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

 
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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.

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, will challenge what you know (or think you know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason.

Customer Reviews:

  • Lacks depth
    In the initial chapters of this book, Robert Burton explains that knowing is primarily a feeling; a feeling that something is certain even if we have evidence to the contrary. He then proceeds to briefly discuss artificial neural networks, used later to construct the metaphor of "the hidden layer," which, he goes on to claim, is "the interface between incoming sensory data and a final perception..." This may well be true, but he doesn't provide adequate evidence in support. Basically what he says is that thinking and emotions are in certain ways a unitary structure which is heavily influenced by genetics, which sounds right, but then he concludes that humans' world views are determined by their genes and the peculiarity of their neural machinery. He has not provided a warrant for this claim. It is true that the Platonic/Cartesian rationalist view of human nature is no longer tenable, but to say that human beings are not pure rational minds is not to say that it is not possible for human beings to use reason to critically evaluate experience.
    The title of chapter 12 (The Twin Pillars of Certainty: Reason and Objectivity) contains an unwarranted assumption, namely that reason and objectivity are what the feeling of certainty is based on. It seems to me that the more reasonable and objective people are, the less certain they are. Burton seems to castigate scientists for believing in certainly, but his evidence consists of a few anecdotes. Isn't he attacking a straw man? Science does not talk about certainty but about degrees of probability based on available evidence. The strangest chapter is number 13, where Burton attacks Richard Dawkins for "believing in the myth of the autonomous rational mind," and Daniel Dennett for insisting that the secular and scientific view of the world ought to be accepted by everyone. "Try telling a poet to give up his musings and become a mechanical engineer, says Burton, in an either-or fallacious attempt to convince us that someone cannot be a poet and accept a scientific view of the world. Even the Dalai Lama tries to have a scientific view of things.
    There are interesting ideas in the first eleven chapters of this book, it is unfortunate that the author did not expand on them, did not provide more elucidation and data, but chose instead to attack Dawkins, Dennett and science itself.
    ...more info
  • A Crucial Question: How Do You Know What You Know?
    "On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You're Not" provides a compelling examination of the feeling of certainty each of us have. Robert Burton, a neurologist and gifted writer, argues that this "feeling of knowing" is a sensation, much like touch or sight. Burton proposes a well-crafted thesis, suggesting that this feeling of knowing is identical whether or not the associated knowledge is true. Through a variety of means, he draws in the reader to formulate a convincing case. Burton explains that his motivation is for the reader to question how we really "know what we know," and much of the book serves this purpose quite well. However, a few chapters distract the reader by straying away from the central thesis. At other moments, Burton seems to do the very thing he cautions the reader against: presenting a "stance of absolute certainty" about topics that could allow for alternative opinions or understandings.

    In the first four chapters of the book, Burton forms a strong introduction to his argument. He introduces the concept of the "feeling of knowing" through personal anecdotes and allows the reader to experience this feeling through a simple thought experiment. With this foundation, Burton uses case studies to explain that we often are certain of knowledge that is, in fact, untrue. Burton also suggests that pathologies often provide a basis for study of complex concepts in healthy individuals is supported by the story of a patient suffering from viral encephalitis and Cotard's Syndrome. Through this example, Burton illustrates the power of the brain to "know" something as true, even when logic and reason all indicate that it is false.

    After forming the outline of his thesis, Burton spends the next several chapters crafting the most compelling points of his argument. The reader is introduced to pertinent aspects of neuroscience when they are relevant, and a layperson can easily follow the diagrams and explanations that Burton offers. By combining the prevailing theories in neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI) research, Burton proposes a straightforward description of the decision-making process in the brain. His suggestion of a "hidden layer" that acts as a "committee" of influences (made of past memories, genetic predispositions, and even a "feeling of knowing") is easy to understand and seems to be a logical theory. With this model, his "perverse possibility" that an "unwarranted `feeling of knowing' might serve a positive evolutionary role" (95) is easily accepted as a reasonable theory.

    In addition to arguing for the importance of this "feeling of knowing," Burton attempts to explain the manner in which this feeling acts. At this point, his argument begins to weaken. Burton describes the ability of the brain to "reorganize" the timing of actual events in order to present a more logical picture through the use of a baseball analogy. Additionally, he describes the scientific distinctions between emotions and sensations. These are interesting stories, but Burton does not provide any data to connect these concepts with his newly defined "feeling of knowing." His postulations are well thought out; however, he presents them so that an unwary reader might read his conclusions as fact, rather than theory.

