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    Peace in the Garden: Michael Shermer and Belief Systems
    By Kim Wombles | June 19th 2011 12:08 PM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Kim

    Instructor of English and psychology and mother to three on the autism spectrum.

    Writer of the site countering.us (where most of these

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    One of my favorite songs of all time is "In the Garden." I know Willie's not got the prettiest of voices, but I love his version best of all. He lives hard and the gravel in his voice lends a depth to the content of the song that others don't quite have.




    garden 2004
    In my gardens, working in the dirt, tending the plants, I come as close to knowing the face of God that I ever will (and I say this as an atheist). Here, in the garden, the beauty of the world coupled with its randomness is made manifest and I am in awe.


    garden 2004
    The garden changes not only from day to day, but if you've ever watched a rose bloom, by the moment. It is teeming with life in all its stages. It is at the mercy of nature but welcomes the nurturing and tending of a conscientious caregiver. It can be destroyed in a moment of torrential rain and wind or the unrelenting heat of a sudden fire, and yet it is resilient and will reassert its dominance given a brief respite.

    garden 2005
    The garden centers me. It gives me hope for tomorrow on bleak days and shows me that effort matters. It also humbles me and shows me that effort is not enough.

    garden 2006
    I find my peace in the garden in its many facets and find the strength to move forward each and every day.

    garden 2006

    The power of the garden and its ability to transport me emotionally is not lessened by realizing this is a neurochemical dance my brain is engaged in. It only serves to lend it another layer of wonder.


    garden 2007

    When I read Shermer's words that "[t]he brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally beings to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning," I am in accord with him and no less in awe of the garden and the meaning I find there.

    garden 2007
    Metacognition is perhaps even more awe-inspiring; to stop and think that our brains do this, create patterns where none may exist and then "begin to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation" (Shermer) is to realize that we may not be as much in the driver's seat as we think.

    garden 2007

    People of faith believe that a higher power directs their lives and the events within them, providing meaning and depth. I think it is not so different a feeling to realize that my brain and not my consciousness may be controlling and directing my life. It can be a terrifying thought.

    garden 2008
    Shermer provides three examples of belief conversion in part one of his new book The Believing Brain; one in particular, Francis Collin's conversion to belief, is humbling. From atheist to believer, Shermer contends that it was that opening of himself to the potential that allowed Collins to convert, and Collins' formidable intelligence to effectively justify and rationalize his beliefs. According to Shermer, "[b]elief systems are powerful, pervasive, and enduring." And they are, until they are not. Research shows us the power of repeatedly hearing a story; it explains to a large degree why urban myths prevail, why merely giving voice to the myth makes it more likely it will be accepted than its countering fact.

    garden 2008

    While it's true that our confirmation biases make it unlikely that a contradictory belief will get a foothold, the underlying mechanisms of the brain allow for the possibility that it will. That's good if we hold an incorrect belief and are provided access to factual information (perhaps it will be like the unceasing drops of water on a boulder), but it's bad if we already have a factual foothold and are constantly subjected to pseudoscience and false information.


    garden 2009

    We all have a foundation upon which we build our lives, and the solidity of this foundation determines how well we weather the adversities that life inevitably brings us. I think it is better to think about the foundation, work out what it is, test it, and see if it will hold than find in a moment of crisis that the ground we thought was firm and hard was nothing more than quicksand.  I look to and maintain my foundation in the time in my garden, where introspection is welcome but not required, where peace can be found.

    garden 2010



    garden 2011

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    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    I think it is not so different a feeling to realize that my brain and not my consciousness may be controlling and directing my life. It can be a terrifying thought.
    Just curious, but why would you think there was a difference?  and why should it be terrifying?
    Mundus vult decipi
    kwombles
    Because much of what the brain does is automated and not a conscious process; if only a tiny fraction of the brain's processes are under conscious control, then we are not as "in control" of our actions as many of us would like to believe. If one labored under the pretense that each and every action was under one's direct control, learning that this is not the case could be terrifying. 
    The Ego Tunnel by Metzinger is an excellent book for considering that idea, as is The Hidden Brain by Vedantum.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    ...if only a tiny fraction of the brain's processes are under conscious control, then we are not as "in control" of our actions as many of us would like to believe.
    As someone that doesn't accept the idea of "free will", that doesn't present a problem to me.  Consider this, however.  If consciousness occurs in the brain, then your statement is simply about whether the brain exercises "control" over the brain.  Unless you're willing to consider some external agency, there's simply no other way to view it.  As a result, the statement doesn't really tell us anything because there's no "extra" control available that doesn't originate in the brain in the first place.

