Saturday, July 30, 2011

What do I know?

A review of "On being Certain", by Robert Burton.

Do you know someone who is always right? Who knows all the answers and would be mortified to admit that he (it is usually a "he") doesn't know something, has no opinion on some topic, large or small, or, heaven forfend, was wrong? I guess that would be me, in all honesty.

Complementary syndromes, Burton suggests, might be OCD, depression, and anxiety, afflicting those who lack a sense of certainty about some issues- whether one is clean enough, has done the right thing, or said the right words. Or of having lost the essential sense of purpose and meaning of which one was previously confident.

The sense of certainty is highly valuable to us, allowing decisive and efficient use of scarce time and partial information. But is it right? Obviously, it is not always right, and can't be relied on ... that is the problem.
"It is no great accomplishment to hear a voice in your head. The accomplishment is to make sure that it is telling you the truth." - a patient, quoted by Burton
Burton is a former head of neurology at UCSF, a novelist in his spare time, and has written a charming, temperate, and succinct indictment of our sense of certainty. His first job is to elevate this mental sense to an explicit and respected status, since it is a bit nebulous. We have our five traditional senses. And recently, we have become aware of a few other senses, like the body position sense and the empathic social mirror sense. These unconscious mechanisms of our minds help make us feel "normal" and situated, becoming apparent only in rare cases when they go awry.

Likewise, the sense of certainty is central to our mental workings, yet a little difficult to appreciate. How do ideas "pop" out of unconciousness? Why do they pop out? Clearly while we are day-dreaming, or night-dreaming, some parts of our minds are hard at work, testing out problems, models, and ideas. Just as clearly, the unconscious has some mechanism to evaluate the results- how closely their solution matches a target problem, perhaps posed explicitly by our conscious mind, ("What is the nature of benzene's double bonds?"), or perhaps posed implicitly by circumstance ("How do I get out of this burning building?"). Either way, we don't typically hear about all the false leads and underlying processes, but receive "the answer" as an idea that "strikes" us as correct, perhaps leading to immediate action.

This sense is, naturally, tied into the pleasure centers of the brain as well, so if we come up with a great idea, we feel great about it. It can be a very powerful buzz. This leads to the possibility of addiction, as mentioned at the top, which is to say that people may become so attached to the pleasure of being right that they keep blogging, week after pointless week, prating about how right they are to hold some idea or other.

There are also times when the sense of certainty arises untethered and unbidden, such as during mystical experiences. One that comes to mind is that of the German Jacob Böhme in 1600: "... one day he focused his attention onto the exquisite beauty of a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish. He believed this vision revealed to him the spiritual structure of the world, as well as the relationship between God and man, and good and evil." Burton quotes William James on the subject:
"They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time."
Likewise, drug-induced hallucinations can cause absolute senses of knowledge, realness, and purpose which dissolve into a hangover. Temporal lobe epilepsy can have similar effects. All of this is to say that this sense is a specific function of our brains, and needs to be regarded with a bit of dispassion by those (which generally means all of us) who give it excessive credence. In fact, I regard this book as an excellent companion to Eric Reitan's "Is God a delusion?", which with similar temperance and good cheer goes right down the rabbit hole of imputing great (possible) cosmic sigificance to mystical experiences, among other improbable conclusions. The one clearly informs the arguments and scope of the other.
"Knowing that the sense of self is an emergent phenomenon arising out of simpler neuronal structures doesn't and won't stop theologians and philosophers from debating issues they have no chance of resolving. Scorpions sting. We talk of religion, afterlife, souls, higher powers, muses, purpose, reason, objectivity, pointlelssness, and randomness. We cannot help ourselves."
But Burton fries fishes on both sides of the culture war. The sense of certainty is not just core to our conscious stream, but also to memory, which is far less reliable than we typically assume. One of the great findings of social & cognitive science has been about the unreliability of eye-witnesses. A person may spin a tale of rationalizations with complete certainty, unaware of how vague their memories really are. We had a local court case recently where the defendent, cleary guilty of murdering an ex-girlfriend, spun a tale of defending her against two unidentified assailants who were the actual murderers. Not even his own defense attorney took the proposition seriously, but the troubling thought is that this defendent may have convinced himself of its truth, as OJ may of his yarn as well.

