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The Belief Trilogy

by Michael Shermer, Mar 26 2009

This is a brief video introduction to the power of belief through the three books of my trilogy: Why People Believe Weird Things, How We Believe, The Science of Good and Evil, and (pace Douglas Adams) volume 4 of the trilogy, The Mind of the Market. The first volume is on science and pseudoscience and, as the title says, why people believe weird things. Vol. 2, How We Believe, is on why people believe in God (but the publisher didn’t want to call it that so they went with the more generic title on belief). Vol. 3 is on why we are moral, but since the book deals more than with the evolutionary origins of morality, they once again went with the broader title. Vol. 4, then, expands on the theme of belief in the realm of economics, and why people believe weird things about money and why markets seem to have a mind of their own.

5 Responses to “The Belief Trilogy”

  1. Hoof says:

    I used to believe things called ‘triology’ come in threes. Not more. You changed that too!
    (thanks for the books)

  2. White Rabbit says:

    I think the word is Tetralogy (or Pentalogy if you include “why Darwin Matters”). The Words don’t even show up on a spell check, brilliant.

    I’ll have to check them out. I thought Mind of the market was a libertarian rant, shows I shouldn’t prejudge I guess. Not to say Libertarianism isn’t a respectable position but coming from a country with both a working universal health care system, an operational welfare program, little or no working poor and a good employment rate I wonder at times what the US government is thinking. Mind you I guess Australia isn’t in the same position the US is in generally.


    White Rabbit.

  3. New Viewer says:

    Many years ago I picked up a copy of this magazine. I found it completely enthralling. The articles made me feel right at home, even though I did not come from a Science background, I related – completely.

    The fact that the magazine was published only 4 times a year not only made it more intesting, but it was a “Must Read”.

    I want to thank you for enlightening my life, as most other publications on the news stand are merely political crap and obvious.

    Believe it or not, I had a so called significant other who dissed my purchase of this great magazine. What a looser this guy was. He supposedly had several degrees including nuclear engineering and business, and he was offered Mensa status (subsequently turned it down). Of course he thought he could read women’s minds, too. LOL!!!! Was he a fraud? I think so.

    I am a single, independant, business woman, optimist/Skeptic by nature trying not to become a pessimstic/skeptic :)

    Thank you for your wonderful publication. I look forward to a new subscription and your book #4!

  4. Allison says:

    It is impossible to prove God does not exist, but you can try. In this case, there are far too many variables to conduct a comprehensive experiment. If all human beings have contemplated the existence of a God, a common thread is woven between civilizations and human nature in general. The origin of this question is impossible to explain. It is a natural instinct for human beings to ponder over the existence of a God, and that distinguishes us from all other creatures. Why do we ponder over this? Was it a survival skill? Other creatures do not need to believe in God to survive. Most natural instincts have a purpose, and this instinct, to ponder God’s existence, should be studied further. Why do we have this instinct?
    If God created human beings through evolution, wouldn’t he instill in us the natural desire to seek God. It is similar to the instinct between a mother and child, but most importantly the instinct to love others. Human beings have the capacity to love one another in extreme ways, and I think the capacity to have faith in God is a very natural thing. How do we know God hasn’t created this instinct in us for a reason. It’s quite bold to turn our back on something so natural. We can not see love or grasp it, but we know it exists and can appreciate its purpose.
    It’s quite simple for me, but I know it is difficult for people to embrace the natural instinct to believe in God. It is very similar to following your natural instinct to love others, to eat, to avoid danger, etc. I don’t know why we all have these It is easier than suppressing something that has been a natural thought in human beings since our existence.

  5. William Mook says:

    This is an answer to Michael’s pleas for proof of God (and other things) in his OPUS 100 in the July 2009 issue of Scientific American.

    First some ground rules. Well, only one ground rule. Reality doesn’t need our defense! It is what it is. It is only we who suffer if we operate in ignorance of it. If we can agree with this, we can reason together – to quote several famous authors.

    I think too that we can all agree that the *idea* of God exists every bit as much as the *idea* of Santa Claus exists or the *idea* of Sherlock Holmes exists. While no one above the age of 6 actually believes Santa Claus exists in mundane reality somewhere near the
    North Pole, nearly all of us are familiar with the idea of Santa Claus and we can have reasoned discussions about the idea.

    We could for example argue over what sort of sun tan lotion Santa might use if he found himself on a beach in Florida! (a conversation I had once with my dad after seeing a billboard during a road trip) The utility of such discussions is not in doubt. The sun tan lotion maker benefited certainly, hence the ad. In a similar way organized religions benefits from various associations and promotions involving the God idea and concept which certainly exists.

    So, we have proven that God exists and has utility.

