How Beliefs are Structured Within the Mind

 In The Mind

All empirical knowledge is formed through a combination of experience (sense, emotions, etc.), reasoning (that which is logically implied by other knowledge), and a priori knowledge.  So this means that experience, analytic reasoning, and the innate functioning of the mind are the foundation of all knowledge.  This also means that foundationalism, the belief that all knowledge has a foundation in the mind, must be true, at least in theory.  Every single thing that one knows or believes has to stand in relation to one or more of these foundations.  There are lots of details that are not well understood regarding how our complex knowledge might be constructed from these foundations.

There are some who are attracted to coherentism, which is an alternative belief that there is no actual foundation of knowledge and that instead all knowledge is a coherent cloud of interdependency.  The draw of coherentism is that it is difficult to see how the complex cloud of interdependent assumptions that are constantly spinning through the mind can all ultimately rest on fundamental beliefs and assumptions.  However, people have certain innate knowledge and also that all experiences that one has had in their life must be the foundation of all other knowledge.  So the biggest problem with coherentism is that it does not involve solid knowledge that is foundational and unchanging.  This foundation must exist, even though it is difficult to identify how our lived experience is built up from it.  As with all attempts to understand the nature of the mind, understanding how knowledge derives from the aforementioned foundation is quite difficult, though not impossible.

The foundation of knowledge is so named because it is an analogy to how a physical structure is built up atop a foundation.  In any structure, such as a tower, there are points where it touches the ground and all of the weight of the tower rests on these points.  As the tower grows taller and heavier, the foundation must be strong enough to support this weight and also the infrastructure of the tower must be put together correctly and the pieces need to be joined securely or else the tower will likely collapse.  If a tower is poorly built, a collapse is especially likely the taller it grows.  For it to maintain structural integrity, there will have to be beams that support weight and there will have to be points above the foundation where these beams are joined.  These join points, which might be several stories in the air, then serve as foundations to the additional weight above them.  So not only is the foundation important, but the join points that are nearer to the foundation are also quite important to keep the overall structure intact.

The point of this analogy is to visualize the way that beliefs are built on top of each other within our minds.  Admittedly, the comparison has only limited applicability, but there are some genuine similarities between how buildings are constructed and how complex ideas are developed within the brain.  Our brains have certain innate functions and foundational ideas, and beliefs can be constructed within them.  Groups of neurons can join together in complex ways that produce foundational pathways for the flow of information.  The internal structure of these groupings can serve to filter information in certain ways and to implement algorithms to process the information and to produce results.  This often has the effect of causing someone to have certain foundational beliefs which are central to their personality and which are usually not challenged or questioned.  New information that is perceived that might run counter to the foundational beliefs would likely be rejected by the foundational structures of neurons.

As was stated earlier, the ultimate foundation of all knowledge has to be the mind’s innate cognitive capacity along with all information that is observed through the senses.  However, some things that are observed become more foundational than others.  The structures within the mind can operate on any information that it has access to and can summarize and synthesize it and try to make sense of it.  Everything that a person might perceive, think, or feel must somehow be a product of this.

The foundational neural structures are usually created early in life as a product of genetics and the cultural environment in which one lives.  The human brain grows from infancy through childhood, and core neural pathways are formed that determine a person’s thought processes, feelings, and behavior patterns.  When the mind is young, it has little knowledge, so the neural structures are relatively simple and more malleable.  As one ages, the core neural pathways become more rigidly configured so that they filter new information and end up often producing results that are in line with the foundational beliefs and overarching assumptions about reality.  This process is driven not only by one’s genes, but also by their exposure to culture, family, peers, and pivotal moments in life.  The prevailing cultural assumptions and social mores are programmed into a person’s mind in their early years, which eventually leads to the formation of the person’s worldview.

As a person ages and learns more, the foundational structures in the brain usually remain largely intact.  The person takes in a wide variety of information about the world by seeing, hearing, and reading things, and also by interacting and empathizing with other people.  Their mind is constantly at work trying to make sense of everything that is going on and this process utilizes the reasoning capacity and sensemaking algorithms that are implemented in the neural networks deep within their brain.  The foundational neural structures that were forged at an early age can be expanded and newer structures can be built “on top” of them, so to speak.

This can happen, for example, when someone takes in new information and accepts it, such as when they believe in a claim that they heard or read somewhere.  When one accepts new information, what often happens is that a join point is created to connect it to existing information, which allows it to become like a foundation for new beliefs that can be created later and also like a filter that would prevent contrary beliefs from subsequently being formed.  This can be very useful if one accepts a claim that relates to a proper way to live or a basic philosophical belief.  If the information contained in the claim makes sense and is consistent with the greater external reality, then accepting this claim should help the structure of ideas grow stronger and build an ever greater tower of understanding.

