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The Believing Brain

How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths

Michael Shermer

Simpsons sendup of X-Files called the Springfield Files. (got Leonard Nimroy, Mr Spock, to voice over the intro: "The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies, and in the end isn't that the real truth? The answer is no."

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What I want to believe based om emotions and what I should believe based on evidence do not always coincide. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true?

Tools of science beat subjective reasoning because they are designed to test whether or not a particular model or belief about reality matches observations made not just by ourselves but by others as well.Everybody's beliefs are not equal. A belief in an idea of cosmos with Earth at its centre is not equal to one in which we orbit the sun.

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends and society. After forming our beliefs we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of reasons arguments and explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for the beliefs follow. Once people commit to a belief, the smarter they are, the better they are at rationalizing those beliefs. So smart people believe some weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. We don't form beliefs by rationally checking all information. Every fact gets filtered through our pre-existing beliefs.

Very dangerous to be in a mental hospital because the default assumption is that you're there because you're crazy, so everything you do is seen thru that prism. Stanford U psychologist David Rosenhan sent eight colleagues into dozen different mental hospitals saying they'd heard voices, and that their lives"seemed empty". Seven of them were diagnosed as schizophrenic and one as manic-depressive. Despite fact that they reported symptoms as gone, and nurses described them as friendly and co-operative, the hospital psychologists still interpreted them as abnormals. and all their actions were seen that way. Because they were bored out of their skulls, they kept detailed notes, which the professionals saw as pathological behaviour. The only people who weren't fooled were the other patients, who aw them as either journalists or hospital inspectors.

Another mental institution wrote to Rosenhan to say that they would never be fooled by such patients. So R wrote back saying that over next three months he would send in one or more imposters, and see if they could tell. Out of 193 patients admitted to this hospital in that 3 months, 41 were classified as phonies by at least one staff member, and another 42 classed as "suspected fakes". Of course, no phony patients had been sent. What you believe is what you see.

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There are gaps and there are Gaps. Gaps that science can fill with natural explanations don't need a god. But gaps that could never be filled with a natural explanation lend themselves to a supernatural explanation.

Intelligence doesn't correlate with belief - ie it's not the dumber you are, the more likely you are to be religious. But smarter people are better at rationalizing their beliefs. So, smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

Author a born-again Christian who enrolled in an undergrad course in evolutionary biology, found that the evidence for evolution is undeniable and rich, while the arguments for creationism are duplicitous and hollow. Then a course in comparative mythology made him realize problems of seeing Christianity as the One True Religion whereas all rest were obviously culturally determined.

The power of the religious filter. Everything happens for a reason, and God has a plan for all of us. So when something good happens, thank god because he is rewarding you for your faith. When something bad happens, well god moves in mysterious ways, doesn't he. So everything makes sense in terms of bible - the Antichrist must be abroad: was it Henry Kissinger or Ayatollah Khomeini. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse were surely nuclear war, over-population, pollution and disease. Modern Israel founded 1948, so therefore the second coming must be .... real soon now.

In end gave up his faith because of the problem of evil. If God is all-powerful, all knowing and all good, why does he let such bad things happen to good people? The more you look at all the cancer, birth defects, accidents and worse, more he came to believe that there is not a God such as Christians believe: he is either impotent or evil, or simply non-existent.

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Why would an all knowing all loving God care whether I believed in him? Since he's omniscient shouldn't he know everything that is going to happen? Either way, why should he care, unless he was like old Roman or Greek gods who competed for followers, and were filled with such human emotions as jealousy. (And of course text in Exodus where God describes himself so jealous that if someone worships another god, he will curse "into the third and fourth generation."

Yogi Berra once said "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

Sums up his loss of faith thus: Lord, I did the best I could with the tools you gave me. You gave me a brain to think skeptically and I used it accordingly. You gave me the capacity to reason and I applied it to all claims, including that of your existence.

Faith based on the veracity of the Bible, and the power of individual revelations. Both are deeply suspect ...

