(In my own reading of the bible, I’ve come to understand spiritual growth as contingent upon a deeply integrated reckoning with the fallibility of human knowledge. This recognition draws me more deeply into the search for truths that will always lie beyond my complete grasp. It is striking to me, then, that those very same scriptures provide the fundamentalist with certainties that effectively put an end to the need for any further search for truth.)
Psychologists, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists often study errors in recall and recognition to gain insight into the workings of human memory. Research has demonstrated that our memories are far less accurate than we tend to believe.
Yesterday, Neurophilospher, Moheb Costandi, had a nice post on the fallibility of our memories. He discussed Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon
“Set in the 12th century, the film depicts the trial of a notorious bandit called Tajomaru (played by Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator Toshirô Mifune), who is alleged to have raped a woman and killed her samurai husband. In flashbacks, the incident is recalled by four different witnesses - a woodcutter, a priest, the perpetrator and, via a medium, the murder victim. Each of the testimonies is equally plausible, yet all four are in mutual contradiction with each other.
“...the characters start off happy in the knowledge that they know exactly what happened between the samaurai, his wife and the bandit. One by one, each character begins to doubt their own account of the incident. In the end, both the cast and the viewer are left in a state of confusion and bewilderment.”
Costandi continued with a brief discussion of Elizabeth Loftus’s pioneering research into errors in eyewitness recognition and recall. He also referred to an essay by psychologist Daniel Schacter that appeared in the January 4 issue of Nature. (Deric Bownds had a post on Schacter's essay, as well.)
Schacter talks about the reconstructive nature of memory, noting that memory errors are more than just defects in cognitive operations. Rather, memory errors occur within the context of adaptive cognitive processes. Since future events will not be exact replicas of past events, memories encoded as exact reproductions of the past might not be 'best-suited' for simulating future events. Instead, memories constructed and 'reassembled' from the 'gists' or meanings extracted from multiple past events might better serve to inform us about future possibilities.
Studying the research on perception, memory and information processing during my undergraduate years left a lasting influence on my thinking about the subject of certainty. Earlier today, as I was wandering around Andrew Sullivan’s site, I ran across an excellent essay examining politics and certainty from a religious point of view. Sullivan argues that religious fundamentalism undermines the "willingness to recognize empirical reality... when it disturbs [one's] ideology and interests."
Sullivan’s perspective can be difficult to hear amid today's fundamentalist-fueled arguments over the influences of religion on politics. That's a shame, because fundamentalist certainty is most often opposed by equally misguided forms of rationalist certainty.
In my own reading of the bible, I’ve come to understand spiritual growth as contingent upon a deeply integrated reckoning with the fallibility of human knowledge. This recognition draws me more deeply into the search for truths that will always lie beyond my complete grasp. It is striking to me, then, that those very same scriptures provide the fundamentalist with certainties that effectively put an end to the need for any further search for truth.
And, speaking of fundamentalist certainty.