Belief engine running amok

August 11, 2011 | By | 12 Replies More

In the June 23, 2011 issue of Nature (available online only to subscribers), A. C. Grayling reviews Michael Shermer’s new book, The Believing Brain (2011). He notes Shermer’s double-barreled explanation for why humans are so ready and willing to believe things that aren’t true:

One is the brain’s readiness to perceive patterns even in random phenomena. The other is its readiness to nominate agency–intentional action–as the cause of natural events. Both explain belief-formation in general, not just religious or super naturalistic belief.

I’ve written about Michael Shermer before at this website, mentioning, as does Grayling, that Shermer “gives the names ‘patternicity’ and ‘agenticity’ to the brain’s pattern-seeking and agency-attributing propensities . . .” Once these beliefs are somewhat established in one’s mind, it’s difficult to turn back, due to the confirmation bias, which blinds us to evidence contrary to our beliefs and makes evidence supporting our beliefs extra salient.

Image by Erich Vieth using Dreamstime Image by FourOaks with permission

Shermer suggests that there is an evolution-based explanation for this over-eagerness to find patterns and to attribute agency, and it has to do with whether one should act quickly or not to the rustling in the bushes nearby, which might be a tiger.

Grayling also points out that the belief in modern religions could not possibly be a hardwired phenomenon given that these “God-believing religions are very young in historical terms; they seem to have developed after and perhaps because of agriculture and associated settled urban life, and are therefore less than 10,000 years old.”   There is thus no evidence for a “God-gene.”



Category: Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (12)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep insights can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

    Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)

    • Michael says:

      Shermer’s brand of pseudo-skepticism is when you believe in nothing that you didn’t already believe in. His position is actually anti-science. One of my favorite blogs takes on the issue of pseudo skeptics on a regular basis:

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Most of Jeffrey Armstrong’s statements are general, putting him ahead of the game before he starts, thanks to the Lake Wobegan Effect: “a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. This is evident in a variety of areas including intelligence, performance on tasks or tests, and the possession of desirable characteristics or personality traits.”

      The astrology video was far from scientific. Regarding the first “reading,” Armstrong was reading the looks and face of the subject–she was giving massive feedback. I’ve seen these techniques first-hand. It’s standard fair for “psychics” of all stripes. Even intelligent people fall for these techniques, even from psychic readings. People are able to self-delude:

      I’ve read quite a bit of Shermer’s work. He doesn’t always get it right, but he is a first rate skeptic, in my book.

      When I’ve evaluating whether something is science or quackery, I apply something very much like the Daubert test used in federal courts. Armstrong’s demonstration would clearly flunk Daubert, and I’m certain that Shermer never assumed that his TV demo was in any way scientific. Kudos for airing it anyway, even though Armstrong got lucky a few times.

      For a revealing astrology experiment conducted by James Randi, see this:

    • Jim Razinha says:

      On the JREF forum thread, one poster thought a better test would be for Armstrong to create his “readings” and then the people would have to guess which were theirs.

      Shermer is a first rate skeptic, but his is also a thorough researcher, a prolific reader and a critical thinker. He’s one of those rare ones in my mind who writes what I like to read but many times draws conclusions I wouldn’t and yet I still read him. I’m looking forward to The Believing Brain.

      After his other books, Pascal Boyer’s and Daniel Dennett’s, I have come to understand that humans have evolved to believe, no matter how irrational the belief. The particular religion is nearly always geographically dependent (though curiously, adherents don’t seem to recognize that), but I could never understand the persistence of religion despite reason. I still haven’t found anyone to explain why to some, religion makes less than no sense. I also don’t know why some otherwise rational, skeptical (of religion) people buy into psychic, homeopathic, paranormal or other nonsense.

      Oops. Let my biases slip through.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jim: On the persistence of religion, have you seen the writings of Richard Sosis? I think he’s closer than most at offering an explanation:

  2. Xtech says:

    Grayling also points out that the belief in modern religions could not possibly be a hardwired phenomenon given that these “God-believing religions are very young in historical terms; they seem to have developed after and perhaps because of agriculture and associated settled urban life, and are therefore less than 10,000 years old.” There is thus no evidence for a “God-gene.”

