f. Why Consistency of Knowledge is Important

Why Consistency of Knowledge is Important

Consistency within Personal Schemata

Schemata, paradigms, and memes are essential references when we are motivated to act and, together with unsatisfied needs, govern our behaviour. When all the information we have access to is consistent, we can make quick and easy decisions. Inconsistencies on the other hand result in ambiguities, confusion, and uncertainty.

It is perfectly possible to hold information deemed to be “false” or “uncertain” if its probability is flagged accordingly. However, the less certain the information, the more cognitive processing needed to arrive at a decision, and the more delayed that decision will be. In the natural world, delaying a decision to act can reduce our chances of survival. Therefore, we tend to regard information as being either true or false.

The simple propositions “Peter likes Jane” and “Peter does not like Jane” contradict one another and are therefore inconsistent. To give another example, “Dogs have wings” is inconsistent with the image of dogs that most of us hold. Usually, however, inconsistencies are far more complex than these examples suggest, and complex reasoning is often needed to reveal them. They can also be detected by the unconscious mind, which gives us a sense that “there is something wrong”. However, the process involved in this is unknown.

Unresolved contradictions make us more vulnerable. They can lead to uncertainty, anxiety, stress, and, in the extreme, mental ill-health. Thus, internal consistency of the information we hold can be regarded as a basic need. In turn, this need drives us to understand the world in which we exist. It is, quite simply, a survival mechanism.

Consistency between Personal Schemata and Social Memes

Every society has a core social ethic. In large complex societies, this is often based on its main religion, albeit, in some cases, its historical religion. In the West we have the Christian Ethic, in China the Confucian Ethic, and in the Middle East obedience to the will of God. This core social ethic is not necessarily stated explicitly and can be intangible. However, it is the basis of our social norms and values, and we learn of it through them. This process establishes our External Ethical Schema, i.e., our understanding of why society holds some things to be good and others to be bad. Errors of interpretation do, of course, occur and for this reason our External Ethical Schema can differ from the actual social ethic.

We also develop an Internal Ethical Schema, i.e., our personal understanding of what is good, what is bad, and why. This is equivalent to our super-ego or conscience. However, it is not necessarily the same as our External Ethical Schema for the following reasons:

  1. Differences of opinion between oneself and society as to what is good or bad. We can find ourselves in situations where it is necessary to hold a particular belief to satisfy our basic needs even though this may be inconsistent with objective reality, for example, if we live in a dogmatic and authoritarian society.
  2. Differences in the way that individuals balance personal and social interests.
  3. Behavioural predispositions (see next article).
  4. Effort after Meaning when relearning the social ethic in later life, for example after migration or when changing jobs.

There can, therefore, be contradictions between the beliefs that we hold, and the beliefs acceptable to a group or society to which we belong. This too can cause stress, anxiety, and in extreme cases, mental illness, as we struggle to reconcile the need for internal consistency with those for social acceptance, positive regard, and even our existence needs.

Consistency between Social Memes

Simpler societies with relatively small populations tended to be local monocultures. One had three options: accept the prevailing values, norms and beliefs and be accepted by others; not accept them and be rejected; or hide one’s personal beliefs and struggle with the inconsistency.

In a more complex society, we can belong to several groups each of which establishes a different External Ethical Schema. In belonging to these groups, we adopt different roles, and the different schemata guide our behaviour. Inconsistencies between them can, of course, arise and it is notable that many occur in connection with employment. We have a range of strategies to deal with those inconsistencies but key among them is the development of a clear Internal Ethical Schema and following it. Further guidance can be found here:

In a more complex society, there is also wide variety of groups to which an individual may belong. People are attracted to groups they feel may satisfy their needs and this also applies to the need for inner consistency. Thus, people with a particular view will join others with the same or similar views and be able to hold that view whilst at the same time being socially accepted. In this way inconsistency is avoided. However, belonging to such a group does have the effect of reinforcing the beliefs that individuals share, and ideologies can, therefore, develop.

e. Schemata, Memes and Paradigms (2)

Schemata, Memes and Paradigms (2)

The words “schemata”, “memeplexes”, and “paradigms” describe clusters of mental information in different contexts. Schemata are held by an individual, memeplexes held by a society and paradigms held by a group of scientists.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, the processes associated with them have many features in common. They evolve with time but are resistant to change until a crisis occurs and they must be revised. They generally evolve in a direction which leads to greater success for the individual or community.

Factors which govern the success of a schema, memeplex, or paradigm are as follows:

  1. It must satisfy our biological, social, and psychological needs.
  2. It must satisfactorily reflect the real world, thereby enabling us to take decisions which are in our best interests.
  3. The information it contains must be consistent. For example, “The cheese on the floor is always eaten” is consistent with “There is a mouse in the house”. However, “The cheese on the floor is never eaten” is not. A degree of inconsistency can be acceptable because the benefits of the schema, memeplex or paradigm outweigh the effort of revising it. We have developed social and psychological mechanisms for dealing with such inconsistencies. For example, in the case of paradigms and memeplexes, the silencing or discrediting of dissenters. In the case of schemata, rationalisation, and denial. However, if sufficient inconsistencies accumulate, then the cluster of information will collapse.

