Archive for July 16th, 2011

Michael Shermer is promoting a new book, The Believing Brain: How we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths. The argument is that our brains evolved to first determine beliefs, and then find the evidence to justify those beliefs. This is why people have strongly held convictions about religion and politics, despite the inability to determine what is the “true” religion or the “right” political position. Instead, according to Shermer, it is only science that can lead us to truth. Only science can distinguish between truth and belief.

In fact, though, Shermer’s argument is just another example of a dissembled belief posing as a truth. Most importantly, his image of how science works is misinformed. While the scientific method sounds nice, it is not an accurate description of how scientists actually go about doing their research because science is not done in a social vacuum. Were he to take the time to study how scientists did their work within a research community, he would realize the uselessness of trying to establish a demarcation criteria between “science” and “non-science.” And this is not to discredit science by any means, but only to point out the importance of remembering the limitations of what we know. Scientists have human brains too.

Another incorrect implicit assumption of the book is that there exists some independent “truth,” and that this truth is clearly distinguishable from belief. Rather, in science, a belief becomes a “truth” when a widespread consensus is reached. This “truth” can change when the question again becomes open for debate. In the words of C. S. Pearce, one of the most important (and yet little read) American philosophers, there is no truth but only the “fixation of belief”:

The sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and what we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false.         “The Fixation of Belief” (1877)

And this in 1877! You’d think we would have made progress since then, but people like Shermer are keeping our ideas about science stuck in the 19th century.

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