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Peace in the Garden: Shermer and Belief Systems

June 20, 2011

One of my favorite songs of all time is “In the Garden.” I know Willie’s not got the prettiest of voices, but I love his version best of all. He lives hard and the gravel in his voice lends a depth to the content of the song that others don’t quite have.

garden 2004

In my gardens, working in the dirt, tending the plants, I come as close to knowing the face of God that I ever will (and I say this as an atheist). Here, in the garden, the beauty of the world coupled with its randomness is made manifest and I am in awe.

garden 2004

The garden changes not only from day to day, but if you’ve ever watched a rose bloom, by the moment. It is teeming with life in all its stages. It is at the mercy of nature but welcomes the nurturing and tending of a conscientious caregiver. It can be destroyed in a moment of torrential rain and wind or the unrelenting heat of a sudden fire, and yet it is resilient and will reassert its dominance given a brief respite.

garden 2005

The garden centers me. It gives me hope for tomorrow on bleak days and shows me that effort matters. It also humbles me and shows me that effort is not enough.

garden 2006

I find my peace in the garden in its many facets and find the strength to move forward each and every day.

garden 2006

The power of the garden and its ability to transport me emotionally is not lessened by realizing this is a neurochemical dance my brain is engaged in. It only serves to lend it another layer of wonder.

garden 2007

When I read Shermer’s words “[t]he brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally beings to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning,” I am in accord with him and no less in awe of the garden and the meaning I find there.

garden 2007
Metacognition is perhaps even more awe-inspiring; to stop and think that our brains do this, create patterns where none may exist and then “begin 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” (Shermer) is to realize that we may not be as much in the driver’s seat as we think.
garden 2007

People of faith believe that a higher power directs their lives and the events within them, providing meaning and depth. I think it is not so different a feeling to realize that my brain and not my consciousness may be controlling and directing my life. It can be a terrifying thought.

garden 2008

Shermer provides three examples of belief conversion in part one of his new book The Believing Brain; one in particular, Francis Collin’s conversion to belief, is humbling. From atheist to believer, Shermer contends that it was that opening of himself to the potential that allowed Collins to convert, and Collin’s formidable intelligence to effectively justify and rationalize his beliefs. According to Shermer, “[b]elief systems are powerful, pervasive, and enduring.” And they are, until they are not. Research shows us the power of repeatedly hearing a story; it explains to a large degree why urban myths prevail, why merely giving voice to the myth makes it more likely it will be accepted than its countering fact.

garden 2008

While it’s true that our confirmation biases make it unlikely that a contradictory belief will get a foothold, the underlying mechanisms of the brain allow for the possibility that it will. That’s good if we hold an incorrect belief and are provided access to factual information (perhaps it will be like the unceasing drops of water on a boulder), but it’s bad if we already have a factual foothold and are constantly subjected to pseudoscience and false information.

garden 2009

We all have a foundation upon which we build our lives, and the solidity of this foundation determines how well we weather the adversities that life inevitably brings us. I think it is better to think about the foundation, work out what it is, test it, and see if it will hold than find in a moment of crisis that the ground we thought was firm and hard was nothing more than quicksand.  I look to and maintain my foundation in the time in my garden, where introspection is welcome but not required, where peace can be found.

garden 2010
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