It's subtitle is believing you are right even when you're not. Nice!
Not that it applies to me. Because I know I'm right about uncertainty. Why, I've read marvelous blog posts about this subject, each of which, I'm pleased to say, was written by me (see here, here, here, and here).
And now I learn from a description of Burton's book that science shows I've been even more right than I thought I was.
You recognize when you know something for certain, right? You "know" the sky is blue, or that the traffic light had turned green, or where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001--you know these things, well, because you just do.
In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.
I get an enjoyable tingle up my spine (caused by a primitive area of my brain?) when I hear about how uncertainty rules the mental roost.
Of course, part of that good feeling comes from a sensation of it's good to be able to depend on something…I mean, nothing.
Regardless, this shows that I'm much more of a Taoist than a fundamentalist. In Taoist writings people jump into raging rivers, bounce around in the current, then emerge with advice for those watching with wide-eyed amazement from the bank.
"Just go with the flow, dude." (or words to that effect)
This seems a lot closer to how life really is than the "find a path and stick to it" philosophy. But the author of the "On Being Certain" article, Harriet Hall, says that some may be genetically predisposed to embracing certainty.
Richard Feynman said, "I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things… It doesn't frighten me."
On the other hand, many people, especially religious fundamentalists, can't deal with uncertainty. They demand absolute answers and cling to their certainties even in the face of contrary evidence. Why are people so different in their need for certainty? We know there is a gene associated with risk-taking and novelty-seeking. Burton makes an intriguing suggestion: could genetic differences make individuals get different degrees of pleasure out of the feeling of knowing?
I can't quite figure out the connection between all this and another story I read this morning that, intuitively, seems deeply significant to me: "Wine's Pleasures: Are They All in Your Head?"
But I'm certain there is one.
I started drinking red wine only a few years ago. It didn't take me long to realize that the descriptions on the back of the bottle bore little resemblance to how the wine tasted to me.
As the article says, one description of an Argentine red goes: "Dark and rich, with lots of fig bread, mocha, ganache, prune and loam notes. Stays fine-grained on the finish, with lingering sage and toast hints."
Toast? Mostly me and my wife get tongue-tied after we say, "Um. Good."
I was pleased to read that price doesn't relate much to quality when it comes to wine. What counts more is that the imbiber believes he or she is drinking an expensive bottle. Thoughts of high cost translate into yum, apparently.
Much like religion.
Feeling you're part of a rare and exclusive spiritual vintage adds much to its enjoyment. The religious equivalent of Two-Buck Chuck (which was equal to a $55 cabernet in a taste test) often doesn't have the same appeal.
But it can.
Just as understanding when to dress up and when to dress down is intuitive for many people, so, too, does it become instinctive over time for wine lovers to know which is the proper bottle to open. But that requires experience of many different wines. Eventually the novelty of great wines, or expensive wines, can wear off.
"Sometimes a great Beaujolais is a better choice than La Tâche," said Nathan Vandergrift, a statistical researcher at the University of California at Irvine, who has seen the wine business as a retailer, an importer and distributor, and most recently as a blogger at the Vulgar Little Monkey Translucency Report. Mr. Vandergrift has had plenty of Beaujolais, and a fair amount of La Tâche, one of the most highly sought wines in the world.
Would that we all could achieve that sense of freedom and zen-like serenity, where we've had our fill of all else and can simply choose the right wine because it's the right wine.