    The final few chapters of the book diverge from Burton's central thesis. Chapter twelve, focused on "reason" and "objectivity," includes a review of three recently published books about cognitive science in popular culture; however, none of them directly relate to his hypothesis. Burton remains a clear, coherent writer as he describes the problems with recent publications about "the rational mind," but he distracts the reader from the argument that he has previously built. An analysis of perspectives on alternative medicine has the potential to provide a strong argument for the central thesis of the book, and Burton approaches this argument. At one point, he says "imagine how different each of these claims would have been if intuition and gut feeling were acknowledged to be unconscious thoughts associated with a strong `feeling of knowing' rather than bona fide forms of trustworthy knowledge" (166). However, instead of advancing with this point, he changes the subject to the readers' perceptions and never solidifies a potentially compelling argument.

    The chapter titled "Faith" is equally frustrating. It holds the potential to be the most compelling in the book: faith and the unfounded certainty Burton describes seem to be, in many ways, synonymous. Rather than focusing on why or how individuals have faith, Burton focuses more on the personalities and comments of those who claim to a concrete set of beliefs. The most frustrating aspect of this chapter is Burton's presentation of quotes that could be interpreted in many ways in a biased fashion, with his own concrete dissection of the quote. This certainty leads him to take isolated quotes from larger of bodies of work by Francis Collins and Charles Darwin and present them as parallel situations with opposing outcomes. This presentation allows Burton to make a return to his central thesis; however, isolated presentation of the quotes prevents the reader from having the opportunity to interpret the quotations any way other that which Burton presents with complete certainty.

    Throughout the book, Burton's strong abilities are visible. He creates a well-crafted argument that will certainly receive further examination and will be the subject of many studies in years to come. Burton crafts a book that peers in his field and laypeople with no experience in neuroscience will be interested to read. Although he occasionally strays from the central thesis, his diversions are still well written and intriguing. The greatest weakness of the book is that Burton commits the same offense that he cautions against. His arguments are compelling, but not yet conclusive; however, he seems to allow his own "feeling of knowing" to dominate, and he presents his theories with complete certainty. Throughout the book, readers should constantly ask Burton his own question: "how do you know what you know?" (224) With this caution in mind, "On Being Certain" provides a fascinating examination of the brain's creation and utilization of certainty.
    ...more info
  • Great book
    This is the challenge to 'certainty' (>>the kind of 'certainty', that is very familiar to religious and fanatic people<<) from the direction of SCIENCE (and not just philosophy) that has long been overdue.

    And also it's like a shout out from the conscience of science to us scientists and the normal person from the street who has (maybe) never thought about what science does, and that message is:
    "1.) Keep in mind, what 'certainty' means in science!
    2.) Don't over -estimate/-interpret what you found.
    3.) True knowledge is always testable for accuracy while belief is not!"

    Thanks you Robert M. Burton....more info
  • cdc444 got it wrong
    On Being Certain started out moderately interesting but at page 52 I hit a severe snag. When an author gets something I know about so totally wrong (or is being gratuitously nasty) I find I cannot trust what he says about things I don't know so much about. The comment that B.F. Skinner wanted to raise people like veal is so totally absurd I couldn't finish the book and will be returning it to Amazon for a refund....more info
  • Mistaken beliefs
    I always wondered why not only individuals but entire nations have beliefs that are wrong, immoral by most standards or simpply stupid (nazism, communism etc.). This book covers individual level of mistaken but deeply held beliefs. Interesting and helpful....more info
  • I am certain
    I try to keep up with brain research and read everything I can to help me out of the old psychology paradigm and into the new neuroscience understanding of what makes us tick. This book is a wonderful contribution to some of the stuff in our hidden layer of "knowing." I recommend it highly to anyone curious about their own biases which are so easily justified by the conscious mind. This could be called the Gibson behavior. Too many of us seem to cling to little understood bad ideas. Buy this book, it will help....more info
  • On Being Certain
    A fun and informative read. Robert Burton informs,presenting factual and ironic detail of the brain an our behavoral responses to external and internal memory. Recomended for students of psychycolgy, marketing and those interest in broadening their understanding of human behavior....more info
  • Well worth reading
    I must admit that for the first third of this book I had no idea where the author was going and suspected he shared my problem. I'm glad I persisted. The author makes a strong case for the emotional nature of certainty. Certainty is a red flag, telling us that we are thinking with our limbic systems rather than with our frontal lobes. Of course it's up to us to decide whether or not to heed this warning. Read the book; it does not disappoint....more info
  • I can't be certain you'll love this book, but I sure did.
    As an avid reader of authors such as Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works), Malcolm Gladwell (Blink), Richard Restak (The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own) and Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves), I found Burton's book On Being Certain a riveting read. Trying to understand how the mind works feels to me as if we are putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle, knowing that we only have 20 or 30% of the pieces. On Being Certain provides a key piece that for me shifted all the others into a more meaningful pattern.

