Robert Fischer'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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it was ok
bookshelves: neuroscience-cognitive-psych, politics, theology-philosophy-religion

Here's the tl;dr review: If you're looking for the ways that we tend to trick ourselves and how to deal with that reality, see Predictably Irrational or The Power of Habit. Shermer's book is definitely not the book for that.

Now the full review:

I was really excited about this book. I was hoping that it would update and extend Consciousness Explained with contemporary neuroscience about belief. That was, after all, exactly how the book billed itself through the marketing coverage and through the first couple of chapters.

And, to be fair to the book, there is a fair bit about that going on. I know more about the neuroscience of belief than I did when I started. The science content — which is almost entirely found within the first half of the book — is why this book got two stars instead of one. It's a great book to get some general ideas and get the names of other interesting things to go research. The basic idea that Shermer is pushing is that we choose our opinions first and justify them later, which seems obvious to me. What this amounts to for Shermer is that we decide our opinions based on non-scientific evidence and then have an expectation that science should justify them, and we've got in-built biases that help construct a fitting reality. Once that clarification is in place (Shermer does not supply it), Shermer does a really nice job proving it out in Part II.

The book is also very accesible without being childish. Shermer has a great writing style and his voice manages to remain friendly even when tackling highly controversial topics in a fairly confrontational way.

But that's about all the positive stuff I can say about this book. Beyond that, the book is basically a tour de force of philosophical and anti-religious errors. It's the most adroit, masterful presentation of all the problems with the so-called "skeptic" culture that I am yet to see. Ripping this book a new one could easily be the final project for an undergraduate class on post-modernism or post-colonialism. Let me highlight some of the glaring failings which are still pissing me off, in roughly the order that they really bug me.

First and foremost, the God Helmet, which Shermer treats at length. Seriously, people, let this one go. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul demolished the God Helmet, revealing it as the pseudoscience that it is. Persinger is a de facto huckster selling a magic device to skeptics, and they're eating it up. Shermer falls into the trap, too, and proceeds to announce that the God Helmet "may be the first step toward demystifying a number of centuries-old puzzles." The problem is the God Helmet has never successfully been repeated. Even using Persinger's own equipment, teams other than Persinger could not get the kind of results he found. In short, the more controlled the experiment, the less the effect of the God Helmet. This is precisely Shermer's critique of the experiments around psychic phenomenon. It's a totally warranted and valid critique of psychic experiments. But it's also a totally warranted and valid critique of the God Helmet. Shermer fails to apply his own skeptic standards to a device which he is inclined to believe, instead presenting us solely with his anecdotal experience and a heaping gob of praise. If Shermer is going to call himself a skeptic, then he needs to actually be skeptical of everything evenly, including and especially those things he wants to be true. The only good thing about the God Helmet example is the irony: he fell into this trap because he wanted it to be true while writing a book about how people fall into traps by wanting to believe. So it shows Shermer is as human and fallible and self-delusional as he's casting everyone else to be, too.

Second, Shermer's handling of philosophically loaded jargon and concepts is desperately in need of work. In the first chapter, he disparages philosophy in favor of science (as though they are mutually exclusive), and then proceeds to not just stumble across philosophical hornets' nests, but to actually seek out those hornets' nests and stick sensitive, squishy body parts right into the hole until he's sure he's been stung. It's insane. The most obvious example is his monism. He says that he is a monist—that all that exists is the physical activity of the brain. Fine. Unfortunately, the only defensible monist position vis a vis subjectivity is to deny it outright: for a monist, the only philosophically safe position is to say that subjectivity simply does not exist. You are not a subjective person. You have no subjective experience. Descartes was just wrong. This is Daniel Dennett's take, and Shemer cites Dennett in footnotes, but apparently Shermer missed Dennett's actual point. Instead, Shermer gives a delightful performance as a pseudo-dualist, using terms like "conscious" vs. "subconscious" (which Dennett clearly explains is an erroneous distinction for a monist), "became aware", and even "qualia". He even talks about a sense of free will! But the "qualia" example is the most glaring demonstration—Shermer asserts that qualia are purely chemical reactions (pg 116), which is a pretty astounding assertion, since neither science nor philosophy has come up with any way of accounting how one gets subjective experience (qualia) out of a chemical soup. Despite that radical assertion, Shermer gives no justification...which isn't surprising, since there is none to give. What is surprising is that Shemer makes the claim in the first place: apparently monism and promissory materialism doesn't deserve skeptical treatment by Shermer.

