The Holy Spirit and the Affect Heuristic

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Kahnman’s wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow and came upon the section in which he discusses the ‘affect heuristic’. The affect heuristic is the notion that people often make decisions based on their feelings or emotions about the topic at hand. It is an example of “substitution”, in which “the answer to an easy question (How do I feel about it?) serves as an answer to a much harder question (What do I think about it?)”. (139)

One of the most famous experiments (by Paul Slovic and colleagues) on the affect heuristic involves surveying subjects’ opinions on various technologies, and asking them to list the risks and benefits associated with each technology. The result was fascinating: they observed a very high negative correlation between the estimates on the level of benefits and the level of risks that they attributed to the technologies. This correlation was even higher when they were under a strict time limit. If they favored a technology, it was given a high rating for benefits and very little accompanying risk. When they disliked a technology, they produced very little benefits and listed a lot of disadvantages. As Kahneman notes, “Because the technologies were lined up neatly from good to bad, no painful tradeoffs needed to be faced.”

Then, subjects were given pamphlets which gave brief arguments in favor of a certain technology. Some pamphlets focused on the benefits, while others focused on the risks. The pamphlets were effective in changing the subjects’ mind, but there was an even more interesting result: subjects who only received evidence relevant to the benefits also revised their beliefs about the risk. The same went for the group which only received evidence regarding the mild nature of the risks, they revised the benefits to be more favorable.

This is an intriguing phenomenon, and it immediately reminded me of discourse about the Holy Spirit’s witness in Christianity. In this video about handling doubt, Dr. William Lane Craig argues that the way he knows Christianity to be true (first and foremost – before any arguments or evidence), is on the witness of the Holy Spirit. He knows this “in his heart”, and it gives him a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence.

Of course, this sort of reasoning is troubling for a number of reasons (see the ‘Great Pumpkin Objection’ for one line of objection). However, despite the regular objections to this case for veridical knowledge from the Holy Spirit, this seems to me a clear case of the affect heuristic. Craig is substituting a hard question (Does the evidence support the view that God exists?) with an easy one (How do I feel, in my heart, about the existence of God?).

It’s important to note that this does not seem as simple as wish-fulfillment. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has not been shy about his desire for God’s non-existence. He doesn’t “want the world to be like that”. Whether or not this functions as evidence for his atheism is another matter entirely. But this isn’t what Craig, at least not obviously, is doing here. Craig isn’t saying “I want Christianity to be true, so I will believe despite the historical contingency of available evidence”. Instead, Craig is arguing that this self-authenticating witness (his feelings about whether or not God exists) of the Holy Spirit is prior to the available evidence. He’s substituting the easy question for the hard question.

Knowing what we know about the affect heuristic, it seems positively irrational to adopt this sort of view. If the witness of the Holy Spirit presents itself as a sort of feeling (as indicated by “in my heart/soul”), we have serious grounds for wondering about the capability of rationally evaluating the arguments for and against the proposition that Craig feels so strongly toward. In fact, the affect heuristic is probably aggravated in such an emotionally-powerful question like “Does God exist?”.

A final worry that one might have: what could possibly serve as a defeater for the witness of the Holy Spirit? If the witness of the Holy Spirit imparts a feeling of confidence about the proposition “God exists”, then couldn’t a period of doubt be sufficient reason for abandoning belief? If it cannot, then a positive feeling about God’s existence cannot and should not be taken as evidence of God’s existence (let alone be prior to the evidence!).

About Matt DeStefano

I am a graduate student in Philosophy pursuing my MA at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

  • TaiChi

    “Instead, Craig is arguing that this self-authenticating witness (his feelings about whether or not God exists) of the Holy Spirit is prior to the available evidence. He’s substituting the easy question for the hard question.”

    I think you’re right.

    “Knowing what we know about the affect heuristic, it seems positively irrational to adopt this sort of view. If the witness of the Holy Spirit presents itself as a sort of feeling (as indicated by “in my heart/soul”), we have serious grounds for wondering about the capability of rationally evaluating the arguments for and against the proposition that Craig feels so strongly toward.”