    Burton argues eloquently for the power that the feeling of certainty that we are right has over us. I agree; and also find that this book triggered the reverse in me: a sense of uncertainty,the feeling that I'm not sure what I believe about some of the issues Burton raises. And that can be an exhilarating experience as well. As one wit said, "Being certain is nice, but it's doubt that gets you an education."

    Burton uses very creative analogies, practical examples, and reader-friendly illustrations to convey the intricacies of what he is describing, and he links what might otherwise seem to be esoteric issues to questions about self and the meaning of life that have haunted humantity for eons. I thought this was a super book....more info
  • Great book
    This is the challenge to 'certainty' (>>the kind of 'certainty', that is very familiar to religious and fanatic people<<) from the direction of SCIENCE (and not just philosophy) that has long been overdue.

    And also it's like a shout out from the conscience of science to us scientists and the normal person from the street who has (maybe) never thought about what science does, and that message is:
    "1.) Keep in mind, what 'certainty' means in science!
    2.) Don't over -estimate/-interpret what you found.
    3.) True knowledge is always testable for accuracy while belief is not!"

    Thanks you Robert M. Burton....more info
  • Great insight into how the mind works
    Book Review: "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You're Not" by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

    In my theistic discussions; I am often fascinated (stymied) at the level of certainty that some theists have in the validity of their religious narrative...often in the face of clear contradictory empirical evidence. Over the years, I have taken a keen interest in neurology and how the brain works; enough so that I have a passing regret for not having gone into neurology instead of engineering (it's never too late, right?). Over these years, I have amassed a mental library of various illustrations that show how malleable and unreliable the mind (as manifested in the brain) can be. Still; the inexplicable certainty that some possess was never addressed directly in my readings. Hence, when I saw a brief blurb about the book "On Being Certain", I immediately went and bought a copy (my library had ordered it, but they did not yet have it ready for lending).

    Dr. Burton's sole focus of "On Being Certain" is that sense of certainty that we all recognize. He provides evidence that the feeling (or `emotion' more accurately) is a `primary emotion' and refers to it as the "feeling of knowing" (he did not shorten it to an acronym, I think, because of the obvious, awkward acronym that would result).

    Burton cites the rapidly accumulating knowledge that we have with regard to brain function and perception to good end. The less diligent reader, though, might not find the reading deeply satisfying as we cannot, based on our current knowledge, fully answer specific questions (i.e. why do we create gods to address the unknown). Still, the empirical evidence cited is often clearly in conflict with some common presumptions. This, in my mind, is the true purpose of the empirical method. While we may be unable to answer a specific, granular question on a topic, we can effectively eliminate the wrong answers...and Burton's book does go a long way in eliminating some of those wrong answers (at least for those open to empirical evidence).

    One interesting point Burton makes is there are some emotions that we can induce through direct electrical stimulation of very specific regions of the brain. One example is the "sense of another presence" (i.e. that there is someone or something nearby). Another example is the disruption/manipulation of the "sense of self" where we can feel separate from our bodies (floating) or feel "at one" with our surroundings. The point of his book, of course, is that "feeling of knowing" which can be elicited through electrical stimulation. Burton calls these "primary emotions" and are localized to very specific areas of the brain. On the other hand, we have no evidence of being able to similarly induce higher order emotions such as the "sense of irony". Burton effectively demonstrates how these primary emotions (particularly the "feeling of knowing") do not necessarily reliably correlate with facts or reality.

