The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

Ethics and the Limits of Evolutionary Psychology

Thomas de Zengotita

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.1 (Spring 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 1)

Introduction

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre offers a hilarious portrayal of philosopher G. E. Moore at Bloomsbury convincing his enraptured audience (it was not difficult) that their particular tastes in art and love reflected quasi-platonic values to which their exquisitely refined sensibilities gave them special access.1 While Moore’s positive claims in Principia Ethica (1903) cannot survive MacIntyre’s withering caricature, Moore’s own critique, exposing a “naturalistic fallacy” in the work of predecessors as diverse as Herbert Spencer and Immanuel Kant, holds up well. This essay will apply it to efforts by evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt to reduce the ethical dimension of human existence to the vicissitudes of natural selection and genetic programming.

The Place of Ethics in Early Modern Nature

…the negligence or perverseness of mankind cannot be excused, if their discourses on morality be not much more clear than those in natural philosophy

—John Locke2

To place evolutionary psychology in context, one must exercise the imagination on this question: what did the natural world look like to educated men and women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? They were through with mythologies; even the Book of Genesis was, for most of them, just a fable when compared to the achievements of science. It was the work of Robert Boyle, William Harvey, Christiaan Huygens, Galileo Galilei, and, above all, Isaac Newton that informed their perceptions of nature. This exercise demands a suspension of our knowledge of cosmology, geology, and biology. No billions of years since the formation of the solar system. No fossil record. No dinosaurs. No genes. No speciation, no natural selection—no evolution. The panorama of life, the stunning diversity of its forms and adaptations, the intricacies of anatomy and physiology—all this was apparent, and it was the object of devoted attention, even awe, but the assumption was that all of it had always been more or less as it now appeared, ever since it came to be.

Under those circumstances the (almost) inevitable conclusion was that some intelligent Maker was responsible for the order of the universe, especially for organs and organisms.3 Innovations in human manufacture (telescopes, microscopes, pumps, automata of all kinds) made that conclusion the more inevitable. To look at nature, at the inorganic bodies dancing to Newtonian measures and the organic bodies sensing, respirating, locomoting, ingesting, digesting, reproducing—to look at all that and not apprehend design would have been like coming across an array of pebbles on a beach spelling out some message and perceiving it as the effect of surf and tide.

What early moderns saw in nature was purpose—rational purpose, divine purpose. When they looked at an equation in classical mechanics, they saw a “law” in the full sense of the word, and when they looked at the relevant experimental results, they saw something like obedience to that law. “Let there be light” made for beautiful poetry, but F = MA was the word of God. When they looked at a healthy body, early moderns also saw conformity to a designer’s intentions. But, in this realm, one also encountered mortality and disease. Here, for some reason, a sort of disobedience came to pass, a malfunctioning. Why that should be so was the subject of debate, but almost no one questioned the framework of interpretation. Modern medicine was founded on the metaphor of repairing malfunctions of bodily mechanisms.

And so it was, and all the more so, when early moderns looked upon human history—the carnage, the absurd superstitions, the institutionalized barbarities. The conclusion was inevitable. Here was disease of another order, a malfunctioning of another kind. Again, there was much debate over why this should be, but the basic framework of interpretation remained. The question became: what were the Maker’s designs for His human creatures as social beings, what were those natural laws and how could His creatures cure the diseases of history in accordance with them? Modern political and ethical thought took shape on that foundation, dependent on the idea that nature was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “the art whereby God hath made and governs the world.”4

When Friedrich Nietzsche, who had fully absorbed the implications of Darwinian evolution, announced that “God is dead,” he was not merely addressing orthodox religion. He was telling moderns that there was no meaning or direction to be found in nature or history at all. He was telling them that Georg W. F. Hegel, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Marx were victims of the residual influence of the idea of Providence, that their visions of an unfolding historical necessity were delusions. The thing that really mattered in the long run about Charles Darwin wasn’t the impact of “we are descended from monkeys” on reactionaries; it was the impact of “we are a meaningless accident” on progressives. Think of the tone in Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Theodor Adorno, the stoic willingness to face up to irredeemable loss and make the best of it. Think of the ferocious absolutism of twentieth century totalitarian regimes. These represent opposing but characteristic moods, and both were responses to a condition of utter abandonment and a consequent shift of the burden of responsibility for human practices to human beings.

