The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
by Michael Shermer
Times Books, 2011
400 Pages (paperback)
(Kindle Edition Review)
Where is the true me found? Is it in the brain or is it in a soul? The majority would say that while I have a body, I also have a soul and that soul is the real me—my mind and essence. Any feeling of being connected to a deity, a spiritual world, to ghosts, or to even the universe confirms that I am a soul, someone might say.
Someone might say that, but not Michael Shermer.
In The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, you are a brain, not an immaterial soul. Religious belief or experience of the spiritual world is the product of the brain—a parlor trick—and as it turns out, the brain is very good at making our beliefs feel very real, no matter how incorrect.
Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and contributor to Scientific American, navigates this trickiness of the brain. We humans trust our brains implicitly to represent the world to us and the consequences are astounding.
“The brain is a belief engine,” writes Shermer. “From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.”
Pattern recognition allows human beings to discover the migration patterns of animals when hunting, and agenticity—that act of attributing minds to patterns—helps us avoid being eaten by predators. The rustle in the bushes may not be a dangerous animal, but attributing a mind and intention to it goes a long way in surviving. If you’re wrong, you are no worse for it. (For more, see my review of Minds and Gods.)
Shermer is quick to remind us that pattern and agency detection can lead to finding patterns or attributing intention where there isn’t one, a la gods, ghosts, and government conspiracies. Once we form beliefs, the brain enables them to dig in deeper. “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow,” writes Shermer.
“What happens is that the facts of the world are filtered by our brains through the colored lenses of worldviews, paradigms, theories, hypotheses, conjectures, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through living. We then sort through the facts and select those that confirm what we already believe and ignore or rationalize away those that contradict our beliefs.”
Shermer fills The Believing Brain with plenty of evidence for this. A favorite of mine is a an experiment (“On Being Sane in Insane Places”), in which researchers entered several mental hospitals under pseudonyms claiming to have “brief auditory hallucination.” All but one was diagnosed with schizophrenia, with the last one said to be manic-depressive. Beyond their fake illness and names, they were all told to tell the truth in everything else, act normally, and then claim the hallucinations had ended.
“Despite the fact that the nurses reported the patients as ‘friendly’ and ‘cooperative’ and said they ‘exhibited no abnormal indications,’ none of the hospital psychiatrists or staff caught on to the experiment, consistently treating these normals as abnormals.” When none of the evidence fit the diagnosis, they looked for the evidence to fit it; normal activities, like writing to kill time, were added to the list of symptoms. The researchers found the evidence to fit their conclusions.
One cannot leave Shermer’s book without seriously facing this power of belief bias.
We’ve all seen it; I know I’ve seen this in myself over the years. Political candidates who interpret everything as God’s endorsement of their candidacy or loving parents who swear their serial killing son cannot be the monster the evidence shows, are all looking for the proof to fit their beliefs.
Faced with overwhelming evidence for belief bias, the question naturally arises, “can we know anything?” Shermer is not arguing for “epistemological relativism where all truths are equal and everyone’s reality deserves respect.”
“The universe really did begin with a big bang,” he says, “the earth really is billions of years old, and evolution really happened, and someone’s belief to the contrary really is wrong.” In other words, at some point there is evidence that best interprets the world and is verifiable, falsifiable, and predictable.
“Even though the Ptolemaic earth-centered system can render observations equally well as the Copernican sun-centered system (at least in the time of Copernicus anyway), no one today holds that these models are equal because we know from additional lines of evidence that heliocentrism more closely matches reality than geocentrism, even if we cannot declare this to be an Absolute Truth about Reality.”
Shermer’s book is an interesting read. Religious persons might hesitate to pick up The Believing Brain, thinking that they are entering strictly hostile territory. Shermer is not religious; he is a skeptic. He is a former evangelical, one who sincerely and actively engaged his faith, only to find that it no longer made sense to him and what he knew about the world. This experience lets him also be empathetic. He understands what it means to believe and that good, sensible people are religious.
“I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe,” writes Shermer, “but because I want to know.”