    Reading the book, while mentally critiquing it, is a bit of a mobius-like conundrum. You are simultaneously judging and amassing knowledge, while you are reading about how your judgment and knowledge is not reliable. WHEW! I will confess; I feel that Burton, on one or two occasions, overstepped the implications of bits of evidence. In his defense, the book was written for a more general audience and some background that might have been omitted might justify his positions. In all, the book offers some fascinating insights as to how our brains and minds work and an astute reader can learn much from it.
    ...more info
  • Engaging and Challenging Exploration of Belief
    As an avid reader of books in this category, I was pleased to find something new in Robert Burton's book: a head-on engagement with the infrastructure of belief. The question Burton asks is on the face of it a simple one, but in its implications extremely complex: how do we know what we know? As a matter of practical observation, Burton asks why are some people so utterly convinced that their positions are correct while others consistently entertain doubt? From this starting point, Burton takes us through an entertaining and challenging tour -- part neuroscience, part psychology, and part philosophy. The interconnections between these disciplines are elegant and form the tapestry of a convincing argument. In my library I have a selection of books that have influenced my thinking, and among those are a select few that I revisit for insights over and over again. "On Being Certain" is among that select few, and I give it my highest recommendation. ...more info
  • Engaging and Challenging Exploration of Belief
    As an avid reader of books in this category, I was pleased to find something new in Robert Burton's book: a head-on engagement with the infrastructure of belief. The question Burton asks is on the face of it a simple one, but in its implications extremely complex: how do we know what we know? As a matter of practical observation, Burton asks why are some people so utterly convinced that their positions are correct while others consistently entertain doubt? From this starting point, Burton takes us through an entertaining and challenging tour -- part neuroscience, part psychology, and part philosophy. The interconnections between these disciplines are elegant and form the tapestry of a convincing argument. In my library I have a selection of books that have influenced my thinking, and among those are a select few that I revisit for insights over and over again. "On Being Certain" is among that select few, and I give it my highest recommendation. ...more info
  • Well thought out
    Like another reviewer, I am often amazed how people can be "certain" of a massive outcome when there is no humanly possible way they could know everything they need to know to be certain. This proves true for both those of a theistic mindset and those of an atheistic mindset. I can understand the agnostic's honesty that he simply doesn't know, but I cannot fathom the theist who says his idea of God is perfect and there's no way it is flawed or the atheist who says there is definitely no God and there's no way he's wrong. Can either side really be certain of this or are they simply trusting other people who share their primary model of thinking or that they "feel" a rapport with?

    This is why, though I am a theist, my guiding principle in life is, "when I'm wrong I don't know it". This is the nature of deceit and that's what this book is all about. How do we become convinced that something is right or wrong? Is if by facts? Is it internal or external? The reality is that this books shows that mental stability can be reached in an instant, which shows that it is not particularly related to the whole of information, but maybe to a way that the information can be seen to cooperate with our worldview or the view we hope to hold.

    The author helps you understand why you are certain about some things and not about others and even helps you feel certain that you can trust the information in the book, which is particularly important since the whole book is about certainty not always being accurate.

    His discussions on rational thinking and objectivity have placed in words what I've been feeling for years. This very experience, which I encountered while reading the book, is itself an expression of "knowing". The modern research, the author informs us, shows that it is impossible to disengage irrelevant parts of the brain in a decision process and, therefore, decisions are always made based on both factual information and other factors (biases, emotions, etc.) that we cannot control. He then suggests the possibility of partial objectivity, which he also suggests is not itself very logical.

    All-in-all, you'll like this book if you are OK with walking away and being real with yourself, because you'll have to admit you can't be arrogant in your ideas. Me, I've had teenagers to help me do that, so I had a bit of a leading advantage. ...more info
  • One of three recent great books on our weird minds
    I rank this second among my favorite three books this year on the topic of the oddities of normal human thinking - right after How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of "Intangibles" in Business and just above Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

    How Burton treats the issue of certainty is an interesting compliment to how Hubbard treats uncertainty in How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of "Intangibles" in Business. Burton looks at situations where we can feel certain but be wrong. Likewise, Hubbard looks at how we can be "statistically overconfident" and will usually underestimate our uncertainty if we attempt to assign odds to uncertain events. Hubbard seems to offer more empirical data on this topic and, more importantly, how to adjust for this error.

