Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beliefs and Knowledge

I was at the Dragon*Con 2008 first-ever "Skeptic's Track" - or Skeptrack. It was a delight to meet so many scientifically like-minded folk amidst the fairies and Klingons. James Randi, Phil Plait, Pamela Gay, DJ Groethe, Richard Saunders, Benjamin Radford and many others graced us with their knowledge, research and goals.

I got to ask Dr. Steve Novella (host of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast) about something that I'd hypothesized: That there may be a physiological component to beliefs that make them physically harder to let go of than faulty knowledge.

My idea is that if beliefs are stored differently than what one might call "trivial knowledge" then they may be stored in a more protective way than simple "knowledge." There are lots of evolutionary reasons why this makes sense. Beliefs that are true can help protect an individual from dangers, and a group with a shared belief structure is well on its way to becoming a community.

But beliefs that are wrong, for example if someone believed in a conspiracy theory based on faulty or fraudulent evidence, might be harder to let go of even if the evidence is shown to be bad than, for example, someone who mistakenly "knows" a piece of bad information such as one who learned the wrong date for the years of the American Civil War. Knowledge issues can often be cleared up with a quick look at a reputable source of information such as an encyclopedia. But faulty beliefs seem to shore themselves up in the mind and battle against removal by contrary evidence.

Dr. Novella said that while studies into this field are still rudimentary, that evidence from FMRI suggests that beliefs are stored differently than memories. That doesn't prove the hypothesis however. It might not be the way they're stored that makes them hard to un-learn, for example they could be "guarded" by some storage protocol in the brain - perhaps analogous to a UNIX process that checks to see if the belief has "stopped" and then kicks it back off again. That kind of detail is beyond the current tools of psychology & neuroscience - but certainly those kind of details imply that a synergistic and complimentary approach that joins both the hardware (neurology) and software (psychology) will be needed in the future. Perhaps as our understanding of these fields deepens the practices will merge. But the brain is a complicated thing and it will probably be a long time unless new diagnostic tools are developed before we can really understand all the subtle nuances of memory and belief storage.

The need for beliefs is part of who we are as humans. Skepticism teaches that we should evaluate the world using the scientific method, and promotes a naturalistic world view. I heard several "believers" at the con saying that Religion and Science were two sides of the same coin. That argument doesn't make much sense to skeptics. But a more interesting question - philosophically - is this: If the default mode of the human brain is to form strong beliefs then can Science take the place of Religion in a wholly interchangeable fashion?

Is it possible that "beliefs" exist to give that part of our mind that is ever-questing a physical resting place? If our minds didn't have beliefs would that somehow wear down our consciousness, perhaps leaving us in a wearying frenzy of mental uncertainty? Possibly. I suspect that beliefs form pillars of identity in the cathedrals of our "selves."

No comments:

Post a Comment