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May 14, 2010 12:02 PM   Subscribe

"In order for somebody to understand something, belief is a necessary precondition." On Descartes vs. Spinoza, the necessity of the suspension of disbelief to the creation of belief, the rarity of skepticism and the myths we refuse to stop telling ourselves. Finance blogger Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns uses an essay by analyst by analyst James Montier citing the work of Daniel Gilbert to ponder whether we are doomed to be destroyed by distraction, and suggests that " financial calamity and economic collapse are really the only way" to destroy the Efficient Markets Hypothosis.
posted by Diablevert (17 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
from link: “Descartes was educated by Jesuits and like many 17th century philosophers generally deployed psychology and philosophy in the aid of theology. Like anyone of any sense Descartes was well aware that people were capable of believing things that weren’t true. In order to protect the Church, Descartes argued that God had given man the power to assess ideas. So it clearly wasn’t God’s fault when people believed things that weren’t true.”

I have a hard time believing that anyone who thinks that Descartes wanted to "protect the Church" has actually read Descartes' books. Besides, the Church didn't exactly need protecting, least of all from someone like Descartes, who wasn't exactly in a prominent position of grand intellectual authority. If he pays lip service to religion at all, it seems most reasonable to assume that he does so to protect himself, given that theology clearly plays no part whatsoever in his philosophy.
posted by koeselitz at 12:46 PM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

For more on the topic of the relationship between belief and understanding with reference to Spinoza, see “Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty”:
Several psychological studies appear to support Spinoza’s conjecture that the mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.
posted by No Robots at 12:51 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have a hard time believing that anyone who thinks that Descartes wanted to "protect the Church" has actually read Descartes' books.

Descartes clearly and explicitly intended his work to sustain established theological doctrine:
I am aware that most of the irreligious deny the existence of God, and the distinctness of the human soul from the body, for no other reason than because these points, as they allege, have never as yet been demonstrated. Now, although I am by no means of their opinion, but, on the contrary, hold that almost all the proofs which have been adduced on these questions by great men, possess, when rightly understood, the force of demonstrations, and that it is next to impossible to discover new, yet there is, I apprehend, no more useful service to be performed in Philosophy, than if some one were, once for all, carefully to seek out the best of these reasons, and expound them so accurately and clearly that, for the future, it might be manifest to all that they are real demonstrations.--Meditations on First Philosophy / Descartes
This is in distinct contrast to Spinoza, who clearly and explicitly affirmed the identity of body and soul, God and nature.
posted by No Robots at 1:07 PM on May 14, 2010

That's precisely the kind of thing I was talking about, No Robots. Descartes is hardly trying to "sustain established theological doctrine" there so much as making it sound like he is in favor of established theological doctrine. This is a typical enlightenment appeal to the powers that be, in hopes of appeasing them, whilst simultaneously dismantling their rulership.

I mean, he basically says here that philosophy only exists to prop up past ideas. A mere glance at the rest of his works suffices to show that this is completely antithetical to the substance of his ideas. Nobody of perception at the time was fooled, either; Pascal, for example, was incensed at the fact that Descartes was able to remove theology so completely from his philosophical system.
posted by koeselitz at 1:35 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

The fact remains that Descartes, by affirming the distinction between body and soul, was forced into absurdities like the assertion that the pineal gland ties them together. See Spinoza's critique of Descartes on this and other questions in the preface to Part V of the Ethics. And it should be pointed out that Spinoza's position--that the body and the mind are identical--is what provides the basis for the kind of scientific work that is seen in the paper to which I linked above.
posted by No Robots at 1:52 PM on May 14, 2010

I wonder I'm the only one who thinks that deploying this kind of philosophical argument in the service of figuring out how people will act in the stock market is a little like hiring the Queen Elizabeth II to take you to the corner store for a six-pack?
posted by localroger at 1:55 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

myth: dividends don't matter

Case in point: My sister saved herself almost completely from grief in the latest meltdown by shifting her stocks from growth to income about a year before the whole thing went blooey. She told me about it when I was discussing that very move as a strategy for avoiding bubble risks. (I haven't got any skin in the game, so it's just intellectual exercise for me.) Dividends do matter, and that story about how P/E ratios are a thing of the past is exactly the kind of thinking that leads directly to bubble markets.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:14 PM on May 14, 2010

It seems to me this is extending the notion of the wisdom of crowds, showing how we can improve our overall economic performance by encouraging open-mindedness.
posted by No Robots at 2:24 PM on May 14, 2010

"In order for somebody to understand something, belief is a necessary precondition."

