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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 | 344 pages | $28.00

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Why do people believe? We all believe in something, and I know I’ve sometimes asked myself, “How can someone think that way?” In Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain, he explores that opening question through science. His answer is, “We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the contexts of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large: after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time.”

Dr. Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and worked on or penned nearly a dozen other books. He is well educated and versed on the subject he tackles in The Believing Brain. Through several disciplines of science and citing many research experiments conducted over the years, Shermer makes the case that humans were made to believe, and that we form our beliefs through what Shermer calls patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency).

In The Believing Brain, Shermer takes the reader from the firing of a neuron, to the discovery that there are galaxies outside our own, to show the inner workings of belief development and the impact science has had on correcting once-faulty belief systems.

With a touch of his own personal experiences, Shermer leads the reader on this journey hand-in-hand with a firm but gentle grip. At times, with comments that seem condescending and seeming deviations from the path, the grip feels tighter and the leading more like dragging. These times caused me to question my guide and his ultimate agenda.

However, through the course of the book, Shermer’s point and request is stated simply. The point is demonstrated well enough in his own words quoted above. His request is that whatever we choose to believe should be subjected to scientific rationale. And in cases where proof is yet to been seen, we should be aware of that, and the biases associated with it.

Shermer understands well that politics, religion, and other personal preferences are deeply rooted in our personality and even our heredity. He also knows the emotional baggage that these issues throw around in our view of the world. I think that through most of the book, he handles these “heavy” matters lightly so that, for example, even some of the most radical liberals/conservatives can read the section on politics without feeling under attack from a libertarian (Shermer’s political stance).

The Believing Brain offers a lot of scientific, psychological, historical, and hypothetical food for thought. If you are someone open to a different opinion, or interested in unraveling the inner workings of some unconscious thought processes, The Believing Brain offers you an insightful and educational read.

If you are someone who would rather not challenge your beliefs, Shermer’s book might activate your defenses (I know I got worked up a few times). In that, though, he allows for choice, offering that science is the best tool to uncover truth; and until then, “I don’t know” can be the honest answer.

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