Don’t blame me — it’s human nature

Tackling the current obsession with “fake news,” a recent Science magazine study (Science 09 Mar 2018) concluded that false stories indeed spread more rapidly on the Internet than true ones, but not because the algorithms are rigged against us. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

This conclusion may be comforting in that it keeps the HAL 9000 at bay for a time, but may be unnerving for what it says about human nature. Let me seize this unnerving moment as the occasion to review of Enlightenment theories of human nature. After all, the Enlightenment, with its investment in the scientific method and evidence-based epistemology, with its tenet of universal rational principles as a foundation for universal rights, represents the beginning of our age, an age now under attack, some would say, by a postmodern epistemology.

Enlightenment thinkers looked for the roots of human nature at its origin. What was the human condition in a state of nature? Start there and maybe we can unravel the rest.

For the late 17th-century Hobbes, left on our own in a state of nature, we would find life “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a word, we’re a bad lot, which is why we’ve had to build up all this civilizing infrastructure over the millennia.

Some decades later, Rousseau, perhaps a more Romantic spirit, held that human beings in a state of nature were “noble savages,” intrinsically good until so-called civilization corrupted their natural goodness.

From Voltaire’s point of view – and I’m thinking mainly of Candide (from memory) – both Hobbes and Rousseau seem a little silly, dogmatic. Everywhere Candide goes, he finds a mix of generous people and self-interested people. Neither nature nor nurture matters very much. Wherever you go, cross-culturally, you will be mistaken (comically so if you are in a Voltaire narrative) if you expect to find a collective human nature that is idealized and you will be mistaken if you expect to find seamless corruption. We’re a mixed bag wherever you find us.

So take your pick: a darkly driven human nature that needs external structures and traditions, an idealized human nature that needs to throw off the shackles of civilized society, or an irreducibly mixed nature.

Ah, but the article in Science. We may be neither programmed for generous behavior nor for selfish behavior, but it’s hard to read the article and think that we are not programmed for stupid behavior. Maybe we need to call in the HAL 9000 after all.

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