Learned Knowledge and Uncertainty

What does knowledge and uncertainty have to do with how you view the physical world? The physical world is a world of potential benefits and threats. You have decide how to react to it and it’s important to realize that not all knowledge is created equal. Some we know absolutely, much we are told as true, and more we learn are thought to be true. We have to combine this information with its uncertainty to decide on our actions.

Internal Worldview

The best way to see this relationship is to recognize the use of an internal worldview. We make decisions, not based on external reality, but on our view of that external reality. That is the basis of our decision-making. We make choices from our internal worldview (also called mindset) to satisfy our needs, desires, and fears. As discussed earlier, our internal worldview is intrinsically colored by biological imperatives. Social aspects also come into play.

The age at which you learn things makes a difference in your mental worldview. That is, not all pieces of your worldview are assembled according to the same dynamic. The influence of your family is paramount in your early years. Their influence is strongest on the values you use in manage personal relationships. When peers rise in influence, their effect is mitigated by the beliefs you have already developed, but your peers also expose you to facts and beliefs beyond those assumed in the family sphere. Similar expansion of worldview occurs in classrooms and then by media outlets. More on this in Development to the Adult Mind.

What you experience yourself you know as certified facts. Other things family or friends tell you and yet other ideas are built upon presumed facts by authorities you don’t know. For those people you know, you can assess how trustworthy they are. For authorities you don’t know, like teachers and media personalities, you have less clear insight on their accuracy and truthfulness. You may decide to believe everything you hear is either true or false, but when many factors and statistical statements are involved, partial truth or uncertainty is involved.

We build our knowledge structure in a manner that recognizes our needs, desires (goals) and fears.

Internal Worldview Components

Figure 5.1 Three major components of internal worldview: memory, knowledge, and needs.
Figure 5.1 Major components of internal worldview: memory, knowledge, and needs.

A person’s internal (mental) worldview has three basic components (Figure 5.1)

First, memory of past experiences, episodic memory. Other types of memory are discussed below.

Second, although knowledge is a type of memory, facts, relationships, and beliefs have significant differences from the immediate knowledge of personal experience.

Third, 3S Biological Imperatives lead to one’s needs, desires, and fears.

Events and Perturbation

Figure 5.2 Perturbation processed by existing internal worldview
Figure 5.2 Perturbation processed by existing internal worldview

One’s internal worldview is usefully considered as a steady state system with perturbations. That is, events are jostlings to be understood by our internal worldview. Events are not experienced independent of our understanding. Figure 5.2 and the bullet points provide a gloss of age-related reactions to events, with the different moral code used in evaluating behavioral choices. It also suggests that the internal worldview may be modified by events.

  • New experiences are processed and understood relative to one’s internal worldview, which undergoes significant shifts according to one’s stage towards maturity. See Learning for more details on the relation between stage and driving forces in decision-making.
  • The situation is broken into events of interest and background.
  • Events of interest are assessed as to their ability to satisfy one’s needs and desires and to lessen one’s fears.
  • From one’s knowledge of relationships between events and consequences, various behavioral responses present themselves.
  • The behavioral response that maximizes the sum of satisfying one’s needs and desires and lessens one’s fears is chosen and performed.
  • Depending on the result of the behavior, a change may be induced in one’s knowledge and perhaps even to desires or fears. The change in a deeply held piece of knowledge or desire or fear can shake one’s worldview–like an earthquake, rattling one’s faith in the pillars of belief.

Also broken out in Figure 5.2,

  • As an infant, our ethics (behavioral choice) are driven by immediate satisfaction–the need to satisfy hunger and the desire to achieve physical comfort.
  • As a toddler and youngster, our ethics are adjusted by parental rules–dictates that certain behaviors are rewarded while others are punished.
  • Once puberty is reached, our ethics as well as our interests change. Our knowledge about alternative ethical regimes grows dramatically as we experience life further outside the family circle. The physical and physiological changes accompanying puberty cause the importance of sex to leap in our estimation of situations, events, and situations.
  • In maturity, many of us reflect on the difference between the claims of society and the actuality of events, which can result in partial rejection of societal norms.

Development of one’s knowledge upon we depend for our decision-making, relies on the abilities of our memory.


Mental Construction focuses on memories that are more processed. Facts and experienced events are the most obvious. These memories have features, usually are only partially recalled. They also bring further memories to conscious awareness.

