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Can We Do Without Certainty? November 18, 2008

Posted by Antony in Article Review, Essays, Skepticism.
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”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.

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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?

V for Vulnerable November 12, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Essays, Faith, Skepticism.

After what I consider to be a fairly emotional week last week I was planning on steering Valence towards a more light hearted topic.  Has anyone seen the Tijuana Mule video?  Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the discussion in the comments section has struck on an essential topic which I was planning on addressing eventually.  I suppose now is as good a time as ever to clarify what exactly I mean when I call Valence a place for vulnerability.

There are a couple of specific contexts that I want to highlight concerning vulnerability:

  • Being Vulnerable vs Being Safe
  • On Asking Questions Vulnerably

Being Vulnerable vs Being Safe

One of my most urgent hopes for Valence is that it would be a place where people are able to express their genuine ideas about any particular topic at hand without the threat of personal attacks or arguments ad hominem.  After all Valence is, in limited capacity, my effort to redefine my own belief system in the light of critique from a new community.  If anyone is leaving themselves open to attack it’s me so I would certainly prefer our discussions to be civil.

That being said we should not equate being vulnerable with being safe.  No argument is safe once we throw it out there and similarly here at Valence.  Arguments need strong evidence to cling to in this blustery world of ideas lest they be swept away.  Arguments are subject to rebuttal (possibly even strongly so) if we are vulnerable enough to listen.  We should not be surprised if arguments are labeled with strong words like silly, arrogant, biased or blind (all have been given to yours truly by the way).  It’s vital to keep in mind that recognizing a poor argument as such does not immediately defame the character of the person making the argument and is no cause for personal offence.  However, it is cause to better explain or defend your argument!

Where this issue of safety becomes sticky is when our arguments blend with personal experience and testimony.  Some amazing stories have been shared so far in the comments and I’m grateful for each of them.  I would never begin to question that peoples’ experiences with the divine have been transformative, sustaining and defining moments in their lives and I hope that more of us will be willing to share our own stories in the future.  These are unique windows into each others’ lives that are important in understanding how we all approach the world.  In that sense testimony is invaluable.

Conversely, once we begin to make authoritative arguments about the nature of truth based on our personal experiences we need to recognize that we have left the realm of just sharing personal history and opened ourselves up to rebuttal.  In this sense our testimonies are no longer safe and their value has different weight.  Once we make this subtle shift from sharing to arguing our testimonies inexorably become simple anecdotal evidence.

On Asking Questions Vulnerably

Early in the life of Valence one the first commenters enjoined me to ask:

“What am I looking for?” Make sure you are looking for what you want to find. If you are looking for God, you will find him. If you are looking for something else, you may find something else less valuable.

This is a really interesting premise and a perspective that I appreciate even though I ultimately disagree.  In fact, I’m not sure even the Bible supports this assertion.  Was Abraham ‘looking’ for God?  How about Jonah?  Moses was a murderer hiding out, Peter was fishing and Paul was on his way to quell a rebellious new cult when God supposedly met them.  Comparatively, I think I’m in a rather advantaged position for hearing from the divine if the divine so chooses to meet me.  That being said, I refuse to begin with the premise that the God of the Bible is the de facto answer when asking questions.  In fact I feel like this would be kind of dishonest.  Let me explain:

I posit a simple statement that seems obvious but is sometimes missed: Asking a question vulnerably implies that the answer is not predetermined nor is it limited to outcomes that would specifically affirm my already held beliefs.

I know, I know, I’m seriously flirting with losing all intellectual credibility by espousing such base platitudes but hear me out.  This aspect of vulnerability touches on a fundamental problem I have with faith as a form of knowledge.  Faith predetermines answers to questions without reliance on evidence and is rarely open to revising belief when new evidence is available.  To me it seems rather dishonest to feign vulnerability in asking a question if faith already has limited the answer set.

For example Christian friends have often supported my doubting “as long as it strengthens faith.”  Then why ask the question?  This advice seems disingenuous in that it limits the available answers and severely hinders our pursuit of truth.  If we are discussing the question “Is God loving?” but we limit the only valid answers to those that affirm a loving God are we really even asking a question?

