Thursday, April 7, 2011


Human nature, by Junior Lopes
Here are a few...let's call them suppositions I've reached in the process of doing a very cultural degree program followed by a very cognitive one:

1. Perspective always matters. None of us are truly objective, because we speak from a perspective by necessity. But by seeking out and being informed by the perspectives of others, we can come closer to objectivity. The truly objective is that which is true or existent independent of our perspectives, however, and cannot be determined by simply adding up subjective views. If nine out of ten people think Beck is the best musical artist ever, that's useful information. It does not mean that Beck is objectively the best musical artist ever. You can't vote on the sex of a rabbit, etc.

2. Perspectives often differ as a result of distributions of power. The more powerful often speak more loudly and are easier to hear. Power may come from many sources--sheer numbers, monetary wealth, physical strength, influence, and so on. While the perspectives of the less powerful are important because they can include insights that are simply overlooked by the powerful, they are not right simply by virtue of being relatively powerless. If you added up all of the kinds of non-privilege in the world and found them all existing in one person, that person would not be the wisest human being ever. But he/she would probably have a hell of a story to tell, and it's one we should hear.

3. There is such a thing as human nature, but we are not biological robots. We are both natured and nurtured. Biological determinism and strict social constructivism are both telling partial stories which are thereby incorrect stories. A person who thinks a trait of the human mind is more biologically determined than you do is not necessarily a biological determinist, and a person who thinks the trait is more shaped by society is not necessarily a strict social constructivist. People who focus on culture tend to fixate on difference while people who focus on cognition tend to focus on commonalities. This does not make them enemies, but collaborators (that is, if they're willing to be). "Biological" and "neurological" do not mean "permanent," and "cultural" does not mean "easily/quickly mutable."

4. Nor do those classifications mean the abdication of responsibility or legitimization of normativity.  Our minds are built by both biological evolution and the culture around us, and saying that a certain trait is adaptive no more confirms that it is good than does saying something is a message sent by society.  Neither evolution nor society have "wants." They are both complex forces that shape people without purpose. We as individuals take what we're given and decide what to do with it. We don't hand responsibility over to either force, but share it with them. Free will-- the kind of free will worth wanting-- is created in the exchange.

These are all very general "planks" of my thinking about how minds work, but I thought it important to jot them down because holding these suppositions says a lot about what I do or don't find surprising, likely, or moral. For example, you're not likely to arouse outrage in me at the idea that rape is an evolutionarily adaptive trait. It might be completely untrue, but the very idea won't offend me because I know that doesn't remotely mean that rape is good, prudent, or hard to avoid committing. I'm already very familiar with the idea that war, sexual deception and jealousy, religion, and more biases than could possibly be conceived may well be adaptive, and those possibilities are interesting in terms of their explanatory value but hardly threatening. And to return to Stephen Pinker-think, nothing we discover about the human mind is going to legitimize rape.  If someone claims otherwise, they're doing science wrong. Or not doing it at all.

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