Memory.is not an exact video of past events. It is a personalized assessment of a past event, a weighing of features according to one’s interests and understanding. One’s needs, desires, and goals affect what we remember of events. One remembers what is important to one’s interests.

But let’s come back to memory. As Alan Baddeley says in Your Memory (p 10–11), discussing the physical basis of memory.

… However, many of the claims for an understanding of the molecular basis of memory … have been shown to be premature. … There is no doubt progress is being made in this important area, and that one day there may be a very fruitful collaboration between the experimental psychologist and the neurochemist. Today, however, there is little area of overlap.

Baddeley’s book also gives Figure 5.3, an important delineation of separate uses of the term ‘memory.’

Figure 5.3 Memory Types. Sensory, Short-term, Long-term. More description in memory link
Figure 5.3 Memory Types
  • Sensory memory has three main subsystems. Sensory data can have a lag of 1/2 second or more until it is registered by the brain. These subsystems retain that much sensory input supporting continuity of sensation as well as allowing attention (or inattention) to further analysis.
    • Visual sketchpad
    • Phonological loop
    • Haptic (touch)
  • Short-term and working memory is the term used for two distinct functions.
    • Short-term memory is the gateway to eventual long-term memory.
    • Working memory provides the arena for a number of thoughts, facts, and theories to be considered together.
  • Long-term memory is what is commonly referred to as memory. It has its own distinct components.
    • Explicit memory (declarative memory) is the repository of consciously remembered facts.
      • Episodic memory contains memories of our life events, our experiences.
      • Semantic memory is store of our learned facts, concepts, theories, etc.
    • Implicit Memory (procedural memory) holds the skills of routine behaviors and tasks we have mastered. Tying our shoes or riding a bike without conscious attention to the activity are examples of using procedural memory.
If you want more detailed elaboration, Alan Baddeley’s Your Memory discusses thoroughly sensory-staging and procedural task memory, while Torkel Klingberg in The Overflowing Brain draws a clear connection between working memory and intelligence in his book, subtitled Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory.


Figure 5.4 Knowledge Contents
Figure 5.4 Knowledge Contents

Knowledge has structure. Figure 5.4 separates those things we know.

  • Into three sources of knowledge (primary, secondary, and tertiary) with declining certainty.
  • Proceeding down, knowledge is categorized by its type: facts, beliefs, and tastes.
    • Facts are events that have occurred.
    • Beliefs, which also includes theories, are the way by which we combine various facts and assumed facts into a framework that allows us to explain why those events happened as well as predict what might happen in the future.
    • Tastes, preferences that are accepted as being beyond dispute, as in food, drink, hobbies, pastimes, etc.
  • Self-esteem, a measure of the internally-developed sense that one is worthwhile as well as one’s likelihood of achieving success with one’s goals.
  • Empathy, a measure of a person’s sympathy for another’s plight.

Both self-esteem and empathy are used in decision-making. To understand the origin of these two factors, we need to first discuss the 3S Imperatives.

3S Imperatives

Figure 5.5 3S mperatives give rise to needs and goals shown in emotions and personality
Figure 5.5 3S Imperatives

The 3S imperatives (Satiety, Sex, and Safety) shape our internal worldview (Figure 5.5) by directing our awareness and attention toward fulfilling these fundamental demands.

Satiety is the satisfaction of the physical needs of our body. It originates in the biological drive for homeostasis, an automatic search for the level of bio-chemical ions that results in the organism optimal physical performance.

Our needs are an abstraction of the vast combinations of homeostatic and environmental situations we find ourselves in. Typically each choice can satisfy only partially the combination of our satiety, sex, and safety needs.

Sex first arose as a motive force for behavioral choices more than 1 billion years ago. If homeostasis is not demanding immediate action, sexual desire can direct our interest and action.

As memory became an important feature of higher animals, links between behavior and result developed. Behaviors with bad results could be learned to be avoided.

Safety, individual preservation, elevated immediate flight-or-fight reactions to a feature of decision-making. Now they could be applied to situations that might arise from our decisions.

Since we are unsure of what the future will bring and because we are weighing three primitive factors (the 3S Imperatives), there is a vast mixture of partial satisfactions that can result. Our uncertain anticipations are organized into more general terms as needs, desires, and fears. The manner in which they interact with our situations are labeled emotions.