Third, Shermer fails to even handle his own terms well. He defines two terms: agenticity and patternicity, which seem to have promise as descriptors, but then he proceeds to use them inconsistently with his own definitions. Agenticity is apparently the projection of an agent onto experience: this is sometimes warranted (e.g. other people), sometimes not (e.g. wind in grass). But then Shermer treats expecting the recently deceased person to be present in their home as a kind of agenticity. That's not agenticity: it's not the projection of an agent. That's just a disappointed expectation or altered habituation. Other examples are easy to find as you work the book: just keep his technical definition of those terms at hand, and compare that to the way he uses them. Because of this sloppiness, Shermer ends up coming across as not even really knowing what he's even talking about with his own ideas — either that, or speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

Fourth, the book takes a massive turn for the worse about half way through. All the science falls out of it, and it basically falls in quality to a level below most science news blogs. It's just ranting opinion stuff without justification or warrant. The conclusion pulls things together a bit, but by that point, the damage has really been done.

Fifth, the book panders to evolutionary psychology like it's science, but it's not. There's no Popperian falsifiability to evolutionary psychology — that is, there is no experiment which could prove theories in evolutionary psychology wrong. Instead, people tell narratives and try to argue that the narratives make sense. But that's not science: that's philosophy. And all you need to remind yourself that evolutionary psychology is lame is to remember that the aquatic ape hypothesis is still a viable evolutionary psychology hypothesis. Worse, Shermer demonstrates his failure to grok evolutionary psychology when he calls it a "full fledged science" (pg. 42): it's not a science at all, but insofar as it is used in science, it is as a framework, not a discipline (that's according to Tooby and Cosmides themselves in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2007, 30:1, pg. 42-43). But Shermer, following others like Dawkins and Dennett, want to laud evolutionary psychology because of some misguided idea that it disproves something about religion or faith.

Sixth, Shermer is so locked up in the modern worldview that he's busy fighting ghosts of arguments that perished two centuries ago. This is reflected in the very way he frames his core thesis: that we form beliefs first and go looking for evidence later. This is nonsense, as he well knows — the use of the ACC (the brain region, not the NCAA division) means that the brain is processing evidence. What Shermer means is that the we form beliefs without consulting science, and then we accept scientific evidence later. This, of course, is obvious: the brain doesn't have a capability for objective/intersubjective thought, even granting the existence of mirror neurons. There is no repeatable experiment performing homunculus in the brain that spends its downtime reading journals published by other repeatable experiment performing homunculus within other people's brains. Scientific evidence — like all intersubjective evidence and most rational argumentation — reaches the brain through hijacking the primal systems. So when we are forced to construct a belief, our only option is to do so through non-scientific systems. Once we construct a belief, though, that belief is a part of our reality, and so any additional evidence is forced to conform with the reality, or we're left with cognitive dissonance. (And the brain doesn't like cognitive dissonance.) Once a neural network is built, reconstructing/modifying it is difficult, and so the brain prefers to kludge in new facts and cling to existing beliefs rather than destroy existing beliefs in favor of the new facts. It's just how we're wired. But for Shermer and his modernism, "evidence" just means "scientific evidence", and so he misses this entire cognitive process because he wants to cling to the long since debunked Enlightenment idea of human cognition somehow grokking science directly. This modernism blindness also completely wrecks his treatment of dualism. That treatment is pathetically out of date: Shermer has clearly never read John R. Searle when he tries to argue that dualism is somehow hurt by evidence that the brain impacts the mind (the mind which, remember, Shermer should be denying even exists!).

Finally, Shermer basically participates in all the standard Eurocentric, semi-racist, modern ideas which post-modern and post-colonial critiques have ripped to shreds. It's infuriating to see him—a thought leader in this "skeptic" community—failing to acknowledge the legitimate and valid critiques of the project which he is engaged on. And a lot of it is purely superficial stuff which could be modified without losing any kind of core motivation to the project. The most blatant single example of his modernism is when he says that current practices of hunter-gatherer societies are models for our paleolithic ancestors — as though those cultures have been doing nothing for the past 10,000 years but sitting on their thumbs and waiting to be discovered by Europeans. In another place, Shermer presents the Neadrathals possessing Europe for centuries yet not developing culture as evidence of their weak-mindedness — as though Europe itself contains some kind of magic that's not found in Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia. Also, there's a problem with the extensive argument that Shermer builds based on the assumed universal role of a god as judge of the good and the bad: that problem being that such an idea is pretty much unique (or at least central) to the monotheistic religions. It's so wrong that it isn't even Euro-centric, but even more limited than that: even the Greeks didn't have a concept that Zeus was going to get you if you secretly betrayed your society—unless, of course, someone in that society had an in with Zeus and tattled on you, or Zeus happened to be paying attention to you personally at the moment! So that entire way of thinking is just plain empirically erroneous. The idea that science can be the be-all, end-all of knowledge is an idea that has been roundly destroyed by pretty much everyone working post-Nietzsche, and it's especially unforgivable in a post-MacIntyre world. But, of course, Shermer doesn't notice any of these issues, because modernism doesn't deserve the same kind of skepticism that everything else does.