    Actually, it's not so terrifying if you consider that you have the ability to make choices from things that you have learned.  So instead of "free will" (whatever that's supposed to be "free" of), it actually makes more sense when you consider that your behavior is a direct result of your experience and learning.  As a result, you can change anything you like by additional learning (accumulating more choices) and experience.  It's not "free", but it represents the ultimate in control since your choices are a direct result of what you've put into your brain.
    Mundus vult decipi
    kwombles
    Consciousness appears to be an emergent property of the brain; as an atheist, I don't think it arises anywhere else. I wrote it can be a terrifying thought, the realization that one's brain (outside one's conscious control) can control one's belief systems, not that I personally found it to be so (at least not most times). 
    Here's why it can be a terrifying thought, though, for me, at least: Shermer writes about Collins' conversion with the suggestion that the conversion was not a conscious choice, but one that he tipped into and then used his intellect to justify. In other words, despite our best attempts to be rational and reach informed decisions, there are factors going on outside our conscious control within our brain that cause us to believe certain things. That idea, that we can work hard to be evidence-based, but that our ultimate belief system may be dictated by something other than our conscious control, is potentially a scary idea in the sense that we could be tipped into something we didn't reason our way into and will be unable to reason our way out of because it is a hidden process.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    That idea, that we can work hard to be evidence-based, but that our ultimate belief system may be dictated by something other than our conscious control, is potentially a scary idea in the sense that we could be tipped into something we didn't reason our way into and will be unable to reason our way out of because it is a hidden process.
    I understand, but in my view, the fallacy is in assuming that humans are rational creatures and that we "work" at being evidence-based.  Instead, our "evidence-based" perspective is no less a belief system than any other.  In short, we believe that the world is understandable and consequently we look for evidence to confirm how it works.  However, humans are not rational creatures as much as they are "rationalizing" creatures.  We are much more emotionally-based than anything else, and it is ultimately our emotions that are what leads us to the way our brains operate.  As a result, I wouldn't view Collin's conversion as something to do with conscious choice or rational thought, but rather one that is undoubtedly steeped in some emotional undercurrents that are not being considered.

    Belief systems simply don't change (randomly or otherwise) until there is some emotional unrest that makes the current belief system insufficient to reconcile ourselves with the lives we find ourselves in.  This is one reason why most people make the most radical changes during periods of stress in their lives.  It really is no coincidence that most people that go to prison find religion.
    ...potentially a scary idea in the sense that we could be tipped into something we didn't reason our way into and will be unable to reason our way out of because it is a hidden process.
    Once again, I understand, but I think that suggests that we are much more rational than we actually are.  We are forced to live with incomplete knowledge and incomplete information, so we are rarely rational except in the case of addressing problems that we have the luxury of abstracting and "thinking" about.    I think if you examine the circumstances you'll find that it is nearly impossible to reason your way into a belief system (of any type).  It must be something that you gradually arrive at (such as the idea that the world is understandable, or that the world is a mystery, or that a divine force rules all).  Whichever view
    "works" the best in helping you reconcile yourself to the world around you, is the one that you will tend to adopt and no amount of reasoning is going to change your mind once that occurs.  To convince a religious person that they are wrong, is no easier than to convince you that science is superstition.
    Mundus vult decipi
    kwombles
    Gerhard,
    I don't think we're in disagreement here; I think we're saying the same thing from a different vantage point. That is part of Shermer's point, that we all operate under belief-dependent systems. 

    It isn't that I think that a conversion experience is random, but that it arises outside the person's conscious control. It's just that science is the best tool for getting as close to objective reality as possible; however, our biases and our belief system can and does get in the way, no matter how rational we are attempting to be. 

    I've never argued that we ARE rational creatures, only that we should work hard to BE rational creatures, and part of that is understanding the various ways in which our brains can get in the way of being rational and getting as close to objective reality as possible.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    You're right, we probably are in agreement here.  My main point on the rationality argument is that people that tend towards the scientific often think that their view isn't a "belief system", that because they embrace a rational approach that they have evaded the "belief system" label.  In part, it occurs because most people tend to associate "belief systems" with religion (and this becomes really apparent when religious people accuse scientists of using science as their religion).  In part they're correct, in that science is a belief system that presumes the world is understandable, and proceeds with the minimal number of assumptions (or axioms) from which to establish what constitutes "objective reality".  Religious people tend to imagine the world as being under someone's control from which nothing is ultimately knowable because a divine being has the ability to "break the rules" (i.e. miracles). 

    I'm not suggesting that we are in disagreement here, but basically I'm just running my mouth a bit.  I'm currently reading a book by Antonio Damasio where he states that our brain is perpetually making maps and it is in that map-making that we discern the patterns of the world around us and incorporate them in our "belief systems".  It is this perpetually seeking of patterns that operates to find reinforcing information that sustains that "belief system".  I suspect that this is precisely the time of problem we encounter with the anti-vax people, etc.  Implicitly they have adopted a belief that they find reinforcement patterns of, which continuously bolsters the "rightness" of their belief.  A scientist is comfortable with the idea that there are unknowns which still need to be explored, and that there are often insufficient facts to draw explicit conclusions.  To someone with an opposing point of view, this simply looks like we're simply making excuses to sustain our own belief system.

