On Being Certain: A Critical Reflection In
Four Parts


What follows is the four papers, a critique in four parts, of various lengths, and varying coherency, on impressions and thoughts of the readings of 'On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right, Even When You're Not' by Robert A Burton which covers a lot of material on the unconscious (subconscious) and conscious and what drives feelings, thoughts and emotions and the way people form certainties of perceived knowledge.

Critical Reflection on ‘On Being Certain’ by Robert A. Burton in Four Parts

- Chapters 1-5

These chapters were pretty complex, it’s hard to disagree with a neurologist on much of what he is claiming. However, it seems there were a few topics to poke fun at while trying to understand. While I respect that there are cognitive functions and subconscious drives and monsters in my brain driving all of my decisions, feelings, and actions, to analyze them to such a serious degree almost takes the fun out of being human. If that is what I am. I mean, I know I am human, because I feel that I am human…but I could be wrong. What came first, the knowing or the feeling. “He does not know what he knows” (9)…so s/he knows nothing, and s/he knows everything. Because if s/he does not know, then you surely don’t know, so nobody knows…so s/he might as well know everything, you know?

Without a sense of knowing simply based on a feeling, would there even be obscure belief systems, would people have unique views. That’s rhetorical, of course.

Most of religion, for example, is based on a feeling, which makes them think they know it’s real. But then by that token, isn't my own feeling that, say, religion is just a man-made construct of control, which leads me to know it’s not real and it is not something I want to take a part in, just as real, or unreal, as their knowing based on their feeling. Given that there is no “real” evidence to support their feeling, argument can be made that there is more proof that religion is man-made than there is proof that it is not…OR is that only my feeling of knowing, and in fact none of us know anything.

In my opinion, information is what shifts the not knowing to knowing, not a feeling. When reading the paragraph that turned out to be about a kite, I had no “feeling” about the paragraph, I thought it was an abstract sort of prose and read it as such, which made it both comprehensible and meaningless all at the same time, being open to reinterpretation at any turn. Was that thought a feeling?

The concept of the feeling of knowing is too highly subject to bias, personal notions, brain function, and missing data – which can be inevitable in any given situation. My mind reels at the content of these five chapters, and I find myself hating brains, they are not to be trusted. It’s a good thing I’m not a zombie.

- Chapters 6-10

Sometimes I feel like I could live forever, but I know that I can’t. At least I’m pretty sure that I can’t. What is the mechanism in the brain that makes me think I feel a certain way so that I have a feeling of knowing in the first place? I am finding with the reading of Burton that I have fewer opinions, opinions being my usual mode when I set out to write about something that I am learning, and am ending up with more questions. For instance, if the unconscious part of the brain that directs our conscious brain truly is just genetically wired synapses and neurons firing in rapid response to stimuli, essentially controlling our emotions, instinct, and being, what are the motives behind its puppetry? It “appears” that it is wired to know what it is doing, if it wasn't our species would cease to exist, would we not? The brain cannot exist without us, and we cannot exist without it. Yet the brain seems to have hidden motives, and we think we have control of it. It can almost be likened to some obligatory symbiotic parasitic relationship.

If it is true that genes play such an integral or core role in thought and behavior, doesn't that make gene isolation to control behavior possible; and wouldn't that take away freewill? Isn't that in itself, the idea that by isolating a gene you can effect whether or not someone will behave in a certain way, a valid argument for the existence of freewill (what you don’t have cannot be taken away)? Also, some could argue that there is a dangerous nature in playing with genetics and finding out how genetics, DNA, dictate behavior. It almost brings to mind some Orwellian/Minority Report/Hitler nightmare where they breed out characteristics by isolating and removing genes in order to control the population in all matters of action. Eek!

