The jacket cover blurb explains the book’s premise as “beliefs come first, and explanations for beliefs follow”; the book that follows is essentially a passionate, well-reasoned, defense of the, well, belief that beliefs come first. One wonders, would Shermer grasp the irony? Does he understand that his book is basically an extended exegesis on his belief that beliefs come first? That it is the follow-on explanation for his belief? To his credit, he probably would, because he notes more than once that all humans, including him, suffer from the curious psychosis.
Shermer’s idea is neither new nor original. Fifteen hundred or so years ago, St. Augustine admonished Christians to “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand”. It’s doubtful that Shermer would appreciate the comparison (he relates how he progressed from Christianity to agnostic disbelief in his spiritual life), but his fertile and variegated mind is surely aware that Augustine (and possibly others, though perhaps less specifically) beat him to the idea by over a millennia. Shermer attempts a more scientific defense of the idea than just the brilliant intuition upon which Augustine was forced to rely, and more or less succeeds in making a strong scientific case that human beings are giddy animals, cutting their perceptive realities from whole cloth according to their individual needs and desires, limited only by the raw material nature has provided for the task. Even today, this is not a remarkable insight, considering that we now know the brain functions to present a reality to our minds that it finds is the most useful to our survival and propagation imperatives, as David Eagleman brilliantly explained in Incognito.
While the central premise of the book is not remarkable or new, it is powerfully explicative. Apparently irrational human behavior can often only be understood as the product of a powerful belief system. But the premise begs the question (that Shermer never really considers): From where do beliefs arise? There is overwhelming evidence (Eagleman, et al) that beliefs arise from survival and propagation imperatives, like all other thoughts that make their way into our conscious minds. The human animal is first concerned, like all other living creatures necessarily are, with its survival through time and space. The genes of which life is comprised seek eternal survival, or at least appear to seek eternal survival. In actuality, they seek nothing, but are naturally selected to stick around if they are viable. The most persistent genes, the genes that are most capable of sticking around, appear to be striving for perpetual existence because they were selected over those that, in retrospect, were not so viable and thereby implicitly less fit for perpetual survival.
The same is true of beliefs. Beliefs are naturally selected for their ability to aid us in our survival and propagation imperatives. They need not be superficially rational, so long as the cost of irrationality is outweighed by the survival benefits that accrue to the belief holder. There is a deep and often invisible rationality to the imperatives of man, but superficially at least, the essence of life is not, like Oliver Wendell Holmes observed about the law, logic.
So, taking Shermer’s premise that beliefs are followed by rationalization, and the natural extension that beliefs arise as a matter of survival and propagation imperatives that are necessarily culled by natural selection, what are the implications for understanding human behavior? Consider the Tea Party activists. They generally profess belief in the idea that the federal government is source of America’s problems, not the solution. Yet, at the same instance, they decry any decrease in federal funding for Medicare and Social Security, claiming that decreasing either program’s reach and influence is tantamount to government oppression (remember “death panels”?). And they generally tout the efficacy of government programs aimed at imposing law and order upon society while simultaneously claiming that the government is overbearing and hyper-regulatory. So, does this idea that beliefs come first offer any insights into understanding their apparently self-contradictory positions? Indeed, but only if the source of their beliefs is understood.
Political activism of any type has always the same aim—political power, which is shorthand for having the ability to impose one’s political will on another. The activism might have a narrow focus, e.g., protecting a river from pollution from developers. Or might have, like the Tea Party activists, more general aims, like usurping and upending the current political power structure. But organizational purpose is only a derived purpose. The purpose for activism arises from the needs of individuals, which always resolves to subjective evaluations of how political activism might enhance the survival and propagation imperatives at the individual level. Political activism is the modern-day version of ancient tribalism. The modern political state arose from a coalition of nations, which arose from a coalition of tribes, which arose from a coalition of clans, which arose from a coalition of families. Tribalism, i.e., forming coalitions in order to enhance individual survivability prospects, has been favored (i.e., naturally selected) throughout all of what we know of human history, but particularly since the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic age.
