Certainty: I’m fairly sure we don’t need it

Have you noticed many people tend to be pretty certain that Peak Oil either is or isn’t happening, global warming either is or isn’t happening, and so on. Guns, abortion, nanotechnology, Genetic Modification of crops, controlled burning of the Australian bush – it can be quite polarised.

The preferred strategy seems to be to get hold of all the evidence then make a decision that you can be more or less sure about. We seem to like certainty and it seems to be an aid to decision-making. Conversely, it’s hard to take F. Scott Fizgerald’s advice that

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

So Robert A. Burton’s book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not is very helpful and provocative. Basically, the story we tell ourselves about certainty and how we reach it is completely wrong.

What we think happens is that we weigh up the evidence then decide what it tells us. The stronger the evidence, the more certain we become. For Burton, however, neuroscience shows certainty to be “neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process.” Instead, certainty is a feeling and as such it “arises out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”

It’s a thought worth pondering on that we should be wary of acting or not acting out of feelings of certainty. One reviewer said “Being certain is nice, but it’s doubt that gets you an education”.

5 thoughts on “Certainty: I’m fairly sure we don’t need it

  1. Am going to get this– am curious to see whether Burton discusses sources of disagreement about facts, particularly ones founded on cultural values.

  2. I love the Fitzgerald quote. It reminds me of the concept of ‘holding the tension’ from, I think, Jung. Is that right, Kyle — Jung?

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