    There seem to be more and more books in the genre of quirks in human reasoning and perception - specifically, how we feel certain or uncertain. But these are among the very few I would recommend. Save your money on the rest....more info
  • Certainly Interesting
    A readily readable and thoughtful look at how our minds work in relation to things our minds produce like thoughts and ideas. It goes on to raise important questions about the implications of "the feeling of knowing" for philosophy, psychology and indirectly politics. It is a worthwhile read. It might have been improved by a more extensive look at the neurology of this erstwhile affect....more info
  • It's Not What You Know it's Whether You Really Know It
    I think my title above gets to the substance of Dr. Burton's narrative. How do we know what we know? Dr. Burton posits that the feeling of knowing is a necessary biological function required to allow humans to contemplate thought and take action. In other words, there has to be some reward for a person to think about and know what they are concluding and this reward comes in the feelings of knowing, certainty and correctness. The problem is that the feeling is not always corroborated by the facts. How many times have you been dead certain of something, only to be later proven wrong? And of those times, how many are followed by hindsight reframing of the situation to maintain your correctness?

    Burton delves into the physioligical details, philosophical ramifications and cultural and social implications of the reality that we may never be able to grasp 100% certainty on any subject. The subject poses conundrums about issues like free will, religious beliefs and other areas, and Burton explores these in his text.

    My concerns are that Burton starts out by stating that some of what he discusses is his own speculation, but never clearly tells us where that occurs. In addition, he is guilty of his own bent towards certainty when he states that the case for evolution is air-tight (it's not). Finally, someone once said that the seeds of destruction of a false belief are contained in that fasle belief's own logic. So, if the conclusion is that we can never be 100% right, then that very conclusion can never be 100% right, so maybe it's wrong and we can be 100% right. Kapeesh?

    That being said, there is a lot of interesting material about how the brain works, and a lot of food for thought about how it is that we know what we know....more info
  • Entertaining and Interesting, but...
    I am always slightly annoyed when a book is not about what is is supposed to be about. A few chapters of this book - those towards the end - are on why the feeling of certainty is just that: a feeling. This leads the author to some interesting discussions about how the 'feeling of certianty (a feeling though it is) is something that tends not to be subject to reason, but owes more to emotion. The author also goes into some really interesting thoughts about evolutionary reasons why the feeling of certainty as a tool to help us survive in an uncertain world (where we have to act, so we might as well act with conviction).

    Unfortunately, this only happens well into the second half of the book (maybe 2/3rds of the way through). The first many chapters are stage setters. There are chapters about distinguishing what is meant by "mental states," "feeling" and "sensation," chapters describing how we know that emotions like fear, deja vu, and religious experience are chemical in nature, and how the "mind" is an emergent property tying together several components of the brain into a unity.

    The author also spends quite a bit of time talking about what neuroscientists term the "hidden layer." That is, when we make decisions, the brain "surveys" a whole host of things - past experiences, attitudes one has acquired, things one has learned, etc. - to come to a conclusion, but this is all "hidden" form our consciousness. Thus, the author concludes that while we may feel like our deliberations are conscious, often the bulk of our deliberation is unconscious.

    All of this, the author tells us, supports the thesis (that he eventually gets to) suggesting that certainty is a feeling,, and not always one subject to rationality as we generally assume. Since we have seen that attitudes like fear, deja vu, and sense of purpose are feelings like any other, and we have seen that feelings like these are often not subject to rationality (try convincing a clinically depressed person that the feeling of purposelessness is only a chemical "illusion"), and we know that much of our thought is unconcious, we can also infer that the feeling of certianty is subject to all of these. (Try convincing a young-earth creationist that the earth is more than 6,000 years old and that their certainty is not due to the strength of the idea.)

    Really, I don't have any huge qualms with this. We've all seen people be so certain of something that is (to us) obviously wrong, and know all to well that people's attachment to ideas often has not a thing to do with rationality. (And we all, if we are honest, realize that we have been the 'dummy' in this scenario as well.)

