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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 15 August 2012
We like to think we hold the beliefs that we do because we have come to them as a result of careful process of deliberation, carefully weighing all the different sides of a question, before we reach a definitive conclusion, But it's not quite like that - we find reasons for beliefs we already hold prior to our justification of them. The brain is the seat of this - a belief engine that constructs beliefs about the world after the fact.

Shermer devises two neologisms - `patternicity' and `agenticity' to explain how this comes about. These rather ugly terms are simply shorthand for saying that our brains look for patterns where there is just randomness, and attribute conscious properties and deliberate intent to natural phenomena. We all do this to some extent - ever cursed your computer for running slowly, as if it would actually listen? Or tried to get a recalcitrant electronic or mechanical device to comply with your demands by thumping it? Those who hold strong religious or ultra-conspiratorial worldviews are likely to exaggerate patterns and agents operating in the world - excessive and unwarranted detection of `signal to noise.' He examines the psychological and neurobiological bases of our beliefs, how these apply to beliefs in the paranormal, religion, conspiracy theories and politics. He rounds off the discussion with an examination of the history of science as it is told in the story of progress in cosmology, to demonstrate how real knowledge advances.

Shermer does not of course push his argument too far. There is such a thing as legitimate belief. The truth is out there and it does not lie in between two extremes. Between the theory of gravity and the theory of levitation there is no middle ground, only the difference between truth and falsehood. We can pray over cholera victims, or we can give them 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours. One method works and the other one doesn't. And this truth exists independently, outside your head, regardless of what you perceive or what you believe. But not everything is so clear-cut. When it comes to politics and moral beliefs, the dividing line becomes harder to discern.

Shermer wears his own free-market, libertarian beliefs on his sleeve but devotes very little time to examining whether his own beliefs have been constructed with the same biases that he discerns entrap others in the construction of their political beliefs.

If this is your first foray into this sort of critical thinking/rationalist genre, then it's a good enough place to start. I personally enjoyed the book and mostly agreed with what he had to say.

He is widely read, vastly knowledgable, and capable of pithy phrases that sum up the rationalist case succintly - for example, religion cannot be a sound foundation for morality because there are no means of conflict resolution when members of competing sects hold absolute beliefs that are mutually exclusive (pp. 220-221).'

But I would not rate it highly for originality and there are better books out there on the subjects he covers. The biases inherent in our thinking have been well covered in Thomas Gilovich's How We Know What isn't So: Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. His definition of `patterncity' and `agenticity' seems to owe much to Gilovich but he does not acknowledge this. I don't think this book adds anything to Gilovich. His discussion of pseudoscience echoes Carl Sagan's brilliant exposition in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark [ THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: SCIENCE AS A CANDLE IN THE DARK ] by Sagan, Carl (Author) Feb-25-1997 [ Paperback ] but Sagan has greater command of his sources and literary flair. The history of scientific discovery and advance in relation to cosmology is likewise much better treated in Simon Singh's book Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It. The chapters on neuroscience were for me an exception - maybe because I know next to nothing about this subject.

I would rate this work four stars for readability and content. It's a solid, competent work but it only rates three stars for originality. I'll settle on four because it's a good, wide-ranging and mostly interesting survey, despite his political biases.
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on 18 July 2012
I've read quite a few books of subject of perceptions, belief, critical thinking etc. I enjoyed this it was very comprehensive & covers a lot of stuff including some things I hadn't read about before (such as some excellent explanations for Near Death Experiences and sensed presences etc) The stuff about agency was really nicely explained, if you are new to critical thinking then its probably worth reading just for that alone. I did find it hard going at times when reading about the scientific studies (whilst they are interesting I've read about many or similar one so may times before it may just be down to me re-hashing stuff I've seen before rather than a reflection on the book itself). I would definitely recommend this if the subjects new to you, if you've read a lot about this stuff before then maybe not so much.
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on 28 October 2011
My very first product that I have bought from Amazon and my very first review!

Just finished the book and it was a brilliant read, very well written. I found it well structured and easy to understand. (I am a non-scientist btw). Every point was made very clearly and a little humor really helped this book though the more involved science.
If there is anyone who is unsure about this book due to it having no reviews I would definitely recommend it!
The book arrived in perfect condition and 2 days early! So thanks to Amazon!

So overall a great book about why we believe what we believe.

