On Being Certain

This isn't really finished, but I think it's about as finished as it's likely to get; it's been a week or so since I made any changes to it, and I don't want to sit on it forever.

This piece is about a book. Well, not really about it; more like, some thoughts provoked by reading it.

The book is On Being Certain, by Robert Burton. It's about the sensation of being certain of something, of `knowing', from various angles: what it is like, what its misfires have to tell us about how our minds work, and the like. It's an interesting and thought-provoking book.

He (I'm assuming "he" is appropriate for someone named Robert Burton) does, however, make some mistakes, I think. Mistakes of implication, not outright statement, I hasten to add.

Most of them seem to me to stem from the same basic thing: what I might call the religion of science, the stance that not only is everything explicable, but everything is explicable via observer-independent, mechanistic, repeatable on demand phenomena. Consider, for example, the the study he mentions in which someone found no benefit from a particular osteopathic procedure, despite `knowing' it was effective. He appears to completely ignore the possibility that being done within the framework of a controlled study affects the efficacy of the technique. (Whether that possibility obtains in this particular case is irrelevant; my point is that he rules it out, or at least appears to, without even any consideration.)

He mentions remarkable similarities between the subjective experience produced by deliberate stimulation of certian brain areas and the feeling of immanence present in religious ecstasy. He does not even mention the obvious inference, that such patterns are what religious ecstasy is. I consider this about as reasonable as saying that, because stimulation of certain parts of the visual cortex produces visual experiences, that such patterns of activity are what vision is. To an extent, of course, such a stance is correct; there is a sense in which the experience of vision is such patterns of activity (at least to the extent that any mental experience is a pattern of brain activity; in my opinion the jury is still out on whether the mind is more than just patterns of brain activity). But, in normal operation, such patterns reflect certain aspects of what we are pleased to call objective reality. Similarly, I see no reason to think that, in the absence of artificial brain stimulation, the perception of religious immanence doesn't reflect some sort of external reality. (In fairness to him, I don't know why he doesn't explicitly draw this inference; I can think of explanations all the way from his believing it but not wanting to stir up religious fanatics to his believing a theory such as I sketch but not wanting to stir up a different set of religious fanatics.)

He also writes about various creation myths and how they compare to the kind of history of the universe we get from physics and astrocosmology. This strikes me as a false dichotomy; it seems to me that asking whether our universe arose from a Big Bang or from, say, the mixing of Muspelheim's fire and Niflheim's ice is rather like asking whether a table is rectangular or wooden: it is taking two partial descriptions of an underlying reality from different points of view and presenting them as though each description were complete and exhaustive and they were incompatible. Similar remarks apply to many other things commonly presented as a dichotomy between a `scientific' view and a `non-scientific' view; the evolution kerfuffle is an example.