On Certainty, part II: Behind Good and Evil
That certainty is a function of psychology is also the conclusion of Dr. Robert Burton, a neurologist has written an entire book on this phenomenon (On Being Certain). His suggestion, to summarize briefly, is that the feeling of certainty, what he calls the feeling of knowing, is simply a mental state, a kind of unconscious mental self-assessment. We don’t really have a good word for what this is, but it’s more like an emotion than anything else. The closest analog would be the feeling of familiarity, the mental sensation of recognition that we have all the time but only become aware of when it misfires: déjà vu. Déjà vu is a feeling that something (like a situation) is familiar when, in fact, we know it is not. He suggests the brain creates these sensations as a kind of self-assessment, to help guide behavior. The feeling of knowing – certainty – is the mind’s unconscious assessment of its confidence in its conclusions. It is something like the way some search engines give you a list of results with a percentage estimate of how close it calculates the match to be (yet, of course, can often fail to turn up what you’re looking for, despite a high-probability assessment). Certainty, then, is a feeling. It is not, somehow, some epistemological guarantor of truth.
Burton has a lot more to say about this, including the neurochemical basis for this sensation. He suggests that similar to the way some people are more prone than others to getting a mental “high” from gambling that makes it, for them, very rewarding/reinforcing (and for some, even addicting), perhaps some people are just wired to be more rewarded by, or even addicted to, this feeling. Maybe some people are just wired to “need” the feeling of certainty more, or at least, to find it more irresistible. It’s a fascinating idea, and I think the core of his explanation here is excellent.
To me, though, it does leave some important connections unexplored. I can’t help but notice that certainty seems to come part-and-parcel with strong ideologies, like religion, or “purist” political movements. I don’t think this is accidental. So I will here add my own suggestion to account for this and then let the matter alone. In the next article, the third of three, I want to talk about practical issues involved in dealing with uncertainty, which is more straightforward and more directly germane to de-conversion. Learning how to manage uncertainty anxiety does not directly depend on understanding where such certainty came from in the first place. But for what food for thought it might provide, here is my suggestion about the origin of this striking phenomenon of certainty within fundamentalism:
Many observers have noted the phenomenon known as splitting, or (in cognitive psychology) dichotomous thinking that seems pervasive in fundamentalism: the division of the world, and the self, into good parts and bad parts. In fundamentalism, such divisions are rampant. The world is a battleground between Good and Evil, there are clear good guys and bad guys, there are clear moral Absolutes, and “spiritual warfare” is often taken quite seriously. And importantly, one’s own self is understood in pre-conversion and post-conversion terms. Before conversion, corruption, sin and death were rampant. Post-conversion, the self is purified, regenerate, and redeemed. The contrast is sharp and clear.
(Notably, this is not unique to fundamentalism or even religion. Those on the extreme right or left, those that have been part of political ideologies such as Marxism, or Nazism, and those that partake of conspiracy theories all “split” every bit as much.)
The organization of experience by drawing stark good/bad distinctions is common, and it seems to be built into our psyche, at least to a degree. Young children almost universally do this, and it is only gradually that they come to realize – and, importantly, be able to tolerate – the idea that the world is more complex and nuanced than that. It has been suggested that beneath even our “primary” emotions (love, fear, anger, etc), are two even more basic ones: good/bad, and important/unimportant.
Nuance, complexity, and ambiguity create anxiety. They are thus difficult to tolerate. It is difficult to be faced with a complex moral issue about which there is no good, clear, unambiguous answer, only a set of tradeoffs and gray areas. Without a world full of good guys and bad guys it is hard to know who to trust. Without moral absolutes it is hard to know what is right. It means that one has no choice but to fall back on one’s own resources, to think it through as best one can, and make an imperfect decision, fully aware that it may turn out to be wrong. It is frightening, and not to mention very sad, to realize that all we have is a world full of struggling, imperfect people, not larger-than-life Heroes.
Splitting (which is, obviously, unconscious) alleviates all this confusion and anxiety. It means that even if you are faced with mixed, contradictory, confusing, or complicated information, if you can just figure out who to trust – or, as works equally well, who not to trust – you can proceed with confidence. It means you never have to be unsure about whether there is a morally right answer or not. Even if your decision turns out to have undesirable consequences, at least you can rest assured you did the right thing.
Splitting/dichotomous thinking is thus a way to quickly sort out two of the most fundamental questions in living: (1) What is true? (2) What is good? It is thus a way to make sense of a complex and uncertain world. It is in part, however, that very uncertainty that is in the world – knowing what is true, or what is right – that is the problem. Retreating to this more primitive (developmentally) way of experiencing the world is an extremely effective solution to this problem. Splitting eliminates doubt, fear, confusion, and the need to autonomous decision making (also a source of anxiety) – and thus creates, or at least allows, feelings of certainty: the world makes sense again.
A corollary to this idea is that splitting thus explains the way ideologues view their opponents. Think of the way Pat Robertson sees secular humanists, or the way Rush Limbaugh sees liberals. They do not see them as reasonable, conscientious, well-informed people with whom they happen to disagree. They see them, instead, as at best stupid, more likely actively malicious. Haters of the Good.
This is no accident. If the world has been rendered stark and clear, then there must be some reason why not everyone agrees with you. It can’t be because the issues are complex and there is room for rational and moral disagreement, because there isn’t; that’s the point. It can’t be because reasonable people differ. To see someone else disagree with your most passionate beliefs, and conclude that this person must have reasonable cause to do so, implies that your passionate belief is not as clear and certain as you want it to be, as you are trying to make it be, as you need it to be. Splitting thus involves an inability to truly step inside the worldview of another and see what might be valid reasons for their conclusions. You cannot see other’s complexity, because, simply, it makes the whole world too threatening. This explains the cartoon quality that characterizes the worldviews of religious extremists – their worlds are filled with Heroes and Villains – Villains who must be defeated, because they are enemies of the Good. Someone who has, with certainty, banished all complexity from the Cosmic Order can see the world no other way.
Thus, my stab at the certainty question is to suggest that certainty is the intellectual and cognitive concomitant to the splitting that is basic to the way fundamentalism deals with the anxieties of being human. Fundamentalists must deal somehow with the anxiety that is due to being frail, limited human beings in a world we cannot control, and they do so by dividing the world into good and bad – or, more accurately, Good and Bad. To be uncertain is to feel vulnerable and potentially guilty of wrongdoing or morally directionless. To split the world into a Manichean battleground, and then to align oneself with the forces of Good, is to no longer feel vulnerable or fear violating group norms. And hence, is to be certain.
So much for armchair models. That an $4.95 will get you a Venti iced vanilla mocha at Starbuck’s. Now, let’s look at what someone in the midst of deconversion can actually do to start making her or his peace with this grayness and uncertainty that is, despite our sometime best efforts, an inescapable part of human life.
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