Why do we believe?

The mechanism of belief intrigues me. It’s not just matter of how we obtain knowledge but why we do we have such strong beliefs. The fact is that many of our beliefs are irrational. I don’t mean that as a judgment – we all have beliefs which have not been deduced rationally or properly tested against reality.

Then there is the wide diversity of belief. Many people have beliefs more or less consistent with a scientific description of the world. But a large group have beliefs which are not rationally derived. Beliefs of a superstitious and/or religious nature. Despite having the same starting material – the real world – we come to completely different conclusions about it. I can’t help thinking this difference results from the natural variability of humans. Perhaps some of us are more predisposed to non-rational beliefs. Maybe there are even differences in the makeup of our brains which predispose us to acceptance of either rational or non-rational beliefs about the world.

The human brain – a layman’s view

accidental mindI have no real understanding of this area of science but have received some insight from several sources. The Accidental Mind by David J Linden provides an easily accessible overview. Ramachandran’s two TV programmes, The Phantoms in the Brain (see links below) and his book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind are also helpful. The article The Belief Engine gives an excellent layman’s description of how we form our beliefs.

Our brains have evolved to form representational maps of external reality. (cognitive scientist Martin Sereno describes this in his lecture The Origin of the Human Mind). Consequently we have a tendency to selectively interpret incoming sensory information to fit our maps. It’s natural to select information to support preconceived ideas. This is reinforced by the involvement of brain modules specialised for emotions. The incoming sensory information obtains emotional overtones. Brain damage can disable the emotional input. For example, a patient may claim that a close relative is an impostor because emotional reaction is absent from their visual recognition. In contrast, sometimes the emotional component is exaggerated and the patient may experience strong transcendent or religious reactions to mundane perceptions. The Phantom in the Brain (see videos below) provides examples of both effects.

This emotional, prejudiced selection of sensory information to fit pre-conceived belief is countered by a critical thinking component. This helps us to evaluate our belief and reject the outrageous. Ramachandren describes how with some brain injuries this component is disabled and the patient can believe quite preposterous things.

Human variability

So, we have evolved to perceive reality with a combination of sensory information, selection of this information by mapping against preconceived ideas, emotional involvement with the perceptions and ideas and a critical evaluation of beliefs.

There is a large range in characteristics of individuals in any species, humanity included. Variability results from genetic diversity and its expression resulting from individual experience. It’s only natural that there will be variability in our brains, and in the different components involved in belief – perception, emotional reaction and critical evaluation.

So different people have different selectivity about their perceptions. They have different preconceived ideas to satisfy. There will also be variation in their emotional reaction to different ideas and willingness to accept information and interpretations. And there will be variations in their ability to critical assess their beliefs. So it’s probably natural for there to be a variation in willingness to hold irrational beliefs.

How can we know reality?

This presents difficulties when we attempt to derive an accurate description of reality. I think this is where the methodology and social activity of science are so important. Scientists are just as likely as anyone else to have non-rational ideas, to suffer from subjectivity and emotional reaction to sensory information and ideas. Critical assessment doesn’t necessarily come naturally to individual scientists. But science doesn’t rely on subjective sensory information, or individual ideas and beliefs. It insists on data, repeatability, testing of hypothesis and continual evaluation and refinement of theory. Peer-review of data, interpretation and conclusion is also vital. This social activity of science enables us to form scientific, rational, descriptions of reality which are in most respects true and are continually improving.

But most of us are not scientists. It’s true that many of us will try to base our beliefs on information which we judge has passed the “scientific test”. But even that selection is vulnerable to preconceived ideas, or emotional reaction to our beliefs and the degree to which we apply a critical analysis. So, even acceptance of the value of scientific knowledge and the scientific approach is not a guarantee of rational belief.

Irrational beliefs aren’t going away

The human brain has evolved to think the way it does. Natural selection was for reproductive success, not reason or truth. Individuals had to deal with the dangers in the environment – they weren’t required to form an accurate picture of reality.

Evolution is not rapid. While scientific knowledge provides a powerful impetus to development of technology and society it will not change the way our individual brains work, although it can provide powerful assistance to our critical thinking. I don’t think that irrational beliefs, superstition and religion are going to disappear just because of advances in scientific knowledge.

The current assertiveness of non-religious thinking and fight against irrational belief and fundamental religion is welcome. It is possibly a reaction to the prejudice and violence promoted by religious extremism. It is certainly a necessary component in the struggle against that extremism. However, its not going to eliminate the source of these problems – the way our brain is prone to accepting and acting on irrational belief. That’s going to be with us for a long time.

Phantoms in the brain, part 1 (57 min)

Phantoms in the brain, part 2 (56 min)

See also
Linden’s accidental religious narrative
Metapsychology Online Reviews
The Belief Engine (article from Skeptical Enquirer)
Grey Matters lecture series

Related Articles:
Miracles and the supernatural?
Can science enrich faith?
Faith and terrorism
What is religion?
Do you believe your religion?
Do religious leaders believe their religion?
Richard Dawkins and the enemies of reason
The Enemies of Reason
Theology of the Emperor’s New Clothes
Most ideas in science are wrong!

3 responses to “Why do we believe?

  1. I meant to mention this previously but the review of Linden that I wrote and you link to has been commented upon by a Christian who shows no evidence of actually having read the book she criticises. Being HTML-incompetent I will simply paste in the url: mindfulhack.blogspot.com/2007/09/your-brain-is-kludge-especially-if-you.html

    I guess it was unavoidable that any negative comment in this context was bound to be interpreted by some as a damning indictment. As it is, the very title of her entry states something that Linden does not claim – he thinks everyone’s brain is a kludge, regardless of whether they are religious or not.


  2. Denyse O’Leary, the women behind Mindful Hack, ties in very strongly with the intelligent design movement. This interests me because I think research on the brain and consciousness is the natural next target of these people. Her websites (http://post-darwinist.blogspot.com/ is another one) show this is already underway. Her approach appears to be at the more unsophisticated end – malicious quoting, etc.


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