Emotions result from choosing a behavior that maximizes the sum of the satisfaction of our 3S imperatives, constrained by the limit that only one behavior can be chosen. Usually the 3S Imperatives are each, only partly, satisfied.

Personality is the semi-stable emotional collection of behavioral responses we make from the choices available. The strengths of the 3S’s in an individual are relative stable as is the physical context these days. This leads to a routine selection of certain behavior responses, personality traits.

However, sometimes the behavior chosen fulfills one imperative and frustrates one or both of the others. That is upsetting and reverberates in our mental worldview, resulting in adjustments to the importance we attach to related content.

Level of Knowledge and Uncertainty

As mentioned, all knowledge is not of the same certainty. Some facts, such as remembering that you hated tomatoes when you were five, are much more certain than your belief that the Roman Empire fell because of barbarian raids or that the stock market will rise.

Figure 5.6 Knowledge and uncertainty. Immediate, observed, and remote knowledge
Figure 5.6 Knowledge and uncertainty

Take a minute to look at the separation of knowledge shown in Figure 5.6. Because the stages occur sequentially, they build upon the earlier stages. I’m simplifying to sharpen their distinction and relationships.

Of course, primary information continues to accrue while we are learning language, interacting with our peers, and digesting other people’s ideas; however, the older, deeper, and more immediate the knowledge the more difficult it is for a later stage to dislodge it.

In thee following bullet points, I’m using structural organization to substitute for verbal connectives, a la pattern associations in the non-verbal hemisphere.

  • Primary. Immediate. You experienced it
    • Knowledge of self. Wants, needs, likelihood of satisfaction
    • Firm knowledge. Positive aspects of your experiences, despite partial and idiosyncratic factors
  • Secondary. Limited. Told by person you have shared experiences with
    • Knowledge from others
    • Pretty sure. Through direct experience, you know who exaggerates, who underplays
  • Tertiary. Societal. Observed and instructed by society, academia, and media
    • Knowledge of how things are linked together. Explanations of the past, predictions of the future
    • Some theories and facts you can’t evaluate directly. You must decide which authorities you will trust

As we get further from personal experience, we have progressively less confidence in the knowledge we gain. Yet we still have to act. If some knowledge helps us decide to act now, our uncertainties have been brushed aside. Only in that sense can we treat that knowledge as absolutely true.

Linguistic Items

Figure 5.7 Language categorization of reality
Figure 5.7 Language categorization of reality
As we learn language, words become building blocks that we use to understand and describe the world. In Figure 5.7, different words are used in different languages for the same object. Here the fundamental observation is that, no matter the language, words shape our internal worldview (Weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). In the top example, English speakers can store information about a group of trees, a cord of logs, and lumberyard finished products with the same word wood. With additional words we can delineate the objects. However, we shouldn’t forget that the funnel of working memory constrains us to some 7 to 10 elements at a time. Thus, when some capacity is reserved for description, less is available for logical deduction. One’s language affects the usage of working memory.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that we use the term “fact” in several contexts, thereby obscuring the uncertainty and subjectivity of much knowledge. This greatly impacts discussions in which contentious positions exist. Also, facts which indubitably occurred are quite different than conclusions based on fallible human understanding. Facts need to be distinguished from explanations, evaluations, and predictions.


Investigating decision-making is a goal of Mental Construction. Decision-making reveals one’s ethical system–as well as one’s trade-off between immediate satisfaction and delayed gratification. Lawrence Kohlberg developed a system of ethical development, the fundamental element is that one’s moral system is not static. I’ve defined into ethical stages aligned with the age stages used in Development of the Adult Mind.

  1. Birth to language acquisition. Does it feel good or does it feel bad? (pleasure principle)
  2. Language to personal memory. Is one punished or rewarded for the action? (might makes right)
  3. Personal awareness to puberty. Does neighborhood allow it? (permissive)
  4. Teen to early independence. Do society’s rules allow it? (logical)
  5. First responsibility to brain’s full operation (late 20s). Do rules align with stated purposes and goals? (independent)

These are the stages in order. Not everyone goes through all five ethical stages. Many are satisfied with their results at an earlier stage. The moral stage we are in when we acquire certain knowledge affects how we us the 3S imperatives in developing worldview.

Next, we go to neural connections where you will see how, by their very nature, neurons force internal order upon an unruly reality.

Other reading
Free Speech and Mindset The impact of fake news and how to minimize it
Nature-Nurture Neural aspects of critical learning periods

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