Certainty and Dogmatism: The Feeling of Knowing

One of my personal and professional preoccupations is trying to understand religious dogmatism. Specifically, I'm interested in understanding the root causes of doctrinal stubbornness and insularity. For example, in my own religious tradition I've sat through endless doctrinal debates regarding church practices. And as I've witnessed these debates I've made the following observation: There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who might change their minds and those who won't.

I'm sure you've made the same observation. You can feel the degree of openness in the person. And it has nothing to do with the strength of the opinions. I've been in no-holds-barred shouting matches that I've felt were fruitful. The conversation felt flexible and open-ended. I felt in my gut that one of us might actually convince or persuade the other, usually after we had walked away from the conversation, but the point remains: Something stuck. By contrast, I've been in very quiet and polite conversations where I knew I was talking to a brick wall. My conversation partner was unpersuadable. You could feel the ideological immobility. Like talking to a rock.

I recently read a book, Robert Burton's On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You're Not, that I think illuminates some of the dynamics I'm talking about.

The core insight Burton makes in On Being Certain is this: Certainty is a feeling. There is a feeling we have when we know something. To experience this feeling for yourself Burton asks us to recall a recent tip of the tongue experience. Think of meeting someone knowing you know her name but being unable to recall it. That feeling of knowing--"I know this!"--combined with a lack of content (being unable to recall the name) nicely separates the content of knowledge (the name) from the feeling of knowing (the feeling inherent in the tip of the tongue experience). In short, there is a felt experience that is associated with knowing something. Or, more specifically, knowing you know something.

Burton, a neurologist, speculates that this "feeling of knowing" or the "feeling of conviction" is vital to human cognition as it provides us with a reward structure for thought. After successfully solving a problem the feeling of knowing helps signal to us that a solution has arrived. The feeling of knowing also helps us engage in mental search. If I feel I know something (like your name) I'll persist in digging into my memory to figure it out. If, however, I don't get the feeling of knowing I'll not waste any time searching for your name. A similar thing occurs when my students take tests. Sometimes they reach a question where they have a strong feeling of knowing: "I know this!" But on other questions they just draw a blank. No feeling of knowing. On those questions they just guess and move on. But it they feel that they know the answer they will linger and engage in mental search.

Beyond illuminating the phenomenological experience of conviction/knowledge, Burton's other big point is that this system is very glitchy and error prone. Specifically, once I get the feeling of knowing I may forgo any further investigation or reflection. My feeling of knowing tells me I have the answer so why sweat looking for alternatives? As a reinforcing emotion knowledge feels good, it's pleasurable. Consequently, may people stick with the pleasure of "knowing" instead of shrugging off the feeling to reenter the world of debate and argument. It takes a kind of courage to move back into uncertainty. More specifically, it takes a kind of self-overcoming, of saying "No" to yourself. "Knowing" is as pleasurable as doughnuts or ice cream and, like with other pleasures of the flesh, self-restraint and discipline may be required to move back into uncertainty. People might need a diet from certainty. How's that for a New Year's Resolution? To not be so cocksure all the time.

The point of all this is that religious dogmatism is so stubborn because we aren't dealing with rationality. We are working with an emotional system. Overtly, the conversation is about biblical texts or rational arguments. But at root what is governing the conversation is the feeling of knowing. And if the person feels they are right then quality counter-arguments just won't penetrate. The dominant emotional tone of conviction convinces the person that he is in the possession of the truth. That feeling drives the conversation.

A large part of college education is to take a group of people who feel that they know everything (college freshmen) and get them to the point where they feel that they don't know anything. That takes a lot of work in the classroom. The goal is to instill a curious bent to the student's intellectual character. To get them to see each new experience (ideological and interpersonal) as an opportunity for learning.

Higher education is good at this. But I wonder how good the church is at this process. Churches, it seems to me, move in the opposite direction: They try to instill certainty. A similar thing happens in political affiliation. You don't see circumspection when Democrats and Republicans square off. I think this is why we live with the rule to never discuss religion or politics in polite conversation. The "feeling of knowing" infuses those discussions, making them very intense but also very unproductive.

