Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer

"Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist, which is affected in part by education but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social changes." - Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

Dear 2,303 Adult Americans surveyed in poll mentioned in the prologue of that book, 
Witches exist. It is not a matter of belief. Wicca/witchcraft is a real, official religion, and while whether or not their brand of magic actually works is up for debate, there are many practicing witches alive and well around the world today. A good deal more than 23% of you should "believe" in them.
Then there are the 45% of you who believe in evolution, and the 40% who believe in creationism. Exactly what do the other 15% of you believe? It's perfectly possible to believe in both, but that would result in a percentage over 100.
Sincerely, Olivia
As much as I'm in favor of tolerance and respect for other people's views, there are some things that are simply ridiculous. When it comes to things like God and Heaven and souls and other things that literally cannot be concretely proven one way or the other, that's fine. I really will respect what you think. However, certain details that some people hold to be true don't make any sense at all.

And I've always felt bad about thinking less of those people. Who am I to judge them, after all? Who am I to say what they should/shouldn't believe? They undoubtedly think I'm as crazy as I think them.

The prologue of The Believing Brain says this on the matter: "Although there is no Archimedean point outside of ourselves from which we can view the Truth about Reality, science is the best tool ever devised for fashioning provisional truths about conditional realities. Thus, belief-dependent realism is not epistemological relativism where all truths are equal and everyone's reality deserves respect...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."

So while we can't prove ourselves right beyond any shadow of a doubt, we can prove other people wrong when trying to figure out the truth of ultimate reality. "This is less wrong than that, therefore we're going to go with this until we find something more right." Go with one thing until you find something that makes more sense or works better, and then move on.

I like this book. There are 16 chapters, including the prologue and epilogue. I promise to keep it down to one post per chapter--if that.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book, I hope I decide to read it. That said, I think it is a little arrogant of you to believe you know what the 2,303 people mean by the statement "witches exist." If I were asked, "Do you believe Doctor Who exists?" I could just as well answer yes, a show by that name exists, as no, the titular character is not a historical personage. In the context of being asked about belief in their existence, it seems reasonable to assume that witches refers to the flying broomstick kind, not the Wiccan kind, same as I would assume ghost, in that context, referred to a spirit of the departed, not an afterimage on a television monitor ;)

    As I've noted, I really wish I could get an objective perspective! Poor Archimedes. However, I think it interesting/irritating that the author firmly places hirself within a scientific framework, then somehow asserts that this is the natural framework from which to consider things. Well, duh! And if you believe the Bible is the ultimate truth then it is obviously the right way to interpret the world. Finally, the sun does revolve around the earth, if you think of the earth as stationary. The earth revolves around the sun, if you think of the sun as stationary. If you want to create a model of the universe that obeys Newton's laws however, neither of these things are stationary, so it might be best for someone who wants to do a silly thing like that to say that they are spinning around each other.

    As John might say, reality resists simplicity. Or, to steal from Obi-Wan, it is a matter of perspective. (If my long comment doesn't make it clear, I really like this post!)

  2. Well technically there's a Wiccan ritual that involves "flying" on a broomstick...(physically mounting a broom and using it as a symbol for travel so as to travel within the mind, or something).

    The author is interesting in his strong asserted preference for science because he apparently used to be a serious evangelical. His transition to hardcore skeptic is the subject of chapter 3 (as I say in the next post which according to Google Reader you have read and commented upon already but I have yet to see what you said), and was a lot more gradual than "this is stupid. YAY SCIENCE!"

  3. See, but you put flying in quotes, presumably because you believe that it isn't flying in the sense that I used the word.

    I did read the next post, but didn't have much to say about it. It may have been gradual, but it doesn't sound much more complicated than, "this is stupid. YAY SCIENCE!" I am particularly not a fan of, "Smart people (sometimes) believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons," not that it isn't true, but I kind of feel like the implication is that there are things, like science, that we believe for "smart" reasons, and things like religion we believe for "nonsmart," reasons, and this I feel is condescending and incorrect. Meh.

  4. This is true.

    I didn't feel that the "weird things" to which he was referring was religion in general. He never listed any examples, and the quote wasn't even from the section about him.


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