It's strange, but the most familiar sensation we have also is the most mysterious: knowing. I know this. And yet, I don't.
Just like everything else that I know. Or you know. Or anybody knows.
We don't know how we know. Which means we can't trust what we know – not with 100% certainty. So this should squash fundamentalism of every variety.
Except…people can't control their knowing. Reason, facts, information, persuasion: our sense of knowing isn't influenced by any of that.
Our knowing can't be trusted. Yet it's what we rely upon at every moment. Go figure. (But you can't, because knowing isn't capable of being figured.)
Loopy. That's the best word to describe it. Over and over, I'd find Burton pulling the rug out from under a viewpoint that I'd thought was solid. And believed in myself.
So I'd be thrown for a loop, experiencing some mental vertigo, turned upside down, searching for another certain spot of ground.
I'm still digesting the book. I don't quite know how to talk about what I've learned about not knowing – as the subtitle puts it, "believing you are right even when you're not."
This is a first stab. More posts will follow, probably. Can't say for sure. Uncertainty rules the day. Every day.
One of Burton's central points, which seems as certain as anything can be (he's a neurologist), is that human awareness – including our sense of knowing – is mediated by a hidden layer of brain activity.
The hidden layer, a term normally considered with AI [artificial intelligence] jargon, offers a powerful metaphor for the brain's processing of information. It is in the hidden layer that all elements of biology (from genetic predispositions to neurotransmitter variations and fluctuations) and all past experience, whether remembered or long forgotten, affect the processing of incoming information.
It is the interface between incoming sensory data and a final perception, the anatomic crossroad where nature and nurture intersect. It is why your red is not my red, your idea of beauty isn't mine, why eyewitnesses offer differing accounts of an accident, or why we don't all put our money on the same roulette number.
What this means is that stuff we're absolutely, completely, supremely confidently sure about, we can be wrong about.
Because we only know what pops out of the hidden layer into our conscious awareness. We can't know how the incoming data were manipulated by the hidden layer.
Thus those moments of intuitive, mystical, spiritual, unitive insight, where we feel "Ah, so this is what life is all about!" – those moments also are states of knowing that pop out of the hidden layer.
Being hidden, the insight can seem like an act of grace, a gift from God, an unquestionable revelation. Burton quotes William James:
Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
Burton then comments:
This is a brilliant observation, equating religious and mystical states with the sensation of knowing, and with the further recognition that such knowledge is felt, not thought…James' description is perfectly straightforward – with mystical states, people experience spontaneous mental sensations that feel like knowledge but occur in the absence of any specific knowledge. Felt knowledge. Knowledge without thought. Certainty without deliberation or even conscious awareness of having had a thought.
But there's that hidden layer…
Just because we have a feeling of inerrant knowing doesn't mean that feeling is accurate. What pops into awareness is sort of like picking up the phone and hearing someone say, "Congratulations, you've just won a million dollars."
You don't know who is on the other end of the line, whether they can be trusted, what their motivation is, where they're calling from. Everything we're aware of, Burton says, is like this. Including the knowledge that we're aware.
Think about it. Or rather, don't think about it. Just be aware of being aware, of knowing your knowing. It's something we usually don't pay any attention to.
How I simply know what I want to write, and how my fingers type out that knowing. How you simply know whether what I've written makes sense, is understandable, means anything to you, is just gibberish or profoundly insightful.
But what the heck is that knowing? Is it a feeling, a thought, a sensation, none of the above? Is it under our control? Can you intentionally change your knowing? Or is that mysterious perception outside of our control?
The feeling of knowing is universal, most likely originates within a localized region of the brain, can be spontaneously activated via direct stimulation or chemical manipulation, yet cannot be triggered by conscious effort.
These arguments for its inclusion as a primary brain module are more compelling than those postulated for deceit, compassion, forgiveness, altruism, or Machiavellian cunning. One can stimulate the brain and produce a feeling of knowing; one cannot stimulate the brain and create a politician.
What a predicament. The idea of a thought being created by more specialized modules, some operating outside of our control and awareness, seems both intuitively obvious and antithetical to how we experience our thoughts.
That's because we have a mental circuit breaker. It allows us to function without paralyzing indecision. Problem is: it can be wrong, and there's no way we can know that we don't know what we are sure we know.
As an isolated system, thought is doomed to the perpetual "yes, but," that arises out of not being able to know what you don't know. Without a circuit breaker, indecision and inaction would rule the day. What is needed is a mental switch that stops infinite ruminations and calms our fears of missing an unknown superior alternative.
Such a switch can't be a thought or we would be back at the same problem. The simplest solution would be a sensation that feels like a thought but isn't subject to thought's perpetual self-questioning. The constellation of mental states that constitutes the feeling of knowing is a marvelous adaptation that solves a very real metaphysical dilemma of how to reach a conclusion.
I love it. And, I hate it.
I love it because I can't tell you how many times I've been told by true believers, "Brian, you think too much." They say this because they just know what the truth beyond thought is.
Why? No why. They just know that ultimate truth isn't a thought. And since my metaphysical beliefs seem to be founded on thinking, and their knowing isn't, then obviously their knowing trumps my thinking.
Which is ridiculous. Because Burton's book presents lots of evidence that every sort of knowing, even the kind that doesn't seem to be based on anything but direct awareness, actually flows out of that hidden layer of brain functioning.
So I hate it. Because my knowing is just as unreliable as a true believer's, who I don't believe knows the truth. How to balance this loving and hating?
That'll have to wait for another post.