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Shermer on Belief: I Want To Believe

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2011

Perhaps, dear reader, you can tell me whether Michael Shermer applies the concepts in his new book to his own ideas. Essentially, The Believing Brain (2011) says that we create beliefs and then find evidence to reinforce those beliefs. On those terms, Shermer’s statement is also a belief, and Shermer is merely finding evidence that supports his idea and ignoring other possibilities. I want to know if Michael Shermer raises this problem and answers it.

Shermer‘s book seems to be a good read. His essential point is “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” He uses neuroscience, psychology, history and some sociology to explain what people actually do. So far, so good. There are various chapters with stories of people who believe in things like ghosts, ufos and God. He uses Leonard Mlodinow for beliefs on cosmology, and Mlodinow scratches his back in return, providing one of the publisher’s reviews on the cover of Shermer’s book. If you find this blog interesting, you might also like my review of Mlodinow and Hawking’s book.

However, I’d like your help, because I simply don’t have time to read The Believing Brain in its entirety yet and I have to return it to the library in two weeks. In that two weeks I have to finish writing about 10,000 words so reading Shermer in depth just ain’t going to happen yet. The problem: If our brains create beliefs, and then we find the evidence to support these beliefs how does Shermer know his idea is true? He may simply “want to believe” that his ideas are correct and conveniently only look at evidence that supports him. Even the idea of “looking for evidence” is a belief itself, a belief about how one best discovers “knowledge”. I don’t think– from my brief look so far– that Shermer addresses this. I may be wrong. Can you tell me if Shermer talks about this?


If he doesn’t, I think it might undercut much of what he says, because deciding how we find truth and know truth is not a simple question. And some people don’t even think there is a “truth” to be found. The epilogue is where Shermer talks about what he thinks is the best method to find the truth, which he says is science. He writes, “What makes science so potent is that there is a well-defined method for getting at the answers to questions about the world – a world that is real and knowable.” Notice the assumption that the world is both real and knowable – this is philosophy, not science. He continues, “Where philosophy and theology depend on logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empiricism, evidence and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependent realism.”

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems Shermer doesn’t like philosophy much. This is sad, because as I pointed out above, he doesn’t seem to realise how much of his own point of view actually depends on philosophy, not science. I was surprised to find no mention of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, let alone Bruno Latour’s or even Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” even though I suspect the model of science Shermer is using is based on the latter. This is a constant surprise to me: Scientists who seem to have absolutely no awareness of the philosophy or sociology of science which their discipline is based on.

Let me say at this point, that I love science. I trained in it in my undergrad degree, and I’m so grateful to live in a world where we have things like cars, medicine, and the computer on which I’m typing this. What I don’t love is scientism, the view that almost turns science into a religion. Scientism says that science can solve anything, including things which science just isn’t built to solve. Shermer concludes his book with the statement that the truth is out there and that “science is the best tool we have for uncovering it.” I will conclude by quoting him with a small modification: “In the end, I want to believe. I also want to know. The truth is out there, and although it may be difficult to find, science is one of the best tools we have for uncovering it.”


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10 Responses to “Shermer on Belief: I Want To Believe”

  1. We all can initially look only for those things that support the beliefs we generate from our brain, but afterwards, with practice, we can learn to accept that many of our initial beliefs may be incorrect. It takes practice and, more importantly, willpower, to accomplish this, since many of us are unwilling to break the status quo and stand out and even be willing to accept ostracism from our own family members because of beliefs we hold that they cannot tolerate, but view with contempt.

    If anything, getting established and somewhat objective beliefs requires that we inculcate a habit of not taking our beliefs so seriously that we cannot consider the possibility that they are wrong. I may be wrong, but evidence and reason don’t suggest otherwise and I leave some room for variation, so no one can say I am being completely close minded.

    With that in mind, I need to continue polishing up my Blasphemy Day statement

    • I hadn’t even heard of Blasphemy Day until you mentioned it.

