Monday, October 22, 2007

Bullshit or Not: Descartes Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an regular series of posts.

This week, it's the opening passage of Rene Descartes' Discourse on Method. It's one of my favorite Descartes quotations, in part because I've never been sure how seriously to take it.

The most widely shared thing in the world is good sense, for everyone thinks he is so well provided with it that even those who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else do not usually desire to have more good sense than they have. In this matter it is not likely that everyone is wrong. But this is rather a testimony to the fact that the power of judging well and distinguishing what is true from what is false, which is really what we call good sense or reason, is naturally equal in all men, and thus the diversity of our opinions does not arise because some people are more reasonable than others, but only because we conduct our thoughts by different routes and do not consider the same things.
So, is this Enlightenment idea of humans as pretty much equally rational legit? Is the spread more significant than Descartes lets on? Descartes' thesis here is the antithesis of The Bell Curve; so if Descartes is handing us bullshit, is it a random distribution? Is it affected by sociological factors?

As usual, feel free to leave comments ranging from a single word to a dissertation. So...bullshit or not?