So I wonder, can a church survive if it actually tried to undermine the "feeling of knowing" the way higher education does? Probably not. But I think some persons can make this shift. As a consequence, these person seed the church with question-raisers. The presence of these people infuse the faith community with flexibility and curiosity which prevents ossification and stagnation. A healthy church would be a mix of those who feel they know along with people who feel they don't know. The real trick is getting these people to get along with each other and to mutually affirm the gifts each brings to the communal setting.

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15 thoughts on “Certainty and Dogmatism: The Feeling of Knowing”

  1. Thanks for this fascinating and helpful post. Recognizing the emotional aspects of certainty really helps to explain why debate and discussion is so often fruitless.

    Another layer that I'm sure is operating to inhibit even considering the possibility of being wrong is how much a person has invested in a particular feeling of certainty. How many years of life, how many habits and practices, how many relationships, how many other feelings of dogmatic certainty are linked to the one being challenged? I'm sure one could look at that neurologically as well in terms of the number and strength of pathway linkages.

    What particularly interests me though is this. Assuming for the moment that a feeling of certainty is a good and valuable thing to have in a life of faith, what if we sought to ground that in something other than dogmatic knowledge? (Especially since dogmatics has a way of becoming more ornate over time, trying to plug smaller and smaller gaps and ironically making the overall endeavor seem less secure.) For example, what if the certainty was grounded in a conviction of being loved rather than being "right"? There would still need to be some facts one would have to assert and hold as certain (e.g., that there really is an "other" who exists and can love.) But overall, you would have a vastly more open intellectual range for being uncertain about things because they wouldn't all be threads that could threaten to unravel the garment your experience of certainty is based on.

    This is something I've been musing on for some time as "theological minimalism." Thanks for providing the trigger to get me to actually put some thoughts into writing.

  2. Thanks -- that was great and put more structure around some things I'd been mulling over.

    With my CoC background, I find it interesting how many members equate this "feeling of knowing" with faith. They think it's one and the same.

    Meanwhile, I define faith as having a healthy dose of doubt and the possibility that I'm wrong about the whole thing.

    In the end maybe you're right and a healthy church has a mix of both types of people. But I think I'm vastly outnumbered!

  3. I had just come from another blog where a debate over the meaning of verses from the Bible. This post was particularly good in light of the rather heated discussion going on there. It really helps explain the old adage you mentioned about religion and politics. I linked your blog. I hope you don't mind. Some of them need to hear what was said here.

  4. Thanks for your post. As I have been reflecting on some things that are happening in my local congregation, your observations fit into those reflections. The frightening part of this is when one claims to know with certainty the will of God for the rest.

    I agree with the Feral Pastor. Certainty seems to be rooted in how much is invested and how closely the investment is tied to one's identity and safety. It is very safe to be certain and "know." Not so safe to be uncertain. Anything could happen.

    Defenses run high when safe certainty is threatened.

  5. Wonderful post. A couple of reflections:

    1) I wonder what that integrated church looks like? I can think of people (it's easy in the CoC) who were exactly the absolutely-sure type you describe, who, in a kind of familial way, accepted others graciously who were different without ever "backing down" from their certainty. Like a staunch Republican whose best friend is a Democrat, and who can argue (happily and kindly) for hours on end -- though never truly contemplating his/her view being wrong.

    So I do know people like that. How do we go about forming it?

    2) I am wondering what the divide is between people who "delight" in the feeling of knowing, and who mentally/emotionally can't pull themselves out of the fear that "if" they consider X belief, its effect would be the toppling of the house of cards that is faith.

    For example, if a literalist considers interpreting the Bible differently, and their faith is built on the fact that Christian faith is only legitimate if the Bible is read literally, then they are not being cocksure because of any positive feeling; rather, they (rightly?) are fearful of losing their faith.

    Is that a legitimate distinction? If so, how much is the cocksure population an amalgam of both "feeling" and "fear"? Which is more dominant? I guess, for me, the latter is easier to sympathize with, while the former is always more frustrating. I can think of strategies to address the latter, too, but not as many for the former.

  6. Excellent post! Thank you.

    But one Church can and does instill the uncertainty you call for. Ironically, it's the Orthodox Church -- arguably the most doctrinally 'certain' church going, that also enshrines apophatic theology and the very real role of Mystery. For the Orthodox, mysticism and uncertainty are not an optional exercise for the super-pious or the particularly thoughtful, but the non-negotiable starting point for every Christian.

