Friday, April 07, 2006

Belief engine

Another review of Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

[R]ather than just arm wrestling with God's faithful, his book attempts to survey the science underpinning all intuitive beliefs, including religion, that humans stubbornly cling to, in spite of the best efforts of rational enquiry to displace them: credence in the paranormal, magic and superstition; faith in alternative-health therapies; the conviction that sooner or later we're bound to win a lottery jackpot. Our belief engine, Wolpert concludes, works on wholly unscientific principles: "It prefers quick decisions, it is bad with numbers, loves representativeness and sees patterns where there is only randomness. It is too often influenced by authority and it has a liking for mysticism."

It may be worth reading psychologist James Alcock's CSICOP article The Belief Engine.

[O]ur brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, an engine that produces beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true and what is not. This belief engine selects information from the environment, shapes it, combines it with information from memory, and produces beliefs that are generally consistent with beliefs already held. This system is as capable of generating fallacious beliefs as it is of generating beliefs that are in line with truth. These beliefs guide future actions and, whether correct or erroneous, they may prove functional for the individual who holds them. Whether or not there is really a Heaven for worthy souls does nothing to detract from the usefulness of such a belief for people who are searching for meaning in life.

Nothing is fundamentally different about what we might think of as "irrational" beliefs -- they are generated in the same manner as are other beliefs. We may not have an evidential basis for belief in irrational concepts, but neither do we have such a basis for most of our beliefs. For example, you probably believe that brushing your teeth is good for you, but it is unlikely that you have any evidence to back up this belief, unless you are a dentist. You have been taught this, it makes some sense, and you have never been led to question it.

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