Human Nature & Human Diversity: Sex, Love & Parenting; Morality, Religion & Race. Course Description

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1 Human Nature & Human Diversity: Sex, Love & Parenting; Morality, Religion & Race Course Description Human Nature & Human Diversity is listed as both a Philosophy course (PHIL 253) and a Cognitive Science course (COG SCI 253). The goal of the course is to introduce students to some of the central ideas and theories in Cognitive Science and to explore the implications of those ideas for a range of important philosophical questions. The course is organized around four areas where questions about human nature and human diversity are of great importance: i) Mating (sex, love and parenting); (ii) morality; (iii) religion; (iv) race. I. Evolutionary Psychology and Human Mating Cognitive science is interested in how minds work, and until recently cognitive scientists have primarily been interested in features of the mind that all humans share. While most cognitive scientists have focused on the psychological and neurological mechanisms that are part of our shared human nature, one very visible and very controversial branch of cognitive science, called evolutionary psychology, asked why human nature took this form rather than some other form. The answer they proposed was that as humans evolved human nature had been shaped by natural selection. When evolutionary psychologists attempted to give an account of the ways in which natural selection might have shaped the evolution of human minds, one of the first hypotheses they proposed was that in one crucial domain, natural selection would have built male minds and female minds in importantly different ways. That domain is mating (sex, love and parenting). Males and females, evolutionary psychologists argued, should be expected to have quite different preferences for both long term and short term mating activity. Our first project, in Human Nature and Human Diversity, is to explore this package of ideas. To begin, we ll review Darwin s account of the two processes that drive evolution: natural selection and sexual selection, and we ll discuss how this account has been enhanced by the gene-focused theories developed in recent decades. We ll then turn our attention to some of the basic ideas of cognitive science: (i) functionalism and the hypothesis that the mind is a very sophisticated computer; (ii) modularity the idea that the mind is composed of a large number of special-purpose mechanisms; and (iii) nativism the claim that many mental mechanisms are innate. With this background in place, we ll be ready to look at how evolutionary psychologists propose to explain human nature and why their explanation entails that in the realms of sex, love and parenting, female human nature and male human nature are strikingly different. Finally, we ll take a look at the data. Do men and women really have different mating minds? In many cases, it seems, the answer is yes the predictions that evolutionary psychologists make about human mating preferences and mating behavior have been confirmed. 1

2 How do these theories and findings bear on philosophical questions? One topic that has always been quite central to philosophy is morality. And many people have suggested that the evolutionary psychologists account of sex differences in the mating mind have important implications for contemporary moral disputes. We will explore this contention by looking at the debate over the polygamy. Though the Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman, thinkers with libertarian sympathies have argued that the government should not be in the business of telling adults how many people they can marry. TV shows like Big Love and Sister Wives have focused attention on the issue. Since many libertarians have been influenced by John Stuart Mill s harm principle, 1 we will begin our discussion of polygamy by asking how Mill s principle is best interpreted. We ll then consider what the Harm Principle says about polygamy. This requires a careful examination of what the consequences of legalizing polygamy would be, and that is a topic on which evolutionary psychologists have some very surprising things to say. II. Cognitive Science and Moral Philosophy: The Challenge of Moral Diversity The controversy over polygamy is one example of moral diversity. There are many others. Disagreement about moral matters is an important aspect of human diversity. From ancient Greece to the present, philosophers have debated the implications that moral disagreement and moral diversity may have for central issues in moral theory. In this part of the course, we will explore some of the ways in which cognitive science can contribute to those debates. To begin, we ll consider what are perhaps the most fundamental questions in moral philosophy: Are there correct and incorrect answers to moral questions? Are some moral judgments true and others false? Three very different answers have been proposed. 1. Moral realism maintains that the answer to these questions is yes. Most clear and unambiguous moral questions have correct answers; most moral judgments are either true or false. Moral realism is by far the most historically important view, and from Plato onward many moral realists have maintained that the basic principles of morality are known innately by all normal humans. These principles are very general and abstract, however, and to apply them to specific cases we need lots of information about the case. 2. Moral relativism maintains that moral claims are like legal claims they can be correct in one culture and incorrect in another culture. Moral relativists typically maintain that the basic principles of morality that a person endorses are conveyed by a process of social learning. 1 [T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. 2