    I haven’t got so far in reading Kahneman yet, but I suspect that what he says won’t warrant the conclusion that those who report feeling the operation of the holy spirit are incapable of rationally evaluating arguments about God. Instead, I expect it warrants only that reports of the witness of the holy spirit are explicable in terms of naturalistic psychological mechanisms, that they are expected in light of the fact that many people feel (and are encouraged to feel, particularly in the evangelical community) that God’s existence would be an extremely positive thing, and that the best way to reduce this bias is by activating System 2, which (hopefully) philosophical thinking is apt to do. The upshot would be that while Craig and others ‘affected by the Spirit’ need not manifest an irredeemable bias in favor of God’s existence, the argument that experiencing the ‘self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit’ makes the existence of God probable has a strong defeater. Am I wrong?

    “A final worry that one might have: what could possibly serve as a defeater for the witness of the Holy Spirit? If the witness of the Holy Spirit imparts a feeling of confidence about the proposition “God exists”, then couldn’t a period of doubt be sufficient reason for abandoning belief?”

    Insofar as Craig approximates Plantinga’s model, I guess doubt could be explained away as sin affecting the sensus divinatus. On the other hand, surely if one doubts God’s existence for a time then one would also doubt that one had a ‘self-authenticating experience of the Holy Spirit’, which undermines the entire model, so I don’t think the ‘sin’ response is sufficient.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      Hi TaiChi, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      I agree that Kahneman would not say that those who report feeling the Holy Spirit are incapable of rationally evaluating the arguments. I was (attempting) to flesh out the idea that given that Craig has already “chosen sides” so to speak (much as the subjects in Slovic’s study had emotional ‘opinions’ about each technology) that we shouldn’t expect his view of the arguments against Christianity to rationally reflect the available evidence. Similar to how the subjects reported the risks/benefits according to how they felt overall about the technology – not the evidence available to them.

      “Insofar as Craig approximates Plantinga’s model, I guess doubt could be explained away as sin affecting the sensus divinatus. On the other hand, surely if one doubts God’s existence for a time then one would also doubt that one had a ‘self-authenticating experience of the Holy Spirit’, which undermines the entire model, so I don’t think the ‘sin’ response is sufficient.”

      Right. It seems question begging to assert that one has evidence from the Holy Spirit while simultaneously ignoring their doubts about the existence of God.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

        What is Craig’s ‘experience of the Holy Spirit’?

        If somebody claims such experiences I expect them to see a burning bush, or produce at least a couple of charred twigs.

        Somebody who grandiloquently claims to have experiences of the Holy Spirit had better produce an experience that is not banal.

        According to his own published testimony, Craig’s experience of the Holy Spirit involved feeling better after having had a jolly good cry, then going outside and seeing a lot of stars in the sky(Note to self, must check if astronomers suddenly noticed many extra stars on that particular night when the Creator of the Universe dropped in on Craig.)

        Now seeing exactly the same stars in the sky as everybody else might strike you as an utterly banal experience.

        But not if you are Craig.

        http://www.reasonablefaith.org/personal-testimony-of-faith

        ‘ I remember I rushed outdoors—it was a clear, mid-western, summer night, and you could see the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon. As I looked up at the stars, I thought, “God! I’ve come to know God!”

        That moment changed my whole life.’

        So Craig’s experience of the Holy Spirit boils down to seeing the Milky Way, although later it might have evolved into a deep, heart-felt, genuinely sincere conviction that he is right while other people are wrong.

  • busterggi

    According to Christianity the Holy Spirit isn’t a feeling or a belief but an actual being. An actual being who doesn’t even rate a name unlike the other two chunks of the triune Christian god. Seriously, if a temporary surge of happiness or contentment is suficient to credit that transitory emotion as being a god then I create dozens of deities in an average day – and I don’t believe I do.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      I’m not sure I understand your point. I never claimed that the Holy Spirit was a “feeling” or a “belief”. But, as Craig indicates by saying “in his heart”, the witness of the Holy Spirit seems to happen by some sort of “feeling”, “conviction” or similar notion.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

        Craig has said what this ‘sef-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit’ is? Where does he document this ‘witness of the Holy Spirit’?

        What happens when the Holy Spirit witnesses to Craig? Does he ever say?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X