Spinoza’s Conjecture

Jan 22, 2010

Last week I discussed fundamental attribution error, leaving confirmation bias and Spinoza’s Conjuncture left to explore.  Today I’m going to delve into the latter.  Benedict Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, wrote with great insight that “mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.”  What this suggests is that we are likely to accept, as true, a statement that makes immediate sense to us. But we can also infer from this statement that we are, in general, unlikely to critically scrutinize such logical statements.  A further implication is that we are likely to reject statements that don’t make immediate sense to us.


Sam Harris, a noted neuroscientist and author, and several colleagues at the University of California recently published the results of a study noting that we tend to process understood information very quickly while we process false or uncertain statements more slowly.  And what is even more interesting is that we process ambiguous or uncertain statements in regions of the brain (specifically: the left inferior frontal gyrus, anterior insula, and dorsal anterior cingulate) that are associated with processing pain and disgust.  Hmmm, critical thinking hurts!  This is just one example of much evidence that suggests that our brains work this way.


We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of the world then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.  Subsequently, we may not grow or expand our understanding of the world and we may become intellectually or professionally stagnate.


It is important to remember this tendency when we are taking in novel information. New ideas that run contrary to long-held beliefs are hard to embrace regardless of the degree of merit. And we are disinclined to question the legitimacy of new information particularly if it fits our preconceptions. Challenging and/or ambiguous information, like quantum mechanics may, in some people, elicit feelings similar to pain or even disgust. Perhaps this also explains that uneasy feeling that many people experience when they think about such mind blowing concepts as our size and importance relative to the vastness of time and space. The slowed, arduous, and perhaps even painful process of thinking about such ambiguous or incongruous information may certainly discourage the endeavor. Perhaps the cliche “no pain – no gain” reasonably applies.


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5 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Nicholas Covington
    January 23rd, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Hi Gerald, it’s me from DB Skeptic. Nice blog. I also blog, you should check it out:


  2. Gerald Guild
    January 28th, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

    Hi Nicholas – or Ryan. I must say that I am a touch confused by the dualism – so are you Ryan or Nicholas (both or neither)? I see that you have been at this a while. Obviously this is a new endeavor for me. As I have said, I have enjoyed your work. My meanderings lack references – I like the fact that you include your sources. I’ve pondered this – doing so certainly seems value added (enhances cred & decreases chances of accusation of plagiarism). Anyways, thanks for the great reads and kind words.

  3. Rational Thought: Not all it’s cracked up to be. · How Do You Think?
    May 10th, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    […] Intuitive Thought I mentioned that rational thought is slow and arduous. I also mentioned in Spinoza’s Conjecture that vague or confusing information is processed in a portion of the brain that also processes pain […]

  4. Cathy Sander
    September 17th, 2011 at 5:54 am #

    Another possible reason why people find it hard to accept new information is the loss of certainty it entails for their previous beliefs. Beliefs have grown on them, almost as if they were an arm and a leg. This may give the impression that hurting these beliefs feels similar to hurting them physically as well.

    If only we can accept that we’re more than the sum of our beliefs…

  5. Gerald Guild
    October 13th, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Excellent Cathy! More research is pointing toward the notion that one’s beliefs are indeed core to the self. Insult or question the belief and you trigger the same feelings and defense mechanisms as if you have attacked the individual herself. I am currently working on a post related to this very issue. Thank you for the insightful comment!

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