    It may even be said that the farther one advances in the Orthodox 'way', the less certain one becomes. A favourite story of mine is the aged monk who simply exclaimed, "Theology??? STUPIDOLOGY!!!" This is not considered a scandalous statement for the Orthodox, but is rather an anecdote repeated again and again with smiles and chuckles of delight and recognition.

    Can a church survive that takes this attitude? Yes, for over two thousand years!

    I think the distinction that you make at the end of the post -- between people who are sure and those who aren't mixed -- is suspect. It makes too much of personality types. People who are always certain may simply be self-worshipers or narcissists, and those who are never certain may be spineless wimps who will never commit to any truth. Neither is particularly helpful to anyone, and neither bears the hallmark of humility. It's not a mix of certain and uncertain people that the Church needs, but for every last man and woman to be humble as Christ was humble -- even as he drove the money changers out of the temple.

    There is a great quote from the Fathers (forgive my pea brain which can't remember which one at the moment):

    "In defense of the Church, a lion. In defense of the self, a lamb."

    Thanks for the great blog -- I'm still just scratching the surface!

  7. Church is a place that gathers/attracts/keeps people who need certainty and repels those who don't. When I consider how much has changed during my time on earth, it seems Sunday morning is where it has changed the least. And it is the one place where a person has some actual input into the matter. Many people want to latch on to something that is constant, unchanging, certain and comfortable and to alter their opinion would alter who they are and their very identity. As one writer on another list once said, some people thing they are their opinions.

  8. For a lot of fellowships, I think the "feeling of certaintity" is identified as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit ... prompting all sorts of prophecies, some of which contradict each other; others which eventually prove false.

    For ours, it seems to manifest itself as irrefutable logic (however flawed it may actually be) which, when combined with a proof-text or two, yields Absolute Truth.

    In either case, the truth is true because God told me so.

  9. I think that sometimes the feeling of religious certainty is a cover-opposite for the terror of death and hell. I've read accounts of people feeling that they were slipping into a bottomless abyss into which they would be forever lost, during the initial stage of their "born again" or conversion experience.

  10. Keith - On the topic of Absolute Truth (capitalized here as a helpful flag of potential idolatry) I've been amazed to consider that Jesus shatters the category of Truth when he says "I am... the truth." In doing that, I think he yanks us out of being ultimately rooted in the Hellenistic soil where fact and certainty are the matters of ultimate concern so that we can put roots down back in the Hebraic land where it's relationship above all. I've written a little about that here if you're interested: http://feralpastor.blogspot.com/2007/09/talking-about-truth-with-evangelicals.html.

  11. Interesting. I belong to a church (Catholic) where people who "think different" often get excommunicated :) I guess I worry about my doubts, not so much because of what my church teaches but because of stuff in the bible - the commandments to believe, Jesus telling people their faith has saved/healed them. I realized I hardly believe anything, just have hopes.

  12. Problem with creating a church that intentionally partners those in-the-know with those outside-the-know is that it is incredibly hard to maintain. We're intentionally giving that a go here in Brooklyn but it's hard. Like you said, certainty is like ice cream; which means that a mix of certainty with uncertainty is like ice cream with, um, spinach on top. Spinach is certainly good for you, in fact your body enjoys spinach much more than the ice cream, but the reality is that everyone wants the ice cream. Everyone. And so not only is what you've got hard to maintain but it seems, thus far, almost impossible to add numeric growth. I could go on...

  13. Rather than divide people into those who change their minds and those who don't, perhaps it would be more charitable and germane to Burton's ideas to divide them into those who readily experience the feeling of knowing and adher to its pleasantness and those who rarely experience the feeling of knowing at all.  In other words easy believers and the naturally unsettled.  Inside the church most are natural believers and the strength of their convictions are one of its strongest attractions.  But it is also good to have some natural doubters in our midst.  They challenge prematurely settled doctrine and encouage believers to delve deeper into their beliefs. It must be very difficult to remain one of the  unassured few in the Church where assurance is often equated with salvation and doubt with perdition.  But as you imply maybe they serve a necessary role in God's plan for salvation after all.  

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