Turning then to the nature of thought, is a thought that hasn't reached awareness even a really a thought? When does a thought begin? Does a thought not dictate some awareness or action by the thinker, and if not, and our unconscious is thinking and we don’t know, does that make the unconscious conscious? Burton seems to allege that a thought begins before it begins, at least if I’m understanding him correctly, and only when your unconscious releases the information it’s been working on to create that though, does it become a thought…but it was already a thought before it became a thought. The unconscious is starting to sound like the concept of a God. Circular logic inclined to much tail chasing.

Using the information Burton presents, one way I constructed a level of understanding of thought and the unconscious is to look at the relation of the process of the operation of a computer and an application. Suppose the mind is a computer with an application (idea/information) that runs in the background (unconscious brain). The application (idea/information) is passive until activated/called on, but it’s not actually operating (thinking) until you activate and manipulate it, bring it to “life” (it becomes a thought).

A thought leading to a conscious feeling of knowing is usually in response to information stimuli calling upon stored information in your unconscious, is it not? I don’t go about the day having a general feeling of knowing, or not knowing, until I encounter something that demands the feeling. I don’t have a thought until something I hear, see, taste, touch, and/or smells, elicits my brain to call up on my information bank and evoke a memory or a feeling, or raise a question to be solved, no matter how mundane. Awareness then, “we know we know things, which is what leads to feelings of knowing” (Lehrer), is key to the feeling.

The theory of calling on memories and the role of episodic memory role in achieving a feeling of knowing was very interesting, but I thought perhaps a little flawed in how Burton presented it. The examples he gave, whether something is perceived as hot or cold, bland, or spicy, is a similar to the example where one person’s red might not be another person’s red, or that a house is colder to one person than another. Memories based on perceptions, based on sensations, is almost a part of what makes a person an individual. “I am nothing if not my past” (Burton 83), but if you conclude that everything about your past can be misinterpreted or wrong because you remembered a piece of chicken being dry while another person remembered it relatively moist…what does that say about you. Now, there are certainly very important pieces of information that when wrong can corrupt memories, like in cases of actual events where someone remembers something that did not actually happen. The idea that Burton presented “that everybody should draw the same conclusion if given the same information” (102) speaks to a sort of concentration, or reduction or individuality, an idealist robotic response system free of birth from individual experience, perceptions, and sensations; un-unique. What would anybody have to talk about if everybody thought the same thing? Individual thinking would become needless, meaningless; one person could do it for everybody. There would be total loss of the satisfaction that comes from simply thinking and contemplating, and debating with peers.

In matters of action, there is some definite underlying truth that immediate reward and a feeling of instant gratification is definitely a seductive motivation for human behavior. If anything, it is a simple way to understand why something as simple as social media is so popular - people get near instant satisfaction from instant validation for thoughts and ideas, pictures and life events, and so people keep going back like a rat to a morphine lever. Addiction to social media is an addiction like any other, only the gratification is not money, or sexual release, or an intoxicating buzz; the gratification, the award, is validation for being yourself. There’s probably nothing more twisted to be addicted to. However, without dopamine releasing satisfaction there is inaction in everything, without dopamine creating these feelings there is no motivation.

As a side, if the role of dopamine responses alone are responsible for innate risk tolerances leading to “award-based” addiction, then that should mean controlling addicts with dopamine manipulating medications would or should be fairly successful.

My final thought…on thought. Burton claims “If there is any single area of human thought over which we believe that we have control, it is in our ability to decide whether or not there is a God, a perfect hereafter, fire and brimstone, or that we are insignificant specks in a meaningless universe governed by chance.” (104) Why can’t there be something in between “God” and “insignificant specks in a meaningless universe”?! Maybe we are beings with a divine goal of understanding and enjoying the universe that surrounds us…governed by our brains.


Lehrer, Johan. "Feelings of Knowing." Web log post. The Frontal Cortex. Science Blogs, 21 June 2010. Web. 31 Jan. 2014. <http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/06/21/feelings-of-knowing/>.

Burton, Robert Alan. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's, 2008. Print.

