On Certainty, part II: Behind Good and Evil

January 17, 2011 at 1:53 am 13 comments

That certainty is a function of psychology is also the conclusion of Dr. Robert Burton, a neurologist has written an entire book on this phenomenon (On Being Certain). His suggestion, to summarize briefly, is that the feeling of certainty, what he calls the feeling of knowing, is simply a mental state, a kind of unconscious mental self-assessment.  We don’t really have a good word for what this is, but it’s more like an emotion than anything else. The closest analog would be the feeling of familiarity, the mental sensation of recognition that we have all the time but only become aware of when it misfires: déjà vu. Déjà vu is a feeling that something (like a situation) is familiar when, in fact, we know it is not. He suggests the brain creates these sensations as a kind of self-assessment, to help guide behavior.  The feeling of knowing – certainty – is the mind’s unconscious assessment of its confidence in its conclusions.  It is something like the way some search engines give you a list of results with a percentage estimate of how close it calculates the match to be (yet, of course, can often fail to turn up what you’re looking for, despite a high-probability assessment). Certainty, then, is a feeling. It is not, somehow, some epistemological guarantor of truth. 

Burton has a lot more to say about this, including the neurochemical basis for this sensation.  He suggests that similar to the way some people are more prone than others to getting a mental “high” from gambling that makes it, for them, very rewarding/reinforcing (and for some, even addicting), perhaps some people are just wired to be more rewarded by, or even addicted to, this feeling.  Maybe some people are just wired to “need” the feeling of certainty more, or at least, to find it more irresistible. It’s a fascinating idea, and I think the core of his explanation here is excellent.

To me, though, it does leave some important connections unexplored.  I can’t help but notice that certainty seems to come part-and-parcel with strong ideologies, like religion, or “purist” political movements.  I don’t think this is accidental. So I will here add my own suggestion to account for this and then let the matter alone.  In the next article, the third of three, I want to talk about practical issues involved in dealing with uncertainty, which is more straightforward and more directly germane to de-conversion.  Learning how to manage uncertainty anxiety does not directly depend on understanding where such certainty came from in the first place.  But for what food for thought it might provide, here is my suggestion about the origin of this striking phenomenon of certainty within fundamentalism:

Many observers have noted the phenomenon known as splitting, or (in cognitive psychology) dichotomous thinking that seems pervasive in fundamentalism: the division of the world, and the self, into good parts and bad parts.  In fundamentalism, such divisions are rampant.  The world is a battleground between Good and Evil, there are clear good guys and bad guys, there are clear moral Absolutes, and “spiritual warfare” is often taken quite seriously.  And importantly, one’s own self is understood in pre-conversion and post-conversion terms.  Before conversion, corruption, sin and death were rampant. Post-conversion, the self is purified, regenerate, and redeemed.  The contrast is sharp and clear.

(Notably, this is not unique to fundamentalism or even religion. Those on the extreme right or left, those that have been part of political ideologies such as Marxism, or Nazism, and those that partake of conspiracy theories all “split” every bit as much.)

The organization of experience by drawing stark good/bad distinctions is common, and it seems to be built into our psyche, at least to a degree.  Young children almost universally do this, and it is only gradually that they come to realize – and, importantly, be able to tolerate – the idea that the world is more complex and nuanced than that. It has been suggested that beneath even our “primary” emotions (love, fear, anger, etc), are two even more basic ones: good/bad, and important/unimportant. 

Nuance, complexity, and ambiguity create anxiety.  They are thus difficult to tolerate. It is difficult to be faced with a complex moral issue about which there is no good, clear, unambiguous answer, only a set of tradeoffs and gray areas.  Without a world full of good guys and bad guys it is hard to know who to trust. Without moral absolutes it is hard to know what is right.  It means that one has no choice but to fall back on one’s own resources, to think it through as best one can, and make an imperfect decision, fully aware that it may turn out to be wrong. It is frightening, and not to mention very sad, to realize that all we have is a world full of struggling, imperfect people, not larger-than-life Heroes.

