2005 : WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?

[ print ]

Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative
Psychologist, Harvard University

I believe, first, that all people have the same fundamental concepts, values, concerns, and commitments, despite our diverse languages, religions, social practices, and expressed beliefs. If defenders and opponents of abortion, Israelis and Palestinians, or Cambridge intellectuals and Amazonian jungle dwellers were to get beyond their surface differences, each would discover that the common ground linking them to members of the other group equals that which binds their own group together. Our common conceptual and moral commitments spring from the core cognitive systems that allow an infant to grow rapidly and spontaneously into a competent participant in any human society.

Second, one of our shared core systems centers on a notion that is false: the notion that members of different human groups differ profoundly in their concepts and values. This notion leads us to interpret the superficial differences between people as signs of deeper differences. It has quite a grip on us: Many people would lay down their lives for perfect strangers from their own community, while looking with suspicion at members of other communities. And all of us are apt to feel a special pull toward those who speak our language and share our ethnic background or religion, relative to those who don't.

Third, the most striking feature of human cognition stems not from our core knowledge systems but from our capacity to rise above them. Humans are capable of discovering that our core conceptions are false, and of replacing them with truer ones. This change has happened dramatically in the domain of astronomy. Core capacities to perceive, act on, and reason about the surface layout predispose us to believe that the earth is a flat, extended surface on which gravity acts as a downward force. This belief has been decisively overturned, however, by the progress of science. Today, every child who plays computer games or watches Star Wars knows that the earth is one sphere among many, and that gravity pulls all these bodies toward one another.

Together, my three beliefs suggest a fourth. If the cognitive sciences are given sufficient time, the truth of the claim of a common human nature eventually will be supported by evidence as strong and convincing as the evidence that the earth is round. As humans are bathed in this evidence, we will overcome our misconceptions of human differences. Ethnic and religious rivalries and conflicts will come to seem as pointless as debates over the turtles that our pancake earth sits upon, and our common need for a stable, sustainable environment for all people will be recognized. But this fourth belief is conditional. Our species is caught in a race between the progress of our science and the escalation both of our intergroup conflicts and of the destructive means to pursue them. Will humans last long enough for our science to win this race?