Is it All a Trick of the Mind?

Michael Shermer, formerly a Professor specializing in the history of science, skeptic, debunker, author of such books as How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God and The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule has a new book out The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. I may try to pick up a copy of the book and go through it, but today I would like to link to a review by Ronald Bailey in the Wall Street Journal: A Trick of the Mind.

The premise of the book according to Bailey is an inborn evolutionary capacity of the brain to look for an find patterns, real and imaginary patterns.

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

Finding a pattern results in the firing of a reward mechanism in the brain “Even for folks with normal chemical levels, there’s a neurological upside to pattern-finding: When we come across information that confirms what we already believe, we get a rewarding jolt of dopamine.

This is an interesting idea.

Do you think that pattern finding is an inborn human trait?

Does this explain away both superstition and religion? If not, why not?

Mr. Bailey concludes his review:

But it is science itself that Mr. Shermer most heartily embraces. “The Believing Brain” ends with an engaging history of astronomy that illustrates how the scientific method developed as the only reliable way for us to discover true patterns and true agents at work. Seeing through a telescope, it seems, is believing of the best kind.

Science and the scientific method is, at its very core, a search for patterns. No doubt about it. We are looking for patterns and putting things together. The cleaner the pattern, the more beautiful the result. There is a jolt of euphoria that comes with a new recognition of an important pattern, the beauty of physics, of biology, of chemistry. I spend my professional life looking for patterns and teaching the patterns. The facts are trivial. The facts and equations are available on Google or in the library – it is the underlying theme, the few fundamental postulates, the patterns that govern, … this is why I love science and this is what I want my students to learn.

So two questions, first to those who are skeptical of religion and find science to expose the only reliable patterns:

Why do do you assume that patterns observed from science are true, but those arising from other forms of interaction and knowing are not?

Second to Christians, especially those who struggle with science.

Why do you disregard the patterns observed in science as inadequate?

Scot has had a number of posts on Christian Smith’s book dealing with Biblicism. Here is my definition of Biblicism:

Biblicism is a conviction that the human ability to reason and find patterns, be it in science, or in relationship with God and with others is fundamentally flawed and unreliable. The only true foundation for all knowledge and understanding is the written, revealed word of God.

This is a postulate. It cannot be proven from scripture, without first assuming that it is true and that therefore it will be found in scripture.  It does not seem to me to be consistent with the text of scripture itself, the patterns that emerge from a reading of scripture. It certainly cannot be proven without scripture.

I think that scripture is the inspired word of God. It is a light and a lamp to guide our path. It is reliable and trustworthy. It is the outgrowth and record of God’s relationship with his people and of his work in the world. But it is not the foundation on which we stand. It does not override or supersede our gifts of reason and understanding – or of pattern recognition.

Scientism on the other hand is a conviction that only science is true – and everything can be reduced to scientific cause and effect, from the love of a mother for her child, a husband for his wife to the apparent beauty of a rainbow, a sunset over the sea, or a fundamental equation of physics. It must be assumed and cannot be proven. It seems inherently unsatisfactory – and we should trust our gifts of reason, understanding, and pattern recognition as we look beyond the merely reductionist and material.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit Is it All a Trick of the Mind? at Jesus Creed.

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