The Tip of the Iceberg

September 20th, 2010

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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.

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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.

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15 Responses to “The Tip of the Iceberg”

  1. Mark says:

    I am left with the question “Which Culture” which culture is right for me to listen too? What set of reality should I listen too? Or does this unconscious neutral layer, the 95%, decide for me… and when it gets it wrong (because it’s not given to well structured argument from cognitive search but rather emotive reaction of the brain) and I have committed something that the particular culture says is wrong, can I not just say “my 95% told me this was right”. I cannot be told I am wrong.

    I am sorry Mike I strongly disagree with this article intuitively and cognitively. Doing right is not something that can be conditioned into us, because it is not simply a behavioral problem but a condition I find myself in. I could change the entire cultural worldwide to be a four chapter culture and know I will still be left with this same condition.

    I agree we need to rid ourselves of the Particularism and cultural isolation that has become a part of the church. Neurological work can and is useful for determining some concepts of brain activity (as opposed to the mind) but to turn to science to aid in a condition it can’t even understand or empirically research, is to ask science to do something it can’t do, scientism!

  2. Jim says:

    Perhaps I’m being cognitevly dissonant, but I think that this is up there with ought-is-can-will. Say on!

  3. Michael Cochrane says:

    I’m left with some fundamental questions: THis column didn’t fully explain the difference between so-called “two chapter” and “four chapter” churches. Am I to infer that two-chapter churches are represented only by the religious right (I noted the reference to “Truth Projects”)? What is the relationship between the Cultural Mandate and the so-called four-chapter churches?

    Lastly, I’m not sure that one can conclude from Christian Smith’s research that “few individuals… come to faith after the age of 18”. His work focus on the emergent adult period of 18 to 27, and makes no claim regarding the religious behavior of older adults.

  4. hl says:

    Could you define “two-chapter” v. “four-chapter” church? Even Google doesn’t seem to be able to find these terms! Thanks

  5. Mike Metzger says:

    Well, how about that? Even Google doesn’t know everything!

    The “four-chapter” gospel is found in every creed in the church up to the Heidelberg Creed. It is found in Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel and the first creeds – Nicene and Apostles. It is expressed in four “chapters,” so to say -creation, the fall, redemption, and the final restoration. You won’t find “four-chapter” gospel (yet) in Google because I coined the phrase a while back.

    The “two-chapter” gospel is relatively recent in history (introduced in the Second Great Awakening and developed in the 1800s). It emphasizes only two “chapters” – the fall and redemption. It sounds like this: God loves you, you are a sinner, Jesus died for you, and you need to invite him into your life. This gospel will get you into the kingdom. But it has trouble bringing the kingdom to earth, since it’s primarily focused on the interior life.

    “Two-chapter” churches have primarily (but not exclusively) bought into an Enlightenment understanding of human nature. That’s because the “two-chapter” gospel and Enlightenment assumptions were formed at roughly the same time. The Enlightenment’s influence is evident in Mark’s comments (see above) that cognition – rather than culture – is the main problem. The solution is more education. People don’t know enough truth. If they knew more, they’d act better. I’m all for truth, but this simply flies in the face of how we process information. The vast majority of our decisions are made below the waterline. Think of driving a car. Your brain is making culturally conditioned decisions that far exceed what you are aware of (Do you really say, “OK, hands, shift position and begin to turn the wheel?” I think not.)

    Dismissing science (not scientism) is like saying “only God’s word is truth.” The cry of the Reformers is that all truth is God’s truth – even truths of science. The reality is that 95 percent of our decisions have already been made at the moments we think they are being made. Thus, properly formed cultures would yield properly formed decisions.

  6. Chris Harness says:

    This phenomena is why democrats thick they are right as strongly as republicans think they are right but both hold such vastly different beliefs on what is best for the contry. I have heard another term: “anchor beliefs”. You can’t get a person after years and years of believing one thing strongly to deside he was wrong after all.

  7. Mike Metzger says:

    Michael:

    I wasn’t making any comments about the Religious Right. More to the point, initiatives such as “truth projects” are based on assumptions about the gospel and human nature. “Four-chapter” churches tend to shy away from “truth projects” not because they care less about truth but because they care more. Truth only makes sense insider a frame, and a frame is largely shaped by culture. Thus, the Cultural Mandate precedes the Great Commission.

