Doubt and Certainty

Sermon - Doubt and Certainty
UUCGL, July 29 2012
Kathy Lovell

            Do you remember where you were when the World Trade Center was destroyed?     Are you certain?   Ulric Neisser (who did the Challenger study described in the reading) was motivated to conduct that research after a personal experience related to the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec 7, 1941, when he was 13 years old.   For decades afterward, he had the memory of a radio announcer interrupting the baseball game he’d been listening to for the news of the attack.  But forty years later, it dawned on him: professional baseball is not played in December.    And you heard in the story about the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony. 

            Why are people so certain about memories in spite of evidence that they may be wrong?  The French playwright Moliere once said: "It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I'm right." How do we come to the conclusion that something is certain or true?  As a neuroscientist, I will try to provide some insights into these questions – but no real answers.  As a Unitarian-Universalist, I will try to relate these concepts to our lives in this community. 

            For our purposes this morning, we will lump together the similar feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction, and correctness under the all-inclusive term, the ‘feeling of knowing’.  These thoughts may be about memories, facts about the world that we have learned in some way, or beliefs about God or religion or morality or the meaning of life.  And often those categories are overlapping.   In general, these feelings of certainty share a common quality: each is a form of metaknowledge – knowledge about our knowledge – that gives our thoughts a sense of rightness or wrongness.  The feeling of knowing is different from the fact itself.  Have you had the sensation  “I know it but I just can’t think of it”?  That happens to me a lot when I watch Jeopardy on TV or play Trivial Pursuit.  I am aware that I know the answer – "it’s on the tip of my tongue" --  without being able to recall the fact that this sense of knowing refers to.

            Robert Burton, in the book On Being Certain talks about the feeling of knowing, or feeling of certainty, as something that happens to us. It is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process.  Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason.  Certainty is a mental state, a feeling like anger or pride.  In his book, he writes: “My goal is to strip away the power of certainty by exposing its involuntary neurological roots.  If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas – from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.”  

            Let me give a few examples of this feeling of knowing, and show how it may be related to brain activity.  The feeling of a false sense of familiarity is called déjà vu, which means "already seen" in French. This is the phenomenon of believing an event or experience has occurred in the past, when it did not.  Déjà vu is a mental sensation, involving certainty that a strange object or new experience is familiar.  It may occur because of electrical activity in the temporal lobe of the brain, caused by a seizure in patients with epilepsy.  It may also be caused by stimulating a certain brain region.  For example, one patient undergoing brain stimulation during surgery reported: “I have the impression of already having been here, that I had already lived through this.”   You will hear about déjà vu in the offertory music. 

            Another example of the feeling of knowing is after a type of stroke when a patient has paralysis of the left side of the body, but also is not aware of the left side and denies being paralyzed.  Oliver Sachs described a patient found on the floor next to his hospital bed.  The man thought his left leg was a strange object in his bed and when he tried to throw the leg out of the bed, the man came with it. People with this condition, called left-sided neglect, are as wrong as it is possible to be.  Somehow the brain mistakes an idea in the mind for a feature of the real world.  Rather than rejecting ideas and beliefs that defy common sense and overwhelming contrary evidence, such patients end up using tortured logic to justify the more powerful sense of ‘knowing what they know.’

            Let’s change gears for a minute and think about how we learn or know anything.  Mostly we get information through our senses -- hearing, seeing, touching. But the sensory information that we are aware of is not raw information – there are filters in the brain to sort through what is relevant at a particular moment.  Only the relevant information gets fully processed, and most of the processing is in a hidden layer that we are not conscious of. For example, consider this checkerboard optical illusion (shown on the screen; see  Are the squares marked A and B the same color or different colors?  How many perceive that square A is darker than square B.  But if we analyze this image by looking through a mask, we see that squares A and B are the same.  The illusion of the shadow makes us think the squares are different. Once explained, optical illusions provide insights into how our brain assembles what we refer to as reality, but may not actually be reality. 

            Now, think about how a child learns English grammar, such as forming past tense.  The child listens to other people talk, and after hearing many examples of adding –ed for past tense, that becomes the default, and the child may say 'I walked to the water and I swimmed.  This is an example of inductive reasoning, the main way we learn about the world – to see examples and generalize.  So we naturally draw conclusions from limited evidence. Kathryn Schultz, in her book Being Wrong, wrote:  “Believing something on the basis of messy, sparse, limited information really is how we make mistakes, but it is also how we think.” end quote 

            Our minds look for patterns and try to explain things.  Animals living in the wild needed to be able to develop theories about some things important for survival, for example a rustling in the leaves might be the wind or it might be a tiger, and if it was a tiger, the animal needed to make a decision fast and run away.   As a result of evolutionary development, we humans wound up tending to theorize about everything and look for explanations, even when there is no reasonable explanation.  The evolutionary urgency of theorizing helps explain why we form beliefs both constantly and unconsciously, and often quickly without waiting for all the evidence. 

            Another feature of the brain is that when we are exposed to new information, especially from a trusted source, we have a bias to accept statements as true.  The 17th century philosopher Spinoza proposed that belief is our default cognitive setting, while doubt or disbelief requires a second process.  This has been supported by recent neuroscience studies.   Activity in the brain was visualized when subjects judged written statements to be true, false, or undecidable. The were drawn from factual, autobiographical, ethical and religious categories. For example, from the factual category, a true statement would be: Most people have 10 fingers and 10 toes.  A false statement would be:  Eagles are common pets. An undecidable statement would be: The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 1.2% last Tuesday (anyway that would be undecidable for most people without a Google search). These conditions of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty activated distinct regions of the brain. The final acceptance of a statement as "true" or its rejection as "false" appears to rely on more primitive processing than than for undecidable statements, and it takes longer for the brain to reject a statement than to accept it as true. The overall conclusion is that our minds tend to accept new information as true or certain, until there is evidence for doubt or falsity.

