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Can We Do Without Certainty? November 18, 2008

Posted by Antony in Article Review, Essays, Skepticism.
Tags: ,

”The Certainty Epidemic” by Robert Burton is an article referenced in the comments section of “V for Vulnerable” that I’d like to discuss further.  I think the article touches on one of the central issues here at Valence: that is, how should we handle conviction – both our own and others’?

Here’s a brief summary of the article if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet: I take the central argument of this article to be that certainty is a feeling (that is, related to emotions) which originates in a different part of the brain from the rational cognitive processes. Burton accordingly calls certainty “the feeling of knowing” as opposed to “having knowledge” (which is the way we tend to think of it).

In the article, Burton presents what he sees as the everyday implications of this neurological discovery. Because rational thinking and feelings of certainty have different neural origins, Burton believes that we can analytically separate them and deal with them independently. Thus, a feeling of certainty is not evidence for or against the quality of knowledge, and vice versa, the quality of knowledge does not determine the intensity of feelings of certainty.

For Burton, putting certainty aside allows us to recognize two things: (1) All of our “I know” statements are actually “I believe” ones. Of course, he qualifies this, reminding the reader that not all “I believe” statements are equal; some are more probable than others. And (2) human beings need to become aware of our biology. As he states, “Our minds have their own agendas.” By which he means that some of our biological traits, such as the feeling of certainty, are ill-adapted for some of the demands of modern society.

– –

Okay, so I love-hate this article and I could nitpick just about every paragraph. But here I want to focus on the big picture problem I have with Burton’s line of argument: I think his separation of rational thinking from feelings is a problematic way of understanding humanity.

The advantages of being able to separate claims to knowledge from the feelings of knowing are obvious. Putting aside strong feelings of certainty makes us more vulnerable. When we deny ourselves the advantages of certainty when defending our beliefs, it makes us focus on the beliefs themselves (not our personal stake in them), which helps keep our minds open. And I totally agree; this is a good thing for us to be able to do.

My problem with Burton’s approach is that once he analytically separates the feeling of certainty from rational thought, he fails to bring them back together. Burton falls into a soft dualism: there are feelings and there is rational thought.

Certainty remains merely a feeling that may have had evolutionary advantages, but it’s now an obstacle to thinking clearly. On one hand, Burton is right – sometimes certainty should be put aside because it does prevent us from really investigating why we believe something. We take the feeling of certainty to mean that the case is closed, all the evidence is in, and the discussion is over. This can be seriously problematic, not only in social and political circumstances, but for our own internal checks and balances too. Certainty sometimes protects ill-founded beliefs from the self-scrutiny that would overturn them in favor of better-supported beliefs.

On the other hand, Burton is wrong to keep the feeling of certainty at arm’s length because it’s such an integral and unavoidable aspect of the way that human beings experience the world. This failure leads him to conclude that science is a ‘cold vision’ always at a disadvantage when faced with worldviews that offer ‘purpose.’ But the ‘cold vision’ is not science’s vision, it is Burton’s – a consequence of a method that keeps feeling and thought separate.

For Burton, this means that we today are faced with a choice between a cold, thinking answer (science) and a feeling-based answer that provides purpose (such as, religious belief). But this is a false choice because we as human beings are thinking and feeling animals, and so, our understanding of the world ought to be one that is both thinking and feeling.

This leaves me with two questions – one very specific and one very general:

(1) What role should the ‘feeling of knowing’ (certainty) play in evaluating my own beliefs? How about the beliefs of another person?

(2) To what extent is it fair to line up science with rational thinking and ‘purpose’ with feeling? Can the two be brought together?



1. Eric - November 18, 2008

Antony — I don’t share your discomfort (if you can call it that) with Burton’s distinction between ‘feeling’ and ‘thought’, much less with his classification of ‘certainty’ as part of the former rather than the latter — even if the sharp lines he draws end up being much fuzzier upon closer inspection.

