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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine


by Mike Neuenschwander ~ June 6, 2009.
Permalink | Filed under: Hybrid Vigor, Social Trust Online.

In an earlier post, I highly recommended Robert A. Burton’s book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. But the book is important enough that I always meant to write a follow-on post. This is that post.

The book’s main assertion is that biology, not self-will, determines a person’s certainty and beliefs. The difficulty is that our conscious minds aren’t adapted to perceiving the source of our sense of certainty. In the following passage, Burton draws on another book from Timothy Wilson to make this point:

In his book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the university of Virginia, presents a superb overview of the reasons why the unconscious mind is inaccessible to self-analysis: “the bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try…. Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, it may not be possible to gain direct access to unconscious processing.” ….

If he’s correct, the impasse between the necessity for self-awareness and the limits of our self-assessment abilities can’t be overcome through more brute thought. In agreeing with Wilson, we are challenging the commonsense and folk psychology understanding of ourselves, including knowing the degree to which we are consciously responsible for our thoughts and actions. Indeed , Wilson opened his book with the salvo, “It usually seems that we consciously will our voluntary actions, but this is an illusion.” The important point for our discussion … is that any attempt at self-awareness must accept this limitation. (146)

I’ve had a few debates with managers, educators, and spiritual leaders over the limits of self-examination, so it was gratifying to come across this snippet:

A very difficult question facing interpreters of modern neurobiology is how to juggle the need for self-examination with the knowledge that an unspecified percentage of such assessments will be flawed, sometimes with serious consequences. No one seriously doubts Socrates’ maxim: The unexamined life isn’t worth living. … Yes, we should engage in ruthless self-reflection and harsh scrutiny, but we should simultaneously acknowledge that such introspection will, at best, only result in a partial view of our minds at work. Complete objectivity is not an option. (159)

Burton’s take-down of neo-atheism is classic. Would love to have written this:

[Richard] Dawkins both believes in his powers of introspection and self-assessment and that he is mentally capable of understanding why the world and we exist—the myth of the autonomous rational mind. … It is an extraordinary proposition to believe that an intellectual understanding of physical properties can reveal subjective metaphysical truths. … Dawkins conveniently illustrates the rationalist’s dilemma: How do you articulate a personal sense of purpose when you intellectually have concluded that the world is pointless? What is the purpose of pointing out pointlessness? What does it mean to find purpose in understanding purposelessness? (181-182)

Burton later goes on to say:

The science-religion controversy cannot go away; it is rooted in biology. If we were to ban all discussions of religion, burn all religious books, even strip all words related to religion and faith from the dictionary, we would not eliminate religious feelings. … We talk of religion, afterlife, soul, higher powers, muses, purpose, reason, objectivity, pointlessness, and randomness. We cannot help ourselves.
If, for most of us, science either is too complicated or cannot provide the heartfelt joy and meaning of religion, it is only natural that we look elsewhere. (188)

Burton offers the following suggestion on how to proceed, in view of our intellectual limitations:

To retreat from claims of absolute “knowing” and certainty, popular psychology needs to explore how mental sensations play a fundamental role in generating and shaping our thoughts. We can’t afford to continue with the outdated claims of a perfectly rational unconscious or knowing when we can trust gut feelings. We need to rethink the very nature of a thought, including the recognition of how various perceptual limitations are inevitable.

At the same time, if the goal of science is to gradually overcome deeply embedded superstition, it must be seen as a more attractive and comforting alternative, not as inflammatory exhortation and confrontation with a none-too-subtle whiff of condescension. (220-221)


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