It feels right, so we believe it.To maintain healthy skepticism, it is vital to understand our sense of certainty. All too often, we accept information without proper investigation: it feels right, so we believe it.

People talk about “common sense”, as if there were sensible reasons behind all our actions, but the truth is that “common sense” has to be overcome by empirical investigation: We must learn to test and measure the world around us, which means that we have to be willing to question our own ideas; our own “certainties”.

At the beginning of the 17th century, “common sense” insisted that the blood flows in tides, just as the seas do. When William Harvey showed that the heart, not the lungs, pumps blood around the body, he was ridiculed, leading to the expression, “It is better to err with Galens than to be right with Harvey”.

Neurologist Robert Burton’s On Being Certain is my book of the year. It faced stiff competition – I’ve also enjoyed Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions are Made and Frederick Crews’ massive and forensic deconstruction of the Freud myth: Freud: The Making of an Illusion. However, Burton takes the prize for his highly-readable exploration of the sense of certainty.

Founding psychologist William James spoke of a “noetic sense”. He wanted to know why we are sure that we know. I’ve often told the story of the fervent Christian who literally backed away from me, after spending two hours trying to convince me of his beliefs, saying, “I don’t understand the Bible, but I know it’s all true.” That was 45 years ago, and I have never forgotten the shiver of surprise I felt at this contradiction.

We cannot penetrate to a fundamental, incontrovertible truth that underlies all of our beliefs, so we have to be satisfied with having the most sensible beliefs possible. I am an all-round agnostic – I simply don’t know where the universe came from or why, and I don’t expect to find out.

I’ve had enough conversations with people who believe they have a scientific worldview to convince me of this. The conversation will turn to the origin of everything, and I will ask, “How do you know that the Big Bang happened?” The answer is almost always that they’ve read it and believe the scientists who have proved it.

I’m happy to talk about the background microwave radiation that shows that something blew up about 13.8 billion years ago, leaving an echo that can be measured wherever you point your radio-telescope, but I can no more prove it than any other non-astrophysicist. I’m willing to believe that Stephen Hawking gave the first consistent mathematical account of the Big Bang, but, as with most other believers, I have no idea what that mathematics demonstrates.

We pretend certainty – whether it is religious, or political, or scientific. It doesn’t mean that the post-modern deconstructionists are right with the silly assertion that any belief is as good as any other: Einstein’s “beliefs” about gravity are decidedly better than mine. He predicted the precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury through Relativity theory, and I don’t even know what that means!

As Burton says, “The revolutionary premise at the heart of this book is: 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.”

To show just how wrong our certainties can be, Burton describes the Challenger study. Within a day of this dreadful tragedy – which claimed the lives of seven astronauts – psychologist Ulric Neisser asked 106 students to write down how they had heard of the explosion, where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt. He interviewed the students two and a half years later: 25% of their accounts were strikingly different from the originals; more than half of their accounts had lesser degrees of error; but only 10% were accurate in every detail. Most students had presumed that their memories were correct. Looking at his original account, one student said, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

Burton takes on Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Blink, which asserts that “what goes on in the first two seconds [of decision-making] is perfectly rational”, as if beneath our consciousness there is a supercomputer that through intuition alone will provide answers that the process of reasoning cannot. Anyone familiar with the method called “priming” can demonstrate how easy it is to prompt such “intuitions”, and install false memories. Intuition is very valuable, but it must be checked through reasoning.Intuition must be checked through reasoning.

Burton brushes aside the idea of a distinct “emotional intelligence”, which again seems to suppose a buried rational mind. He says: “I often wonder if an insistence upon being right might have physiological similarities to other addictions … I cannot help wondering if an educational system that promotes black or white and yes or no answers might be affecting how [brain] reward systems develop in our youth. If the fundamental thrust of education is ‘being correct’ rather than accepting a thoughtful awareness of ambiguities, inconsistencies, and underlying paradoxes, it is easy to see how the brain reward systems might be molded to prefer certainty over open-mindedness. To the extent that doubt is less emphasized, there will be far more risk in asking tough questions. Conversely, we, like rats pressing the bar, will stick with the tried-and-true responses.”

Burton quotes psychology professor Timothy Wilson: “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try … Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, it may not be possible to gain direct access to unconscious processing.” In his Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, Burton questions exaggerated claims made for neuroscience, too.

In On Being Certain, he recommends, “Put hunches, gut feelings, and intuitions into the suggestion box. Let empiric methods shake out the good from bad suggestions.”

Burton says that it is as if there is a hidden layer in the mind, between conscious and unconscious thought, that somehow determines what we should believe. This should make us very cautious about our “certainty”, and check it carefully through reasoning.

As Burton says, Darwin was a deeply religious man at the beginning of his investigation into nature: “Darwin described how the experience of ‘sublime feelings’ while in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest led him ‘to the firm conviction of the existence of God, and of the immortality of the soul.’ But gradually, over a period of years, such majestic scenes failed to evoke these feelings. He compared this loss of a sense of personal conviction to becoming color-blind in a world that has a universal belief in redness. He was quick to recognize that his lack of conviction – like color-blindness – didn’t shed any light on any external truth such as whether or not redness exists. ‘I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists.’”

Darwin quoteAs Darwin himself said: “Another source of conviction in the existence of God connected with the reason and not the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight … can the mind of man, which has … been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? … The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

When it comes to mystical beliefs, William James said, “Mystical truth … resembles the knowledge given to us in sensations more than that given by conceptual thought.” James also spoke of the sensations of certainty caused by nitrous oxide – the drug used daily by Rajneesh (or Osho) to maintain his “guru” state, and the drug that caused Ron Hubbard’s first “mystical” experience.

Burton tells us, “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.”

To further illustrate the unreliability of those mental sensations, Burton touches on the placebo effect, delusional misidentification syndrome, blindsight (where patients with damage to the visual system can still navigate a room), and various brain difficulties. In Capgrass syndrome, for instance, otherwise rational people believe that someone they know has been replaced by an imposter (there is even a version where sufferers believe themselves to be imposters…).

His concluding advice is “Perhaps the easiest solution would be to substitute the word believe for know.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone brave enough to question their own sense of certainty. Healthy skepticism helps to protect us from manipulation by outsiders, but we must be careful not to deceive ourselves by refusal to consider the evidence, because of our existing convictions.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Have you read On Being Certain? Is there a book you’d like to see reviewed here? We’d love to hear from you!