Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate this book
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.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published February 5, 2008

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Robert A. Burton

8 books44 followers
Robert Burton, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, where he also completed his neurology residency. At age 33, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaimed novels. He lives in Sausalito, California.


Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
762 (33%)
4 stars
749 (33%)
3 stars
554 (24%)
2 stars
150 (6%)
1 star
50 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 147 reviews
Profile Image for Richard.
1,135 reviews1,017 followers
November 10, 2021
Autumn 2021 update
Oddly enough, thirteen years after publication, the host of the cognition podcast You Are Not So Smart choose to interview the author about this book. I found it more interesting than the book, but I’m not persuaded to change my rating, since I believe I am right when I conclude that the deep contemplative process of reading a text is more trustworthy than listening to a discussion on the same topic. But I may be wrong. If you’d like to check it out, that podcast can be found here.


It is always somewhat astonishing when an intelligent author manages to make an interesting topic dull.

The unassailable certainty exhibited by ideologues of many varieties lies behind many of the world's political and cultural problems. One would expect that an examination of how such certainty develops and how one might avoid the traps this entails.

Burton has one good punch: he hammers home that the feeling of knowing is a feeling like any other: not really very amenable to rational understanding. While he goes into some detail regarding the neurochemistry, etc., the key point is that no human has a purely rational portion of their brain set aside to coolly examine these feelings (or any other thought). For genetic or environmental reasons, some people might just lean more towards accepting that kind of feeling when others might resist.

Oddly enough, this is also where Burton gets into trouble. Over and over again, he assails those that believe a reasonable person should examine that feeling of knowing and reflect on whether it is to be trusted. But that falls into the trap of asserting the existence of that rational corner of the brain—that one that doesn't actually exist. Burton helpfully terms this the myth of the autonomous rational mind.

Apparently there's no gray in Burton's world. You presumably have a feeling of knowing what your own birthday is; you might have a very similar feeling about whether your spouse likes black licorice; and might also have that certain feeling in your gut that the woman you saw yesterday on the bus was your third-grade teacher. But you have no rational way of judging between these! Or, at a minimum, if you find that you can exercise some discretion, make sure you don't use the word "rational", since then you'd be falling for the myth of the autonomous rational mind!

All this despite the simple fact that Burton has explained the dangerous appeal of certainty. Let's say you were to think, in spite of your gut feeling, "Well, it has been many decades since I've seen my teacher, and I barely got a glance at that woman; maybe I really shouldn't be so certain." Well, as long as you don't pretend that is a rational attitude, you'll probably be safe from Burton's scorn. Anyway, if you are able to reflect on the feeling then you really must not have been certain anyway.

On Being Certain has a good chunk of wisdom at its core, but Burton is simply too certain that he knows how to communicate it. Unfortunately, he spends too many pages preaching at the reader and splitting hairs.

If you read this book, be prepared to skim the boring parts.
Profile Image for Eva Celeste.
196 reviews14 followers
May 24, 2021
I was totally in love with this book when I first picked it up. Just saw it on the shelf, started browsing it, and couldn't put it down. A neurologist who is also a novelist, who has a lifelong interest in existential questions and wrote essays on William James in college? Dude! It seemed like we should be BFF.
Unfortunately, I found myself increasingly irritated with the book, and have gone from recommending it to everyone I see to only giving it 3 stars.
The author starts with a fascinating premise, that the "feeling of being certain" (or of "knowing that you know") is a separate experience/emotion that is not necessarily linked to logic or rationality and, in fact, never can be due to the structure of human brains. Thus, biology becomes totally postmodern, and dogmatism a physiologic quirk.
However, Dr. Burton never really puts together a cohesive discussion. He meanders out amongst the speculative, philosophical clover fields, grazing here and there, amusing himself, and dwelling on his pet ideas. Alternately describing concepts in too great of depth or being too glib, the author ultimately disappointed me. I cry.
Profile Image for Lena.
Author 2 books336 followers
March 17, 2008
I'll start this review with a quote from the back of the book, since it explains the premise better than I can:

"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."

Needless to say, the ideas presented in this book will be discomforting to anyone who has come to rely on their gut feelings for decision making. Burton does a pretty good job of presenting his case that any feeling of certainty we experience tells us more about our inner biology than it does about the external world, and we would do well to understand that how much we can really know is far more limited by our biology than our rational minds would like to admit.