In fact, I think it would be astonishing if something as precise and immediate as our feeling of certainty weren’t primarily (if not entirely) under the control of the ‘non-thinking’ part(s) of our brains. I think we can all accept that our sense of vision is not under conscious control (we can’t will ourselves to see things, at least not under ordinary circumstances), and some of the best evidence for this view (in cognitive neuroscience circles) comes from optical illusions: even when you’ve figured out the illusion (= ‘thought’), it still fools your eyes (= ‘feeling’).

Similarly, we all use various parts of our bodies every day to perform actions that are affected by, but do not strictly require, deliberate thought — walking and talking, for example. This is why I can walk down the street while thinking about something, or talk with a friend while letting my mind wander; I may trip on something or lose track of the content of the conversation, but that’s because these tasks benefit from deliberate thought, not because they stricly require it.

Why should the feeling of certainty be different from these cases, especially the latter two?

2. Eric - November 18, 2008

Whoops: “stricly” should be “strictly”. (Clearly, I’ve learned to type without deliberate thought.)

3. . - November 18, 2008

I find that my thoughts and feelings of certainty range from purely superstitious and irrational (I think so that I maintain some illusion of control in my life) to incredibly well founded (based usually on my own limited experience). I often enjoy being right more than discovering what might actually be true for myself/another or what might actually be possible. I’ve found that life becomes much more full when I’m willing to be curious about the part of the truth that I don’t know yet.

4. Antony - November 18, 2008


To clarify, I actually agree with you. My problem is NOT with Burton’s claim that certainty originates in the ‘non-thinking’ part of the brain. My understanding is that neuroscience confirms this, and it makes sense with the little I know about neuroscience.

My problem is that Burton takes this finding about the different neural origins of the ‘feeling of knowing’ and ‘knowing’ itself and he makes big sweeping conclusions about its meaning, which I think are totally misleading and wrong.

He ends up using certainty’s neural origins to dismiss it. And while I agree it’s good to be able to suspend it or to challenge our own feelings of certainty, I do NOT think that we can talk about the human EXPERIENCE of knowing without articulating the necessary and (I think) valuable place that the ‘feeling of knowing’ (certainty) has in it.

It’s this that Burton fails to do. He makes the distinction between the two and then forgets to deal with the fact that these are biological phenomena that happen together. My questions were meant to get at that.

5. Eric - November 19, 2008

Sorry, Antony — I got caught up in your “I think his separation of rational thinking from feelings is a problematic way of understanding humanity” part and somehow forgot the “My problem with Burton’s approach is that once he analytically separates the feeling of certainty from rational thought, he fails to bring them back together” part.

As you know, I’m in the middle of reading the book from which this article is excerpted. I think Burton does a better job there of (leaving the impression that he is) NOT dismissing the neuro-evolutionary origins of certainty, so maybe that was my hang-up.

Or, maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean by “dismiss” here, and why you think they need to be brought together. Oversimplifying, suppose Burton were to conclude that there were the following four combinations of feeling/thought concerning certainty about something:

Feeling you know something, and actually having well-thought-out evidence for it.
Actually having well-thought-out evidence for something, but not feeling like you know it.
Feeling you know something, but not actually having well-thought-out evidence for it.
Not actually having well-thought-out evidence for something, and not feeling that you know it.

I think that all Burton is saying is that we have a natural and understandable tendency to group the first and third of these together because we’re so enthralled with the ‘feeling of knowing’, our ‘gut’, whatever you want to call it. He’s arguing that we should consider grouping the first and second of these together, and to be skeptical about the third — not to dismiss it, but to be aware that it can lead to mistaken beliefs about the world because we have a tendency to interpret evidence in light of our pre-existing feelings.

