Certainty Takes the Stand: A Discussion with Robert Burton

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges his readers to ask one of the most basic—and crucial—of questions: how do we know what we know?  With an engaging, conversational style, he tackles the neuropsychological underpinnings of belief and certainty, carefully examining these ubiquitous dynamics in light of what is known about how the mind works.

Garnering excellent reviews from Scientific American Mind, The Wall Street Journal, and Seed Magazine, to name a few, the book has struck a deeply resonant chord. To quote from the Scientific American Mind review, “On Being Certain challenges our understanding of the very nature of thought.”      

In the midst of a dizzying lecture and writing schedule (he’s also a contributor to salon.com) Dr. Burton was gracious enough to spend a few minutes with Neuronarrative.   

Your book touches on some of the most hotly debated issues of our time—the nature of belief high among them.  What led you to write it and who did you have in mind as the audience? 

I’ve always been fascinated by why some people seem so certain of their opinions, while I seem plagued by a persistent, overriding sense of doubt that my opinions are definitely correct. As neuroscience is increasingly revealing how our behavior has a significant underlying biological component, I began jotting down some personal observations and thought experiments as to how thoughts might be biologically influenced. Most importantly I began to ruminate over how we actually tell ourselves when a thought is correct or incorrect. 

Initially I didn’t have any particular audience in mind other than myself. As you may know, my last several books were novels. I am dreadful with preconceived plots or story outlines; it’s much more fun to start with a character in a situation and simply sit back and see what happens as your fingers type the story.

On Being Certain began in the same general manner. While I was gathering notes, research articles, and generally noodling, I wasn’t even aware that I was writing a book. It took several years of rumination to realize that I was thinking about an aspect of meta-cognition — how we know what we know. It took another couple years before I realized that the “feeling of knowing” was an involuntary mental sensation created by the brain, rather than a logical conclusion to a line of reasoning. 

You say in the book that “we know the nature and quality of our thoughts via feelings, not reason.”  On the face of it, this seems like a difficult concept to swallow, since many of us are prone to think that our ability to reason is what really defines us. How have the book’s challenging assertions, like this one, been received since it came out earlier this year?   

It’s hard to say how a book is received. For starters, I suspected that this would be a quiet book read by relatively few.  I was unprepared for the book to be enjoyed by such seemingly dissimilar readers as traditional Buddhists, Krishnamurti followers, stock traders, science buffs and hard-core skeptics. The common thread seems to be that many of us are now questioning the role and value of certainty and conviction. In part this is probably related to the frightening rise of fundamentalism, both in terms of religious philosophy and political doctrine.

Perhaps the most surprising to me is that the book has also been praised as an exercise in philosophy.  I have no academic background in philosophy; the little that I do know was acquired while writing the book. Perhaps I would’ve saved myself a great deal of time if I had realized that hundreds of years ago philosophers such as David Hume were already describing mental sensations as contributing to our personal sense of knowledge. But then, if I had known this, I might not have written the book.  

You suggest in the book that substituting “I believe” for “I know” serves as a constant reminder of the limits of knowledge and objectivity.  Many people, of course, would rather not do that, believing it somehow weakens their position. I’m curious to know what sort of reaction you receive when putting this suggestion into practice.

At a strictly linguistic level, this may be one of the more difficult points in the book, as the word ‘believe’ strikes fear into the heart of those who pride themselves on being rational. For example, few scientists are willing to substitute the word ‘believe’ for ‘know’ when talking about such nearly universally agreed-upon scientific facts such as evolution. If I were rewriting the book, I might substitute the phrase ‘I think that’ or ‘it is my understanding that,’ rather than using the word ‘believe,’ primarily to avoid the negative connotations normally associated with belief.

Nevertheless, I do feel strongly that we all need to step back from the stance of certainty and make our claims based upon probability. The phrase ‘It is likely that’ is far superior to ‘is absolutely true that,’ even when the odds are 99.999% that you are correct.

One of the peculiar side effects of so qualifying your opinions is the relief that your listeners often experience. On multiple occasions, when giving book readings or talks, I have prefaced an answer with the caveat that I’m not really sure this is correct. Ironically, this admission tends to put the audiences at ease, even less combative in presenting alternative views. At times I have felt a nearly palpable sense of relief from an audience — that it was not going to hear yet another polemic from a “so-called expert.”   

Since we’re so close to electing our next President, one final question about political debates: do you think televised debates play a role in helping people make up or even change their minds, or are they merely tools to reinforce already existing beliefs? 

I am quite cynical about the value of presidential debates as they are presently held. You’d never interview someone for an important job and ask such open-ended questions and accept such evasive, non-committal or tangential answers.

I feel it is the obligation of each interviewer to keep pressing each candidate until they get a specific answer to a question. After all this is a job interview for perhaps the most important position around; it is not a beauty contest or popularity poll.

In this vein, we need to rethink what questions are most revealing. For me, the key element in choosing a president is to see how he/she makes tough decisions under pressure. To evaluate this aspect of character, the debate questions should challenge the candidates to respond to a unique set of problems for which they had not been previously prepared and coached. At present, presidential debates are no more than cynical sound bites designed to make each candidate maximally attractive and to make voters feel good about their candidate for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve written about this in a recent salon.com article. The link is http://www.salon.com/env/mind_reader/2008/09/22/voter_choice/index.html 

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2 Comments

Filed under About Belief, Interviews

2 responses to “Certainty Takes the Stand: A Discussion with Robert Burton

  1. Pingback: Situationism in the Blogosphere - October, Part III « The Situationist

  2. Pingback: On Being Certain: How Do We Know What We know? | Simoleon Sense

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