Reason Writers Around Town: Ronald Bailey Reviews Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey reviews The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, in which author Michael Shermer convincingly argues that beliefs come first; reasons second. 

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  1. Hume debunked this theory a while ago. Maybe this guy should read a book rather than write about shit he knows nothing about.

    1. I like Hume, but I haven’t read enough of him. Which of his writings are you talking about?

      1. “Beliefs come first…” in all cases? If so, why should I trust this belief of shirmers?

      2. Hume basically argued that all human intelligence comes from experience and reasoning. The guy mentioned in the blog post argues that beliefs come first.

        To sum up my argument, how could you ever learn from your mistakes if you believed something past experience has taught you is false?

        1. Easy: many people simply don’t learn from their mistakes. I’d think that you’d have seen plenty of that by now, following politics.

          See Krugman, Paul, published works, for reference.

          1. They simply draw different conclusions from their mistakes. “Well, it simply wasn’t enough stimulus!”

            On Krugman’s part in particular, he doesn’t understand that you’re not increasing aggregate demand by spending government money, merely distributing the demand differently. Centrally. Which I also think he’s a fan of.

            1. Paul Krugman:

              We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating ? offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

              So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent…

              http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.c…..g-america/

              1. Ok, I retract my previous statement. Krugman appears to have not developed the ability to reason. Kinda like that college kid that got sent by his parents with daddy’s credit card and never learned how to manage his own finances.

            2. Not true, you may also convert investment to demand. In theory, you could also convert savings to demand, but since there’s basically none of that here, it’s mainly redistributing it or spending our capital.

      3. Oh, and “Human Understanding” specifically is what I was talking about.

      4. Without getting into who is “right” neither of these guys have proven anything. They both presented their theories and argued for them. So to say that this has been “debunked” is nonsense.

        1. This.

          Also, since when has philosophy adhered to the scientific method?

    2. anon: From Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature: Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    3. Are you seriously citing Hume from the 18th century as a scientific response to Shermer’s position which is based on very recent scientific evidence?

  2. Michael Shermer convincingly argues that beliefs come first; reasons second.

    So that explains why environmentalists believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming.

    1. Exactly. Also why their opponents deny it.

      None of us can escape the belief trap. My relatives view the world through the lens of special creation by a just and loving, but ultimately mysterious god. I can’t shake the assumption that we could explain everything through purely material causes if we could just gather enough facts.

      1. Yep, you get to an interesting conundrum – do we believe in science and then justify that belief with lots of conforming observations? Which partially explains Kuhn and the spastic progress of science. It takes a lot of non-conforming observation to overthrow ‘what is known’.

        It is similar ground to the pattern detection problem explored by Taleb in Black Swan.

        1. Sigh. Yeah. We “believe” in science and justify it with observations like “Semiconductors work” and “Radiation exposure kills the shit out of you.”

          1. Need I remind you that aether theory was good physics until that Einstein chap consigned it to the scrapheap. That is how we do progress beyond ‘ooh, magic’.

            You want something to really warp your brain – look into the physics of time.

  3. Michael Shermer convincingly argues that beliefs come first; reasons second.

    I don’t think that’s right. Because it doesn’t mesh with my experience.

    1. C’mon, BP, play the game. Accept Shermer’s opinion as a belief. Then interpret your experience to support it.

  4. Beliefs come first; reasons second […]our brains are “belief engines” that naturally “look for and find patterns” and then infuse them with meaning.

    Mr. Shermer marshals an impressive array of evidence from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.

    Which I imagine deliver patterns for Shermer’s “belief engine” to feed on.

    1. So is reason some metaphysical entity that we tap into, or is it just another neurochemical process?

      Belief is always about ‘what works’. Is reasoning not another pattern that produces useful results?

      1. Re: juris imprudent,

        Belief is always about ‘what works’. Is reasoning not another pattern that produces useful results?

        What I find unsound about Shermer’s argument is his premise that belief and reason are incompatible; maybe he is taking the concept of belief too narrowly, as in ‘thinking things that are not so.’

        However, I do not subscribe to that. Sure, I do not believe in god or gods, but I cannot say that belief in god comes from an acceptance of his existence FIRST, as if by happenstance, without a REASONING process. That makes no sense.

