On Being Certain
Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, Inspired By Science-Based Medicine’s Harriet Hall
I came upon this wonderful post over at Science-Based Medicine:
Neurologist Robert A. Burton, MD has written a gem of a book: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. His thesis is that “Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” Your certainty that you are right has nothing to do with how right you are.
Within 24 hours of the Challenger explosion, psychologist Ulric Neisser had 106 students write down how they’d heard about the disaster, where they were, what they were doing at the time, etc. Two and a half years later he asked them the same questions. 25% gave strikingly different accounts, more than half were significantly different, and only 10% had all the details correct. Even after re-reading their original accounts, most of them were confident that their false memories were true. One student commented, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”
As Salon.com puts it, “We all seem convinced we’re right about politics, religion or science these days. What makes us so sure of ourselves?” Michael Shermer has also mentioned this concept in his books. The human brain is not perfect and often recalls false memories that we believe.
Science-Based Medicine author Harriet Hall suggests that the ability to recall ‘vivid’ memories could be an advantage to be so sure of something, so we conversely act on it with confidence instead of hesitation. One could also make the argument that humans are story-telling animals by nature and we pass memories on to others, no matter how accurate they are.
But my point is this: human memory is not perfect, despite an individual’s confidence that it is. We must take this into account when dealing with concepts that we cannot prove or disprove beyond all doubt (such as the existence of God). In other words, we could always be wrong.
Applying This To Religion
…many people, especially religious fundamentalists, can’t deal with uncertainty. They demand absolute answers and cling to their certainties even in the face of contrary evidence. Why are people so different in their need for certainty? We know there is a gene associated with risk-taking and novelty-seeking. Burton makes an intriguing suggestion: could genetic differences make individuals get different degrees of pleasure out of the feeling of knowing?
This is where devout belief falls apart for both theists and atheists alike. Sometimes blind faith and emotion take over (sometimes tragically). Sometimes false justifications cloud the conclusion. Perhaps alternative answers are not sought out. Sometimes the feeling of comfort silences the voice of reason. Irrational belief prevails and unfortunately, often makes its way into schools, governments, even movies.
Jimmy Bee at Relijournal points out that we’re all agnostic, even if our faith dictates otherwise. This is not to say that all agnostics understand that their brain might be leading them to the wrong conclusions, but they admit to not having the answers to questions like ‘How was the universe created?’ or ‘What happens to us when we die?’.
No leap of faith here. And is that really so bad?
Bridging The Gap
If science and religion could both accept that all our facts are really provisional, absolutism could be dethroned and a dialog might become possible. What if religious fundamentalists acknowledged even a 0.0000000001% possibility that their beliefs were false? Biology teaches us that absolutism is an untenable stance of ignorance.
Whether you believe or don’t believe in God, it’s tough to create a dialog with someone who’s 100% sure they have the answer and won’t listen to another viewpoint. Are we doomed to gnostic atheist vs. gnostic theist battles forever?
Perhaps a more humble approach should be considered? An approach that realizes we don’t know everything and should continue to explore the possibilities? Continually?
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