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BelievingReview - Believing
The Neuroscience of Fantasies, Fears, and Convictions
by Michael McGuire
Prometheus Books, 2013
Review by Jack Darach
May 6th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 19)

In this colloquial book Michael McGuire aims to settle difficult questions about the nature of belief: what it is; its relation to the brain and behaviour and its relation to evidence. In particular why it is, to quote E. O. Wilson, "people would rather believe than know." Or, as the story that frames the book demonstrates, how it is that some people, like his Mrs. X, can find themselves believing something which is resistant to both preference and evidence -- her belief that her real parents were not actually hers was both obviously wrong to her and one which she would prefer not to have. Through eighteen short chapters McGuire examines belief from a range of perspectives; from the psychologists' to the historians' to the philosophers' before settling into a series of chapters that elucidate those aspects of brain function that contribute to an understanding of belief. The neuroscience in the book, such as it is, thus appears later and the first half is a kind of scattergun approach as McGuire tries to find a way through the contributions different perspectives might make. There is some refreshing honesty in a work that, rather than just picking up the coat-tails of previous research, will admit it doesn't know exactly how to start. The main benefit of this kind of approach seems to be the space it affords for providing anecdote and background story: it's certainly a virtue that we never feel burdened by the theoretical and the conversational style keeps the pace moving.

At the heart of the book is the core conception of belief and what McGuire calls a belief divide. Divides are "an individual's perceived distance between a belief and his assessment of the evidence related to the belief" and such distances can be wide or narrow or non-existent. And while the idea is fairly intuitive -- the greater the divide the less the person takes their belief to be supported by the evidence -- McGuire never unpacks the metaphor of distance for us. Leaving it unpacked is ultimately unsatisfying and it's not clear how it syncs with other commonplace thoughts about belief. For instance it's often said that when a person believes something they would take what they believe to be true. How should we understand that truism in the context of the metaphors about perceived distance between the belief and the evidence? While this question is left unanswered McGuire does delve into different types of evidence with interesting discussions on disagreement in climate science and psychological categorizations in the DSM.

As mentioned above one theme of the first part of the book is to eschew the search for a definition of belief from within one academic tradition and see what perspective different subjects, such a psychology, history, philosophy, can provide. Thinking about belief from a historical perspective should be pursued, he says, "because it just made sense. Beliefs have been around since the beginning of recorded history and certainly long before." McGuire then spends time looking at things people have believed -- actual instances of belief. For instance, to take the simplest kind of example, people have (and still) believed in things which create a kind of psychological comfort; or things which place their country in a particular mythic narrative. We sense the way in which belief can be diverted from the truth but the rationale for viewing belief in this historical manner seems to require more support. Why not suppose that when comparing different historical epochs we are talking about the same kind of mental state and, in supposing that, take any example to be as good as any other? Thus some commonplace belief example from now is as good as any from some other time. If we learn anything from the historical survey it is the powerful staying power of certain kinds of belief and this, perhaps, is where the strongest rationale appears -- for surely we learn something about what belief is if we note that it is the kind of attitude where such thoughts can persist.

McGuire is a monist in, at least, the following sense: we should cease talk of the mind and refer solely to the brain in discussion of mental states such as belief. The collapsing of mind into brain leads to some curious confusions. For instance in discussing innate releasing mechanisms he mentions, as an example, that "it has been postulated that information present in the brain, such as an image of God, can serve as a stimulus that initiates the nonvocal aspect of petitioning prayer." But the idea of images in the brain -- now that we have collapsed into a crude monism, can only mean a visible representation as though the brain itself has become a kind of Turin shroud. Once we accept the difficulty of saying of representations that they are, in a literal sense, in the brain it's a short step towards more nuanced forms of monism.

Another place where a little more nuance would have been appreciated is in discussions around the systems that contribute to the production and management of belief. McGuire writes, "Beliefs associated with pleasure and reward are favoured over those associated with negative emotions often irrespective of evidence...Beliefs and divides are products of multiple brain systems." This may be true, but should beliefs be the products of multiple systems? Do beliefs best fulfil their function -- whatever that is -- being products of all those aspects of the brain they can be formed by? If not, then we have to adjudicate on what it is belief is meant to do, and just cataloguing the various systems that affect belief will not be sufficient to this task. This is why it felt like we were off on the wrong foot early in the book when McGuire casually claims that "definitions were the easy part" with respect to understanding belief -- and that it was somehow trickier, and more worthwhile, to collect all the different instances of things people can believe -- as though knowing the subject matter of all the sentences in a book would tell us about the concept of a sentence. A definition for a mental state guides us when we turn to the brain to understand systems that can influence that kind of mental state and those which should influence such a mental state. Sadly, on this normative question, McGuire is silent.  

 

© 2014 Jack Darach

 

 

Jack Darach is doing research at the intersection of Epistemology, Action theory and Normativity.


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