How We Believe, by Michael Shermer

How We Believe, by Michael Shermer

This book looked interesting to me because it was written by the president of the Skeptics Society. Shermer takes a look at why, at the end of the twentieth century, when mankind has greater technological tools at his disposal than ever before, religious belief is also at an all-time high. He examines this from several angles, positing a "Belief Engine" that developed as an evolutionary advantage by giving humans the ability to react quickly once they've learned something.

He also ran a poll asking people in their own words to describe if they believed, why they believed, and why they thought other people believed. The most interesting result was the difference between the reasons they gave for themselves and for others. For themselves, it was a rational reason, often a variation of the Argument from Design (the world is too well-made for it to be an accident - the watchmaker's argument). For others, though, the leading reasons given were emotional ones, that others needed the comfort of a God or an afterlife. Basically, it was often thought that _other_ people might be weak and use religion as an emotional support, while one's own reasons were always rational.

One other fascinating factoid that he mentions is that humans are hard-wired to have a limit of 150 people that we consider as part of "our" group. "Psychologist Robin Dunbar, in his book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, argues that the figure of 150 people in a typical group has a deeper evolutionary basis. It turns out that 150 is roughly the number of living descendants (wives, husbands, and children) a Paleolithic couple would produce in four generations at the birthrate of hunter-gatherer peoples - this is how many people they knew in their immediate and extended family." (p.159) Also, "Dunbar claims that this figure fits a ratio of primate group size to their neocortex ratio; that is, the volume of the neocortex - evolutionarily the most recent regions of the cerebral cortex - to the rest of the brain. Extremely social primates need big brains to handle living in big groups, because there is a minimum amount of brain power needed to keep track of the complex relationships, in order to live in relative peaceful cooperation. Dunbar concludes that these groupings 'are a consequence of the fact that the human brain cannot sustain more than a certain number of relationships of a given strength at any one time. The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuine social relationship.'" (p. 160)

I thought this was really interesting because it explains why anarchic forms of government fail when groups grow larger. As Shermer notes, "in these small groups, cooperation is regulated through a complex feedback loop of communication among members of the community." (p. 160) However, larger groups of people require formal hierarchies to sustain their functioning. What works at a low level "tribal" level, can not work on the level of a city, state, or nation, because there are just too many people. Of course, this really puts the kibosh on my idealistic theories of anarchism, but oh well.

Shermer's last chapter is also thought-provoking. He introduces the concepts of contingency and necessity, growing out of his reading of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould. In his description, contingency is opportunity, where there are several options. Necessity is where choices have been constrained, where only one path is free to follow. Shermer describes how the two interact, developing a "model of contingent-necessity, which states: In the development of any historical sequences the role of contingencies in the construction of necessities is accentuated in the early stages and attenuated in the later." (p. 225) In other words, early on, a system is free to thrash among its many different options. But since options tend to be self-reinforcing, once one has been settled on, it tends to establish a trench for itself which eliminates other options.

This idea is very evident in the world of high-tech: Jaron Lanier mentions it in his idea of sedimentation at a talk of his I went to. And we've seen it over and over again: QWERTY keyboards, VHS over Betamax, Microsoft uber alles. Applying the same idea to biology is not unthinkable, but it introduces some interesting questions.

Apparently, a controversy arose because by placing evolutionary choices into the realm of contingency, Gould removed the possibility that humans were an inevitable result of evolution. Humans were no longer what all of nature was striving for, but instead a species that appeared for no particular reason that happened to have what it took to stick around. And we don't like thinking that way about ourselves.

But Shermer uses it as a departure point for glorifying our choices. I'll let him speak for himself: "The conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself. Freedom to take responsibility for my own actions. Freedom to construct my own meanings and my own destinies. With the knowledge that this may be all there is, and that I can trigger my own cascading changes, I was free to live life to its fullest." (p. 236) And: "The universe takes on a whole new meaning when you know that your place in it was not foreordained, that it was not designed for us - indeed, that it was not designed at all. If we are nothing more than star stuff and biomass, how special life becomes. If the tape were played again and again without the appearance of our species, how extraordinary becomes our existence, and correspondingly, how cherished." (p. 237)

It was a glorious ending to the book. And an inspiring one.

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