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Ch. 12: The Twin Pillars of Certainty 
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Post Ch. 12: The Twin Pillars of Certainty
Ch. 12: The Twin Pillars of Certainty

Please use this thread for discussing Ch. 12: The Twin Pillars of Certainty. :whot:



Wed Aug 13, 2008 6:33 pm
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Dr. Burton seems to be hitting his stride in this chapter. He casts a lot of doubt on the existence of the purely rational mind, and he even engages in some debunking of Daniel Goleman and Malcolm Gladwell..

He wants us to accept that we do not have "a rational mind," that is, a mind within our mind that is capable of being free from "involuntary and undetectable influences." Not posessing this god-like ability, we have to conclude that certainty is "not a biologically justifiable state of mind." Further, he asks us to consider dropping the idea of "the self-examining mind."

"Any concept of free will assumes that we possess a portion of mind that can rise above the biological processes that generated it."

This seems an extreme view at first look. Don't we have ANY ability to step back and view our own thought processes? It seems to me we do, but Burton is only saying that no matter what, we cannot avoid errors and distortions that will bear upon the accuracy of our view. Maybe he doesn't give us enough credit for what we CAN do to examine our thoughts.

But how about it, does Burton demolish the idea of Goleman's that we have both a rational and an an emotional mind, the rational mind checking up on the emotional, the rational being itself "free of perceptual illusions and unsuspected biases," so able to police the emotional mind? The notion that we can do what Goleman says has great popular appeal, and is also what cognitive forms of mental health therapy are based on.
Burton doubts that introspection gets us very far, because we don't have "direct access to unconscious processing." "Self-unknowability" seems to be our lot in life.

Next he takes apart Gladwell, but that will have to wait until later.



Sat Sep 27, 2008 6:09 pm
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Post Part 2
This book is really getting interesting. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn't been sure about whether to read it. Burton is here taking on the "twin pillars" of objectivity and reason." I think it is important to realize that he is in no sense tearing down these pillars, but he does seek to undermine them. He thinks that we 21st century people who identify ourselves as rational and allied with science, in fact often have a faith in objectivity and rationality that is scientifically inaccurate. According to what we know about how the brain works, reason can never be of the "disembodied" or pure sort, but rather always subject to bodily and mental distortions. It follows that objectivity is always less than total. The most we can hope for is that oxymoronic "partial objectivity."

Yet our attachment to "the myth of the autonomous rational mind" is too strong for most of us to relinquish, he says. Malcolm Gladwell shows his attachment to it in Blink, in which he claims that intuition or hunches constitute in reality a separate kind of rational thought that we fail to recognize as often being more effective than slow, deliberate cognition. What happens in intuition or hunches, however, is that unconscious thoughts emerge and become imbued with a sudden "feeling of knowing." It is this feeling that makes hunches seem different than thought that has accumulated over a long period of time. If intuition seems more "right" than deliberated thought, it is because we feel it is. The feeling itself has no bearing on accuracy, though; accuracy must be determined by testing, just as would happen for any claim. Our intuitions and hunches turn out to be wrong just as often as our deliberate conclusions, Burton implies. We tend to remember those we think turned out right.

Thre is a lot more to this chapter, the longest in the book. Burton takes on Aaternative medicine guru Andrew Weil, too (but respectfully, which is characteristic of his approach). He upholds Charles Darwin as a scientist who was very clear about the limitations of his own profession and the impossibility of objectivity (For example: "How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!" ) By the end of it, he comes around to saying that we have a moral obligation not to profess certainty about our views of the world.

A few quotes from Burton will probably do a better job than I've done to make things clear:

"...the very concept of rationality is dependent upon personal perceptions and beliefs in how the mind works."

"...the unconscious mind is inaccessible to self-analysis."

"What are we to make of our minds when the vast majority of cognition goes on outside of concsiousness?"

"The problem I have with gut feeling, intuition, and split-second decisions is in believing that we can know when to trust them without haviing any criteria for setermining this trust. A feeling that a decision is right is not the same a providing evidence that it is right."



Mon Sep 29, 2008 7:42 am
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Burton seems to have mischaracterized Blink, from what I remember of that book. Gladwell doesn't possess a "deeply rooted desire to believe in the rational mind," as Burton claims. While I won't try to summarize Blink, which I read a few years ago, that book is better written and more convincing than On Being Certain, in part because it has a lot more real-world examples.

