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Beliefs come first; reasons second

Beliefs come first; reasons second. That’s the insightful message of “The Believing Brain,” by Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine.

A extract from a WSJ book review makes me think some readers might be interested:

In the book, he brilliantly lays out what modern cognitive research has to tell us about his subject—namely, that our brains are “belief engines” that naturally “look for and find patterns” and then infuse them with meaning. These meaningful patterns form beliefs that shape our understanding of reality. Our brains tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, ignoring information that contradicts them. Mr. Shermer calls this “belief-dependent reality.” The well-worn phrase “seeing is believing” has it backward: Our believing dictates what we’re seeing.

Mr. Shermer marshals an impressive array of evidence from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. A human ancestor hears a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or a lion? If he assumes it’s the wind and the rustling turns out to be a lion, then he’s not an ancestor anymore. Since early man had only a split second to make such decisions, Mr. Shermer says, we are descendants of ancestors whose “default position is to assume that all patterns are real; that is, assume that all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not the wind.”

In addition, as evolved social creatures, we have brains that are attuned to trying to discern the intentions of others—and we look for patterns, there, too, and then try to infuse them with human intention and meaning, or what Mr. Shermer calls “agenticity.” Patterns in life are variously ascribed to the work of ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers and federal conspirators. “Even belief that the government can impose top-down measures to rescue the economy is a form of agenticity,” the author says.

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