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I Know What You’re Thinking

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 27, 2010

I’ve been in therapy for many years. Among other things, I’ve been taught to identify distorted thinking patterns in myself which support negative thinking. The relevance of this will become clear below. Today I read Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval.

I’ll highlight what I think are poor arguments:

If you hang around the online atheist world long enough, you’ll notice an interesting pattern. Many religious and spiritual believers who engage with atheists seem very intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs.

…they want atheists to agree.

They really, really want atheists to agree. They want atheists to say, “No, of course, your beliefs aren’t like all those others — those other beliefs are crazy, but yours make sense.”

mind reader

Now the conclusions may actually be true. But why did I say this is poor argument? Because the author assumes they can know what other peoples’ motives are.

I commented on the site:

Four pages speculating about peoples’ motives and giving little argument apart from “my experience on atheist sites”? When will people realise that no-one can know others’ motives unless they tell us? I’ll go further and say that the psychology of belief is completely irrelevant to the question of whether something is true. I can make an argument that atheism is a Freudian desire to rebel against a father figure, but like this article, it would be speculation and fairly pointless.

Because people tend to make ad hominum arguments I’ll record that I’m agnostic (not that it matters). My argument is that we cannot know others’ motives. Putting it a little more snarkily, suggesting we can know others’ motives is in the same league as interpreting a designer from something apparently designed.

Somebody replied:

“Motive can be derived from words and action.”

I disagree, and said:

No, I’m sorry, motive can only be discovered if someone tells us their motives. No matter what someone does (or says), we cannot know what their motives are. If we could, we would be performing some kind of magic or intuition to know what is going on inside their brains.

What is Kim Jong-Il’s motive in firing on South Korea at the moment? We can guess, but it might simply be that he had a bad night’s sleep and felt grumpy.

Speculating about motive is pointless in these kinds of arguments. The only thing that should concern us is the truth, based on evidence. Imho. 🙂

In therapy I learned that guessing what other people are thinking is pointless. We will almost certainly be wrong. Are you worried that your partner is angry with you because she’s silent and withdrawn? Possibly she is. But she might just have a headache or be thinking about work.

Perhaps I’m missing something. What about the Police seeking a motive for murder? Can we know something about other peoples’ motives, and does it help in these kinds of questions?


? What do you think?
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Rockwell | Somebody’s Watching Me

17 Responses to “I Know What You’re Thinking”

  1. I don’t follow the push and pull between atheist, agnostics and people of faith as much as you. I’ve focused more on politics.

    I think that debate seem too much to focus on suggesting evil motives on the part of one’s opponents.

    Right winger suggests liberals just want a super powerful government that makes all our decisions for us, because they want to tell everyone else what to do.

    Left winger suggest the right just wants to lower taxes for their benefit, not the country as whole.

    In reality, how can either side determine if their opponents are wrong about the effects of what they want as opposed to have such dark motives. Maybe liberals really want a little more humane and equitable society, not to be in charge of the details of everyone’s life.

    I think if we focused arguments less on suggesting evil motive by everyone we disagree with, discussions might be more productive.

    • Thanks Bruce, I think you’re right about that attributing of motives in political debate.

      Maybe we could just ask “what are your motives?” and then leave it. But I guess those groups don’t trust each other to tell the truth.

  2. leesis said

    What an interesting post Jon.

    I have been busy trying to write my post of reincarnation I promised Lydia yet I find myself silenced by the understanding that my journey is so distinct to me that I would have to present all my motives, my experiences, plus the academia before anything I said made sense.

    Not to mention that in the back of my mind responses from dear atheists, antitheists, sceptics and agnostics who I know would want to take me to task for what I think do indeed make me hesitate. I don’t want them to agree with you mind. But I admit to feeling worn down at times by some who demand I justify all and everything I say. Frankly, how do I articulate nearly thirty years of academic and personal experience within an acceptable word limit?

