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On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right…

On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

by Robert Burton

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Excellent summary of "the feeling of knowing", the neurological factors that make us feel as if we're correct -- even if the facts say otherwise. This should be mandatory reading before posting on the internet. ( )
  chaosmogony | Apr 27, 2013 |
This book can be summed up by the popular bumper-sticker "don't believe everything you think". It provides plenty of memorable evidence that human beings can strongly feel they are correct while being factually wrong. The book opened with numerous engaging examples, but seemed to lose its grounding in the later chapters. ( )
  rypotpie | Dec 24, 2010 |
On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You Are Not
Robert Burton
Dec 4, 2010 9:08 PM

This is a profound book, possibly very important to understanding many different mental processes. The author posits a partly emotional and partly innate sense of certainty, the belief that one knows something to be certain, as a feature of brain function. He argues that immediate certainty is certainly a beneficial adaptation to uncertain environments, but its existence out to make one cautious about feelings of absolute conviction.

The message at the heart of this book is that the feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction, and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.

Although not restricted to a single area of the brain or a single definitive physiology, the most striking shared characteristic of these delusional misidentification syndromes is that the conflict between logic and a contrary feeling of knowing tends to be resolved in favor of feeling. Rather than rejecting ideas and beliefs that defy common sense and overwhelming contrary evidence, such patients end up using tortured logic to justify the more powerful sense of knowing what they know.

Reason is not a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.1 (Italics mine.) Disembodied thought is not a physiological option. Neither is a purely rational mind free from bodily and mental sensations and perceptions. TO KNOW WHAT our minds are doing, we need some sensory system that monitors the sensation

The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. To understand reason, we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanisms of neural binding. Reason is not a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.1

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 involuntary mental sensory systems that are integral and inseparable components of the thoughts that they qualif

Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

We can, on the other hand, think rationally about the choices that other people make. We can do this because we do not know and are not trying to satisfy unconscious needs and childhood fantasies.

Clarity is an involuntary mental sensation, not an objective determination.

Whether an idea originates in a feeling of faith or appears to be the result of pure reason, it arises out of a personal hidden layer that we can neither see nor control.

In The Crack-Up, F Scott Fitzgerald described an easy-to-accept but difficult-to-accomplish solution: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” ( )
  neurodrew | Dec 6, 2010 |
Burton's new book explodes the myth perpetuated by Gladwell and others that our "hunches" reveal deep seated inner wisdom that we can harness and train. His explanation of the way that we make decisions, particularly those based on "certainties," illuminates a process that is far from certain. The first section of the book provides a quick tour of the latest ideas in how our mind works. After giving this background information Burton spends the last third of the book explaining how the quirks of this process affects our perceptions of what is certainly true. ( )
  BarnOwlPress | Jan 3, 2010 |
Fascinating subject matter, well presented. After reading this, you're likely to start to catch yourself being more certain about some things than you have any business being. I wish everyone would read this book.
I agree with the previous reviewer about Burton's critique of popular authors, especially Gladwell and Andrew Weill. However, I found Burton's criticism of Dawkins was actually based on a misunderstanding of Dawkins. Burton criticized a short excerpt from an interview with Dawkins which had been quoted in The Guardian (UK), not any of Dawkins' actual writing. I'm sure Dawkins would have been clearer about what he was saying in a book. I pointed out to Burton another interview with Dawkins on Salon.com, (where Burton writes a column), in the Salon interview Dawkins clarifies his meaning of some of the very words Burton was criticizing.
True to his premise, not hanging on to certainty in the face of evidence, Burton acknowledged that his particular criticism of Dawkins was based on a misunderstanding of what Dawkins meant.
Aside from my minor quibble with him on that, I thought the book was excellent. ( )
1 vote dsmccoy | May 24, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 031254152X, Paperback)

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 shows that feeling certain—feeling that we know something--- is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. 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. In other words, the feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.

Bringing together cutting-edge neuroscience, experimental data, and fascinating anecdotes, Robert Burton explores the inconsistent and sometimes paradoxical relationship between our thoughts and what we actually know. Provocative and groundbreaking, On Being Certain challenges what we know (or think we know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:30 -0400)

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