While the suggestion that there is a vital distinction between mind and matter, that the mind is some kind of disembodied spirit, is a very specific theory of the mind, it rarely comes alone. Linguist and experimental psychologist Steven Pinker puts it best in his book The Blank Slate:
"The doctrines of the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine -or, as philosophers call them, empiricism, romanticism, an dualism- [...] are often found together. [...] The Blank Slate naturally coexists with the Ghost in the Machine, too, since a slate that is blank is a hospitable place for a ghost to haunt. If a ghost is to be at the controls, the factory can ship the device with a minimum of parts."So there we have the Three Musketeers: John Locke's Blank Slate, Rousseau's Noble Savage and Decartes' Ghost in the Machine -the mind has no innate traits, people are naturally born good and each of us has a free-willed soul that does not abide by the laws of physics or biology. Non-epistemological empiricism, romanticism and dualism brought together are a powerful seductive force, not so much for their explanatory power but for what they seem to represent: a barrier against inequality and determinism.
But defending a scientific position with hopes and dreams is a non sequitur. To conclude that the mind does not have inherent traits based on political aspirations and not actual evidence is a perfect example of the Moralistic fallacy: it is a presumption that whatever is desirable must be the truth, that what ought to be also is. For example: "We cannot be naturally predisposed to xenophobia because that would justify racism." Essentially, it is the opposite of the Naturalistic fallacy, which presumes that whatever is true must be desirable, that what is also ought to be: "Since we are naturally predisposed to xenophobia, racism is socially justifiable."
Although these fears are not actual arguments, that does not mean they are not true, so maybe we should leave Formal logic aside. Does the reality of human nature -however malleable- undermine the hopes for social equality? No, because civil liberties do not depend on the condition that we are all the same but on a society that treats people as individuals with rights: we are not born equal -but to assume that therefore we should not be treated equally is to fall in the Naturalistic fallacy. Sorry, I promise not to mention logical fallacies again.
But the rabbit hole of human nature goes deeper. The idea that our biology may play a part in our behaviour and its implication that the mind is but a part of the body is feared by many because it destroys the apparent source of our civil rights: free will. And it truly does: with the understanding that there is no mind-body dualism comes the realization that the mind is, just as everything else, subjected to the laws of nature, to the infinite chain of cause and effect. This necessarily makes choice an illusion -a very useful illusion, crucial even, but technically just a mirage. In his 2010 book "The Moral Landscape", neuroscientist Sam Harris describes it thus:
"All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion. For instance, the physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 350 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions. [...]Harris goes on to explain why this realization does not put an end to morality and freedom:
The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will. Thoughts, moods, and desires of every sort simply spring into view—and move us, or fail to move us, for reasons that are, from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable. [...] It means nothing to say that a person would have done otherwise had he chosen to do otherwise, because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void. [...] Our belief in free will arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of specific prior causes. The phrase “free will” describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in consciousness."
"As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, many people confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like, “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” But the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. [...] We do not know what we will intend to do until the intention itself arises. To see this is to realize that you are not the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose. This insight does not make social and political freedom any less important, however."The fact that free will is an illusion does not undercut what we think of as choices. We just need to intellectually understand how our minds actually work but then simplify it with the concept of free will. It is a model: useful but untrue. For example, in our everyday lives we do not use advanced physics but a very simple model based on experience that only fails us when the environmental variables are dramatically different from our own, as when astronaut David Scott dropped a hammer and a feather in the moon and they fell at the same rate. It is intuitively confusing but intellectually explainable: there is no air resistance in a vacuum. Similarly, free will is a useful model that will rarely fail us -but we'd better be mindful of its inaccuracy or we will fail to recognize those occasions when our regular experience does not suffice.
For this is not a purely philosophical discussion: holding this idea as the truth along with its philosophical justifications does have real-world consequences. The Blank Slate and the Noble Savage pollute scientific fields such as anthropology by romanticizing our state of nature -and Nature itself- and vetoing the legitimate criticism of primitive tribes, hence creating unrealistic expectations of children and other uncivilized people. Yet, particularly at fault is the Ghost in the Machine, therefrom the title of this essay: for instance, the mind-body dualism is at the core of the policies against embryonic stem-cell research. In 2001 George W. Bush made his decision to put a stop to these studies by consulting with a number of dualist philosophers and religious thinkers. Continuing to this day there are many other harmful attitudes that assume the existence of an immaterial soul above and beyond the body.
As Steven Pinker himself points out, all of this "fills in the blank slate, declasses the noble savage, and exorcises the ghost in the machine". These are not so much intellectual positions as primitive explanations based on the magical thinking that whatever we hope for must be true. In a way, the popular denial of human nature is very similar to the Postmodernist stance towards science in general: both of them proclaim a wall of separation between their ideas and that which methodical knowledge could conceivably attain. But reality has no such frontiers.
(El artículo traducido al castellano aquí: El fantasma de la máquina)