3 3. Moral skepticism maintains that the answer to the fundamental questions is no answers to moral questions are neither correct nor incorrect; moral judgments are neither true nor false, even when relativized to a culture. Some of the most exciting work in contemporary cognitive science has been investigating the extent to which moral principles are indeed innate and shared across cultures. We will begin our discussion of the contribution that cognitive science can make to moral theory by looking at cross-cultural studies suggesting that some fundamental moral principles are innate. Moral diversity poses a problem for moral nativism: if all normal people have innate knowledge of basic moral principles, why is there so much moral disagreement in the world? Moral nativists reply that moral disagreement arises from mistaken factual views about the nature of the phenomena that people are disagreeing about, or mistaken reasoning as people apply their innate moral principles to the cases at hand. However, a number of anthropologists, philosophers and cognitive scientists have challenged this view. There are, they claim, many cases of moral diversity that can t be explained by appeal to factual mistakes. We will look at a number of examples including cannibalism, inflicting pain on animals and using violence to defend one s honor, where the nativist s explanation of moral diversity appears to be implausible. We will also consider Jonathan Haidt s widely discussed account of the multiple foundations of moral judgment, which offers an explanation of moral diversity that borrows ideas from both the moral nativists and the moral relativists. III. Religion: A Virus of the Mind or an Essential Component in the Emergence of Human Culture Religion appears to be a human universal; it can be found in all human cultures. But religions themselves are very different. In this part of the course we will consider the leading theories aimed at explaining why religion is so widespread. We ll also look at the heated debate over whether religion is a good thing or a bad thing. We ll start with the view of biologist Richard Dawkins who argues that religions are viruses of the mind memes that have infected the human brain s mechanism for social learning and evolved to be increasingly more successful. For Dawkins, religion is the root of all evil and should be eliminated. A number of cognitive scientists have elaborated on Dawkins virus-of-themind account by spelling out ways in which features of the human mind make religions that posit supernatural beings and life after death more infectious and thus more likely to spread. A second group of theorists agrees with Dawkins that religions are the product of the human brain s mechanism for social learning. But their account of the emergence of religion includes a second component cultural group selection. Human groups compete, and groups with religions that reinforce group loyalty and adherence to the moral norms of the group will out-compete groups whose religions are less successful in fostering loyalty and adherence to group norms. These researchers have assembled an impressive body of 3

4 evidence suggesting that religions with morally engaged high gods play a crucial role in the emergence of large human societies. Without religion, they argue, human societies of more than a few hundred people would be impossible. Rather than being the root of all evil, these theorists argue, religion is the catalyst that has enabled the emergence of large organized societies without which we would have no science, or medicine, no commerce and no legal systems. A third group of cognitive scientists and evolutionary theorists take this line of thought one step further. They argue that the advantages of having a religion are so great that, over evolutionary time, our ancestors would have acquired a suite of genes that foster the acquisition of religion. Thus, these theorists maintain, modern humans have a faith instinct, and the inclination to acquire religion is part of human nature. If these theorists are right, then the campaign of Dawkins and the other new atheists is very unlikely to succeed. IV. Race: Cognitive Science Meets Public Policy The celebrated philosopher and public intellectual, Kwame Anthony Appiah uses the term racialism for the view that there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, which allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race. There is overwhelming evidence that racialism is false. Racial categories like Black, White, Asian and Native American have no biological or genetic basis. There are no biological or genetic properties that all and only Black people (or White people, or Asians, or Native Americans) share. Races are socially constructed categories, and the socially constructed practice of classifying people into races has led to enormous suffering and injustice. Because of this, and because racialism is false, Appiah and a number of other leading political philosophers have argued that race should be eliminated. We should strive for a society in which racial concepts have disappeared and people are no longer classified as belonging to one or another race. But there is a puzzle here. If races don t really exist, why do people think they do? Why is belief in racialism so robust? And why is race correlated with a wide range of socially important variables ranging from IQ to the prevalence of various diseases? In this part of the course, we will explore what cognitive science can contribute to answering these questions, and ask what research in cognitive science can tell us about the best strategies for eliminating racial classifications, if that is the goal we decide we should aim for. In order to make that decision in an informed way, we will take an in-depth look at the troubling history and horrendous consequences of racism in America and around the world. 4

5 A note on the format of the course: Though Prof. Stich will give most of the lectures, there will also be a number of guest lecturers, including i) Prof. Mark Baker (Rutgers, Linguistics), author of The Atoms of Language, on the linguistic evidence for innate mental structures and the parameter setting explanation of linguistic diversity ii) Prof. Robert Kurzban (Univ. of Pennsylvania, Psychology), author of Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite, on evolutionary psychology and the massively modular view of the mind iii) Dr. Helen Fisher (Rutgers, Anthropology), author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, on Lust, Romance and Attachment: The evolution of romantic love and mate choice iv) Prof. John Mikhail (Georgetown Law School), author of Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment, on moral nativism v) Prof. Ron Mallon (Washington Univ., Philosophy, Neuroscience and Psychology) on Constructing Race Out of Nothing and several others TBA. Media of various sorts will play a large role in the course. In almost every lecture there will be a minute segment devoted to a video relevant to the topic being discussed. Videos will also be shown and discussed in discussion sections. In addition to conventional reading assignments, some of the assignments will be videos and interviews available on the internet. The course will make extensive use of the i>clicker system to gauge student opinion and also for frequent quizzes. 5

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