        But Shermer is not simply being an asshole; look well at his premises: belief (for him) is irrational [i.e. cannot be the result of reasoned thought]; therefore, it must come from somewhere else. So he brings forward all this science to shows that belief is no more than mere electrochemical reactions affecting our puny brains. He wants to show that belief IS the result of happenstance, in order to prove that reason cannot arrive at belief as reason is a process of thought and not happenstance. See his point?

        Unfortunately, since it is the very same brain, then we can also conclude that our reason is the result of electrochemical reactions and impulses just as well, so who is to say that our conclusions are the result of reasoned thought and logic and not happenstance? How can we know one from the other if our thought is nothing more than electrons?

        1. Yeah, that’s the part I find ironic – that anyone can suggest that basic brain function (Shermer’s patternicity) suddenly diverges when we get to reason and science. Reason is just another pattern that produces useful (in the evolutionary sense) results.

          1. I think Shermer is saying that science is the tool to see if our patternicity really is bullshit.

            1. Yup. Science is a set of ideas AND a tool.

  5. Thread jack

    http://news.yahoo.com/south-ca…..02725.html

    WTFFFF?????

    1. What raised my temperature was

      Fuda said if the fake testicles were a free speech issue, “I don’t know what they would be trying to express.”

      So if the statist fuck doesn’t know what is being expressed, it can’t be protected speech.

    2. Fuda said if the fake testicles were a free speech issue, “I don’t know what they would be trying to express.”
      “I went to (a) few websites that said, excuse the expression, ‘show your nuts,'” he said. “I didn’t see anywhere it said support your local proctologist or farmer.”

      Qua?

  6. The “scientific solution to the political problem of oppressive governments,” Mr. Shermer says, “is the tried-and-true method of spreading liberal democracy and market capitalism through the open exchange of information, products, and services across porous economic borders.”

    Sorry, Mr. Shermer, but so-called “liberal democracy” and market capitalism will always be at odds, for the simple fact that people vote their envies.

    1. Market capitalism can exist in the context of people voting for how they want it to be structured, i.e., what problems they want it to solve. It’s a tool, not a deity.

      1. Re: Tony,

        Market capitalism can exist in the context of people voting for how they want it to be structured,

        No, it cannot Tony. Please don’t make such a big effort to showcase your ignorance; people may think you’re insane.

        The Market is nothing more than the result of myriads of individual transactions between persons. This network is not voted in nor cannot be voted in, because the INFORMATION contained in it is simply too vast for individuals to grasp.

        1. “The Market is nothing more than the result of myriads of individual transactions between persons.”

          In a particular environment, including a policy environment. No we don’t have perfect knowledge but that doesn’t mean we have no knowledge. Treating the market as an awe-inspiring mystery, yet the thing whose results are some sort of optimum, is not a convincing response to my charge that you treat it like a deity.

          1. Re: Tony,

            In a particular environment, including a policy environment.

            In any environment, Tony. Just because you have a band of thieves preying on the productive does not mean the market is not made of people engaged in exchanges; does not change the fact that people cannot vote in the market or vote on how it works.

            No we don’t have perfect knowledge but that doesn’t mean we have no knowledge.

            Nobody is talking about not having knowledge. What I am talking about is no one having the memory capacity to know each actor’s preferences. Just the number of MILK options for New Yorkers and the different logistical paths make up a number of combinations that can span the universe.

            That’s only MILK, Tony.

            Treating the market as an awe-inspiring mystery,

            You’re showcasing your ignorance again. You ARE insane.

  7. The other comments section is very dissappointing.

  8. Belief is a poor model for high order cognitive processes, one that has infected society through the unfortunate auspices of significantly coercive mythology. Which in turn actually requires a mechanism with the characteristics of belief, as simple reality won’t suffice to support such concepts.

    Confidence is a much better model. From low confidence to high confidence, the confidence model encompasses a top-level ability to reassign confidence levels if and when the evidence indicates this is appropriate. This allows us to move our mental states along with the evidence and the addition of new data, even when it is uncorrelated, and without worrying that we’ve changed our minds and whatever will the neighbors think of us.

    Thinking — as long as it is based upon the concept of belief — is crippled.

    1. I get the belief argument a lot with theists when they find out I’m not one of them. It seems very hard for them to understand that I don’t “believe” that a god doesn’t exist but instead I am extremely confident that a god doesn’t exist.

  9. Doesn’t the example of the wind in the grass go against Shermer’s pattern theory?

    I would assume that it was much more likely for rustling grass to be caused by wind. So primitive Man had to go beyond the generic pattern “rustling grass is mostly likely wind” to the more rational “rustling grass is most likely wind, but I better check to make sure it’s not a Lion because that could end up very badly?”

