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Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief [Kindle Edition]

Lewis Wolpert
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Why does every society around the world have a religious tradition of some sort? Professor Lewis Wolpert investigates the nature of belief and its causes. He looks at belief's psychological basis and its possible evolutionary origins in physical cause and effect. Wolpert explores the different types of belief - including that of animals, of children, of the religious, and of those suffering from psychiatric disorders. And he asks whether it is possible to live without belief at all, or whether it is a necessary component of a functioning society.

Product Description


"'Brilliant and persuasive search for the source of our need to believe.' Sunday Times"

Book Description

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 449 KB
  • Print Length: 268 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0571209203
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber Non Fiction (3 Feb. 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004N3CBE8
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #305,452 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
By Mr. Stuart Bruce TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Rather than putting forward any ground-breaking or revolutionary ideas, Lewis Wolpert here prefers to gather together a selection of scientific examples and quotes from other thinkers on the subject to form a straightforward explanation of why it is in human nature to believe, whether that means to believe that throwing a rock might hurt somebody or to believe that there are forces beyond what science has shown us to be fact.

The sections about child development compared to the learning processes in other animals is interesting reading, as did the section about the effect religious hope has been seen to have on hospital patients and their health.

The truly interesting parts of this book are often the results of the various experiments that Wolpert cites as examples, rather than Wolpert's collection opinion.

However I'm an atheist and it is to this book's credit that I ended up feeling a little more sympathetic to people who have religious beliefs, not to say that I agree with them but at least I now have some reason to understand *why* they might be inclined to believe against the odds and against the evidence.

Wolpert keeps things brief, covering a variety of different topics without exhausting any of them. This book might leave you wanting to find some more intensive reading into one particular aspect.
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107 of 114 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book for wanderers 29 April 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I liked the first half of the book enormously, but my enthusiasm reduced a little as I read on. I ended up with some criticisms. On the whole, I think it is good, but it could have been a lot better.

The title of the book is a direct quotation from Lewis Carroll:

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

One of my minor disappointments was that Wolpert doesn't draw enough attention to the perversity of this "six impossible things" comment. Carroll makes his White Queen proud of believing impossible things and that is a feature of many passionate believers. "Any fool," says the fundamentalist "can believe things that are possible, but it takes hard work and talent to believe the impossible."

In discussing human beliefs Wolpert makes too little of the fact that many systems of belief seem to praise and honour adherents who are passionate in their belief of impossible things. This applies most of all to political and religious systems.

The devotion to Big Brother expected of the citizens in 1984 is a marvellous example of this zealotry. We might assume that the man at the top is free of the delusion he requires of the junior ranks. And yet, in 1984, it seems possible that O'Brien really is a true believer at heart. The massive irony is that his job includes fabricating the lies that other citizens have to believe.

And it does not happen only in fiction.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What and why we believe 1 Jun. 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
It seems quirky, claiming to "imagine six impossible things" as Alice's White Queen did. Before breakfast or at any time. Wolpert shows, however, that most of us are firmly convinced of many things that aren't so: gods, unlikely events, strange medical practices - the list seems almost endless. The lack of tangible evidence supporting or even evidence countering, those things we have faith in seems to have little impact on our credulity. In a dozen illuminating chapters, this award-winning biologist examines this almost inexplicable facet of our lives. Written with precision and deep insight, Wolpert demonstrates his command of how belief is a fundamental aspect of our society. Why do we believe the things we do?

As a biologist, Wolpert naturally turns to our evolutionary roots for clues to the origins of belief. That which sets us apart from the other animals - our oversized brain, our use of tools, and our ability to use language - as the indicators. The brain's capacity to store, retrieve and assemble information is tied to our abilities in technology and language. For Wolpert, the prime element is the making of tools. Making tools means envisioning the final product, and devising how to bring it about. Put more simply, understanding cause and effect - something even other primates have trouble with. From this beginning, he argues, come social relationships and a sense of values. Along the way, we also developed the idea of agency which we assigned to events or circumstances that were out of ordinary, everyday experience. If the process of flaking stone went wrong, why did that happen. The best-laid plans, etc.