Quick side note, to my dismay ‘skeptic’ has already begun to be used by some with a negative connotation in the comments section.  I guess this means I haven’t argued my point very well that skepticism is virtuous in its vulnerability.  Aside from my premise that we are all skeptical of outside prospective beliefs and it’s only our own that get special pleading I’d like to reinforce that I also believe skeptical to be synonymous with intellectual honesty on this point.

Vulnerability to me is putting aside the way I want the universe to work and committing to follow the evidence towards how the universe actually works all while trying to limit my emotional investment in the answer.  Is this dangerous for belief?  Sure, but honestly I’m more interested in truth than the certainty of belief.

If you challenge your belief tenets and end up as a nonbeliever, then apparently your faith was not all that sound to begin with and you have improved your thinking in the process.  If you question your religion but in the end retain your belief, you have lost nothing and gained a deeper understanding… -Michael Shermer “How We Believe”

Truth and Evidence October 22, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Essays, Uncategorized.

This week I’d like to dwell just a little longer on this topic of skepticism and adequate evidence.  I know, nothing like beating a dead horse right?  Well, there are a couple of reasons I think it will be valuable to linger here just a little longer.

First, there were some great ideas and questions posed in the comments section of the last post that I would like to highlight/summarize.  Second, I realize I haven’t quite answered the question of what constitutes “adequate evidence” myself even though I was cracking the whip for everyone else to answer.  Mush skeptics, MUSH!

We ended the last post with my somewhat optimistic call for a consensus on what constitutes ‘adequate evidence’ for belief.

Like W. standing on the USS Abraham Lincoln I’d like to declare “Mission Accomplished!”  Okay, grant me a bit of sarcastic irony now and then.  While, we didn’t quite get to a unified consensus on the requirements for evidence I do think we made some great strides towards defining the issue better.

One issue that kept resurfacing was that people were very apprehensive about defining a ‘single standard’ for what constitutes adequate evidence for belief.  On this we seemed to agree: Truth just seems too slippery to nail down with one kind of evidence for all time.  One idea raised was that maybe there are different types of truth which each carry their own standard for what constitutes good evidence.

By my count there were 4 classes of truth posed.  I’ve taken the liberty to apply some titles:

  1. Objective Facts
  2. Subjective Experience
  3. Cultural Truth
  4. Untestable Truth

Each class of truth seems to require a somewhat unique approach to belief and evidence.  Let’s explore what makes them different in the context of a thought experiment yours truly shared: the color red.

Objective Facts

Objective facts are the kind of truth that most of us associate with scientific inquiry.  One commenter referred to this class as “concrete phenomena.”  I would expand that to include any claim that has physical effects and is falsifiable.*  In the context of red we can speak of a particular wavelength of light on the electromagnetic spectrum.

If I claimed objects that are red emit electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 650nm, what would adequate evidence for belief in this statement be?

Well, for most of us a quick visit to Wikipedia or a physics book would be enough evidence to satisfy us that this claim is true.  Pretty easy, huh?  We often rely on a specific type of evidence that I would call a consensus of scientific authority. This is important because not all of us can be experts on every topic that requires a verdict and it’s certainly appropriate to know when to trust those who are.

(A brief note here: blindly following authority can be dangerous which is why I included the operative word consensus.  Science operates on healthy debate which generally moves toward consensus.  Yes, rarely there is an Einstein or Galileo who comes along and revolutionizes scientific understanding but generally the fact that one PHD is willing to deny the effects of global warming is certainly is not adequate evidence to doubt its effects in the face of the rest of the scientific community.)