    We have no way of knowing what exactly went on in the minds of pre-historic peoples. There is evidence, though, of ritual-like behavior among the pre-historics, even in Neanderthals. And the claim that the religions that we know much about, the ones that are more recent (since the advent of agriculture) are too recent to have affected our evolution, is suspect. Consider the evidence for recent evolution in humans. There are adaptations that have occurred since and because of the advent of agriculture. Our diets changed as a result, of course and we had to change along with the available cultivated foodstuffs:
    (from an article published in Nature, “Convergent adaptation of human lactase persistence in Africa and Europe”

    Now of course this does not address whether early humans had a concept of ‘god’ that is similar to our contemporary definition. But quite possibly as tribal bands we had concepts of an alpha leader who lead and protected the tribe; myths of past leaders, ancestor worship; speculation about the causes of events such as thunder and lightning storms, disease, death, or just about anything else unfathomable. Likely there was ritualistic behavior – dance, music, retelling of stories. And of course there was war between tribes, with the attendant loyalty to the group, sacrifice, and heroics. You can see what I am getting at here: these are all elements of religion. Were these elements attributed to gods – gods of thunder, gods of illness, gods of healing, gods of war – in the style of the Greeks or the Norse? Quite possible. They got their gods from somewhere – from their ancestors, who in turn got them from their ancestors.

    I have observed in animals what their behavior is like when presented with a situation that is puzzling or novel. They can react with curiosity, overly and inappropriately fearful reactions, memory of the puzzling situation (learning), and emotion. Do the animals I am talking about bundle these feelings together and attribute the unknowable to one prime actor? Or perhaps to many? Of course we cannot know what goes on in their minds, but to me it is not a far leap to imagine that animals with highly developed brains could experience these type of phenomena and do just that. My suspicion is that the human brain is indeed wired for belief, and that we very naturally categorize events in our lives that are highly emotionally charged into that belief center. Some call that place in our psyche ‘god’.

  3. Mike M. says:


    I thought the same thing about Shermer, until I read a couple of his books. I was especially impressed with his “Why People Believe Weird Things”, in which Shermer admits to believing in the power of prayer and the power of magical thinking (and their documented effectiveness). I am also very critical and wary of the gang of pseudo-skeptics that you’re referring to, but I think it’s a mistake to lump Shermer in with that crowd. Shermer seems to be a fairly earnest and diligent seeker of truth and real science and is not afraid to dig deep and get his hands dirty. He has his flaws, especially when he dismisses witches and ghosts and UFO’s as “imaginary” or “not real”, yet he fails to operationally define these terms at all. 2 out of 3 of those are obviously “real”, –ghosts being such a nebulous concept as to be fundamentally meaningless, with any solid definition always slipping out of grasp. But overall I found Shermer to be surprisingly open minded for a professional skeptic. Check out his book – you may be surprised as well.

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    Calling Shermer “anti-science” is about as absurd as anything I’ve seen on this site. I was going to ask if Michael has read any of his books or gets his info second hand from blogs that use equally absurd terms like “pseudo-skeptic.” Pseudo-science is fake science – how do you fake skepticism? There’s an interesting exchange on the JREF forum from 2009 on the video linked in Michael’s comment. Shermer answered that he had no control over what the producers wanted to air and he couldn’t finish the test because of funding.

    Shermer is so much the scientist that he is willing to consider – and reconsider that which has been persistently proven false – things which have zero basis in fact beyond random chance. I like his stuff, but I think he’s too soft on the failures of these pseudo-sciences to provide reproducible, verifiable and predictable (other than non-prediction) results.

    And Mike M., Shermer writes of the ten-year study funded in a large part by the Templeton Foundation that not only showed prayer to be ineffective, but actually counter-effective: people who knew they were being prayed for had more complications.

  5. Mike M. says:

    Jim, In Shermer’s own book he wrote that “there is medical evidence that prayer and meditation may lead to greater physical and mental health.” His words, not mine. Furthermore, what you are referring to is Shermer’s conclusions regarding only one particular study.