So certainty is fundamentally impossible. Internally, our brains use sophisticated Bayesian statistical methods to come up with probabilistic conclusions. But do they tell us about it? Of course not. They typically give us black and white answers, which we have historically assumed come from heaven, or from souls, or from wherever. We really can not make any definitive statements about anything outside the kinds of logic and math that are self-contained inventions to start with. The atheist can not be certain that there is no god, and nor can she be sure that the sun will rise tomorrow, or even that it rose today. Some things may be more certain than others, but none are absolute. And the kicker is that we are in constant revolt against this uncertainty, since it is both psychologically uncomfortable, operationally impractical, and hidden from our view.
"Our mental limitations prevent us from accepting our mental limitations."
Ultimately, I think Burton does a little soft-peddling, since the conclusion of all this is that we benefit from an outside arbiter to control our sense of knowing about important and abstract topics. And that arbiter is ideally going to be empiricism, i.e. science. Indeed, one might portray science as, in a way, a higher level of consciousness, in the sequence from unconscious reflex to consciousness under emotional brain control, to increasingly reliable memory stored in written form, and then to a communally validated pool of knowledge & theory. Science is the social mechanism we have devised to hold hypotheses in suspension, to test them logically and empirically, to subject them to public scrutiny by those who typically have an emotional interest in shooting them down, and attempt to record their fruits objectively. It descended from the academic disputation common in the monastic and humanist past, but obviously evolved in a new and far more productive direction.
"There must be certainty from the US president." -G. W. Bush, quoted by Burton.
Unfortunately, there is far more to the human condition than science can address. A depressing coda in the book deals with medical practice, which is ridden with the posture of certainty subsituting for actual knowledge, expertise, and competence. Even the best doctors can never consciously assimilate very much of the vast medical corpus, (assuming that this data is itself free of bias, which is far from the case). So they go by their training, by hunches, and experience, more or less well remembered, all wrapped up in the white coat of authority. Most of the time it turns out OK, but frequently it doesn't. Something as simple as a checklist for medical procedures has been shown to dramatically reduce complications, showing that the confident competence we typically rely on is far from sufficient to render optimal care.

Conversely, confidence and authority can have medical benefits, such as when a doctor prescribes a placebo, yet inspires enough confidence in the patient that real improvement results. The endless billions that Americans pour into alternative medical treatments, self-help, motivational speakers, and the like are surely not going completely to waste, since however appalling from a rational perspective, subjective confidence and happiness can lead to health (though probably not wealth!) in some circumstances, due to our intimate mind-body connections, particularly in the areas of stress and immune function. We just need the wisdom to know where, when, and who- which, by Burton's analysis, we can never have.

Incidentally, particularly clever theologians have seized on the cognitive defects of our condition as an argument that nothing said by a philosophical naturalists can make any sense- that the position is inherently self-defeating because reason itself is impossible if we truly are naturally evolved beings, speaking nonsense and greed into each other's ears. To the rescue comes god, who by fiat makes us make sense- both in the context of the universe, and to each other. God enables reason, we are in His image, He is reasonable by definition, etc..
"And this leads directly to the question whether it is at all likely that our cognitive faculties, given naturalism and given their evolutionary origin, would have developed in such a way as to be reliable, to furnish us with mostly true beliefs." -Alvin Plantinga
Among the assumptions here is that biologically evolved reason and the sense of certainty are not just unreliable, as per Burton, but totally, fantastically, utterly defective. Needless to say, there is little reason to take this argument seriously, since evolution, while it may not have rationality as its only cognitive goal, has accuracy in many perceptual and cognitive respects among its goals, which can later be leveraged and supplemented by calibration, critique, etc. in a scientific/philosophical method, at least when carried out by competent people.

I found this is an outstanding book with philosophical and practical messages. Uncertainty touches countless areas of our lives. For example, serious consideration of uncertainty underlies much of the difference between Keynesian and classical economics, with the latter taking a typically theological approach by assuming away uncertainty (i.e. supposing rational expectations and perfect knowledge) under the cover of an impressive (in this case mathematical) apparatus. In other news- the Norwegian atrocity- the attachment that right wingnuts have for their guns testifies to their lack of appreciation for our many limits as humans- particularly, the possibility that extremism and passion (which they typically possess in abundance) may in rare circumstances get the better of them or others in their household and render their favorite weapon an instrument of mayhem and murder.

  • Wingnut response to Norway: "I hereby vow to carry my handguns more often."
  • A little epistemic humility on Afghanistan.
  • Saudi Arabia- still not a beacon of freedom.
  • How can one have a lie detector if we believe our lies?
  • Pasta, flying to new heights.
  • Why are we kowtowing to economic criminals?
  • Reinhard and Rogoff are responsible for immeasurable harm, are apparently still employed.
  • And what is going on with "President Pushover"?
  • Economics quotes of the week, via Bill Mitchell. Apparently the Bank of International Settlements understands the banking system after all, by this quote:
"In particular, it is argued that the concept of the money multiplier is flawed and uninformative in terms of analyzing the dynamics of bank lending. Under a fiat money standard and liberalized financial system, there is no exogenous constraint on the supply of credit except through regulatory capital requirements."
"Further, the only way a government such as the US can “go broke” is if the politicians deliberately and wilfully decide not to use the financial capacity of the government and refuse to credit relevant bank accounts in the non-government sector. That would be an extraordinary conspiracy against the people of their own land and against peoples in other lands that had acquired US dollar-denominated assets."

1 comment:

  1. Another great post Burk. It's useful to understand that feeling certain isn't the same as being right. My wife and I recently purchased something from a friend and were both "sure" the price we had been quoted was half of what it turned out to be. Being distrustful of our certainty helped us deconstruct our mental processes; since we had agreed to split the cost we had each mentally assigned half the quoted price as the actual price, and then had forgotten the original information.

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