Of particular interest to me was a chapter in which he discusses the implications of these findings on the debate about religion. He takes both Dennett and Dawkins-as well as religious fundamentalists-to task for claiming certainty regarding the existence or non-existence of God. He claims that the space between 100% certain and 99.9999% certain is the best place to find tolerance for opposing viewpoints; if we can all admit the universal limitations of our minds, perhaps these debates could become a lot more civilized.

36 reviews1 follower
May 17, 2009
I really thought I was going to like this book because I enjoy epistemology and cognitive science. And yet, I only made it about 2/3 of the way through the book before I gave up. It was not so much that it was boring as that it was frustrating. The main problem I had was that this book does not present scientific evidence and talk about implications or possible interpretations. Rather, it presents the author's theory about the existence and function of what he calls "the feeling of knowing" and then pulls in scientific and anecdotal evidence every now and then to bolster his case. When he started theorizing about why evolution might have created the "feeling of knowing" I knew the book had jumped the shark. There is nothing that drives me more bonkers than people dreaming up ideas about why evolution could have come up with this or that wildly-far-removed-from-biological-reproduction trait. It is nothing more than an exercise in creativity, since evolution could have conceivably created and selected for anything under the sun. His explanations of standard problems in epistemology also struck me as second rate. To top it all off, he couldn't just set aside his political convictions to talk about cognitive science. Instead, he constantly got in jabs at George Bush and conservatives in general for absolutely no reason other than that he is obviously thinks conservatives are stupid. Not sure why that would be in a book about believing strongly that you are right even when you are not.
23 reviews1 follower
January 4, 2009
This was given to me for Christmas, perhaps as a dig at my joked-about intensive defense of my own ideas.

Burton's thesis that there is an innate biological feeling of knowing, i.e. of certainty, that is separate and distinct from reason and actual fact, is not so hard for me to swallow. Our ability to believe that we are right about something is a useful but not always failsafe attribute. And reasoning itself is beset by bias that will never be entirely eliminated. So what, one might ask, is the big deal?

The book meanders over disparate subjects before 3/4 of the way through the book he finally puts it on the table. He takes his "you can only be 99.998% rational" argument and extends it to argue that man is biologically religious, that to assume a non-religious stance is itself just another act of faith. Man needs a sense of purpose; Dawkins gets it from science but others will be genetically driven to get it from religion. So, leave them alone, they are exercising their genetic dispositions! We innately talk of afterlife, soul, higher powers and seek the heartfelt joy and meaning of religion.

Data or evidence? Forget about it. The idea of a rational mind is an "unsubtantiated belief". So finally the bait-and-switch has been revealed. Evolution should be given provisional assent and it should be acknowledged that creationism and intelligent design might be right.

Where does this all come from? I tend to put this in the context of anti-enlightenment literature of the last 20 years and the more recent counterattack of anti-religious bestsellers by Dawkins and Hitchens and others that have perhaps attempted to capitalize on the unpopulartity of both Islamic and Evangelical fundamentalism to get their pro-science digs in. Burton's diatribe seems to me to be in the same vein as that of Chris Hedges' "I Don't Believe in Atheists" - also given to me for some reason - that tries to find a moderate middle ground between mysticism and science. And hating Dawkins, the rotweiler defender of science ties them both together.

Am I certain of this? Kinda. But from now on according to Burton, I should say that it is my belief.

Profile Image for Angela Juline.
927 reviews20 followers
August 4, 2018
You read these brain books, and you just have more questions - even more so with this one, because the author is arguing against certainty. So how can I be certain he is right??? It really is something to consider and I think it explains a lot as to why people have such a hard time hearing new ideas. I'm going to try to be mindful of not being so certain...
Profile Image for Reza Amiri Praramadhan.
472 reviews22 followers
June 27, 2020
In this book, the author tries to explain the answer to question, “How do we know what we know?” That is, the feeling, or belief that you are right or certain, even when the evidences are overwhelmingly against you. Taking a broad approach, the author explain this human phenomenon through many lenses, from psychological and neurological to philosophical points of view. While the biological explanations are mostly forgotten by me, I am particularly interested when he discussed secularism-religious debate on absolute truth and pointed out, that in pursuit of the true faith, either in God or supreme rationality of human mind, Religious fundamentalists and militant atheists are no more different from each other. I also applaud the author’s conclusion to the debate, that is, the need to keep in mind about the scientific facts, while also acknowledging the positive effects that irrational and unscientific beliefs such as religion bring to our daily lives. And, no matter how hard human try to eliminate, uncertainty will always linger.
Profile Image for Alex Lee.
894 reviews107 followers
August 20, 2019
I love this book. I bought it on a whim after hearing about it on NPR sometime back in 2004 or 2005. It has sat on my shelf for a long time.