We find agents everywhere. The intelligent designer created life from the top down. Extraterrestrials are coming to warn us of our self-destruction. Conspiracy theorists imagine puppet-masters working behind the scenes. Not only that, we believe people, animals, things, have an essence, even though there isn't the slightest bit of evidence for such a thing. Believe that a donated heart contains something of the donor, and most wd refuse a murderer's heart for fear of absorbing some of the evil.

Five hundred years ago demons stalked the world with incubi and succubi tormenting victims as they slept. Two hundred years ago it was ghosts. In twentieth century it was aliens, abducting and probing. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger and his God Helmet, uses electromagnets to cause 'microseizures' in subject's brains. Produces supernatural experiences - out of body, sense of someone else in room, and profound rel experiences of being in contact with God.

To say that the eye, or the bacteria flagellum, or DNA, are "designed" tells us nothing. Science wants to know how they were designed, what forces were at work, how the process of development unfolded etc. It's as if you were trying to understand how a car's engine worked, and were content with an explanation that it was due to a 'combustion force', which completely fails to explain what is going on: a piston compresses a mixture of petrol and air which is ignited by a spark which causes an explosion that forces the piston down , turning a crankshaft which is connected to a drive shaft which is linked to a differential which rotates the wheels.

Either a monist or a dualist. Dualism is the intuitive position - idea that there are 2 states, body and soul. Monism holds that the end of the body, and the organic disintegration of the brain means the end of the mind or soul as well. Most people believe the soul lives on after bodily death, and can ascend to heaven or fall to hell, or occupy some other human or animal body.

Argument from incredulity simply means we cannot (yet) explain everything in the world. But because we can 'only' explain 90% of UFO sightings doesn't mean the other 10% are real ET's. Just because we can't explain every cancerous tumor that has gone into remission doesn't mean that miraculous supernatural forces occasionally cure cancer. It just means that medicine hasn't yet caught up with all the things our bodies do.

Our brains work by actively finding ways to support what we want to believe. We have an overwhelming desire to believe in a God and in afterlife etc. So we should be especially careful about the 'evidence' we refer to to support those beliefs.

According to Oxford University Press World Christian Encyclopedia there are more than 10,000 distinct religions, each of which can be further subdivided. Christians have about 34,000 different denominations. Humans have created at least 1000 different gods. What's the chances that Yahweh is the correct one and all the others are wrong? AS saying goes, we all disbelieve in most of the gods; some of us just go one god further.

Does God actually exist? "Militant Agnostic bumper sticker: I Don't Know and You Don't Either." Burden of proof is on those who assert something. I can't prove that there's no Zeus or Apollo or Allah or even The Flying Spaghetti Monster. But not being able to disprove their existence doesn't in any way support likelihood of it.

Just because lots of people believe something doesn't make it true. Millions of Mormons believe that their sacred text was written in an ancient language on gold plates by the angel Moroni, and were then dug up by Joseph Smith who learned how to translate them by burying his face in a hat filled with magic stones.

Shermer thinks we should look at human tech progress to get an idea of what an ET civilization would be like. They'd either be way behind us (in which case we won' know about them until we land on their planet) or way ahead. Science and technology have changed us more in last 100 years than in the last 100,000. Took 10,000 years to go from cart to airplane, but only 66 years to go from powered flight to a moon landing. And this progress is accelerating. So what will we be achieving in another 500 years, or 50,000? And what would an ET civilization a million years ahead of us be capable of - almost certainly able to create life, planets and stars, whole universes.

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And if we knew the underlying science used to do that engineering, we would call it ET technology. If we didn't know it, we would call it God.

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Einstein has been extensively quote-mined by Christians keen to enlist him to their cause. But when he was asked point-blank, he said "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God that concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."

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The sophist argument that "A design demands a designer. The universe is a design. Therefore there must have been a designer." is dumb because a designer requires someone to design him, etc etc.

