On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not
by Robert A. Burton

Contents

  1. The feeling of knowing
  2. How do we know what we know?
  3. Conviction isn't a choice
  4. The classification of mental states
  5. Neural networks
  6. Modularity and emergence
  7. When does a thought begin?
  8. Perceptual thoughts: a further clarification
  9. The pleasure of your thoughts
  10. Genes and thought
  11. Sensational thoughts
  12. The twin pillars of certainty: reason and objectivity
  13. Faith
  14. Mind speculations
  15. Final thoughts

Chapters and quotations

Some key quotes to give the sense of each chapter.

1. The feeling of knowing

Leads us to understand what he means by "the feeling of knowing":

the closely allied feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction, and correctness ... Each is a form of metaknowledge -- knowledge about our knowledge -- that qualifies or colors our thoughts, imbuing them with a sense of rightness or wrongness.

2. How do we know what we know?

3. Conviction isn't a choice

It is no great accomplishment to hear a voice in your head. The accomplishment is to make sure that it is telling you the truth.

-- A patient describing a near-death experience.

4. The classification of mental states

To summarize: By using these criteria of universality -- relatively discrete anatomic localization and easy reproducibility without conscious cognitive input -- the feeling of knowing and its kindred feelings should be considered as primary as the states of fear and anger. The recently defined relationship between fear or anxiety and conscious thought has spawned the concept of emotional intelligence; it is time for a similar examination of the role of the feeling of knowing in shaping our thoughts. [p. 40]

5. Neural networks

If the feeling of knowing is a primary mental state not dependent upon any underlying state of knowledge, then our next step is to see how the interaction of conscious thought and the involuntary feeling of knowing determines how we feel what we know.

6. Modularity and emergence

Emergence: "Consciousness, intentionality, purpose, and meaning all emerge from the interconnections between billions of neurons that do not contain these elements."

Synesthesia: offers a means to explore "the idea of a thought being created by more specialized modules, some operating outside our control and awareness ... [through] conditions in which an inappropriate activation of one module affects thoughts in unanticipated and unintentional ways."

7. When does a thought begin?

  1. " In scenario A, we experience a feeling of knowing without any accompanying thought, as is seen with mystical experiences and brain stimulation studies. Any interpretation or explanation of this feeling occurs after the experience." [p. 66]

  2. " In scenario B, a series of unconscious associations is infused with a sense of correctness. The thought and the feeling of correctness reach consciousness as a unit and are experienced together as an insight or an aha moment." [p. 67]

  3. " In scenario C, an idea is encountered for the first time. It is objectively determined to be correct, and then one 'knows' the answer is correct. " [p. 67]

"To have unconditional trust that a feeling of knowing represents a justifiable conclusion, we need to know which of these three scenarios has occurred. " [p. 67-68]

But the brain sometimes performs temporal reordering: "our internal 'brain time' may not be an accurate reflection of 'external time'. ... For those thoughts that activate prior thoughts and memories, we cannot know what portion of thought is presently being formed, what is being remembered, feeling of knowing occurred." [p. 80]

8. Perceptual thoughts: a further clarification

For purposes of simplicity, let's call thoughts that require only memorization, but no decision making, logical analysis, or reasoning, semantic thoughts. ... Thoughts that arise out of complex computations without the hidden layer might be seen as the equivalent of episodic memories that are continuously and subliminally undergoing revisions, augmentations, and diminutions. Like episodic memories, such thoughts require an element of perception and are subject to a variety of perceptual illusions. Since the term episodic thought is cumbersome, I have chosen the more descriptive term perceptual thought. In the following discussion of thinking, we will be primarily addressing perceptual thoughts.

Contrast episodic memory and semantic memory.

9. The pleasure of your thoughts

The feeling of knowing is essential to the learning process, but to appreciate its enormous power requires a brief discussion of brain reward systems. [p. 86]

The key component of the brain reward circuitry is the mesolimbic dopamine system, a set of nerve cells that originate[sic.] in the upper brain stem. [p. 88]

What is thought's reward system? [p. 89]

When our brains stumbled across the potential for abstract thought, an appropriate reward system was necessary ... the relationship between pursuit of an idea and a sense of rightness [p. 93-94]

An unwarranted feeling of knowing might serve a positive evolutionary role. [p. 95]

An insistence upon being right might have physiological similarities to other addictions, including possible genetic predispositions. [p. 98]

The feeling of knowing, the reward for both proven and unproven thoughts, is learning's best friend, and mental flexibility's worst enemy. [p. 101]

10. Genes and thought

We are raised believing that reasonable discourse can establish the superiority of one line of thought over another. The underlying presumption is that each of us has an innate faculty of reason that can overcome our perceptual differences and see a problem from the 'optimal perspective'. One goal of this book is to dispel this misconception. [p. 103]

