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September 02, 2012


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One might also cf. Robert A. Burton, M.D., _On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not_ (NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008).

Robert Paul Howard

To enlarge a bit on my previous note, I cite from the "Preface" (pp. xi-xiv) of Robert A. Burton's _On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not_ (2008):

"...The revolutionary premise at the heart of this book is:

"Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of 'knowing what we know' arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.

"To dispel the myth that we 'know what we know' by conscious deliberation, the first section of this book will show how the brain creates the involuntary sensation of 'knowing' and how this sensation is affected by everything from genetic predispositions to perceptual illusions common to all bodily sensations. ...

"I [Burton] must also confess to an underlying agenda: A stance of absolute certainty that precludes considerations of alternative opinions has always struck me as fundamentally wrong. But such accusations [/] are meaningless without the backing of hard science. So I have set out to provide a scientific basis for challenging our belief in certainty. An unavoidable side effect: The scientific evidence will also show the limits of scientific inquiry. But in pointing out the biological limits of reason, including scientific thought, I'm not making the case that all ideas are equal or that scientific method is mere illusion. I do not wish to give ammunition to the legions of true believers who transform blind faith into evidence for creationism, alien abduction, or Aryan supremacy. The purpose is not to destroy the foundations of science, but only to point out the inherent limitations of the questions that science asks and the answers it provides.

"My goal is to strip away the power of certainty by exposing its involuntary neurological roots. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas--from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.

"A personal note [from Burton]: The schema that I am about to present has given me an unintended new way of seeing common problems. ...The sense of an inner quiet born of acknowledging my limitations has been extraordinary; I would like to share this with you."

(The above from pp. xiii-xiv of Burton's "Preface.")

Robert Paul Howard

Robert, I also enjoyed Burton's book a lot. Blogged about it in several posts. Here's the Google search results:

"Knowing that you know: impossible" was my first post (well, second, actually, after reading a review of the book) about this fascinating subject of feeling certain without knowing why/how we feel that way.

Dear Brian,

Thanks for your reference back to your older posting(s). I had wondered if, in fact, my awareness of Burton's book (and thus having had it out from the Library for so long) was not perhaps due to you to begin with. Now I can rest "certain" that it was.

I am glad to have added a few more lines from Burton's exposition in addition to those which you cited in your compositions from over four years ago.

I consider it well worth reading and I commend it to any others interested in the topic (even if they might be quite "certain" that it would be of no positive value for them).

Robert Paul Howard

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