    A psuedo-skeptic would be a debunker who looks at only one side of an hypothesis (the side that corresponds to his current belief system) and either ridicules, dismisses or refuses to even look at studies or evidence to the contrary. A psuedo-skeptic is usually a rigid advocate of mainstream science, lacking the capacity or inclination to really investigate or allow for the unknown, the mysterious, the avant garde, or the ineffable. Perhaps they are too busy defending their entrenched positions, buried deep behind their stacks of High School science texts and the gospels they find within. Psuedo-skeptics are not at the front or the crest of the wave of advancing science, but rather content to play it safe and wallow in the shallow stagnant pools of “accepted mainstream science”.
    The real breakthroughs and discoveries in science always come from the bold, the revolutionary, the thinkers and experimenters on the “fringe”.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      On prayer, Shermer says (here)

      …In April, 2006, The American Heart Journal published the most comprehensive study ever conducted on the effects of intercessory prayer on the health and recovery of patients.
      The results were unequivocal: there were no statistically significant differences between any of the groups. Prayer did not work. Worse, there were slight elevated complications (although not statistically significant) for the patients in the group who knew that they were being prayed for — a “nocebo” effect. Case closed.

      He goes on to say: “As for previous studies in which the positive effects of prayer were claimed, there were numerous methodological problems with all of them, including:”
      1. Lack of Controls
      2. Outcome differences – example given was of one study in which only 6 of the 29 outcome variables showed improvement, but in other studies they didn’t
      3. Only significant correlations being reported
      4. Operational definitions. “When experimenting on the effects of prayer, what, precisely, is being studied?”
      5. Theological difficulties. “If God is omniscient and omnipotent, He should not need to be reminded or inveigled that someone needs healing. And what about all those patients who were prayed for and died? Scientific prayer makes God a celestial lab rat, leading to bad science and worse religion.”

      Now, the part you left off of Shermer’s quote was that he was giving two possible examples of how the Belief Engine can account for Type 1 (believing a falsehood) and Type 2 (rejecting a truth) Errors and Type 1 (not believing a falsehood) and Type 2 (believing a truth) Hits, the first being a natural selection in which magical thinking reduces anxiety about the environment (anthropological evidence that shamans, kings, magicians have more power therefore spread their magical-thinking genes). The second explanation was that the Belief Engine is a spandrel.

      Shermer states clearly his position that belief is a spandrel : “We have magical thinking and superstition because we need critical thinking and pattern-finding. The two cannot be separated.” (I disagree with the last part, but allow that in general humans are not so far removed from our evolutionary roots to discard the irrational save in a tiny minority of thinkers.)

      Nowhere else in “Why People Believe Weird Things” does he discuss prayer. In “How We Believe”, he recounts that introduction in Chapter 3 The Belief Engine.

      I don’t know what Shermer was thinking when he wrote that one sentence fragment, but from many of his other writings, it’s reasonable to infer that he does not believe that there is any medical evidence to support any benefits from prayer. To his credit, he is willing to examine new studies as they come along, but so far none support the claim.

      I’m still shaking my head at that term “pseudo-skeptic.” A true skeptic advocates for the use of science as the measure of examining the fringes. What other measure could there be? Blind acceptance? Evaluation according to a particular religious dogma? There’s nothing pseudo about any skepticism that relies on science. As Martin Gardner said, a scientist must amass considerable evidence before his theory can be seriously entertained otherwise science would be a shambles. If the fringes fail to provide conclusive evidence of their claims that can be confirmed and reproduced under strictly controlled conditions, then they need to keep on working.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I think those prayer efficacy studies piss off God, and He withholds the healing properties of prayer just to test the faith of those who believe in prayer. In other words, the complete failure of the healing powers of intercessory prayer at a distance is actually overwhelming proof that God is listening, that He cares and that people who fail to constantly give homage will go to hell.

      The above proof is why science is futile, and that we all ought to get back to reading our Bibles as though we were naive little children.

  6. Mike M. says:

    I feel the possible effectiveness of prayer has nothing to do with the bible or any holy book. Also, I think it has nothing to do with the biblical God or a real intercession by any supreme being. I reject that classical model or interpretation of prayer as self-evidently childish and absurd. Prayer may work, however, as a simple self or group hypnosis. In other words, the more strongly one intends or wills or expects a certain outcome, the more likely that outcome will manifest in reality. Don’t discount the actual power of belief. Placebos work in this fashion, as does guided meditation and hypnosis. What we focus our attention on tends to become increasingly more evident in a material or observable way. Nothing supernatural about it at all.

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