OK, now that I write all this out, I have some new thoughts about how I feel about this — and they may line up with what you’re thinking (or not), but I don’t have time to go into them right now (gotta get my morning class planned). So some questions for now, Antony: you say very generally that the our ‘feeling of knowing’ is “such an integral and unavoidable aspect of the way that human beings experience the world”, but more specifically, why do you think this means that Burton should have done more than to point out its neuro-evolutionary origins, and to warn against depending on it? Do you think the first and second of my (admittedly oversimplified) combinations of feeling/thought concerning certainty about something should be separated? If so, why?

6. whytey - November 19, 2008

So… i have a question… that was inspired more by Antony’s post than Burton’s article, and it may be invalid, but still…

to what extent is certainty valuable/detrimental as an onramp to “having knowledge” and to what extent can “having knowledge” become an onramp to “certainty”

For the former, I’m thinking of the fact that when Hawking was doing his early Black Holes work, it was his certainty that led to much of what we know

And for the latter, I’m thinking of the ways in which that which was known of the atom at the turn of the century led to a certainty that led scientists to tell Planck that he was wasting his time getting into Physics because the frontier was closed

7. Terrence - November 19, 2008

Huh, interesting stuff. One thing that wasn’t brought up is the degree to which different people are driven by their “thinking” or “feeling” sides of the brain and how that affects our interactions with our environments. Some people are much more rational, logical and able to keep their emotions at bay when making decisions. Some people are simply driven by their feelings and react their way through life.

Neither is wrong, per se, but certainly problems exist when a person is dominated by either a thinking or feeling ethic instead of maintaining some sort of healthy balance, even if they clearly lean one way or another. For example, Casey is fairly logical and I am fairly sensitive, but neither of us lives solely in the one dimension.

I wonder how these differences affect the way we experience life, and specifically how someone like Casey and someone like me might engage the same situation differently.

8. caseyww - November 19, 2008

So I have some specific comments about the article. But I’m going to post those later. First I’d like to comment on Whytey’s question…I’ve been thinking about it all day.

(RE: Comment #6)
Whytey, it seems like you’re asking, “When is certainty a benefit (Hawking) in science and when is it a pitfall (those who told Planck to buzz off)?” I think this question is fascinating.

First a quick anecdote: I was watching a documentary on Einstein just the other night and I was struck by how long it took from Einstein formulating and presenting General Relativity and gravity’s effects on bending light (1911) until actual astronomical evidence could be observed (1919) by Eddington. Pesky WW1 seems to have gotten in the way. For years Einstein was ‘certain’ of his theory, which flew in the face of the scientific establishment, without physical evidence. Granted he had developed a mathematical framework which made the theory viable and so he had some evidence to lean on. Either way 8 years is long time to wait for validation. The point is that I agree with you that the greatest scientists have had to have an element of bravado and arrogance in order to stick by their theories even when the going gets tough.

However, the last sentence I wrote was biased towards theories that were eventually confirmed by evidence (the same for Planck and Hawking). If Einstein’s theory would have been disproved by astronomical evidence and he still stuck to his theory we would not be applauding his bravado but would instead be laughing at his dogmatic ignorance. This is the difference between crackpots and geniuses.

I think we can be certain of truth (whether they be scientific theories or religious beliefs) as long as we qualify that our certainty does not trump evidence. This is just plain intellectual honesty. Hawking, Planck and Einstein were right to fight for their theories with certainty but if the evidence would have proven them wrong and they were still unwavering their certainty could have quickly become dogmatic.

I suppose this is where I have a problem with faith based certainty. It removes the check/balance of evidence from the equation. Example, if we are certain that the Exodus account is true in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary I can’t help but label this as intellectually dishonest.

9. Michelle Wilson - November 19, 2008

I think that Burton has made a brilliant distinction. It makes a lot of sense to me. In the thinking part or our brains, it should never actually be possible to be certain of something. Because, if we are honest with ourselves, we must be aware of our limitations. If we think of certainty as being 1 and our beliefs and ideas as being on a continuum between 0 and 1, our most dearly held beliefs then approach 1 but can never really arrive. We approach certainty as x approaches 1 if you will. Conversely, life requires us to act as if certain things are known, but this logically stems from a different kind of thought process with a different purpose.