Splitting (which is, obviously, unconscious) alleviates all this confusion and anxiety.  It means that even if you are faced with mixed, contradictory, confusing, or complicated information, if you can just figure out who to trust – or, as works equally well, who not to trust – you can proceed with confidence.  It means you never have to be unsure about whether there is a morally right answer or not. Even if your decision turns out to have undesirable consequences, at least you can rest assured you did the right thing.

Splitting/dichotomous thinking is thus a way to quickly sort out two of the most fundamental questions in living: (1) What is true?  (2) What is good?  It is thus a way to make sense of a complex and uncertain world. It is in part, however, that very uncertainty that is in the world – knowing what is true, or what is right – that is the problem.  Retreating to this more primitive (developmentally) way of experiencing the world is an extremely effective solution to this problem.  Splitting eliminates doubt, fear, confusion, and the need to autonomous decision making (also a source of anxiety) – and thus creates, or at least allows, feelings of certainty: the world makes sense again.

A corollary to this idea is that splitting thus explains the way ideologues view their opponents.  Think of the way Pat Robertson sees secular humanists, or the way Rush Limbaugh sees liberals.  They do not see them as reasonable, conscientious, well-informed people with whom they happen to disagree.  They see them, instead, as at best stupid, more likely actively malicious.  Haters of the Good.

This is no accident.  If the world has been rendered stark and clear, then there must be some reason why not everyone agrees with you.  It can’t be because the issues are complex and there is room for rational and moral disagreement, because there isn’t; that’s the point.  It can’t be because reasonable people differ.  To see someone else disagree with your most passionate beliefs, and conclude that this person must have reasonable cause to do so, implies that your passionate belief is not as clear and certain as you want it to be, as you are trying to make it be, as you need it to be. Splitting thus involves an inability to truly step inside the worldview of another and see what might be valid reasons for their conclusions.  You cannot see other’s complexity, because, simply, it makes the whole world too threatening.  This explains the cartoon quality that characterizes the worldviews of religious extremists – their worlds are filled with Heroes and Villains – Villains who must be defeated, because they are enemies of the Good. Someone who has, with certainty, banished all complexity from the Cosmic Order can see the world no other way.

Thus, my stab at the certainty question is to suggest that certainty is the intellectual and cognitive concomitant to the splitting that is basic to the way fundamentalism deals with the anxieties of being human. Fundamentalists must deal somehow with the anxiety that is due to being frail, limited human beings in a world we cannot control, and they do so by dividing the world into good and bad – or, more accurately, Good and Bad.  To be uncertain is to feel vulnerable and potentially guilty of wrongdoing or morally directionless.  To split the world into a Manichean battleground, and then to align oneself with the forces of Good, is to no longer feel vulnerable or fear violating group norms.  And hence, is to be certain.

So much for armchair models.  That an $4.95 will get you a Venti iced vanilla mocha at Starbuck’s. Now, let’s look at what someone in the midst of deconversion can actually do to start making her or his peace with this grayness and uncertainty that is, despite our sometime best efforts, an inescapable part of human life.

Entry filed under: Richard.

Are You Sure You’re Sure? Signposts on My De-Conversion Trail

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard Conner  |  January 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    I certainly agree that issues can are are complex. I really don’t see “certainty” as a goal to be achieved. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom and belief (certainty) is its end of wisdom. The author of “The power of Myth,” Joseph Campbell, puts it very well in his interview with Journalist Bill Moyers: “The person who thinks he has found the ultimate truth is wrong. There is an often-quoted verse in Sanskrit, which appears in the Chinese Tao-te Ching as well: “He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows. For in this context, to know is not to know. And not to know is to know.”

  • 2. SteveJ  |  January 18, 2011 at 8:22 am

    Regarding religion, I’ve never had the certainty of which you speak one way or the other (it would have been nice). I was never entirely 100-percent confident that I was “saved” or that all these teachings were real, because I could never be sure I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew of no foolproof standard to determine whether my faith was genuine or counterfeit, either. “Maybe I’m just talking myself into all this,” I often worried.