This book was a horrid failure, and it should be an embarrassment for an author who claims to be a critical thinker. The fourth through sixth chapters have some interesting stuff, but everything else is straight up dangerous, because it's compellingly written but profoundly and painfully wrong even by its own skeptical standards. The worst part is that Shermer is a thought leader and writes in an extremely accessible and convincing style, even as he spews bad philosophy and calls it science. Because he's so charming, though, people buy it and pass it on — as evidenced by the 5-star reviews here on GoodReads.
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Reading Progress

August 21, 2011 – Started Reading
August 23, 2011 – Finished Reading
August 24, 2011 – Shelved
August 24, 2011 – Shelved as: neuroscience-cognitive-psych
August 24, 2011 – Shelved as: politics
August 24, 2011 – Shelved as: theology-philosophy-religion

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Mandie (new) - added it

Mandie Mc Thanks for the heads-up and the very detailed review. I may yet read it, but it will be good to have this in mind when I do.

Robert Fischer Yeah: I'm trying to warn people that this book isn't as convincing as it first comes across. It's tricky.

Stephanie Wow, i'm glad i read this review. I'm halfway through the book and was pretty much eating it up. I'd really like some recommendations from you for better books than this one on similar topics. Thanks for your review!

Robert Fischer No problem. That's why I posted it. The books I cite are of dubious quality, too (especially "The Spiritual Brain"—see my review of it), but they successfully challenge a lot that Shermer takes for granted. It's annoying to see skepticism—which I support in theory—being represented by such an ultimately uncritical materialist partisan.

What are you looking for information on? I might have a better book to recommend than those that cropped up in my review. :)

message 5: by Dave (new)

Dave Burns "Ripping this book a new one could easily be the final project for an undergraduate class on post-modernism or post-colonialism."

I suppose some evangelical bible classes would enjoy taking a whack as well. It's been way too long since I stopped paying attention to post-modernism, but I thought that one could make this criticism of just about everything, including the works of the luminaries of postmodernism and this review.

I generally liked the review because I found it interesting, but perhaps that's because it is mostly over my head. By which I mean, the reviewer is not communicating very effectively with people like me who lost interest in postmodernism years ago. I suppose it's too much to expect him to explain everything, without the review becoming longer than the book it is reviewing.

Monism implies no subjectivity? I guess I should read Dennett, but I found him rather dull the last time I tried.

Third criticism seems odd from someone citing postmodernism as authoritative. I thought they mostly made fun of definitions.

The fourth criticism seems vague, why no example?

'Worse, Shermer demonstrates his failure to grok evolutionary psychology when he calls it a "full fledged science" (pg. 42): it's not a science at all, but insofar as it is used in science, it is as a framework'

Would Shermer still be wrong in whatever he wrote if he had replaced "full fledged science" with "framework used by full fledged science" in describing evolutionary psychology? If not, I suspect the reviewer is straining gnats and Shermer can be forgiven for avoiding convoluted prose.

My purpose in considering reading this book has little to do with these criticisms. I'm interested in ways people, including me, tend to trick ourselves, and what, if anything useful, we can do about it. I'm not sure whether the reviewer is telling me I would be wasting my time reading this or not. Rather than this lengthy review, I'd prefer something like "don't bother reading this, take a look at X instead." Perhaps X=Consciousness Explained? Probably not. Maybe there is no such book yet? Or maybe this book, despite its flaws, will do. The reviewer came looking for something else, so my gripes are probably unfair.

Robert Fischer Yeah, it would take a book to explain all the ways in which this book is wrong. But the upshot is that Shermer is acting like he knows more than he does, and it's a problem because it's not at all revealed despite his apparent clarity.

For the record, I do *not* treat postmodernism as authoritative, although I am countermodern as a general sentiment. Conflating postmodernism and countermodernism is like conflating Satanism and Atheism: just because they both have the same enemy doesn't mean they are the same thing.

Would Shermer still be wrong in whatever he wrote if he had replaced "full fledged science" with "framework used by full fledged science" in describing evolutionary psychology? If not, I suspect the reviewer is straining gnats and Shermer can be forgiven for avoiding convoluted prose.

No, in that it's not really a "framework" either, at least not in the sense that genetic evolution or atomic theory might be construed as a framework for science. Evolutionary psychology is a philosophy (you can call it "a paradigm" if you're allergic to the term "philosophy"), more akin to relativism. It's a way of constructing meaning and a narrative within science.

