further thoughts on a few points she made. For example, if we take bad Christians as evidence against Christianity, shouldn’t we also take good Christians as evidence in its favor? And if we reject the resurrection account, then what alternative explanation do we have for the data (e.g., empty tomb, resurrection appearances, changed lives, etc.)?

Conclusion

I think, given a certain set of total evidence, atheism can be rationally justified. We all possess a different set of total evidence, which makes it difficult to compare our conclusions. What is rational for me may not be rational for you. But openness to hearing one another can help improve our set of total evidence, which may mean revising our beliefs. Do you agree?

Dealing With Doubt (Podcast), Part 2

Twenty-One Pilots, doubtTwenty-One Pilots captivates their audience, in part, because of their honest portrayal of a complex and often painful mental life. Along with anxiety and depression, they talk about their own struggles with faith and doubt. In their song, “Doubt,” Tyler Joseph writes:

[I’m] scared I’ll die of uncertainty
Fear might be the death of me, fear leads to anxiety
Don’t know what’s inside of me

Later in the song, he says that he’s “shaking hands with the dark parts of [his] thoughts.” This kind of experience isn’t unique to people of faith. The song can apply to a variety of contexts. But it poignantly portrays what many believers go through in their private moments.

I do love poetry and song, but I think there is also a place for careful thought and analysis to inform our beliefs. Joseph doesn’t answer the question, “Is it a sin for a Christian to doubt God?” or “What do I do with my doubts?” And that’s OK. But as a philosopher, part of my calling is to tease out these questions more precisely, so that  our worldviews can become more coherent and logical.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 2 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” Philosopher Andrew Moon (Virginia Commonwealth University) has influenced my thinking a great deal in this area. I borrow Moon’s distinction between “verb doubt” and “noun doubt,” and show how it helps us understand the relation between doubt and faith. I also discuss, in this episode, some of the problem passages in the Bible that seem to portray doubt as sin.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

Dealing With Doubt

doubt, faith, beliefWe all deal with doubt, no matter what you believe. It is a normal, healthy part of a thinking life. But doubts can cause distress and anxiety for many of us, especially when we think it’s wrong to have doubts, or when we really want to believe something.

Most of us experience significant doubts between middle school and college, when we really start asking questions. Too often, when we go to adults or teachers for help, they dismiss our concerns or imply that there is something wrong with us. (I suspect this is because most adults also have unanswered doubts!) Tragically, this can cause many young people to abandon their beliefs prematurely.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 1 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” I think the model I propose helps anyone who wrestles with the interplay between doubt and belief, whether Christian or otherwise. This model is still a work in progress, so feel free to push back on it or ask questions.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

Why Isn’t God More Obvious?

TRUTH, obvious, God, evidence

Why isn’t God more obvious? This is a fair question. Large parts of the Bible evade our understanding. Many people lack any recognizable experience of God. If God wants everyone to believe in him, why doesn’t he have better marketing? This line of questioning attacks the coherence of the Christian worldview. God should provide more/better evidence, but God doesn’t . As a Christian, I have to acknowledge that this seems problematic. Here’s how I might represent the problem: (skeptics, tell me if you think I’m getting this wrong)

  1. If God simply wants more people to believe that he exists, then he should provide better evidence.
  2. God simply wants more people to believe that he exists.
  3. So, God should provide better evidence.

I’ve formulated it as a valid argument. So the only thing I can quibble with is whether the first 2 statements are, in fact, consistent with the Christian worldview. If #1 and #2 are part of the Christian worldview, then this argument succeeds in casting serious doubt on Christian coherence. (Which indirectly casts doubt on the truth of Christianity.) But if either of them is not consistent with Christianity, then the argument fails. (See footnote 1)

program, logic, God, obvious, evidenceNow, let me just admit up front that asking “Is such-and-such a statement consistent with Christianity?” is an extremely difficult matter. People will ask, “which version of Christianity?” or “on whose interpretation of the Bible?” Fair questions. Do I need to defend the coherence of all possible versions of Christianity?

Suppose we have 10 versions of a computer program, and we suspect some or all of the versions contain bugs. If I find a bug in one, that doesn’t mean I should throw out the other 9. I have to check them all. By analogy, if 10 different versions of Christianity exist and we don’t know which of them is the “correct” version, then proving one of them to be incoherent won’t prove that Christianity itself is incoherent. (I apologize if skeptics feel I’m saddling them with too large a burden, but when a worldview hangs around for 2,000 years, it’s bound to spawn lots of variations.) On the other hand, all the Christian needs is for one of the versions to come out coherent to refute the charge that Christianity is coherent.