I always wanted to read it but the topic of certainty seemed out of place. What does it mean to be certain? I am not sure I was ever in a place to really read this and get what it was saying but then again I don't know. How can I be certain?

What is radical about this book is that Burton addresses the very notion that certainty is nothing more than a feeling.

This concept gets at the heart of all sense of certainty, whereby authority, reputations, mistakes and everything else lie. What Burton strikes at in the end is that our feeling of certainty is just a feeling; that we must become comfortable with uncertainty as with certainty.

Today in 2019, with social media, the amount of detail on any topic available to us is extraordinary. What little we grok from a passage on Wikipedia or some one-off article is dangerous because it lends expertise where there may be none. Articulating that expertise is something we add to our sense of self so that we base our decisions from an emotion that disallows us to consider other options, which may be equally pertinent.

This blindspot of certainty is at once the root of problems regarding faith, philosophy, expertise, and authority.

Burton doesn't explore these consequences, however. The meat of this book tackles people's common sense perceptions of certainty, developing hard science to back his claims.

When he writes about consequences, it is from a mainly personal point of view, as his main question isn't about what drives human evolution, society or power-structures... rather he seeks to answer the question how do we know what we know?

His answer comes at the end

Certainty is not biologically possible. We must learn (and teach our children) to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty. Science has given us the language and tools of probabilities. We have methods for analyzing and ranking opinion according to their likelihood of correctness. That is enough. We do not need and cannot afford the catastrophes born out of a belief in certainty. As David Gross, PhD., and the 2004 recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics, said, "The most important product of knowledge is ignorance."

Only when we grasp what is actually going on can we make good decisions, which requires that we acknowledge where we do not go and what we do not know.

For anyone seeking to learn about truth, or to be effective or to live in reality, so this book is a must, be it a teacher, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, business owner, politician or anyone with any real-world consequences and real-world authority.
Profile Image for Chris Boutté.
Author 8 books145 followers
January 8, 2022
I absolutely love reading books about our flawed ways of thinking, but this one from Robert A. Burton quickly became one of my favorites. Although Burton is a neuroscientist, this book is such a fantastic blend of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. The book asks the question, “What does it mean to be certain?” To start the book, Burton gives a fantastic example of someone with a brain disorder who is absolutely certain of a delusion. We look at these types of people like they’re crazy, but how often are we certain of something only to find out later that we were wrong? Burton goes on to explain his research into what happens in the brain when we feel certain, and then he expands into psychology and philosophy. He also tells short anecdotes of his own experiences and how even he has flawed thinking because it’s part of human nature. There’s so much in this book that I haven’t seen presented in any other books, and it’s definitely on my list of “everyone needs to read this book”. We could all use a little intellectual humility, and this book does a fantastic job getting you to that place.
Profile Image for Popup-ch.
738 reviews12 followers
February 6, 2015
This book is based around an interesting question that I had never considered before:
What does it mean to know something?

The author points out that 'the feeling of knowing' is a neuro-biological reaction and not a logical conclusion. There is also a wide genetic variability in the population as to what criteria can elicit this reaction.

What I find lacking is a distinction between statements that are perfectly knowable (within a specific system), such as 2+2==4 on the one side, and statements that depend on sensory inputs, such as 'I have two hands' on the other. While I can be pretty certain that I have two hands, I can conceive of scenarios where all my sensory signals have been hijacked (e.g. [i]Matrix[i]), or that I only exist as a disembodied simulation.

Anyway - it's an interesting question, and the author approaches it as a neurological specialist, showing how various parts of the brain are involved. (With the expected mentions of Phineas Gage and lobotomy.)