The critical characteristic of objective facts is that if anyone of us wanted to verify a truth before investing in belief we could personally test for evidence ourselves.  But how do we make sure the evidence we are getting from our test is good or adequate evidence?  We might institute simple rules like:

  1. Good evidence stays consistent even when we run the test over and over again.
  2. Good evidence stays consistent even when a different person altogether runs our test.
  3. Good evidence stays consistent even when the variables of our test are changed (A simple example of a variable would be whether we ran our test in San Diego or Moscow.)
  4. Good evidence would probably fit in the framework of already established science.  (Admittedly this isn’t always the case.  But if our test found evidence that overturns whole areas of expert understanding we had better be sure the evidence is ironclad.)
  5. Good evidence would be able to withstand others trying their hardest to disprove it.

Subjective Experience

The subjective experience of red is the human sensation of warmth, vibrancy or anger that each of us has in response to the color.  We turn a frequency of light into actual experience.  Admittedly, this type of truth is a bit harder to nail down than the objective fact of red photons.

Can we really prove that each of us is seeing the same color when looking at red objects?  Probably not.  However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t determine an adequate level of evidence that would allow us to infer an operational truth.

We may point to the evidence that the vast majority of humans think the color of oak leaves in fall is strikingly similar to the color of a stop sign.  We could also include the evidence that from human to human there is negligible difference in the way our eyes and brains are wired.  It is certainly reasonable to infer here that we all see red similarly.  Even for the colorblind man who may not be able to share this experience the evidence reported to him by the rest of us should be sufficient for belief in the color red.

Another quick note: A couple of commenters asked about the adequate evidence I would seek when trying to ‘prove’ the quality of my decision to marry my wife.  I would class marriage as a subjective experience type of truth (maybe even a cultural truth, see below) for which I cannot ‘prove’ truth.  However, the affection, commitment, interest and generosity Jess showed me is certainly still evidence which I observed and deemed adequate to invest in the belief that she in fact loved me and would make a great partner.

Just because truth as subjective experience may not be ultimately provable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking for adequate evidence from which we can infer an operational truth for a situation.

Cultural Truths

We could ask the question, “Do you believe it is good to paint your child’s nursery red?”  The answer to this question is a matter of belief in a cultural truth that is fairly fluid and open to a diversity of opinions.  In western cultures I think we would usually answer that no, blue and pastels are better for babies.  But we can’t necessarily say why and we would be hard pressed to ever prove this point.

Evidence for beliefs in cultural truths does exist but it’s extremely transitory and open for debate.  I would imagine evidence here could include studies of the effects of room color on child temperament or imagination or development, but still the moral question of what is ‘good’ temperament or ‘good’ development would still remain.

That being said there is an operational truth that cultures tend to agree on so evidence must exist which points in the direction of truth.  Even though it may not be conclusive, evidence can still be deemed adequate after the moral component of these types of questions have been vetted.

Untestable Truth

I would define untestable truths as those questions that we can conceive of but for which we currently do not have (or can never have) any evidence to help guide our belief.  Admittedly, it’s tough to stretch my red example this far but here is my best shot.  Examples of untestable truth would be something like:

Our entire universe is simply an elementary particle in an atom on a very large red apple. (Evidence can’t be gathered from outside our universe by definition.)


Flying red elves smart enough to evade all scientific detection control the weather and punish the Pacific Northeast with too much rain because they hate grunge music. (What sounds like an absurd statement, yes, but if the elves can avoid all detection then we can’t really disprove it, can we?)


There were exactly 34 species of red striped dinosaurs. (Not an absurd statement but effectively all the evidence has been destroyed.)

Many commenters asserted that belief was a matter of “personal desire”.  If there is a place for personal desire in determining truth and belief this is certainly it.  However, ideally I would argue we should remain agnostic (ie. indifferent) to propositions for which can have no evidence.  That is I think the appropriate response to mystery is, “I don’t know.”

However, probability and our ability to reason do play an important role here in that we can functionally rule out some untestable claims.  Example: There are simpler explanations for weather patterns which science uses to tackle observed phenomena naturally without invoking the existence of flying red elves.  Can I prove to you they don’t exist?  Nope.  However, is it probable and reasonable for me to assume flying red elves don’t exist?  I believe so.


*(text amended per comment #7 and #8 below)