The Center for Inquiry-New York City and NYC Skeptics hosted noted skeptic and bestselling author Michael Shermer for a talk about his new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.
His thesis is straightforward: We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.
Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns and then infuses those patterns with meaning.
The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he calls agentivity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.
We can't help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs.
Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation.
Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to ensure that we are always right.