    1. I think it is more in the amygdala and triggers an orienting response that really bypasses reason and conscious thought altogether.

      1. skr – I can certainly buy your argument about the mental process bypassing reason. But the quote from the article (I haven’t read the book) is about pattern conditioning and what is ‘real’: the”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.”

        I guess what I’m saying is that the ‘real’ pattern is more often than not wind. So to assume the pattern is ‘real’ to me seems the wrong choice. The response isn’t based on observed pattern, but rather the ingrained, irrational, subconscious wariness of unexpected stimulus.

        Or to put it another way – it is beneficial to ignore the actual data (that rustle usually equals wind) and go with belief (things want to eat me) to survive. So maybe I agree with Shermer after all! I just reject that a pattern necessarily conditions the belief.

  10. As a Presbyterian, I love Shermer. He is my favorite atheist. Now, if we could brainsplode Dawkins and Bill Maher, I’d be there to piss on their brain matter.

  11. Re: Tony,

    Market capitalism can exist in the context of people voting for how they want it to be structured[…]

    I wanted to place the discussion down here so I can explain to you why voting is not a process that can help people determine their preferences. Here are the main issues with voting as a substitute for externalizing your preferences through purchasing decisions (i.e. market prices):

    One, voting presupposes people can know their preferences beforehand. Pollsters already know this is not true, but here’s an example: When newspapers poll their customers for what they would like to see in their papers, people say they want more international news and more analysis. When asked what people actually LOOK AT when opening their papers, it is always: The cartoon strips, the sports results, the obituaries and the letters to the editor.

    Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what people SAY or THINK they want and what ultimately CHOOSE. This is because it is IMPOSSIBLE to know what choices one will face in the future and hence their preferences will be. I can’t know what choices I will face within THE HOUR, let alone one week or one month hence. I thus cannot know my preferences one hour from now, because I haven’t been presented with the options YET.

    The market OFFERS several options from which to choose at ANY TIME I WANT, and the choices directly SHAPE the offerings in the future, through the price system and profit-loss testing. My direct preferences SHAPE the market. A vote would not, because there would be a disconnect between my VOTE TODAY and my PREFERENCE ONE HOUR FROM NOW.

    Second: since one cannot *know* what choices one will face in the future, then one would be voting on a VERY POOR and VERY LIMITED menu of choices, no different than what sometimes happens with American Idol: Everybody will be happy for the winner, and then buy someone else’s music.

    So you’re actually ascribing to voting a power that it does not have. Voting is actually a very limited tool for externalizing people’s choices. Instead, in a market, the bewildering number of choices and distribution networks indicate that PURCHASING PREFERENCES through the price system is a much more powerful tool to handle people’s choices.

    For the above reasons, your argument that the market can be DEFINED by voting is erroneous. In fact, you CAN’T shape the market by voting, you can only hinder it. That’s all.

    1. Well, whatever the inherent problems with voting, I don’t know of a better way of determining people’s will for the purpose of shaping policy. And I don’t think market participation is quite as pristinely rational as you think it is. One can regret one’s vote in an election, and one can regret buying a car or a shirt. More importantly, perfectly rational market decisions by individuals can on the macro scale lead to unintended and negative consequences. Anyway it’s not the consumer end that is typically regulated. We elect governments to create the environment in which markets are allowed to operate. There are at least two reasons for this: the market is not perfect, and at least with government everyone gets an equal say. In a market, some people are more equal than others, since people have different spending power depending on how much money they have. It’s perfectly plausible that supply and demand alone can lead to unacceptable results. If the market rewards, say, foodsellers that skimp on safety, we may have a successful model for foodselling based on market terms (it makes a profit) that nonetheless poisons more people than is acceptable to social standards. Having food safety regulations doesn’t limit anyone’s choices–it makes the choices better.

      The only institution in which people have an equal say is their government. Your opinion of how your society should be structured does not have more weight because you have more money, it has equal weight with everyone else who shares your society. Whatever the problems with democracy, that is its virtue.