There is also an interesting digression on religious faith, as well as a piece on the existence of free will. (How can we prove the existence of a Free Will? Can the setting up of an experiment to prove it be anything but preordained?)
Profile Image for Andrew.
24 reviews18 followers
August 14, 2009
This is one of the best books I've read in a while. I was doubtful it would be much good, but the more I read the better it got. If you're interested in understanding why it is that we think we know what we know and how our minds really work when it comes to the feeling of certainty, this is a great book. If you're familiar with Landmark technology, this explains some of the biology and neurology behind our overconfidence in our own knowledge. Great to read if you're a religious fanatic or a fervent atheist and anyone in between who thinks they know anything "for certain". We should all learn to be more humble about the views we hold as absolute. If I were president for a day I'd make this book required reading at school.
Profile Image for Erikka.
1,792 reviews
March 30, 2016
This was a bit slow, and a bit dry, in parts, but the overlying concept was fascinating. We are not purely mechanical creatures. We don't void our beliefs when faced with uncertainty; we take into account new information and either reshape our thoughts or, more often, stick to our guns. How do we know what we know? The short answer is: we don't. Admitting ignorance is the purest sign of intelligence--we have a general feeling of knowing something, but that doesn't mean we are correct. Being able to question what we believe, change our views, and soundly and calmly discuss thoughts with others is the milieu of a rational and open-minded person. This book I believe will make me think differently about what I "know" in the future.
Profile Image for Kevin.
75 reviews7 followers
June 7, 2009
In the words of the author:
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.
Unfortunately, once one understands this point, the rest of the book is rather less inspiring than promised. Although the discussions concerning the neural basis of experience is well-written, once the author turns to more speculative areas such as evolutionary psychology, religion, or epistemology his arguments rapidly display a lack of rigor and understanding of the fields.
Profile Image for عبدالرحمن عقاب.
672 reviews754 followers
February 17, 2014
الكتاب يطرح فكرة (الإيمان) بمعناه القلبي. هذا الإيمان الذي يولد قناعة راسخة ويحمل كمسلمات لا جدال فيها.
هل يسبق هذا الإيمان اقتناع عقلي ؟ أم هو حالة نفسية وعصبية تتولد نتيجة تفاعلات كيميائية في الجهاز العصبي. ثم يأتي العقل ليجد لها ما يفسرها وما يبررها؟!
السؤال على هذه الشاكلة خطير وعميق ومقلق.
يمضي الكاتب في هذا الباب بتطرف حقيقة؛ ولا أجده يحشد الأدلة الدامغة وإن أتى ببعضها.
أسلوب الكاتب أيضا مشوش وغير جذاب. مما يجعلك تفقد الاستمتاع وترابط الأفكار بسهولة .
Profile Image for Adam Karapandzich.
149 reviews3 followers
January 25, 2020
I'm not sure if I've ever given a 1-star review before but I had to it for this book. It's the perfect (sarcasm) mix between science and incoherent rambling. Burton's attempt at providing examples and narrative descriptions fall short of his goal, leaving me bored and wishing there was more actual science. I understand the value of providing analogies, examples, and references people may understand better than the raw science, but in this case, it dilutes what could have been a good book.
Profile Image for Traci.
870 reviews39 followers
September 5, 2017
Interesting but tough reading, as it's rather technical. I like the idea, but I have to be honest - I'm not really sure I completely understood everything I read. Much like the title, there's no way to be certain that it really was a good book.

Love the fact that the author had the same problem with Richard Dawkins that I did! This sentence had me nodding my head in complete agreement: "[Dawkins'] near-evangelical effort to convince the faithful of the folly of their convictions has the same zealous ring as those missionaries who feel it is their duty to convert the heathens." Amen! (pun intended)

Profile Image for Cleber Maia.
21 reviews
March 13, 2023
"Sobre ter Certeza" é um livro escrito por Robert A. Burton que aborda o tema da certeza, uma sensação que muitas vezes consideramos como um objetivo em nossas vidas. Ao longo do livro, o autor explora a natureza da certeza, como ela pode ser enganosa e como pode afetar nosso pensamento e comportamento.

Burton começa o livro explicando que a certeza não é um estado mental absoluto e inabalável, mas sim uma sensação subjetiva que pode ser influenciada por fatores externos e internos. Ele aponta que, muitas vezes, nossa busca pela certeza pode ser motivada pelo medo do desconhecido e pela necessidade de controle. No entanto, essa busca pode levar a um excesso de confiança, crenças infundadas e decisões precipitadas.

