Wolpert argues that even false beliefs can serve a useful purpose. He concedes that religion, which he regards as false, has a purpose and has played a role in the evolutionary processes. People tend to look out for people of like faith, as in churches, and that support can make them stronger, thus improving the chances that they will live long enough to see their genes passed along.
If Wolpert's compelling argument is right, does that mean we have no control over what we believe? He says he was a very religious child, but became an atheist at the age of 16 because he no longer believed in religion. But could it be that his own "belief engine" made the decision for him?
Ever since Sigmund Freud dug into the secrets of the subconscious, many psychologists have argued that many of our beliefs are beyond our control because they are shaped by unknown secrets buried inside the brain. But if that's true, how do psychologists escape their own scenario? Wouldn't they be just as likely to be deluded as the rest of us?
Similarly, many biologists think the complex organism between our ears is driven entirely by biology. But if we all have a biologically based "belief system," aren't we all -- even biologists -- victims of false beliefs? As Wolpert concedes, maybe people just believe what they want to believe.
None of us approach complex issues, like whether or not to believe in a specific religion, or even a political candidate, with a clean slate.
How else can you explain 80 million Americans who believe we've been visited by aliens? Surely, if aliens invested the enormous costs of interstellar travel and came our way, they must have had a reason. Wouldn't they drop by the White House instead of a desert in New Mexico or Texas? Would there really be any confusion if they had, indeed, visited Earth?
The late astronomer Carl Sagan had a wonderful formula for measuring the truthfulness of any belief. Extraordinary claims, he said, demand extraordinary evidence.
The fact that so many are willing to believe so many impossible things with so little evidence is not comforting.