michael shermer on how and why we are wired to believe

Michael Shermer has given an excellent talk at TED offering an explanation as to why we believe. Shermer argues that belief is based upon our nature as a pattern-seeking animals. Our brains have evolved to seek out patterns and relationships between objects and events.

Specifically, Shermer argues that animals make two types of errors in cognition. A Type I error is a false positive, that is, when we believe a pattern is real when it is actually not. A Type I error is when we find a nonexistent pattern. A Type II error is a false negative, that is, when we don’t believe a pattern is real when it actually is. A Type II error is when we don’t recognize a real pattern.

Humans tend to make more Type I errors because they are less costly. His example is that of standing in the jungle and hearing a rustle in the grass. If we believe the rustle in the grass is something that is going to jump out and eat us, then we are cautious and move away. If it turns out that the rustle was just the wind, then there is really no cost to us except for the time we spent moving out of the way and being cautious.

However, if we make a Type II error and we don’t believe that the rustle in the grass will harm us, and it actually was something that can do us harm, we’re dead. Those individuals that gravitate towards the Type II errors tend to die out over time, while those that trend toward the Type I error survive to pass on their genes. Over time, this process results in a species of animals that are more likely to see patterns that are not there (Type I error) because it is selectively safer.

The cost of making a Type I error is less than making a Type II error. Or, to put it another way, it is safer to believe in something that doesn’t exist than it is to not believe in something that does.

Shermer argues that this is why so many people are still very religious, or at least believe in a god, despite our movement towards a scientific world that is regularly disproving many of the myths contained in accepted religious literature. He argues that ‘agenticity,” or the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency, often from the top down with invisible agents or beings is responsible for the development of religion. This explains angels, demons, and gods, but also a belief in aliens and in government conspiracies.

This conclusion should also speak to scholars, who tend to look for patterns in texts or archaeological evidence that simply aren’t there.

I like Shermer’s explanation. It explains the single most prevalent, yet least-spoken reason why so many people are religious: they’d rather live a religious life and be wrong about hell’s existence than not live a religious live and be wrong about hell. The Type I error results in a life that believed in a superstition, and perhaps that loss of a little “fun.” The Type II error, however, results in eternal damnation.

That is to say, many people believe in a god and follow a religion just in case

This reasoning does not make for good people of faith and explains why so many people are looking to do the bare minimum “to be saved” instead of living a life of service to their fellow humans.

Of course, the next appropriate question is: what is driving us to do good for one another if there is no god? Attempts to explain this question are at the heart of the secular humanist movement and others like it.

Shermer makes some other very interesting comments about cognitive priming and other psychological phenomena. My personal favorite is when he states:

I want to believe and you do too. And in fact, I think my thesis here is that belief is the natural state of things. It is the default option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural; disbelief, skepticism, science is not natural. It’s more difficult. It’s uncomfortable to not believe things.

Regardless of your point of view, this is a fascinating lecture and is worth a listen.

6 Responses

  1. Fascinating indeed!

    Thanks for sharing this Mr. Cargill. It confirms my own longstanding suspicion that the agnostic is a harmless creature.

    However, believing this guys interpretation ain’t coming so easy for me. In these last few years of my life, the easy way out has always been disbelieving that which the theologians say.

  2. This all seems entirely backwards. I’m a believer, a BIG believer in science and reason. People who choose to reject, on some level at least, these two paradigms in favor of faith and religion seem to risk great and obvious dangers. Faith healing vs medicine would be a classic example but there are many others that come to mind easily.

  3. i don’t see the dichotomy of being faith v. reason. i see it more as an explanation of why we err on the side of seeing patterns and connections that aren’t really there over not recognizing patterns that are. type one errors can affect both science and faith. i know lots of scholars who claim to see things in texts that simply aren’t there because they want them to be there (or need to publish an article…)

  4. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but nonetheless I’m stunned that the statement ‘science is unnatural’ is so seemingly taken as a valid reason for belief.

    q

  5. i believe the point of the argument is that we have become genetically predisposed to ‘believe’ for the reasons stated in the argument (type 1 errors are less costly than type 2 errors). thus, belief, feeling, sensing, etc. is certainly much easier and therefore more ‘natural’ than working one’s way through a scientific or rational argument in an effort to determine the actual nature of the cause of the rustle in the grass.

  6. […] and is a central thesis of Michael Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain“, which I’ve blogged about in the […]

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