Posts Tagged ‘certainty’

The Very Nature of Things

Neurologist Robert A. Burton has recognized through scientific discovery that brain stimulation/mapping of the temporal lobe has uncovered all kinds of new information about motor movement, emotions, and decision making.  Burton has determined that some of what we “think we know” comes from the “voices” within our own limbic system.

I’m sure you’ve spoken with people who truly believe the stories about space aliens abducting humans, and perhaps insist it has happened to them.  Even though they seem to be so certain in their beliefs, a little bit of knowledge about our real universe and some common sense tells you they are probably delusional.

“Despite how certainty feels, 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, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”

~ from the preface of:

“On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not”

 by Robert A. Burton, MD (Neurology)

We’ve all experienced opinions that, when placed in juxtaposition with a changing background, will take on textures and flavors not recognized earlier.  And for that reason, we need to continue to look.  The alternative is to accept some presupposition, and not even an original one, as if it were fact.  And that, of course, is not a wise thing to do. All of us know that, but people by-pass that logic every day, even when they know better.  Then, sometimes, they don’t know better, and listen for some explanation that satisfies them, and calms their anxieties about the unknown.

My father was born in a world that, for the most part, believed The Milky Way Galaxy was the entire Universe.  Science, through the process of moving ever closer to understanding, soon proved that conclusion to be wrong.  In fact, there are billions of galaxies, and The Milky Way is neither at the center of things, nor the biggest of them by any stretch of the imagination.

“Maggots from meat” was a misconception born of the erroneous theory of spontaneous generation, similar to the way it was thought that grapes became wine due to some magic trick performed by Bacchus or Dionysus.  The idea of spontaneous generation offered an explanation, but it was not scientific; it was not even presumed to be natural, and it was not true.  Prior to Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries of the world of microbiology, almost every theory or explanation about life was at best, born of ignorance.  And please don’t presume I mean stupid, for ignorance is something else entirely.

Disease and pain were presumed to be caused by demons and witches, and to this very day, some people still believe it.  Since they “feel” safe accepting what they’ve been taught, they investigate nothing on their own without prejudice, without knowledge, and without understanding.  Although that is a sad thing, it’s quite common.

The purpose of science is to move closer to understanding.  And that often challenges older explanations that were derived without understanding.  People believe all kinds of things, and they will kill you because of what they believe.  But for what people believe to be true to in fact be true, is not now, nor has it ever at any point in human history been required.

To argue in defense of what is accepted as true even though it isn’t, was the reason Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Spanish Inquisition for noticing Venus orbited the sun and not the earth.  As we all (hopefully) know now, the Inquisition was in error, but Galileo, even though he told the truth, was forced to deny it in public, or face execution.

To acknowledge discovery takes nothing away from lessons about ethical behavior.  It does, however, often challenge preconceived notions about the details of stories used to make the point.  We live in a most amazing universe, and the more we learn about it, the more we understand about nature.

Copernicus theorized the sun was the center of our planetary system back in the 15th century.  In the next century, Galileo proved the heliocentric idea was true, and went even further to note the sun itself rotated.  This was quite a leap from everything believed to be true before, and consequently, by insisting his findings to be factual got him into hot water with the College of Cardinals and the Pope.  While this information is considered common knowledge today, there are still those who find it to be heretical.  But don’t you think it would be silly to throw out the scientific findings, and declare it okay to just accept whatever belief a person chooses to have on the matter?  Of course you would.

If a thing appears phenomenal to me, and quite a few things do, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t natural.  It just means that I might not understand the nature of it.  But at no time does nature cease to be nature just because I misunderstand it.  All the evidence we have about “creation” exists in nature.  So, without any brilliant leap required, it would make sense that what we can discover and understand about “creation” would involve studying and and learning more about nature itself.

And for those who wish to connect with the mind of “God”, they might try looking at the nature of things “created”, and to understand what can be discovered about the process itself.  After all, that would have to be exactly the truest revelations, if there be any at all.  The alternative would be to be entirely dependent on explanations offered by people who knew very little about the nature of anything, but made up explanations about everything.

