Thursday, January 01, 2009

The concept of motivated cognition: its uses and abuses and its application to rationalism

Two Kinds of Scientific Rationalists: The Influence of Motivated Cognition

The concept of motivated cognition: its uses and abuses

There is a growing body of evidence that human abstract cognition is motivated, something that has been studied recently and somewhat infamously with regard to politics. The scientific concept has also been abused for political purposes, so for good context on the technical side check out this great article on the Mixing Memory cognitive science blog, which describes the basic concept and also its limitations:

In motivated reasoning, memory searches, interpretations of incoming
information, evaluations of arguments, and even perception, are biased in such a
way that we will be more likely to arrive at a desired conclusion ...

...biasing the information available for supporting or evaluating
conclusions and arguments, as well as interpreting incoming information... long as we can, we'll only deal with that information that is
consistent with our conclusion

... continually confronted with information that conflicts with that conclusion, we will be forced to deal with it

Theories of motivated cognition have recently emphasized its apparent link with what is often called "hot cognition," which for example means that we particularly tend to use this mode of thinking in situations such as where:

  • our attitudes are challenged
  • an emotional judgment is called for
  • there are relatively small consequences for being wrong
  • the judgmental task is complex
  • "Objective" information is not readily available or the evidence is ambiguous
  • disconfirming evidence is not highlighted
  • counter-arguments come easily to mind
  • we are distracted or under time pressure
If you follow the concept this far, you notice that motivated reasoning indeed seems to be, rather disturbingly, something like a baseline mode of thinking for human beings. We tend to use it under the most common decision situations where we believe we are addressing something meaningful and important, where the decision is complex, where we have mostly ambiguous information available, and we don't feel we have the time and resources to just focus on and analyze the issue for long periods. This strongly resembles the situation where we generally give opinions on topics like politics, which seems to fit the original conclusion that we tend to use motivated cognition for political thinking.

Motivated cognition and science

The point I've been preparing for here is that philosophical discussions over human reason aren't all that different, from the standpoint of cognitive science, from political opinions. The fact that we are starting with the assumption that humans are rational doesn't mean we aren't typically affected by the conditions that lead to hot cognition.

The classic difference is of course that in the philosophical tradition of modern science, we are supposed to consider all ideas tentative, assume that our own ideas may be biased or wrong, and then are strongly encouraged seek out disconfirming evidence and to consider it when it is found. So in principle, at least, we should already be aware of something like the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, be aware that it affects ourselves as well as others, and actively work to compensate for it. The tradition emphasizes the uncertainty of knowledge at a given time in history, and so encourages an important attitude of active open-mindedness in its conception of scientific inquiry. This is notoriously taken too far at times to encourage premature and unwarranted "paradigm shifts", but the basic underlying principle continues to be sound and consistent with current cognitive science.

When scientific rationalists write about how great science is and how religion is largely silly superstition, I think they often seem largely unaware that they are not representing a single body of opinion but are themselves split by the effects of motivated cognition.

Motivated cognition and rationalism

In the opening of his wonderful book, The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins discusses two temptations he feels are worth avoiding, but which he he is compelled to flirt with for the purpose of narration: (a) our appetite to find patterns in history even when they aren't there and (b) the vanity of the present, seeing the past as if it were aimed at our own time.

Discussions over what is rational for human beings to believe based on science are in general forced to flirt with these temptations as well. The concept of what is rational has a history and we want to see patterns in it. At the same time, we also want to see the current worldview as being the end result that all of history has led up to.

I see people who consider themselves scientific rationalists (steadfast followers of the ideals of reason and the process of scientific inquiry) as falling mostly toward the extremes on a spectrum with the following poles which I think are the result of motivated cognition and reflect different approaches to addressing the two temptations:

1. those scientific rationalists who are motivated by a desire and need for a sense of certainty leading to a great faith in logic and current best knowledge and believe that we can know the outcomes of our actions with great confidence because science is self-correcting over time and has led up to the present day knowledge in a persistently cumulative way,

2. those scientific rationalists who are more motivated to embrace the unknown and to think of current best knowledge as more transient and have less confidence that we can know the outcomes of our actions because they see the history as contingent, they recognize that knowledge accumulates, but are also more motivated to think of any given theory as tentative at a given time

Similarly to the philosophers foxes and hedgehogs or the lumpers and splitters, these stereotyped views of scientific rationalism are just a tool for helping to understand how our motivations influence the worldviews we adopt and support.

