The believing brain

Posted on February 5, 2012

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In a new book, The Believing Brain, Micheal Shermer says:

“We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context 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.”

The blurb introducing the book says:

‘Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation. Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.

Interlaced with his theory of belief, Dr. Shermer provides countless real-world examples of belief from all realms of life, and in the end he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality.’

‘Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence’

Ah ha…  so Shermer joins my collection of other authors who share the same belief, including: Herb Simon and his concept of ‘bounded rationality” and his mantra of no conclusions without assumptions or biases, Stephen Hawking and his mantra of ‘model dependant realism’, Dan Kahneman and his mantra re cherry picking from readily available evidence, etc.

The blurb says that Shermer  ‘demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality.’

We agree to a degree. Not that individual scientists are open-minded – they’re not. But as an institution science, like the courts, provides for discipline criticism of competing beliefs. And unlike the courts science provides for endless exploration and criticism of the pet patterns we construct or discover. The patterns that survive and gain ascendency during the competitive  critical winnowing of competing schools of thought, or theories, define the ‘reality’ of the time.

But as new trusted patterns evolve former ‘realities’ undergo modification, some rejected, others taking up less space in the scientific landscape.

Different realities are fashionable at different times.

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Posted in: Sciencing