Certainty

Arun and Lee are discussing certainty in the comments, and I would like to expand on a couple themes they have introduced. First Lee:

I guess my point is that it seems like I have determined my strongly held beliefs, the things I feel certain about, through a completely rational process. I feel very definitely that I’ve read the expert opinions, critically analyzed the available information, carefully considered the alternatives, and have come to an independent and correct decision as to what is right. I think I’m more the norm than the exception in this feeling. However, things like religion, politics, moral values, economics, and a whole host of other things that I feel very strongly about are not very amenable to experiment and/or are too complex to model with any degree of accuracy. It doesn’t seem to me that there can be any real expert opinions in these areas; there can just be opinions.

So why do I feel so certain about the correctness of my beliefs when there is no particularly rational reason to feel certain? Even realizing the above, why will I continue to feel that people who are certain that I am wrong are either misinterpreting the facts, missing key concepts, are not critical thinkers, uneducated, easily mislead, naïve, ignorant, stupid, or in some cases downright malevolent? I find those questions interesting and a little unnerving. I think it is likely that the feeling of certainty must play some vital role in what we call consciousness.
Lee 08.23.09 - 3:28 pm #

[and subsequently] I’m not so interested in a meaningful dialog about the issues I mentioned above in an effort to find the truth. I’m already quite certain of the truth, just as most Fox viewers are already quite certain of the truth before they ever tune Glenn Beck or others of his ilk in.

I’m more interested in the feeling of certainty itself. It’s an amazingly strong feeling. It’s my observation that if someone feels certain about something, the probability of getting them to change their mind through argument is very small regardless of the rationality the arguments put forward. And that seems to be true even if the parties are intelligent, educated, thoughtful, and well intentioned. At least in some cases it seems to trump familial bond. It is not unusual for father to fight son or brother to fight brother in a civil war even though the father and son or brothers may love each other dearly.

I’m interested in why certainty seems to have been a more important evolutionary attribute than rationality.
Lee 08.24.09 - 1:37 pm #

Let me borrow a term from the behavioral economist Dan Ariely: "anchor." We all make use of certain intellectual and other "anchors" in our thoughts. Their job is to serve as points of reference and refuge in the confusing landscape of experience, and it's a crucial role. What should you do if you are lost? Look for a landmark! Our intellectual and emotional anchors are our landmarks.

Let us put ourselves for the moment in the place of some of the great discoverers. What were the anchors of Einstein, Lorentz, and the others trying to understand the laws of Special Relativity? Hardly any could have been more fundamental than our classical intuitions of time and simultaneity. It was Einstein's great triumph that he was able to free himself of this anchor and find a more universal one. Earlier and later explorers faced similar challenges in both the theoretical (causality and the quantum) and the mundane (the round Earth).

These stories show the anchors in the role of something dragging us (or others) down, but it's clear that their positive role in organizing our experience is far more crucial. "Relative" space and time lasted only a moment before Minkowski discovered a sturdier anchor: absolute spacetime. How could we begin to organize our physics (or chemistry or biology) without the second law of thermodynamics?

I am convinced that such "anchors" are a fundamental and crucial character of human thought. As such, I am convinced that they are a product of biological evolution. I am talking about "anchors" generically here, not any particular anchors. Those particular anchor each of us clings to are products of personality, culture, experience and what have you, but I would be quite astonished to find that many people can do without them.

Let me briefly note a comment of Arun in the same thread:

In general, how do you (and CIP sometimes) make these almost terrifying leaps that something has an explanation in evolution?

I think that I am far more guilty than Lee in this respect, but let me explain my own point of view. Darwin's theory of natural selection is right up there in my pantheon of anchors along with mathematics, conservation of energy and the Second Law. I firmly believe Theodosius Dobzhansky's dictum that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Add to that that human nature is an aspect of biology and natural selection becomes the natural starting point forany attempt to explain an aspect of human nature, especially an aspect that appears to be universal and fundamental to our survival.

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