I think a more interesting distinction than the thought-feeling problem is the rational thought vs. actual reality question. Just because something comes from the thinking side does not make it true. Our thoughts and feelings are both prone to error.

Must go to bed. If this is confusing, more later.

10. Michelle Wilson - November 20, 2008

Awake again, and ready to better explain my thinking.

A note before I begin. I don’t know much about Burton, so this is not meant to be a response to his ideas specifically, but is a response to Antony’s summary only.

Certainty, from a logical perspective, is essentially an estimation of probability. If an event, for instance, is certain, then its probability of occurring is 1. If it is certain not to happen, its probability of occurring is 0. When I am logically certain something will happen, I am basically concluding that its probability of occurring is close enough to 1 that it can be considered to be 1 for all practical purposes. This assessment alone however, is not the same or even always directly correlated with my ‘feelings’ of certainty.

For example, I feel logically certain that the ground will be there for my foot when I step. As a skeptic, I am aware in the logical part of my mind that there could be some unforeseen earthquake along no known fault line which could suddenly split the ground in front of me or that some cataclysmic cosmic event could render both me and the sidewalk I’m walking on irrelevant in a instant. However, I logically assess the probability of these events as roughly zero (1 over something approaching infinity) and choose not to concern myself with these imaginations. However, the brain function involved in my confidently stepping out is completely different from the brain function involved in assessing my safety. The certainly I FEEL has more to do with experience and with natural body functions which have become automatic than with my logic.

In the first example, thinking and feeling are different functions but line up consistently. But here is a case where they don’t. Logically, I know that my probability of being killed in a car accident on the way to work is low but certainly not approaching 1 over infinity. Yet, when I drive to work, I operate as if I am certain I shall arrive. I also know that the likelihood of my being killed in an accident while flying in a plane is much smaller than the likelihood of my being killed while driving to work in my car. And yet, I often experience a small level of fear while flying. Despite my logical assessment of higher certainly of arrival, my feelings are of a lower level of certainty. I never made plans for what would happen to my children if my husband and I died until my husband and I both flew somewhere without them. Logic would have dictated I make such plans the first time we left them with a sitter and went out on a date in our car.

The above is all about events, but factual knowledge is similar. I read something in a book, and I assess based on my respect for the author, research, past experience, other knowledge, etc. my degree of certainty that what has been asserted is true. Often my feelings of certainty correlate directly to my logical assessment, but not always.

This is all very intriguing, especially the evidence that there is a neurological difference. But, what does this have to do with the question of faith? Very little I would have to say.

“For Burton, this means that we today are faced with a choice between a cold, thinking answer (science) and a feeling-based answer that provides purpose (such as, religious belief).”

The problems with this are many.
1. It assumes that faith is a ‘certainty’ and therefore stems from the ‘feelings.’ I would not put faith in the category of certainty. The reason Christians are continually exhorted to have faith is because we are so prone to doubt. If we were ‘certain,’ we would never do anything against our beliefs but would obey God continuously in the same way that we walk with the expectation that the ground will be there. How I wish this were true in my life! My faith stems from logical thought and is something I choose to operate in whether of not I experience feelings of certainty.
2. Likewise, there is the assumption that ideas about science stem from the thinking part of our brains and not the feeling part. I beg to differ. Many of our scientific ideas are firmly implanted in our feelings of certainty. Consistency demands that if we say we are certain of something we admit that that certainty occurs neurologically as a feeling. Therefore, our faith in science is no different than our faith in anything else. All areas of belief are the same under this distinction. The distinction being made is not between topics of belief but the experience of certainty versus logical thought process.
3. There is also the assumption that ‘logical’ thought process is reliable. I doubt I am less prone to logical error than to illogical feelings. Additionally, I know that my feelings of certainty create the axioms on which my logical thought process is based. The two are constantly interacting with each other and cannot be truly separated.