    Smith’s research coincides with research from Barna and Young Life. A small percentage of those in the West come to faith after the age of 18. Since I find is difficult to believe that God cares less for adults over the age of 18 (or is relatively impotent in dealing with adults) I’d love to hear how others make sense of this relatively recent phenomenon in Western history.

  8. Stan Wallace says:

    Enjoy reading your blog. One word of caution, however-a few times I think you have confused the mind and the brain, using them interchangeably, as in this post. The mind (or soul) is the immaterial dimension of the human person,, the brain/body the physical dimension of our (unified) self. The two are causally connected yet metaphysically distinct. It has been the project of metaphysical naturalists to reduce the mind to the brain. We must be careful in our thinking and writing not to implicitly or explicitly endorse this egregious error (which is contrary both to biblical revelation and, in my view, sound philosophical thought, as I’ve researched the issue). Mental events are not the same as or reducible to brain events. There is much at stake here for Christians.  

  9. David Wayne says:

    This has resonance also with Os Guiness’s (and I would suppose Peter Berger’s?) work on plausibility structures. I’ve only read Guiness on this but I remember him saying that the fundamental beliefs of the communities we live in form those “plausibility structures” by which we judge any new ideas, beliefs, etc..
    I would like to hear more though on what we can do about it. I’m doing my best through the years to preach a four chapter gospel and I embrace the whole idea of culture making. The trouble is that most people aren’t in the position to “make culture” at least in the sense that Hunter talks about regarding membership in elite culture making institutions. I’m not arguing with you or Hunter at all, I fully embrace the four chapter gospel and the cultural mandate – I’d just like to see more on how the ordinary people living ordinary lives can embrace and embody this kind of stuff in their lives.

  10. Mark says:

    I would like the opportunity to clarify a couple of things I said, and be able to put them into the context I intended.

    When I said that “it is a condition I find myself in” I really think that the problem is a matter of the Soul, the essence or self of the human being. This is not an enlightenment position but rather a long historical Christian theology. It seems to me for Christianity to take on its primary role in human behavior modification is to play the role of the Holy Spirit.

    I believe when it comes to the enlightenment we are probably both guilty of that, we both believe science has a role in determining the reality we live in, I think maybe where we differ is that I don’t understand how science has a great deal to say regarding metaphysics (thought, belief, conscience). So I am not being dismissive of science but made a personal declaration of it limits. However the enlightenment era is largely responsible for the science we both refer to. Although I agree with some of the enlightenment thought, to be categorized as “an enlightenment thinker” is not entirely accurate and one I refuse. However I would agree that cognition precedes culture, therefore cultural mandate, because no culture can conceive itself without the careful or careless cognition of some intelligent being. We can see this from Genesis.

    The problem is with both, the conscience and the culture. You are somewhat correct… I believe that the primary (or first) problem is coherence which is a cognitive problem but the solution is not necessarily more education but maybe a more holistic education. It seems obvious to me that if people do not believe what is being said either it is false or it is not being communicated sufficiently. God loves you, you are a sinner, Jesus died for you, and you need to invite him into your life. This gospel will get you into the kingdom. But it has trouble bringing the kingdom to earth, since it’s primarily focused on the interior life. I find a problem we encountered in the previous church and American era regarding persuasion is simplicity, rather than an over abundance of information. I think your comment reveals this. It was rather the truth was “dummed” down.

    People don’t know enough truth. If they knew more, they’d act better, to be honest those are your words I don’t agree with the statement entirely. People can only act better or rightly when they know the truth but it is still their decision whether they act on the truth or not, that to me seems to be a cognitive problem. Christianity should not be about conversion or behavioral management.

    Mike thanks for opportunity to share on your blog! I sincerely mean it when I say that more ‘open forums’ need to be properly done to expound on our understanding of our Christian worldview.

  11. Mike Metzger says:

    Mark – Glad to provide the forum. I appreciate you diving in. Aquinas said civilization is constituted by argument – barbarians club one another. Having said all that, I disagree that cognition precedes culture (maybe it’s a typo on your part). The Cultural Mandate is critical since culture shapes and precedes cognition. Quick example: the explosion of “just,” “like,” and “really” in your people’s vocabulary. They are not cognizant of this speech pattern – it is a product of a dumbed down culture.

