I just fished a book called “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth” by Jonathan Rauch. In it he talks about what makes something “true”, and lays out a sort of constitution of rules for deciding a “truth”

Similar to the US Constitution, his constitution has its own equivalents of checks and balances (peer review and replication), separation of powers (specialization), governing institutions (scientific societies and professional bodies), voting (citations and confirmations), and civic virtues (submit your beliefs for checking if you want to be taken seriously).

The book delves into how the former president of the US completely turned this “constitution” on its head. It was good reading. While not specifically talking about religion, there were some parts that jumped out at me as directly applying to religious thought, and specifically Mormon thought, belief and Truth (with the capital T)

From the book, it talks about “super-smart” people, like maybe former surgeons and supreme court justices.

……intelligence is no defense against false belief. To the contrary, it makes us even better at rationalizing. Super-smart people, as Haidt notes in The Righteous Mind, are more skilled than others at finding arguments to justify their own points of view. But when they are asked to find arguments on the opposite side of a question, they do no better than anyone else. Brainpower makes people better press secretaries, but not necessarily better at open-minded, self-critical thinking.

The Constitution of Knowledge [1]

So Elder Ballard saying he was not a “dodo” and “having been to a pretty good school” is no help for him in deciding if something is true or not, and in fact will help him come up with better rationalizations for his beliefs.

This next part was a lightbulb moment for me. It made so much sense as related to the Mormon church and its truth claims.

You might think that perverse stubbornness would be maladaptive from an evolutionary point of view. The reason it is not goes back to Aristotle: humans are social animals. What matters most from an evolutionary perspective is not that a person forms beliefs which are true; it is that she forms beliefs which lead to social success. In effect, what matters most is not what I believe or what you believe but what we believe.

We can’t afford to be wrong about whether a bear is chasing us, but being wrong about climate change or gun control will impose no personal cost on us at all, especially when compared to the cost of challenging the sacred beliefs of our group. From an individual point of view, using our cognitive firepower to defend our cherished beliefs makes good sense, even if defending them makes us less accurate about reality—as it demonstrably does.

Think of it this way: humans are equipped with some of evolution’s finest mental circuitry to protect us from changing our minds when doing so might alienate us from our group. We have hundreds of thousands of years of practice at believing whatever will keep us in good standing with our tribe, even if that requires denying, discounting, rationalizing, misperceiving, and ignoring the evidence in front of our nose. We see this talent put to work every day by others, and by ourselves.

The Constitution of Knowledge (highlights are mine)

Wow! It is not important what a Q15 member believes is the truth, it is only important that he believes what the other 14 believe. Same for the 70. I think this also applies to a degree with our families and neighbors, more so if you live in a highly Mormon population.

Where I live, none of my neighbors are LDS, none of my coworkers are LDS, so me having heterodox Mormon beliefs will only impact some family relationships, but will not affect my livelihood or social interaction with my friends. This would change if I lived in the Mormon Corridor [2]. Having beliefs outside of my Mormon tribe would affect my social life, and could affect my work if I was employed by BYU, or even if I provided a service and had lots of LDS customers. Think of a dentist in Orem who 95% of her patients were LDS from her ward and stake.

Our minds have evolved to keep us safe and healthy, even it if means giving up our autonomy to believe our “truth”

It also affects how we learn.

“Our ability to successfully evaluate evidence and form true beliefs has as much to do with our social conditions as our individual psychology,” write the philosophers of science Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall in their 2019 book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. Even when individuals try to keep their minds open and their thinking straight, the group can get trapped in a loop of mutual bias confirmation. Members believe they are checking with others and seeking good information, but actually they are repeating and amplifying each other’s misapprehensions. The whole community becomes an echo chamber. “Agents who learn from others in their social network can fail to form true beliefs about the world, even when more than adequate evidence is available,” O’Connor and Weatherall write. “

The Constitution of Knowledge

How have you seen this in your life? Has it affected you, or someone you know in how they discern what is true? Now that we understand this, is their a way to overcome these evolutionary tendencies?

[1] I read this as an e-book, so there was no consistent page number I could reference, it changed every time I opened it depended on which reader I was using.

[2] I learned from my mistakes! Spelled corridor correctly this time!