On Knowing (or Not)

Judy is an intelligent, articulate woman with a great sense of humor. She is also completely paralyzed on her left side. Trouble is, she doesn’t know she is. On the contrary, she knows that she isn’t.

What’s going on? Self-deception? Denial? Puzzling examples like this are scattered throughout a recent series in the NY Times, which explores what it means to know, not know, know what you don’t know and not know what you know. Follow? Me neither.

Another example may help. Immediately after the Challenger space shuttle explosion, a psychologist asked a hundred students to record on paper exactly what had happened to them that day (where they were, how they felt, etc). When he interviewed them two and a half years later, less than ten percent of the later accounts matched the earlier ones. Not only that, but when confronted with their original written statements, some students were sure that their current memories were more accurate. One even declared: “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.” These students knew that they were correct, even though (given the ample contrary evidence) they didn’t know at all.

The significance of this phenomenon to moral matters is clear. If the feeling of certainty is so strong it overrides obvious physical evidence, it can no doubt prompt moral certainty. And in the realm of the moral (or the metaphysical, political or practical, for that matter) there doesn’t tend to be much empirical criteria to firmly decide if these certainties are founded. But how is it that we come to be certain of some idea or thought, anyway?

Exploring this question in more detail is Robert Burton, who in his recent book “On Being Certain,” argues that even though certainty seems like a product of reasoning, it is not within our conscious control. The feeling of knowing is not evidence of fact, but rather an involuntary mental sensation produced by unconscious brain mechanisms. What Burton wants to do is dispel the myth that knowledge comes out of conscious deliberation, and instead emphasize a separate type of mental activity that acts as an internal monitoring system of our thoughts.

Consider studies of blind-sight, a phenomenon in which people consciously see nothing but can accurately locate the position of flashing lights. These people have damaged the portion of the brain involved in conscious awareness of vision, but the lower brain areas still receive visual input. Despite not having a feeling of knowing (they deny having seen any flashing light), blind-sight patients clearly have subliminal knowledge of the light. They do not know what they know.

On the other hand, the feeling of knowing can occur in the absence of corresponding thought or information. Mystical experiences, or feelings of great insight and transcendence, could be explained as spontaneous sensations of knowing, disconnected from any awareness of a specific thought. Or the feeling of knowing and a thought could enter conscious awareness at exactly same time – the “aha” moment. The feelings of déjà vu, tip-of-the-tongue, strangeness and familiarity, all relate to feelings of knowing and how they align (or don’t) with our thoughts and experiences. These uncontrollable feelings are the mind’s sensations, and as sensations they are subject to a wide variety of illusions. Burton repeatedly emphasizes that feelings of knowing cannot be consciously dislodged or diminished. They happen to us.

There are some benefits to this feeling of knowing. Burton claims it is crucial to learning, linking positive feelings of correctness with certain behaviors. Neurologist V.S. Ramamchadran argues that the feeling of knowing – even if it goes against evidence or logic – provides us with a positive cloud of belief that makes existence bearable. But it also presents difficulties. The feeling of knowing is entirely convincing (what else could it be?). Therefore, the most open-minded and impartial individuals are still going to be swayed by biases, experiences, and unique thought processes. And they won’t know it. As Burton puts it, “our mental limitations keep us from understanding our mental limitations.” Or, as social psychologist David Dunning states in the NY Times article, “we’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.”

Acknowledging these difficulties with certainty and feeling of knowing has several moral implications. The first is an awareness of how precarious our moral certainties really are, and how difficult they make considering alternative possibilities. The feeling of knowing is, in Burton’s words, “mental flexibility's worst enemy.” The problem is, we can’t tell how inflexible we are, or if that inflexibility is preventing us from reaching a different moral decision. This is not a fault, it is a condition, and understanding this condition may discourage claims of absolute certainty about moral questions.

The second implication is the critical function served by other people challenging our own moral viewpoints – they act as a check to our very strong feelings of knowing. As Dunning says, “the road to self-insight really runs through other people.” Discussing contrary views, soliciting advice, confronting other people’s ideas can help us revise our decisions and questions our feelings of certainty. Once we acknowledge that others’ opinions arise out of separate mental processes than our own, and that we cannot know which is correct, we can hopefully take advantage of these different insights. The feedback we get won’t easily shake our convictions, but it is a crucial piece of information in any moral discussion.

Of this, I’m almost (but never quite) certain.

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