Saturday, July 19, 2008

'How we believe' by Michael Shermer

About a decade ago I read "Why people believe weird things" by Michael Shermer. It was a quite interesting look at the reasons why people believe in things like ESP, paranormal things, etc. and even got onto serious topics like Holocaust deniers. Not long after that I heard that the author of that book was working on a new book looking specifically addressing the reasons why people believe in God(s).

But I never got around to reading the book when it came out. A couple of years ago I happened upon the second edition of the book on Amazon and hit the 'add to wishlist' button. There it sat for a year or two until someone bought it for me last Christmas (thanks Lisa!). And so I've finally read it.

"How we believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God"
by Michael Shermer

It is an interesting look at belief and religion and goes quite deeply into some aspects of the psychology of belief. It discusses the development of religion in evolutionary terms, pointing out (quite rightly) that our current makeup is the result of thousands of years of evolving and it is only during the last tiny bit of that process that we have made any advances in technology or science, etc., thus our mental processes are heavily influenced by thought patterns built into our makeup in a pre-scientific age.

Shermer's main thesis is twofold:
  1. Humans are pattern seeking animals - we see patterns where none exist and come to conclusions based on our interpretations of these non-existent patterns.
  2. Humans are storytelling animals - having interpreted these non-existent patterns, we then turn this into narrative and tell others. Who believe it. And so on.
This is fine, and reasonably compelling, but he does lay it on a bit thick.

The thing that annoyed me about the book (in much the same way that Pascal Boyer's book "Religion Explained" did some years ago) is that it never actually addresses the central issue. The subtitle of the book speaks of the 'search for God' and yet Shermer never once makes any attempt to do so. The whole book is taken up with explaining why people might believe in gods that do not exist, without ever once actually setting that aside and asking "so if there were a God, how would we know?"

Shermer starts out with two basic assumptions which are never addressed in the book:
  1. There is no god.
  2. This is unprovable by science.
He then puts all his faith in science as being the answer to all our problems and questions (despite having just acknowledged that science cannot prove some things...). In a manner similar to other atheist authors he sees faith as the enemy of science. However, he also seems to have that peculiar understanding of faith as being the mechanism by which people can believe things that are contrary to the evidence. This has never been my understanding or experience of faith. That kind of faith is probably the enemy of science, but it is not the kind of faith that a great many believers have.

But it boils down to this, yes, the book explains how people can have belief in non-existent gods, but it never touches on the possibility that there might be more 'out there' (or even in here) than has been observed by science so far. What if some beliefs are based on patterns that actually were there? This is never considered and the book is flawed as a result.

So interesting, but also annoying and unsatisfying.


Markio said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Of course no-one would ever admit to believing in a non-existent God (much the same as no-one actually believes in the same God Dawkins doesn't believe in) so I would have to assume he's preaching to the materialist/reductionist/atheist choir?

Ricky Carvel said...

Yes, he's preaching to the atheist choir, this book is largely ammo for them in their constant battle against 'irrational' belief.

However, Shermer (and some of the quotes endorsing the book) seems to think that this touches on 'common ground' between believers (of whatever flavour) and non-believers and is, in part, a start to a good-natured dialogue. The book isn't this as Sheremer isn't prepared to be wrong on his core belief that there is no god, yet he would expect believers participating in the dialogue to consider the possibility that they could be mistaken.

Which is not a good starting point.