[EconTalk] Robert Burton on Being Certain

Robert Burton on Being Certain

13/05/2019 by EconTalk: Russ Roberts

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=70613479
Episode: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2019/Burtonbeingcertain.mp3

Neurologist and author Robert Burton talks about his book, On Being Certain, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Burton explores our need for certainty and the challenge of being skeptical about what our brain tells us must be true. Where does what Burton calls “the feeling of knowing” come from? Why can memory lead us astray? Burton claims that our reaction to events emerges from competition among different parts of the brain operating below our level of awareness. The conversation includes a discussion of the experience of transcendence and the different ways humans come to that experience.

Listen Date: 2019-05-29


  • This was some of the most fun and fascinating learning I’ve had from a podcast, and the book has immediately gone in to my queue with a great deal of enthusiasm.
  • I think Burton’s talking about how it’s our brain’s hidden layer that gives a feeling of knowing; or of recognition; might be a parallel concept to the ‘thisness’ in Anathem. I must both read the book and reread Anathem to work stuff out.
  • The line ‘We aren’t just addicted to confirmation bias, we’re addicted to the feeling that we know things’ is one of those existentially horrifying but very stunning insights when you think of it.
  • So was the observation that we try to latch on to the most advanced machine we’ve created as an analogy for the brain; so the analogy keeps changing as technology progresses.
  • What I found really interesting was Burton talking about how he feels that he can’t change anybody’s mind with rational argument any longer, so he now wants to use fiction and narrative to do so. This ties in with so much of my recent reading – the Alice Fraser podcast with David O’ Doherty touches on this; so does Yuval Noah Harari; which got me thinking about how Terry Pratchett and Becky Chambers do it in a more sophisticated way. And honestly a lot of his talking about different and not really knowable layers of the mind parallels the things which Robert Wright discussed in Why Buddhism is True. And although it’s been a while since I read it, I think it also touches the discussion of rhetoric in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. No wonder I’m so keen to read this dude.
  • On the other hand, while he doesn’t say it in so many words, this attitude by Burton does seem to suggest that there’s no role for reason in persuasion at all; which kind of runs counter to the long running favourite guests and themes of the podcast – Adam Smith talking about how our reason+imagination drives our morality; and then the Paul Bloom book about how reason should be more relied on than primitive empathy. I suppose again Wright has the most fine grained argument here, in which he talks about how reason is not in charge, but we need to be aware that it’s only one player, and try to prevent our other feelings from overpowering it.
  • I was a little uncomfortable with how epigenetics was cited as having almost magical powers.
  • The discussion on purpose versus despair was inconclusive but interesting and psychologically encouraging.
  • I think I will keep this episode hanging around for a replay, too.




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