- Chapters 11-12

“To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

― Confucius

Burton starts off early in chapter eleven calling for “[…] a switch that stops infinite ruminations and calms our fears of missing an unknown superior alternative” (125), appearing to ignore that some people have a form of that switch, which leads them to rest on a final belief or conviction, what they feel is a conclusion, and be less apt to explore the “what if” narrative. The world is full of those kinds of people. Even more unsettling is that he does not see that the “fear” (I wouldn't call it that) associated with “missing an unknown superior alternative”, is necessary, is what breeds innovation and curiosity and discovery. If people could just flip the switch whenever they were “fearful” so much would be lost. It’s all very fortunate, this statement he made, since it drove me to approach chapter eleven and twelve of On Being Certain with a desire to seek a “superior alternative” to much of what he has set forth to assert in the book, keeping with the logical declaration that “recognition and sensation of thought are integral to any theory of mind” (Burton, 138).

What came first: the thought…or the thought? Perhaps more aptly, is a thought without a thought still a thought? Burton speaks of the division of the process and awareness of thinking in unconscious and conscious thought (129), so thinking becomes a two-process occurrence. Since the unconscious is unaware, it seems fair to assume that what precedes a thought is a process, not a thought; that the operation of the unconscious is a process that only becomes a thought due to awareness - so then to use the term unconscious “thought” seems disingenuous.

In the example where we are to consider the different ways we might interpret two situations - one of an abandoned computer left to run an experiment, which still coming up with the answer, and then that of a writer who, thwarted by the difficulty of writing an epic novel find himself waking one day with the book in its entirety, ready to leap from his mind onto pages, a commonality exists making them no different than one another. That commonality is a conscious initiation - the conscious thought that moved to the initial action, which led to the unconscious process, ending in a result. Alternatively, one could argue that the process between the initiation and result, called “unconscious thought”, is deserving of its own name or title, not to be entangled with the same concept of how conscious thought is understood. Without considering the source of the conscious thought leading to the initial action of course, but let’s apply a little suspension of belief.

As Burton states, “unconscious thoughts” do not have a sensation of willful effort and intention. They are unfelt. He makes the assertion that conscious thoughts have been “prescreened and assigned a high likelihood of being worth pursuing than those ideas that did not reach consciousness” by the unconscious, and that “how the unconscious decides what should be delivered into consciousness is a matter of fierce debate” (134) [italics mine]. If the unconscious is loaded with, “unrecognized agendas, motivations, and complex ill-defined innate predispositions” (155) that controls our conscious mind, as Burton claims, would it not seem more likely that our unconscious is actually conscious just as conscious as our conscious, since it’s in control.

This leads one to consider a couple of things.

First, when something is pulled up from the unconscious by order of “importance” into the consciousness due to supposed “prescreening and assignment” by the unconscious, how can we be certain there is anything else in the unconscious at the time, or ever, to select from in the first place. Consciously try to search the unconscious thoughts, and you may be left with the most beautiful silence imaginable. If there was something there, wouldn't something materialize? Of course if you sat there long enough eventually something would materialize, but it would be out of consciousness due to stimuli or lack of. It might be because there is nothing there to prescreen because the unconscious is empty without the consciousness. After all, nobody can know for certain how the unconscious works, or even if it exists, it is just a theory, an imagination of understanding how random things come to mind. Perhaps better stated by Thoreau, “when one man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to his understanding, I foresee that all men at length establish their lives on that bases”. (11)

Secondly, the act of the unconscious “deciding” involves judgment and consideration, conscious cognitive processing, a conscious unconscious. So then, instead of two separate functioning parts with one feeding the other, that create two different kinds of thoughts, one might see the conscious and unconscious as two conscious’ working in tandem - one sensory consciousness and one thought consciousness that create thought. For how can the “unconscious” make conscious thoughtful decisions independently, free of intention and awareness? Without awareness, which “unconscious thought” is without, “we need a sensory appreciation [awareness] of the world in order to give our thoughts palpable meaning”, says Burton (126).

