| Home | Future Events | Previous Events | People | Articles | Reviews | AboutUs |

Modern Theory and the Human Mind

What Can Science Tell Us About Human Nature?

by Kenan Malik

'What can science tell us about human nature?'

Can be broken down into two more basic questions:

1. How does science know about the world?
2. How does human nature fit into the world?

In other words, what tools does science possess, and are those tools sufficient for understanding that which is human nature. Not just in science, but in all aspects of life, how you do something – the tools that you utilise – determines what you can do. If you try to mow your lawn using a pair of nail scissors you won't get very far. Nail scissors places constraints on what you can do to a lawn.

I want to suggest, in a similar way, that the way that science understands the world places constraints upon the way it can understand human beings. A paradox of science is that its success in understanding nature has created problems for its understanding of human nature.

Let us begin with the question, 'How does science know about the world?'

The success of science derives from the way that it has 'disenchanted' the natural world. Whereas the prescientific world viewed the universe as full of purpose and desire, the scientific revolution transformed nature into an inert, mindless entity.

At the heart of the scientific methodology is its view of nature, and of natural organisms, as machines; not because ants or apes work like computers or TVs, but because, like all machines, they lack agency and will. Animals are objects of natural forces, not potential subjects of their own destiny. They act out a drama, not create one.

Humans, however, are not disenchanted creatures. We possess purpose and agency, consciousness and will, qualities that science has expunged from the rest of nature. Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws.

Two important expressions of the way that human subjectivity distinguishes us from the rest of the natural world: our ability to make history, and our ability to advance science.

In the six million years since the human and chimpanzee lines first diverged on either side of Africa's Great Rift Valley, the behaviour and lifestyles of chimpanzee have barely changed. Human behaviour and lifestyles clearly have. Humans learn from previous generations, improve upon their work, and have established a momentum to human life and culture that has taken us from cave art to quantum physics and the conquest of space. It is this capacity for constant innovation that distinguishes humans from all other animals. All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history.

And only humans make science. All non-human animals are constrained by the tools that nature has bequeathed them through natural selection. They are incapable of striving towards truth; they simply absorb information, and behave in ways useful for their survival. The kinds of knowledge they require of the world have been largely pre-selected by evolution. No animal is capable of asking questions or generating problems that are irrelevant to its immediate circumstances or its evolutionarily-designed needs. When a beaver builds a dam, it doesn't ask itself why it does so, or whether there is a better way of doing it. When a swallow flies south, it doesn't wonder why it is hotter in Africa or what would happen if it flew still further south. Humans do ask themselves these and many other kinds of questions, questions that have no relevance, indeed make little sense, in the context of evolved needs and goals. What marks out humans is our capacity to go beyond our naturally-defined goals – such as the need to find food, shelter or a mate – and to establish human-created goals.

Some Darwinists have come to believe that there are indeed certain questions that humans are incapable of answering because of our evolved nature. 'Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking', argues Steven Pinker. 'We cannot hold ten thousand words in our short-term memory. We cannot see ultra-violet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.'

Whether or not this is true remains to be seen. What we do know, however, is that most scientific problems – from the structure of DNA, to the physical composition of the sun, to the mechanism of evolution – are problems that would not have been 'life-and-death matters to our ancestors'. We have solved them despite our evolutionary legacy, not just because of it. The development of science requires mental skills, many of which are evolved adaptations. But it also requires us to transcend those adaptations. We are only able to do science, in other words, because we are able to transcend our evolutionary heritage, because we are able to act as subjects, rather than as objects.

All of which brings us back to our two questions:

1. How does science know about the world?
2. How does human nature fit into the world?

Science understands the world by treating as an object or a machine. Science is mechanistic. Science is designed to understand phenomena that are objects. Humans are distinct from the rest of the world by virtue of being subjects. So, now we are faced with a third – and crucial question - how can a tool designed to understand objects tell us anything about phenomena that are also subjects– in other words about human beings?

There are three broad answers to this question that I want to look at. The first answer is that humans are not really subjects, that in reality we are simply objects like every other natural being. Teleology is an illusion, something that natural selection has designed us to believe in, not because it is true but because it is useful. As the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore has put it, when 'we feel ourselves to be in control of an action, that feeling itself is the product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed, on the basis of its functional utility, by means of natural selection.'

A variation on this argument is provided by the psychologist Susan Blackmore who adopts Richard Dawkins' notion of a meme, a unit of culture that inhabits, or rather parasitises, our brains. Blackmore suggests that 'Instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and working for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working only to get themselves copied.'

Since 'we cannot find either beliefs or the self that believes' by looking into somebody's head, she argues, so we must conclude that there are no such things as beliefs or selves, 'only a person arguing, a brain processing the information, memes being copied or not.'

There are lots of arguments against this view. But consider just this one. From an evolutionary point of view, truth is contingent. Darwinian processes are driven by the need, not to ascertain truth, but to survive and reproduce. Of course, survival often requires organisms to have correct facts about the world. A zebra that believed that lions were friendly, or a chimpanzee that enjoyed the stench of rotting food would not survive for long. But although natural selection often ensures that an organism possesses the correct facts, it does not always do so. Indeed, the argument that consciousness and free will are illusions designed by natural selection relies on the idea that evolution can select for untruths about the world because such untruths aid survival.

