Consider these words of George W. Bush, spoken in Rome, in 2001
“I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe — I believe what I believe is right.”
This is not an isolated case. These sorts of fact-free assertions occur all the time. Consider another example, this one a hypothetical. Assume that you overhear some guy claiming that homeopathic medicine [or fill in the blank with your own favorite snake oil treatment] is effective and powerful. Because you suspect that he doesn’t have his facts right or that his reasoning is unreliable or invalid, you speak up and question his statement. He responds by saying something like the following:
I’m certain I am correct. I’m absolutely sure that I’m right. I have no doubts about this.
Despite the many claims of certainty that we hear, we often remain unconvinced, and for good reason. There’s a saying, “Show, don’t tell.” Show me the facts so that I myself can see whether I am certain. Don’t just tell me that you’re certain. Nonetheless, people constantly make claims that are based on inner feels of certainty, quite often wild and unsubstantiated claims about politics and religion, as well as claims about science, history or just about everything else.
People often use such claims that they have a “feeling of certainty” as bootstraps to convince themselves that they are even more certain than they actually are, thereby completely dispensing for the need for meticulous fact-finding and careful methodology.
Arguments based on such an ineffable feelings of “certainty” supposedly certify the correctness of the claim. Such feeling-based arguments are attempts to assert that there is no need or right to question the facts or the reasoning, because the “feeling of certainty” supposedly serves as a complete substitute for careful, self-critical, skeptical and meticulous fact-finding and reasoning. Not that most people articulate their feeling-based arguments in this way—this is simply the way they are presented.
Neurologist Robert A. Burton has recently finished writing a book on feelings of certainty, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.
Are such feelings of certainty reliable substitutes for careful fact-finding and reasoning, or are such feeling-based arguments actually something much less impressive? As you might guess, Burton concludes that feelings of certainty are not legitimate substitutes for careful fact-finding and reasoning.
Then what are such inner feelings of certainty? Burton holds that the feeling of certainty is an involuntary sensation akin to an emotion (p. xi). In the preface of his book, Burton warns us that once you start seeing the feeling of certainty as a non-intellectual feeling, rather than evidence of well-earned knowledge, you will start seeing this problem of feeling of certainty cropping up everywhere you look.
There’s no doubt that unjustified claims of “certainty” are used by almost every person and almost everywhere. Burton has thus highlighted a critically important distinction that needs to be brought to the fore: the mere fact that one “feels” that one is certain is not worth a damn when the thing that needs to be decided is incorrect. Important claims should be based upon dependable knowledge, yet numerous people claim to be absolutely certain about false things all the time, and they often use their inner feeling of “certainty” as a misleading substitute for hard-earned knowledge. When they rely on certainty rather than knowledge, they are engaging in intellectual bait and switch.
For simplicity’s sake, Burton lumps together the entire family of feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction and correctness under his all-inclusive term, “the feeling of knowing.” He describes each of these feelings as forms of “meta- knowledge–knowledge about our knowledge that qualifies or colors our thoughts, in viewing them with a sense of rightness or wrongness.” (p. 3).
The problem, again, is that so many people so often succumb to false beliefs because these beliefs often “feel” correct, even when that person should know better. (p. 13) As Exhibit A, Burton describes a PhD in geology who was nonetheless a creationist.
Early in his book, Burton discusses the various ways in which feelings of knowing are manifested. For instance, mystics report spontaneous mental sensations that feel like knowledge in the absence of any specific knowledge. He discusses neuro-physiological studies showing that feelings of certainty “arise directly from the activation of localized areas of the brain (the limbic system)-either spontaneously or as a result of direct stimulation. (p. 24). He also describes the ability to induce a sense of “oneness with the universe” using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a grid of magnets placed around the skull in a lab. Actually, there’s no need to go modern or high-tech. William James experimented with various anesthetics including chloroform, ether and nitrous oxide to induce (in himself) a feeling of “purity and truth without any reference to any specific idea or thought.” These experiments
show how these feelings that qualify how we experience our thoughts can be illustrated both chemically and electrically without any antecedent triggering thought or memory. Familiar and real aren’t conscious conclusions. Neither are strange and bizarre. They are easily elicited without any associated reasoning or conscious thought.
