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On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not
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On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  2,038 ratings  ·  124 reviews

You recognize when you know something for certain, right? You "know" the sky is blue, or that the traffic light had turned green, or where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001--you know these things, well, because you just do.

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of ce

Hardcover, 272 pages
Published February 5th 2008 by St. Martin's Press
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3.90  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,038 ratings  ·  124 reviews

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Sep 23, 2009 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Richard by: Lena Phoenix
It is always somewhat astonishing when an intelligent author manages to make an interesting topic dull.

The unassailable certainty exhibited by ideologues of many varieties lies behind many of the world's political and cultural problems. One would expect that an examination of how such certainty develops and how one might avoid the traps this entails.

Burton has one good punch: he hammers home that the feeling of knowing is a feeling like any other: not really very amenable to rational understandi
Jun 15, 2009 rated it liked it
I was totally in love with this book when I first picked it up. Just saw it on the shelf, started browsing it, and couldn't put it down. A neurologist who is also a novelist, who has a lifelong interest in existential questions and wrote essays on William James in college? Dude! It seemed like we should be BFF.
Unfortunately, I found myself increasingly irritated with the book, and have gone from recommending it to everyone I see to only giving it 3 stars.
The author starts with a fascinating pre
Feb 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
I'll start this review with a quote from the back of the book, since it explains the premise better than I can:

"In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to th
Jacob J
May 17, 2009 rated it did not like it
I really thought I was going to like this book because I enjoy epistemology and cognitive science. And yet, I only made it about 2/3 of the way through the book before I gave up. It was not so much that it was boring as that it was frustrating. The main problem I had was that this book does not present scientific evidence and talk about implications or possible interpretations. Rather, it presents the author's theory about the existence and function of what he calls "the feeling of knowing" and ...more
Angela Juline
Aug 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
You read these brain books, and you just have more questions - even more so with this one, because the author is arguing against certainty. So how can I be certain he is right??? It really is something to consider and I think it explains a lot as to why people have such a hard time hearing new ideas. I'm going to try to be mindful of not being so certain...
Jan 04, 2009 rated it did not like it
This was given to me for Christmas, perhaps as a dig at my joked-about intensive defense of my own ideas.

Burton's thesis that there is an innate biological feeling of knowing, i.e. of certainty, that is separate and distinct from reason and actual fact, is not so hard for me to swallow. Our ability to believe that we are right about something is a useful but not always failsafe attribute. And reasoning itself is beset by bias that will never be entirely eliminated. So what, one might ask, is th
Feb 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: kindle
This book is based around an interesting question that I had never considered before:
What does it mean to know something?

The author points out that 'the feeling of knowing' is a neuro-biological reaction and not a logical conclusion. There is also a wide genetic variability in the population as to what criteria can elicit this reaction.

What I find lacking is a distinction between statements that are perfectly knowable (within a specific system), such as 2+2==4 on the one side, and statements tha
Jan 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
This was a bit slow, and a bit dry, in parts, but the overlying concept was fascinating. We are not purely mechanical creatures. We don't void our beliefs when faced with uncertainty; we take into account new information and either reshape our thoughts or, more often, stick to our guns. How do we know what we know? The short answer is: we don't. Admitting ignorance is the purest sign of intelligence--we have a general feeling of knowing something, but that doesn't mean we are correct. Being able ...more
This is one of the best books I've read in a while. I was doubtful it would be much good, but the more I read the better it got. If you're interested in understanding why it is that we think we know what we know and how our minds really work when it comes to the feeling of certainty, this is a great book. If you're familiar with Landmark technology, this explains some of the biology and neurology behind our overconfidence in our own knowledge. Great to read if you're a religious fanatic or a fer ...more
Jun 07, 2009 rated it it was ok
In the words of the author:
The message at the heart of this book is that the feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction, and certainty aren't deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.
Unfortunately, once one understands this point, the rest of the book is rather less inspiring than promised. Although the discussions concerning the neural basis of experience is well-written, once the author turns to more speculative areas such as evolutionary ps
عبدالرحمن عقاب
الكتاب يطرح فكرة (الإيمان) بمعناه القلبي. هذا الإيمان الذي يولد قناعة راسخة ويحمل كمسلمات لا جدال فيها.
هل يسبق هذا الإيمان اقتناع عقلي ؟ أم هو حالة نفسية وعصبية تتولد نتيجة تفاعلات كيميائية في الجهاز العصبي. ثم يأتي العقل ليجد لها ما يفسرها وما يبررها؟!
السؤال على هذه الشاكلة خطير وعميق ومقلق.
يمضي الكاتب في هذا الباب بتطرف حقيقة؛ ولا أجده يحشد الأدلة الدامغة وإن أتى ببعضها.
أسلوب الكاتب أيضا مشوش وغير جذاب. مما يجعلك تفقد الاستمتاع وترابط الأفكار بسهولة .
Sep 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting but tough reading, as it's rather technical. I like the idea, but I have to be honest - I'm not really sure I completely understood everything I read. Much like the title, there's no way to be certain that it really was a good book.

