Michael Shermer‘s “The Believing Brain” is a gem: a treatise on the brain as a “belief engine”.
I strongly recommend it: Shermer shows how “dependent our beliefs are on a multitude of subjective, personal, emotional and psychological factors”; how belief systems are “formed, nourished, reinforced, changed and extinguished”; how belief systems operate ‘”with regard to belief in religion, the afterlife, God, extraterrestrial, conspiracies, politics, economics and ideologies”; and finally how we know which beliefs are true and which are false.
Here are a few selected quotes – I hope you find them intriguing enough to make you want to get the book and read it.
On how we form beliefs:
“The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data.
The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.
These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs..”
On belief- dependent realisms:
“In fact, all models of the world, not just scientific models, are foundational to our beliefs, and belief-dependent realism means that we cannot escape this epistemological trap. We can, however, employ the tools of science, which are designed to test whether or not a particular model or belief about reality matches observations made not just by ourselves but by others as well.”
“What you believe is what you see. The label is the behavior. Theory molds data. Concepts determine percepts. Belief-dependent realism.”
On the relationship between “believing weird things” and intelligence:
“A common myth most of us intuitively accept is that there is a negative correlation between intelligence and belief: as intelligence goes up belief in superstition or magic goes down. This, in fact, turns out not to be the case, especially as you move up the IQ spectrum… once people commit to a belief, the smarter they are the better they are at rationalizing those beliefs. Thus: smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.”
On why it makes sense we evolved to err on the “false positive” side, i.e. believing something is real when it is not
“If you assume that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator but it turns out that it is just the wind, you have made what is called a Type I error in cognition, also known as a false positive, or believing something is real when it is not. That is, you have found a nonexistent pattern.
“If you assume that the rustle in the grass is just the wind but it turns out that it is a dangerous predator, you have made what is called a Type II error in cognition, also known as a false negative, or believing something is not real when it is. That is, you have missed a real pattern.”
“[our] default position is to assume that all patterns are real; that is, assume that all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not the wind.”
“Several psychological studies appear to support [seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch] Spinoza’s conjecture that the mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection,…”
On science vs. anecdotal thinking:
“Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training.”
On how behaviors that were highly adaptive in the past misfire in today’s environment:
“(A) sweet and rich foods are strongly associated with (B) nutritious and rare. Therefore, we gravitate to any and all foods that are sweet and rich, and because they were once rare we have no satiation network in the brain that tells us to shut off the hunger mechanism, so we eat as much as we can of them.”
On uncertainty and “magic thinking”:
“Uncertainty makes people anxious, and anxiety is related to magical thinking.”
“All experience is mediated by the brain. The mind is what the brain does. There is no such thing as “mind” per se, outside of brain activity. Mind is just a word we use to describe neural activity in the brain. No brain, no mind.”
On the relationship between creativity and madness:
“The connection between patternicity, creativity, and madness comes from a thinking style that is too all inclusive and that indiscriminately sees patterns everywhere.”
On religious attitudes and genetics:
“approximately 55 percent of the variance in religious attitudes is genetic, approximately 39 percent can be attributed to the nonshared environment, approximately 5 percent is unassigned, and only about 3 percent is attributable to the shared family environment”
On liberals vs. conservatives:
“Liberals are higher than conservatives on 1 and 2 (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity), but lower than conservatives on 3, 4, and 5 (in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity).”
“…a more reflective approach is to recognize that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values and tend to sort themselves into these two clusters.”
On being realistic vs. political utopias:
“Good fences make good neighbors because evil people really are part of the moral landscape.”
“Ludwig von Mises was first among equals; he taught me that interventionism leads to more interventionism, and that if you can intervene to protect individuals from dangerous drugs, what about dangerous ideas?”
“Principle of Freedom: all people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.”
“… a dozen essentials to liberty and freedom that need shielding from encroachment: 1. The rule of law. 2. Property rights. 3. Economic stability through a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system. 4. A reliable infrastructure and the freedom to move about the country. 5. Freedom of speech and the press. 6. Freedom of association. 7. Mass education. 8. Protection of civil liberties. 9. A robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states. 10. A potent police force for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state. 11. A viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws. 12. An effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.”
“Organizing libertarians is like herding cats.”
“Feynman echoed Galileo’s principle in his observation about determining if your theory is right or wrong: “If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
“Science begins with something called a null hypothesis.
the hypothesis under investigation is not true, or null, until proven otherwise. A null hypothesis states that X does not cause Y. If you think X does cause Y then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis.”
“So many claims of this nature are based on negative evidence. That is, if science cannot explain X, then your explanation for X is necessarily true. Not so. In science lots of mysteries remain unexplained until further evidence arises, and problems are often left unsolved until another day.”
“A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise).”
And this is just a sample.
In the book you can also find: a complete and detailed list of cognitive biases; an interesting account of the neuroscience of beliefs; a great (and very respectful) chapter on religion, atheism and agnosticism; insightful stories about Michael Shermer’s own life; well written stories about the emergence of science (e.g. about Galileo and the reaction to his discoveries)… and more!