(34) Burton’s central argument is that the feeling of knowing is a sensation, and that it can’t be overcome with reason or contrary evidence. (34) Neither can objective evidence directly bring on the feeling of knowing. For these reasons, the feeling of knowing should be considered to be a primary mental state not dependent on any state of knowledge. The identical feeling of knowing can become attached to both correct and incorrect answers.” (81).
Burton admits that he is engaging in speculation when he suggests that the feeling of knowledge might have evolved as a reward system for un-provable thoughts. Perhaps this evolved as the way the brain rewards mental effort. Even an unwarranted feeling of knowing might thus serve a positive evolutionary role. We might have needed a reward system strong enough to tide us over until our thoughts could actually be verified (95). The feeling of knowing might be important for A.) confirming our thoughts and B.) motivating as-yet-unproven thoughts.
As Burton points out, once established, our emotional habits are difficult to fully eradicate. The same thing might apply to our feeling of knowing, which might not be easily undone. “An idea known to be wrong continues to feel correct.” Burton again raises the example of the Ph.D who accepts the overwhelming evidence of evolution, yet continues to believe in creationism. (93).
Burton further speculates that the insistence on being right might be the mental equivalent of a physical addiction. There are many people who seem to “derive more pleasure from final answers than ongoing questions, and want definitive one-stop shopping resolutions to complex social problems and unambiguous endings to movies and novels.” Perhaps such know-it-alls are people who are addicted to the pleasure of the feeling of knowing.
He further wonders whether our education system, which promotes black-and-white answers might be warping the reward systems of our students. If the fundamental thrust of education is “being correct” rather than acquiring a thoughtful awareness of ambiguities, inconsistencies, and underlying paradoxes, it is easy to see how the brain reward systems might be molded to prefer certainty over open-mindedness. (99).
Many of our emotional responses are fear-generated. These are persistent and indelible, based upon numerous well-accepted experiments, including Joseph LeDoux’s experiments with mice. What can these experiments tell us about the feeling of certainty? Perhaps we need the feeling of certainty to function as a “stop switch” that stops thinking and triggers action despite uncertainty (and there’s always uncertainty).
The feeling of knowing might function as a solution to the danger of getting caught up in a loop of thought. Historically, humans who sat and thought too long were more likely to get eaten by predators. Evolution might have developed the feeling of knowing to be a sensation that only feels like a thought in order to dovetail efficiently with thought. It feels like knowledge, which then enables us to quickly reach a conclusion, sometimes in the absence of sufficient knowledge. (125).
Burton asserts that we can’t actually monitor our thoughts with other thoughts, though it might seem that we do this. This sort of monitoring would not be effective, since it would invite an eternal regress of thoughts monitoring other thoughts monitoring yet other thoughts. Instead, we have evolved in such a way that we know the nature and quality of our thoughts through feelings, not reason.
Burton’s repeatedly reminds the reader that most of what goes on in our minds is not conscious. All thoughts percolate up from the unconscious. Nature apparently chose to give us uncluttered conscious minds, rather than making more of the thought process conscious. Burton argues that there is no reason to think that there is a different process involved in unconscious versus conscious thinking. He argues that cognition is a single entity that can be experienced in two ways. It may be that “unconscious thoughts with a sufficiently high calculated likelihood of correctness will be consciously experienced as feeling right.” (137).
Thoughts require sensory information. Burton cites various literature promoting the idea of embodied cognition (including Lakoff and Johnson), arguing that the disembodied mind cannot contemplate beauty or feel the differences between deep love, infatuation and peer lust.
