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Human Nature

In the Hall of Mirrors (Looking Backward, Thinking Forward)

by Kathryn Milner

At last, we can do it! Science and technology are approaching the flashpoint where they become indistinguishable from magic. The Philosopher's Stone, the ability to transform matter and to alter the future, is in reach. The only great mystery remaining is how we'll choose to wield our power.

Or, more to the point, what will motivate our choices?

If we could decipher what moves us, understand why we turn left instead of right, prefer apples to oranges, and can't resist breaking rules and making loud noises, we might be able to predict. If we could build a model of the human psyche, we could apply it to any number of scenarios and use it to gaze into the future, to see what our technological wand waving might do. Will we lose control with silly tricks, like the sorcerer's apprentice? Or will we finally turn lead into gold?

"Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things
  before breakfast."
~ White Queen Through the Looking Glass

  I think; therefore I am.
  ~ Rene Descartes Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason (1637)

  I think, therefore I am
  is the statement of an intellectual
  who underrates toothaches.
  ~ Milan Kundera

  It's all in your head.
  ~ My mother

Just how the mind is related to the brain has troubled us almost since we woke up at the dawn of time. The relationship of mind and matter is fundamental to our existenceask any small child. Babies know, without question, that the world would not exist if they were not at its center. As we grow older and tireder, though, we learn (most of us, anyway) that we don't, in fact, have much effect on things.

But what we learn is not always fact, and how we learn it is open to scrutiny. Turns out that, whether the mind is incorporeal and transcendent or the synergistic buzzing of a messy knot of nerve cells, it does in fact affect the world around it--not simply by directing physical action, but by acting directly on physical matter.

"I can't believe THAT!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone.
"Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Mystic wisdom has always connected the material and the immaterial. But especially in Western cultures, especially since Descartes trumped Spinoza in the mind/brain dichotomy debates, mid 1600sscience has kept thought and things in separate boxes.

This has never been a comfortable arrangement. For one thing, it forced a number of observed phenomena into the dubious catchall of impossibility. Scientific method, donning ever larger blinders in the service of rigor (note that the term equates inflexibility with validity), developed some unconditional requisites for reality. In order to be real, as in "not illusory," an event must be

  Predictable
  Replicable

Psychology, as a science, probably is more vulnerable than any other to interpretation. Beyond the basics of hardwarealone, staggeringly complexhumans exhibit a bewildering repertoire of behaviors, often annoyingly hard to predict. Simple survival requires us to try, at least, to understand what drives us and to anticipate what the other guy might do to us. Accordingly, weve built a pile of theoretical boxes to contain all that unruly behavior.

Once we look over the edge of the box, though, beyond the most rudimentary and unconscious behavioral functions, the study of human nature by human beings starts to resemble the hall of mirrors in a carnival fun house.

Is thought behavior? Is mind real? What does "real" mean? Is mind independent of brain or an effect of it? Does this sound more like philosophy than science?

Does it matter anyway? Aside from the obvious threat of genocide (whether by calamity or stupidity), how could human behavior, inexplicable and maladaptive as it may be, influence evolution? Does the general hoo-ha over genetic engineering, stem-cell research, and cloning suggest that we might improve our basic, cranky nature? Or are our minds somehow inaccessible?

There's no question that it matters. The human speciesfor now, anywaydominates Earth and, if we're smart and lucky, we'll venture out toward the stars. Whether we can make it, adapt to new conditions, and become better humans, or whether we stagnate and succumb to our bad habits here on our own little plot of universe, depends critically on our own sweet nature.

If we look at the lump of living stuff, the human organism, and the ways it interacts with its environment in order to stay living, we can watch those basic processes resolve into more complicated ones, conveniently coordinated through the brain. From there, we can see the ability to learn, remember, speakto thinkorganize into a sparkling personality, a pathological bent, and a yen to socialize. clowns

Hall of Mirrors

Once we've described the subject (that's us, remember), we can squint at it from a myriad of angles. Nature or nurture? Animal or other? Created or (gasp) evolved? Define intelligence; explain creativity. What's love? Why war? Psychology diverges into roughly seven major schools of thought (think Hogwarts) and more than 60 disciplines that each favor a specific area of interest and method of approach. Hall of mirrors. Mechanistic or humanistic, arbitrary, redundant . . . we keep ending up in the same place: the center of a controversy.

Mind or brain? Nearly 400 years ago, Rene Descartes decided that reality is divided into two distinct substances: in this corner, the brain and all things physical; in that corner, the mind, the soul, and God. The physical stuff could be explained (eventually) by mechanical and mathematical lawsby science. The metaphysicalwell, couldn't.

Soon after, Baruch Spinoza suggested that, not only are all things of the same ultimate substance, but so are the mind, the soul, and the whole shebang. All are aspects of the same ultimate stuff. This didn't sit well with most people. Cartesian dualism lent itself so neatly to concrete explanations for everything, and it didn't mess with God. To identify the spiritual with the physical was heresy. Spinoza was promptly excommunicated.

Look, Ma, No Hands!

Things have changed, of course. Science has begun to recognize the evident effect of the human mind on physical processes. From the observable effect of researchers' expectations on the behavior of subatomic particles, to global effects recorded by Princeton University's Engineering Anomalies Research program, it seems that mind does matter.

But we still don't know what it is. Does the mind exist to serve the body, or is the body simply a mediuma toolfor the mind? The ever-enlarging disciplinary debate teams still line up behind Descartes and Spinoza, still dissecting the brain to discover the mind or, maybe, to set it free.

It's kind of fun to do the impossible.
~ Walt Disney

Our Human Nature Pages

To begin to understand human behavior we need first to look at the biological foundations, the mechanisms of reaction & connection that enable us to interact with the world. In this Human Nature section we have several pages to explore, accessible from the menu on the left, or visit the Human Nature Home Page.


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