Lena's Reviews > Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert
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Sep 07, 07

bookshelves: non-fiction, skepticism, how-the-brain-works

Having believed more than my share of impossible things, I’ve gotten very interested in the thinking processes behind matters of belief. Evolutionary biologist Wolpert tackles this subject from a different angle than many in his field. Wolpert proposes that our development of tool use created a heavy mental emphasis on the relationship between cause and effect. While searching for cause and effect in the natural world has served us well in such fields as science and technology, not being able to find a cause for an effect is apparently so vexing to the brain that it has proven more than willing to simply make one up when necessary.

There’s a litany of interesting studies cited in this book in support of these arguments, but Wolpert rarely goes into detail as he discusses everything from complex tool use in ravens to retention rates in Moon’s Unification Church. This left me wanting a lot more information at times and also makes the reading a bit dense. Still, I learned a great deal about how the brain functions in relationship to various topics. The book is well organized, with each chapter addressing issues on a theme ranging from belief development in children to the persistence of beliefs in the paranormal despite the lack of evidence to how scientific beliefs differ from other kinds of beliefs. Very useful for anyone interested in how we think and why we believe what we do.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Emily (new)

Emily I request you give us a short review on this when you're done, if you can. It looks really interesting!


Lena I will definitely do so. It's been getting curiouser and curiouser the more I read ;-)


message 3: by Mark (new)

Mark Well, I guess I'm waving my flag a bit here, Lena, but as someone who has written many science articles and believes in the scientific method but who is also a person of faith, I find no inherent contradiction between the idea of a belief in God and a belief in the scientific method, even though Mssrs. Wolpert, Hitchens, Dennett and others do.

Two points about this. The first is that evolutionary psychology is interesting, but doesn't necessarily explain everything. To believe that you can explain every behavior or brain function in humans through an evolutionary psychology argument makes e.p. as much a religion as anything else.

And just because we have a built-in propensity to find causes for effects, and just because that may have come from our use of tools, it doesn't mean that when people posit a God as the creator of the universe that they are wrong. I think Mr. Wolpert would argue that if our propensity to find causes leads us to come up with a cause that can't be proved by the scientific method, it isn't a valid finding. But that may not be true, and among others things, even in the field of science that requirement would invalidate many plausible and provocative theories, including the current string theory dominating cosmological physics.

OK, I'll be quiet now.


Lena You may have more of a friend in Wolpert than you think. Though he is an atheist himself, he has no qualms about referencing studies that point to faith being evolutionarily advantageous, and he has no objections to religion “provided it does not interfere with the lives of other people or come into conflict with science.” I think he would be the first to admit that evolutionary biology can’t explain everything, but he was driven to explore this topic because he was disturbed by the ease with which people believe that for which there is no proof while failing to understand or accept basic scientific principles. Personally, I think that’s a fascinating question.


message 5: by Mark (new)

Mark It is a fascinating question, I agree, and I'm sorry I made any presumptions about Wolpert, whose work I don't really know. Sounds like one worth exploring.


message 6: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 01, 2009 10:40AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Mark, I can also defend Daniel Dennett from your accusations along with Wolpert. Everything Lena says above applies to him as well.

I'd like to have single person pointed to that actually believes that any science or explanatory framework can explain "everything." This sort of charge is made so often against non-theistic enthusiasts of the explanatory power of scientific investigation. The great irony is that much of what goes on under the aegis of religion does precisely what it speciously accuses certain critics of religion/enthusiasts of science to be doing. It's the "mystery = goddidit" fallacy, the "God of the Gaps" so to speak.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Lena, there's a great Bertrand Russell quote that sums up this book (which I also really liked, by the way):

"Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones."


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