Stephanie's Reviews > The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
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Feb 16, 2012

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bookshelves: nonfiction
Recommended for: Everyone, especially conspiracy theorists
Read from January 23 to February 16, 2012 , read count: 1

I really liked this book and I agreed with most everything in it, and that made me rather uncomfortable just because of what the book is about. Michael Shermer covered a wide range of topics that interest me, from politics to psychology to religion, and i believed every word of what he argued. But... I don't think it's that he convinced me, i think it's that i already held those beliefs going into it, and as the book proclaims repeatedly, i as a human being pay special attention to arguments that support what i already believe.

When i was about halfway through the book, i read a review here on Goodreads that warned me not to fall victim while reading it to the very trap that the book warns against; believing so-called "facts" just because i want to believe them. So, i tried and failed to see fault with Shermer's logic, and it made me feel like i'm obviously no different form people who hold the opposite views.

I wish this book had been shorter and more focused, even though i loved everything in it. Shermer couldn't resist the temptation to single out specific popularly held beliefs—such as the 9/11 conspiracy theory, the idea that extra terrestrials have visited Earth, and the existence of God—and argue their invalidity. And before he does this he admits that it's possible that he sees things the way he does because he, too, is only human and believes what he wants to believe, but he goes ahead and knocks other people's beliefs anyway. Science reveals the truth in any situation, he says, but then he also shows that scientists' findings are sometimes colored by their beliefs, too. So what's a girl to believe? Well, whatever she wants to, it seems. It would've been interesting to learn even more about the believing brain, specifically, rather than what the believing brain tends to believe.

Maybe if the tone of the book had just been a little more humble, i would've been able to read it with more confidence. Shermer introduced the book by saying that what was to follow was going to be more "huh, isn't that interesting?" and less "these are the facts and this is how it is," but i think the latter is a better representation of the book's attitude. Shermer doesn't just talk about how people form and reinforce their belief in God, for example, but he also essentially declares that God does not in fact exist, and gives his reasons. And as an atheist i'm normally more than fine with that, just not in this particular context. Shermer also apparently likes to take the ideas of actual scientists and coin catchy new terms for them, and it makes him come across as a little overconfident about his stature in the scientific community.

I would've liked to have seen Shermer deal with more concrete stuff, like the political topics. I felt like he only touched on politics, and it was mostly to tell me why i should be a libertarian. And i didn't mind that, but i thought that section of the book could've been more in-depth. And while i'm criticizing, i must say that i found the anecdotes at the beginning of the book to be quite unnecessary.

Having said all of that, i do think people should read this book. It will shake your belief in whatever you believe in, even if it's nothing. And if it doesn't, well, it should still make you wonder what that says about you and your beautiful brain.


I'm sticking a big quote here that i want to save:

p. 185
This was the argument i made in a Templeton Foundation-sponsored print debate with theist and Harvard professor of medicine Jerome Groopman, who in his comments argued that God is "without form, immeasurable," that he exists "in a dimension that cannot be quantitated or depicted by science," that "we are unable to grasp fully God's nature and dimensions," and that "God esists outside of time and cannot be bound by space." How then, I asked, do you know this God exists? As corporeal beings who form beliefs about the wold based on percepts (from our senses) and concepts (from our minds), how can we possibly know a being who by definition lies outside of both our percepts and our concepts? At some point doesn't God need to step into our space-time to make himself known in some manner—say through prayer, providence, or miracles? And if so, why can't science measure such divine action? If there is some other way of knowing, say that of the mystics or the faithful through deep meditation or prayer, why couldn't neuroscience say something meaningful about that process of knowing? If we came to understand—as studies with meditating monks and praying priests have shown—that a part of the parietal lobe of the brain associated with the orientation of the body in space is quiescent during such meditative states (breaking down the normal distinction one feels between self and nonself and thus making one feel "at one" with the environment), wouldn't this imply that rather than being in touch with a being outside of space and time, it is actually just a change in neurochemistry?
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message 1: by Anika (new)

Anika Rothingham Wow, great review. I find this interesting, because of a conversation that a friend and I were having the other day...

She said she's a "people pleaser" (I suffer from this disease as well), but that realized that she actually doesn't care what people think. Example: she tries to do what she thinks other people want her to do, but when she gets positive feedback (let's say, from 9 out of 10 people), she believes the 1 person who gives her negative feed back, because that's what she wants to believe.

This was a very powerful insight for me, because it means all the energy devoted to people people pleasing is really misused. (Sure, anyone could have told me that, but when I realize that I really don't care what they think, the point really sticks.)

And it's a personal application to what I've been saying about Christianity for awhile now... people just pick out the parts that they agree with and explain away the rest.

So while I find it an interesting topic and would probably agree with the author, he sounds a little too full of himself for me, and I think the main message can probably be explained in, say, a review of his book. :)


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