If, then, our cognitive capacities were simply evolved dispositions, there would be no way of knowing which of these capacities lead to true beliefs and which to false ones. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel points out, there would be no basis on which to trust reason itself. To accept the truth of reasoning, Nagel observes, 'I have to be able to believe… that I follow the rules of logic because they are correct – not merely because I am biologically programmed to do so.'

In other words, if we were simply natural beings like every other natural being, then science would simply be an evolved way of looking at the world, not a means to ascertain objective truths. The logic of the argument put forward by Colin Blakemore and Susan Blackmore undermines our confidence in its own veracity. For if we are simply sophisticated animals or machines, then we cannot have any confidence in the claim that we are only sophisticated animals or machines. We are only able to do science because we are able to transcend our evolutionary heritage, because we are able to act as subjects, rather than as objects.

For these and many other reasons, many people find implausible the notion that human agency is an illusion and the self just a story. They therefore adopt a different approach – accepting, in principle, the existence of consciousness and free will, but ignoring them in practice when formulating scientific concepts of human nature.

Steven Pinker, for instance, is 'as certain that I am sentient as I am certain of anything.' Moral reasoning, he points out, depends upon our acknowledgement of ourselves as sentient beings. The concept of sentience 'underlies our certainty that torture is wrong and that disabling a robot is the destruction of property but disabling a person is murder.' Pinker acknowledges that, as yet, we have no idea how to explain sentience scientifically. But, he argues, 'Our incomprehension of sentience does not impede our understanding of how our mind works.'

It seems bizarre to hold that sentience is both central to human thinking and also irrelevant to our understanding of how the mind works. As writer and neuroscientist Ray Tallis points out, to construct a theory of the human mind while ignoring sentience is a bit like 'trying to build a house by starting at the second floor'. Sentience, Tallis observes, 'is the first, not the last, problem… of psychology. It is not merely the most difficult of the problems of consciousness or mind; it is also the pivotal one and addressing it cannot be postponed until one has solved the "easier" problems such as those pertaining to "cognitive functions" like intelligence, memory, thinking etc.'

Tallis here raises the central problem in trying to apply to the subjective world the types of reductions that one applies to the natural world. The natural world works essentially from the 'bottom up'. The laws of physics are the most fundamental because they constrain all other natural phenomena.

There is a certain unity of nature so that, as the sociobiologist EO Wilson has put it, 'quantum physics… blends into chemical physics, which explains atomic bonding and chemical reactions, which form the foundation of molecular biology, which demystifies cell biology', and so on. Such reductionism allows one to imagine the universe as a unitary body, but one in which phenomena form a hierarchy of 'levels', whereby the laws and principles of a higher level fold into those of more general, and hence fundamental, levels. A primatologist understands the behaviour of chimpanzees in its own terms, through the use of behavioural and mentalistic concepts. But he also understands that such behaviour can be understood in neurophysiological terms, and that the physiology of neurones can in turn be understood at a more fundamental level through the laws of chemistry, and so on.

The social world, however, because it embodies teleology or purposiveness, often works from the 'top down'. The 'higher' levels often influence the workings of the 'lower' ones. Consciousness shapes the workings of 'lower' cognitive functions. Individual behaviour is often driven by will and purpose. Social and historical forces can determine the way in which individuals think or behave. Humans make history, but in the process history helps remake the kind of humans that we are.

All of which leads me to the third answer to the question: how can a tool designed to understand objects tell us anything about phenomena that are also subjects? My answer: Natural science can tell us much about being human insofar as we are objects, but is constrained in what it can tell us about humans as subjects.

Humans are physical beings and evolved creatures. Our evolutionary heritage plays an important part in many aspects of human behaviour, from phobias to sexual desire. Recent advances in evolutionary biology, neurology, genetics and AI have certainly told us much about human nature changed our perceptions of it. We no longer, for instance, think of newborn babies as blank slates, and we've begun to unravel the genetic roots of many behaviours from schizophrenia to autism.

Yet however much we learn about our brains, our genes or our evolutionary history, we will not fully learn what it is to be human. Why? But because a discipline such as evolutionary psychology or genetics inevitably understands us simply as objects, rather than as subjects, and hence is limited in its understanding of the human condition.

I am not saying that human nature cannot be fully understood. I am saying that they cannot be fully understood as natural beings.

The distinction I am drawing is between what we might call the three Ms – mechanistic, mysterian and materialist views of humanity. A mechanistic view sees human beings largely as objects through which nature acts. A mysterian view suggests that there are aspects of human existence not knowable to mere mortals.

A materialist view, on the other hand, understands humans beings without resort to mystical explanations. But it also sees humans as exceptional because humans, unlike any other beings, possess consciousness and agency. And understanding human consciousness and agency requires us to understand humans as not just as natural, but also as historical and social, beings.

These notes were written for The Great Debate day school held in May 2001 entitled Modern Theory and the Human Mind.

| Home | Future Events | Previous Events | People | Articles | Reviews | AboutUs |

© C J M Hewett, 2003