Genes can affect our degree of interest in religion and spirituality. ... Interviews with identical twins raised apart reveal a very strong correlation in the twins' religious attitudes and inclinations. ... Thomas Bouchard, University of Minnesota psychologist and head investigator of the most extensive and thoroughly evaluated group of identical twins raised apart, has even gone so far as to state that there is no evidence that parenting plays a substantial role in religious attitudes. [p. 104]

There is even insight into winning at poker, in the subsection "Why I Can't Play Poker":

As a lifelong poker player, I have spent considerable time developing a winning strategy, yet I am not a great player. I have long suspected a variety of flaws, but haven't figured out a clear solution. With the recent popularity of televised poker tournaments where the viewers can see the players' hole cards at the start of each hand, the problem has become transparent. The players with the best overall results are those who aggressively make selective large bluffs, a style with which I have never been entirely comfortable. [p. 113]

From politics to medicine, seemingly deliberate reasons for a decision will be influenced by innate risk tolerance. [p. 117]

And then there is Merzenich's work, revealing

our brains are anatomically biased to preferentially hear what we are exposed to as young children [p. 121] [and] how the complex interaction of nature and nurture is present from the very beginning of brain development. Identical genetics will not result in identical brain structures. [p. 122]

11. Sensational thoughts

Quoting George Lakoff and Mark Johnson:

Reason is not a transcendent feature of the universe or of our disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning world. [p. 126]

Cites studied that have "convinced researchers that the temporo-parietal junction plays a major and specific role in how we sense where the self is located in relationship to the body." [p. 128]

Whether we see the self as a purely emergent brain function or an actual physical entity such as a material 'soul', we sense that the self is a fixed point at the center of our consciousness and not a moving part in any way that a knee changes its position relative to the ankle. [p. 128]

We know the nature and quality of our thoughts via feelings, not reason. [p. 139]

12. The twin pillars of certainty: reason and objectivity

Criticizes Malcolm Gladwell's stand in blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking :

Gladwell's arguments boil down to believing that we can look at output (a spontaneously occurring idea) and infer both inputs and the hidden layer. In order to further prop up self-knowledge, Gladwell has arbitrarily subdivided unconscious decisions into intuition and gut feelings that "'don't seem entirely rational" and those unconscious split-second decisions that do. ... Nevertheless, by declaring a segment of the unconsciousness as being free from emotions and feelings, he is able to conjure up a new category of mental process -- the split-second, perfectly rational unconscious decision. ... But as we've seen with LeDoux's example of unconscious decision making -- the reflexive jump back from the sight of a coiled black object -- sometimes this split judgment is correct, the object is a snake, and sometimes it isn't, the object is a curled-up garden hose. Just because we develop split-second decision making to enhance survival doesn't guarantee that those decisions are always correct. [p. 148]

The distinction overlooked by Gladwell is that the "logic of discovery" -- the unconscious hidden layer activity that generates "gut feelings" and "intuitions" -- isn't the same as the "logic of justification" All kinds of ideas -- good and bad -- bubble up unexpectedly. Some will feel like "truths". ... There is a logic to this process in the sense that the hidden layer has made a series of calculations that have produced a feeling of knowledge about the world. But this isn't the same type of reasoning that allows us to determine if coffee ground enemas will cure cancer, or if the Challenger is free of design defects. We have no mechanism for establishing the accuracy of a line of reasoning until it has produced a testable idea. [p. 151]

And then there is inattention blindness (a.k.a. "what gorilla?"):

"Cannot see a mechanism" is analogous to not seeing the gorilla. [p. 175]

13. Faith

If possible, both science and religion should try to adopt and stick with the idea of provisional facts. Once all facts become works-in-progress, absolutism would be dethroned. No matter how great the "evidence", the literal interpretation of the Bible or the Koran would no longer be the only possibility. By exploring and making common knowledge of how the brain balances off contradictory aspects of its biology, we might gradually turn absolutism into an untenable state of ignorance. ... Imagine how different dialogue might be with future generations raised on the idea that there are biological constraints on our ability to know what we know. [p. 197].

14. Mind speculations

Some of the greatest metaphysical puzzles might be nothing more than unavoidable by-products of conflicting biology. [p. 198].

Whether thinking about the origins of the universe, the presence or absence of the soul, or deciding on free will and personal responsibility, we need to step back and first consider how these problems are influenced by a variety of mental states over which we have no conscious control. Mental sensations are the cornerstones of thought. Before we can address the great philosophical questions, we need to know how these questions are themselves the product of our biology, and in particular the various mental sensaitons that give our thoughts felt meaning. [p. 214].

15. Final thoughts

We have methods for analyzing and ranking opinion according to their likelihood of correctness. That is not enough. We do not need and cannot afford the catastrophes born out of a belief in certainty. ... 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. [p. 223-224].