Love the fact that the author had the same problem with Richard Dawkins that I did! This sentence had me nodding my head in complete agreement: "[Dawkins'] near-evangelical effort to convince the faithful of the folly of their convictions has the same zeal
Jun 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Robert Burton has written a very accessible book that ends up spanning a much wider range of the biological limitations of the human mind than the title implies.

Robert shows evidence that feelings of rightness or certainty are one of our basic emotions, and the role that emotion plays in our decision making. But he also does a great job of discussing how much of our brain's work happens in parts of the brain inaccessible by our perceptual mind.

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone with an int
Nicholas Moryl
Feb 03, 2016 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: brain, relativist
What do we know about what we know? "Metaknowledge," knowledge about knowledge, is addressed in this book under "the feeling of knowing," into which Burton collapses the feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction and correctness.

You know what he's talking about: The sense that you know the answer, that the answer is "on the tip of your tongue," in the seconds, minutes, or hours before you are actually able to access the correct information. The conviction that you've found the same street you
John Petrocelli
Nov 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Review: An interesting account of the feeling of knowing and certainty. Includes discussion of how certainty arises out mental sensations that happen to us, as opposed to deliberate conclusions or conscious choices. Also includes discussion of neurological bases of certainty. Overall, and interesting and sometimes insightful read. Comments on some contemporaries.

Favorite Quote: “Goleman believes in a rational mind that can know when it is being fooled. Schank sees the ability to be rational lim
Nov 29, 2018 rated it liked it

Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.
---Alfred North Whitehead

We certainly seem to be living in a time when everyone knows they are right, about everything from politics to climate change, from vaccinations to the shape of the earth. How do so many people so fundamentally disagree?

Within the first few pages, author Robert Burton sets out his premise that a feeling of knowing, a 'tip of the tongue' belief that you have certain correct knowledge in your brain,
Syed Ashrafulla
Apr 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book crystallized many of the preconceived notions I've had over the years regarding certainty. The author is able to properly formulate the Jerry blind spot in certainty: that it is unconscious but claims to be rational. Many of the resulting criticisms by the author reflect a characterization of this blind spot in scientists, fundamentalists, the confused, the depressed, etc.

The book has small holes in it, manifesting in trite sentences that mean nothing, like "what is the purpose of find
Matthew Green
Apr 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
I waffle on whether to give this three or four stars. The problem is this:
Burton does a fine job of laying out various neurological truths. However, he doesn't seem to do a good job of tying them together to successfully prove his ultimate thesis. I get what he's saying, but I had a hard time understanding why he was saying it, and the ultimate point of the book seemed to end up left out somehow.

