I just finished a book called On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert A. Burton, MD.
To put it in a nutshell, certainty is not a thought in itself, but a brain-state.
Using drugs, electrical stimulation of the brain or other techniques, it is possible to elicit a feeling of knowing independent of any rational thought process. Conversely, it is possible to reason correctly to a conclusion yet not feel that you know the answer. Thus we see that a feeling of knowing is at least somewhat independent of rational thought.
If it’s only a feeling, what good it it? Our rational thought process, left to its own, could dither forever. We need something that says, “You have the answer now. Time to act.” That something is the feeling of knowing.
It feels good to believe you’re right — so good that some of us can become addicted to it. And if you’re waaaay right and everyone else is waaaaay wrong, that feels even better. It’s no surprise that our nation is so polarized right now. Too many of us are addicted, and media personalities make a lot of money by keeping us that way.
You don’t have to be particularly opinionated to fall prey to occasional spasms of the feeling of knowing. I recall one night in college when I was chatting outside with some of my friends about nothing at all. Suddenly, I just knew someone was in trouble and I had to go help them. I hurriedly told this to my friends and dashed off into the dark. I found…nothing. Evidently my feeling of knowing had short-circuited.
Dr. Burton concludes his book by imploring us to couch our convictions in more humble language. Instead of saying, “I know…” say, “I believe….” even if you’re 99.999% sure. This would acknowledge that even our strongest feeling of knowing is only a mental sensation.
I’m not sure what I think of that advice. The feeling of knowing is so hard to deny!