Ever since I was young I was curious about what made people do what they did. I wanted to know why people thought the way they thought, believed what they believed. Not just because I frequently found myself at odds with these thoughts and beliefs but they would always devote so much time and energy to these things, sometimes unknowingly. Sometimes we perform tasks a certain way that makes it more work for us, but since we believe it is the best way to perform said task, we carry on. Somewhere in our brains lies the answer, or so I have always believed.
I suspected that there was always more than personal choice, or freewill at work here, as I accused so many around me of ‘unthinking’ behavior. At my current job for example, I notice that the store will be filled with people, but no one will be at the registers checking out. After a few moments people come up, but all them. Why did everyone choose to stop shopping at that moment? Did they really choose to stop, or did something influence them? The behavior of others perhaps? Also, they will take a product from the same place. There could be five rows of this product, yet everyone will take from the same row. Now, while I am speaking of very small matters I can tie these into larger matters, such as the political or religious beliefs of people and ask the same questions. Which is why Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain: From Ghost and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Our Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths was of interest to me.
Michael Shermer is an adjunct professor of psychology and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. He is well known to those that debate religion and is sometimes connected to other figures such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Mr. Shermer is very much interested in truth, and most of his writing, lecturing and debating is geared towards that. From my own experience in watching or reading him I would say that his main cause is championing the scientific method in a much boarder application in society. He believes that all human behavior is understandable through deeper research in to the physical brian, more than the ethereal mind.
There is a growing understanding among scientists that suggests our physical being, biochemicals and neurology, play a much bigger part in who we are and what we believe, then previously thought. That doesn’t mean that there is a gene that makes you a Christian or an Atheist, just biological parameters that make it more likely you will become either. Once this is coupled with human evolution, which experts say show us the benefits for early man to have religion and an inherit political organization, plus a persons own life time experiences you can then understand why someone ‘chooses’ to believe or not to. Or to hold to one political view over another. There is simply more hardwiring involved in our choices than we are aware of.
In The Believing Brain, Shermer addresses this while adding his own research to explain it. He maintains throughout the book that for many of our beliefs, we believe first and then find facts to support it. It hardly goes the other way around. There are two main terms he uses to explain belief, ‘patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data’ and ‘agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency’. In other words, events occur, we witness something, determine it to be something, thus forming a belief and then set out to prove we are right, when we are really operating from false or misunderstood data.
I am sure many will believe that this book is a direct attack upon religious believers, or believers of any sort, but I would say not. While Shermer identifies myself as a skeptic and something of an Atheist, having once been a practicing Christian, he does not judge believers of any kind. Merely he seeks to explain why he thinks they are prone to believing what they do and why it might be difficult to see the other side a controversial debate, due to feelings of belief. He does this equally with both sides of several examples. There is religion vs. atheism, and conservative vs. liberal, as well as those who hold to popular conspiracy theories, such as alien abductions and those who believed that the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers were carried out by the American government. Why people will claim any of these beliefs their own are due to the same evolutionary and biochemical nature of humanity, more so then us making a real informed choice. Though, this doesn’t rule out such choices.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds, which I feel is the main point behind the whole book. Through the use of the scientific method we can determine if our beliefs hold any water and choose to make a decision based on the results, ignoring our feelings, or the patternicity and agenticity that we fall into. Shermer is making an argument that we are evolving, leaving behind the past useful, but no longer beneficial evolutionary developments that helped shape our view of the world, into a era where we can start shaping our own minds. He does not suggest at any time that there are humans incapable of such a feat, nor does he suggest that there are humans that don’t follow these belief patterns, but he does suggest that taking a scientific approach to what we choose to do will help determine it’s validity rather than basing decisions off gut feelings.