The varieties of scientific rationalism

So I finally come to my point, the different sub-species of scientific rationalists. By the way, like those of us who are diametrically opposed on political ideology, the different scientific rationalists at the extremes don't really see those at the other extreme as scientific rationalists at all.

To make the point more concrete, at one extreme for example we have the people who are committted to preserving science and preventing irrationality and superstition from corrupting the body of accumulated well-tested knowledge. These are the "skeptics" and for historical reasons they are closely related to the almost ironically titled "freethinkers." I don't say this in a demeaning way, because these are really my intellectual mentors and inspire me. I say it is almost ironic because I truly think the motivation for this form of "skepticism" and "freethought" is at its root more about preserving something valuable than inquiring freely. It just happens to be the scientific tradition that they are preserving rather than the traditions of the Crown and Church altar.

At the other extreme we have the people who are committed to questioning and addressing the frontiers of knowedge more aggressively, who want to test the more wacky and more unpopular ideas, who are most motivated to feel that we don't really know how our actions will turn out but we have to act anyway. They are the people motivated to truly embrace the unknown rather than minimize it to help solidify our current knowledge.

The first extreme considers the second one to be irrationalists because they are so quick to dive into things that we have only clues about and not a stable research platform. Their motivation to aggressive "demarcation" of science and superstition leads them to consider ideas that have not yet been validated and well tested to be not only of low confidence but superstitious in principle as well. People who emphasize the contingent nature of history seem to this first extreme to be deliberately ignoring the important patterns and how much we have already accomplished.

The second extreme considers the first one to be irrationalists because they are so loathe to walk on the wild side and don't seem to them to embody much at all of the spirit of active open-mindedness that allows science to revise its mistakes over time. People who emphasize the cumulativeness of scientific knowledge seem to this second extreme to be deliberately ignoring the role of accidents and how much is still unknown, or what might be overturned.

I think the philosopher/logician Susan Haack captured this distinction very well in her book Defending Science Within Reason. She refers to the first category as deferentialists, and the second as cynics. I think that captures the spirit of the distinction very well overall. I strongly empathize with her efforts to steer between them.

The Mixing Memory blog has another fascinating post where a similar kindof distinction is applied to atheism, something commonly associated with scientific rationalism. The author (someone who identifies themself only as "Chris") cleverly divides atheists into skeptical atheists and suspicious atheists. Skeptical atheists are said to adhere strongly to rationalism, while suspicious atheists are more skeptics in the classical sense and question even the scientists' version of reason as well as religious faith.

This is similar to the tradition that considers Haack's cynics and my second category of rationalists to actually be irrationalists, which I tend to disagree with. True, they do put less emphasis on achieving closure through systematic logic, but in many notable cases they are just as opposed to superstition and irrationalism in spirit as the deferentialists.

The cynics are less confident that we really know what we think we know, they don't embrace superstition or revelation or acts of faith.

So I'd put a slightly different slant on that, and say that the cynics really are scientific rationalists of a kind, who have a different slant on reason, emphasizing its limitations while recognizing that it remains our best tool and that we still need to act on it.

To illustrate this important point, my best current example of someone I currently consider a scientfic rationalist cynic is Stuart Kauffman. His conception of how biological phenomena are epistemologically emergent in nature for example truly questions the classical physicalist picture, but it is consistently scientific and rationalist. His consideration of the issues is sophisticated enough that in their online article on emergent properties, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that (referring to kauffman's Home in the Universe):

Kauffman (1993b) is an important and influential assessment of current
scientific theories lending themselves to epistemological emergentist

Since I consider philosophy to be for the most part a reason-motivated endeavor and the SEP to be relatively authoritative, I think their mention in this context lends support to my contention that Kauffman provides a data point for scientific rationalist cynics.

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