To avoid confusion and chaos, our brains have sensory systems that selectively tell us when we are thinking a thought. These sensory systems also determine how we experience mental cause-and-effect and intentionality. Such systems are instrumental in imbuing our thoughts with a sense of their correctness or incorrectness. Without the embedded sensation of being on the right track, a thought wouldn’t be the worth the mind it’s printed on. For me, the evidence is overwhelming. We know the nature and quality of our thoughts via feelings, not reason. Feelings such as certainty, conviction, rightness and wrongness, clarity, and faith arise out of these involuntary mental sensory systems that are integral and inseparable components of the thoughts that they qualify.
Burton’s approach conflicts with the concept of “free will.” It is his belief that everything mental arises out of something related to the body. No part of the mind rises above the biological process that substantiate the mental processes. He is quite cognizant that his ideas will thus disturb many people. It will be equally be difficult for many people to give up the idea of pure, unembodied reason. For Burton, it is simply a myth that we can step back from our thoughts and judge them using the same thought process. Burton’s biological determinism is a radical and disturbing approach for many people. Such an approach has been resisted even by prominent writers who study cognition. For instance, Daniel Goleman advises that we should work to enable our rational minds take control of decision-making. According to Burton, though, this cannot be done with any precision, because we are not able to know which feelings are inherently detrimental; nor are we able to know when particular feelings are adversely affecting our thoughts.
According to Burton, Malcolm Gladwell also goes awry when he argues that we can rationally take control of our unconscious thought processes. Lest you think that humans are totally out of conscious control and that there is no way to act rationally and responsibly, Burton offers some hope. Yes, our mental processes arise from an incredibly complex connectionist system that depends on a mind-blowingly intricate web of connections constituting a “hidden layer.” This doesn’t mean, however, that we have no clue as to what’s going on in our own minds. Although we have no direct access to our adaptive unconscious, we are sometimes able to combine introspection with “observing how others react to us and to deduce the otherwise inaccessible nature of our minds from the responses.” Burton argues that we are especially blinded by our own emotions, resulting in cognitive dissonance, but each of us retains the ability to think more rationally about other people, if not about ourselves. Even if we are mindful of our own biases, though, Burton cautions that there are serious limits of self-knowledge and “the best we can hope for is the perfect oxymoron–partial objectivity.” (158).
Where does the feeling of knowledge run rampant? Almost everywhere, but Burton takes special aim at several targets in the field of alternative medicine. Many self-proclaimed experts, including well-published authors such as Andrew Weil, M.D., urge that their conclusions are correct in the absence of meaningful proof. Restrained by their limited state of knowledge, they often assert “I am certain” rather than the more realistic: “I believe!” Burton’s frustration with them is palpable: If only they would show some restraint!
For Burton, it is important to recognize that intuition and gut feelings are based on unconscious and unproven thoughts associated with a strong feeling of knowing, rather than being based on trustworthy knowledge. Again, the claim that “I am sure!” is a mental sensation, not a testable conclusion.
The difference between claimed certitude and reality can have the serious moral consequences. Think about what happens when a doctor or a stockbroker looks you in the eyes and says that something is 100% guaranteed, as opposed to saying that it has a 99.9% chance of success. In Burton’s opinion, professionals have the obligation to explain the difference between something that is certain and something that is merely highly likely.
And yes, Burton weighs in on the debate between religion and science. He argues that a deeply felt sense of purpose is as necessary as hunger or thirst, yet how we express these feelings is a matter of “personal taste and predilection.” (183). Burton urges us to freely admit to each other that our feelings of knowledge do not constitute actual knowledge in the context of the debates between religion and science. Imagine how different these debates would go if we all admitted that each of us is experiencing the feeling of a deeply felt sense of purpose (one form of the feeling of knowing)! People express this sense of purpose in a variety of ways, of course. Skeptics like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking “have grafted their belief in the rational mind and its unlimited capabilities” on this feeling. People with religious beliefs, who have “different genetic predispositions, backgrounds, experience and subjective self assessments might interpret the same basic mental sensation as being evidence for the existence of God.”
Even if we cannot solve the impasse between religion and science, we can certainly bring on a calming effect and get along with each other, if only we recognize the feeling of knowing for what it actually is: “If there is to be any rapprochement between science and religion, both sides must accept this basic limitation . . . Stated purpose is a personal hidden-layer-based narrative–not a reasoned argument.” (184).
