Credulity, Certainty, and Hocus Pocus

I’ve been vigorously touting a new book: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert Burton. I’ve long been fascinated how one’s sense of certainty is so often unrelated to objective truth, and why that should be. This book lays out the brain science behind this contradictory phenomenon, showing how the “feeling of certainty” is pre-rational, but feels post-rational. Thus a “gut feeling” about a person can feel the same as the rational certainty that 2+2=4.

The more a person understands about the brain’s rewards systems, the less they are subject to unthinking adherence to pre-rational arguments and biases, such as those exploited by fortune-tellers and con men.

Now, if one considers astrology and Tarot in the realm of psychological rather than predictive tools, they make sense. Not all religion is fundamentalist, and not all metaphysics is fortune-telling hocus pocus. If your horoscope says “you will be prone to procrastination today” and it strikes an emotional chord, it can help motivate you to overcome procrastination. If you do a Tarot reading for yourself and draw the Six of Swords, for instance, it may prompt you to consider what you need to move on from in life. It’s a valuable tool for conscious “inner work” to understand one’s own motivations, strengths, and weaknesses.

My husband and I are both Zen students, and he felt after listening to Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of Now” series several times over on CD that he had a slow “awakening” experience. As a result, he has a lasting sense of insight, greater happiness, and contentment. Perhaps there is something to be found in the spiritual traditions that we as human beings seek, something more fulfilling than mere rational understanding. Rigid belief in intellectualism or an overarching fear of being manipulated are their own barriers to personal happiness. Science can tell you how things work but can’t give our lives meaning.

I initially wrote this post as a comment to an illuminating blog on our tendency to believe vague statements, and how this human tendency is manipulated by con men and advertisers:


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