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The Prosperity Gospel Encapsulated in a Child’s Program

November 28, 2012

I could have also title this post, “The Secret in a Nutshell” or any other ridiculous belief system that promises health or wealth if you just follow their “principles”… You know: just do this, or just give this, and then the magic will happen.

And the most frustrating part? There is a long line of ignorant, credulous morons so desperate to believe any beautiful lie rather than face reality they will actually give their money and sense away to pretend that they can do magic and create their own reality.

There is a book in my library written by a Dr. Michael Shermer that I quite enjoy, The Believing Brain.

The book synthesizes Dr. Shermer’s 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. In this book Dr. Shermer is interested in more than just why people believe weird things, or why people believe this or that claim, but in why people believe anything at all. His thesis is straightforward:

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.

Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.

Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins 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. Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.

There have also been cognitive studies done that demonstrate how certain willfully ignorant persons when shown data contrary to what they ‘believe’ will undergo a “rebound effect” and hold onto their beliefs even more firmly that they did before engaging the evidence.

This is why I value science as the best tool mankind has ever created for understanding reality and the physical world that surrounds us. We have a biological tendency to believe, and sometimes a social pathology to reinforce those beliefs. What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence do not always coincide. I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, because I want to know.

There is a quantitative and qualitative difference between beliefs and knowledge that many persons just don’t understand.

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