Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Believable Michael Schermer

Having read Victor Stenger's (slightly too mathematical) book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning while on holiday last week (see here, here and Stenger 1: God 0), I moved on to another book that I had been eagerly anticipating for more than a year since hearing the author being interviewed on the podcast, Skepticality.  In June 2011, I posted an article called Faithful genius - a contradiction? in which I mentioned the book

This time (unlike last week) I was not inundated with equations, and quite quickly I read the 344 pages of Michael Schermer's The Believing Brain.

The Believing Brain - Schermer
The Believing Brain - Schermer

This fascinating volume distills much of the knowledge that you gain from reading around the subjects of skepticism and neuroscience, but it distills it nicely into a very digestible form, mixing entertaining narrative with the latest research findings and dropping in a good measure of humour on the way.  For example, he mentions seeing a car bumper sticker which said:

Militant Agnostic: I don't know and you don't either!

and George Gamow's famous limerick

There was a young fellow from Trinity
Who took the square root of infinity
   But the number of digits
       Gave him the fidgets;
He dropped maths and took up Divinity.

The key (serious) message from the book will be familiar to many of us. For everyone it seems to be true that beliefs come first, and explanations follow.  The more intelligent a person is the better they are at justifying their beliefs, but their intelligence does little or nothing to help them in the selection of those beliefs.  He mentioned what he referred to as Spinoza's Conjecture:

Belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.

How can you argue with that observation?

One of the main highlights for me is Chapter 12 Confirmations of Belief.  It deserves to go down in history as a companion to Carl Sagan's famous chapter The Fine Art of Baloney Detection in his 1996 book Demon Haunted World (which obviously influenced Schermer's writings).  This chapter is a very thorough review of 34 distinct types of bias and a few other techniques that we all use to justify our beliefs.  Many of them are familiar, and you will remember times when you experienced them. but almost everyone will spot some new ones in there.

It was interesting to see that Schermer touched on the topic of fine tuning (p324) and made a mention of Victor Stenger.  By now he has probably read Stenger's new book, but at the time of writing he referred to the fine tuning problem as, in his opinion "the best argument that theists have for the existence of God".  (He left us with the impression that it was only the best of a bad set though.)  The following pages suggest that even last year he did not rate the probability to be very high, and I am sure that he will revise this part of the book in the event that it goes to a second edition.  Nevertheless, real-life stories about beliefs like this are the life blood of this book, and without them it would not be so firmly established as a realistic and convincing treatise.   

There is so much more to this book that I can only recommend you to buy and read it. 


LadyAtheist said...

Thank you for reviewing this. As a non-scientist I always wonder if I've taken away the best of a book on sciency things, even if I'm part of the intended audience.

I haven't read Demon-Haunted World since it first came out, and it appears I don't remember much of it! I think it'll go on my Kindle next. Thanks for the reminder.

Unknown said...

S'up y'all. I haven't read BB, but i did read Science of good and Evil-that was the best so far. I'll check out BB, tho. Hope ya had a good vay-cay.