There are many wonderful lessons that can direct us towards ethical treatment of others found in books, many of them religious books.  To attempt to deny that would be silly.  There are also good lessons to be learned from parables and fables told for that purpose without the presupposition that the story itself depicts something that really happened.  For example, I can get several lessons on several intellectual levels from a story by Aesop, without even once believing there was a talking fox that liked grapes.

I can also learn from some of the lessons in the Old Testament (most of which was written down for the first time during the Babylonian Captivity) without presuming there is a way for a man to sell his daughter into slavery that would please the Deity.  Or, for that matter, slaughter innocent men, women, and children, enslave some of them, steal their land and property, authorize some sovereign or monarch to take for himself far more than he could possibly need while others around him suffer.  It’s rather interesting when you read old scriptures from most of our modern religions (and I have) that one of the saddest delusions man has ever conceived of is that oppression of other people is authorized and approved of by the Deity.

One conclusion, if there be one, is that Charles Darwin opened some windows that can help us understand the nature of things, and was brave enough to publish his findings.  So it seems to me, as we move closer to understanding, we should embrace discovery rather than to deny it just because it doesn’t fit well within the confines of preconceived notions that occurred in the minds of ancients who didn’t have the benefit of knowing.

Think if you will about all the all the ancient theories of how the sun provided seemingly perpetual light and heat without any understanding of nuclear physics.  Isn’t it possible that some of those old theories, regardless of how noble or moral the person who came up with them happened to be, were not quite…the truth?  Although most of us give lip-service to the idea of growth, development and learning, sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to let go of an idea that makes us comfortable, even in light of empirical evidence that points out the error of its logic.

I embrace science as an ongoing process, not stagnated or trapped wherever it lands on any given day.  There is a peacefulness to be found by wanting to move closer to understanding rather an run away from it.  And when we do that, the benefits that can be had from being open to new ideas, thus willing to cooperate, can lead us to marvelous solutions to problems, where the prospects of hope are almost boundless, hampered only by the limits of our imagination.

The complexity of it, I suppose, may well be lodged somewhere inside wanting to know the importance of understanding what our imagination is made of.  Neurologists, such as Dr. Burton, are beginning to show us how to do that.  Yet with all the accomplishments made thus far, what we don’t know is still bigger than what we do.  So if we consider it even in the simplest of linear terms, I don’t reckon we’ve reached the end point, no, not yet, not yet at all.

The Open Mind

Some doors are set so that they may be used as an exit, but not as an entrance.  To say the gate is open doesn’t necessarily define how wide the opening is, or what can pass through it.  If a cat can barely squeeze by, the cow might have problems with it.

If a person claims to have an open mind, it doesn’t mean they are open to any and all proposals.  They will still be inclined to set some restrictions on what they will or won’t allow to be worth their consideration.  They will be likely to say they’ll be open to reasonable suggestions, but the caveat will always be what they consider to be reasonable.  And a lot of that will be determined by both what they think they have discovered, and also by what they have been taught to believe.  Yet, there is no axiom that would require either of those prerequisite beliefs to be true, or even based on any truths.

Once a position is adopted, and the person adopting it believes they are correct, those who would disagree with them will most likely be thought to be either flawed in their thinking, or unreasonable if not easily swayed.  Fact is, reason has little to do with it.  Reason considers probabilities and obstacles in a transition, whereas emotion defines the points of the beginning and end on a map.  Additionally, emotion is what is used to determine preferences.

This is often true, in fact, almost entirely with choices in fashion.  The self image desired while wearing a certain pair of shoes may have little to do with the benefits of, or the assistance the shoes will be with comfort, standing, walking or running.  And so it is with virtually everything a person chooses to buy, emotion will win out over reason almost all of the time, regardless of how analytical, practical, or logical they think they have been in making the decision.

So, while we may want to counter some unreasonable idea (ex: witchcraft) with logic, what we may be struggling with is the subjective emotion of fear:  Fear of being out of control; being wrong, being ridiculed instead of praised, or becoming despised by others who might strongly disagree with some new idea or decision that is in conflict with “the way things are done”.