Now, Burton's conclusions about objectivity make total sense. Everyone's reasoning is biased, shaped by their beliefs, pre-conceptions, and way of viewing the world. While Burton gives medical examples, that tendency is most clear to me in news coverage. Whenever something thinks about or writes about the real world, they're also shaped by their personal perspective.

The discussion of back pain reminded me of what my wife went through lately. She suffered from serious back pain for a while, to the extent that she couldn't sit up or go to work. The doctors couldn't identify a clear problem, and the medical treatments and physical therapy didn't help. She eventually read John Sarno's Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, which argues that chronic back pain often arises from emotional issues. After reading that book, her back pain mostly went away, and now her functioning is at normal levels.



Sat Oct 04, 2008 7:43 pm
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JulianTheApostate wrote:
Burton seems to have mischaracterized Blink, from what I remember of that book. Gladwell doesn't possess a "deeply rooted desire to believe in the rational mind," as Burton claims. While I won't try to summarize Blink, which I read a few years ago, that book is better written and more convincing than On Being Certain, in part because it has a lot more real-world examples.

I don't know whether to agree with you or not about his reaction to Gladwell's book. I read it a few years ago, too. It does seems to me that Gladwell was saying that hunches, intuition, etc. were a type of thought somehow different from that of deliberate thought, but it was rational thought just the same. Burton simply thinks that hunches, etc. bubble up from the unconscious suddenly at times, but that all thought has its origins in the unconscious. It's just a matter of the suddenness. Is it rational? It might well fit that description, but that doesn't necessarily correspond to being objectively true. Gladwell says that such thought is more likely to be "right." (Note: somebody might want to check this--I don't have Burton's book right now, either.) Where Burton really disagrees with Gladwell is when Gladwell says we can somehow harness or enhance our ability to "think without thinking." This would entail, according to Burton, our being able to control what comes up from our unconscious mind, and this he says is biologically impossible, a property of the mythic "autonomous rational mind," but not of the mind we have.

Most readers may say to themselves, "What is wrong with having a 'deeply rooted desire to believe in the rational mind'?" From my point of view, nothing. Burton's skepticism may be somewhat extreme, or he may have forgotten to add the modifier "autonomous" to "rational." Because our minds cannot be autonomously rational does not of course mean that we cannot be, in the main, rational, or that some minds show more faithfulness to rationality than other minds do.
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Sat Oct 04, 2008 8:40 pm
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JulianTheApostate wrote:
Burton seems to have mischaracterized Blink, from what I remember of that book. Gladwell doesn't possess a "deeply rooted desire to believe in the rational mind," as Burton claims. While I won't try to summarize Blink, which I read a few years ago, that book is better written and more convincing than On Being Certain, in part because it has a lot more real-world examples.

I don't know whether to agree with you or not about his reaction to Gladwell's book. I read it a few years ago, too. It does seems to me that Gladwell was saying that hunches, intuition, etc. were a type of thought somehow different from that of deliberate thought, but it was rational thought just the same. Burton simply thinks that hunches, etc. bubble up from the unconscious suddenly at times, but that all thought has its origins in the unconscious. It's just a matter of the suddenness. Is it rational? It might well fit that description, but that doesn't necessarily correspond to being objectively true. Gladwell says that such thought is more likely to be "right." (Note: somebody might want to check this--I don't have Burton's book right now, either.) Where Burton really disagrees with Gladwell is when Gladwell says we can somehow harness or enhance our ability to "think without thinking." This would entail, according to Burton, our being able to control what comes up from our unconscious mind, and this he says is biologically impossible, a property of the mythic "autonomous rational mind," but not of the mind we have.

Most readers may say to themselves, "What is wrong with having a 'deeply rooted desire to believe in the rational mind'?" From my point of view, nothing. Burton's skepticism may be somewhat extreme, or he may have forgotten to add the modifier "autonomous" to "rational." Because our minds cannot be autonomously rational does not of course mean that we cannot be, in the main, rational, or that some minds show more faithfulness to rationality than other minds do.



Sat Oct 04, 2008 8:40 pm
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