But those who believed in positivist sciences of human nature soldiered on, undeterred by existential crises—and the way they thought about human beings did not fundamentally change when the Darwinian view of nature replaced the Deistic view of nature. Scientific thought about humanity continues to mimic scientific thought about the rest of nature. It steps back and asks how human-things work. The idea that we were designed by Newton’s Clockmaker God is no longer credible, but the objectifying posture survives and so does what qualifies as explanation: functionality, adaptation—which means design, only now, thanks to the concept of natural selection, without a designer.

The ethical naturalists of today’s evolutionary psychology still work under taken-for-granted, seventeenth-century epistemic guidelines, with this fundamental difference: In the context of Deism, to say nothing of orthodoxy, there was no categorical problem of value. Exactly what the Maker’s laws enjoined might be debated, but whatever it was, there was no question of the absolute value of the Maker’s values, as it were. Conceiving of humanity’s rights and duties as essentially functional made perfect sense under circumstances in which ultimate axiological responsibility was both real and supra-human.

A brief perusal of John Locke’s Second Treatise reminds us that he actually derived the natural rights he so influentially identified from a fundamental duty of self-preservation owed by creatures to their Creator since they are “sent into the World by his order and about his business, they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are.”5 How could Locke have thought that human “discourses on morality” would be clearer than scientific explanations of the physical world? From our vantage point, that expectation is almost impossible to fathom. But the answer is simple: obviously, Locke reasoned, the Maker’s top priority would be to provide his creatures with access to His instructions for their conduct—whatever else they might figure out was up to them.

Evolutionary psychologists have been ironically, but richly, equipped with an explanatory apparatus derived from that “whatever else,” and they have come full circle. Now, at long last, those designer specs for human behavior are being described. There is just one problem. Where once there was a locus of absolute value, there is now a vacuum.

Modular Morality

Evolutionary psychology has come a long way since E. O. Wilson launched the program in 1975. But the most compelling developments in the field still depend upon foundational breakthroughs made by George C. Williams and W. D. Hamilton in the 1960s. They depend upon explanations of self-sacrificing behaviors that seem to run counter to the imperatives of the survival (and therefore reproduction) of the innate programs that trigger such behaviors in the first place. But the machinations of what would be called The Selfish Gene (1976) were equal to the challenge: the willingness of young men to die in battle for the sake of others, for example, boils down to this: under the conditions in which such behaviors originally evolved, those others were likely to be kinfolk who carried the same genes. That is why, throughout history, long after extended family gene pools were absorbed into mass societies, so many have continued to owe so much to so few.

Building upon that basic argument in various ingenious ways, evolutionary psychologists have laid claim to the whole of human morality. They have “explained” (an important word) why human beings hold some things to be good and some things to be bad. They have even explained why different groups of people hold different things to be good and bad. That is, they have finally solved the problem that has stymied ethical nativism since Francis Hutcheson and David Hume first posited an innate “moral sense” and partisans of nurture first invoked the diversity of human customs in rebuttal. They have created an argument for innate morality that positively embraces that diversity as evidence for innate morality. Womens’ rights, women as chattel, radical democracy, caste hierarchy, orgiastic hedonism, rigorous asceticism—all so different, yet all based on genetic programming.

This audacious move was authorized by the notion of psychological modularity. Instead of a picture of the brain as an information processor that works in pretty much the same way across the whole field of inputs and outputs, modular psychology proposes a picture of the brain as divided into domain-specific programs for various psychological processes in various circumstances. Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition device is one such program, another kicks in for facial recognition, yet another estimates size in relation to distance, and so on.

