Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief Paperback – 4 Jan 2007
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"'Brilliant and persuasive search for the source of our need to believe.' Sunday Times"
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief by Lewis Wolpert is a groundbreaking popular science book, examining the evolutionary origins of belief.See all Product description
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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.
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. The Catholic Church, the Stalinist state, the world of advertising, spin and PR are all examples of situations in which zealous belief is sometimes valued, apparently, at the expense of sanity.
And another thing: earlier on the White Queen has said to Alice: "I wish I could manage to be glad! Only I never can remember the rule." And maybe that is a key thing for belief - beliefs make us glad.
(I am inordinately fond of Alice - perhaps Dodgson was too - and I feel many of the White Queen's words, though quite mad, have enormous depths.)
I wish Wolpert had put more effort into exploring the reasons for rationality being so vulnerable in human culture. Even more, I wanted to hear any ideas he had on reducing that vulnerability.
However, that's just a peeve. There was a lot I liked about the book. It brings together a lot of ideas, many based on research results and summarises them well. It describes the implications of a whole range of work, most of it recent. Many of the experiments are subtle and clever. The progress made in the twentieth century was huge on several fronts.
It is an honest and open book. He explains his own position - atheist Jewish scientist - and freely admits that some of his idea may be prejudiced by his personal biases and beliefs. To that extent, he is humble.
Many of the ideas he presents are ideas I can readily agree with. The general thrust of his thinking is, for me, both exciting and convincing.
It is easy to read and assimilate, despite the fact that the ideas come from a huge range of sources and disciplines. Also, some of the ideas are intrinsically difficult and complicated, yet he explains them carefully and fluently.
It is well worth reading, especially if your interests are wide. Perhaps it is a book for Alice in Wander Land, a book for those who wander, rather than just going where authority tells them. And not everyone who wanders is lost.
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. The onset of conceiving an agency either began or enhanced the mind's "belief engine". The belief engine demands an identifiable cause for circumstances. When that's not readily apparent, we extend our belief to things we must imagine. These explanations can, and are, passed around the community, establishing both a bond among its members and reinforcing the interpretation. Once the idea gains prominence, it resists challenge and is difficult to overturn. Religion, of course, is the ultimate organised form of belief, often touted as society's best glue. Wolpert accepts this situation without rancour, even admitting his disturbed son's conversion to a fundamentalist Christian sect has improved the boy's behaviour. That given, Wolpert cannot excuse rigid adherence to dogmas that have no basis in reality. Science has disproven so many religious and other belief systems that he insists the wider society examine their beliefs more critically. There are other facets than family relations to consider.
Recent claims that religious folk, or even those with faith in such things as homeopathy or "crystal healing", actually feel or live better may have statistical substance. Wolpert wants these claims investigated fully, since the early results have little validity. Part of how these practices seem effective lies within the brain's dealings with the rest of the body. It is this aspect that suggests paths of study, since it 's clear the objects or methods have no curative power in themselves. Many of the methods are accompanied by common-sense recommendations regarding diet and abandonment of harmful habits such as smoking or lack of exercise. Although Wolpert is even-handed in his approach to the many common delusions of our times, he clearly wishes their validity be openly investigated and the results aired.
Such an investigation, Wolpert concedes, will be [and has been] difficult to launch and sustain. Clearly, our minds, however powerful in certain talents, have a tendency to seek immediate answers. The validity of the cause need not be certain if an acceptable origin can be declared. We are willing to believe in ghosts or other paranormal phenomena simply because somebody forcefully declares them to be true. Similar views are firmly held about medical practices. As with other views of agency, we are uncomfortable with illness that we cannot understand. Any explanation, forcefully given with a promise of relief, finds easy acceptance. Hence, "alternative", or in Wolpert's Britain "complementary", healing methods are widespread. Whether they are a form of "placebo" medicine, which appears to cure remains to be determined.
Wolpert's book comes at a time when examining our beliefs seems more crucial than ever. We maintain ideas about ourselves, but it becomes too easy to project them to others. When more reasonable ideas are put forward, we must not be too ready to reject them. This book should provide a basis for people willing to apply reason and science to accepted dogmas. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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