The awareness of thought is a fundamental attribute to conscious thought. What is a thought without awareness? What is a thought without palpable meaning? It is nothing until the conscious makes it something palpable. Therefore, whatever the unconscious manifests is not “unconscious thought”, but a process of the marriage between sensory consciousness and thought consciousness. Again, what I am claiming is that something unfelt and unperceived, created by the unconscious, free of meaning, and intent, is not a thought. Therefore, there are no unconscious thoughts.

Burton goes on to say that “feelings of certainty, conviction, rightness and wrongness, clarity and faith arise out of involuntary mental sensory systems that are integral and inseparable components of the thoughts that they qualify” (139). This is interesting, as it gives an impression that Burton does not attribute any learned knowledge and experiences to thoughts, primarily just feelings that arise magically out of an involuntary system, nor does this account for sources of change in these so-called “involuntary mental sensory systems” which may cause an individual to change their thoughts about a conviction or certainty. What seems more likely, from this account, is that thoughts are because of that sneaky unconscious of yours, driven by hunches, gut feelings and intuitions, “mental sensations” and emotionally driven responses, because goodness, how could you ever be responsible for the way you think and feel in any way.

This is all very fun and good, to mull over years of the study of the mind, especially in light of its theoretical nature, and play at different ways of understanding of it, but perhaps I approach it with bias. I feel that I have not given Burton enough credit, simply because I don’t necessarily agree with him. He does have some valid opinions, particularly in the way of biased thinking and its predominantly emotional foundation. The only way to overcome it, he says, is through “ruthless self-reflection” and introspection, but then he has to go and assert that introspective self-examination towards personal improvement is fallible and tied to free will, which “assumes we possess a portion of mind that can rise above the biological processes that generated it” (141).

If we were to take it one-step further and ascribe to the theories of the illusion on consciousness by cognitive scientist and philosopher, Dan Dennett, who considers consciousness and free will brain tricks, we can easily deny free will as we fall slave to the control of the unconscious mind. We don’t have consciousness, and the unconscious (can you have an unconscious without a conscious?) is bias, and as Burton states, so bias that “complete objectivity is not an option” (159) in self-reflection because we can never truly determine if our thoughts are free of bias. We can never really know ourselves because our unconscious thought process is ambiguous and biased, driven by the unconscious and emotions, so life is but a product of self-fulfilling prophecy of the unconscious, and the whole of humanity is slave to what it wants them to believe. As an acquaintance/friend, John Vargas once wrote, perhaps channeling Confucius, "There is only one thing that I know for sure: I don’t know anything that I don’t know.” So with that…I do not know my unconscious, because it will not allow me to, I only know my conscious, and my conscious, knowing nothing, wants to know everything.

Sources and Citation:

Burton, Robert Alan. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's, 2008. Print.

"Dan Dennett: The Illusion of Consciousness." TED: Ideas worth Spreading. Ted Conferences, Apr. 2007. Web. 1 Feb. 2014. <http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_our_consciousness.html>.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Virginia: Wilder Publications. 2008. Print

Vargas, John. "My Words." Web log post. I Hate John Vargas. N.p., 4 Feb. 2014. Web. 5 Feb. 2014. <http://www.ihatejohnvargas.com/ihatejohnvargas.com/Rantings/Entries/2014/2/4_My_Words..html>.

- Chapters 13-15

It has to be said, the final chapters of ‘On Being Certain’ were met with a degree of excitement. Finally, the finish line! Burton wraps the last couple of chapters up and still I am left feeling like he said a lot without actually coming to a point. Was he supposed to sway me? Perhaps his intent was simply just to invoke thinking about the matter. As he says, “certainty is not biologically possible” (223), but I can be certain that he did not succeed in talking my brain out of its alleged endeavor to “trick itself”, or me, into thinking we have free will. Nor has there become a sudden loss of self because my personal sense of meaning arises from reason and not faith. He asks if we are better served by reason, or faith, but why can’t they co-exist? I am not convinced that faith automatically suspends reason, or vice versa

