Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions by Joseph Giovannoli

A treatise for discerning readers seeking an insight into the biological influences that have shaped them into what they are. -- David L. Boccagna, Ph. D.

This excellent, highly readable book discusses how neurobiology interacted with our belief systems to create the meme-plexes we call religion. -- Scott Bidstrup, Truth and Reason Web site 2003

The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions Book Review

“The Biology of Belief” examines how our less than perfectly adapted brains cope with today’s world. Among the things considered are how our brain biology biases our perceptions, organizes ignorance into belief systems, predisposes us to believe in supernatural spirits, and permits others to manipulate our beliefs. The human brain evolved over millions of years to cope with survival and reproduction in the rudimentary world of our primitive ancestors. Inasmuch as our brain biology formed to cope with this ancient world, it should be no surprise that it has a few problems in dealing with the complexities of modern life. The process by which we come to believe something new involves a labyrinth of thought-influencing biological and other factors. In attempting to understand this labyrinth and its effect on how we acquire beliefs, this work addresses a number of considerations. The profound effect brain evolution has had on our way of perceiving the world is one example. Other elements include brain module interactions, neurotransmitters, inborn biological predispositions, and the interdependence of belief and perception. Together with other factors, they collectively comprise the biology of belief. How our beliefs come to define our realities is revealed through an exploration of the processes by which beliefs are created, changed, transmitted, and manipulated. The text challenges readers to consider whether biological and belief mechanisms resistant to change will permit long-held cultural beliefs to adapt rapidly enough to address the new realities of our changing world.

From the Publisher

The publisher wishes to make a few observations concerning the review of the reader from San Francisco. With all due respect, the book is not a "thesis", it is a "synthesis". The*sis, n.; A position or proposition which a person advances and offers to maintain, or which is actually maintained by argument. Hence, an essay or dissertation written upon specific or definite theme; especially, an essay presented by a candidate for a diploma or degree.
Syn*the*sis, n.; The combination of separate elements of thought into a whole, as of simple into complex conceptions, species into genera, individual propositions into systems.
There are numerous references in the book to consilience, which means to combine objective information from different disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation, i.e., synthesis. In addition, on page 1 the author provided the following guidance to the reader:
"Understanding the biology of belief involves understanding aspects of knowledge ranging from astronomy to zoology. As with weaving cloth, weaving these knowledge disciplines into a coherent fabric of understanding requires time to put the various threads of knowledge into place. The discussion of consilience in the Preface explains what the reader can expect as the early chapters begin to assemble these necessary-but at times seemingly unrelated-threads of knowledge into a fabric of understanding."
"Fabric of understanding" equals synthesis. That being said, at times the author suggests ways of considering things, such as the mechanism underlying the cultural transmission of beliefs, which question well known ways of thinking, such as the logic behind meme theory. If I may address another misconception in this reader's review, the central concept of this book is not a variation on Richard Dawkins' memes. It is that the conflict between emotion and reason, which characterizes human history, is directly traceable to limbic and neocortex brain structures that evolved over millions of years and aided the survival of our ancestors. In other words, biological evolution is a major influence on human belief system formation. This is the reason for the title referring to biology and for about half the book describing micro and macro biological influences on the process of perception and belief system formation. I am pleased that the reviewer from San Francisco found the book "very entertaining with many tidbits of information from a wide range of disciplines." However, those "tidbits" were carefully chosen to demonstrate various aspects of the fibers of understanding the author wove for most readers into a fabric of understanding. I agree that anyone looking for a serious treatment of cognitive science and what it says about human capacity for belief should read other authors. However, in this age of specialization, it is likely that they will be reading a thesis and not a synthesis. Two final thoughts. The system provides readers with a book excerpt, customer reviews and editorial reviews. If these resources were examined before a reader purchased a book, it is unlikely that the reader would be "mislead" by the title. Four word titles that are unambiguous are rare. Also, I believe the reviewer's "gifted amateur" description lacks perception. Becoming expert in any subject today doesn't permit the luxury of keeping up with everyone else's specialty. Anyone who can authoritatively integrate a dozen complex and technical subjects into a readable and meaningful explanation of how humanity works would be an expert in one or two subjects at most and necessarily an "amateur" in all the rest.
Publishing a scientific analysis of how belief systems are formed in a country where 78% of the population believes in miracles makes the plight of spawning salmon look easy. Religion motivated terrorism here and abroad must be understood if we are to overcome it. This understanding requires an objective look at the science and history behind how belief systems are formed. "The Biology of Belief" brings together an understanding of biological, cultural and historical influences in a frank analysis of how this process works. As part of his analysis, the author takes a critical look at the reasons for the errors and accomplishments of religious and other belief systems. Although it is expected that some reviewers will not like what was written or how it was written, it would be refreshing if those reviewers refrain from shooting the messenger and focus on the message.
In 2003, "The Biology of Belief" was either a text or reference in the following courses:
Boston University School of Theology Religious Experience, Cognitive Neuroscience Research seminar for doctoral candidates
Breyer State University, Idaho Clinical Hypnotherapy Perception: Biology, Beliefs, and Biases
Eastern Michigan University Department of History & Philosophy Course: History 100
International University Bremen, Germany School of Engineering and Science From Cell to Community: Understanding Animal and Human Societies Course: 020005-A
Mary Washington College, Virginia Philosophy Department Readings in Philosophy Course: 481
Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada Department of Religious Studies The Interpretation of Religion Course: RELS-353/853
Umeå University, Sweden Department of Religious Studies Neurology, Cognitive Psychology and Religion Course: RELC71

From the Author

I wrote this book for analytical readers who have not yet analyzed the relevant history and the latest findings of science to understand the behavior of devoutly religious people, especially those in the Middle East. Given its frank analysis of whether religion derives from evolved neurological traits and cultural transmission, it is not surprising that some readers have strong emotional responses to it. Please keep in mind that this book was not written to reconcile the different worldviews of believers and skeptics. And, in its frankness, it doesn’t indulge the theological sensibilities of the reader. Although the book has been mentioned favorably in a sermon to the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists, it is not recommend to devoutly religious readers or to readers who believe that dialog will resolve the differences religious groups have with the worldview of science. However, for readers who have wondered why some scientists and other analytical thinkers believe in religion, this book will probably answer their questions.