So how do we select a target? Well, as I play the role of the critic here, I’ll focus on what seems to be the most pared-down and basic version of Christianity. And I’ll try to appeal to beliefs that are common to nearly all major versions. I’ll also try to take an interpretive approach to the Bible that is common to scholars representing the major denominational groups–Main-line protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, etc. (I’m also going to assume evidentialism.)

What Is the Christian God After?

demons believeI’m going to skip discussion of premise #1 and so straight to the real crux of the matter: #2. Is it true, according to standard, orthodox Christian doctrine, that “God simply wants more people to believe that he exists?” I don’t think so. The apostle James reminds us in his letter that mere belief isn’t all that great. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder” (James 2:19). So, the implication here is clear. God is interested in more than simple belief, that is, more than mere assent to a proposition.

In fact, very rarely does the Bible say anything like, “believe that God exists!” However, Hebrews 11:6 does say, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” So, it seems that belief in God is a necessary condition for “pleasing God,” which means that God certainly wants people to believe in his reality. But is belief in God’s existence a sufficient condition for pleasing him? Well, if the demons believe, then I guess not. What this means is that God is after more than mere belief in his existence. So premise #2 above is false.

A Better Skeptical Argument?

Maybe the argument I gave fails, but is there a better version? Well, we do have a lot of talk in the New Testament about believing in Jesus. Belief in Jesus does seem to be a really important part of what God is after. So consider this argument:

  1. If God simply wants more people to believe in Jesus, then he should provide better evidence.
  2. God simply wants more people to believe in Jesus.
  3. So, God should provide better evidence.

J. S. Mill, utilitarianismThis, to me, seems a much stronger argument. For a response strategy, I’ll borrow a page out of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mill claimed that what makes an action morally right is that it tends to promote pleasure and/or the absence of pain. His critics replied, “You make us out to be mere swine by saying that pleasure is all that matters to us!” Mill’s response: ‘pleasure’ has more than one meaning. There are lower and higher pleasures.

My response to the argument above parallels Mill’s: ‘believe’ has more than one meaning. If believe means ‘assent to the existence of Jesus’ or ‘accept that Jesus is the Son of God,’ then premise #2 is false, according to standard Christian theology. Even demons achieve such ‘belief’ in Luke 4:34 (“you are the Holy One of God!”). But if we mean something richer, like, ‘trust that Jesus, as God’s Son, will give you eternal life in God’s Kingdom,’ then #2 is probably true, according to standard Christian theology. And lest you think I’m reading this definition into the text, consider what St. John says: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn. 20:31) Many other passages corroborate this (very standard) view. Let’s call this sort of belief, “BELIEF.”

 

Better Evidence Required?

open, evidence, ground beliefSo now what? To avoid the fallacy of equivocation, we must use the same meaning of ‘believe’ in premise #1. But this makes premise #1 rather ill-fitted for the standard Christian view. God’s desire for more BELIEF doesn’t guarantee that he should change the current available evidence in some way. BELIEF, according to most Christian theologies, is a function of evidence and receptivity. Think of receptivity as not merely being willing to BELIEVE, but someone who’s heart is ready to obey God (Jn. 7: 17) and enter into a love-relationship with God (Jn. 15:1-11), should the right evidential opportunity arise. More or better evidence (whatever that might be) simply won’t help someone who is not receptive. And since receptivity could explain why so many people do not BELIEVE, we shouldn’t automatically think that God needs to provide better evidence.

Jesus seems to corroborate this in multiple teachings. In his parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), he suggests that more evidence won’t help some people. Lazarus dies and finds himself with Father Abraham in the hereafter. The “rich man” dies and is tormented in Hades, but he pleads with Abraham to get a message to his brothers so they can escape his condition.

‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

Too Skeptical?

They already have sufficient evidence, Jesus says. Other places, Jesus chides his listeners for demanding a sign, presumably for the same reason (Mk. 8:11-12; Jn. 4:48). There is such a thing as being too skeptical. We can be so “closed” to an idea that no amount of evidence will persuade us. If you’re a skeptic of religion, then you’ve witnessed this in people who deny various scientific discoveries. But it can happen to non-religious people just as easily.

empty, tomb, rising from the dead, JesusAnd how much better could the evidence get than someone rising from the dead? Even that, Jesus says, won’t be enough for some. So it doesn’t seem to be “better evidence” that is needed, according to the Christian view, but improved receptivity. So premise #1 is not a tenet of Christian theology, meaning that the argument fails and Christian coherence is preserved. (This is all a bit quicker than I’d like, but space prevents more detail.)