At the very least, one must believe that the thing is worth the effort of understanding.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:32 PM on May 14, 2010

financial calamity and economic collapse are really the only way" to destroy the Efficient Markets Hypothosis.

Well, considering that calamity and collapse haven't happened, an opened minded poerson should considered that perhaps the efficient markets hypothesis isn't necessarily wrong.
posted by Pastabagel at 3:18 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

calamity and collapse haven't happened

Been asleep a while, have you? It wasn't efficient markets that staved off the latest episode, or any of the earlier ones, for that matter.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:48 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nice, thought-provoking post, Diablevert.

Bruce Sterling's Distraction published in 1999, was prescient in many ways, but his title pointed to the central issue: the role of distraction in our thinking and political process.

Fox News has perfected the art of interrupting viewers' neural processing.

Wilfred Bion, the post-Kleinian British psychoanalyst, also considered the default position to be a lie, and the truth (or "selected fact") requiring the catastrophic (for the psyche of the individual) destruction of the current definatory hypothesis maintained by mythical assumptions, in this case the Efficient-market hypothesis.

I think of Descartes (God rest his bones) as the last to have a foot in both science and religion, while it was still almost possible.
posted by psyche7 at 6:02 PM on May 14, 2010

Leibniz was every bit as religious and scientific as Descartes. (As was Newton if I remember.)

No Robots where do you get your notion that body and mind are identical in Spinoza?
posted by oddman at 7:54 PM on May 14, 2010

[T]he idea of body and body, that is, mind and body (II. xiii.), are one and the same individual conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension.--Ethics II, Prop. 21, Note.
posted by No Robots at 10:29 PM on May 14, 2010

I had a hard time following the application of the proposed psychological theory of belief to the economic situation. It seemed mostly like a chance to talk psychology, which is cool, but the specific connection with economics was tenuous.

koeselitz: I think you're partly right about Descartes, but you're also ignoring the very strong ways in which his works are intended to support Catholicism. On one hand, he argued against almost every aspect of Aristotelian metaphysics, which was the philosophy officially endorsed by the Catholic church at the time. On the other hand, he also argued in numerous places for the existence of a creator-god with pretty much exactly the properties of the Catholic God. From what I've read, he seems mostly to have disagreed with the Church's stance on science, but was basically in agreement with other aspects of Catholic dogma.

oddman: Obviously I can't speak for No Robots, but that's a very common interpretation of Spinoza's account of mind. Noa Shein's entry in the SEP covers it succinctly, but basically it's straight out of the scholium to Ethics 2p7.

Thanks for this post, it's an issue that's been cropping up in recent philosophy scholarship. I think one of the Mellon dissertation fellowship winners for this year is working on this issue.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:44 PM on May 14, 2010

I'm puzzled, koeselitz: you're quite right that Descartes wasn't out to defend the Church (he was out to establish the truth); but it's weird to think that theology played no part in his system. I'm looking at the Meditations now and it seems God is mentioned on nearly every page. God was Descartes's way out of doubt; otherwise the cogito was all he'd got. He resolved he could stop doubting his senses etc because:

"...this same God... that is, a being who possesses all these lofty perfections... it is sufficiently manifest that he cannot be a deceiver, since it is a dictate of the natural light that all fraud and deception spring from some defect."

Isn't that theology? And it's in the core of his system, not superficial camouflage.
posted by Phanx at 3:13 AM on May 15, 2010

See as I read that line, No Robots, I don't see it as a claim that mind and body are identical. It is, rather, a claim that thought and extension are distinct aspects of the same individual. In essence, I don't see how modes of distinct attributes can be identical. Furthermore, Spinoza himself accepts the notion of distinct attributes. So, you can't reconcile the identical-modes from distinct-attributes problem by identifying the attributes.

I think voltairemodern is basically right about Descartes's religious beliefs. While he can't be said to be arguing for specific Church practices, he is clearly a religious person whose philosophical reliance on God is much more than a mere facade and who see himself as supporting the general positions and principles of the Church.
posted by oddman at 8:37 AM on May 16, 2010

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