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on 29 June 2014
Skeptics in the Pub in Leicester, which I attend every month, gets supposed iconoclasts to talk about their take on a wide variety of subjects. Entertaining, but sometimes I get the feeling that their skeptiscm is another form of conventional wisdom.
This book holds that the brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns and then infuse those patterns with meaning, intention and agency. 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. How is it that people come to believe something that apparently defies reason? The answer is that beliefs come first; reasons for belief follow in confirmation of the realism dependent upon the belief.
The vast scholarship that Michael Shermer brings to bear on the subject is impressive.
He describes the neurological process. For example, of the chemical transmitter substances sloshing around in your brain, dopamine may be the most directly related to the neural correlates of belief. Dopamine is the reward system of the brain. It is critical in associated learning. Any behaviour that is reinforced tends to be repeated.
Religion figures large. 84% of the World’s population belongs to one of the 10,000 distinct religions. America is the most religious tribe of the species. In the US 82% of people believe in God and more people believe in n angels and demons than believe in the theory of evolution. He looks at the overwhelming evidence that God is hardwired into our brains and the questions of what is God, does God actually exist, and Einstein’s God.
But we are all susceptible. Belief in conspiracies, moral judgements and political beliefs are universal. The natural tendency of anyone with a political belief to search for and find evidence to support their case applies to us all. People divide themselves into liberals or conservatives (democrats or republicans) and then read, watch and listen to confirmatory evidence.
Shermer’s solution is skeptiscm – a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims. Where philosophy and theology depend upon logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empirics, evidence and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief dependent realism.

So my visits to the pub every month are justified!
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on 11 August 2013
Shermer's central message: "People form beliefs before they form explanations for them" is a real game changer, but not an intuitive conclusion. However, this message is well justified by experiment. It has profound implications for how intelligent people can hold opposite (sometimes ridiculous) opinions.

Many great authors have given insight into belief generation and self deception, including Shermer himself. In my opinion this 406 page book now usurps the rest because I find it the most comprehensive and wonderfully compelling account of belief. It is (crucially) grounded in neuroscience experiments - Chapter 6 of 14, for which I admit command of high school biology makes easier reading.

Criticism of "The Believing Brain" would centre around the amount of material openly borrowed from other popular science publications: In this sense, many ideas are less original, but I think completely necessary to achieve a book which properly covers the subject without leaving obvious gaps. Certainly Shermer is well read - he writes competently on everything from theology to cosmology.

People who should buy this book are those who can spare a couple of weeks to read it properly and whose lives have been affected by absurd beliefs which really need concrete explanation. People who should avoid it are those who reject the scientific approach as the unrivalled way of sorting fact from fiction, as they might firmly believe the book to be falsely premised before making up an explanation as to why!
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on 1 January 2013
Shermer distills a mass of evidence from the realms of psychology and neuroscience to explain what parts of the brain are associated with emotion, conflict resolution, creativity and belief. He uses the studies to illustrate his conjecture that belief comes first, and that the reasons for the beliefs we hold are developed afterwards.

The author is also keen to show that many unusual things that people experience, such as voices and visions, are simply the imagination of a tired, fearful or otherwise stressed mind. There is so much emphasis on this that the book sometimes reads like a diatribe against belief in the supernatural. It also meanders and rambles, and Shermer is overly fond of quoting himself (from his books, YouTube interviews and TV appearances).

The book redeems itself in the last few chapters, where Shermer is very good at showing how theory and observation complement each other in driving forward our understanding of the world. All in all, `The Believing Brain' is a passionate defence of the scientific method. Though Shermer is humble enough to acknowledge that science doesn't have, and may never have, all the answers, he makes a strong case for it being the best tool we have for making sense of the world.
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on 17 December 2015
This is a very complete run through of all the various beliefs people have and how they can be adequately explained. The author's premise that beliefs are formed and then justified rather than the other way round as most people think happens, is a very valuable insight. Applying this principle to all the beliefs that have been developed certainly helps to clarify any doubts one might have had.
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on 15 February 2013
A fascinating explanation of why we are always unaware of our own prejudices and how the scientific method can try to eliminate bias.
Interesting links between science and philosophy, our political views and religious beliefs.
I would thoroughly recommmend this book.
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on 31 August 2013
Shermer shows how, through numerous experiments, the brain really works. It first comes up with a belief, then does all it can to shore up that belief - even when presented with compelling, empirical evidence to the contrary.
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on 30 March 2014
I really enjoyed this work, Shermer presents several studies and scientists to support his arguments. The only way I could have enjoyed it more is if Shermer had endeavoured to be less biased in his presentation of the evidence. It's interesting and maybe a little ironic that in a book about questioning beliefs and behaviours that his skepticism was never up for debate.
I also felt the cosmology section could have been briefer, interesting and insightful as it was it was a major digression from the neuroscience and psychological basis for this book.
I found it very comprehensive, having some basis in neuroscience, but I think information is presented in a way that is understandable and entertaining. This is pretty in-depth for an overview but if you have an interest in the mechanics of the brain and the evolution of human behaviours around religion and politics you will find this enlightening.
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