Book Review: “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You’re Not” by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

Book Review: “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You’re Not” by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

In my theistic discussions; I am often fascinated (stymied) at the level of certainty that some theists have in the validity of their religious narrative…often in the face of clear contradictory empirical evidence. Over the years, I have taken a keen interest in neurology and how the brain works; enough so that I have a passing regret for not having gone into neurology instead of engineering (it’s never too late, right?). Over these years, I have amassed a mental library of various illustrations that show how malleable and unreliable the mind (as manifested in the brain) can be. Still; the inexplicable certainty that some possess was never addressed directly in my readings. Hence, when I saw a brief blurb about the book “On Being Certain”, I immediately went and bought a copy (my library had ordered it, but they did not yet have it ready for lending).

Dr. Burton’s sole focus of “On Being Certain” is that sense of certainty that we all recognize. He provides evidence that the feeling (or ‘emotion’ more accurately) is a ‘primary emotion’ and refers to it as the “feeling of knowing” (he did not shorten it to an acronym, I think, because of the obvious, awkward acronym that would result).

Burton cites the rapidly accumulating knowledge that we have with regard to brain function and perception to good end. The less diligent reader, though, might not find the reading deeply satisfying as we cannot, based on our current knowledge, fully answer specific questions (i.e. why do we create gods to address the unknown). Still, the empirical evidence cited is often clearly in conflict with some common presumptions. This, in my mind, is the true purpose of the empirical method. While we may be unable to answer a specific, granular question on a topic, we can effectively eliminate the wrong answers…and Burton’s book does go a long way in eliminating some of those wrong answers (at least for those open to empirical evidence).

One interesting point Burton makes is there are some emotions that we can induce through direct electrical stimulation of very specific regions of the brain. One example is the “sense of another presence” (i.e. that there is someone or something nearby). Another example is the disruption/manipulation of the “sense of self” where we can feel separate from our bodies (floating) or feel “at one” with our surroundings. The point of his book, of course, is that “feeling of knowing” which can be elicited through electrical stimulation. Burton calls these “primary emotions” and are localized to very specific areas of the brain. On the other hand, we have no evidence of being able to similarly induce higher order emotions such as the “sense of irony”. Burton effectively demonstrates how these primary emotions (particularly the “feeling of knowing”) do not necessarily reliably correlate with facts or reality.

Reading the book, while mentally critiquing it, is a bit of a mobius-like conundrum. You are simultaneously judging and amassing knowledge, while you are reading about how your judgment and knowledge is not reliable. WHEW! I will confess; I feel that Burton, on one or two occasions, overstepped the implications of bits of evidence. In his defense, the book was written for a more general audience and some background that might have been omitted might justify his positions. In all, the book offers some fascinating insights as to how our brains and minds work and an astute reader can learn much from it.

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