Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer


Do you ever wonder why people believe such strange things? So does Shermer. Because I am a Christian, he would include me as one of those people who believes strange things.
Shermer is a materialist. According to him, there are no such things as a “mind” (41) or God. (45) “Mind,” he says, “is just a word we use to describe neural activity in the brain.” (111) (Interestingly enough, I am now reading a book titled You are Not Your Brain so I guess not everyone agrees with him!)
Shermer addresses why in the world anyone would believe in a God. He suggests only two reasons: intellectual and emotional. He notes that often an emotional trigger (say, in childhood) sends one down a different intellectual path.
Is there any meaning in life with no God? Shermer says, “the meaning of life is here. It is now. It is within us and without us...” (35)
He clarifies the myth that there is a negative correlation between intelligence and belief. Smart people belief weird things because they are better at defending those beliefs. (36)
Our brains are wired to find meaningful patterns (associated learning). “...[F]inding new and useful patterns is good, finding new patterns everywhere and being unable to discriminate between them is bad. … In a way, there's a fine line between the creative genius of finding novel patterns that change the world and the madness or paranoia of seeing patterns everywhere and being unable to pick out the important ones.” (124)
He notes that oxygen deprivation and exhaustion often produce the same characteristics as near death experiences. (152)
Why do people believe in weird things such as conspiracies? Their “pattern-detection filters are wide open... Conspiracy theorists connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns...” (209)

This book is a result of Shermer's thirty years of research, devoting his career “to understanding how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished.” (5) “Beliefs come first,” he says, “explanations for beliefs follow.” (5)
He recounts personal belief narratives (including his own), then how belief systems are formed, nourished etc., then the cognitive processes involved, then how belief systems operate in various realms (religion, politics, etc.), and finally how to determine if belief patterns are true or not.

Shermer notes near the end of the book that science begins with what he calls the null hypothesis. One assumes the hypothesis under investigation is not true. Then the burden of proof is to provide the convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis. (334) Ideally, there needs to be controlled experiments with 95 to 99 percent confidence. (334-5)
Unfortunately, Shermer does not always employ the scientific process himself. He says early on in his book, “The universe really did begin with a big bang, the earth really is billions of years old, and evolution really did happen.” (7)

He has forgotten in his materialistic exuberance that the scientific method cannot “prove” a past event. The method requires posing a hypothesis then performing controlled experiments to prove the hypothesis. This cannot be done for a past event. The big bang and evolution can never be “proven.” If Shermer had said those models best fit the evidence we have today, or something similar, that would have been intellectually honest.

He takes a chapter at the end of the book to look at cosmological models (why there is a universe), the latest of which is in The Grand Design by Hawking and Mlodinow: M Theory. They write “that when more than one model makes accurate predictions, 'we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.' Employing this method, the authors explain, 'it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation.'” (331) Shermer notes, “At present there is no positive evidence for the multiuniverse hypothesis, but neither is there positive evidence for the traditional answer to the question: God.” (333)
“If there is one lesson that the history of science has taught us, it is that it is arrogant to think that we now know enough to know that we cannot know. So, for the time being it comes down to cognitive and emotional preference... God, multiuniverse, or unknown. Which one you choose depends on your own belief journey and how much you want to believe.” (333) That sounds a bit different than his categorical statements on page 7!

He also admits, while “The scientific method is the best tool ever devised to discriminate between true and false patterns...we must always remember that we could be wrong.” (336) “We must keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out. Provisional truths are the best we can do.” (337) That also sounds a bit different than his categorical statements on page 7!
He notes that the scientific method cannot be used for every problem. In such cases “scientists employ the method to deduce the likeliest explanation for a particular phenomenon.” (338) Note that, “the likeliest explanation.” And that is all honest scientists can say. For Shermer to make the dogmatic statement he did is not science, it is belief.

This book was interesting, but, as with all such books, one needs to be a thinking reader. It was enlightening to understand the “meaningful pattern” explanation for learning and belief.
Just as some things can never be “proven” by science, so I can never “prove” God exists. Just as science advances a model because it best fits the evidence, I believe God exists because it best fits my evidence.

Henry Holt and Co., 344 pages.
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