O autor também discute como a certeza pode ser enganosa, uma vez que nossas crenças são moldadas por nossas experiências, emoções e preconceitos. Ele argumenta que, em muitos casos, nossa certeza é baseada em evidências limitadas ou em nossa própria interpretação das informações disponíveis. Além disso, Burton aborda a ideia de que a certeza pode ser afetada por vieses cognitivos e pelo efeito Dunning-Kruger, onde pessoas com baixo nível de competência em uma área tendem a superestimar suas habilidades.

Ao longo do livro, Burton oferece exemplos práticos e estudos de casos para ilustrar seus pontos de vista. Ele também fornece dicas e conselhos para ajudar os leitores a lidar com a incerteza e a tomar decisões mais informadas. O autor conclui que a incerteza é uma parte natural da vida e que é importante aprender a tolerá-la e a lidar com ela de maneira construtiva.

Em geral, "Sobre ter Certeza" é uma leitura fascinante e provocativa para quem está interessado em explorar a natureza da certeza e do pensamento crítico. O livro é escrito de forma clara e acessível, e o autor apresenta ideias complexas de maneira fácil de entender. Recomendo este livro a qualquer pessoa que queira aprofundar sua compreensão sobre como a certeza pode afetar nossas vidas e nosso pensamento.
Profile Image for Joe.
14 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2010
Robert Burton has written a very accessible book that ends up spanning a much wider range of the biological limitations of the human mind than the title implies.

Robert shows evidence that feelings of rightness or certainty are one of our basic emotions, and the role that emotion plays in our decision making. But he also does a great job of discussing how much of our brain's work happens in parts of the brain inaccessible by our perceptual mind.

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in why we behave the way we do. The neurology is very understandable, and Robert makes a very compelling case for his arguments, and aims some criticisms at some other well known authors for their fast and loose interpretations of recent neurological studies.

This is a really really good book.
289 reviews17 followers
February 12, 2016
Can basically be summarized as:
1. "Knowing" is a feeling and, as such, is subjective. You can feel like you "know" something that is, in fact, totally false.
2. We can't control the reaction of feeling like we know something. Part of it is controlled by our subconscious and is essentially immune to direct observation or manipulation.
3 .We can acknowledge it and choose to approach it with skepticism. Not questioning our own "feeling of knowing" can lead to adverse outcomes, professional mistakes, etc.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Hom Sack.
493 reviews10 followers
February 27, 2021
I like this book. It clarifies my thinking about the nature of knowledge, especially, "How do you know what you know?"
I have no memory that I read this already. Nevertheless:

He asks at the end of the book: "If this book has provoked you to ask the most basic of questions—how do you know what you know?—it will have served its purpose." I do feel certain of it:

On Being Certain | Robert Burton | Talks at Google - YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QL12c...)
Profile Image for Greg Williams.
200 reviews3 followers
September 14, 2021
This fascinating book delves into the neurobiological processes behind our sense of knowledge, certainty, and conviction. The author starts with a summary statement:

Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.

and a confession:

I must confess to an underlying agenda: A stance of absolute certainty that precludes consideration of alternative opinions has always struck me as fundamentally wrong. But such accusations are meaningless without the backing of hard science. So I have set out to provide a scientific basis for challenging our belief in certainty. An unavoidable side effect: The scientific evidence will also show the limits of scientific inquiry.

This book lives up to this summary statement and confession. In a sense, this book provides a scientific explanation for confirmation bias. Over time, our beliefs and convictions are built up in the hidden layers of the neural networks in our brains. The consequence of this is that it is much harder to overturn a belief or conviction than to reinforce it.

The studies are impressive; once established, emotional habits and patterns and expectations of behavioral rewards are difficult to fully eradicate. This same argument applies to thoughts. Once firmly established, a neural network that links a thought and a feeling of correctness is not easily undone. An idea known to be wrong continues to feel correct.

What makes this book especially good is that the author is not content with just describing the neurobiology behind our feelings of knowing and certainty. He also explores the implications of this for our epistemology, the scientific method, our persistent beliefs in mind-body dualism and free will and objectivity, our science vs. religion arguments, etc. On all these topics, I think the author is fair and even-handed. And I found his discussion of these implications to be eye-opening and humbling.

How different the science-religion controversy would be if we acknowledged that a deeply felt sense of purpose is as necessary as hunger and thirst . . . To expect well-reasoned arguments to easily alter personal expressions of purpose is to misunderstand the biology of belief.

