Descartes divided the mind up into two faculties: intellect and will. The intellect gathers up data from the world and presents the mind with various potential beliefs that it might endorse; the will then chooses which of them to endorse. We can look at the evidence for or against a particular belief, but the final choice about what to believe remains a matter of choice.
This raises the question of the ‘ethics of belief,’ the title of an essay by the mathematician William K. Clifford, in which he argued that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ If people choose what they believe, we can ask when it is morally right or wrong for them to entertain certain beliefs. Clifford’s stern moral position was famously challenged by William James, but not his crucial premise that we choose what to believe. Some philosophers have taken this premise to extremes; Jean-Paul Sartre went as far as to suggest that we are always to blame for our own suffering, since however much the evidence might suggest that our situation is a miserable one, it is always our choice to believe that it really is so.
But do the ‘ethics of belief’ rest upon a false presumption? Spinoza believed so (as was observed by Edwin Curley). He opposed Descartes’ two-faculty psychology. Will and intellect, he argued, are one and the same; as soon as the intellect gathers up its data, the mind is thereby made up on what to believe. We may think we choose what to believe, but this, Spinoza claims, is an illusion arising from ignorance. The human mind grinds out beliefs from the data it receives in a blindly mechanical fashion; in an early work, Spinoza called the mind a ‘spiritual automaton.’ We think of ourselves as free only because we fail to consciously note all the inputs that set the direction of our thought.
Does it make sense to mock, to hate, to be angry with, to disesteem others for their differences of opinion?
Many important things follow from Spinoza’s alternative picture of the mind. People with opposing views cannot disagree because they choose to respond differently to the same data. There must be a difference in the data to which they have access, even if neither is conscious of this. When people disagree with us, there is no point in imploring them to ‘face facts.’ The problem is not that they are refusing to face the facts; it is that they haven’t been exposed to the same facts as us, at least not in the same way.
Similarly, our value judgments, whether truth-apt or not, are straightforward functions of the influences upon us. Exposure to given phenomena will generate a set of value judgements with the certainty of a chemical reaction. It makes little sense to describe anybody’s values as corrupt or perverse. Each person’s values are appropriate in terms of the influences to which she has been subjected; if we wish her values to change, we must subject her to new influences. Thus the doctrine that will and intellect are one and the same, Spinoza averred, teaches us ‘to hate no one, to disesteem no one, to mock no one, to be angry at no one, to envy no one.’
This doctrine was of great importance in Spinoza’s age—the age of religious conflicts. People were condemning each other’s beliefs when, according to Spinoza, they should have been trying to understand the processes producing the divergences. You cannot intimidate somebody into changing beliefs that are the result of processes over which she has no control. The idea of Pascal’s Wager rests upon a misunderstanding of the mind. Even God cannot change our beliefs by offering rewards and punishments; that is like trying to pay somebody not to sneeze.
After an election, like the one we just had in the United Kingdom, I often find myself thinking about Descartes’ and Spinoza’s opposing pictures of the mind. Does somebody who disagrees with me, even while seeming to be exposed to precisely the same facts, just perceive a different world? Or do they choose to believe different things about a world we perceive with equal clarity? Does it make sense to mock, to hate, to be angry with, to disesteem others for their differences of opinion? Or is the burden on us to find out what it is they have failed to notice and show it to them?
The answers hang upon the strength of Spinoza’s arguments against Descartes’ position. My critical analysis of these arguments has been highly favourable. But we are dealing with two philosophical giants, and there is much still to be said on either side.
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