About the Author: Joseph Giovannoli 

Joseph Giovannoli was born in Pennsylvania in 1940. For most of his life he has lived in the metropolitan New York area. He received an undergraduate B.E. degree for his studies in science, applied science, and the humanities, with philosophy being his special interest. His Juris Doctorate degree was received from Fordham University School of Law. After practicing as a corporate attorney for several years, he went into private practice. Thereafter, he became a cofounder of a mortgage company and involved himself in other business activities. In furtherance of those activities, he spent considerable time in Europe. His other entrepreneurial activities included architecture and computer science. He formed a computer technology company and subsequently received patents in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere for his invention of reverse auction technology, which is in use today on the Internet.
In the early 1990s his study of scientific journals broadened. As he read reports of scientific discoveries made in a number of fields, including neuroscience, he began to realize that fundamental questions raised during his study of philosophy in college might now be answerable.
In the mid 1990s he began detailed research into what would become The Biology of Belief, published in 2001. As of 2003, The Biology of Belief is used in theology, history, clinical psychology, and philosophy courses taught in universities in Europe and North America.
He is listed in Marquis’ "Who’s Who in America" and is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1 (excerpt)
The Mind of God and the Mind of Man
Our Earliest Beliefs
It occurred to me that the reason scientists are discussing religious beliefs has to do with the nature of belief itself. We learn many of our basic or core beliefs before we are able to evaluate such things. The beliefs we hold today, which we learned in youth, are uninformed, nonvolitional beliefs. We had no capacity to evaluate what we were taught or to decide whether to accept or reject those teachings. They reflect the beliefs of our culture, our parents and others who have influenced us in early youth. We may have reconsidered some of our early beliefs and chose to keep or change them, but, to the extent that they have altered our perception we are limited in our capacity to view them objectively. Learning to believe before learning to think is our conundrum. An empty mind cannot judge what it should believe. We need a critical mass of knowledge and belief to evaluate what to believe, a mass critical both for its size and its content. For beliefs once learned influence! our perceptions and thereby limit the believability of things we experience later in life. The conundrum is epitomized in the following observation of the French scientist and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650):
The chief cause of our errors is to be found in the prejudices of our childhood... principles of which I allowed myself in youth to be persuaded without having inquired into their truth.
Plato (427?-347?BCE) concluded that indoctrination was necessary to teach ethical behavior.
[I]ntelligence is needed to discriminate between good and harmful pleasures; and for fear that intelligence may come too late we must inculcate in the young a habit of temperance, a sense of the golden mean.
What to inculcate appears to be at the root of this problem. If each generation learns its core beliefs before it is able to evaluate them, then as a culture, ancestors who would be considered primitive by current standards created our oldest beliefs. Our ancestors’ beliefs notwithstanding, reality is what it is irrespective of our collective imagination. Our minds contain beliefs that combine to form a useful model or representation of reality, but this is not reality. It is this fact that makes us look in bewilderment at the actions of others whose beliefs form a model of reality foreign to our own. Although we are inclined to think that our personal view of reality is objective because it is generally consistent with that of our immediate community, what our minds actually contain is a consensus reality model that reflects the perception biases of our culture as well as our own. In considering our "knowledge" of reality the English philosopher William of Ockham (1285??134! 9?) observed that:
Our knowledge is molded and limited by our means and ways of perceiving things; it is locked up in the prison of our minds, and it must not pretend to be the objective or ultimate truth about anything.
More than four hundred years later German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724?1804) would come to the same conclusion in his Critique of Pure Reason. Kant’s view has been restated as follows:
Apparently, all our knowledge comes from the senses, and reveals not the external reality itself, but our sensory adaptation - perhaps transformation - of that reality. By sense, then, we can never quite know the "real"; we can know it only in that garb of space, time and cause which may be a web created by our organs of sense and understanding, designed or evolved to catch and hold that fluent and elusive reality whose existence we can surmise, but whose character we can never objectively describe; our way of perceiving will forever be inextricably mingled with the thing perceived.
Inasmuch as quality science requires the most accurate reality model possible, scientific beliefs must be verified using methods intended to eliminate bias and arbitrary beliefs. However, scientists, as do the rest of society, arrive at adulthood with myriad beliefs, rational and otherwise, which make up and influence their perceptions of reality. They are products of their socialization and education, and they too have their problems with accepting observations that conflict with their beliefs.
For thousands of years philosophers have dealt with questions of individual and collective human thought and conduct, each attempting to identify the essential elements of the thing considered and the truths linking those elements. Is it possible that our seemingly disparate life experiences are, in fact, diverse manifestations of a few fundamental truths? Is there an insight that would enable us to perceive superstition, science, art, lawlessness and spirituality as different hues of the primary colors of our nature? Could such an insight explain why cultures that evolve independently are so similar?
This work examines how beliefs are created, how the structure of our brain influences them, how they are transmitted, by what means they change, how they define our realities, determine our actions, alter our perceptions, perpetuate our cultures, allow others to manipulate our thoughts and actions, and how our future might depend on how rapidly our beliefs can adapt.