If a person is not open to new ideas, trying to get them to consider them can often create tension.  And when made to feel tense, the fallback behavior you might expect from them may be predictable according to their personality, temperament, and social style based on what they feel is at risk by allowing some new proposition to be deemed valid.  Here are four general groups of styles, and how people in those subsets might respond (fallback behavior) to pressure to take on a precept that opposes something in their preexisting belief system:

1.) The assertive and emotionally controlled (DRIVER) may feel their authority, and thus their control is threatened, so they will likely dismiss you and become autocratic.  They may say something similar to:

“That is nonsense.  We don’t have time for that, and besides, I’ve already made my decision.”

2.) The unassertive and emotionally controlled (ANALYTIC) feels to be wrong is the greatest threat they ever feel.  They will likely avoid you, or at least avoid any deadline that adopts your proposition until they’ve had time to collect their own data to refute it.  Their data may not be accurate or true, but it will lean towards validating their own previously held opinion.  They may never confront you, but if you press them hard enough, they may be inclined to find an ally that will come to you and ask you to “lighten up”.

3.) The assertive and emotionally responsive (EXPRESSIVE) needs more than anything else not to lose their sense of worthiness that earns them applause.  They cannot stand having their ideas made to look ridiculous in front of their peers, or even total strangers, for that matter.  So, they may attack you, at least verbally.  I will not presume to spell out how they might respond as I did above for the driver, but you can presume it might be harsh with insults, rude language, and even fighting words.  You may not wish to hurt people’s feelings by acting that way, but while they rave on, your feelings are not a primary consideration as much as their need to feel like they are winning.  Even if you back off or give in to them, it does not mean their attack is over.  They might even come back with more rebuttal the next day or next week, and might want to fire a few volleys at you as the “opposition” whenever the subject comes up.

4.) The unassertive and emotionally responsive (AMIABLE) does not want you to dislike them, and is also concerned that some bad decision could cause others in their group to dislike, or even hate them.  If you press them too hard, they might appear to acquiesce if they cannot run away.  But they won’t.  The need to not be hated is likely to be too strong for them to dare risk that the “Emperor’s New Clothes” are invisible.  The other three won’t admit it easily either, but their reasons (motivation) are different.

While my overview using a tool of character analysis might be interesting, there are far deeper reasons other than my observations for why people think (or do not seem to think at all) as they do.  For those who wish a less superficial picture just based on reactions determined by style, there are many options available for reading things far more academic, and with much more detail given to specifics from a number of valid sources.

Lots of intelligent writings might help a person move beyond myth and superstition, along with disposing of all kinds of irrational presuppositions and prejudicial opinions.  I’ve run across three in particular that are absolutely brilliant books: One is by a physicist, one by a Neurologist, and one by a philosopher–all of these authors are vey highly respected in the scientific field and academic community.

Yet when I suspect a person might benefit from reading any of them, no matter how much I encourage it, I often find that they will not do so.  Further, they will become absolutely certain that it is a good idea to NOT read them, and become adamant about it if they dare peek at a few pages.  Usually after a short conversation I’ll find these people normally don’t read anything of substance, and are not inclined to ever do so.  When they do read, it will usually be some piece intending to reinforce their existing narrow opinions, and that is with rare exception.

Not surprisingly, when a person with an open mind does read them, they will easily see why a person with a closed mind will not get very far into them.  It’s almost like arguing the existence of Santa Claus with a four year old who has already been convinced Santa is real.  Adults are also guilty of that kind of a mindset. It is the same kind of fuzzy thinking held by certain aristocrats and clerics during the dark ages that once a person has been accused of witchcraft, they have to be found guilty and put to death.

Here are the three books I’d mentioned.  Once you have read them all, see how many other people you can find that have read even one of them all the way through.  You may not be surprised to find very few have, but if you’re like me and would want to live in a society where people are open to reason, you may be disappointed:

1.) “The Demon-Haunted World (Science As A Candle In The Dark)” ~ Carl Sagan, PhD;
2.) “ON BEING CERTAIN: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not” ~ Robert A. Burton, M.D.,
2.) “Breaking The Spell” ~ Daniel C. Dennett, PhD


The three books listed above were not chosen to reinforce any opinion I already had, but were referred to me by people whose academic thinking I respect, when I posed some questions that called for deeper answers than a simple conversation would be likely to afford.