World views

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Chapter 13 endnote 10 & 12, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

[note 10] The human brain is structured to learn many different concepts and to invent many social realities, depending on the contingencies it is exposed to. This variability is not infinite or arbitrary; it is constrained by the brain’s need for efficiency and speed, by the outside world, and by the human dilemma of getting along versus getting ahead. Your culture handed you one particular system of concepts, values, and practices to address that dilemma.

[note 12] The two views of human nature you’ve seen in this book, from the classical view and construction, have been duking it out for several thousand years. [...] Many other world views exist.

In How Emotions are Made, I have isolated one extremely popular worldview and showed how it is deeply flawed as a scientific theory. There are two dimensions that make up a world view:

  1. How much do you see humans as part of a group (solidarity is important) vs. as individuals (competition is important);
  2. Hierarchical (people are stratified by their worth) vs. egalitarian (everyone is worthwhile).

These dimensions[1] are based on anthropologist Mary Douglas's and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky’s (1982) cultural theory of risk, which describes how people form a worldview in defense of their personal and cultural identity.[2] The stereotype of the classical view is “fatalism” (individualistic and hierarchy-oriented), and the stereotype of construction is “egalitarianism” (high on solidarity and egalitarianism). These views are parallel to the psychologist Steven Pinker’s (2002) “tragic vision” and "utopian vision" of human nature.[3]

The views of very few writers fit nicely into one or the other stereotype. An instructive example is that of 17th-century German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz created the theory of combinatorics in math (combining a finite set of objects into larger wholes), as well as a "Legoland" version of the mind, where simple thoughts could combine to make all possible human thought, including more complex thoughts and ideas.These ideas can be thought of as an early version of constructionism, called associationism (Liebniz was a contemporary and great admirer of John Locke’s). But Liebniz was a rationalist and believed in innate constraints on what could be learned from experience. In fact, his ideas sound like some modern day classical views. For example, consider this passage from Pinker (2002):

“The mind is modular, with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action. It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules. Cutting across these data-processing systems are mental essences … dedicated to different kinds of content, such as language, number, space, tools, and living things...." [Some cognitive scientists] suspect that the content-based modules are differentiated largely by genes; [others] suspect they begin as small innate biases in attention and then coagulate out of statistical patterns in the sensory input. [Both] agree that the brain is not a uniform meatloaf.” [4]

Liebnitz later wrote that animals lacked the rational bits and pieces of a human mind, and so their minds, such as they are, are completely determined by learning. So, Liebnitz was an empiricist when it came to animal minds but a rationalist when it came to a human mind.

Notes on the Notes

  1. Kahan, Dan M. 2012. "Cultural cognition as a conception of the cultural theory of risk." In Handbook of Risk Theory: Epistemology, Decision Theory, Ethics, and Social Implications of Risk, edited by Sabine Roeser, Rafaela Hillerbrand, Per Sandin, and Martin Peterson, 725-759. Springer.
  2. Douglas, Mary, and Aaron Wildavsky. 1982. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.
  4. Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin, p. 40.