The Truth Is Out There

truth, obvious, GodIn sum, Christianity claims that God has provided plenty of good evidence. Written and spoken testimony, inferential arguments, religious experience, the indirect evidence of nature, etc. Of course, that doesn’t mean you HAVE the evidence, any more than the fact that there are plenty of fish in the sea means that you have one on your plate. You may need to go out and seek it. But it’s out there. God is obvious enough for seekers to arrive at the right sort of belief.


1  Defending coherence is different than defending truth. Imagine assembling a collection of puzzle pieces that all fit nicely together, but don’t actually form the picture on the box. That would be coherence without truth. All the defender of coherence must show is that a particular puzzle piece fits nicely with the others in the collection.

Do Motives Cloud Judgment?

clouded judgment, bias, logic, skepticism

Can our motives cloud our judgment? Yes. Without a doubt. (See this post and this post.) But does this mean we should always suspect our judgments and the judgments of others? That seems unreasonable. When I say that motives or psychological states can “cloud our judgment,” what I mean is (roughly) this–if we want something to be true, we tend to see the reasons for that view more favorably, and when we don’t want something to be true, we tend to see the reasons for that view less favorably. “More/less favorably” just means that the reasons appear to have more/less force to us than they would to someone with similar intellectual abilities and no desire either way (no horse in the race).

preformationism, bias, perceptionFor example, some early scientists believed in “preformationism,” which is the view that a tiny embryo exists in every sperm cell. So, when these scientists looked through primitive microscopes, they were inclined to see the outline of such an embryo in sperm cells. Others who did not hold this view did not see the embryos. Even the most ardent truth-seekers sometimes allow their biases and desires to affect their perception and judgment.

But to leap into the swamp of skepticism is a mistake. Here’s a common line of reasoning I observe.

  1. Psychological states, such as desires, often cloud human reasoning.
  2. Peter is expressing reasons for a view that he desires to be true.
  3. Therefore, I should mistrust Peter’s reasoning.

The most common example of this is when a religious skeptic dismisses the reasons presented by a Christian for her belief (which she wants to be true). Almost as common: a Christian assumes that the skeptic is only a skeptic (thus dismissing his arguments) because they don’t want there to be a God! Call this the “bad motives” attack. Several things strike me as wrong-headed about this kind of thinking.

Problems with the “Bad Motives” Attack

First, the reasoning presented by a person for their belief must stand or fall on it’s own merits. The motivations, desires, fears, etc. of that person are completely irrelevant when asking, “Is the reasoning they present any good?” (i.e., is the argument valid). To critique or question a person’s motives instead of critiquing their actual argument is evasion. We resort to this red-herring tactic only when we lack the intellectual skills to logically evaluate the argument being presented. (I should also add that you can admire the logic of an argument without agreeing with it! Being wrong is not the same as being irrational. Several very rational theories exist to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs, but most of them are wrong!)

spotlight, reasonSecond, this view is a two-edged sword. If all judgment is suspect because of hidden psychological interference, then the critic must turn this spotlight on her own reasoning as well. Could it be that (speaking as the critic) my own skepticism about Peter’s reasoning (in the example above) is actually the flawed product of my own motives–I don’t want him to be right! We should doubt the skeptic’s reasoning on exactly the same grounds that the skeptic doubts ours.

Third, wanting something to be true does not automatically cripple our judgment and reasoning. In fact, I don’t think anyone really believes it does. I know this because we apply this critique inconsistently. We pick and choose when to apply the “bad motives” attack, typically applying it to arguments for views we personally don’t like. And certainly we shouldn’t refrain from arguing in favor of things we care deeply about. For instance, I care deeply about the evils of human trafficking. Does this mean I am disqualified from making judgments or arguments against human trafficking? That seems absurd. Let me make my arguments, and then evaluate their soundness on their own merit! This is one reason why good academic journals and conferences don’t want the author’s name on a paper submission. The author’s motives and desires should be irrelevant in evaluating the quality of the arguments presented. 

Last Words

dead end, judgment, reasoning, bias, skepticTrue, there is such a thing as confirmation bias. Our wishful thinking can mislead our reasoning at times if we are not vigilant. But hyper-skepticism about everyone’s beliefs and reasoning is unjustified. So, I want to discourage you from using this “bad motives” attack as an easy response to arguments you don’t like. Deconstructing everyone’s judgment this way, including your own critiques, leads us to a dead end.

