This review has could have been written months ago, were it not for the fact that I’ve been reading it with other books like Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral and currently Boyer’s Religion Explained. I had though it had surprisingly little attention because as Smiffy said, it is potentially a lot more devastating to the status of religion than the works of Dawkins. Nonetheless there are a few people who haven’t got round to reading it who have concluded it’s bunk. The reason I don’t think these people have read what they condemn is that they seem to think it’s about religion. This is the subject of just one chapter of the thirteen in the book. The book is, as the subtitle states, about belief, and it’s far more interesting because of it.
Lewis Wolpert starts off by talking about how our beliefs affect our reasoning. As part of this he uses some simple logic exercises — which I’ll steal so you can try them. Does are these valid logical deductions?
No cigarettes are inexpensive.
Some addictive things are inexpensive.
Therefore, some addictive things are not cigarettes.
This is valid because the conclusion follows the premises. Nearly everyone would get that one right. How about this?
No addictive things are inexpensive.
Some cigarettes are inexpensive.
Therefore, some cigarettes are not addictive.
Logically valid or not? The first exercise was easy, but this slowed me down. It is logically valid, but only around half of the population would get this right. That line some cigarettes are not addictive really causes some grinding of the mental gears. The final exercise you may need to read several times:
No unhealthy foods have cholesterol.
Some unhealthy foods are fried foods.
Therefore, no fried foods have cholesterol.
Logically valid or not? It is. If you disagree you’re not alone. This had me stuck for hours. In the end I had to draw a Venn diagram to see that it was valid. Wolpert puts it down to a mix of belief-laden and belief-neutral arguments.
So it’s not surprising that the next chapter is about belief. On page 23 it’s there in black and white
For many, belief is intimately associated with religion, and religious beliefs will be dealt with in detail. It is the everyday use of the word I deal with in this book, and I will focus on those beliefs that relate to the causes of events that affect out lives in significant ways. Beliefs relating to moral issues will receive much less attention.
This is why a lot of the anti-atheist discussions of Wolpert’s ideas have nothing of interest to say. Certainly they’re right if they say that causal beliefs are inadequate to explain the whole religious experience, but that’s not the aim of the book. From here he goes on to look at the various forms of causal belief.
The next two chapters put those ideas into some context. In chapter three he talks about how strange children are, and they are weird. When you consider how they’re learning for themselves how the world works the progress is amazing. Sadly he only briefly touches on Piaget’s work here. The next chapter is about belief in animals which highlights how rudimentary some animal thinking is about cause and effect. The Caledonian Crows come out of it well, thanks to their tool use.
Tool use is the subject of chapter five, and this is the Big Idea in the book. Belief, Wolpert argues, is associated with tool use. To use tools you have to have a pretty good understanding of what your own body can do and a reliable physical model of the universe. He includes a breakneck tour of the history of toolmaking here. It’s a fascinating idea but this is where the book fails to deliver on its promise. Given this is the central thesis of the book it would have been nice to have some meat in this section. Instead what he says is suggestive, but hardly compelling. This problem follows through into the next chapter which is a tour through social development and ideas like theory of mind. It’s interesting, but if you’ve read anything before on Evolutionary Psychology it seems a bit lightweight. It’s a shame because the structure of the book is brilliant, as the next chapter is False
One of the interesting questions can ask about anything is ‘What happens when it goes wrong?’ This chapter covers delusion and mental illness, By examining what doesn’t happen for some people you have a light to illuminate what does happen in a healthy mind. In this chapter he does toss in the fact that were it not a social commonplace religion would unhesitatingly be called a delusion. This, and the follow-up chapter being Religion is arguably the provocative bit of the book. He mentions Boyer’s work here, who argues that a one-size-fits-all explanation of religion isn’t going to work. He also mentions Wilson’s arguments from Darwin’s Cathedral and looks at how similar religious experiences are to mental disorders, though doesn’t argue the two are the same, Again this is all a bit superficial. You could write a book on the subject. I can see why there isn’t space for great depth, but saying you dealt with religious belief in detail in 21 pages is far more dismissive than anything Dawkins has written.
Another delicious irony is that the other chapter to sit alongside religion is paranormal beliefs. I’m absolutely alongside this. I’m still trying to differentiate between ghosts and Gods. So far I have: “A God is a ghost with a civil service.” which is about 90% accurate. Here it’s all about ghosts, alien abductions and other strangeness. Health is the obvious partner and that’s the subject of the next chapter.
The final chapters don’t quite run so smoothly. From health we move to morality, this included partly show the amoral, rather than immoral nature of science. In the Science chapter the brevity focusses the point that Wolpert wants to make, which is that Science is a very odd way of looking at things. What sets science apart from other methods of constructing beliefs is that it is at best neutral towards the beliefs it produces. You could even argue it’s hostile, if you’re a Popperian. Wolpert isn’t and this is one of the chapters which digs at philosophers. Postmodernists he argues suffer from envy in comparison to the progress of physicists. This is something I’d firmly disagree with. The most science-hostile postmodernists that I’ve read have been blissfully ignorant of scientific method. The final chapter is the conclusion and almost reaches four pages in length.
I thought I was going to disagree with PZ Myers on this and give this book a very positive review. I liked reading it. It is enjoyable, but when I sat down and thought about what he actually said I see that PZ got it right, Wolpert simply doesn’t grab the idea he’s got and pin it to the pages.
It’s also clear why it’s not going to have a large impact. If you are an anti-evolutionist this book is not for you. It removes religion from the centre of belief like Copernicus moving the Earth from the centre of the universe. This isn’t done in an aggressive way, it’s simply clear that religion is only part of what Wolpert finds so interesting about belief. For ‘New Atheists’ Wolpert isn’t tackling the issues that are bothering them, which is the role of faith in public life. In both cases this is no major loss, as neither are the intended audience.
Unfortunately I’m not sure that it will make much impact in the social sciences either. I can see how you can explain religion or superstition in terms of tool use, but it’s such a general explanation that it doesn’t help with the kind of questions that most social scientists ask. It would be a bit like explaining the motifs in the Sistine Chapel as a product of Michelangelo’s desire to have something to eat. That’s possibly not a fair comparison, Wolpert is suggesting something that isn’t obvious, but it is divorced from the other research in the field. If you’re going to be original that’s fantastic, but you then need to build bridges to show why what you’ve found is useful and exciting and there’s not a lot of that.
If you’re interested in seeing things from a strikingly different perspective to usual arguments about belief then it’s a good book. If you’re seriously interested in the topic though, you may be slightly disappointed. The opening chapter is good, but it never seems to get into top gear.