By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Michael Shermer
A conundrum is a difficult problem or question. Michael Sherman deals with the biggest conundrum of all. Shermer is an academic psychologist, writer, myth buster, and faith breaker. Shermer characterizes himself as a religious skeptic.
“The Believing Brain” describes belief in God as a genetically evolved faith-based myth. Shermer cites science and history to deny God’s existence. Shermer believes the idea of God comes from a genetic predisposition of human beings to invent mythological stories to explain the inexpiable. He argues that man created God rather than the reverse.
Shermer’s underlying skepticism about the existence of God is grounded in prayer’s failure to cure the incurable, the nature and history of recorded life, and scientific studies of brain function. Shermer writes of his personal prayers’ failure to heal a medically unhealable friend.
Shermer recounts common sectarian stories that occur in the history of different religions suggesting that stories of religious belief are genetically imprinted; i.e. a condition of human nature rather than proof of God. He reviews brain function studies that confirm neurological causes for “out of body experience”, “voices from the unseen”, alien abduction, white light cognition during near death experience, and other anecdotes that mythologized the existence of other beings, God , the devil, and/or an “after life”.
Aside from Shermer’s disbelief in God, his most disconcerting and interesting commentary is about experimentally reproducible studies that clearly demonstrate man’s instinctive habit of inventing stories, denying physical reality, and acting in socially reprehensible ways. Man’s instinct is to believe something before the facts are known and then gather evidence to support the belief while discounting or ignoring conflicting data.
Shermer notes how framing an idea before gathering the facts distorts human cognition. Scientific studies show that human cognition is proven to be biased by a person’s belief system. Shermer cites B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning and the famous Milgram obedience experiments to show how human perception, and more consequentially, behavior are manipulated by human instinct and contextual bias. It is no wonder that “eye witness” accounts of crime are being discounted as a source for conviction of presumed perpetrators.
The foundation of Shermer’s skepticism is what he calls “patternicity” and “agenticity”. “Patternicity” is the human compulsion to see causal relationship in the physical world. “The Believing Brain” outlines a psychological inclination of human brains to manufacture causal patterns and agents (“agenticity”) to support pre-determined beliefs. The irony of Shermer’s analysis of brain function is that “patternicity” is an essential tool of the scientific community. Without the use of “patternicity”, how would Bohr, Einstein, or Paul Dirac have advanced the world of physics? These men believed in quantum mechanics, relativity, and unseen physics’ particles before science could prove them right.
Shermer notes that science is the key to knowledge. Science requires experimentally reproducible results, and when experimental results cannot be precisely reproduced, knowledge changes. Man is on the verge of scientifically proving that Higgs boson particles exist, 16 years after they were conceptually discovered.
“Patternicity” and “agenticity” are essential characteristics of an inquiring, scientific mind. One must presume that is why Shermer chooses to call himself a skeptic rather than an atheist when asked if he believes in God; i.e. more like a person losing faith rather than God. [contact-form-7 id=”1710″ title=”Contact form 1″]