The human brain remains largely mysterious, even though modern neuroscience has learned a lot about it. It's unclear to what extent computer artificial intelligence will come to mimic our brains.
But at the moment this much seems clear. Just as "deep learning" takes place in artificial intelligence in a manner that even AI programmers can't figure out, our own sense of knowing arises from hidden depths of the brain that we can't figure out.
Meaning, when you've been trying to figure out what to do about some problem -- like whether you should take a new job that's been offered to you, even though you aren't unhappy in your old job -- and suddenly you have a feeling, This is what I need to do, there's no way you can tell how your mind, the brain in action, came up with that conclusion.
This is a key theme in Robert Burton's fascinating book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not.
Burton, a neurologist and neuroscientist, says that a sense of knowing is closely tied to our feeling of having a life purpose. I wrote about this in a 2009 blog post based on his book, "Science and religion share a sense of purpose."
Scientifically-minded people have a sense of purpose and meaning just as much as religiously-minded people do.
Burton talks about how Richard Dawkins, a noted atheist scientist, is ferociously dedicated to debunking mythologies and irrationality -- such as a denial of how evolution has guided the course of life on Earth.
Dawkins lives for this, just as the Pope lives to serve the cause of Catholicism, or a woman lives to raise her children, or a man lives to become the best at some sport.
So a felt sense of meaning and purpose is the root out of which grow stalks of action and commitment. Scientists do science because it is meaningful to them. Religious people do religion for the same reason.
Different strokes for different folks. Whatever turns you on.
We should force ourselves to distinguish between separate physiological categories of faith -- the basic visceral drive for meaning that has real purpose versus the unsubstantiated cognitive acceptance of an idea. Compassion, empathy, and humility can only arise out of recognizing that our common desires are differently expressed.
Nicely said, Dr. Burton. Both science and religion need to recognize that their common ground is a sense of meaning and purpose.
Fairly frequently a commenter on this blog will argue, "science is a form of religion." That's wrong. He or she says that because scientists are deeply devoted to the pursuit of truth about the physical universe.
But devotion grows from a sense of meaning. It doesn't need religion. People can be devoted to all sorts of non-religious things, such as improving one's golf game.
So religious believers should differentiate between the cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of their faith. Meaning, the feeling they have toward divinity, the meaning they derive from religiosity, is shared by scientists (and everyone else on Earth aside from the deeply clinically depressed).
However, the cognitive side of their faith is something different. These are the concepts that accompany the feelings. "Jesus is the Son of God." Well, you think so. But where is the proof?
I'm not justified in questioning the meaning someone gets from his or her religion. I am justified, though, in questioning their purported facts about the cosmos.
Facts can be challenged. Meaning can't.
If you wrongly believe that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election, even though there is no evidence that the election wasn't fairly decided, I have some hope of convincing you otherwise by correcting your facts.
However, I've got very little chance of getting you to give up your conservative political views, or your fervent allegiance to Trump. Your political persuasion, like your religion, is a source of profound meaning to you that isn't given up lightly.
In large part because you aren't capable of altering what gives your life meaning. Neither am I. Nor is anybody else. Yes, what we find meaningful can change over time. But not through our conscious efforts.
Burton writes in a final chapter about an exercise earlier in the book in which he shared a paragraph about a mysterious object that had various qualities. Spoiler alert: the object was a kite. He says:
Once imbedded within the conclusion that this paragraph refers to a kite, the feeling of correctness cannot be consciously dislodged or diminished. We can consciously input new contrary information; only the hidden layer of the neural networks can reweight the values.
The message at the heart of this book is that the feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction, and certainty aren't deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.
I've written a few other blog posts about Burton's book:
Knowing that you know: impossible
The three wisest words in the world: "I don't know"