When we see actions and consequences, we infer motivation and intent. We seek to explain why things happen by suggesting there was a reason behind events. We do this even when this makes no sense. We falsely assign negative motives to individuals who were not responsible for complicated events. We assign intent to natural events through religion. Worse yet, our biases guide us to assign greater value to speculative motives than concrete facts.

Humans evolved for fitness, not intelligence. We’re build to make If/Then judgments to survive and reproduce. For this reason we are fooled by randomness. We see patterns and correlations where there are none.

In simple causal events, guessing motives may allow you to predict actions and consequences. When humans interact with each other they try to guess motives. Does he want to kill me or not? Does she want to mate with me or not? If they guessed right, they could guess what would happen next and so they were more likely to survive and reproduce. All animals do this.

This becomes problematic very quickly. First, we assert that our motive speculation is fact when it is nothing more than a guess. Second, as a predictive tool, this only works in very simple if/then situations. Motive speculation has no value for complicated events.

Correspondent inference is really a form of backwards induction with a high degree of uncertainty. We see an event and work backwards to assign a motive and cause to it. Complicated human actions have many possible motives and intents which make it difficult to guess the motive. Other events are essentially random and have no purpose. This made even more uncertain because of hindsight bias, because we claim we rationally predicted all sorts of events after the fact.

This is how it works. People see a correlation between guessed motives and consequences in very simple situations. They extrapolate this to mean those with good motives produce good consequences and those with bad motives produce bad consequences. This is a false positive. Our bias makes us see a pattern where none exists.

In Motives and Consequences I started wondering about where motivational biases come from. I noted this

  • we falsely assert all consequences have rational motivations
  • we falsely assert what good and bad motives are
  • we falsely assert that good consequences had good motivations
  • we falsely assert that good motivations will lead to good consequences

These assertions lack empirical basis and are false positives. This leads us to have a bias in favor of “holy men” who do very bad things. If we saw a businessmen (the most evil selfish men on Earth) do the same things holy men do, we would lynch them at the nearest tree. But if they say they are holy, we turn a blind eye to bad consequences. When we see people act selfishly, we attack them as evil, even if their selfish actions are part of cooperative actions which are good for everyone.

Why is this so popular? Humans are biased in favor of motivations rather than results. So they tend to think about the person rather than the abstract political idea and its consequences. The political idea is an abstraction that is valid beyond the existence of the man who spoke it. Speculating about a person’s “ulterior motives” is an ad hominem fallacy. It cannot be proven with evidence. In reality, the person is irrelevant in politics.

Speculating about personal or group motivation is a logical fallacy. It tells you nothing about the subject. You treat another autonomous being as an object which you assert your fantasy upon.

This leads to things like conspiracy theories. If a horrible event occurs and you irrationally hate the President, then you infer that the President had evil motives and caused the event. That’s quite a logical leap. Since no one can debate what a person’s motives are, the core belief of the fantasy cannot be challenged empirically. If a skeptic disproves that the President acted to cause the event in one particular way, the conspiracy theorists will simply invent another way the evil President could have done it. The President is still evil. The core of conspiracy theories rationalizes complex events by assigning motivations and causation upon a single individual.

This also leads to anti-group bias as seen in “identity politics.” Instead of asserting your fantasy motives on a single person, you collectively assert your fantasy motives upon an entire group, which somehow acts with one mind. This compounds motivation bias with even more logical fallacies. All identity politics are racist by definition.

And it gets worse. The above merely confuses simplistic If/Then events with highly complicated events where individual motives are irrelevant. This comes from an extrapolation error.

Anthropomorphism is where this gets really silly.

In some ways this is the source of many religious beliefs. When ancient sailors suffered through a terrible storm, they asserted a motive and cause behind the storm. The god of the sea must have been angry at them for some sins. Some may have believed storms were meaningless random events, but the majority presumed that weather has some motivation.

People assign motivation to inanimate objects to rationalize non-rational events. They create human-like deities that control the oceans, the sky, fire, and all natural events. Spiritualism substitutes for theism today. Spirits represent the truth of the world and make everything happen. And so everything has a spirit that plays a role in this world – Gaia, rocks, trees, bricks, your sneaker, pools of urine on the sidewalk. All are spiritual. All is meaningful.

True theists were always skeptical of these claims – if there is a God, then he created the scientific laws that govern meteorology; God doesn’t just smack people around with storms like a lunatic. There are still barbaric religions in the world, and new Age religions and post-modern philosophies are reviving this form of primitivism.