Beliefs can also act as satisfiers. They may, for example, enable us to form better relationships with members of our community. To cite another example, a belief in a god can provide a feeling of safety in an unsafe world. However, our beliefs are often a result of socialisation and, as such, we may not be consciously aware of them. They also lie on Manfred MaxNeef’s scale. They can be: synergistic satisfiers which satisfy several needs; singular satisfiers which satisfy just one need; inhibiting satisfiers which prevent the satisfaction of other needs; pseudo-satisfiers which merely claim to satisfy a need; or violators which, in practice, hinder the satisfaction of a need.

An example of a belief which acts as a violator is “false consciousness”. This term was coined by Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895) to describe the way in which a subordinate social group can willingly adopt, to their detriment, the ideology of a dominant group.

Thus, it is not necessarily the truth of information which is of sole importance to people, but rather a consistent combination of information some of which is true and some of which may not be but which, nevertheless, satisfies our social and psychological needs. The implication is, of course, that we should not be surprised if others disagree with us even if this disagreement seems to be irrational, counter-factual, or unreasonable.

c. Schemata, Memes and Paradigms (1)

Schemata, Memes, and Paradigms (1)

All knowledge and belief, whether true or false, can be regarded as information. Treating it in this way removes any preconceived ideas or value judgements and enables us to consider it more objectively. Any place where information is held, for example in the mind of an individual or in a book, can be regarded as a medium of information. Again, this removes any preconceptions or value judgements.

Knowledge can be held by an individual in a schema (pl. schemata), by a group in a paradigm, or by a society in a memeplex. These three theories are discussed below.

Knowledge of the individual – Schemata

According to the British psychologist, F. C. Bartlett (1886 – 1969) the knowledge of an individual is held in schemata. These are mental structures each of which organises items of information about some aspect of the world and the relationships between them.

Knowledge, including ideas, beliefs, and values, must be remembered but Bartlett showed that the way in which we do so is affected by information that we already hold. So that new information is more consistent with our existing schemata we may omit anything thought to be irrelevant, alter details, shift emphasis, include rationalisations, and make cultural alterations. Bartlett referred to this process as “effort after meaning”. Consistency of the information in our schemata is important to us. If we are unable to reconcile two contradictory items then we experience cognitive dissonance, a form of psychological stress. When this occurs, we do all that we can to resolve the contradiction and reduce our discomfort. For example, we may simply forget information which contradicts that already in our schemata.

The reason we modify information in this way is thought to be the mental effort involved in revising our schemata. According to the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb, memory is a biological process involving growth or metabolic change in our neurons which, of course, requires both time and energy. Schemata are therefore resistant to change.

The American psychologist Jerome Bruner, (1915 – 2016), postulated that individuals hold information in three ways: enactively, as a recollection of muscle actions; iconically, in the form of visual, aural, tactile, taste or olfactory images; or symbolically, using symbols such as words to represent physical entities and the relationships between them. Information stored enactively can be communicated to others through training, imagery and spoken or written instruction, but this is a lengthly process. Information stored iconically can be communicated by the production of images, sounds, scents, etc., for example by painting, but this too is a lengthly process. Only information stored symbolically can be communicated relatively quickly and accurately. Hence our dependence on natural languages and formal languages, such as mathematics, for communication.

Knowledge of a Society – Memes

In common parlance, the word “meme” describes a visual image circulating on the internet. However, the term was originally coined by Richard Dawkins, in his book “The Selfish Gene”, to describe a cultural idea, belief or symbol that can be transmitted from one individual to another through language, gesture, ritual, imitation, etc. Memes have a similar role to genes in biological evolution and are thought to be the basis of cultural evolution. They can mutate and their propagation is dependent on whether they improve the likelihood of a culture’s survival and reproduction.

Memes form clusters known as memeplexes which are the basis of a culture, political ideology, or religious dogma. Because of this, individual memes can “hitch a ride” on a broader and more successful memeplex. For example, homophobia might form part of a more generally acceptable system of religious beliefs and practices.

Memes are resistant to change in the same way as schemata. For the individuals that hold them, not only are biological changes in the brain required but negotiation and conflict with others may also be involved.

Knowledge of a Group – Paradigms

An example of a memeplex is a scientific paradigm. This is a generally accepted set of scientific beliefs and practices which prevail at a particular time. Major changes to a paradigm are known as a paradigm shift. In his book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, the American physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, describes a paradigm shift as following four stages:

  1. Normal Science. A dominant paradigm exists and is universally accepted. However, as time progresses, scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by it.
  2. Extraordinary research. When sufficient anomalies emerge and cast doubt on the veracity of the paradigm a state of crisis results. Research of an exploratory nature is then carried out and new theories and experiments are produced to explain the anomalies.
  3. Adoption of a new paradigm. Competing new paradigms form and gain followers. However, they also gain detractors who are committed to the original. Eventually, a single new paradigm may gain acceptance if it predicts phenomena more successfully than the original.
  4. Aftermath of the scientific revolution. The new paradigm becomes institutionalised and dominant but the revolutionary process, which is not usually recorded, becomes forgotten.

In my next post, I will describe how we acquire new knowledge before later discussing the features that schemata, memes and paradigms have in common.