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Can We Do Without Certainty? November 18, 2008

Posted by Antony in Article Review, Essays, Skepticism.
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20 comments

”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?