The most persuasive uses of modular psychology to explain human morality can be found in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2003) and The Righteous Mind (2012) in which Jonathan Haidt sums up decades of work on “moral foundations theory” and tries to explain American political attitudes in those terms. The basic arguments and supporting research were neatly outlined by Pinker in a New York Times Magazine piece called “The Moral Instinct” (2008). The essential claim, as framed by Haidt, depends upon a comparison of moral modules with taste buds (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory). “We humans,” he writes, “all have the same five taste receptors, but we don’t all like the same foods.”6 And he appeals, in the usual way, to influences of culture, upbringing, and individual variation to explain that.7 But he also offers a specific account of how that plasticity works, and, once again, a metaphor supplies the platform. He calls upon neurologist Greg Marcus, who wants us to see innateness as “prewired—flexible and subject to change—rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.”8 Instead of thinking of the brain we are born with as a “wiring diagram,” we should think of it as the “first draft” of a book to be written during development.9

Haidt’s five moral “taste buds” are Care, Fairness, Loyalty (or Community), Authority, and Sanctity (or Purity). He explains cultural variation in terms of 1) the ability of cultures to “shrink or expand the current triggers” of any module and 2) the ability of cultures to assign behaviors to different modules.10 An example of the first is how much smaller the scope of “disgusting sex acts” has become for many people in modern society—miscegenation, homosexuality, etc. An example of the second is how spanking children triggers the Care/Harm module in people who disapprove of it, but falls under the Authority and even Sanctity (respect) modules for those who approve of it.11

That’s the gist. It is important, however, to link the argument to the book’s title: The Righteous Mind. Haidt is calling attention to the lived experience of moral indignation. Explaining attitudes toward, say, burning the American flag as dependent upon whether or not it “triggers” Loyalty and Sanctity modules has a prima facie plausibility—the term fits the experience and lends momentum to the whole argument.

But the suspicion that something is amiss will not dissipate. It comes into focus when Pinker, at the end of his New York Times Magazine article, makes the inevitable pitch for “how all this can be useful to us going forward.” In a section called “Doing Better by Knowing Ourselves,” he breaks with the rigorous Hume and tries to rescue “moral reasoning” from the insignificance to which moral sense theory consigned it.12 He speaks of how salutary it would be if we all recognized that opponents in political debates share a moral foundation. But then, as he presses his point home, stressing that the moral sense is as subject to illusions as the other senses, cracks appear in the veneer of sprightly optimism. We get a glimpse of the modules he favors when he describes these illusions as “apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity.”13 What happened to Harm and Fairness? Could it be that he actually believes that “morality per se” is to be found in the vicinity of those modules? And what to make of the penultimate gesture: “our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.”14

“Doing the right thing”? “Morality per se”? Moore would take much pleasure in these maneuvers. No matter how advanced the natural science—the naturalistic fallacy—the assumption that something is morally good because it is natural—is philosophically secure. This fallacy is exposed when any definition of good offered by an ethical naturalist is subjected to a particular linguistic test. For example, when hedonism tries to define good by claiming that “pleasure is good,” the sentence itself is obviously saying something other than “pleasure is pleasure.” The two sentences are not synonymous, therefore good and pleasure are not identical. More broadly, given the claim that “Action X is good because the genetic program that triggers it, and our approval of it, was naturally selected for,” one can still ask whether it is good to do what we are genetically inclined to do. That is, asking that question still makes sense because—even using examples favored by evolutionary psychologists—the answer would appear to be: sometimes yes (help a friend) and sometimes no (kill the “other”).

It comes down to this: we cannot find truly ethical guidance in a nature shaped by evolution. Natural selection is random—random as to the mutations that produce variation, random as to the accidents of circumstance that make one variant adaptive and another fatal. Natural selection may indeed be responsible for something like a “mother instinct” that inspires tender mammalian behaviors of which we all approve. But natural selection may also be responsible for our instinctive tendency to fear what is strange and attack what is feared, thus contributing to the pageant of slaughter that has been human history. Ethical thought must take into account what Darwinian nature has made of us, and political provision must be made for that. But nothing ethical per se—nothing good or bad or even meaningful is to be found there.

Understanding Right and Wrong

But there is another way to think about ethics, one that derives from the phenomenological tradition and the work of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein. It begins by refusing the Cartesian analogy Gilbert Ryle identified long ago in The Concept of Mind (1949). Ryle focused on the moment when psychology was born with Cartesian dualism. The Cartesian formulation—“But what then am I? A thing that thinks”—seemed innocent enough, but it forced upon us the assumption that, just as the natural sciences posit physical things with certain attributes or properties (shape, mass), so a nascent psychology would posit mental-things with certain attributes and properties (willing, imagining) and study them accordingly—as Locke did in the exhaustive taxonomy of “Ideas” that was his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689).

