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

by Robert Burton


The central theme of this book is that certainty is not biologically possible and why it is that we remain certain about so much despite this. One of the key areas a futurist must work in is how people deal with uncertainty because the future is inherently unknowable. Time and time again we have noticed people experience great discomfort in trying to assimilate uncertainty into their thinking. This is because we have brains that generally seek out and are comfortable with certainty, even if it is false. Therefore exploration of why and how people are certain about things is extremely useful in helping them work with uncertainty.

The book sets out to answer the question “how do we know we know” and uses several approaches to explore the question from different angles. For example, a patient who has his visual cortex destroyed cannot receive visual signals from his eyes but his retina still functions. The patient cannot see but when asked which part of the visual quadrant a flashing light has come from he can accurately state which quadrant it is although he feels like he is guessing. This is because some of the neural pathways involved in sensing light are still active but the ones that govern sight are not – ie. there are other ways of sensing visual signals than just seeing. Similar findings can be seen in experiments with the auditory system.

Another example used is that of pain from or the feeling of the presence of a phantom limb where the limb has been amputated. The individual concerned knows that the limb is not there but cannot rationally or consciously will away the sensations.

We have all heard of how eyewitness descriptions of the same event can differ markedly. On pages 10 and 11 the author describes a study where students were asked to write down what they knew of the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion within 24 hours of it happening. They were asked to include where they were, what they were doing and how they felt. Two and a half years later they were interviewed about their recollections and 25% of them had remarkably different recollections from their written accounts, including one student who said after being shown his written journal from the day after the event: “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

The point of these examples and others in the book is that there are processes in our brains and nervous systems that go on below the level of conscious mind and yet we insist on believing that we are rational thinking beings. The reality is that our brains and neural processes are incredibly complex - we have one hundred billion neurons in our brains and a typical neuron has interactions with 10 thousand other neurons - and we are only really just scraping the surface in understanding them. Much of what goes on in our neural processing goes on below the level of rational thought. The author describes this process as analogous to a committee of neuronal networks with only the majority decisions of the committee being visible to us at a conscious level. The voting process is described as being influenced by our experiences, which ties in with our views on pattern entrainment which we have written on and spoken about previously.

The author’s conclusion is that “feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us” (author’s italics). Part of his reasoning as to why this is so is that these feelings of knowing and certainty must have conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage in terms of functioning successfully in the real world.

All of this is a bit disconcerting for most of us. If what we know to be true is determined by the subconscious actions of a hundred billion cells, and their actions are shaped by our experiences, where lies real certainty and free will? The author explores some of these concerns in depth in the middle of the book.

In the end the author quotes F Scott Fitzgerald who said “The test of a first rate mind is the ability to hold two diametrically opposed ideas at the same time and still function.” If we fall to the level of believing that all our decisions are made by a series of chemical reactions that are shaped and modulated by forces outside of our control then life is essentially meaningless. However, we must integrate the knowledge that this is at least partly true into our everyday life.

The author advises that the best way to do this is to make this knowledge real in our lives and adopt the attitude of saying “I believe” rather than “I know” which leaves open the opportunity for doubt and examining evidence that is contrary to our views. This subtle difference is based in part on the scientific method which proposes that nothing can ever be actually proven, just that the evidence is overwhelmingly in its favour.

The book is well worth reading if you are interested in how the mind works, although I found the section on philosophy in the middle a little out of line with the central theme and a bit hard to read, though it needed to be examined. The systems that provide feelings of knowing and certainty may well have provided evolutionary advantage in the past but in a complex and rapidly changing world they may not always be helpful and need to be understood in order that we can override them when we need to.