Examples of good join points that one can build solid knowledge on top of include the principles of common sense, language comprehension, social customs, critical thinking, and techniques to aid in investigation, reasoning, and claim evaluation.  These can then form the basis of an understanding of more complex ideas that depend on these sensemaking capabilities, such as the scientific method and mathematics.  If one has an understanding of the foundational theories of these subjects then they can use this as the basis for more detailed understanding in these areas, including specific scientific facts, complex mathematical subjects, etc.

On the other hand, if one accepts a claim that is not epistemically justified, then this can complicate the structure of ideas, especially if this claim is accepted early in life and ideas are built up on top of this claim.  This can happen if one hears or reads an unjustified and unreasonable claim early in life, such as a claim that everything written in a certain religious book is 100% true, and this leads the person to strongly believe in this and it then becomes a core component of their worldview.  If someone were to do this, they would be creating a join point within the core neural structures of their mind so that any subsequent beliefs would have to go through it, and the notion that their religious book is absolutely always true would therefore become an unchallengable dogmatic belief.

For any belief such as this, and any others that are not epistemically justified and are unreasonable, this can be analogous to building on top of a foundation that is not structurally sound.  As this person grows older and memorizes and believes in many passages in this book, they would then end up building more and more beliefs on top of the foundational idea that the book is infallible.  This can be thought of as like building a skyscraper on a join point that is not directly above the true foundation.  The most reasonable mental foundation would be one that would be based on critical thinking and science and that would avoid any fundamental beliefs that are taken on blind faith.  An adult who instead has fundamental beliefs based on unquestioned blind faith would probably not be firmly grounded in reality.  This person instead likely conceptualizes everything that they might see or hear in terms of whether or not it conforms to certain preconceived notions.  For this person, we can figure that reason and observation are not what matters, but rather, what their book might happen to say.

Perhaps this person could reevaluate whether their fundamental beliefs still make sense in their adult life, and they could do so on the basis of their personal observations in the world and by thinking about the implications and also by learning about critical thinking and science.  This would have to occur slowly and gradually, however.  It is uncommon for a person to simply take in new information in their adult life that would fundamentally alter the core neural structures, or to reconfigure the most foundational filtering algorithms that allow them to make sense of the world.  Early in life, newly perceived information can more easily be used to help construct the core neural structures that can be likened to the foundation of a building.  Later in life, it is far less likely for new information to be perceived that would cause someone to fundamentally reassess their core beliefs and assumptions.

People don’t go about their day constantly reevaluating their foundational beliefs and assumptions simply because they hear or read something that challenges them.  Nobody could live a stable and healthy life if their worldview could suddenly be upended because of little bits of information that they perceive.  It is possible, however, for one to gradually reassess some of their fundamental beliefs and to shift their worldview over time.  This can start to happen when one observes too much new information that cannot easily be made coherent with their more foundational beliefs.  If someone perceives certain things that are inconsistent with their foundational beliefs, they might at first try to come up with creative ways for it all to still make sense.  They might prefer to disbelieve what they see and hear, but that will only go so far for any reasonable and honest person.  At some point, they might start to simultaneously believe two contradictory notions, which is called cognitive dissonance.

These mental tactics might work at first, but when this person observes more and more things that fly in the face of their foundational beliefs, it would become more difficult for them to hold their worldview together.  The structure that is built within their mind needs to be able to hold up everything that they believe.  If a structure of beliefs within one’s mind is too large and build atop too shaky of a foundation then it might eventually come crashing down, so to speak.  For anyone who is not entirely closed minded, the structure of ideas in their mind should gradually shift with new experiences.  If one has certain beliefs that are not accurate representations of reality, then sooner or later they might experience things that are far contrary to their preconceived notions.  This then might cause a fundamental structural shift, which causes one to lose beliefs and then possibly to have difficulty building a new foundation and forming new beliefs.  For the one who experiences this fundamental shakeup of beliefs, this may result in confusion, depression, cynicism, insanity, and/or extreme skepticism.

In some cases, a positive psychological revolution might occur where one previously had a very complex structure that was not properly grounded in reality and not open to shifting regardless of what information came in.  A structure that is built on dogmatic beliefs is inevitably maintained through cognitive dissonance and avoiding taking seriously that which is observed in the world and by shunning any reasoned conclusions that might be derived from sober reflections.  If one is open minded, they might be able to shift away from this and to rebuild their belief structures.  Such a foundational might result in them creation of a new structure within their mind and a new worldview that is more enlightened.  As was explained in a previous post, enlightenment is the degree to which one is able find answers to the most basic questions in life on the basis of observation and reason, and wherein it is such realizations that lead to them finding peace within their life.  If a person’s core beliefs are stable and their mind is free from dogmatic faith and also of cognitive dissonance and if their mind remains open, then they stand a better chance of achieving a high level of enlightenment.

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