    My biggest problem, from a literary standpoit, is that the author takes a very long time to get to his point, beginning many chapters with something like: "I want to talk about the feeling of certainty. But first, let's..." Once that happens too many times, I begin to lose patience, particularly when some chapters (like that reviewing the difference between "feelings" and "sensations") simply go on longer than they should.

    My philosophical beefs with the book is: the author, who suggests may times that we cannot step beyond our feelings of certainty if they are strong enough, would be well served to have included a chapter on examples where people DO change their minds about things they were once deeply certain about. The fact that this happens - albeit happens only with difficulty and pain - gives empirical lie to this thesis.

    Really, this is a quite interesting book with an interesting case that simply takes the author too many pages to make. I resisted the urge to skip ahead numerous times (and did skip half a chapter that seemed to veer frequently off topic). I wish the author would have discussed the issue of 'certainty' more than the tertiarilly related matter of brain states like fear and deja vu.

    In the end, I would reccomend this book to people as a follow-up read to books like "Mistakes Were Made," which give a much more direct discussion of our brain's tendency to fall into illusions of certainty. This book does that, but simply tries to do so much more that it may better have been written as a collection of loosely related essays.
    ...more info
  • A Crucial Question: How Do You Know What You Know?
    "On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You're Not" provides a compelling examination of the feeling of certainty each of us have. Robert Burton, a neurologist and gifted writer, argues that this "feeling of knowing" is a sensation, much like touch or sight. Burton proposes a well-crafted thesis, suggesting that this feeling of knowing is identical whether or not the associated knowledge is true. Through a variety of means, he draws in the reader to formulate a convincing case. Burton explains that his motivation is for the reader to question how we really "know what we know," and much of the book serves this purpose quite well. However, a few chapters distract the reader by straying away from the central thesis. At other moments, Burton seems to do the very thing he cautions the reader against: presenting a "stance of absolute certainty" about topics that could allow for alternative opinions or understandings.

    In the first four chapters of the book, Burton forms a strong introduction to his argument. He introduces the concept of the "feeling of knowing" through personal anecdotes and allows the reader to experience this feeling through a simple thought experiment. With this foundation, Burton uses case studies to explain that we often are certain of knowledge that is, in fact, untrue. Burton also suggests that pathologies often provide a basis for study of complex concepts in healthy individuals is supported by the story of a patient suffering from viral encephalitis and Cotard's Syndrome. Through this example, Burton illustrates the power of the brain to "know" something as true, even when logic and reason all indicate that it is false.

    After forming the outline of his thesis, Burton spends the next several chapters crafting the most compelling points of his argument. The reader is introduced to pertinent aspects of neuroscience when they are relevant, and a layperson can easily follow the diagrams and explanations that Burton offers. By combining the prevailing theories in neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI) research, Burton proposes a straightforward description of the decision-making process in the brain. His suggestion of a "hidden layer" that acts as a "committee" of influences (made of past memories, genetic predispositions, and even a "feeling of knowing") is easy to understand and seems to be a logical theory. With this model, his "perverse possibility" that an "unwarranted `feeling of knowing' might serve a positive evolutionary role" (95) is easily accepted as a reasonable theory.

    In addition to arguing for the importance of this "feeling of knowing," Burton attempts to explain the manner in which this feeling acts. At this point, his argument begins to weaken. Burton describes the ability of the brain to "reorganize" the timing of actual events in order to present a more logical picture through the use of a baseball analogy. Additionally, he describes the scientific distinctions between emotions and sensations. These are interesting stories, but Burton does not provide any data to connect these concepts with his newly defined "feeling of knowing." His postulations are well thought out; however, he presents them so that an unwary reader might read his conclusions as fact, rather than theory.

    The final few chapters of the book diverge from Burton's central thesis. Chapter twelve, focused on "reason" and "objectivity," includes a review of three recently published books about cognitive science in popular culture; however, none of them directly relate to his hypothesis. Burton remains a clear, coherent writer as he describes the problems with recent publications about "the rational mind," but he distracts the reader from the argument that he has previously built. An analysis of perspectives on alternative medicine has the potential to provide a strong argument for the central thesis of the book, and Burton approaches this argument. At one point, he says "imagine how different each of these claims would have been if intuition and gut feeling were acknowledged to be unconscious thoughts associated with a strong `feeling of knowing' rather than bona fide forms of trustworthy knowledge" (166). However, instead of advancing with this point, he changes the subject to the readers' perceptions and never solidifies a potentially compelling argument.

