The Motte and Bailey Doctrine

20 Aug


(More than meets the eye)

As most people who read this blog are aware, I’ve read and have been subject to lot of religious apologetics. Either online or in meatspace. One of the things that I started to become aware of was a particularly nebulous debating tactic. There really wasn’t a name for it; but it would be pretty obvious when pointed out.

It goes a bit like this: When theists use the argument “God is just another word for the Ground of All Being” or “God is love”, I mean, that’s a pretty inoffensive premise. Of course, things like love exist and, well, existence exists. But then in another breath they’re praying to god to find their keys, or get them a new job, or, more in a more sinister context, send hurricanes because he’s angry at homosexuals; this more interactive god is not just “love” or the ground of all being. It’s, quite obviously, a personal god. A god with agency. You point this out, but then the theist retreats; he rejoins “But no, God is just another word for love/Ground of Being, surely you can’t object to that?”

Frustrating. I recently discovered that there is a name for this tactic: The Motte and Bailey Doctrine. The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along. It’s fitting that this is pointed out in an article attacking post-modernism.

It would be kinda like having a flower in your house. No one objects to flowers, right? But then whenever you get in an argument with someone, you transform the flower into an assault rifle. The person being attacked says “Hey! Hey! What are you doing with an M4???” and the then you say “I don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s just a flower!” because you’ve transformed the M4 back into a flower. But make no mistake: That flower is more than meets the eye.

Reading more about why people believe what they do, on the other hand, has made me realize that apologists probably don’t even realize that they’re doing this. Hypocrisy is a very fruitful strategy if you can get away with it. Your subconscious brain knows this. As Robin Hanson says:

Overcoming bias is also a Red Queen game. Your mind was built to be hypocritical, with more conscious parts of your mind sincerely believing that they are unbiased, and other less conscious parts systematically distorting those beliefs, in order to achieve the many functional benefits of hypocrisy. This capacity for hypocrisy evolved in the context of conscious minds being aware of bias in others, suspecting it in themselves, and often sincerely trying to overcome such bias. Unconscious minds evolved many effective strategies to thwart such attempts, and they usually handily win such conflicts.

Our big brains were not designed by the blind idiot god evolution to get impartial, objectively true answers. It was designed to be more like a defense lawyer defending a client that’s probably guilty.

Now, I didn’t discover the name for this debate technique. This is thanks to Slate Star Codex pointing out something that I’ve compared to religion before:

I feel like every single term in social justice terminology has a totally unobjectionable and obviously important meaning – and then is actually used a completely different way.

The closest analogy I can think of is those religious people who say “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” – and then later pray to God to smite their enemies. And if you criticize them for doing the latter, they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”

The result is that people can accuse people of “privilege” or “mansplaining” no matter what they do, and then when people criticize the concept of “privilege” they retreat back to “but ‘privilege’ just means you’re interrupting women in a women-only safe space. Surely no one can object to criticizing people who do that?”

I wouldn’t read this as a condemnation of feminism. I would read this as a condemnation of the architecture of the human brain. After all, any cause that deals with morality is bound to sacrifice what is truth to what is morality because of our inherently hypocritical, biased brains. We may want to do good, but we really have no control over our decisions. Free will doesn’t exist. We just rely on vague feelings of certainty that we’re doing good. But, crucially, we are kept in the dark about our subconscious algorithm for generating that feeling of certainty… the how of what we decide in the first place.

Case in point:

We have little idea why we do things, but make up bogus reasons for our behavior…

Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions…

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before.

Realizing that the same affliction that causes religions to be vectors for irrationality also inhabit more (to me) socially acceptable causes made me start being more tolerant of religion.

I’m certain there are a lot of people who don’t consider themselves bigots. But unless you are actively using some sort of mitigation strategy against your biases, using some actual humility, you’ll probably act in a bigoted way without even realizing it. And this cuts across everything; even people who are actively fighting for equality might not even realize that they’re subconsciously favoring their in-group to the detriment of the out-group. Yet their fuzzy feeling of certainty makes it feel like equality. Racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. aren’t foreign diseases that attack your cognition that you have to build up antibodies to… they are your cognition.

So when it comes to hypocritical behavior, we can’t think that we are being objective. Especially when it comes to moral behavior or any sort of normative, social justice goal. Overcoming our biases should be required education before we start making arguments and pronouncements when it comes to morality, or we’ll just be Motte and Bailey-ing at every chance to escape criticism. Just like a run of the mill Christian apologist.


Posted by on August 20, 2014 in apologetics, cognitive science, rationality


3 responses to “The Motte and Bailey Doctrine

  1. Bill

    March 16, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    So why are you bigoted against religious people and [possibly] hate them?
    Maybe you should do a blog of self confession to declare your inner demons, all non-religious in origin of course.

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