It’s highly unlikely this column will change your mind. According to neuroscientist Robert M. Burton, people believe they’re right on many issues even when they’re not. The trouble is, they won’t change their mind, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence because the American educational system and most “two-chapter” churches deal with the tip of the iceberg.
In his provocative book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, Robert Burton describes the brain as operating by neural networks. These networks consist of inputs (data) and outputs (decisions). But between these two is a hidden layer. It is the interface between input and output, using our genetic predispositions as well as past experiences to make sense of data. This is akin to what the Bible calls conscience, what Burton calls “the crossroads where nature and nurture intersect.”1
Nature is our behavioral code, ought-is-can-will. Nurture is culture. Between code and culture lies this hidden layer. It produces what Burton calls the feeling of knowing. This “is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that like love or anger, function independently of reason.”2 These mechanisms move us in hidden ways.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Our feeling of knowing is mostly the result of cultural conditions below the surface. When these conditions are not rooted in reality, people believe they’re right—even when they’re not. They’re pushed along as if riding an iceberg. It happens to everyone, including Christians, as Leon Festinger discovered. He coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe how the more certain we are about a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. What Festinger couldn’t figure out was why. Burton’s hidden layer might be the reason.
Burton says the brain operates more like the artificial neural networks (ANN) that have been developed for Amazon. When you buy a book from Amazon, your purchase enters a hidden layer—an ANN. The ANN is learning your tastes, compiling your book purchases, everyone else’s purchases, and “building a relational database—one that is continually adjusted according to new experiences.”3 The ANN is, in effect, guessing and projecting the unpredictable nature of your tastes. It works the same for a batter in a baseball game. A pitch comes in too fast for the human brain to choose what to do. Instead, the hidden layer guesses and projects the flight of the ball so that the batter’s swing can start in time to hit it. This is why a changeup pitch often fools a batter. This hidden layer is also what often fools husbands.
How many husbands are certain they know where they’re going (“I’ve driven this route thousands of times!”) while the wife is suggesting they look at a map? When they’re utterly and hopelessly lost, the husband finally acquiesces. But what made him so certain in the first place? It’s a hidden layer, capturing and sorting approximately 14,000,000 bits of data every second. This layer determines outputs, automatically signifying: “This feels right” or “There’s no way that’s correct!” The feeling of knowing produces “certainty, rightness, conviction, and correctness” that’s always being reconfigured but is not always right. This becomes a problem when our feeling of knowing becomes rigid.
Burton cites two conditions promoting an unhealthy certainty of being right. The first is when people “seem to derive more pleasure from final answers than ongoing questions, and want definitive one-stop-shopping resolutions to complex social problems.”4 The American educational system, with its fundamental thrust of “being correct” develops neural networks reducing the capacity to consider contradictory evidence.
The second is assuming we are fundamentally cognitive beings that can rationally sort out inputs. Burton says this ignores the existence of our huge hidden layer. “Most neuroscientists believe that conscious thoughts are the mere tip of the cognitive iceberg and that the vast majority of “thought” occurs outside of awareness.”5 Cal Berkeley professor George Lakoff places the figure as high as 95 percent being under the waterline. “Cognitive thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought—and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought.”6
Taken together, these two conditions explain why Christians in “two-chapter” churches rarely change their mind, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence that their theology and assessment of human nature is wrong. This might sound harsh, but reality bites. In the first place, “two-chapter” churches have a strong tendency to divide the world between “spiritual” and “secular.” This promotes an unhealthy certainty of being right because truth is located in the faith community. Neural networks develop that reduce the capacity to consider contradictory evidence from elsewhere. The older “four-chapter” gospel rejects one-stop-shopping resolutions to complex social problems. It holds that everyone is made in the image of God, so everyone gets part of the story right. Those apart from faith can get things right, while those in the faith can be wrong. This increases the capacity of Christians to consider contradictory evidence.
As for the second condition, “two-chapter” churches mostly embrace a European Enlightenment understanding of human nature. The Enlightenment introduced the notion of scientific certainty being gained through the rational mind. This ignores the existence of our hidden layer—95 percent of what shapes behavior. But it explains why “two-chapter” faith communities highlight cognitive initiatives like “truth projects” while giving the Cultural Mandate and “making culture” short shrift. This approach actually decreases the capacity of Christians to consider contradictory evidence.
That’s because the hidden layer “carefully weighs all inputs, positively weighing those experiences and ideas that feel right while negatively weighting those that feel wrong, strange, or unreal,” Burton notes. “The best that a rational argument can accomplish is to add one more input to this cognitive stew. If it resonates deeply enough, change of opinion might occur. But this is a low probability uphill battle; the best of arguments is only one input pitted against a lifetime of acquired experience and biological tendencies operating outside of our conscious control. To expect well-reasoned arguments to easily alter personal expressions of purpose is to misunderstand the biology of belief.”7
Taken together, these two conditions explain why “two-chapter” Christians rarely convert to the ancient “four-chapter” gospel. But these conditions might also explain why few individuals at all come to faith after the age of 18. Throughout history, people came to faith in youth, middle, and old age. Today, few convert after the age of 18. This is according to sociologist Dr. Christian Smith and his team at the National Study of Youth and Religion. In Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, they report that 85 percent of those 18-23 who have ever made a commitment to God did so before age 14. Why? There is evidence that neural pathways are well established between the age of 14 and 20. “Once firmly established,” Burton notes, “a neural network that links a thought and the feeling of knowing is not easily undone.8
Could this mean we’re living in an age where the window is closing on people having the capacity to change their mind? The Enlightenment is over two centuries old. The “two-chapter” gospel is roughly 175 years old. “Two-chapter” churches have collectively focused on the tip of the iceberg. Now we have entered an age where God is a fiction for most adults. By ignoring the Cultural Mandate and appealing to the cognitive, the collective conscience of many—their hidden layer—hears the gospel and automatically says: “There’s no way that’s correct!” And in “two-chapter” churches, the collective conscience of many who hear the “four-chapter” gospel automatically says: “There’s no way that’s correct!” Are we tasting the bitter fruit of ignoring the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness? This culturally conditioned layer shapes and structures all conscious thought—which is why, if you over 18, certain of what you believe, and part of a “two-chapter” church, it’s highly unlikely this column will change your mind.
1 Robert M. Burton, M.D., On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), p. 45.
2 Burton, On Being Certain, xiii.
3 Burton, On Being Certain, p. 47.
4 Burton, On Being Certain, p. 98.
5 Burton, On Being Certain, p. 130.
6 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999), p. 13.
7 Burton, On Being Certain, p. 183.
8 Burton, On Being Certain, pp. 97-98.