Burton quotes Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who presents the dilemma faced by many scientists: “The more the universe appears comprehensible, the more it also appears pointless.” In determining whether the world is random or purposeful, the feeling of knowledge again asserts itself. For many of us, “we feel that we should be able to solve the problem. The result is that we see patterns where none exist and don’t see patterns that might exist.”
The disputes between religion and science are caught up in the various interpretations we give to the emotional feelings we have. Contrary to the resistance of many scientists, Burton asserts that we often learn through these emotional experiences, even though they contain no elements of reason. “These forms of knowledge aren’t ideas that can be assessed, tested, and judged as right or wrong. They aren’t “facts”; they are ways of seeing the world that are beyond reason and discussion. We get a better (but personal) sense of the nature of grief from listening to Beethoven’s late quartets banned from analyzing hypo-active medial frontal areas on functional MRI scans…”
Both the scientists and the believers can help calm the debate between science and religion by admitting that all facts are provisional. For Burton, scientists need to back away from the myth of the “all knowing rational mind,” an unsubstantiated belief that makes real discussion with Believers in God impossible. Scientists need to acknowledge the visceral need humans have for a sense of faith, purpose and meaning, and that this visceral need is “as powerful as the evidence for evolution.”
Burton argues that it is equally important for those who believe in religion to
try to adopt and stick with the idea of provisional facts. Once all facts become works-in-progress, absolutism would be dethroned. No matter how great the evidence, the literal interpretation of the Bible or Quran would no longer be the only possibility. By exploring and making common knowledge of how the brain balances off contradictory aspects of its biology, we might gradually turn absolutism into an untenable stance of ignorance.
(197). To conclude, the central message of the Burton’s book is that “feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction, and the certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happened to us.” (218).
I found it ironic that in these final pages of his book, Burton appears to be sensing the panic that he has unleashed through the first 90% of the book. He seems to turn into a bit of a softy after forcefully unleashing a barrage of skepticism through most of his book. Through most of the book, he seems to hold that we can never know much of what is bubbling up from our unconscious minds. Toward the very end of his book, he works hard to recognize the importance of having a “sense of self (page 206) and a sense that we have “free will” (208). Burton also offers that the sense of “self” allows us to each “feel that we are individuals and not mere machinery. I cannot imagine a world in which we fully excepted and felt that we were nothing more than fictional narratives arising out of mindless neurons.” Given this possibility,
Burton isn’t surprised that so many people willingly accept beliefs in souls and heaven (222). He urges scientists to recognize that some irrational-seeming religious beliefs might have real adaptive benefits, specifically the placebo effect. (196). For this reason, scientists need to be careful about directly attacking the religious beliefs of others. He notes that 90% of Americans believe that they have souls that will survive their death. He sees these beliefs as offering the placebo effect to people struggling to find meaning in their lives. (221). This restraint is compatible with the requirement that doctors “do no harm.” He urges that science needs to maintain its integrity while retaining compassionate respect for conflicting views, even if they aren’t “reasonable.”
Burton concludes by urging that we must learn to “tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty. He urges that we “cannot afford the catastrophes born out of a belief in certainty.” He ends his book with a quote by David Gross, the 2004 recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics: “The most important product of knowledge is ignorance.” (224)
I found myself agreeing with much of Burton’s program, but I do have some serious concerns. I agree that the feeling of certainty often seems to be un-tethered to any reliable evidence justifying that feeling. Further, I don’t dispute that various lab demonstrations show that the inner sense of certainty can arise in the absence of any knowledge. Showing that an imposter-feeling-of-knowing can be generated, though, doesn’t prove that there isn’t a legitimate feeling of knowing that wells up when one has done one’s homework and where one has been self-critical and meticulous in one’s analysis. That is my personal experience: I tend to experience a strong feeling of knowing where I’ve earned it, but not so much where I’m speculating.
