When you know you’ll know.” That’s what I’ve always been told. By the movies, by my elders, by the billboards, and my friends. It’s what I’ve always believed, and have been waiting to find out. But when do you know?
When you’re walking down the aisle? Or looking at your first child? After the first argument, or the first divorce? Can you really know after a second long glance? After a mere kiss? Or does it take years of failed experiments and wrong turns to understand when you’re finally heading in the right direction?
Because I want to know. I want to know whether I should be waiting for my heart to flutter, or looking for some sort of clear signals. Will I be receiving a confirmation letter? A genie in my dreams? A message in a bottle? Something? Anything?
I’m not just talking about love here. Nor am I trying to bore you with philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Because the fact is, we’re all walking on this Earth, going about our daily lives, with closely guarded beliefs about what we know to be true, why the world is the way it is, how we see ourselves and who we believe ourselves to be.
What is the difference between ‘I believe that I know…’ and ‘I know’? We state the latter, but more often than not mean the former. We stand by our beliefs, justify them by all means, fight for them and readily die for them. We may be able to articulate our most strong held beliefs, but then, we claim, there are some things we just know, whether or not we’re able to rationalize or even understand why. That God does, or does not, exist. That you would do anything for your child. That you’re a woman, or a man. That your dog is devoted to you. That this too, this moment, this second, shall pass.
Of course, knowing that you’re meant to spend the rest of your life with someone is entirely different from knowing that you’re meant to take that job. (Or is it?) Knowing that you feel something can easily be distinguished from knowing what it is that you’re looking at, or recognizing what you can hear. (Or can it?) But the heart and the brain co-exist in an overlapping loop, each feeding the other with pulses, signals, and data. That most of us recognize our consciousness, as stemming from our brain doesn’t necessarily mean that our sense of knowing comes from there too. How then would you explain a twin who senses the other’s emotions, a mother waking up in the middle of the night fearing for their child, or that creepy sensation of meeting someone who just seems, well, off?
On the other hand, how many times have you felt so convicted about something – she loves me, this is how things work, I nailed it, there’s no way that can happen – only to be proven otherwise? How many times has life slapped you with a rude awakening, or presented what can only be called a miracle? When was the last time someone truly surprised you, for better or worse, throwing into chaos the certainty you once had in your own judgment?
Friedrich Nietzsche infamous statement: “There are no facts, only interpretations,” a tad hyperbolic perhaps but nonetheless his words retain some merit. Whether or not facts exist, the fact is (see what I did there?) we often confuse them with interpretations. Interpretations that become beliefs, beliefs that we do or die for.
According to Dr. Michael Shermer, renowned author of The Believing Brain, “We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large. After forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.”
It’s not just about forming beliefs, it’s that we can’t help but do so. Not surprisingly, we can blame our hardwiring for the idiosyncratic way in which we perceive the world. Our brains have evolved to manage the vast complexities of navigating the world by connecting dots and using mental shortcuts – called heuristics, information processing rules used to quickly generate an approximate answer to a reasoning question – to quickly form these connections. From these connections, the brain naturally looks for, finds or creates patterns from the overflow of sensory data. These patterns of connected dots are then infused with meaning, intention and agency.
It may sound like an extremely complicated way to go about daily lives, subconsciously creating patterns and inferring meaning onto likely meaningless data. But don’t forget, this kind of hardwiring didn’t happen overnight. The ability to instantaneously recognize patterns was key to our survival in the natural world. Put simplistically, if our ancestors assumed that the wind rustling the bushes was a lion and they ran away, that wasn’t a big problem. If there really was a lion and they didn’t run away, they were in trouble. This mode of thinking, dubbed ‘intelligently illogical’, makes sense if natural selection favors strategies that make many errors in order to get the important things right.
Yet, assuming a rustling bush is a lion versus believing that there are lions in all rustling bushes are two different, and extreme, things. So here’s a subtler example; your new colleague John is rude and arrogant. Because your ex, Mike, was not only rude and arrogant (connecting the dots), but also dishonest too, you subconsciously assume that John must be dishonest as well (pattern formed). So when office supplies start mysteriously disappearing, of course, it would make sense to suspect John. And when you try to say hello to John and he brushes you off; that means that he’s guilty of stealing the office supplies!
Objectively, it’s easy to see how patterns become beliefs and how beliefs need to be continuously confirmed and reinforced to retain their meaning and relevance. And how, to be sure that we are correct, that what we believe to be true is in fact true, we seek and find ingenious ways to seek and find confirmatory evidence to support what we believe. Subjectively, on the other hand, recognizing what seems, or feels, like logical thought as illogical assumptions is very difficult. Why is it that many people refuse to believe the human impact on climate change, despite the mounds of evidence clearly stating the facts? Or many of us continue to judge and discriminate individuals on race, gender, tribe, sexuality, class, despite little to no knowledge of an individual’s characteristics?
Scientists have a name for the mismatch between our judgment and reality – cognitive biases, which present themselves in a whole array of flavors and types. To name a few:
Seeking and finding confirming evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignoring or reinterpreting disconfirming evidence.
The tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one personality area to another in others’ perceptions of them.
Evaluating the strength of an argument based on the believability of its conclusion.
Relying too heavily on one reference anchor or piece of information when making decisions.
The tendency of people, when evaluating the causes of the behaviors of a person they dislike, to attribute their positive behaviors to the environment and their negative behaviors to the person’s inherent nature.
Illusion of control:
The tendency to overestimate one’s degree of influence over other external events.
(You can find a comprehensive list of our cognitive biases on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases
I could go deeper or more technical about the brain’s abilities and disabilities when it comes to decision-making and the formation of beliefs. But it still wouldn’t answer my question of when is it, exactly, that you know. Leaving aside the matters than can be explained by science, for example, knowing whether you’re a woman or a man can be determined by (obvious) scientific inquiry. How about the thousands of individuals who just know they were meant to be born a man, despite the fact that they are, beyond reasonable doubt, a woman? Are they wrong? Where does their knowing come from?
Then there are matters of love, of partnership, of life-long relationships. And the bittersweet truth that our knowledge and beliefs continuously shift with the tides of life’s journey. Such is the mercurial manner of existence. The man you know and love today may not exist in 10 years, even though he will be physically walking around and laying in bed next to you. The love you feel for her may disappear, or transform, slowly eroding in the background or rapidly dissolving. How can you know what may or may not occur to cause such dramatic changes? And if life were to evolve so unexpectedly, would that change what you know right now?
I have no idea. The more I question, the more I prefer the state of ignorance, of simply letting life unfold. All I ask is for you to think about, to question what you know, about everything. About life, the world, your world. About who you are and why you are the way that you are. About who you love, and why you love them so dearly. Question. Search for answers.
Or, relish in the uncomfortable ambiguity that may arise. Realize that most of the time, more often than not, not knowing, not having any attachment to certainty is not only perfectly ok, but a far more peaceful perspective to maintain. You can rest assured; I know for a fact that that is the state of being I prefer to operate under.