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Robert A. Burton


Believing you are right even when you're not

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

I suppose I should start with an admission: the position that Burton takes in this book is close to one I've held myself for some time so I am naturally well disposed towards his central idea. To put this in the briefest possible form, it is that feelings of certainty can come to be attached to beliefs that are manifestly false. Burton describes the resulting psychological state as the feeling of knowing.

If this sounds odd, recall that there are other examples of situations where one is sure that something is the case although it isn't. One which many people have experienced is déjà vu, in which they have the strong feeling that they have been in a place before although they haven't. This leads some to believe in reincarnation, but it almost certainly arises because the 'familiarity' function in the brain is being triggered inappropriately. Such experiences are within the normal range, but there are also abnormal states, such as those due to temporal lobe epilepsy, in which sufferers feel a sense of overwhelming fear although they cannot say what it is they are afraid of. The writer George Borrow was prey to this and describes it vividly in his book The Romany Rye.

Burton's suggestion is that the feeling of knowing is similar to these unusual experiences and 'most likely originates within a localized area of the brain, can be spontaneously activated via direct stimulation or chemical manipulation, yet cannot be triggered by conscious effort'. We cannot will belief; it is something that happens to us. Burton refers to this hypothetical brain area as a module. It is one among many; Burton sees the brain as composed of numerous interlocking modules, which work together in a hierarchical manner—to give the experience of vision, for example.

Why has this module arisen during evolution? To account for this, Burton invokes the idea of reward centres in the brain, which are believed to be involved in addictions. Abstract thought is difficult, so the 'feeling of knowing' module evolved because it provided a sense of reward for successfully completing a train of thought. Certainty feels good and this motivates us to pursue abstract thinking, which might otherwise be an unappealing task. 'We know the quality of our thoughts via feelings, not reason. Feelings such as certainty, conviction, rightness and wrongness, clarity, and faith arise out of involuntary mental sensory systems that are integral and inseparable components of the thoughts that they qualify.'

The problem we have, however, is that this feeling of certainty can arise even when the conclusion that has been reached is faulty. And the resulting conviction is extremely strong. When someone is overwhelmed by the feeling of certainty it is all but impossible to shake their belief by argument. Burton illustrates this with numerous examples, such as doctors who ignore evidence that their treatments are ineffective because they 'know', from their own experience, that they are right. We should resist this. Even sceptics can fall into the trap if they feel certain about their own scepticism. All 'truths' are provisional. Burton hopes, perhaps rather optimistically, that both science and religion can come to recognize this.

I am not sure that Burton's 'certainty module' will be shown to exist, but there is no doubt that the phenomenon of an overwhelming sense of conviction leading to erroneous unshakable belief is real. This is a well-argued book and the style is accessible to readers with little previous knowledge of the topics it deals with. My only reservation is that some of the examples are taken from baseball and will be all but incomprehensible to most Europeans—certainly to this European. And I fared only a little better with his obsession with poker, which I found almost equally impenetrable. But one can skirt round these things without too much difficulty.

24 September 2008

%T On Being Certain
%S Believing you are right even when you're not
%A Burton, Robert A,
%I St Martin's Press
%C New York
%D 2008
%G ISBN 13:978-0-312-35920-1
%P xii + 256pp
%K psychology

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