      So markets have to operate in whatever environment they find themselves in. And, importantly, no private business has a right to succeed, as I’m sure you’ll agree. If you can’t figure out how to sell food without poisoning an unacceptable number of people, too bad for you. Too often, I think, you guys get confused on this point: just because a regulation might cut into the bottom line of a particular business, that doesn’t mean the regulation is stifling capitalism. Nobody has a right to make a profit–they have a right to try to make a profit within a certain environment, and part of that environment is regulatory. And those regulations come, via the admittedly imperfect system of distillation known as representative government, as an expression of the people’s will. Without people shaping the way markets work through government, people are enslaved to the market. It is a tool for certain ends, and if it isn’t providing those ends people have no reason to maintain it. Yes it can produce efficiencies, which makes it a very useful tool, but it can’t produce a society.

      1. Re: Tony,

        Well, whatever the inherent problems with voting, I don’t know of a better way of determining people’s will for the purpose of shaping policy.

        Why would policy need shaping? Why would you need policy in the first place?

        And I don’t think market participation is quite as pristinely rational as you think it is.

        And voting is?

        More importantly, perfectly rational market decisions by individuals can on the macro scale[sic] lead to unintended and negative consequences.

        “On the macro scale”? That’s a red herring. Besides, wouldn’t voting have the same dire consequences “on the macro scale”?

        We elect governments to create the environment in which markets are allowed to operate.

        That’s a crock. “We” don’t do anything of the sort. Markets HAPPEN because WE’RE HERE, regardless of which government exists. The market is a human phenomenon, not something that was conjured into existence by magi.

        There are at least two reasons for this: the market is not perfect, and at least with government everyone gets an equal say.

        That’s an obvious lie. Governments operate by political pressure, which always means whoever yields more power. With markets, every single person votes with his wallet, and each person’s money is just as green as the person besides of him.

        In a market, some people are more equal than others, since people have different spending power depending on how much money they have.

        Who cares about “spending power”? Just because you can buy more widgets than your neighbor does not mean you get to dictate terms to your neighbor; that’s a ridiculous notion.

        It’s perfectly plausible that supply and demand alone can lead to unacceptable results.

        Unacceptable for whom? Another red herring.

        If the market rewards, say, foodsellers that skimp on safety, we may have a successful model for foodselling based on market terms (it makes a profit) that nonetheless poisons more people than is acceptable to social standards.

        Despite of the obvious fact that dead consumers don’t buy food.

        Having food safety regulations doesn’t limit anyone’s choices — it makes the choices better.

        This is an unsubstantiated assertion, besides the fact that you cannot presume to know how a choice looks to someone else besides YOU: VALUE IS SUBJECTIVE, and YOU DON’T READ MINDS.

        The only institution in which people have an equal say is their government.

        Again, you’re repeating yourself. This is an obvious lie: NO HISTORICAL EVIDENCE can support this assertion.

        Your opinion of how your society should be structured does not have more weight because you have more money,

        Under a government? YES IT DOES. See: “Soros.”

        So markets have to operate in whatever environment they find themselves in. And, importantly, no private business has a right to succeed, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

        I agree, which is why I am against bailouts and governments picking winners and loosers through, for instance: food safety laws!

        If you can’t figure out how to sell food without poisoning an unacceptable number of people, too bad for you.

        Yes, indeed. What makes you think the market cannot figure this out, though?

        Besides, you think bureaucrats are so extremely clever they can figure out regulations ex nihilo? Such angels they must be!

        Too often, I think, you guys get confused on this point: just because a regulation might cut into the bottom line of a particular business, that doesn’t mean the regulation is stifling capitalism.

        The confused party is someone else here. Regulations do not “cut the bottom line,” they create anti-competitive barriers of entry to smaller, more dynamic competitors but with less capital.

        Without people shaping the way markets work through government, people are enslaved to the market.

        This is pure nonsese. You can’t be “enslaved” by something you already shape. YOUR confusion begins with your concept of the market as a machine working above humans, but this is the result of your own limited conceptualization. The market IS people.

        1. See: “Soros.”

          You are such a fucking idiot. Of course money influences politics, and that’s bad. But in the market, money is ALL that matters. The wealthy don’t have more control in the market? Are you insane?

          And no it’s not George Soros who is the problem. If you’re going to pretend to be an independent thinking guy with an eccentric worldview, don’t parrot stupid Sean Hannity level bullshit, please.

          Yes the market is people. Guess what, so is government, and (IN THEORY) it’s a better reflection of popular will than the market, since (in theory) there are no barriers to participation based on how much money you have.

          There will always be policy. No policy is still policy, and people should be able to vote on it.

  12. OK that makes a lot of sense dude.

    http://www.web-privacy.au.tc

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