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The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths Paperback – August 7, 2012
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“Michael Shermer has long been one of our most committed champions of scientific thinking in the face of popular delusion. In The Believing Brain, he has written a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief. We have all fallen more deeply in his debt.” ―Sam Harris, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Moral Landscape, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of Faith.
“The physicist Richard Feynman once said that the easiest person to fool is yourself, and as a result he argued that as a scientist one has to be especially careful to try and find out not only what is right about one's theories, but what might also be wrong with them. If we all followed this maxim of skepticism in everyday life, the world would probably be a better place. But we don't. In this book Michael Shermer lucidly describes why and how we are hard wired to 'want to believe'. With a narrative that gently flows from the personal to the profound, Shermer shares what he has learned after spending a lifetime pondering the relationship between beliefs and reality, and how to be prepared to tell the difference between the two.” ―Lawrence M. Krauss, Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and author of The Physics of Star Trek, Quantum Man and A Universe from Nothing
“Michael Shermer has long been one of the world's deepest thinkers when it comes to explaining where our beliefs come from, and he brings it all together in this important, engaging, and ambitious book. Shermer knows all the science, he tells great stories, he is funny, and he is fearless, delving into hot-button topics like 9-11 Truthers, life after death, capitalism, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and the existence of God. This is an entertaining and thoughtful exploration of the beliefs that shape our lives.” ―Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works
“The Believing Brain is a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences to explain how irrational beliefs are formed and reinforced, while leaving us confident our ideas are valid. This is a must read for everyone who wonders why religious and political beliefs are so rigid and polarized--or why the other side is always wrong, but somehow doesn't see it.” ―Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and author of The Drunkard's Walk and The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking)
“We might think that we learn how the world works, because we take the time to observe and understand it. Shermer says that's just not so. We just believe things, and then make our world fit our perceptions. Believe me; you don't have to take my word for it. Just try clearing some space in your own Believing Brain.” ―Bill Nye, the Science Guy ©, Executive Director of The Planetary Society
“The Believing Brain is a fascinating account of the origins of all manner of beliefs, replete with cutting edge evidence from the best scientific research, packed with nuggets of truths and then for good measure, studded with real world examples to deliver to the reader, a very personable, engaging and ultimately, convincing set of explanations for why we believe.” ―Professor Bruce Hood, Chair of Developmental Psychology, Bristol University and author of Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable
About the Author
MICHAEL SHERMER is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, and eight other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.
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An excellent book, presenting a difficult concept with crystal clarity.
In his book, The Believing Brain, Shermer is interested not in taking a position on any particular ideology, but in the internal life of the mind - how beliefs are created and reinforced. This is a book where science meets psychology head on, as Shermer digs deep to determine how we establish beliefs. What a wonderful inside-out look at how we organize our thoughts and establish priorities. Shermer argues, and quite rightly, that the very way we establish beliefs is due for an overhaul, and this book is as good a start as any for establishing a system of belief.
In short, Believing Brain is a scientific tome that begins at the cellular level, a metaview of human irrationality, putting the science of skepticism into a granite foundation of research and evaluation. Why do we stubbornly cling to beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
"Brain" is rich in detail, and while it has many sections which I can only qualify as brilliant, some portions of the read, especially early on, can get a bit pedestrian, as Shermer scans over certain well-worn religious arguments. Part 1, Journeys of belief, was the most pedestrian portion of the book, as the examples given were too verbose and didn't get to the heart of the matter quickly. His book has a scientific meticulousness and seems thoroughly researched, but as a piece of prose, it's doesn't exactly have the smooth, narrative flow of say, Neil Postman, and also somewhat lacks a sense of humor.
Nevertheless, I learned a great deal about how we acquire false beliefs in politics, religion, science, etc -- and the fascinating history of false beliefs. All I can say is, it's been a long, hard battle for the truth, from Galileo to Gupta, and all along the way, stubborn mythologies and superstition have obstructed progress. I loved the enlightening examinations of patternicity and agenticity as the brain's mechanisms for filling gaps in data. And from the power of placebo to the influence of super-stimuli, there's a lot here to like.
And among the excellent closing chapters, "Cosmologies of Belief" brought about the deepest, tear-jerking, awe-inspiring spiritual feelings about our Universe, but without superstition and dogma. Generally, the latter portions of Shermer's chapters are the strongest.
As the perfect primers on irrationality, combine "Believing Brain" with Neil Postman's "Stupid Talk, Crazy Talk", and you'll have a well-balanced feast for the aspiring thinker and skeptic: Postman, from the humanities, and Shermer, a man and master of the scientific method. If you want to debunk religious or political dogma, or just put your roots down in reality, there's no better place to start than with these two books.
The site [...] (Shermer) is also an interesting ingestion of facts whether one wants to believe or does not want to believe.
One never knows which courses are taught at university level (unless thoroughly researched) and I wanted to make sure this information is imparted to son in a way I am unable to teach him to think for himself.