Must get kids ready for school, so this is the end.

11. caseyww - November 21, 2008

(RE: Comment #10)


Thanks for the post. Very interesting. I agree on a couple of points and have some questions on others.

First, I think you correctly described the role of probability in our search for truth. The ‘truth’ that the ground will meet your next step is a great example. You’re right that this assumption has such a high probability of occurring that you are well served to set aside any skepticism about it and just live your life as if the probability were in fact 1. I think you’ve explained Burton’s assertion well that if accuracy is our main concern, however, that we should rightly be speaking of the probability of the ground’s support with words like I believe instead of I know.

Whether this amount of accuracy is the best way to communicate is another story. I’m going to explore this idea in my next comment since it’s more of a general complaint with Burton and not you.

I do, however, take issue with your statement:

It assumes that faith is a ‘certainty’ and therefore stems from the ‘feelings.’ I would not put faith in the category of certainty.

Faith assumes certainty…in fact almost by definition. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) I think your distinction that you specifically try to maintain faith on rational grounds (which allows room for inherent doubt as you noted) is beside the point. There are plenty of believers who rely solely on their subjective emotional response to God. Nancy’s testimony is a great example Whether by logic or by feeling, faith is still trying to achieve certainty about the nature of the universe with or without evidence.

Even if we couch this “certainty” in the vocabulary of “belief” by saying God’s existence is only “highly probable” (which I don’t think is the case, even from a believer’s perspective) we assume a posture of certainty every time we evangelize.

You also asserted:

Therefore, our faith in science is no different than our faith in anything else. All areas of belief are the same under this distinction. The distinction being made is not between topics of belief but the experience of certainty versus logical thought process.

This is extremely relativistic and I think inaccurate. It is essential to recognize that some methods for discovering truth are more reliable than others. While science can’t deal in certainty it is still the most reliable method for distinguishing truth that we have. Further, it is so reliable for exactly the reasons that faith is not. I think it would be reasonable to define science as “never being sure of you hope for and by no means being certain unless there is evidence.”

12. Nancy O. - November 21, 2008


I heard a song today and for whatever reason I kept thinking about you as I listened to it. You might know of the song but if not and you are interested in reading the lyrics (or listening to the song) you can go to Air1.com, to the Song Lyrics link, type in Steven Curtis Chapman and then click “See” to the song titled “God is God”.

The only reason I am sharing this with you is because you were huge in my mind as I listened to it – not sure why – you just were 🙂

13. Nancy O. - November 21, 2008


It tickled me a little bit when I read your statement that my testimony is a perfect example of how there are plenty of people who rely “soley” on their subjective emotional response to God.

In my testimony I shared how God’s spirit filled me. That occurrence was physical, which became clear physical evidence to me of His existence and supernatural power.

I don’t know if I ever would have trully believed in God without that physical evidence, so possibly that is why He revealed Himself to me in that way.

Relying on anything soley by emotion isn’t my thing; I do have a bit of brain, too! 😉

14. Nancy O. - November 21, 2008

Oooops, a bit of a brain, indeed!!! I meant “solely” and “solely” not “soley” and “soley”.

15. caseyww - November 21, 2008


I didn’t mean that you don’t have any physical evidence to support your belief. However, your testimony sounded like you founded your beliefs on an experience not on logic…this is all I met. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you have connected with God in a personal way (subjective) not a rational way. That faith is a matter of feeling out truth and even if there was no evidence or logic you would still believe based on your experience?

I’m not trying to make a good or bad judgment here, just trying to compare your testimony to the walk of faith that Michelle described. They seemed different to me, that’s all.

Thanks for the song rec btw 🙂

16. Nancy O. - November 21, 2008

Oh, OK 🙂

Yes, you are totally right about how the foundation of my absolute belief in God was based on that experience. Logic was unnecessary at the time, the evidence of His presence was all that was needed. Logic about what happened followed.

