My wife and I are enjoying "Brain Games," a National Geographic channel program about how the brain works.
Every episode features exercises that viewers can take part in. An episode we watched a few nights ago was called What You Don't Know. Short answer: a lot.
But most of us mistakenly believe that we know more than we really do. So says a summary of that episode:
Bet you could explain something as basic as how a zipper works? Or correctly draw something as simple as a bicycle? If you said yes, you likely bet wrong... but don’t worry it’s not just you! When you stop and think about it, you’re probably not that aware of all of the things you don’t understand.
The fact is we go through our daily lives feeling pretty confident in our knowledge and understanding of the world, but that confidence is mostly an illusion. In this episode of Brain Games, we’ll show you firsthand just how the "illusion of knowledge" plagues the human brain and why we fall victim, again and again, to the notion that we understand more than we actually do.
Seemingly evolutionary pressures have been a balancing act. Early humans who weren't sufficiently in touch with reality didn't live long enough to reproduce. So their reality-denying genes were lost.
However, too much pondering -- "Hmmmm... what is true and what is false?... is that really a tiger in the bushes or a rabbit rustling around?... I feel like running away, but I'm not sure if this factually is the right thing to do..." -- that can be a ticket to an early grave also.
The Brain Games host explained that we need to feel sure about our knowledge, or we wouldn't have the confidence to act decisively. Doing something often is preferable to analysis paralysis.
Still, the point of What You Don't Know was to provide research-based insights into our tendency to be overly confident that what we think we know, truly is true. Sure, it's good to act decisively.
Davy Crockett famously said, "Be always sure you're right, then go ahead!" Problem is, usually we aren't sure that we're right, yet we still go ahead. This, of course, explains why religions are so appealing.
They feed into our craving for illusory certainty. We're much more bothered by feeling "I don't know," than by feeling "I could be wrong." So when in doubt we choose, "Don't doubt."
Again, this is natural. Probably can't be avoided. It's just good to recognize that even in the midst of acting with a feeling I know what I'm doing, we might be wrong. Maybe really wrong.
David Chapman, one of my favorite writers/bloggers, addresses a similar subject in "I get duped by eternalism in a casino." Well worth a read. Here's some excerpts:
I upped my bet from one to five cents—and won again.
As I consistently won more than I lost, I was gradually suffused with a warm glow. I felt safe and at home in the world. What a blessed relief!
I realized that the universe loved me, and that everything was going to come out well after all. My ever-present nagging sense of vague wrongness disappeared, and I recognized that it had always been a misunderstanding. Everything is as it should be; everything is connected; everything makes sense; everything is benevolently watched over by the eternal ordering principle.
This was eternalism straight-up, purely at a bodily, felt level.
I’m disposed to nihilism; so, at the same time, I was running a sardonic mental commentary. The cognitive dissonance between feeling unquestioned confidence in the All-Good Cosmic Plan, and my intellectual confidence that casino operators ensure that their slot machines are a losing bet, was extremely funny. That humorousness fed back into my bodily enjoyment.
It didn’t take long to conclude that I had gained all the knowledge I had asked for, and far more. The universe, in its infinite generosity, had gifted me with profound insight.
...Actually, winning thirty-seven cents was not going to make a such a big difference in my life.
Discovering universal love would. That was a really great feeling. Experiencing that all the time—the way some mystics supposedly do—would be fabulous.
That sense of safety, understanding, and certainty could be addictive. I think that’s part of why we all frequently fall into the eternalist stance—even when we know better.
“Patternicity” is the brain’s built-in tendency to perceive patterns that don’t exist. An example is the experience of seeing a face in the light and dark patches on a rock, or splotch of paint, or piece of toast. It’s often impossible to not-see them, even when you are undeceived, and know perfectly well there’s no face there.
Eternalism is patternicity for broad dimensions of meaning—purpose, value, ethics—rather than physical objects.
Our brains seem to have evolved to find patterns of meaning, too. In the casino, the intellectual understanding that my feelings were ridiculous did not make them any less profound. Runs of unexpected good or bad luck trigger the eternalist stance automatically.