Knowledge, Belief — and How Humans Work

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by Neil Godfrey

The third post on Black Box Site addresses the difference between Knowledge and Belief. That’s a question I have sprinkled across various posts here so again I read Blackmun’s thoughts with particular interest.

Some key takeaways (at least for me):

. . . those who held their beliefs with greater persistence also tended to have more activity in the brain’s amygdala, which is involved in threat perception and anxiety, as well as in the insular cortex, which deals with emotions. In other words, a threat to belief tended to be perceived as an emotionally charged personal threat. As one of the researchers involved, Jonas Kaplan, put it in a press release for the experiment: “Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong. To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.

. . . .

Further, unlike knowledge, a belief can be held with what seems to be absolute certainty, though that certainty is in itself a belief.

. . . .

However, knowledge is also adaptive, with mistaken conclusions (which must be tentative in any case) always subject to correction by new evidence or better understanding; while a particular belief, whether true or false, is essentially static, a thing that is assumed to be true, but never truly examined (though it might eventually be replaced by another belief – also unexamined). In other words, knowledge can steadily advance and improve, while belief, due its very nature, cannot.

I think back to the time I was moving out of mainstream religion into the thought-world of what at the time I was beginning to “believe” was a “true church” that held “the truth”. There was one moment when I innocently asked the question: “To what extent does God expect me, a student with a heavy work load, to keep Sunday holy?” I opened the package they sent me by way of an answer. I read the title of the main booklet: Which Day is the Christian Sabbath? Why was the cover title alone enough to make my heart sink? I “knew” that if I opened the booklet and read it that I would find “incontrovertible arguments” that the seventh day, Saturday (not Sunday), was the “true sabbath”. I “believed” before I even turned to the first page that what was contained in it “was true”. I felt ill because I did not want to be joining some sect or cult, and that’s what keeping Saturday would look like to others. In retrospect I can see something that I surely rationalized at the time — that I believed before I even read the arguments. The notion that I ought to step back and genuinely, objectively be open to opposing arguments or an analysis of the booklet’s rhetoric that demonstrated its psychological manipulations was simply non-existent. By the time I did read opposing arguments I was already more than capable of “shooting them down in flames”.

Even less did I think to seriously reflect on the emotional and mental processes that had led me to that point where I “believed” this particular church was “true”.

There were times when I did struggle to find the evidence I was looking for. So when I read from the same source “A True History of the True Church” I was a little disappointed that it lacked the detailed evidence I would have liked. But I was a history student and had a vast library at hand so I did my own research to complement what I had read. That led to more frustration, sadly. It looked to me like the Waldensians were not really the same sort of sabbath-keepers as we were, and I found no evidence for the Cathars keeping the sabbath but I did find details that they observed teachings we opposed. But my fundamental beliefs were not thrown overboard. I was not at a church-run college so I did not have all the resources that they stocked in their library.

I could not deny that some details of the church’s teachings were wrong, and some forms of practice and behaviour were not what I would have expected in a “biblical church”. But I convinced myself that those details were not fundamental, or would change in time, and I maintained my respectable standing by embracing a “good attitude”. A “good attitude”, I learned not so many years ago, was the same expression used in the 1930s and 40s by Nazi youth and party members who questioned aspects of Nazi practice and doctrines: as long as they asked their questions with a “good attitude” they remained lovingly embraced by the party. A “good attitude” meant that one submits to the authorities and does not cause dissension among one’s peers. In other words, one learns to be very discreet about sharing one’s doubts and questions.

I see now how I was immersed in a pattern common to so many who enter counter-culture type groups:

and many more.

The problem with belief is that a believer just “KNOWS” that one’s beliefs are true. Belief thereby binds a mind more tightly than knowledge. Enter the arrogance of belief. Or if one is so totally confident then it follows that there is no need for arrogance: one can be humble about “knowing” the truth. The arrogance of humility.

That last listed post above, The Brainwashing Myth, concludes with this line:

I reject the idea of brainwashing for three reasons: It is pseudoscientific, ignores research-based explanations for human behavior and dehumanizes people by denying their free will.

Given that this post comes on the heels of a post expressing openness to the possibility that free will is an illusion, that last reason should be modified in some way. The first two reasons draw upon “knowledge” — which is necessarily tentative pending new evidence. The third reason rests on a “belief”, even if a necessary one to maintain our dignity and humanity. And if it’s a false belief, then we have no choice but to call on our reserves of compassion and understanding to uphold our humanity.


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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “Knowledge, Belief — and How Humans Work”

  1. “I think back to the time I was moving out of mainstream religion into the thought-world of what at the time I was beginning to ‘believe’ was a ‘true church’ that held ‘the truth’.”
    I remember reading you saying something nearly identical some time ago, Neil. And oddly enough, I remembered that remark out of the blue last week–along with a (re)piqued curiosity: Exactly what “true church” was this, anyway?(?)

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