To answer your question – no, if there was no evidence, I would not have believed. I needed Him to “show” me He is real.

17. Antony - November 22, 2008

Re: #10


I really go back and forth about how I feel about the second point you made at the end of your comment: that faith in x is no different than faith in y. I think that it really depends on what definition of faith you are operating under (which was one of Casey’s points in his response to you).

I think there’s a way to speak of ‘faith’ as meaning ‘certainty’ – thus, you have faith when you are certain, and you lack faith when you doubt. So, your example of Christians, under this definition, every time you doubt God you are not being faithful. And yes, all Christians experience this doubt, but in those moments they LACK faith. And when they have no doubts they have faith.

Then there’s a way to speak of ‘faith’ as a commitment [I’m not totally happy with the word choice]. In this case, faith is a part of one’s identity. So as far as you identify yourself as a Christian, you have faith. In this case, your ‘faith’ accepts that you have doubts and troubles, just as in every relationship, but those doubts do not mean that you are lack faith.

Another way to put this distinction is that ‘faith’ is either a quality (of certainty) or an identity. You seem to adopt the view that it’s an identity. If that’s the case, then maybe one can say that faith in x is the same as faith in y – faith in God is the same as faith in science. But even if I grant you that, I think it makes the question of faith irrelevant. The important question then is what holds up one’s faith? That is, if faith is an identity (I believe in Jesus or I believe in science), then the important question is not about faith-as-identity but it’s about ‘certainty’ – it’s about the evidence and sources of the foundation of that identity. In other words, it’s about the quality of your certainty.

18. Bill Whitsett - November 22, 2008

Have been following along quite overwhelmed by it all, I must say…read the article, chewed on Antony’s post, loved the way Michelle responded indepth to it all, (you gave me alot of food for thought Michelle). Was blown away by Casey’s comment “certainty does not trump evidence!” great, great stuff….and I am led to share in the following manner. Will apologize beforehand to the method…ask those who know me, they will tell you “he is a little odd”.

I am “certain” that this book is infallible.
I am “certain” that those who are wise would not deceive me.
I have felt it, therefore I am “certain”.
My mind can conceive of nothing better, of this I am “certain”.

And on four pillars of “certainty” a house is built…and the house expands to a kingdom which stands on the four foundational pyllons. All who live and believe in the “certainty” of the kingdom are banded together and reinforce their happiness and joyfullness…and yes, there they have lived and died for years, centuries now. A band of brothers and sisters content.

And questions arrive from the spot at the base of the structure..thoughts and inquiries, ponderings and wonderings, and “evidence” is introduced. Pillars begin to quiver, rumblings and shakings start to occur…and all who live in the kingdom try to refute the thoughts, and inquiries, they try to squash the ponderings and intrusive wonderings…for fear of there very own demise, they refuse to see the “evidence”. Citizens within the walls feel that without this “certainty” there is nothing else worth living for. The tremors continue, foundations began to crack, walls begin to fall under the scrutiny of “logic”. Turmoil for those who lived within the happy walls of the kingdom, chaos and heartbreak, and a falling, a tumbling, a roar of debris drowning.

But from the midst of ash filled sky’s, from the fog of gray…there rises up a new hope…this one based on “truth”.

Just a thought that occured to me…
tomorrow I may feel differently?

19. Nancy O. - November 22, 2008


For some citizens, they look behind and “truth” was there; then up ahead and it is there; it has been there all along and for these individuals, no introductions of inquiries, ponderings, wonderings, or evidence shake their faith or cause fear, for these there is no doubt that the “truth” they believe in is eternal and stands firm.

20. Choosing is a Bitch « valence - November 25, 2008

[…] “Choice” and as I listened to it this week I was struck by how perfectly it compliments Antony’s post last week that reviewed Burton’s article on certainty.  The normal Radiolab episode is one hour (definitely worth listening to in its entirety) but to […]

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