Spinoza’s Conjecture

22 January 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.