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20221225 – On Being Certain



This book is about how we know what we know and how to differentiate facts and reality from belief into something being facts and reality, even if it is just the result of chemistry in the believer’s brain. Here is how the author defines the central thesis:” The revolutionary premise at the heart of this book is: Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” The critical part of the book is the author’s attempt to “dispel the myth that we “know what we know” by conscious deliberation.” Finally, the author explicitly presents his objective in this book:” My goal is to strip away the power of certainty by exposing its involuntary neurological roots. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas—from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.



My attitude to this issue is simple. There are two methods of perceiving the external world: religious and scientific. Evolutionary, the first method, ensures an individual’s behavior that benefits the group, even if such behavior leads to the individual’s demise. In contrast, the second method assures an individual’s behavior that benefits this individual and his/her children, even if such behavior damages the group’s cohesion and existence. Both types of behavior are based on our neural circuitry as it developed from DNA after the influence of the environment. Each method provides individuals with two powers, both necessary for survival. The religious method provides complete explanatory power: who the individual is, how the world works, what the individual had to do and how. However, this method has nearly zero predictive power and, therefore, must be constantly adjusted to prevent pain and suffering from cognitive dissonance.

On the other hand, the scientific method provides very limited explanatory power. It, therefore, is clearly inferior to the religious method in supporting the group’s cohesiveness and controlling individual behavior. However, it is the only method that provides limited predictive power. Despite being limited, the predictive power of the scientific method allows humans to control the environment to an increasing extent. This control produces things that do not exist without human intervention, eventually making human life a lot better than before the scientific method expanded beyond its mainly unconscious use by individuals into more formal and, therefore, transferrable applications.

Here are a couple of examples I would like to offer:

  • The scientific method at the individual level: the toddler learns to walk via a long process of trial and error until the toddler’s brain circuitry develops sufficient parameters to reliably predict how the body’s situation in space will change depending on the activation of one or another set of muscles.
  • The religious method at the group’s level: the belief in global warming that persists regardless of 60+ years of failures to predict climate changes and events correctly. The supporters of this religion constantly demand more public money while threatening a global catastrophe if the money is not provided. All other features change frequently: they could predict cooling, warming, or dramatic instantaneous switches between cooling and warming. However, they would never ever predict what really happens: moderate climate changes caused by a multitude of factors, human activities included, that require reasonable technological adjustments. This religion’s explanatory power regarding what happened is infinite and includes highly sophisticated math and computer models. However, its predictive power is precisely zero, which anyone could observe by looking at any materials produced by this religion’s adherents 20 or more years ago, either books, movies, or lectures.

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