If you're looking for the ways that we tend to trick ourselves and how to deal with that reality, see Predictably Irrational or The Power of Habit. Shermer's book is definitely not the book for that.

message 7: by Robert (last edited Apr 16, 2012 09:07AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Robert Fischer Here's an addendum to the response:

Monism implies no subjectivity?

Yes, unless you can demonstrate the material stuff that is subjectivity. ("Place eight ounces of subjectivity into a beaker and heat to 400 degrees...") That's a project that's been given up by everyone*, including Dennett. This is where you get into the strange efforts to sidestep the problem, such as Dennett defining "heterophenomenology". See my review of Consciousness Explained for more.

*Okay, so there are some hardcore Spinozans who still cling to the idea, but suffice it to say that Spinoza's monism has significant difficultly in philosophy of mind if it's not mapped onto a materialistic monism.

Third criticism seems odd from someone citing postmodernism as authoritative. I thought they mostly made fun of definitions.

I hold people to the standards they construct for themselves. The critique was to demonstrate that even if you are a fan of these definitions as useful constructions (which I actually am), this book is a bad and confusion demonstration of them.

The fourth criticism seems vague, why no example?

There's no example because it's really obvious within the text itself, and I forgot that I was writing for people who hadn't read it yet. There are whole sections on 9/11 Truthers and UFOs and everything else which lose all pretenses to scientific analysis, and instead treat it all as a fait accompli, probably because Shermer is tired of dealing with this stuff (he's handled it in previous writing). That's fine if he doesn't want to deal with it, but then why derail this book's thesis with these tangential sections?

message 8: by Dave (new)

Dave Burns Thanks for the suggestions. I've already taken a whack at Predictably Irrational, but got bogged down. It's still on my shelf, I should try again.

Robert Fischer A spectacular book about how religion works is Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Although that's absolutely a scholar's text, and there's no effort to treat religion or belief as a problem to be solved.

It's hard to treat the issue seriously and carefully without the book becoming inaccessible or dangerously inaccurate. I can't name a book that does that particularly well without limiting its scope severely (e.g. Habit).

Joshua W James While i read this book, I found myself getting angrier and angrier. Your review, and probably most specifically "Shermer fails to apply his own skeptic standards", put it all together in a way I wasn't immediately able to. I disagree about his writing ability; It almost seems like he's getting paid by the cliche. Also, he's been on the Art Bell show too many times and seems to have as his business model the thumbing of his nose at every popular topic of discussion on that show. By the time i was a little more than halfway through, I was wondering why it seemed that all he was doing was compiling other people's quotes, providing no real compelling argument of his own, and pandering to Skeptic Mag's own audience's conspiracy theory that misguided fanatics are believing wrong things all over the world and offending intellectual senses of entitlement everywhere.

message 11: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Woodman Thanks for this review. This book is on my "Want to Read" list. Having this review in my mind as I read will help me approach the book with appropriate skepticism. :-)

message 12: by Dave (new)

Dave Burns I suggest moving Shermer down the list a few notches, and read something else on this or related topics, such as The Righteous Mind by Jonothan Haidt.

Alicia Fox I'm confused on your treatment of evolutionary psychology as purely philosophical, and not scientific. Even when it's had hypotheses tested and confirmed through scientific experiments (e.g., changes in hormones, brain chemistry, etc., lapsing into evolutionary biology and archaeogenetics)? Even when it tracks human universals?

Just wondering. And thanks for the lengthy, insightful review. I'll keep your criticisms in mind as I read the book.

message 14: by Dave (new)

Dave Burns Alicia wrote: "I'm confused on your treatment of evolutionary psychology as purely philosophical, and not scientific. "

I often see people sneering at evolutionary psychology, but I'm not sure on what grounds. Do you have a good source for EP? I guess I should just check wikipedia.

message 15: by Robert (last edited Mar 05, 2013 12:11PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Robert Fischer Alicia and Dave — I'd suggest you check out the cite I gave: Tooby and Cosmides, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2007, 30:1, pg. 42-43. There's a similarly disparaging treatment in Ramachandran's The Tell-Tale Brain, which my comment basically summarizes. See also this recent article. I'm not saying it's necessarily purely philosophical in scientific settings, but rather that the way it's trotted out in this text (and frequently in atheist punditry) is philosophical, not scientific. When you start telling a story about how this one factor is evolutionary advantageous and then selected for and that's why people are why they are, you're in an extremely hard-to-prove territory. That's no longer science, but philosophy. And pretending this particular "evolutionary psychology" story is science is damaging to other, more strongly evidenced, narratives of science—like evolution itself.