I loved this book. As someone with strong opinions, it challenged me to take a step back and approach my beliefs and convictions with humility.

Certainty is not biologically possible. We must learn (and teach our children) to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Roo Phillips.
256 reviews21 followers
February 3, 2021
4.5 stars. A wonderful read. This book was not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be about narcissism, hubris, perfectionism, OCD, etc. None of that was evoked. This book is a thoughtful (neuroscience-based) study of epistemology. Burton’s closing line sums his writing up with, “If this book has provoked you to ask the most basic of questions—how do you know what you know?—it will have served its purpose.” This is a guide on the physiological limitations of reason and objectivity, and the importance of the ‘sensation of knowing’ for our function and survival. It distinguishes the ‘feeling of knowing’ from ‘knowing’.

A good example from the book:

Recognizing the limits of the mind to assess itself should be sufficient for us to dispense with the faded notion of certainty, yet it doesn’t mean that we have to throw up our hands in a pique of postmodern nihilism. We thrive on idealized goals that can’t be met. In criticizing the limits of reason and objectivity, I do not wish to suggest that properly conducted scientific studies don’t give us a pretty good idea of when something is likely to be correct. To me, pretty good is a linguistic statistic that falls somewhere in between more likely than not and beyond a reasonable doubt, yet avoids the pitfalls arising from the belief in complete objectivity.

This excerpt gives you another taste for how the author writes, as well as questions he addresses:

The feeling of knowing is essential for both confirming our thoughts and for motivating those thoughts that either haven’t yet or can’t be proven. These two roles can be both complementary and contradictory, and can lead to an unavoidable confusion as to what we feel that we know—a confusion that cannot be entirely resolved without taking away the reward system for long-range thoughts. If we are to understand why certainty is such a common state of mind and so difficult to shake, we need to grapple with several fundamental questions. What are the biological rewards for pure thought and how are they related to the feeling of knowing? Are there inherent individual differences in the degree and quality of expression of these rewards, including the potential for addiction? Can these differences be addressed via behavioral changes and shifts in educational emphasis? Can we learn to sense greater pleasure out of feelings of doubt in the way that some people derive more pleasure from questions than answers? Are there ways to adjust such systems to optimize learning and motivate long-range intellectual pursuits without overshooting the mark and promoting dogmatism and an excessive or unjustified sense of conviction?
Profile Image for Tucker.
Author 25 books177 followers
January 2, 2019
What do we know about what we know? "Metaknowledge," knowledge about knowledge, is addressed in this book under "the feeling of knowing," into which Burton collapses the feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction and correctness.

You know what he's talking about: The sense that you know the answer, that the answer is "on the tip of your tongue," in the seconds, minutes, or hours before you are actually able to access the correct information. The conviction that you've found the same street you visited years ago when in fact you are wrong. The feeling can override one's logical awareness, as when someone has phantom limb sensation and is convinced the limb somehow actually exists; knows oneself to have received a placebo yet nevertheless believes oneself to have been healed due to that "medication"; has Cotard's syndrome and is convinced that one is dead despite being conscious and showing ample signs of life; or is schizophrenic and believes oneself to be in contact with aliens. Examples of the opposite of the "feeling of knowing" include obsessive-compulsive disorder in which an individual may be in constant doubt of having locked all the doors; someone who suffers a stroke and is convinced that one's belongings have been replaced by fakes, although every last detail about them remains identical; or someone who has "blindsight," able to visually navigate a room while believing oneself to be blind.

"The feeling of knowing is universal," Burton writes in On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. , "most likely originates within a localized region of the brain, can be spontaneously activated via direct stimulation or chemical manipulation, yet cannot be triggered by conscious effort. These arguments for its inclusion as a primary brain module are more compelling than those postulated for deceit, compassion, forgiveness, altruism or Machiavellian cunning." (p. 61) In other words, the feeling of knowing is more basic to our brains even than ethical feelings and thoughts.