    Stan: Good word. That’s why you are “Stan the Man!”

  12. Pete Floyd says:

    Another excellent article! I do agree that there is much that goes on below the surface that informs our willingness (or lack thereof), to give up strongly held beliefs in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. I would also agree that the neural networks and “fuzzy logic” that we apply to our past and present experiences have much to do with our difficulty in changing our beliefs. I would submit, that much of this “below the surface” processing, is exactly that – below the surface, and is extremely difficult to identify as one thing or the other. To attribute the 90% below the surface to a neural type process, or unconscious decision process seems to ignore a whole class of motives that emerge from things like personality, character, worldview, hopes, family, fears, etc. While these things may in some sense be classified as “below the surface”, they are often not hidden, unrecognized, or unknown as Burton might claim; and in my opinion, these inform the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance more strongly than anything else. Perhaps when you refer to this as conscience, it partially explains it, but the way the article describes it, seems to somehow explain our unwillingness to adapt to new information as a part of us that we have no control over – i.e. – “the devil made me do it”; and results in us not taking responsibility for our own beliefs.

    One of the things that you did not mention in this “belief inertia” phenomena is the whole concept of pride. It is my contention that pride, and the process of having to admit that one is/was wrong, explains the reason for the inertia more than the unseen cognitive processes of the human mind. The only remedy for this (for the Christian) is first to recognize our true weakness in this area and to ask God to teach us the lesson of humility and a “belief posture” that sees that ones beliefs must always be willing to be challenged and when we are given new information/evidence, be willing to change our beliefs. Secondly, we must always be willing to test our beliefs in light of God’s word, and be willing to change our views when his word enlightens our minds.

    Finally, I would offer one additional antidote to this issue of changing minds. While I agree that a four chapter view is correct and that the cultural mandate is something that we should all be working through (to provide a greater context for the world to see us in), I believe that simply taking a personal interest in others – their lives, their hurts, their hopes, etc., and of seeing ourselves as not different from those who do not believe, changes everything. When we as Christians, truly love people for who they are (image bearers of God), and we give a reason for the hope that is in us, God does the miraculous. The world needs to see Christ in us. If this is the cultural mandate, then let’s get busy!

  13. Dave says:

    Mike,
    Great article. The brain is truly remarkable and it seems that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding how it works…these are exciting times.

    In light of the comments about neural pathways being formed at a young age, it makes sense that people generally follow the religion of their parents. We all have that “there’s no way that’s correct” reaction when we hear about different religions. I grew up in the Christian church and so when I hear about Mormon, Christian Science, or ancient Norse beliefs they seem ridiculous and it is easy to dismiss them without much of a thought. This realization has caused me to take a look at Christianity with fresh eyes lately. What if I were brought up a Muslim? What would I think about Christianity? Does is just seem right because that’s what I was taught and was surrounded with? Should we trust our neural networks or be especially suspicious to help offset our own cognitive dissonance?

    Also, much of what you touch on seems to point to Determinism. The decisions we make are entirely under the radar because they are the result of countless antecedents which cause the outcome. Our will has nothing to do with it. Have you read much about this? If so, I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post.

  14. Mike Metzger says:

    Dave:

    While it might sound like I’m a determinist, rest assured I’m not. Our will is simply a great less free than we imagine (and more fettered than we prefer to think). But we are still morally responsible for our choices. The old adage is that God is not mocked – we reap what we sow. If several generations preach a simplistic, find-the-answer kind of message, each successive generation of hearers is likely to be more stupid than the previous one. This is reality, so it applies to any faith system.

  15. Andrew says:

    One thought about cognition coming before culture.

    I have four kids, the oldest being 5. They say things they don’t understand, yet they picked up from their culture (ie. things their Mama said out loud!). One of our roles as parents is to help them understand what they are saying and proper discernment on when and where to say it. In a sense, helping them develop the cognitive ability to help them better process the culture around them, which has already began shaping them.

    I think this makes a strong case for culture proceeding cognition, and to approach people’s growth otherwise can create a lot of confusion and disappointment.

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