Ryle identified “category mistakes” that were the fruit of that analogy—noticing that, for example, saying you have ideas “in your head” puts more strain on the word “in” than saying “she came home in a flood of tears”—but the strain goes unnoticed, and we end up talking as if a surgeon might open one’s skull and see images floating around like holograms amidst the brain tissue.15 With exquisite subtlety, Wittgenstein would expose absurdities that follow from this false picture of private mind in his Philosophical Investigations (1953). And in Being and Time (1927), Heidegger pounded relentlessly away at descriptions of consciousness that assumed this objectified subject.

This other way of thinking about ethics does not deny that one can make human beings objects of scientific study. It does not deny that extraordinary results have followed from so doing, in medicine, most obviously, but also in psychology, genetics, and the brain sciences. Insofar as human nature is physically determined, the scientific study of it has been successful. But refusing that analogy does imply that, insofar as human nature is not physical, insofar as it is mental or historical or aesthetic—or ethical—then studying it as if it were physical is bound to miss the mark. The claim is that you cannot understand what it means to be human, what it is to be human, by way of science. Neurologists of the future may map brain activity so precisely that they will someday be able to read out what a person is consciously experiencing from that map—but the map will never be conscious experience. It can help explain a conscious experience, but only a person can understand it. Nature can only be explained; humanity can be understood, and understanding is a matter of meaning.

Take jokes, for example. An explanation of a joke is notoriously unfunny. It may be true in every detail, but it inevitably falls short in that crucial respect. A joke is only funny when you get it—that is, understand it to begin with. The spirit of this alternative enterprise can be evoked in this way: any theory of humor it might produce would aspire to be funny.

When the distinction between explanation and understanding is clear, much controversy can be laid to rest. There is no inherent conflict between the analytic and phenomenological traditions in philosophy—nor between phenomenology and objectifying science-inspired studies of human beings generally, anymore than there is between Cubism and Expressionism.16 To see why, suppose that something like Haidt’s modular theory of an innate morality is true.17 One can then reflect upon his spheres of moral taste to see if there is an aspect of the phenomena that might bring ethical unity to the modules—an aspect that would not need explaining, an aspect we simply understand as the rightness or wrongness in them all. But what to look for? What is the ethical analogue of funniness?

Locke expected natural laws for human behavior to be logical—a priori truths provided by the designer for the guidance of his creatures. “Where there is no property, there is no injustice,” he declared, “is a proposition as certain as any demonstration in Euclid.”18 Not quite that, perhaps, but it points to a phenomenological truth of great disclosive power. Have you ever been robbed? That is, have you ever come home to find your place ransacked? Your drawers opened, your personal things strewn around, kitchen cabinets in disarray, and some half-eaten food left out? If you have ever had that experience, and if you did not happen to have your life savings in one of the drawers, then you will know that “theft” is not the essential crime here. It isn’t so much that they took your DVD player—it is those hands in your personal spaces, pawing your clothes, that mouth on your food. It is a contamination, a violation.

Have you ever been mugged, when they put their hands on your actual body, when they make you lift your arms, when they shove you against a wall, threaten you with a weapon, rummage through your pockets? You can smell their breath; you notice the moles on their skin. It is very intimate. When your actual body is arranged in accordance with someone else’s will, the experience is much more intense than in the case of burglary, when it is your other “bodies” that get interfered with. But the essence of the crime, the violation of self that is the crime, remains. Assault and rape and murder fall along the same continuum. And consider how humiliating it is to lose control of your bodily functions in illness or old age. That is a violation too.

All these cases are different. Phenomenology enjoins us to give each difference its due, while looking for a constant element. Call it: the violation of embodied mind, the embodiment of another mind in bodies that are yours, without your invitation or consent.19 Now we take in at a glance what is encoded in law—the reason for the relative severity of the crimes—and also why old age cannot really be called a crime, even though it feels like one. For what agency takes possession of your body in that last case? Shake your fist at the sky, if you will. Or submit with as much humor and grace as you can muster, as sages of all persuasions counsel, for there should be no humiliation in submitting to nobody—or to a God who owns us all.