I don’t think that the experiments on which Burton relies rules out the possibility of a legitimate feeling of knowledge where one actually has done one’s homework and deserves a feeling of knowledge. It seems, though, that Burton has no expectation that such a feeling could ever be a barometer that one knows what one is thinking about. Though I don’t have any lab results to justify the following belief, I do suspect that a legitimate feeling of knowledge does exist and that it does sometimes guide the intellectual endeavors of some people (though it often runs amok in non-disciplined thinkers). I suspect, for example, that Burton himself experienced feelings of knowledge as he worked on his favorite parts of his book.
What if a legitimate feeling of knowledge does exist in some people and it tends to be tethered to the most useful and well-considered ideas? In other words, maybe a legitimate feeling of knowledge (one that tells us that we really know our stuff when we really know our stuff) tends to accompany, in disciplined thinkers, ideas that are warranted, even though that same feeling also tends to run rampant in non-disciplined thinkers. By “disciplined” I’m referring to people who are self-critical, well informed about alternative viewpoints, doggedly willing to follow only where evidence leads them, and willing to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know.
In Burton’s view, the feeling of knowledge has nothing to do with whether a person’s thought process is on target. I’m not ready to buy what Burton is selling in this respect. I suspect that the feeling of knowledge often accompanies self-critical disciplined thinking and that it actually facilitates such thinking. Perhaps the machinery for this feeling developed through natural selection to encourage us to push representational (i.e., mental) thinking hard in an attempt to generate solutions to real-world problems. After all, there is often no immediate real world application for our mental work, and thus no immediate reward. Perhaps the feeling of knowing, at least for disciplined thinkers, really is a mental food pellet for good mental effort. It’s our subconscious saying: “Good boy! Here’s your feeling of knowledge! Maybe you can go out and try it out in the real world someday.”
I’m going to keep considering Burton’s ideas further—as you can see, he weighs in on many ideas that seem tangential to the feeling of knowing.
Here’s where I am at the moment: I agree with Burton that the existence of the feeling of knowledge in the thinker is not sufficient to justify an the truth or accuracy of an idea. I agree with this argument because feelings don’t constitute knowledge, and because the feeling of knowing runs amok in many people, especially undisciplined thinkers. I suspect, though, that even though the feeling of knowledge is not a sufficient condition for effective thinking, it might well be a necessary condition for quality thinking in disciplined thinkers. I base that on my subjective experience, while I fully admit that introspection is a dicey form of knowledge.
I should also add my suspicion that the feeling of certainty has a social/power-structure element to it, that takes in the reigning explanatory paradigms and the social support network (especially the expert network) available to the person making the claims being considered. When considering what is true, it’s not only about what is going on in my head, it’s also about the social ramifications for asserting one’s beliefs. Burton’s characterization of the feeling of certainty as similar to an emotion doesn’t rule out this need to consider wider social implications, but I would like to make it specific. That social/power structure element affect on the feeling of certainty would encompass the paradigm shifts well-described by Thomas Kuhn.
To summarize: The following claim is not persuasive: “The world is about to end and I am certain of it!” I agree with Burton that the certainty of such a speaker is not convincing—the speaker’s certainty is not even relevant to the truth value of the claim. On the other hand, if Dr. Burton (he is a medical doctor) were to walk up to his aching patient and announce that diagnostic tests demonstrated that the patient had appendicitis—and that Burton were certain of it—the patient would be wise to listen up. Dr. Burton’s assurance that he’s “certain of it” might even be serving as a certification of correctness conveyed to Burton’s conscious mind by the hidden layer of Burton’s intricate unconscious connectionist neural net. After all, the mind might know more than it consciously knows, and, as in blindsight, it might not be able to perfectly communicate that which makes it more certain than it can articulate.
See also, a somewhat related post: Beware of confident people; they might be too ignorant to know that they are ignorant.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
Sites That Link to this Post
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- More on the complexity of happiness: New TED lecture by Daniel Kahneman | Dangerous Intersection | March 22, 2010
- What You See is All There Is: Not-much information usually seems like enough. : Dangerous Intersection | March 27, 2012