When creationists invoke miracles as their explanation, that's the end of their search, whereas for scientists that's just the beginning.

If God is supernatural - completely outside of nature, how can you possibly know he exists? If you want to argue that you or others can see/hear/sense him, then he is in nature, and would be measurable (if he in fact existed)

Detailed rebuttal of the 9-11 conspiracy (that the World Tower buildings were brought down by demolition rather than by the planes) but at end of the day, best reply comes from Gordon Liddy (one of Pres Nixon's Watergate conspirators): "the problem with govt conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can't keep their mouths shut." The more people you need to pull it off, the less likely it is to be true.

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Galileo broke free of traditional deductive thinking, based on the authority of ancient thinkers. Inductive thinking: go out and inspect nature and measure what is actually there. Francis Bacon had suggested in 1620 book Novum Organum that should start with observations, formulate a general theory and then test that with predictions. So Galileo looked through his telescope and saw that the sun and the moon weren't perfect celestial objects (sunspots and lunar mts) and that Jupiter had moons orbiting. Clearly the old deductions about the Earth as the centre of the universe were wrong. But when Galileo looked at Saturn his telescope couldn't identify the rings, so he assumed it was 3 planets very close together. Even though he went back to Saturn many times, and never saw the same thing twice (the rings vary from side on and invisible to face on) he never changed his original belief.

Lesson is not that you can't trust scientists to get the right answer - you can't - it's that you need to stick to the scientific method to overcome your own biases. Does the new data match your original assumption/prediction? No? Then you were wrong, and you must change your theory.

Hypothesis testing is best way to overcome limitations in how human mind processes data.

Problem is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old whereas science, with its methods of controlling for variables that affect outcomes, is only a few hundred years old. Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training. Any huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a few testimonials to convince the gullible.

Superstition as a way to cope with uncertainty. The greater the element of chance or accident, the higher the levels of superstitious ritual. Most striking example in modern setting is baseball players. As fielders succeeding 90% of the time they exhibit almost no superstitious rituals. But as soon as they go to bat, where they are sure to fail at least 7 times out of 10, they suddenly come up with all sorts of rituals to cope with the uncertainty.

Agency: we believe that people have an 'essence' that can be transmitted - so a donor organ from a murderer will transplant some of his personality as well. Reluctance to wear a murderer's jersey.

Illusionists like Uri Geller able to fool scientists - need a trained magician who knows mechanisms of tricks.

The scale of the universe is literally beyond belief. It's not just that our star is merely a grain of sand among a hundred billion grains of sand on a beach. In fact there are hundreds of billions of beaches, each one of which contains hundreds of billions of grains of sand.

Jared Diamond in book Guns Germs and Steel explained different rates of civilization growth over past 13,000 years. Why did Europeans colonise Africa and Australia rather than the other way round? Rejected idea that difference in genes - one group genetically better than other. Diamond says its down to geography and fauna and flora. The Middle East had grains and animals that could be domesticated, and geography meant the knowledge needed to exploit them could easily spread east and west across similar environments. In contrast, Aborigines could not saddle up or yoke kangaroos. Africa and America many different biospheres going north and south so that even if one group innovated, difficult to diffuse. And, constantly interacting with domestic animals and large groups of people, Europeans evolved immunity to many diseases.

In a single generation, Aborigines learned to fly planes and operate computers and do anything Europeans could do. When European farmers were transplanted to Greenland they died out because the environment changed, not because their genes became deficient.

Evolution is a Theory that has been tested continuously; the results accumulating as positive evidence in its support. For creationists to disprove evolution they would need to disprove all these millions of threads of evidence, as well as constructing a rival theory that would explain them better than evo does. They haven't been able to, and instead can only employ negative arguments: "Evo can't explain this so therefore my supernatural explanation must be true."

Most religious claims are testable, such as the power of prayer. Show us something unequivocal, such as getting an amputee to grow a new limb. Amphibians can do it; science is on the verge of doing it; surely an omnipotent designer could do it.

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