Ben Libet's oft-cited book Mind Time — which I've not read yet — is cited by Burton as well. It has been described as raising the possibility that many decisions are made on an unconscious level and only several seconds later does the conscious mind take credit for having made the decision and confabulates a reason for the alleged choice. (p. 208) This does not mean, however, that one will like the decision later on or that it will turn out to be beneficial. (pp. 152-153) In fact, Burton criticizes Malcolm Gladwell's Blink for its praise of subconscious decision-making. While accepting that the ability to make split-second decisions is indeed adaptive for a species that faces frequent threats, Burton reminds us that decisions made by the gut are unscientific and aren't always correct or beneficial. (pp. 147-148, 185-186)

Science shows us how to understand probabilities, so we shouldn't demand certainties. Risk management is uncomfortable insofar as it carries an "inescapable moral dimension," in that, when you make a choice, you're hoping for one outcome while also accepting responsibility that something else might happen. Our tolerance for risk may have a genetic component.

He quotes William James as having written about religious experience: "Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge." He adds: "This is a brilliant observation, equating religious and mystical states with the sensation of knowing, and with the further recognition that such knowledge is felt, not thought....James's description is perfectly straightforward—with mystical states, people experience spontaneous mental sensations that feel like knowledge but occur in the absence of any specific knowledge." (p. 23) Initially it seems, then, that the feeling of knowing underpins religion. Later, Burton asks: "Are there inherent individual differences in the degree and quality of expression of these [biological] rewards [for abstract thought]...Can we learn to sense greater pleasure out of feelings of doubt in the way that some people derive more pleasure from questions than answers?" (pp. 100-101) He goes on to mention a study that suggests that religious tendencies may be genetic. (p. 104)

Taking his comments about ethics and religion together—with the feeling of knowing underpinning both of them—this points in a very interesting direction. First, I want to point out that some atheists are possessed of a very strong feeling of knowing, equivalent to that enjoyed by some theists. Colloquially they are often called "dogmatic atheists" although this is somewhat of a misnomer. Such atheists do not strictly obey a dogma proposed by a leader, but they are nevertheless convinced that they have found the truth, in part because they feel that they have found it. My commonsense intuition, however (for what it's worth), is that people who bring a strong feeling of knowing to their spiritual or philosophical lives are much more likely to lean theist rather than atheist. As for ethics, people with a strong feeling of knowing are probably more likely to be moral absolutists rather than moral relativists, where relativism's hallmarks are often the expression of constant questions and doubts. The correctness of both of these hypotheses would have to be investigated. If true, they could explain why a belief in God tends to pair with moral absolutism. It isn't because moral beliefs logically require absolute grounding, nor is God able to serve as such a grounding. (Plato's Euthyphro—"do the gods love it because it is good, or is it good because the gods love it?"—dispensed with this association.) Rather, it could be that a strong feeling of knowing encourages both belief in God and belief in absolute morality. There are, of course, unusual pairings: Sam Harris is an insistent atheist and in The Moral Landscape he revealed himself to be insistently morally absolutist as well. But I suspect that the majority of atheist-leaning individuals tend to feel less certain of their theological position (probably describing themselves as "spiritual but not religious" or "agnostic") and will also tend to feel less certain of their ethical or meta-ethical position, simply because this degree of the feeling of knowing is in their personality type.
Profile Image for John Petrocelli.
Author 1 book50 followers
November 29, 2017
Review: An interesting account of the feeling of knowing and certainty. Includes discussion of how certainty arises out mental sensations that happen to us, as opposed to deliberate conclusions or conscious choices. Also includes discussion of neurological bases of certainty. Overall, and interesting and sometimes insightful read. Comments on some contemporaries.

Favorite Quote: “Goleman believes in a rational mind that can know when it is being fooled. Schank sees the ability to be rational limited to the assessment of others. Gladwell extends the idea of rationality to some unconscious thoughts, but not others. These three highly knowledgeable authors are living proof that the very concept of rationality is dependent upon personal perceptions and beliefs in how the mind works. No amount of contrary scientific evidence—even if cited as source material—can overcome their innate biases as to the nature of rationality.” (p. 150). “We can never know with certainty whether decisions to invade Iraq, to restrict stem cell research, or to permit private ownership of handguns are the best decisions. The law of unforeseen consequences tells us that today’s seemingly positive result might be next decade’s catastrophe. (Remember DDT?) Personal decisions, from deciding whether to get tested for the genes for Alzheimer’s to whether or not to title your novel Catch-22 cannot be tested. So much of our thinking occurs in the dark." (p. 89-90).
Profile Image for Elmwoodblues.
293 reviews7 followers
November 30, 2018

Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.
---Alfred North Whitehead

We certainly seem to be living in a time when everyone knows they are right, about everything from politics to climate change, from vaccinations to the shape of the earth. How do so many people so fundamentally disagree?

