10 August 2014

Why the Resolution of a Centuries Old Debate Between Spinoza and Descartes Calls Free Speech Into Question

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "One can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
- Lewis Carroll

Intriguing paper from three University of Texas researchers on belief that tests Spinoza and Descartes notions of how we come to believe. Descartes thought that we comprehend something and then choose whether or not to believe it. For him, belief was separate from understanding and came later. Spinoza did not agree. He thought that belief was integral to understanding, that we accept a statement in order to comprehend it. For him, it was un-believing that came after and required the effort and belief that came automatically. Belief did not have to be done but instead had to be undone.


Gilbert, Tafarodi, and Malone's studies give weight to Spinoza's view: believing simply happens through the act of comprehension. The act of unbelieving relies on logical capacity, correct information, or cognitive resources. No everybody has these. You can reject the notion that Smith is pregnant if you know Smith is a man (logical capacity) but you can't reject it if you have wrong information (you thought Smith was a woman). Obviously, quite a few people are lacking either the logic, correct information, or cognitive resources needed to refute lies. For these people, exposure to an idea will mean belief in it. This is obviously troubling in a world in which freedom of speech is protected.

The authors, knowing that bad ideas in circulation are likely to be embraced (by at least a few) once we've been exposed to them, still vote for freedom of speech. Their reasoning is that conversation has the potential to help people take a skeptical approach to something false they've heard, but conversation between people can't help them to believe in true statements they haven't heard. In their words,
In short, people can potentially repair their beliefs in stupid ideas, but they cannot generate all the smart ideas that they have failed to encounter. Prior restraint [e.g., censoring political dissent or pornography] is probably a more effective form of belief control than is unbelieving, but its stunning effectiveness is its most troublesome cost. 
What does this mean? Apparently we don't adopt beliefs. They, instead, adopt us. It's worth examining your beliefs from time to time to decide which ones to reject, knowing that barring this act of intentional skepticism we're likely to protect ideas that don't deserve it. If anything, their studies suggest that you're likely biased more towards beliefs that don't deserve protecting than biased towards refuting beliefs that do.

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The paper:
You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read
Daniel T. Gilbert
Department of Psychology University of Texas at Austin
Romin W. Tafarodi
Department of Psychology University of Texas at Austin
Patrick S. Malone
Department of Psychology University of Texas at Austin

1 comment:

abbiestreehouse said...

I liked this post. It made me think about things I don't normally think about.