*I’m indebted to Josh Rasmussen for his insightful comments on his own recent Facebook post.

Bad Thinking, Part 2: Mood Matters

Law and Order: SVU. (Start the video at 9:36, but you may have to watch some ads.) Notice the shift in mood.

Scene: detectives asking a restaurant owner (Lyla) to look at the photographs of two criminal suspects, a man and a woman. Seemingly frustrated, she looks at them but doesn’t recognize either.

Lyla: I’m not really good with faces. I’m more of a word person.

Detective #1: Here’s a word. Focus.

[Lyla abruptly hands the photos back to the detective and walks away, obviously offended.]

Detective #2: What my partner means to say is that maybe you’re just underestimating yourself.

Lyla: [still mad] I don’t think so.

[Detective #2 turns on the charm and gets her to smile.]

Detective #2: Take a look at these photos one more time. Please.

Lyla: [sighs, smiling] This guy I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I’m pretty sure she was here that night.

This scene illustrates beautifully what scientists have discovered through tools like the Remote Association Test. A good mood raises intuitive abilities, but lowers logical attentiveness. A bad mood makes us less prone to errors in logic, but it’s like a wet blanket over intuition and creativity. Feeling nervous and criticized by the first detective shut down the intuition of the restaurant owner. But after her mood brightened, she easily recalled the face of the woman in the photo, because this is a function of intuitive System 1.

Implications

So what does this mean for us, as thinkers? Being aware of your mood can help you maximize your cognitive abilities. First, when you’re engaging in a creative or intuitive task, you’ll perform better if you’re in good spirits. If, prior to such a task, you find yourself in a foul mood, it would be wise to either, (a) put off the task (if possible) until your mood lightens, or (b) take some steps to improve your mood. Here’s one of my favorite TED talks on this subject that includes some very practical suggestions at the 10:56 mark.

 

Second, when you’re engaging in a System 2 task—analysis, problem solving, etc.—you’re likely to perform better if you don’t stroll into it casually. If you’re a more happy-go-lucky or optimistic person, it might be wise to stop and shift gears. Try some cognitive warm ups to crank up your System 2 and heighten your concentration. Work two or three simple multiplication problems, count backward from 100, or pick a word and find as many rhyming words as you can. (More “warm ups” here and here.)

Faith and Cognitive Modes

What about religion? Does mood matter when contemplating religious and metaphysical ideas? Yes. It matters because it affects which System is predominant. So which mode— intuitive System 1 or analytical System 2—is most appropriate for religious thinking? I’ve often wrestled with this question myself and I think it depends on your goals and on your context. If you’re already committed to a faith tradition like Christianity, System 2 is helpful when studying theology or when discussing religion with someone outside the faith, to give two examples. But worship, by contrast, requires shifting away from skepticism and toward openness. I find that praying and listening to a sermon are activities best done with a sense of receptivity, seasoned with a pinch of healthy skepticism, putting off the bulk of analysis for later.

skeptic faith thinkingFor those who identify as atheist or agnostic, it may not be as appropriate to suspend your skeptical guard, unless you find yourself desiring to believe. You should always leave open a small window of possibility, regardless, as I have written about elsewhere. But I have met atheists and agnostics who find belief unattainable given their current set of evidence. When I share about my own experience of God, they sometimes express a desire to have such an experience, in the hope that it would finally allow them to believe. For them, I would suggest partially lowering their System 2 defenses and cultivating an intuitive System 1 mind-set. Relationships, even between oneself and God, are best experienced through this mode, rather than by logical analysis.

Faith and Mood

What this implies for mood management is that religious believers will probably experience the full benefits of worship when their mood is good. Grief and lament remain important aspects of a full-orbed Christian faith, and perhaps research may eventually tell us how those moods affect our cognitive mode. But in general, I’m inclined to believe that a positive outlook enhances prayer and openness to hearing from God. On the other hand, if you only ever approach religion with your analytical System 2 on full alert, you may actually be blocking out the evidence needed to support belief. I recognize that there are some conundrums here, but despite this, there can still be good reasons for belief or for deciding on a course of action.

(On October 23, I will conclude the series by giving away a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow to one lucky subscriber to my blog. So, sign up with your email (on your right at the top of this post) before the 23rd to be eligible.’)