Daily Archives: February 18, 2014

The Unreliable Feeling of Certainty (2)


Since I always link back to the original post, I thought I would re-blog what I wrote all those years ago so that it would have a fresh life. Also, it also got me included in the top 100 rationality quotes over at Less Wrong. So, here it is:

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word: kite. As you reread the paragraph, feel the prior discomfort of something amiss shifting to a pleasing sense of rightness. Everything fits; every sentence works and has meaning. Reread the paragraph again; it is impossible to regain the sense of not understanding. In an instant, without due conscious deliberation, the paragraph has been irreversibly infused with a feeling of knowing.

Try to imagine other interpretations for the paragraph. Suppose I tell you that this is a collaborative poem written by a third-grade class, or a collage of strung-together fortune cookie quotes. Your mind balks. The presence of this feeling of knowing makes contemplating alternatives physically difficult.

This is a quote from Robert Burton’s pretty good book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. This quote was pretty profound to me, because it made me realize that the feeling of certainty is involuntary; I can’t just will myself to feel certain. But up until I read that book, I operated as though it was something I could control and I would rationalize any sort of belief or conclusion since it was premised on this feeling of certainty. I was well aware of rationalizing feeling angry, or love, or many other emotions and I had pretty good practice at girding myself against those emotions clouding my judgement. But the feeling of certainty also needs to be girded against!

I can’t even imagine how other people — people who think they are being rational — can navigate the world of evaluating issues rationality without knowing this fundamental (well, fundamental to me) aspect of our cognition. Just because something feels correct doesn’t mean that it actually is. And people never question that “just feels right” feeling. They skip right over it and delve into their arguments.

This post subsequently fed into a lot of my later cognitive science posts, like the Thief and the Wizard and the Intuitionists and the Rationalists. But reading this quote makes you (well, me) put a spotlight on what one aspect of your thief/intuitionist feels like, and what to look for when dealing with evaluating issues rationally. So here is that spotlight again, because it needs to stay on.

And the biggest takeaway: Feeling certain feels good! That’s what makes it extra sneaky. So what do you feel certain about but haven’t actually looked at critically? That you haven’t looked at rationality because you don’t want to lose the good feels of the feeling of being certain? Are all of the arguments that you put forth only there to make sure you don’t lose that good feeling?

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Posted by on February 18, 2014 in cognitive science

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