Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Michael Shermer: The Believing Brain
(NY: St. Martin’s Griffen, 2011), paperback edition

As with an earlier book by Michael Shermer which our group read (The Science of Good and Evil [2004]), we were rather strongly split in our appraisal of The Believing Brain. On a scale of 0-10 one person gave it a 10, and another a 9; but two other people gave it a 3 and one person gave it just a 1. The rest were in the middle, with ratings of 4 to 7. Our group average was 5.4.

Ron said that he both liked and disliked the book. Although he agreed with a lot of the views in the book, he also said that the study of why we believe certain things is not really a hard or solid science. When Ron tried to quantify the points discussed in the book he couldn’t find much there. He thought the author had a good writing style, though perhaps some of the language might be a bit too erudite for some readers. He rated the book as a 7.

Rosie commented that she didn’t have that much to say about the book, except that she really disliked it. She thought that it was too wordy, and that—at least for our group—there was not much that was new there. She gave it a 3. Kevin also gave it a 3. He said there were a few gems in it, mostly near the beginning. But he got tired of it and gave up on it. It was tedious and repetitive. In all, the book sucked. (Kevin also tried listening to the audio version of the book, which he said was even worse; it was read by Shermer himself in a monotone.)

Barbara, who is strongly religious, really liked the book and gave it a 10. Interestingly, she thought that the book actually promoted the belief in religion and God. “He [Shermer] is trying to say that God is worldwide.” She did find it revealing how many skeptics there are out there, however.

John, who gave the book a 7, felt that some of the previous reviewers had missed the basic point about why the book was written in the first place. He said that Shermer’s argument that we are prone to belief because of the need to find patterns and agency all around us was a strong one, and that Shermer did a good job bringing this down to the neural level. “I bought his thesis pretty well. I liked his methodology.” But John also felt that as with most books of this kind Shermer was probably “preaching to the choir”. Still, he thought that the book was pretty good at debunking the existence of “outside forces” (like God). And he enjoyed the book.

Rich was the most in the middle of our group’s views on this book, and gave it a 5. “A lot of it for me was philosophy and speculation.” But he said the material about pattern recognition, etc., was interesting.

Vicki commented that the book was “definitely a mixed bag”, but that she leaned more toward the views of Rosie and Kevin about it. She was interested in the discussions of schizophrenia and the bigger topic of paternicity. However, she thought that in the sections of the book on the belief in the afterlife and so forth Shermer became more arrogant, and seemed to lose his purpose in writing the book. From that point on the book became something of a slog. She rated it a 4.

Kirby missed the meeting, but reported his views of the book on the phone to Scott (who unfortunately didn’t take good notes of his views). But Kirby very much liked and approved of the book and its overall thesis, and gave it a 9. He felt that it was well written. However, after hearing some of Scott’s negative opinions about the book, he said he also agreed with some of them as well.

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And now we come to our strongest nay-sayer, Scott, who gave the book only a 1, and even that much quite begrudgingly! Scott thinks that Shermer is way too “wishy-washy” and that while he is trying to oppose religion, UFO mania and other irrational beliefs, he concedes way too much ground to such foolish notions. Shermer is prone to simple-minded ideas, such as that you “cannot prove a negative” [p. 175]. Of course that is simply not true. At one time (hundreds of years ago) it was not known for certain whether there were intelligent beings living on the moon. Now we do know for certain that there definitely are not any “Selenites” living there. Only Lunatics claim otherwise! And in some cases it is not necessary to search an area, let alone “the entire universe” to prove that something doesn’t exist; that can be accomplished simply because the thing itself is logically or scientifically incoherent.

Shermer describes himself as both an agnostic and an atheist (because what he really means by atheism is something more like agnosticism, namely, someone who does not believe in God but who also claims that the “God question” is “insoluable” [p. 176]—that is, that it is absolutely impossible to know for sure whether or not God actually exists.) Scott finds it bizarre that someone who claims to be a scientist, and even whose field of study is psychology, should take such an erroneous position. It is actually psychology (albeit apparently a different branch, cognitive psychology) which by demonstrating that mind is a set of high-level ways of characterizing the functioning of the brain, shows that there can be no such thing as a disembodied mind—as God (and ghosts and demons) are always supposed to be. The fact that Shermer doesn’t understand such a basic thing as this leads Scott to seriously question how good a psychologist he can possibly be.

