What, actually, is certainty?In the February 29 edition of Salon, neurologist Robert Buron has published a thought-provoking excerpt (about five pages long) from his new book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not.
On his website, Burton cites the central premise of On Being Certain:
Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” are sensations that feel like thoughts, but arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason.An important implication of this premise is that, instead of doggedly insisting on having one's own views prevail, there is good reason to be tolerant of the views of others, and to be open to considering ideas others come up with that diverge from our own.
Burton goes on to argue that
[The feeling of knowing] explains how we learn. ... If we have sensory systems to connect us with the outside world, and sensory systems to notify us of our internal bodily needs, it seems reasonable that we would also have a sensory system to tell us what our minds are doing.Burton concludes on a note that is reminiscent of John Keats's notion of negative capability:
To be aware of thinking, we need a sensation that tells us that we are thinking. To reward learning, we need feelings of being on the right track, or of being correct. And there must be similar feelings to reward and encourage the as-yet unproven thoughts -- the idle speculations and musings that will become useful new ideas.
Certainty is not biologically possible. We must learn (and teach our children) to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty. Science has given us the language and tools of probabilities. That is enough. We do not need and cannot afford the catastrophes born out of a belief in certainty.Burton's piece struck a responsive chord with me because of the dysfunction I've encountered from time to time when an individual, instead of being open to new ideas and learning, insists on the unassailable validity of his/her own point of view.