The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Subitled: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

I’ve always wanted to read one of Dr. Shermer’s books since he was recommended to me by an atheist friend a couple of years ago. However, I just could not find the right book at my local bookstores. I had to satisfy myself with watching him on YouTube giving one of many talks at events such as TED etc.

When Michael Shermer; publisher and chief editor of Skeptic magazine, published The Believing Brain, he billed it as his magnum opus, “synthesizing” 30 years of research; I just had to get it.

I thought it would be the ideal purchase for my newly acquired kindle, but for some strange reason only the Audiobook version was available for sale to South Africans. While it is always nice to have the text version available for future reference, I decided to go ahead and purchase the Audible Audiobook. It turned out to be a good decision as I could just sit back and listen to it for a little while every day while just relaxing after coming home from work, and still get in some reading of some of my other books on kindle.

Anyway, enough of this idle banter; back to the Believing Brain…

In the book, Shermer explains that we form our beliefs for subjective, emotional and psychological reasons while being influenced by environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society. We then go on to defend, rationalize and justify the beliefs we have formed by employing a number of cognitive biases such as authority and confirmation biases. This process of forming a belief first and then trying to explain it is called belief-dependent realism by Shermer.

Incidently, Shermer based the process of belief-dependent realism on model-dependent realism, as proposed by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book The Grand Design.

In the first part of the book, Shermer describes how Francis Collins, famous scientist and current director of the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the USA came to form his religious beliefs, considering that scientists are largely nonreligious or atheist. Shermer also shares with us how he himself became a skeptic.

In the second part of the book he explains concepts such as patternicity, that is how the brain looks for patterns in everything it “absorbs,” and agenticity which is the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by powerful invisible agents who involve themselves intentionally in it.

In parts three and four, Shermer explains how and why we form beliefs about Things Unseen such as gods and aliens, and Things Seen, respectively.

All very fascinating stuff indeed! This book is guaranteed to make you think about how you think and perhaps even reconsider some of those weird beliefs you might be holding close to your “heart.”