    By the same token, since questioning the whole thing, I’ve never been able to arrive at a sense of certainty that Christianity *isn’t* true, either. As you might guess, that’s unsettling.

    BTW, not to beat this drum constantly, but let’s be honest: Arianna Huffington, Al Franken, Bill Maher and Keith Olberman have the same cocksure (and insulting) assessment of the political right that Limbaugh has of the left. Let’s not paint this as, “Ideologues who agree with me are reflective and fair, those I don’t like are knee-jerk reactionaries.” Knee-jerkiness is everywhere, not just on one side.

  • 3. Richard  |  January 18, 2011 at 9:03 am

    SteveJ- I never said any such thing, my friend. I think there are overwrought ideologues on the left a-plenty. Limbaugh is especially well known, so makes an easy example. I also happen to think he’s especially nasty, but thats subjective, and (if true) has to do with his personality, not his conservatism. Bur I would never try to argue that such false certainty is the purview of the right. It most certainly is not.

    With respect to your own experience, it sounds like maybe you never had the need, so to speak, for this feeling of knowing that we call certainty. I wonder whether folks who have the bug, basically, are those who never really leave, or are less likely to, whereas those like you and me, who never had it in them, eventually (or at least potentially) find their way out. Those who feel, or need to feel, certain, are the ones ( I would guess) who are the most motivated to find a way – any way – to defend hhe faith, and are the most *un*motivated to seriously consider alternatives.

  • 4. Richard  |  January 18, 2011 at 9:08 am

    And you know, I have to agree Ive had that same feeling– doubt that atheism is true, doubt that I have chosen correctly. Ive had to realize, as you did, that certainty is not to be had anymore, even about this issue, even about certainty itsf, not that it ever really was. Yes, its unsettling!

  • 5. SteveJ  |  January 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Richard, just to clarify: I’ve always had that unfortunate need for certainty that so many people crave. It’s simply eluded me. When I was a Bible-believing Christian, I would ask myself how I could really be sure in any objective sense that I was the “seed sown upon good ground” and not a seed planted in one of the other soil types? Knowing the human capacity for self-delusion, I was always suspicious of people who were so sure they were saved. And how did I know the faith I confessed was the right kind of justifying faith, and not the counterfeit “mental assent” that mere professors exercise? That uncertainty always bothered me.

    Now I’m bothered by the opposite. What if at least one miracle report from Christians is true (after all, I can’t debunk every one of them)? How can I be sure *none* of the authors of the New Testament were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus? And worst of all, what if these things haunt me on my death bed? (Granted, this has more to do with feelings and personal insecurities than intellectual propositions.)

    Also, a reality check: Do you think Keith Olbermann is nasty?

  • 6. SteveJ  |  January 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    BTW, I make these confessions knowing that evangelical apologists can exploit them to say, “See, it’s true — no Jesus, no peace.” The truth of the matter is that I haven’t found any perfect peace anywhere as long as it has required the presence of certainty. It’s always eluded me.

    Besides, it really proves nothing that a person subjectively feels peace inside. Neville Chamberlain returned from his meeting with Hitler brimming with excitement over the prospect of “peace in our time.” But that subjective enthusiasm was no indicator of reality. And no doubt, there are Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs who feel a profound peace, too. Doesn’t prove a thing about what’s true and what isn’t.

    Never mind the Olbermann question. Sorry, I really need to stay on point.

  • 7. Sylvia  |  January 19, 2011 at 9:24 am

    III found this article that might interest you.


  • 8. Sylvia  |  January 20, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    At this point in my life, I would have to classify myself as a Stage III. I don’t know if I will ever make it to Stage IV.

  • 9. prairienymph  |  January 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    I am slowly leaving the certainty stage of fundamentalism.
    My family is still entrenched in the dualistic thinking because of a lack of emotional and financial stability which makes them more vulnerable to clinging to the type of certainty that you are talking about.

    For an example of navigating greyness, I used to believe than any form of sex outside of a monogamous marriage was Bad, Evil, Harmful etc. and done by people who were perverted or psychologically damaged. This would include masturbation, reading romance novels, as well as premarital sex and others.

