This is the first post of a series that will explore my views on knowledge, the epistemological value of science and why it is scientifically naïve to pretend that facts are just facts and/or that objective knowledge does in fact exist. In a nutshell, all knowledge is located in our brains (even if it’s written, it becomes meaningful only when it’s read) and our brains deal with symbols, not with reality itself. Moreover, what we think is heavily influenced by how we feel, so much so that we should always be aware that this additional layer between reality and our understanding is always present, and may be adding bias or some sort of distortion.
While tackling the subject of knowledge, what it is, and where it comes from, it becomes quickly necessary to engage with some difficult, and distinctively human, subjects: language, stories and narratives. I say “difficult” because I was formed as a scientist (biologist, to be precise) and both language and stories are difficult to define, reduce and analyse. They have of course been intensely studied, but obviously, mostly by the “other culture”, both adding and subtracting to my difficulties. Finally, because humans are the only organisms that we know to naturally use languages, I can’t even look at homologous phenomena in the animal world, a little trick that usually helps to explain a lot.
As I’ve shown above, cognitive attractors are not exclusively human, but apparently language and stories are, and there is no doubt that they do have an important role in shaping and creating knowledge and beliefs. However, they are tricky subjects, also because language has an undeniable cognitive role, and both verbal communication, and the way that language is able to shape our own ways of thinking, are famously able to spur more controversy than insight. Therefore, I will (for now) try to steer clear from controversial topics, and keep my discussion as general and simple as possible.
So far I’ve stated that knowledge is a collection of models of the world, and although I have not discussed how such models are created, I have at least started explaining how direct experience shapes existing ones.
One concept that I haven’t exposed yet is about the role of emotions. This in turn has to do with the idea of purpose as introduced earlier. Each of our models of the world is justified and inspired by one or more purposes, and each purpose we may have is in turn the consequence of what we find desirable or not. This has to do with emotions, because desire and repulsion are themselves emotions, and because what we find desirable is itself directly influenced by different emotions. This shouldn’t be a controversial idea: sometimes I may feel full of beans and energetic, and will therefore find it agreeable to engage in some active behaviour (such as writing this), some other times I may feel tired and powerless, and will end my day watching TV or wasting time on some silly computer game. In fact, I argue elsewhere (unpublished, at the time of writing) that our emotional system is the evolutionary result of natural selection: it is a system that makes it likely that we will find desirable what is important to ensure the survival of our genes, and that we will, on the other hand, naturally try to avoid what threatens our integrity and well-being. On this basis, I wish to argue that emotions and desires are what define our purposes, and through purposes, they invariably shape our different models of reality (because the existence of each model is always justified by one or more purposes). Therefore, all of our beliefs are always intertwined with the purposes that underlie them, and with the emotions that drive each purpose.
Because of the importance of desires and emotions for our survival, and because understanding emotions is crucial to learn to predict other people’s behaviour (a very important ability for social creatures), I can see how the emotive charge that is attached to a certain bit of information is what we internally use to judge the importance of that particular bit of information, and therefore I believe that emotional significance shapes how and if a notion will be remembered (more on this will follow on the next post in the series).
The key point here is that emotions underlie all our cognitive processes, or that they always play an important role in shaping our knowledge. Armed with this consideration, in the next post I will briefly discuss a few things about language, stories and hint at their role in cognitive processes.