Within the first few pages, author Robert Burton sets out his premise that a feeling of knowing, a 'tip of the tongue' belief that you have certain correct knowledge in your brain, may not only be factually incorrect; it might not even be based on an experienced reality. Our organic wetware, our mental 'decision committee', is doing things under the hood we are not only not aware of, but that may be empirically false. "Certainty is not biologically possible," he writes. "We can...learn to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty."

Unfortunately, I found the writing repetitive, quirky, and a little scattered overall; hence my rating. (A 2.5 would be more accurate.) A saving grace came at the end, when Burton suggests substituting the word know with the word believe. He acknowledges that doing so may be uncomfortably like giving in to 'religious fanatics, medical quacks, and word-twisting politicians'. But the idea of going from '100 percent certain' to '99.99999 percent likely' isn't going to immediately end the world, and it might just start a dialogue.
142 reviews4 followers
April 28, 2018
This book crystallized many of the preconceived notions I've had over the years regarding certainty. The author is able to properly formulate the Jerry blind spot in certainty: that it is unconscious but claims to be rational. Many of the resulting criticisms by the author reflect a characterization of this blind spot in scientists, fundamentalists, the confused, the depressed, etc.

The book has small holes in it, manifesting in trite sentences that mean nothing, like "what is the purpose of finding no purposefulness." OK buddy fuck you. However, the thesis in that section, an attack on cold rationalism as a thinly veiled attempt to believe other people are stupid, is absolutely right. It's why people can hate scientists so much when they talk. Scientists refuse to admit their irrationality, their unconscious biases. This book tries over and over to remind the intelligentsia to respect those biases as well as the biases of others.

The book is pretty short because the message is concise and clear: be ok with and consistently assume uncertainty. Decisions can be made in the face of uncertainty. Just don't believe you're 100% right about complicated matters.
Profile Image for Matthew Green.
Author 1 book11 followers
April 1, 2018
I waffle on whether to give this three or four stars. The problem is this:
Burton does a fine job of laying out various neurological truths. However, he doesn't seem to do a good job of tying them together to successfully prove his ultimate thesis. I get what he's saying, but I had a hard time understanding why he was saying it, and the ultimate point of the book seemed to end up left out somehow.

After reflecting on it a while, I started to see why he made the particular points he did, and I understood how they tied in to the final point, but it doesn't feel to me like I should have to do this. The flow of the text should bring the reader to that point. The reader shouldn't have to do the work of tying it together apart from the text.

Still, his points are valid and worthwhile. I appreciate the humility that his conclusions have left him with and wish that the world would follow in that example.
Profile Image for Aphrael.
294 reviews2 followers
September 18, 2018
very interesting. dense and at times rather abstract. I took away from it how relative rationality is as a concept and how our brains play fast and loose with reality to be able to give us a decent life. Only thing I didn't get is near the end the author has a plea against absolutism, while just spending most of the book telling the reader we're pretty much hardwired for baseless feelings of certainty, defeating the point of the plea for all except those who already feel like agreeing. so that's kinds funny. I did enjoy the book a lot, it does give a cool perspective on thoughts feelings and rationality.
Profile Image for Daniel Lambauer.
191 reviews6 followers
May 31, 2020
This book starts well - but then peters out a bit in slightly randomnly connected philosophical discussions. It is at its strongest by summarising research into the feeling of knowing - most importantly the research that repeated acts of positive re-inforcement of the feeling of knowing has an impact on brain connections.

What would have interested me then is the connection to the modern social media world. Given we live increasingly in our own social media bubbles does this contribute, physiological, to more partisan and unconscious bias? if yes, moving one person from one political opinion to another is biologically extremely hard...
Profile Image for Hemen Kalita.
139 reviews18 followers
August 29, 2020
The central topic was really intriguing - Why people stubbornly keep adhering to their believes; political, religious and so on; even in the face of definite contrary evidences?

The author introduces his hypothesis that "feeling of knowing"or being certain is a mental state per se with evolutionary benefits. Though he tries to explore neurology, genetics and even philosophy to bolster his radical claims, they often seem to be ill-conceived, shallow and boring. In the end, the book turns out to be low in science/references and high in speculation, I walked away with nothing new to wonder about.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 147 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.