    I kept these assumptions through deconverting. Then, I had to question them. If I was no longer following a behaviour code, was there any reason to keep me from doing those things? I struggled with irrational worry that, following dualistic thinking, I would become an adulteress by leaving the Christian faith.

    Little by little, I have talked with people who do not follow the “no sex but missionary between spouses” rule. And I have discovered a very complex moral guideline that proved to me my thinking was wrong.

    First of all, masturbation, painted as selfish at best by my former church, has all sorts of value. Single people, those with partners with lower libido, women with cramps… I’m sure everyone here is over that one.

    Next was homosexual sex. Since I now have a gay relative, I could explore the issue with more vested interest. Reading studies about theories of why homosexuality exists was very helpful. Knowing decent people who are homosexual helped dispell many myths.

    Then I ran across a few people who were not monogamous (they have invited a person or a couple into their sexual intimacy). I learned about their values: respect for all parties and enthusiastic mutual consent.

    My former beliefs about sex had obedience to authority as the highest value.

    Losing that certainty meant that I had to do work. I had to research, listen and empathize. I also had to critique what I was told.

    Currently, my values on sexual behaviours are not defined by the behaviours themselves but on the values and results.

    Does it involve a minor or someone otherwise unable to give informed, enthusiastic consent?
    Is it demeaning or cause someone to feel disrespected or devalued?

    I don’t have less certainty about what is right or wrong, I just have a different criteria.

    Is that they kind of journey you were asking for?

  • 10. Richard  |  January 27, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Sorry for my delay in responding, everyone – sick baby, no sleep. God bless antibiotics.

    Anyway, SteveJ, from what you say it sounds to me that though you crave certainty, you dont “need” it, in the sense of, as the fundys do, manufacturing it regardless of its warrant. You have been able to be honest enough with yourself, emotionally and intellectually, to admit that however much you would like to feel sure, it isnt there for you- and, in fact, it isnt *really* there for anyone. As you say, feeling sure is not the same as being sure. Those insecurities you mention, and I share, are a reflection of a difficult, complex, nuanced, uncertain reality, not a personal weakness. The truth is that you (and I) never “knew peace” even when we “knew Jesus.” of course they interpret that as false faith, but I think the better explanation is that there is no god and jesus is dead. So, “knowing Jesus” is a psychological state that you talk yourself into, not an ontological reality. Seeing and admiting that is an honest show of strength, not weakness. Now in my life I embrace doubt as a helpful companion, one that keeps me asking questions and makes sur. I am never too easily satisfied. I see this as a virtue.

  • 11. Richard  |  January 27, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    prairie- yes, thats what I had in mind. There are few human behaviors more complex than sexuality, and trying to jam-fit it all into ones and zeros is doomed to fail. Think about it: it is demonstrably true that sexual behavior is driven by certain neurotransmitters and brain regions. Damage to some regions (orbitofrontal cortex), such as by head injury or dementia, can “disinhibit” sexual behavior. Some drugs (such as for Parkinsons disease) can cause compulsive or impulsive sexual behavior.

    So if someone develops impulsive, inappropriate sexual behavior after starting treatment for parkinsons, how morally responsible can we hold them to be for this?

    Sounds to me you dont just have different criteria, you have more thoughtful, humane, reasonable, and consequence-driven criteria. Less artificially certain, more open to discussion. Not amoral or directionless by any stretch of the imagination, though thats what fundamentalism wants you to think. Yes, I think this is maturational progress.

    You might be interested in an article I wrote on nonreligious ethics some time ago:


  • 12. evangelically incorrect  |  February 13, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Certainty… When things are going well in my life I don’t think about it too much. When I’m under great stress I grasp for certainty. And the harder I grasp, the less I hold.

    “Certainly,” there are things about which it is possible for me to have a higher degree of certainty than others. I’m reasonable certain I’ve had a GI virus for the last couple of weeks. I’m less certain whether praying about it will shorten its course.

  • 13. accodiase  |  November 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Hi! i’m like you post: to my @iceqeaks twitter

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