William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

On Being Certain There’s No Certainty

I’m certain I’m pretty sure that that’s Voltaire.

Neurologist Robert Burton describes this “delusion of certainty” in his book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not: “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”

This was quoted in “Christianity is wildly Improbable” by John W. Loftus in the book The End of Christianity edited by the same gentleman (this is the book in which Richard Carrier’s deeply flawed essay appears). Loftus was concerned of his friend’s disquieting certainty that God exists.

Loftus, who was certain he was right that his friend’s certainty in God’s existence was flawed because one cannot be truly certain, was quoting Burton in support of his (Loftus’s) certain belief that one cannot be certain, because Burton is authoritatively certain that his theory, that no one can really be certain, is certainly true.

Got it?

Now what I’m hoping is that Loftus’s passion that he be certain that there is no certainty has misled him about Burton’s theory, and that Burton didn’t really mean what his words seem to mean. Where would academia be if people actually thought things like that?

On the other hand, don’t we already know?

Wasn’t it Voltaire, another reliable voice, perhaps following Pliny the Elder who said “The only certainty is that nothing is certain”, who said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”? Yes; yes, it was Voltaire. I’m certain of that. Voltaire was certain that certainty was absurd. And I’m pretty sure that it was John Stuart Mill who said, “There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life.” I am sure that Mill—if, indeed, it was Mill, and it surely was—was certain there was no such thing as absolute certainty.

And didn’t the greatest brain of them all (forget he rejected the confirmed portions of quantum mechanics as being certainly wrong), Albert Einstein, say, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am” (and now recall that he rejected the confirmed portions of quantum mechanics of being certainly wrong).

This is how we can be certain that many modern philosophers are skeptics when it comes to certainty. I have witnessed the uncertainty in certainty. These fellows—fellowettes, too!—agree that one cannot be truly certain of anything. And that’s a certainty.

Why, take Mr Falsifiability himself, Karl Popper, who unmistakably said, “Our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty. Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.” Make no mistake: he also said, “Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty”. I certainly won’t.

I don’t know if the skeptical philosophers, who are legion in the academy, in being certain there is no certainty, know of Burton’s work that all certainty is really just various arrangements of neurochemicals (or whatever), that it’s our brains telling us to feel certain, even when there is no certainty. But if these philosophers aren’t aware, upon hearing of it, it’s certain they would be certain Burton is right, because Burton’s theory would be pleasing to them, as certain confirmation their philosophy holds.

How nice to think we are nothing but irresponsible unaccountable unpunishable, and of course in a few cases superior, bundle of chemicals!

12 Comments

  1. I have been saying for years, and am quite certain it’s true, that half of everything I know for sure, is wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t know which half.

  2. To be sure, to be human is to be mired in ambiguity. For the only thing certain in life is death and taxes.

  3. Ye Olde Statisician

    September 27, 2014 at 10:16 am

    the only thing certain in life is death and taxes.

    Sure, but death doesn’t get worse each time the president addresses Congress.

  4. Well, Briggs, I am absolutely certain you are correct. But in what?
    PS…There’s an interesting book, “My brain made me do it” by Eliezer Sternberg that disputes Burton’s OPINION. See
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/my-brain-made-me-do-it/

  5. Sander van der Wal

    September 27, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I wonder what body parts a neurologist uses to reason about neurology. Surely it cannot happen inside his brain, which apparently is a bunch of chemicals that isn’t smart enough to figure out how a brain actually works.

  6. John W. Loftus is wildly improbable, and therefore surely does not exist.

  7. Thank you for “Fellowettes”. My vocabulary is increased.

  8. “Loftus, who was certain he was right that his friend’s certainty in God’s existence was flawed because one cannot be truly certain, was quoting Burton in support of his (Loftus’s) certain belief that one cannot be certain, because Burton is authoritatively certain that his theory, that no one can really be certain, is certainly true. ”

    ERROR: Infinite Regression Detected. System Shutdown in 10 Seconds……

  9. Rumsfeld:
    “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    Same for certainty.

  10. “Sure, but death doesn’t get worse each time the president addresses Congress.”

    Unless you have drones in your neighborhood.

  11. “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” Pascal
    “It is certain that everything is uncertain.” Heisenberg

  12. People don’t know that they don’t know

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