And this continuum includes not just obvious things like burglaries and muggings, but a field of nuanced application that, as objectifying moderns, we are inclined to think of as metaphor. The regions of being-in-the-world in which “my” is justly placed are vast and varied and caught up in constant improvisation as well—for they follow the contingent logic of Wittgenstein’s language games; they are as historical as we are. People are not poeticizing, still less are they mistaken, when they speak of “my neighborhood” or “our song” or “her mother.” In all those cases, beyond the merely legal, we are talking about ways of being in the world that have property dimensions, as it were—an ethical aspect that subsists in all embodiments of mind.

This continuum highlights the aspect of human deeds and situations that we recognize as essentially ethical, and irreducibly so. In those violations, we understand wrongness immediately, and in their complements, we apprehend a rightness in the arrangement of things. The ethical aspect of the human condition emerges with consciousness itself, constitutive of Being-in-the-world and the human form of life. And where consciousness is not—in brain modules, for example—there is no ethics either.

Back to Haidt’s moral taste buds. He asked subjects in an experiment how much money they would have to be paid to perform each of the acts listed below:

Harm
Stick a pin into your palm.
Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know.

Fairness
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family.

Community
Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation.

Authority
Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.
Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.

Purity
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage.20


The second term in each pair represents the more repugnant prospect and provides dramatic evidence for the existence of the separate modules. But it is impossible to miss what these responses have in common—and that is what actually makes them wrong. They are all violations of embodiment, of an arrangement of things “possessed” in various ways and to various degrees by the sources of the intentions that constitute them, by the agents embodied in them.

The first one speaks for itself—although it is worth pointing out the rhetorical effect of “the palm of a child you don’t know.” Utter innocence is thus secured—a complete absence of relationship that might leave open the possibility of implicit collaboration, a degree of consent, if only in anticipation of the deed.

The next case is nearly as transparent. “Computer error” is another way of saying dumb luck, no agency at all—hence no prior embodiment in the gifted item. The “wealthy family” as rightful owner in the second scenario is a nice touch. Out to explain differences between Left and Right in American politics, Haidt probably got the correlations he expected. If an Occupy Wall Street sympathizer is more likely to shrug off the theft than a Tea Party patriot, that reinforces his point. A larger social “fairness” is implicated in the first case, a more individualistic application in the second. But the difference in modular scope leaves the truly ethical aspect undisturbed. For what has been at issue between bourgeois capitalism and socialism all these years if not a just assignment of ownership based on whose intentions the products of human labor embody?

In the third case, the difference between the pronoun “your” and the word “foreign” is sufficient. We are familiar with the mechanisms by which modern media reassign sentiments of belonging from local settings, in which our intentions actually are embodied, to imagined communities like “nations” in which we are virtually embodied. The parenthetical “which you don’t believe” is a bit clunky, an ad hoc device designed to bracket the issue of sincere criticism.

The fourth case—Authority—is poorly framed. Haidt uses “minister” instead of father or teacher or boss because he knows his subject pool is full of people who would be happy to slap such authority figures. “Minister” is more about purity—Pinker even cites veneration of religious leaders as an instance of purity in the next paragraph! There is not enough space for a full discussion of authority here, but in outline, it would go like this: 1) Both property and power involve the embodiment of intentions and are inherently ethical for that reason. 2) Property embodies intentions in things; power embodies intentions in people and their activities. 3) Power works by command or by habit or by inspiration—and through an open-ended range of fusional and occasional combinations of both. Think slavery, unorganized wage labor, military conscription, but also Gandhi, a symphony conductor, or Churchill during the Battle of Britain, Tahrir Square, sports teams, people stuck in an elevator—someone takes charge and others follow or they collaborate. There may be an instinctive basis for deference to authority—an authority module—but if there is, the ethical aspect of authority will show up in the distribution of embodied intentions in the family of cases like the ones just sampled, not in the neurophysiology of dominant and submissive primate behavior.

