I am a devoted Michael Shermer fan. I’ve read most of his other books — and enjoyed them a lot. Imagine my excitement when The Believing Brain came up as a possible advanced review book. I applied only for this one book, and I’m so glad I did. The Believing Brain is a wonderful introduction to how our minds make themselves up, then look for support for their conclusions.
Shermer breaks the book down into four parts. I feel it’s appropriate to explore the book based on the parts he’s decided to present.
Part 1: Journeys of Belief
Providing us with real-life case studies first, Shermer gives us a blue-collar gentleman whose experience one late night in the 1960s made him look for the otherworldly being he thinks visited him and gave him a message of love. This gentleman then took up philosophy and science, hoping to prove there is such a being.
The next gentleman Shermer discusses is a scientist who believes in God. He tells Shermer that he used to not have belief, and then, one day, he made the leap and became a believer. He sees evidence of a creator in the fact that he has a choice whether to believe. He thinks doubt is a chance to grow in one’s faith.
Then Shermer tells his story. Once a born-again Christian (by his own choice — his family was mostly secular), Shermer grew to see in college that his beliefs didn’t jibe with what he was learning.
I thought this part was somewhat interesting. I already knew Shermer’s story, but it was refreshing to read the stories of the other two gentlemen to see how they ended up on the other side of the belief table.
Part 2: The Biology of Belief
This was a really fascinating part of the book for me. Shermer discusses how the human brain is wired to find patterns — if we make a mistake on whether there is a pattern to a random occurrence, we don’t really suffer a consequence, but if we think things are unrelated when they actually are, then there’s a problem. We also tend to think there’s a cause behind things, which has aided our species to survive. I like the fact that Shermer provides us with these tendencies, because they’re helpful to keep in mind both when reading the book and when exploring one’s own beliefs.
Part 3: Belief in Things Unseen
This is the part that felt most familiar to me in the entire book. Shermer goes through several types of beliefs (e.g., belief in UFOs) and discusses the research on them. He explores the experiences of those who think they have had contact with or some other experience involving these “things unseen”, and then talks about the science behind those beliefs. I’ve read books, both by Shermer and others, that talk about similar things, but it’s always nice to be up on the latest science in the field.
Part 4: Belief in Things Seen
I loved this section of the book. Here, Shermer talks about facets of our everyday lives, like politics, and why we dig our heels in when confronted with a contrary tenet. He also talks about the history of astronomy to illustrate how even science can be affected by our set beliefs. I thought this was great. To show that science is, ultimately, something done by humans and is prone to human mistakes and tendencies is fantastic. How else are we to try to eliminate bias if we don’t acknowledge its existence?
Overall, I really liked the book. My only quibble with it (and for shame on me, after having read it) is that Shermer reveals he’s a libertarian. My cliché sirens went off! I really don’t think it’s something he necessarily had to share. The Believing Brain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how people decide on what they’re going to think, and then seek the evidence. I think we all need to be aware of that tendency, and also be wary of it.