            Our beliefs – the concepts we consider true, do have an impact on our behavior and emotion.  Our beliefs are models of the world and help to make predictions and decisions.    Simply holding a belief has consequences, both in terms of action and in our processing of new information.  We don’t assess evidence neutrally or objectively; we assess it in light of whatever theories or beliefs we’ve already formed.    

            Charles Darwin discussed how odd it is that anyone should not see that all observations must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service. In his autobiography, he wrote that, "I had, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones." end quote  As Darwin describes, the choice of evidence or information that a person pays attention to depends upon the mind-set of that person.  When we read or hear something, each of us has told our unconscious what to look for.  It is impossible to be completely objective, and the best we can hope for is partial objectivity and awareness of our limitations.

            We have talked about how the brain’s processing of both incoming sensory stimuli and new ideas is variable and subjective.     Also, each person has a different degree of emotional need for certainty, and tolerance of uncertainty, which affects the interpretation of new information.  Part of this variation is determined by our genes.  For example, there is evidence for a genetic influence on the psychological trait of authoritarianism  -  authoritarians are known for their intolerance of uncertainty.  Based on a variety of data, Robert Burton proposed: "The degree to which one seems inclined toward a state of certainty or doubt might itself be in part an expression of the ease with which one experiences a deep ‘feeling of knowing’."  Richard Feynman, in the opening words, expressed his willingness to live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing.  And I would guess that most Unitarian-Universalists  have a fairly high tolerance for uncertainty, since we acknowledge different paths in our spiritual journeys, and emphasize the search for truth and meaning.

            So far, we have been talking mainly about beliefs and the external world.  Another area where I think it is important to explore doubt and certainty involves the feelings and motives of others.  We often try to explain reasons for other peoples behavior, just as we try to explain events in the world, and sometimes jump to wrong conclusions.   Kathryn Schulz writes “Because we know other people only from the outside, we assume they can be known from the outside; we think we can understand people reasonably well based solely on their words and deeds.  At the same time, because we know ourselves from the inside, we think we can ONLY be known from the inside.“   She describes a study in which subjects were given word fragments, such as C H E _ _ and told to complete them with the first word that comes to mind -  this could be chest, check, cheat, cheek, chess.  Afterward, subjects were asked to explain what they thought their responses revealed about their own interests and motivations.  Then they were given the responses of another subject and asked what that person’s answers revealed about his or her character.   The discrepancy between these assessments is both gaping and funny.  A subject typically characterized her own choice of words as “happenstance” but said about another subject:  “The person seems to focus on competition and winning”, or  “the person is pretty vain” or “doesn’t read too much.”   This study demonstrates our aptitude for making sweeping and specific inferences, jumping to conclusions, on the basis of extremely scanty information.

             I know my behavior has been misinterpreted.  One example was at a conference, I was with a group in a cold room, sitting with my arms crossed to keep my hands warmer, and thinking about a recent phone call.  A colleague said: “Why are you mad at me?” – a question difficult to answer.   From the inside, I recognize my own fluctuation of moods, complexity of emotions, worries about various things, that may affect facial expression or body language or behavior, but I can never know what is going on in someone else’s mind.  As in the prelude, I don't know if Mona Lisa smiles to tempt a lover or to hide a broken heart. 

            So, we need to have some doubt about the external world, ideas, and motives of other people. Some things will always be ambiguous and cannot be resolved, as in the optical illusion on the cover.  You can see either a vase or two faces, but not both at the same time, because of the way the brain processes outlines of objects. 

             But too much doubt can also be dangerous.  Although we need to recognize the limits of our own knowledge, we need some types of certainty to live a productive meaningful life.  The philosopher Wittgenstein argued that, sometimes, it is UNcertainty that doesn’t make any sense.  If we want to get through life in a functional fashion, we have no choice but to treat some of our beliefs as absolutely certain. For example, I am certain about feelings such as love for family and friends, mystery and awe inspired by nature, joy and comfort of belonging to a caring community.  I hold Unitarian-Universalist ethical principles such as 'the inherent worth and dignity of every person' as certain beliefs.   

            The psychologist Rollo May wrote about the “seeming contradiction that we must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong.” His point was we can retain our convictions while jettisoning the barricade of certainty that surrounds them.  Our commitment to an idea, he concluded, is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.  There are many instances when  the world has been changed for the better by a passionate conviction: that parts of the wilderness can be protected, or that all people – men and women of all skin colors – should have equal rights.  As William James put it, sometimes unswerving beliefs “help to MAKE the truth which they declare."  We must continue to hope and work together for a more just world.  As UUs, we are part of the  ‘Standing on the side of love’ campaign, to harness love's power to stop oppression and work for social justice. 

I will close with words from Michael Schuler:
            Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the servant of truth.
            Question your convictions, for beliefs too tightly held strangle the mind and its natural wisdom.
            Yet in our inner rooms full of doubt and inquiry, let a corner be reserved for trust.
            For without trust there is no space for communities to gather or for friendships to be forged.
            Indeed, this is the small corner where we connect -- and reconnect -- with each other.

May it be so.

Harris S, Sheth SA, Cohen MS, Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty, Ann Neurol 2008;63:141–147
Burton, Robert A, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. St Martin's Press, 2008. 
Schulz, Kathryn, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.  HarperCollins, 2010.