Finally, the fifth case, Purity, properly so called. The ethnographic archive shows that human communities everywhere define the boundaries of acceptable behavior (the appropriate embodiment of intentions) with the marker “like an animal”: don’t eat like an animal, don’t have sex like an animal, don’t relieve yourself like an animal. That stricture represents the most inclusive case of the various category enforcements that embed society’s ways in the furniture of everyday life, in the habits such settings sustain—in tables and chairs and doors and doorbells and keys and stores and sidewalks and on and on, across all the regions of a life-world. Purity and Danger (1966) by Mary Douglas (greatly influenced by the later Wittgenstein) is the classic text here. The little shock you would feel if you opened your refrigerator and found your shoes in there is an example of the response you have when customary categories are violated. The disgust you would feel if you opened your desk drawer and found a reeking puddle of vomit all over your papers would be another example—the intensity greater because, except in certain ritual and liminal situations, bodily emissions (fluid and goopy) are threats to the most precious category of all, the one that constitutes the container that is your actual body, at the center of all its equipmental extensions. And so on, up the scale into the Durkheimian sacred: elephant dung on a picture of the Virgin, the Mohammed video. These are also violations of embodied intentions—the intentions of groups of people embodying themselves as a group for the sake of the group, which is to say, religiously.

But all along the continuum, from arrangements of hearth and home to the altar that beckons the light from on high and evokes the worldhood of the world—these arrangements are “culture” in a phenomenological anthropology, sites of the ethical aspect of conscious existence, anchors of embodied minds that can never be secure. Wittgenstein sums this up for us: “if I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value…I wonder at the existence of the world.” 21

Endnotes

  1. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) 14–17.
  2. John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689; New York: Dover, 1959) III, xi, 17.
  3. David Hume—the great infidel—famously rejected the design argument. So did Denis Diderot, in his unpublished manuscripts. And radical materialists among the philosophes, Claude Helvétius, Baron D’Holbach, inspired by certain ancients (Epicurus, Lucretius)—they too rejected it.
  4. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994) 3.
  5. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1689) II, 6.
  6. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012) 113.  
  7. Haidt 113.
  8. Greg Marcus as quoted by Haidt 130.
  9. Haidt 130–31.
  10. Haidt 124.
  11. Haidt 124–25.
  12. Hume called reason the “slave of the passions.” Haidt compares reason to a man riding an elephant that goes where it wills—leaving reason to explain why afterwards.
  13. Steven Pinker, “The Moral Instinct,” New York Times Magazine (13 January 2008): 13.
  14. Pinker 13 (italics mine).
  15. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949) 22.
  16. Conflict arises because the two modes of inquiry are implicated in larger, essentially political, battles. Broadly speaking, phenomenology is accused of inspiring obfuscating jargon in service of radical and relativist agendas, while objectifying analytic systems are affiliated with economic and technological domination and exploitation.
  17. I think this is likely. Ever since Noam Chomsky launched this program, evidence of domain-specific innate programming has been accumulating in every department of psychology. Which simply means: the brain is like a computer. The fact that wired-up quadriplegics can move a cursor with their thoughts is sufficient evidence of that. Binary codes do not care what the platform is made of.
  18. John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV, iii, 18.
  19. Martin Heidegger called the kind of being that consciousness is “Being-in-the-World.” Ludwig Wittgenstein used the “human form of life” to the same end: an exorcism of the Cartesian ghost from the machine. A detailed summary is not possible here. Broadly speaking, what we as moderns think of as mental states or acts get re-described as the way things go on, the arrangements of things in the world. The expression “embodied mind” conveys the basic idea, inflected so as to highlight the ethical aspect.
  20. Haidt as cited by Pinker 7.
  21. Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The Lecture on Ethics” (1929), The Philosophical Review 74.1 (1965): 8.

Thomas de Zengotita teaches for the Draper Program at New York University and at the Dalton School and is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essay, “On the Politics of Pastiche and Depthless Intensities: The Case of Barack Obama,” appeared in The Hedgehog Review in the spring of 2011. His book, Mediated, won the Marshall McLuhan award in 2006.

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