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On Being Certain Paperback – March 17, 2009
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“On Being Certain challenges our understanding of the very nature of thought and provokes readers to ask what Burton calls "the most basic of questions": How do we know what we know?” ―Scientific American Mind
“In his brilliant new book, Burton systematically and convincingly shows that certainty is a mental state, a feeling like anger or pride that can help guide us, but that doesn't dependably reflect objective truth… In the polarizing atmosphere of the 2008 election, On Being Certain ought to be required reading for every candidate -- and for every citizen.” ―ForbesLife
“What do we do when we recognize that a false certainty feels the same as certainty about the sky being blue? A lesser guide might get bogged down in nail-biting doubts about the limits of knowledge. Yet Burton not only makes clear the fascinating beauty of this tangled terrain, he also brings us out the other side with a clearer sense of how to navigate. It's a lovely piece of work; I'm all but certain you'll like it. ” ―David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness; Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral
“Burton has a great talent for combining wit and insight in a way both palatable and profound.” ―Johanna Shapiro PhD, professor of Family Medicine at UC Irvine School of Medicine
“A new way of looking at knowledge that merits close reading by scientists and general readers alike.” ―Kirkus
“This could be one of the most important books of the year. With so much riding on ‘certainty,' and so little known about how people actually reach a state of certainty about anything, some plain speaking from a knowledgeable neuroscientist is called for. If Gladwell's Blink was fascinating but largely anecdotal, Burton's book drills down to the real science behind snap judgments and other decision-making.” ―Howard Rheingold, futurist and author of Smart Mobs
“A fascinating read. Burton's engaging prose takes us into the deepest corners of our subconscious, making us question our most solid contentions. Nobody who reads this book will walk away from it and say ‘I know this for sure' ever again.” ―Sylvia Pagán Westphal, science reporter, The Wall Street Journal
“Burton provides a compelling and though-provoking case that we should be more skeptical about our beliefs. Along the way, he also provides a novel perspective on many lines of research that should be of interest to readers who are looking for a broad introduction to the cognitive sciences.” ―Seed Magazine
About the Author
ROBERT BURTON, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school. At age thirty-three, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaimed novels. He lives in Sausalito, CA.
- Item Weight : 12 ounces
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780312541521
- ISBN-13 : 978-0312541521
- Product Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.68 x 8.25 inches
- Publisher : Griffin; Reprint Edition (March 17, 2009)
- ASIN : 031254152X
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #324,799 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Burton doesn't use this example but I will: think of Saul on the road to Damascus. Why did he change his position as to the truth of the gospels? Not because he learned new facts, but because he found he no longer believed the old conclusions from the old facts to be true, and he drew new conclusions from the old facts. Most people don't change their minds just by learning new facts, they change their minds by realizing that the facts they know (whether combined with new ones or not) no longer feel true. Burton provides a compelling explanation for this phenomenon
So I guess what I'm saying is "I like this book because what it says feels like it's true." But saying that demonstrates the whole point of the book...
Is it well-written? Yes, this is a very fluently written book.
Is the content interesting and well-supported? Yes, there are interesting ideas and (perhaps more importantly) the bringing together of ideas I'd read about elsewhere and examining the light and shadows they shed on one another.
And finally, does the book change the way I view the world in some substantial way? In this case, I'll have to say, yes, sort of. In other words, the author has put into more concise terms ideas and notions I'd picked up other places (Steven Pinker, among others), and drawn a couple conclusions I hadn't reached, but with which I basically agree.
Based on the answers to these three questions, I'd like to give this book 4 1/2 stars because the change to my world view was more a matter of bringing some stuff into focus than a matter of opening a new window. However, it's closer to 5 stars than 4, so I'm going with 5.
I found it was very important to read the early part of the book carefully, even though it was largely setting up the arguments of the second half. In that part of the book, we meet people who experience a disconnect between what they "know to be true" and what logic and empirical observation tells them. For instance, the woman who can see that her heart is beating yet believes she is dead. And the man who knows and understands and accepts all the evidence of evolution, but chooses to be a creationist because he believes that to be true. And the man who agrees that the evidence is that the furniture in his room is the same as it ever was, but lacks the ability to know it is the same, and so believes it must be different. Some of these examples go by very quickly, and then are referred to later.
The second half of the book is a solid analysis of the factual content laid out in the first half, and provides some startling insights into what it means to be certain of something (and also, what it does not mean). I suspect that this book will gradually change how I experience certainty in my own life, but I also suspect that will take some time. It's entirely possible that I will think this is a fully 5-star book a year from now, or that I will wish I had given it only 4 stars. All I know is that I am not certain how that will play out.
In the meantime, it's a good book with lots of food for thought in it. Recommended as a fairly light non-fiction read.
Add this book to the short shelf of essential works using modern neuroscience to explain key aspects of how we tick.
Top reviews from other countries
Seine Überlegungen macht er an einleuchtenden Beispielen fest. Dabei wird klar: das Gefühl etwas zu wissen ist etwas, das von spezifischen Hirnregionen erzeugt wird. Es unterliegt keiner bewussten Kontrolle und ist deshalb etwas, dass wir nicht selbst erzeugen können oder einfach wieder verschwinden lassen können.
Diese emotionale Einfärbung von Bewusstseinsinhalten (bekannt/ unbekannt, wissen/nicht wissen) ist elementarer Bestandteil unser Erfahrungswelt und wird vom Bewusstsein benötigt um über die eigenen Gedanken Klarheit zu erlangen, wie andere elementare Gefühle (Angst, Schmerz, Wut), ausgelöst über die Sinnesorgane durch äußere Faktoren, es ermöglichen, auf die Umwelt zu reagieren bzw. den Körper zu kontrollieren.
Wie viele mentale bzw. sensorische Erlebnisse ist auch das Gefühl "Ich weiß es" für Fehler anfällig. Wer wäre sich einer Sache, einer Erinnerung nicht schon einmal absolut sicher gewesen, um dann durch die objektiven Fakten widerlegt zu werden.
Was solche schönen Erkenntnisse wie: - "I am sure" is a mental sensation, not a testable conclusion - für Folgen für unser Denken, die Art wie wir Entscheidungen treffen hat, aber auch wie sie im Zusammenhang mit Glauben und Rationalität stehen, wird von Burton sauber hergeleitet.
Die Erkenntnis, dass der überwältigende Teil unsere Impulse, Überlegungen, Handlungen und Entscheidungen unbewusst verläuft und nur ein geringer Anteil das Bewusstsein erreicht, leitet Burton wunderbar aus den vorliegenden wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnissen ab.
Warum das sinnvoll für uns ist, aber auch welche Fallstricke in unserem Denken und Erleben das hat wird nach und nach erläutert. Das Entscheidungen die wir durch Intuition oder "aus dem Bauch heraus" treffen nichts Geheimnisvolles oder gar esoterisches anhaftet und auch keiner besonderen Art von Intelligenz oder anders gearteten Arbeitsweise des Gehirns erfordern, beschreibt der Neurologe anschaulich und überzeugend.
Ein gut verständlich geschriebenes Buch, das klar strukturiert dem emotionalen Erleben unseres Denkens auf den Grund geht. Durchaus humorvoll, mit überzeugenden Beispielen versehen ist Burtons Buch ein außerordentlich lesbares Sachbuch das aus der Masse populärwissenschaftlicher Veröffentlichungen herausragt.
ignoring none confirming evidence to the contrary. This is expecially true amongst older men of which I am a member.
But after that, the book bogs down and ultimately leaves you wondering about the fuss.