    In my view, the only real issue with any belief system is whether it is flexible enough to allow one to acquire new knowledge and adapt to new circumstances.  If a belief system becomes so rigid that it can't accommodate change, then it is counter-productive and probably detrimental.  This is the flaw I see in the anti-vax group, because if their belief is correct, then there is no solution to be had, because the entire world is engaged in a conspiracy to do them in.  There is no opportunity to acquire new information, because they will be taken advantage of as a fundamental condition of their belief.  In effect, it simply becomes a paranoid nightmare.

    Anyway ... I'm clearly interested in this topic and I"m just rambling a bit, so I appreciate your indulgence ...
    Mundus vult decipi
    kwombles
    These are the most enjoyable kinds of discussions. :) 
    I think you're right; many who embrace scientific approaches don't realize it's a belief system; they don't realize they can be led astray and come to hold certain ideas with a fervor that is close-minded. I wonder if this is what happens to individuals who are well-trained, like Wakefield is, who come to believe things that do not appear to be at all true, and because they are embraced by followers who reinforce this, find it even harder to reason their way out of a wrong-headed idea.
    I'm noticing that a lot of books recently are echoing the same kinds of information relating to how we think and make sense of the world. :-) It's encouraging. If you haven't read Shermer's new book yet, he discusses the same kinds of ideas, building his model on Hawking and Mlodinow's The Grand Design and their model-dependent realism, naming his belief-dependent realism. I'm waiting on Incognito by David Eagleman, which looks like it will be similar in nature. 

    Is it Damasio's newest book? I haven't had a chance to read it yet; I thought Descartes' Error was very interesting.

    I think your explanation for the anti-vaccine individuals is a good one; they are almost impervious to new information that challenges their beliefs, and believe the same of evidence-based individuals who point out their new research was written by people unqualified to do and who argued from false premises (thinking specifically of their two latest studies, the 83 canaries in the VCIP study and the one by the board member of SafeMinds who argued that vaccines are known to cause autism). I don't think that this latest research on how we all make sense of the world using belief-dependent models will make a bit of difference for those who've decided to pursue avenues of belief that seem to be objectively wrong; it won't make them reconsider their beliefs; it will arm them with what they believe are strong arguments that science-based individuals are wrong and they are right. And it won't look much different than the evidence-based individuals' arguments on the surface, except for the difference in evidence offered. 


    But I also think that knowing better how we think and believe, while it may help us to pause and reflect, and maybe hold beliefs more lightly, isn't going to solve the problem of believing things that aren't real. We'll still make the same mistakes; it's just that we'll at least have the chance to understand that we've made them. And it means living more openly with uncertainty; I think most people will choose their seemingly solid foundations to rest on, even if it means being wrong. And maybe that's the scariest thought of all in all of this.

    Thanks for rambling with me.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, it is Damasio's new book "Self Comes to Mind".  I've also posted a few pieces on belief systems that are a bit older here. 

    The main conclusion out of all of this, is that no number of facts or evidence will convince an entrenched belief system in a new direction.  In cases where people are significantly committed, then persuasion is possible, but in most other cases, it will simply reinforce their existing view (and perhaps strengthen it because of a persecution sense).
    Mundus vult decipi
    kwombles
    I purchased Damasio's new book on kindle; maybe that will get it to the top of my pile since I'll feel the need to justify its electronic purchase (it feels weird not to hold books, but I'm trying to look at it as a natural extension of all the reading I already do electronically--that and we're seriously wondering how close we are to exceeding the weight load of our floor). 
    I absolutely agree with your conclusion. It seems that the extension of that would be that if we directly confront the individual we unfortunately serve to reinforce the individual's belief system and we further the group's cohesion and unwittingly shift them to an even more extreme position. Over the last two years, the individuals I've been reading, writing about, and interacting with have only gotten more extreme in their positions and more hostile (and that's even if you quit engaging them and write only about the generalized group--even if they deny that they are anti-vaccine and you take pains to be specific that you mean only those who openly admit they are anti-vaccine). 

    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    rholley
    This is a topic of much interest to me, although I am no fan of Michael Shermer.

    However, I must say how well-organized your garden is, compared to mine.  But I do have what I might call “my second garden”, The University of Reading (Whiteknights) campus, to walk in.  Some areas are managed as meadow, and today I took this photograph of Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca, a great favourite of mine.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    kwombles
    Gorgeous flowers! :) Thank you for sharing. 
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.