      • It’s apparently also called National Blasphemy Rights day. Regardless, it’s not well known anywhere because blasphemy as a practice is so taboo people wouldn’t talk about it. I think next year I’ll video myself doing something sacrilegious. Or just an off the cuff blasphemy of the holy spirit to freak people out

  2. I haven’t read the book at all, because as you know, I gave my copy away. It’s a funny conundrum you bring forward here. If, as you say, Shermer posits the idea that “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” and say that he then must be subjected to the same? If this is the case, either Shermer is right, and his belief in the “belief is first and evidence is second” idea is true, in which case we have a circular argument about the truth of his claim (ie. “this is the way belief works, including my belief that this is the case, which works like this, including that belief, which works like this etc. which seems proposterous), or he is wrong in which case belief is something completely different, such as the idea that evidence builds the case for belief (ie. I have seen evidence for ghosts, and this and this and this supports it, therefore I believe in ghosts.)

    Having read his other books and being familiar with the way he works, I think it’s fair to say that Shermer’s hypothesis in this case started with a question, and then mounted evidence on all sides to come to a conclusion. What I think he is talking about here (as he did in “Why People Believe Weird Things”) is not belief on evidentiary grounds, but belief from the “gut”, then looking for evidence to back it up. You and I both know that there is a difference between the two.

    I can’t comment further except to say that I wonder if what I have presented here is more the case than the first premise you presented?

    • Well, I hope it’s something like that. Then again, sometimes people have surprising holes in their thinking.

      Ya shoulda read the book before giving it away. I would have. 😉

  3. Here’s my two cents without having read the book either.

    I think there is a fairly simple answer to your question about Shermer’s self-reflectivity. The act of finding evidence to reinforce a pre-existing belief (bias) is called “selection bias”. Are skeptics aware of selection bias? Yes. Is Shermer conscious of selection bias? Yes. Even of his own tendency for selection bias? Even more yes.

    In theological interpretive method jargon, being aware of the biases in your own worldview is called a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. So theologians know about it, too.

    Philosophers of epistemology also have contemporary studies and research showing the cognitive tendency for people to create conclusions based on unproven feelings/intuition and THEN to create reasons for them after the fact. This is demonstrably true. Oh look, philosophers know about this too! 😀

    I don’t think Shermer needs to make the claim that theologians and philosophers can’t escape belief-dependent realism because that is patently simplistic and wrong BUT I think it would be inconceivable for Shermer, as a professional skeptic, to not place his own beliefs under a high degree of criticism.

  4. Greetings,

    Adding to those who haven’t read his book either… 😉

    Scott Atran, in his book “In Gods We Trust” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gods-Trust-Evolutionary-Landscape-Evolution/dp/0195178033/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318350284&sr=1-1), explains how our beliefs are the result of evolution: our survival rule-of-thumb ability of “association”.

    For example, a man walking through the woods/jungle sees a bush being shaken – does he:

    a) freeze,
    b) run,
    c) climb a tree,
    d) go over to investigate?

    If it’s a predator capable of killing him, it’s unlikely that option d) will be passed on to his off-spring!

    This extremely useful ability to associate observed events with a potential threat to survival leads to our tendency to beliefs and superstition.

    A recent study (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110720210651.htm) showed that predators (lions, specifically, in this study) tend to be more aggressive around the full moon. Early man, having noted this tendency, might well come to believe in werewolves, as well as extending the Moon’s effect to other heavenly bodies, ergo, belief in astrology.

    Jim Downard, in his article (and YouTube talk) “An Ill Wind In Tortuca” (http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/01/an-ill-wind-in.html), adds that our initial belief can skew our perception of reality, so that it filters what we take in – hence our tendency to notice evidence which supports our belief more readily than neutral, never-mind counter, evidence.

    Perhaps this is what Shermer’s book is trying to point out!?

    Kindest regards,


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