Alicia Fox Robert wrote: "Alicia and Dave — I'd suggest you check out the cite I gave: Tooby and Cosmides, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2007, 30:1, pg. 42-43. There's a similarly disparaging treatment in Ramachandran's The..."

The Scientific American blog post is interesting, but seems to dislike EP simply because the LBGT community hasn't been a major focus of research, and is presumed abnormal by the writer as a consequence of this. I'm hardly an expert on EP (just a curious layperson), but I know the science is relatively new. It seems rather silly to judge EP negatively simply because no one has yet (it seems) gotten around to researching LBGT EP.

Additionally, the writer is citing modern examples of LGBT child-raising that have little or nothing to do with EP. That is, EP attempts to look at our basic human traits and lifestyles that existed long before civilization, and thus aren't impacted by modern life (modern in the sense of, say, the last 3000 years). I can't see an EP study examining modern gay couples adopting and raising families, or even closeted gay men and women of the past (or sadly, today) raising children with straight partners (except perhaps in terms of the herd mentality forcing everyone to conform to the tastes and inclinations of the majority).

It seems odd to me that anyone promoting LGBT inclusion/rights would dislike EP, or think EP is oppositional to such ideas. From what I've read, at least in terms of research done on male biology (as usual, research on females comes indicates a biological origin for homosexuality. It seems to me that a biological origin that has clearly not died out is essentially the definition of an adaptive strategy, ergo an example of EP. As such, there is nothing abnormal about homosexuality. EP isn't thus anti-LGBT, but could hold the scientific key to "proving" it's perfectly natural.

Again, I'm no EP scientist, or scientist of any sort for that matter. It simply seems to me that a lot of people have a hard time stepping outside of "today" and realizing that people in the long-ago past simply didn't have our modern ideas and issues. I think we try to be "nice" and "civilized" and fail to realize that politeness as we know it today didn't exist when we were living in caves and surviving day-to-day.

Robert Fischer Alicia wrote: "I think we try to be "nice" and "civilized" and fail to realize that politeness as we know it today didn't exist when we were living in caves and surviving day-to-day."

That itself is a kind of presumption born out of the tradition of Augustine's Original Sin and the Social Contract of Hobbes and Rousseau.

The point I want to draw out of the Tooby and Cosmides article is that Evolutionary Psychology isn't a science, but is at best a paradigm from which one can approach science. Since there's no reproducible experiments and at best limited falsification, you're really doing philosophy and not science when you're doing Evolutionary Psychology.

Alicia Fox Robert wrote: "Alicia wrote: "I think we try to be "nice" and "civilized" and fail to realize that politeness as we know it today didn't exist when we were living in caves and surviving day-to-day."

That itself ..."

But aren't there psychological experiments used to inform evolutionary psychology theories? Based on what you're saying, history, psychology, archaeology, anthropology, etc., aren't sciences. It seems like there are a lot of things that are science but can't be approached or studied using classical scientific models because of ethical and practical reasons. For example, from what I understand, scientists believe that people are born gay because of a gene, chemicals during gestation, or whatever. At best, scientists can follow a person from conception through adult life and find patterns to help confirm this hypothesis. But it would be unethical to take a bunch of pregnant women, inject various hormones, etc., into their bodies, then see what happens.

Regarding Augustine, my presumption, or the presumption I referred to?

I think the terms normal and abnormal are often loved or hated for the wrong reasons. When I see "normal," I think of the "norm." For humans, the norm is dark hair, ergo, dark hair is normal, making my blonde hair not normal, therefore, blonde hair is abnormal. But I don't make the leap to say that abnormal means weird. I'm not weird for being blonde; I simply fall outside the norm in terms of the larger human population.

Likewise, in this same sense, heterosexuality is "normal" in that it is the norm for most humans. This doesn't make homosexuality weird; nothing natural to 10-20% of humans could logically (I think) be considered weird. Since EP is so new (what...30 years, tops, since it became a thing?), it seems logical that it would focus on the basics (e.g., the "norm") to start. To complain that EP is bullsh*t and biased simply because it hasn't looked into LGBT stuff yet is like saying that DNA/genetics research is biased because the bulk of funding isn't going into finding a "gay" gene.

But thanks for the link to the article. I like reading new (and sometimes opposing) viewpoints. :)

message 19: by Agnieszka (new) - added it

Agnieszka Thank you for the review! I have to admit I loved Shermer's book at first (never read anything like this before) however as I was getting more and more into it it did start to feel like it's "falling a part" a bit. Your review (which I saw after reading the book) help me understand my confusion

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