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Friday, April 9, 2010

On Being Certain

How is it that people can be certain of things which don't seem to be true? It's a very interesting question. Over a hundred years ago, William James wrote: belief follows psychological and not logical laws. A single veridical hallucination experienced by one's self or by some friend who tells one all the circumstances has more influence over the mind than the largest calculated probablility either for or against (Essays in Psychical Research).

Recent studies have confirmed James' assertion. Robert Burton, MD is a board-Certified Neurologist and Psychiatrist. He has recently written a book entitled: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not.

He gave an interview in Scientific American about the book. In the article he says: There are two separate aspects of a thought, namely the actual thought, and an independent involuntary assessment of the accuracy of that thought .

This is illustrated by the Muller-Lyer optical illusion:

Burton says:
Even when we consciously know and can accurately determine that these two horizontal lines are the same length, we experience the simultaneous disquieting sensation that this thought—the lines are of equal length—is not correct. This isn't a feeling that we can easily overcome through logic and reason; it simply happens to us.

This sensation is a manifestation of a separate category of mental activity—-unconscious calculations as to the accuracy of any given thought. On the positive side, such feelings can vary from a modest sense of being right, such as understanding that Christmas falls on December 25, to a profound a-ha, "Eureka" or sense of a spiritual epiphany. William James referred to the latter—the mystical experience—as "felt knowledge," a mental sensation that isn't a thought, but feels like a thought.

Once we realize that the brain has very powerful inbuilt involuntary mechanisms for assessing unconscious cognitive activity, it is easy to see how it can send into consciousness a message that we know something that we can't presently recall—the modest tip-of-the-tongue feeling. At the other end of the spectrum would be the profound "feeling of knowing" that accompanies unconsciously held beliefs—a major component of the unshakeable attachment to fundamentalist beliefs—both religious and otherwise—such as belief in UFOs or false memories.

Why do people like to be certain? Burton says that just as certain drugs, sex, gambling, and so on, provide a reward to the brain which causes it to want to repeat the action, even so, certainty provides reward. He says:
It is quite likely that the same reward system provides the positive feedback necessary for us to learn and to continue wanting to learn. The pleasure of a thought is what propels us forward; imagine trying to write a novel or engage in a long-term scientific experiment without getting such rewards. Fortunately, the brain has provided us with a wide variety of subjective feelings of reward ranging from hunches, gut feelings, intuitions, suspicions that we are on the right track to a profound sense of certainty and utter conviction. And yes, these feelings are qualitatively as powerful as those involved in sex and gambling. One need only look at the self-satisfied smugness of a "know it all" to suspect that the feeling of certainty can approach the power of addiction.

All human beings seem to feel better if they have certainty about something. The feeling of uncertainty is not pleasant. We seek an explanation. Some psyches seem to have more difficulty dealing with uncertainty than others even leading to a strong sense of frustration or despair. I tend to think that many religious fundamentalists tend to fall within in this category but so would those that are sometimes called fundamentalist atheists . So would some political commentators (especially on Fox and MSNBC) fall within this classification. It will be fascinating to see what further research on this matter discovers. I agree with Burton's conclusion: Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas . When one is dogmatically certain he has arrived at the truth, learning has ceased.

Below is a lecture that Burton gave related to his book:


  1. " 'Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.' When one is dogmatically certain he has arrived at the truth, learning has ceased." -- Are you certain?

  2. My friend, Professor Matt McCormick, has an excellent post on his blog which relates to this subject. In it, he says:

    Interestingly, this model of how a disagreement can be resolved by successful argument rarely if ever actually describes the sort of process any of us, theists and atheists included, undergo to arrive at our beliefs. People rarely just change their minds after a sober and objective period of reflection on the evidence. The way we acquire our beliefs and our behavior with regard to defending them or sustaining them is much more complicated, neurological, and organic. What does happen is that your belief structure seems to make gradual shifts and each shift in attitude about one matter, especially if it is important, ripples outward and has an effect on lots of other beliefs, dispositions, and emotional reactions. To make matters more complicated, we aren’t very good judges of what we believe, or why we believe it. Priming studies, in psychology, for example, show that neurological processes are set in motion towards a reaction long before we are consciously aware that we have seen or heard something consciously. In one study, college men were shown a number of pictures of different women and asked to judge which ones they thought were more attractive. Unbeknownst to the men, the researchers made sure that in some of the pictures the women’s eyes were dilated and some were not. Eye dilation is one physiological reaction indicating emotional openness, sexual attraction, and intimacy. The results showed that the men tended to pick out the women with dilated eyes as the more attractive ones. But when asked why they picked those women, they had no idea that the eye dilation had anything to do with their choices. They would confabulate theories and elaborate answers about having a preference for certain hair colors, or women looking like someone, and so on. But the single most predictive factor for their choices was eye dilation. These studies show how little we know about our own beliefs, and the reasons that we have them.

  3. Someone recently pointed out to me a study in which it was demonstrated that when people of faith make statements about that faith, the area of the brain that is most active is that which is involved with emotion. Saying, "I work in an office", or "I went to the store yesterday" involves one part of the brain; saying "I believe Jesus rose from the dead" involves another part entirely. I believe this is also akin to the developmental process in children.

    When believers tell us they know something to be true because they "feel" it, and can't understand why we find that insufficient - that appears to be what's going on.