Burton asserts that in determining life’s purpose, something beyond ourselves must be acknowledged. While he does not proclaim that he is religious man by any means, he assert that attempting to determine life’s purpose, in trying to discover “why we are here”, a privilege is to be granted by something outside of ourselves. It beg the question; what is wrong with the self being the grantor? So wrapped up in the perceived limits he is imposing on what we can and cannot know about ourselves, he creates his own irrational mind, separate from his sense of self. This I cannot understand. My “sense of self” includes a profound sense of connection with my mind, even when it is clearly not felt as being connected - which took years to understand.

Burton denies the concept of a rational mind, viewing the concept of self, and the understanding of it, to be finite, setting “limits of what we can know” (192), even through introspection and self-assessment. One man’s rational mind sounds like another man’s irrational mind. It sounds irrational to even conceptualize limiting the self of what it can know. There are boundaries to what we can know only because existence is time-sensitive. This does not mean we lack the ability because of “biological constraints […] to know what we know” (197) because of “the irrational mind”. Rather it seems a choice to think your mind irrational and impose restrictions on it. Who says that the rational mind is not capable of flexibility, it seems more logical that a rational mind is capable of more learning and knowing than an irrational mind that has set its boundaries.

Then Burton returns to the hidden later of the mind, which honestly is starting to sound like something made up to explain the parts to the mind he hasn't (or “they” haven’t) figured out yet. Just because it lacks understanding doesn't mean it’s “hidden”…it means it’s unknown. It just works towards another denial of owning responsibility, that “the feelings of correctness, conviction, and certainly aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. [But] mental sensations that happen to us.” (218) [bold mine]. It leaves me wonder if Burton has experienced profound absences of the senses of choice often in his life, and he himself feels a sense of personal powerlessness. He uses the nature of personal responsibility in conjunctions with the idea of “not knowing”, saying “the most involuntary-appearing act may arise out of a stored intention of which you have no knowledge” (214). The example of the man who harbored feelings for years against a friend who cheated him on a business deal, then twenty years later assaulted him “unexpectedly”, as if the he had no idea where the intention came from, is ridiculous. If the man had really thought about it and was honest with himself, he would not claim that he “didn’t know what came over [him]” – or perhaps he does know, but it is obviously not what he chose to admit publicly, that it was simply stored resentment. It’s not rocket science.

Of course, “unconscious thoughts” trigger conscious behavior (in common theory), and according to Burton “the feeling of choice is a poor indicator of underlying intent” (209). It seems that the feeling of choice, without a sense of self and knowing oneself, would be a poor indicator to someone who believes that they are biologically prevented from knowing themselves and understanding the source of choice which in part if driven by base desires and emotions. Learning through “profound emotional experiences that contain no element of reason” becomes the reason in itself, because the way to understanding and knowing is through self-reflection. Further, there are no “ways of seeing the world that are beyond reason and discussion” (190), there are no ways of seeing anything that is beyond discussion. Everything is up for debate.

Burton goes on to say that “if science can’t provide resolution, most will look elsewhere” (202) to faith-driven arguments, that do not need to concern themselves with contrary evidence. That is preposterous sounding, if someone isn't content with not being able to know the answers when presented with evidence, why would they ever be able to find the answers in something free of evidence based simply on a feeling of faith? Maybe it just sounds illogical to me.

While he presents some interesting theories, I found myself continually frustrated by the overall close-minded approach of Burton’s book that leaves one to feel like a victim of the unconscious, lacking in free will, chained within boundaries set by their own mind. I refuse to buy into it, and it’s not because I am misunderstanding “the biology of belief” (183), as he might purport, but rather it is a denial that biology weighs heavily in the balance between experience and choice.

He leaves you with the simple question: How do you know what you know? To which I answer: Sometimes you don’t know, but you can try – and even when you do know something, you should still explore it, because the only thing that limits what you know, is yourself.