    In this regard the question becomes very much like ones asked by students of the Calculus. What good are vectors (to compute with pictures) or tensors (to compute things about two pictures at once) or calculus (to talk reasonably about things that change) or diff. eq. (to talk reasonably about how relationships change) and so forth.

    To someone who doesn’t understand higher math, these reasons don’t make sense. To someone who understands and uses higher math, the reasons are obvious.

    In a similar vein, true believers in God (or Santa) are fond of quoting Stuart Chase – “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”

    Also, mastery of mathematics – or rather the ideas contained in mathematics – can be rather difficult and some are better at it than others. For those who are rather good at it, miracles are possible that mystify those who are not good at it. Despite the vast
    range of possibilities mastery of math opens up, there are limits – though those limits may become challenges to later generations of math practitioners.

    Similarly, mastery of the God idea by humans is a difficult path, some are better at it than others. For those who are good at it, miracles are claimed to be possible that mystify those who are not good at it. Despite the vast range of what is possible with
    God, there appear to be limits here as well – but also these are merely challenges for others who come close to God – to coin a phrase.

    What sort of miracles do God and Santa provide?

    Consider the toys you received at Christmas, or the mercy, faithfulness, love, you received in life.

    Obviously the God and Santa ideas persist because they provide those who use the ideas benefit. Santa lets us treat children in ways we need to treat them but that are otherwise unreasonable without this idea, likewise God at His best lets us treat one another in ways we need to treat one another but are otherwise unreasonable without the

    This benefit remains even if abusive personalities hurt children within the Santa idea. Similarly, we sometimes hurt one another with the God idea – and this is a rather difficult problem at present.

    Just as notation in math has real benefit (try computing the energy of a collection of particles in Hilbert space without Dirac Notation and you’ll get the idea) so too the mental shorthand of Santa or Holmes or God, allows the expression of aspects of our personality that would be difficult or impossible to express without these ideas.

    We have (quite properly) reduced the idea of God (and Santa) to a psychological discussion. Does it end there? After all, much is said of God (and of Santa) and while Santa can be said to deliver the goods at Christmas, (and God delivers the goods daily) there isn’t a child who hasn’t felt Santa has fallen short on occasion (or a believer who hasn’t felt God works in mysterious ways.) Michael references this with his comment about limbless soldiers in his Opus 100.

    This is the crux of the matter to most skeptics and most believers.

    Unfortunately, this is a rather naive approach to the God concept. Its like saying knowledge of cells is pointless because the knowledge itself cannot restore limbs. Of course clever use of that knowledge can restore limbs if people apply themselves to this task.

    The argument at this naive level places both believers and skeptics at the same emotional level as the character Scrooge in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” before Scrooge is visited by the three ghosts of Christmas. To both I urge a re-reading of that famous story (along with John Leech’s illustrations) to begin to understand that God (and Santa) as they actually exist in the cosmos.

    As ideas we can all agree that God and Santa exist. This I say to both believers and non-believers is enough.

    We can agree that these ideas under the best of conditions operate as a sort of emotional shorthand allowing us to change our psyches in ways that allow us to *be* in a world that has an emotional quality far superior to a world without these ideas. In such an emotionally enlarged world, miracles are possible that would not otherwise be possible.

    Evidence of such miracles surround us. Famous artwork and poetry and song attest to this as does a laughing child playing with a delightfully designed toy whose sole purpose in creation of it is to cause children to laugh.

    These *are* God staring back at us – according to accepted definitions.

    To those who would denigrate the power of such mental and emotional shorthand, I would ask them to attempt to solve a complex mathematical problem without adequate notation or training.

    The proper application of these ideas – that to the naive seem the height of foolishness – have the capacity to awaken and transform our society in ways impossible without them.

    A proper scientific study of these ideas, is needed to heal the rift that has arisen in our culture. This rift has grown over the centuries and now threatens our very core. As a result, we have become a culture in decline. Believers blame non-believers.
    Non-believers blame believers. Both are ignorant of what motivates the other – both fail to see their commonalities and both are approaching the problem at a naive level.

    Sophisticated direct experience of God – more rare and difficult than sophisticated direct experience of math – is needed to heal this rift and restore us to a vital culture that knows not only how to do things – but why we should do them as well.

    God is within you now as an idea. Acknowledge and appreciate the depth of that, and miracles will flow from it into your life.

    Be easy on yourself, and God, since it takes training, and experience, and is not easy. But like math, with practice it will
    come. They are after all, both merely useful ideas that you must master to get the benefit of them.

    The God idea doesn’t need us, or need us to be a certain way – despite popular myth. We need the God idea, and we need to approach the idea in certain ways to gain the benefit of it. This provides a scientific structure to our religions and avoids common mode failure of using these powerful ideas wrongly.