Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Book Review: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

If I hadn't put this on my Kindle I might have given up in the introduction.  (It's really hard to skip around on a Kindle) This book starts out far less readable than Shermer's Scientific American columns, but I persevered, and the going got much easier.

He begins the book with three personal stories:  a guy who sponsors research on belief after a supernatural experience or hallucination (depending on your point of view), NIH director Francis Collins' conversion and exploration of faith and science, and Shermer's own conversion and deconversion from evangelical Christianity. He references the people and books that influenced him during that time of his life in great detail.  His own deconversion included a period of Ayn Rand fandom and evangelism for it, sad to say.  I have to wonder if he had a harder time giving up authoritarianism than he did belief in a supernatural, because it sounds like he was a true fanboy.  At this point in his life he hadn't yet become a big fan of the scientific method (or else he would have been persuaded more by evidence than by teachers and authors).

Fortunately the book does finally get to the sciency stuff I bought it for.  His main thesis is that people develop a belief first and then find reasons to support it, and he ranges over a lot of territory developing it.  The most interesting thing for me was the phenomenon of sensing the presence of another person (usually) when nobody is there.  It happened to Shermer on an ultramarathon bike ride.  It has happened to other extreme athletes, especially mountain climbers.  This may come as a surprise to some Christians, but the brain is part of the body, and when the body is under extreme stress, that includes the brain!

Pattern-seeking is another biggie, especially with the point that a false positive pattern is generally less dangerous than a false negative.  His example is a rustle in the grass on the African savannah.  Our ancestors are the survivors who assumed the rustle came from a snake or other predator.  The dead ends on the evolutionary tree are the ones who thought "m'eh it's just the wind" when it was actually a snake.  This is Pascal's Wager!

Another point that's interesting:  the ability to find connections between things (pattern-seeking) is related to creativity, which explains why so many brilliant and creative people have fallen for stupid shit like UFOs and "alternative" medicine.  The same person who might make a breakthrough in science because he saw a connection nobody else noticed isn't likely to filter out the ones that aren't really there, i.e. false positives.  Psychosis is the complete inability to filter out false patterns.

There's a section on political beliefs, which is pretty interesting.  There have been studies done on political belief and apparently (hold onto your hats!) people are very reluctant to give up their political leanings!  YES!

Sadly, he digresses into his libertarianism again, and as if to support his own thesis, he doesn't have any empirical evidence to back up his opinion.  After pages and pages of examples of studies that prove this or that aspect of belief, his own libertarianism seems to demonstrate his argument that people come to their belief first, and then validate it.  I really expected him to have at least done a little reading outside of libertarian literature.

His libertarianism doesn't really sound like Ron Paul libertarianism, though.  He believes in a flat tax, and Ron Paul wants to have no tax at all, and even abolish the IRS.  Some of Shermer's other views are really very moderate also.  He's much more nuanced than he gives himself credit for, but there's no word for "practical libertarianism."  Of course, since I kind of like the guy I may be giving him a pass in order to keep from changing my mind about him!

So... in the end his thesis that people come to their belief first and then find ways to justify it runs through the book but so do other ideas.  He lists the typical biases that a lot of us probably already know about, like confirmation bias.  These aren't dealt with in depth, though.  I wish they were and there was less about libertarianism!

The last section of the book is a long discussion of the development of astronomy as a science, and the scientific method in general.  As we should know (if we had the kind of education we ought to have had), the scientific method includes safeguards against natural biases of the scientists doing the experiments, and of the subjects, if they're human.  He states that his thesis is that people decide what to believe and then rationalize them, but I think the book makes sense as a study of why the scientific method is the best way to arrive at a true result.

The best take-aways:
  • People experience mysterious "others" during periods of stress
  • The human brain seeks patterns because of evolution
  • The human brain seeks an agent because of evolution
  • People with an ability to make more connections than others are "creative" but also prone to conspiracy theories, mental illness, and just plain mistakes
  • We are prone to fallacies that protect our beliefs
  • The scientific method is designed to mitigate against the human brain's faults
It's definitely worth a read for anyone who thinks they are "rational."  I do think atheists who come from religious backgrounds have made that leap of changing our minds so we've cracked a little of our human stubbornness.


Plasma Engineer said...

Glad to read your positive views on this book, since my own copy just arrived on my doorstep in UK about 3 days ago, parcelled and shipped from USA at a very competitive price.

I can tell that you believe in Michael Schermer - at the moment I think the same. It will be interesting to see whether my views have changed by this time next month after I complete my 'holiday reading'. :)

LadyAtheist said...

I look forward to your take on it. Perhaps he'll write a book on libertarianism next... if he can find some actual justification for it outside of Ayn Rand fandom.

Chris Reynolds said...

While I agree with you about much of the book, Michael avoids mentioning an important gap in the science of the brain, which needs to be filled – because it potentially allows room for the religious to claim that God and the soul fills the gap.

The gap exists between the neuron and the cultural learning which leads us to make decisions about the world and assign agency (both real and imagined). Basically Michael provides no theory to show how, at the biological level of the brain, the neurons work to take patterns and construct cultural models of the world we believe we live in. I am trying to model what happens in this gap - working from the starting point that our basic brain mechanisms are identical to animals. The human brain is merely an animal brain working in a supercharged mode, aided with more memory and more neural connections, and which can be explained in evolutionary terms. In particular there is a special tipping point that, once reached, would cause an explosion of “mental power”. Michael makes the assumption that human brains are different without explaining the differences – except in descriptive observations which say nothing about the mechanisms. By analogy, it is as if he said that a clock was full of circular bits of metal with toothed edges, and struck the hour when the long hand pointed to 12 – and assumed that this was an adequate explanation of how a clock worked.

If you want to know a bit more about my ideas for “filling the gap” see my review – The Black Hole in the Believing Brain at http://trapped-by-the-box.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-black-hole-in-believing-brain.html

LadyAtheist said...

Interesting, but I think his focus is on results of research that's been completed rather than speculation. He discusses what is known rather than what is not known, based on research. The scope and tone of the book is descriptive, so I don't think your criticism is relevant. He did what he set out to do: describe the belief systems of the brain as recent research has revealed. It's a book meant for popular consumption, so I would forgive him for leaving out neurochemistry (if that's what you mean)

Cultural influences are important, I agree, but without a brain primed to accept them (or to create them) they would have no power.

When you say "different" what do you mean? Different from what?