    As an ex-therapist I never ever thought I knew how folks thought. But it was rare that I would miss how they felt. I remember a student telling me they couldn’t possibly relate to what it was like to hallucinate. I agreed but reminded her that she did know what it was to be scared and in that we she could be empathetic.

    And re motive…most folk don’t understand their own motives…to think we can judge another’s is nonsensical!

    And I don’t know if any of this connected to your questions :).

  3. SugarPop said

    I think there is a world of difference between Truth, and What Is True For Me. An earlier post helped me start to understand that more… https://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/why-i-will-always-be-agnostic/

    As long as we are clear about the distintions between these two things, I think it will help our discussions be more productive and safe, for example, not to take the position of others as a personal attack.

    What is true for me, for example, is that I really like the idea of re-incarnation, I’ve undergone a past life regression, I have regularly visited so-called clairvoyants, and use divination techniques such as Tarot card sorts amongst other things. Because I take some comfort and value in these beliefs (for want of a better word) and activities, and they help me make sense of my world, does not make them evidenced nor true, however. And defending these highly personal practices in the face of rational, material scrutiny is absolutely intimidating. I have no logical arguments, much less any consistent empirical evidence. All I have is how I feel about it.

    At the end of the day the only person I am answerable to is me. Even if there is no evidence to support what I believe and my practices (and maybe I deliberately chose to avoid finding evidence to the contrary!), does it matter?

    I have no requirement that I’m supported by others – these are my beliefs and practices and I am comfortable with them. They have always and will continue to evolve – when I’m presented with overwhelming evidence about a particular phenomena or concept, I take the time to learn about it and integrate it – sometimes that means dropping something I used to hold dear; other times it serves to add greater depth and a new dimension.

    As for understanding motives, I cannot stress enough the importance of asking directly for that information. I still like to speculate, but if I really want to understand, hearing the words from the other person is THE best source of information. Even if they themsleves do not fully understand their own motives, what they can tell you beats speculation any day.

    • I can’t stop thinking about this Sugarpop. You had a past life regression? Who were you? When were you? Please see: A Very Brief History of Reincarnation http://shillerreviews.blogspot.com/2010/11/again-chapter-4-very-brief-history-of.html
      You might want to put this on your blog given the interest. (chapter 4, Again, history of reincarnation.) However this suggestion might not resonate with you.

      • SugarPop said

        Hi Romy – I’ll take a look at your chapter at the weekend – thanks for the share!

        The past life regression saw me as a 15 year old girl in medieval Europe (France, I think). I was no-one special, the situation quite unpleasant and ended in experiencing my death. I’ve also had other *memories* during craio-sacral therapy, of me as a twenty-something old male walking by a wheat field next to a dense forest. Again in Europe. Unsure of when. In both cases I could not be sure whether I was remembering or creating, so to this day, I remain unconvinced of the reliability of my experiences, i.e. I cannot state with my hand on my heart that I truly did have these past lives (amongst others). What would have been GREAT is if I had been hooked up to a EEG (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electroencephalography) at the time so then I could see what areas of my brain were actually being activated, particularly during the past life regression – were they memories or imagination? I’m not even sure if there has been any research of this kind in this area.

        Irrespective of whether or not my *memories* are true, it was a very interesting adn emotional experience. I’m left with lots of questions, and the enduring tension in between what I would like to be true (reincarnation) and enough evidence for me to be convinced that it is true. Please note that I do not require irrefutable proof – just enough consistent evidence to satisfy my own musings and questionings. To date I *feel* it is true more than *know* it – if that makes sense?

        As always, I will continue to seek… 🙂

        • Absolutely fascinating. I am very suspicious of the ‘true.’ I simply trust my gut. Taking a break from blogs – too much energy and time but I wish you the best.

  4. While some religious believers might seek an atheist seal of approval, I now believe that I seek out non-believers in psychic phenomena and reincarnation. I think that I look for validation where I am sure not to find it. I literally, personally, have thousands of supporters but the ones who don’t support me, the few – weigh me down. What a friggin’ case.

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