After reflecting on it a while, I started to see why he made the particular points he did, and I unde
Sep 18, 2018 rated it liked it
very interesting. dense and at times rather abstract. I took away from it how relative rationality is as a concept and how our brains play fast and loose with reality to be able to give us a decent life. Only thing I didn't get is near the end the author has a plea against absolutism, while just spending most of the book telling the reader we're pretty much hardwired for baseless feelings of certainty, defeating the point of the plea for all except those who already feel like agreeing. so that's ...more
Oct 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Connie B
Apr 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
I chose this book because of the author's last name! Interesting, but a bit "deep", scholarly, and technical (medical). The brain is what "drives" my behavior; I want to learn more about beliefs, habits, and the like. The book is not long. Favorite quote: I must learn "to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty."
Jessie Heckenmueller
Really enjoyed learning about the concepts and many of the examples/research studies that were used throughout the book; however, occasionally his tone particularly related to some of his biases (which were generally acknowledged and I appreciated this) seemed unnecessary. I enjoyed his conclusion as a good wrap up of the book.
Jul 09, 2018 rated it did not like it
Boring, couldn't get into it.
Mar 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is very outstanding.
Will Simpson
Mar 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-again
My second reading. Tons more notes. Really focused my attention on the feeling of knowing, how different feelings of knowing can be called rational, scientific, mystical, or religious in different contexts. How these feelings are no different from the feeling of thirst or hunger, we consciously are not the drivers here as much as we “feel” we are, the brain has its own agenda. "Decisions are made for us by our unconscious; the conscious is in charge of making up reasons for those decisions which ...more
Georgina Lara
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I live my life with more doubts than certainties, and after reading this book I bet this will be even more common. The number one lesson for me was that your "feeling" of certainty can work against you if it keeps you away from curiosity and deeper knowledge.
This book took me a long time to read because I borrowed it from the library and couldn't renew it, so I had to return it and then borrow it again. Even so, it was worth it. Burton, an acclaimed neurologist, asks what's going on in our brains when we believe we know something (he calls this the feeling of knowing). He makes a strong case for the biological weirdness of that feeling, and its disconnection from actual knowledge. A few highlights:

Burton highlights my two favorite perception stories
Clark Hays
Jan 23, 2016 rated it liked it
“Thoughts are the shadows of our sensations …”

“…always darker, emptier, simpler than these.” -- Nietzsche (quoted in the book)

Certainty — that unmistakable feeling of “rightness” — is a tricky concept, existing in the shadowy borderlands between a self-generated emotion and a non-conscious biological response. The author sets out to explain what it is, where it comes from, why it’s important and what that knowledge can do for us.

Starting out of order, certainty is important because of the clear
May 28, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: blue
Subtitle: "Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not". Burton's book takes on the whole phenomenon of "I just know, that's all", that feeling of knowing you're right about something. He is associate chief of the Department of Neurosciences at Mt. Zion - UCSF Hospital. When he speaks about what is known in neuroscience, he is not someone who had to go only to secondary sources to figure it out. He starts with a simple but not often asked question: when you think something, you have an intuitio ...more
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Robert Burton, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, where he also completed his neurology residency. At age 33, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaime ...more
“Though not necessarily aware of when we feel purpose and meaning, we are nearly always aware of the sickening feeling when we don't possess them. This isn't an intellectual misapprehension; it is a gut sense of disorientation and a loss of personal direction. Rarely are brute mental effort and self-help pep talks able to rekindle the missing feeling. For most of us, we simply wait patiently, knowing from past experience that the feeling will return in its own sweet time . . . Of particular interest is [Tolstoy's] conclusion as to the inability of science and reason to provide a personal sense of meaning.” 9 likes
“Dawkins conveniently illustrates the rationalist's dilemma: How do you articulate a personal sense of purpose when you intellectually have concluded that the world is pointless? What is the purpose of pointing out pointlessness? What does it mean to find purpose in understanding pointlessness? Once again we are back at the conflict between Dawkins' intellect (the world is pointless) and his mental sensation of purpose (I will show others that faith is irrational). To understand the intensity of this felt purpose, Google Dawkins' bio and speaking engagements. His near-evangelical effort to convince the faithful of the folly of their convictions has the same zealous ring as those missionaries who feel it is their duty to convert the heathens.” 6 likes
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