    The chapter titled "Faith" is equally frustrating. It holds the potential to be the most compelling in the book: faith and the unfounded certainty Burton describes seem to be, in many ways, synonymous. Rather than focusing on why or how individuals have faith, Burton focuses more on the personalities and comments of those who claim to a concrete set of beliefs. The most frustrating aspect of this chapter is Burton's presentation of quotes that could be interpreted in many ways in a biased fashion, with his own concrete dissection of the quote. This certainty leads him to take isolated quotes from larger of bodies of work by Francis Collins and Charles Darwin and present them as parallel situations with opposing outcomes. This presentation allows Burton to make a return to his central thesis; however, isolated presentation of the quotes prevents the reader from having the opportunity to interpret the quotations any way other that which Burton presents with complete certainty.

    Throughout the book, Burton's strong abilities are visible. He creates a well-crafted argument that will certainly receive further examination and will be the subject of many studies in years to come. Burton crafts a book that peers in his field and laypeople with no experience in neuroscience will be interested to read. Although he occasionally strays from the central thesis, his diversions are still well written and intriguing. The greatest weakness of the book is that Burton commits the same offense that he cautions against. His arguments are compelling, but not yet conclusive; however, he seems to allow his own "feeling of knowing" to dominate, and he presents his theories with complete certainty. Throughout the book, readers should constantly ask Burton his own question: "how do you know what you know?" (224) With this caution in mind, "On Being Certain" provides a fascinating examination of the brain's creation and utilization of certainty.
    ...more info
  • Brilliant neurological analysis of current social problem
    "It's not what ya don't know that causes most problems. It's what ya know for sure that just ain't so." Humorist and aphorist Josh Billings warned us a Century and-a-half ago about the danger of determined, intransigent certainty in human affairs.

    With this critical book, neuroscientist and neurologist Dr. Burton has taken a bite into a most perplexing problem of why there is so much human conflict and intolerance in the world. Yet this book so tightly focuses on "certainty" without relating his neuroscience investigation to the origins of mankind's tendencies toward "intolerance". He addresses with passion and intellect how our brain can lead us to engage in arbitrary, misleading rhetoric and actions despite our being an "enlightened" people.

    My interest in the subject of this book is quite pragmatic: I develop education programs on brain function literacy for the general public - primarily pre-teens in grades 4-6 and for seniors. We must start using neuroscience to help teach coping skills that help us avoid harming others and ourselves. Emotional Honesty & Self-Acceptance In "Challenge of Intolerance" courses for seniors we examine the fact that our superior brain capabilities are quite easily compromised by intra-neurological battles in deciding "Is what we know or believe true?" Burton's valuable book is a bold and worthy effort that opens up this crucial neurological process to further examination.

    Burton deftly delves into neuroanatomy of our human sense of "certainty". Because non-neuroscientists are his audience, he attempts to educate us. But as others in his medical specialty often do, he sometimes loses us in the abstractions of which parts of our brain do what. The point of laypersons becoming "literate" about brain matters is that we need to learn how to APPLY brain research to everyday human affairs - and particularly how to recognize mistakes of judgment that can lead to corrosive intolerance that pits one against another. It's not just that we believe or don't believe in our certainty, but whether that "certainty" contributes to our being intolerant. If certainty is a cornerstone of intolerance, perhaps neuroscience can help us understand and control the urge to engage in dismissive or hateful behavior toward those who disagree with our beliefs. This question challenges every civil society that seeks to overcome intolerance impulses.

    Overall, I find this book significant because the author seeks to engage more of us to self-examine how our brain often fools and misleads us into making rigid judgments about our beliefs and those of others. I hope Burton's work stimulates further inquiry in utilizing neuroscience research to illuminate ways humans can learn to detect and regulate impulses within our brain that lead us astray by turning us against others and ourselves.

    While certainty, intolerance and hate may dwell within the human spirit (and brain) for our self-protection, when they get out of control we have war, degradation and mutual destruction. This dilemma is summed up by another wise 18th Century pragmatist, the English cleric and writer Charles Caleb Colton: "We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them."
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