The Tea Party activists seek to enhance their individual survival prospects through gaining power by associating in the movement, and like an ancient tribe or clan, conflate their survival and prosperity with the organization’s survival and prosperity. When it is understood that the Tea Party believes nothing except that gaining political power will enhance the fortunes of its members, then it is easy to see why so many of their political positions, which are not beliefs, but are rationalizations for their one belief that they should hold power instead of everyone else, seem self-contradictory. The belief that they should hold power is at the core of a web of rationalizations, none of which are necessarily logically consistent with any other, but must only legitimately relate back to the core belief. If the rationalization seems to provide a valid justification for power, then it is viable (rationalizations are subject to selection pressures also), regardless of whether it contradicts other rationalizations, subject to some limit of outrageousness.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, if ever it coalesces into something more compelling than what appears to be an extended street party, could be comparably analyzed. It seems to be founded upon the belief that government has been corrupted by capitalism; that capitalists manipulate the levers of government for personal gain, leaving the vast majority out in the cold (one wonders why it took over two hundred years of rapacious capitalism to finally arrive at this conclusion). But what it really seeks, like all activist coalitions, is power in order to enhance the survival and prosperity prospects of its members. So it does not care that it uses technology invented and exploited by capitalists to facilitate its organizing efforts. It sees no problem with the self-contradictory notion that as it bemoans government corruption, it seeks expanded governmental powers. Beliefs come first, rationalizations come later, and OCW holds the same belief as any political organization, so far as it is a political organization and not just a street party, that it should have power instead of some others having it. Schopenhauer was right. The world is will; a constant, ceaseless striving. The source of belief is the striving for power, for enhancing survival and propagation prospects. Belief has nearly nothing to do with objective reality, even as objective reality is only a faint image, a shadow cast on the cave wall, as it is filtered by perceptive reality through the prism of the will.
Shermer relates his personal story of how he professed Christianity in his early adulthood, only to reject his beliefs after a friend was horribly injured in a car crash and his prayers for her healing were never answered. He claims that his prayers weren’t answered because, as he finally realized, there was no one there to answer them. Shermer has an agile mind, sound in reasoning capacity, so it was disappointing to see him convict the idea of God on so flimsy an emotional indictment. Did he really believe—does anyone really believe—that if everyone believed in God, there would be no more pain and suffering in the world? This is the belief of a child, not of a psychically human adult. A more reasoned approach might have been to investigate more deeply what exactly it meant to believe in God, to ascertain what might be the character of a being that is claimed to have omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. Shermer fancies himself a skeptic in the spirit of David Hume, but fails to skeptically and logically dissect whether or not there is, or could be, any entity in the universe with the three principle attributes claimed of God. Just because the ancient Jews and early Christians might have described the behavior and prerogatives of the entity incorrectly doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Each group was believing first and rationalizing afterwards, as Shermer might say, and their beliefs were mainly projections of their own wants and needs on the inexplicable aspects of nature, so were probably wrong. What if God exists, just not in the manner that Judeo-Christianity believes? Skepticism, properly employed in this regard, would acknowledge that there is no way to conclusively prove the existence of a being with the attributes claimed of God. For a proper epistemological skeptic, God’s existence can’t be ruled out.
It is something of a quibbling matter, but Shermer seems to suspend disbelief (never good for a skeptic) when citing a “just so” story (as Stephen Jay Gould tagged them) of evolution. Discussing hardwired patternicity (the innate tendency to form patterns out of sensory inputs, whether a pattern exists or not), he relates that the reason humans don’t mate with their close relatives (siblings and parents, etc.) is that natural selection has worked to render close relatives sexually unattractive to each other (how this relates to patternicity was never quite made clear). He made the claim twice, so he clearly had internalized it, yet neither of the studies cited in the footnote to his claim seem to bear directly on the problem. What of the history of incest among the nobility, up until nearly the present day? From ancient Egypt to Greece to Rome to latter-day Spain, France, Russia, England, etc., the nobles apparently are different from the rest of us, not having had close-kin sexual attraction naturally selected out of their gene pool. Though there is no history written of the everyday people, the accusations and convictions for incestuous relations even today indicate that perhaps quite a few commoners are doing battle with their genetic compulsions, if Shermer ‘s claim is correct. One might observe that perhaps Shermer believed incest was bad, and then devised a rationalization and sought favorable evidence to support it, in the same manner that his writing observes is a weakness of human nature.
This is not to take too much fault with the book. Shermer is a capable science writer, with the gift of communicating complex ideas in a readily understandable manner. The basic premise of the book seems virtually unassailable. The human animal is a survival machine with a brain that creates for the mind all the rest of the world, and it does so in the manner it believes will most benefit its survival and propagation prerogatives. It would be quite incredible indeed if it were discovered that beliefs arise, like a Kantian morality tale, out of some inexplicable sense with which we are born; a sense that simply knows right and wrong without context, without consideration of our prospects for survival. If you don’t already understand that much of what passes as knowledge these days is nothing more than belief wrapped in pretty dogmas and elegant rationalizations, then reading this book could prove highly profitable. If you’ve sort of already got that humans are willful and striving, with no particular consideration for probity except as it may benefit them, then the book won’t elicit any “aha” moments, but it’s still an enjoyable read, and an excellent reminder that you should believe, in the words of Lou Reed, “none of what you hear, and only half of what you see…you can’t even trust your mother.”