Michael Shermer on belief

Michael Shermer is best known as a professional skeptic, which he defines as someone who as far as possible bases his belief on evidence. He is founder of the Skeptics Society, and he has written a column called “The Skeptic” in Scientific American since 2001.

Shermer has written two books specifically on belief. In Why People Believe Weird Things (1997, 2002), he argues that all of us, stupid and smart, naive and sophisticated, are bound by our biases. In The Believing Brain (2011), Shermer covers much of the same ground, updated with some of the latest cognitive research.

If you’re willing to put up with — or to ignore — Shermer’s lapses into nostalgia for his years as a pro bike racer and his occasional fervent recruitment for the Libertarian Party, these books are fairly worthwhile as popular primers — but nothing more than that — on how and why we misapprehend, misunderstand, and misapply the world around us.

Shermer’s explanations follow the emerging consensus on human cognition: we all share cognitive structures and tendencies, which manifest themselves in different ways in different cultures and different contexts. He comes down firmly on the side of a single, universal cognitive arsenal:

Because humans share a universal evolved architecture, all ordinary individuals reliably develop a distinctively human set of preferences, motives, shared conceptual frameworks, emotion programs, content-specific reasoning procedures, and specialized interpretation systems— programs that operate beneath the surface of expressed cultural variability, and whose designs constitute a precise definition of human nature.

Shermer is clear on what he thinks is the reason that we believe in “weird things” like God, alien abductions, ghosts, ESP, and the rest: “We have magical thinking and superstitions because we need critical thinking and pattern-finding. The two cannot be separated. Magical thinking is a necessary by-product of the evolved mechanism of causal thinking.”

In other words, our supernatural beliefs and other fantasies are accidental tag-alongs with ways of thinking without which we would not have flourished as a species. Why have these kinds of falseness lasted? Why weren’t they selected out? Shermer argues that these beliefs, which he calls “false positives,” are “tolerated,” in evolutionary terms, because a tendency to false positives is less catastrophic than a tendency to false negatives.

If you see the wind move a branch ahead of you on the trail, and you think that it’s a waiting leopard, there’s no fatal consequence to your mistake. If your tendency when you see a branch move is to think, “It’s probably just the wind,” you’re the leopard’s lunch when you’re wrong. Better false gods than unseen predators, Shermer explains.

It’s not a matter of how “smart” you are. If you’re more intelligent than most, all that means is that you’re better at composing and “selling” the post hoc justifications you construct to explain your largely unconscious and irrational beliefs and behaviour: “Although intelligence does not affect what you believe, it does influence how beliefs are justified, rationalized, and defended after the beliefs are acquired for non-smart reasons.”

The Believing Brain covers much of the same ground, and if you have limited reading time you can profitably skip one book or the other without missing too much. In fact, if you’re already familiar with the pre-rational basis of belief, you would do best to skip Shermer altogether and read something more substantial, like Damasio’s How Self Comes to Mind (reviewed here earlier), which is, I believe, the one essential book in the popular literature in this field.

That said, The Believing Brain does offer succinct and straightforward explanations of the forms and origins of our most common beliefs, and a short examination of Shermer’s account of what we’re really doing when we believe in things like God and life after death is worth undertaking.

Early in The Believing Brain, Shermer states the familiar central tenet of his analysis:

Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature.

In the case of belief in an afterlife, Shermer writes that “we are natural-born immortalists.” His explanation is that our belief in immortality results from the interaction of agenticity, dualism, and theory of mind. It is “an extension of our body schema.” We can imagine ourselves being in another place, or another time, Shermer explains, so that we have no trouble imagining ourselves being in a supernatural place for an infinite time.

For many who cling to the hope of endless life, the source of that boon is of course a benevolent God. Shermer tackles the reason for belief in God:

God is the ultimate pattern that explains everything that happens, from the beginning of the universe to the end of time and everything in between, including and especially the fates of human lives. God is the ultimate intentional agent who gives the universe meaning and our lives purpose. As an ultimate amalgam, patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all other forms of theisms and spiritualisms devised by humans.

Here and elsewhere, Shermer’s writing largely ignores nuance for summary, exploration for declaration. He seems satisfied to offer an explanation, as if having done that he has done the whole job.

While I agree with almost everything Shermer has to say – his libertarian politics strongly excepted – I didn’t particularly enjoy reading him. He has the compositional equivalent of a flat affect, with little of the sense of discovery that enriches the best writing in this area.

That’s too bad, because there ought to be someone who can slot in between the occasionally daunting detail of Damasio and the lightness of Eagleman.

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