Tom Roeper, author of The Prism of Grammar, reflects on human nature and foreign policy.
Almost every day one can read a political analysis which moves from an image of human nature to an argument for foreign policy. George Will is perfectly explicit (Newsweek, Aug 19, 2002):
The toxic idea at the core of all the most murderous ideologies of the modern age. That idea is that human nature is, if not a fiction, at least so watery and flimsy that it poses no serious impediment to evil political entities determined to treat people as malleable clay to be molded into creatures at once submissive and violent.
Here are two more, one very recent, the other a few months ago. In the November 16, 2007 New York Times Book Review, Johann Hari summarizes Walter Russell Mead’s perspective in his book God and Gold:
Mead ends with a call. . . . to place the idea of original sin at the center of politics. All men are fallen so politics needs [to be]. . . . conscious of their hideous flaws.From there in a few sentences, imperialism is justified.
In his column, David Brooks, links his views to his perception of human nature:
Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. …Furthermore, reason is not separate from emotion and the soul cannot be detached from the electrical and chemical pulses of the body. There isn't even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of…. We have a grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history. (“The Morality Line” NYT Apr 16.2007)
From there to the justification of various things like the politics of the Middle East is just a few short steps (detailed in many columns). The argument rests on this idea: we have an unconscious which we do
not understand or control. Generally, this line of reasoning promotes the notion that those in power, parents or politicians, have a right to assume malevolent motives and therefore the right to intervene for the greater good. Few of us escape this modern habit, whether it is interpreting George
Bush or our 3 year old child.
Brooks claims that his ideas are based on modern cognitive science - and to a degree they are, citing Steven Pinker (though Pinker tells me that he is no supporter of such implications). While Noam Chomsky has commented that “on the ordinary problems of life, science tells us very little” ( Chomsky nov 6- 06 La Jolla on Edge website), one can stilll ask whether it causes harm. More pointedly, one can ask: do those of us who would disagree with Brooks and come from a cognitive science background, have any alternative to offer?
Since Freud the concept of the modularity of mind has become an accepted part of modern culture. Not only Freud, but Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, Steve Pinker and others less well-known, like me, have argued that insight into mental processes demands a modular view of the mind. Brooks’ view seems to fall right into place in thisframework.
Most cognitive scientists are, like many academics, quite liberal,
but it is rare to hear their political views connected to cognitive
science.Can a positive view of humanity find roots in cognitive science?
There is a current flurry of interest in the idea of genes for “empathy” and innate morality that resembles grammar (see work by Hauser),but it is still easy to argue that an evil unconscious relegates our empathy to the margins of our decision-making. Empathy is a sunday school value, not much connected to the “real world” we face the rest of the week.
But modularity cannot be the whole story, even though no one knows
how we achieve “integrity” in our actions and beliefs if we do not know
what our unconscious is doing. Most of us, nonetheless, believe
human beings are capable of integrity, good will, and social creativity that is quite genuine, not half-hearted, nor questionable. We believe that real empathy can encompass all of who we are and motivate our individual and social actions. How does this connect to cognitive science?
Cognitive science is in its infancy and basic principles that lie
behind free thoughts and actions remain unknown. Current work in
linguistics focuses on the concept of “interfaces” among modules.
While the concept has a technical basis, it is also an important metaphor that may guide future work more broadly and can (and should I would say) work as an antidote to the premature negative interpretation that modularity alone seems (at least to Brooks) to imply for public policy.
What will the real interfaces look like? Our conscious has
unconscious roots, so there must be logical connections that a model
could construct, whereby the conscious systematically honors the
unconscious. It remains quite mysterious, but science offers many
models that may be relevant: we might have an informational laser, or
an electric field, or a hologram that captures how different aspects of
mind are connected. Once connected we will need a theory that makes a
transparent connection between mental concepts and physical ones. It
will also need to be justified at a microscopic level before it is
much as generative grammar copes with grammatical subtleties below conscious awareness. What is the political upshot here? I think liberal cognitive scientists can assert that the ordinary intuition about the
potential for human decency which many of us have, should be a reference point not only for policy implications but, ultimately, how we conceive the tasks of cognitive science.
Let me make the assertion stronger, leading to a more humble view of
what we have achieved: no one now knows enough about human nature - or
other individuals or cultures - to claim anything as a scientific
basis for projecting foreign policy, particularly invasive, bellicose
foreign policy, that presumes we can understand other cultures better
than they understand themselves.
In my recent book, The Prism of Grammar: How Child Grammar Illuminates Humanism, I have argued that we must acknowledge the limits of our knowledge, but maintain a humane goal. Putting it strongly it seems to me that the right theory of human nature will leave our sense of dignity intact.
Any theory which undermines our self-respect should be treated with suspicion. This perspective applies equally to how we judge our leaders and our children. Children’s dignity is routinely disregarded - as when we laugh at a child who says “don’t giggle me," trying to communicate a serious wish. The intuition that human decency is natural is important. It denies that, once again, modularity means that we are inherently incoherent beings, that we necessarily cannot act or think in ways that take all of ourselves into account, that we cannot therefore build a democracy of goodwill because malice lurks behind our most seemingly benign acts, that the assumption of covert self-interest must be the basis for “realistic” social policy, that democracy works only because it allows a resolution of competing self-
interest rather than a desire for cooperation as an independent value.
Cognitive scientists who have a positive view of human nature have been too quiet in public discussions. If ideas are being misused, misinterpreted, or prematurely applied, it is partly the responsibility of those who advocate them to engage in the discussion, rather than offhandedly condemn misunderstandings, bemoan how the laity cannot understand science, or claim that simply because misuse is beyond our control, therefore we have no responsibility. We do havesome, not all, the responsibility for the impact of ideas.