This is from Part 3 of 6: I Know Because I Know in the series called Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science over at the HuffingtonPost. I’ll let some of Valerie’s words speak for themselves, though I want to quote first the excellent point made at the end.
When we overstate our ability to know, we play into the fundamentalist fallacy that certainty is possible. Burton calls this “the all-knowing rational mind myth.” As scientists learn more about how our brains work, certitude is coming to be seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken. Humans will always argue passionately about things that we do not know and cannot know, but with a little more self-knowledge and humility we may get to the point that those arguments are less often lethal.
I agree with Valerie that certitude is a vice and arguments over things we do not know can be dangerous to our health, or at the least our mental health. Isn’t it sad that ideas could be lethal? Here is a little more of the article worth quoting…
For many reasons, religious beliefs are usually undergirded by a strong “feeling of knowing.” Set aside for the moment the question of whether those beliefs tap underlying realities. Conversion experiences can be intense, hypnotic, and transformative. Worship practices, music and religious architecture have been optimized over time to evoke right brain sensations of transcendence and euphoria. Social insularity protects a community consensus. Repetition of ideas reinforces a sense of conviction or certainty. Forms of Christianity that emphasize right belief have built in safeguards against contrary evidence, doubt, and the assertions of other religions. Many a freethinker has sparred a smart, educated fundamentalist into a corner only to have the believer utter some form of “I just know.”
Does this mean that rational argumentation about religion is useless? The answer may be disappointing. Religious belief is not bound to regular standards of evidence and logic. It is not about logic but about something more intuitive and primal. Arguments with believers start from a false premise — that the believer is bound by the rules of debate rather than being bound by the belief itself. The freethinker assumes that the believer is free to concede; but this is rarely true. At best the bits of logic or evidence put forth in an argument go into the hopper with a whole host of other factors. And yet each of us who is a former believer (we number in the millions) reached some point in our lives when we simply couldn’t sustain our old certainties. Our sense of knowing either eroded over time or abruptly disappeared. So sometimes those hoppers do fill up.
Given what I’ve said about knowing, how can anybody claim to know anything? We can’t, with certainty. Those of us who are not religious could do with a little more humility on this point. We all see “through a glass darkly” and there is a realm in which all any of us can do is to make our own best guesses about what is real and important. This doesn’t imply that all ideas are created equal or that our traditional understanding of “knowledge” is useless. As I said before, our sense of knowing allows us to navigate this world pretty well — to detect regularities, anticipate events and make things happen. In the concrete domain of everyday life, acting on what we think we know works pretty well for us. Nonetheless, it is a healthy mistrust for our sense of knowing that has allowed scientists to detect, predict, and produce desired outcomes with ever greater precision.
The scientific method has been called “institutionalized doubt” because it forces us to question our assumptions. Scientists stake their hopes not on a specific set of answers but on a specific way of asking questions. Core to this process is “falsification” — narrowing down what might be true by ruling out what can’t be true. And to date, that approach has had enormous pay-offs. It is what has made the difference between the nature of human life in the Middle Ages and the 21st Century. But knowledge in science is provisional; at any given point in time, the sum of scientific knowledge is really just a progress report.
Now go back and read the first paragraph I quoted that belongs after this last one. I am Agnostic because I do not overstate our ability to know such things.