Shermer does say in a couple places that “mind is what the brain does” [p. 111 & 160], which is not exactly correct, but sort of on the right track. But in several other places he says that “there is no such thing as ‘mind’” [p. 22 & 41] If mind is what the brain does, and mind doesn’t exist, then apparently the brain is doing nothing! On p. 111 he finally tries to reconcile these opposed views by saying “There is no such thing as ‘mind’ per se, outside of brain activity.” But now he is arguing for yet another different theory, the simple-minded (simple-brained?) mind-brain identity theory. He restates that erroneous theory again on p. 90: “The evidence that the brain and mind are one is now overwhelming” and again on p. 156. Shermer doesn’t notice the many sloppy inconsistencies of this sort in his writing; his writing is anything but careful, well-thought out, or precise.

The same simple-mindedness and/or sloppiness shows up in Shermer’s views on other topics, such as on p. 72 where he seems to say that free will is “an illusion”. Compatibilism, the recognition that things can both be determined by definite causes and still be a free choice on our part, is way too subtle an idea for someone like Shermer.

A major focus for Shermer (to his credit) is to criticize dualism, but he is such a naïve materialist that he is unable to do this properly and convincingly. And, once again demonstrating his shallowness, he often falls into philosophical idealism himself, not only when he says that God “might” exist, but also with regard to more subtle idealist notions such as his acceptance of the existence of qualia [p. 116].

Because of Shermer’s sloppy writing style, Scott says that he was not entirely sure if Shermer accepts the validity of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy” (aka the “is-ought” fallacy) or if he rejects it [p. 251]. In any case, and not too surprisingly, it appears that Shermer doesn’t correctly understand what that issue in ethics is all about.

Shermer says that “God is hardwired into our brains” [p. 174 and elsewhere]. This is just plain stupid. If God were actually “hardwired” into us then no human being would ever be capable of coming to believe that God does not exist. It’s like Shermer doesn’t even know what it means to say that something is “hardwired”. Yes, we humans do have the tendencies to see patterns (even where they don’t really exist) and perhaps to ascribe “agency” to things which are not really autonomous agencies. These tendencies may well be “hardwired” into us in some sense. But that does not mean that the belief in God is hardwired into us! Sometimes it is hard to know if Shermer’s weird comments reflect a poor writing style or perhaps something much worse—really poor thinking.

Shermer’s basic thesis in this book is: “my thesis of belief-dependent realism that beliefs come first and reasons come second” [p.190]. However, if this were always true, no one would ever be able to change their beliefs. So again, what we have here is something rather simple-minded. Yes, there is this tendency in people which has been known all along. But it can be overcome, primarily through a good education, which mostly means learning how to think, the (various!) scientific methods, and so forth. Shermer’s last part of the book seems designed to demonstrate this via discussions of astronomy, cosmology and other sciences. But weirdly, he doesn’t seem to recognize that arguing in this way amounts to denying the full validity of his original dogma, that people (always?!) start with beliefs and then try to justify them. This guy is very confused!

It was interesting to see that the references and citations in this “science” part of the book were often to popular expositions that our own science book club has read. (This is one of the reasons that so much of the material in the book was so familiar to us.) And, moreover, it seemed apparent to Scott that Shermer’s actual knowledge of these sciences was quite superficial. One piece of explicit evidence for this is his blatant error in his comments on Cepheid variables on p. 317: “Cepheids in nebulae that are X times dimmer means that they are X times farther away.” Actually the brightness of a given star varies inversely with the square of the distance. (This inverse square law is elemenary high school physics.) Scott would generalize from this: There is a real question in his mind how extensive Shermer’s knowledge actually is about any of the sciences, including even psychology!

Shermer bills himself as a “skeptic”, and is the founding publisher of the magazine called the Skeptic, which does in fact criticize some of the silly and unscientific views which are so widespread in this society. But one of the strange things about him is that he is himself very gullable when it comes to accepting with little or no skepticism whatsoever! the wild speculations in cosmology, for example. Thus he has 3 or 4 pages in the book about the bizarre theory of the “multiverse” (multiple different universes) which he tries to “make a case for” [p. 327] even though he admits that there is no real evidence that the “multiverse” exists at all. Scott can’t help but feel that Shermer is a phony in many ways, and that includes even in viewing himself as a consistent skeptic.

Finally there is the extensive capitalist-imperialist apologetics of the book. Of course Scott thinks all that is basically bull shit, and hardly even worth dignifying with any argument against. He would just note that while Shermer was once part of the Ayn Rand cult, and broke away from it, he still openly promotes the same ultra-bourgeois ideas of the woman who wrote The Virtue of Selfishness.

[OK, Scott. You’ve had your long say. Time to stop now even if you have plenty of more criticisms of Shermer and his book. If the other book club members want to submit some further comments on The Believing Brain they are welcome to do so. —Ed.]

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