From this beginning, Wolpert shows how the panoply of modern beliefs has come into our lives.
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49 of 53 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Easy to believe, hard to digest 13 Dec. 2006
"Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast" is a disappointing book. Disappointing because the topic is so well chosen: the evolutionary origins of beliefs, with attention to everyday common sense as well as the high end temptations of religion and alternative medicine. Disappointing because the author's previous mapping of related territory - in "The Unnatural Nature of Science" - promised much. And disappointing, too, because stating (twice, with variations) in the Introduction that "I admit I am a reductionist materialist atheist" is such a great start.

Wolpert throws in any number of intriguing ideas, but the argument is simply difficult to follow, making reading a chore and a good case less convincing than it should be. The material is not inherently that difficult - if not easy - but the writing makes it an uphill struggle.

Take just four sentences from the chapter "Believing": "Beliefs are held in one's memory and can be recalled. We express beliefs even when, all too often, we do not have the evidence, knowledge, or facts to support them. Moreover, emotions can undoubtedly influence our beliefs. In addition, the distinction between knowledge and belief becomes less clear in relation to memory." The sentences are pithy, but lurch here and there, with "in addition" piled on "moreover" but no pause to demonstrate, for example, how it is that emotions can influence beliefs. The distinction between "knowledge" and "belief" in the last sentence is referenced as if it was obvious, or previously explained. But it isn't and the distinction is never defined. Just a page before Wolpert was conflating "ideas" and "beliefs" - "15% of our day-to-day conversations contain ideas, that is, beliefs, about causes."

The problems aren't just in the detail.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Hmmmmmm
Have been asked to rate this but to tell the truth I didn't even remember that I had it. I wonder if that means it didn't grab me in the first chapter!
Published 21 months ago by Theadora Von Rinkydink
2.0 out of 5 stars Not so much dry as dessicated.
This book was a real disappointment.

It seems a potentially fascinating subject, and I generally have a high tolerance for technically complex ideas. Read more
Published on 30 July 2012 by tiggrie AKA Sarah
2.0 out of 5 stars Inadequate
I bought this book with the hope of gaining some insight into the reasons why we humans believe the things we do. Unfortunately, this book did not meet that expectation. Read more
Published on 6 July 2011 by Chatoyant
4.0 out of 5 stars Makes You Think - Keep an Asprin Handy
Lewis Wolpert really makes you think with this one. Once you get stuck in it's hard to put down as Lewis puts forward most convincing arguments on a number of topics all of which... Read more
Published on 5 April 2010 by Peter J. H. Sharman
1.0 out of 5 stars Prejudiced and sloppy
A fine example of the self-indulgence of the established author - a sloppily written book that would never have been published had the author been unknown. Read more
Published on 3 Nov. 2009 by bossa_nova
1.0 out of 5 stars Hugely disappointing
This ought to be a very interesting book, given the topic, but it's actually a real disappointment. The general argument - that tool use led to causal beliefs which then developed... Read more
Published on 28 July 2009 by tomsk77
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but incomplete?
Contains some interesting ideas regarding the origin of belief and the author's opinion that it is related to the evolution of the human grasp of 'causal interactions' and tool... Read more
Published on 2 Mar. 2007 by Sir Barnabas
5.0 out of 5 stars Overview of Belief Systems.
Lewis Wolpert is preaching to the converted in my case but I was still interested, nay alarmed, to read many of the quoted statistics relating to what people think/believe about... Read more
Published on 23 Feb. 2007 by Ian Cadman
5.0 out of 5 stars Causation is the cement of society (D. Hume)
The basic concept of Lewis Wolpert's book is Darwinism: chance events lead to variation followed by selection. Read more
Published on 23 Nov. 2006 by Luc REYNAERT
1.0 out of 5 stars Good questions, but ... no answers, and shaky logic
I also bought the book a few days ago in anticipation to read some scientific,
logically substantiated arguments, about why belief is second-nature to humans. Read more
Published on 10 Aug. 2006 by Takis Konstantopoulos
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