Cognitive Science, Human Nature, and the Problem of Normativity

Maria Scott-Wittenborn
Serendip/SciSoc Group
Summer, 2006

"An interest in philosophy is often first aroused by an irrelevant impulse to see the world and ourselves better than we find them.  We seek in philosophy what wiser men would look for in a gospel, some guidance as to le prix des chooses ... And it is some time, perhaps, before we discern that philosophy ... has certainly never offered its true followers anything which might be mistaken for a gospel.   Of course, some so-called philosophers afford pretext enough for this particular misunderstanding.  Nearly always a philosopher hides a secret ambition, foreign to philosophy, and often it is that of the preacher.  But we must not follow the philosopher on these holiday excursions."


                         -Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes[1]


" ... anything appropriately labeled a theory of human nature ... are supposed to be normative - to provide guidance. They should tell us what to do with ourselves. They should explain why some lives are better for human beings than other lives, and why some societies are superior to others. A theory of human nature should tell us what sort of people we ought to become."


                                     -Richard Rorty, Philosophy-envy[2]


Despite the significant progress made in the cognitive sciences, many philosophers resist incorporating the cognitive sciences into their work on the nature of mind and cognition. This hesitance on the part of the philosophical community is often due to a misunderstanding of the nature of scientific inquiry.  Many imagine all "science"— including "cognitive science"— to be in the business of establishing and documenting objective, empirically derived truths.  When conceived of as such, it is little surprise that philosophers remain skeptical about what "science" could contribute. 

The differences in the intellectual approach of those individuals trained in the sciences and those trained in the humanities is particularly obvious within the cognitive sciences.  Although spoken of as a single field of study, cognitive science is more accurately described as an alliance of disciplines, united by a common commitment to understanding more fully the nature of human cognition.  However, philosophers of mind and perception—the members of the philosophical community most likely to be engaged in such interdisciplinary efforts—have a history of ambivalence when it comes to the ways in which philosophy and cognitive science can or should interact.

Philosophy has long been formulating and revising theories of human nature.  Questions about how to best understand who and what we are have been fundamental to the history of philosophy.  Over and over again individuals have attempted to improve upon the understanding of the previous generations by attempting to provide a more robust account of themselves and the people around them.  The questions that soon followed the formation of any such theory are what it would mean to accept such a view and what does it tell us about how we should be. This is the question of normativity

Normativity is concerned with "oughts": what we ought to do; ought to think; or ought believe, and philosophy has long busied itself formulating, positing and debating justifications for a given normative judgment.  However, the theories of human nature that are offered by cognitive science are not instructive this way.  They can"t be.  It would be methodologically unsound to run studies or experiments if one had explicit teleological motivations.  Furthermore, cognitive science brings into question the legitimacy of normativity in any philosophical account of human nature.

Given that theories of human nature offered up by philosophy are distinctly normative; those offered by cognitive science are distinctly not, it would seem that the philosophers were correct in rejecting input from the cognitive sciences.  However, keeping the sciences out of philosophy and philosophy out of the sciences is nearly impossible when issues such as human nature and the human mind are being debated.  Again, it is the authority that accompanies normativity that causes the problems.  It is philosophy"s ability to offer instruction and to assign value certain ways of living over others that science periodically attempts to co-op; a tendency that the philosopher Richard Rorty terms "Philosophy-envy." 

Rorty is right to fault cognitive scientists who claim "science can provide empirical evidence to show that some ends are preferable to others."[3]  However, just because cognitive science cannot claim that its results stand alone as normative judgments does not mean that philosophical accounts of mind and self can be created irrespective of contemporary knowledge of mind.  Philosophers would not cede any substantive ground by accepting that "conversations among humanists about alternative self-images and alternative ideals would be improved if the participants knew more about what is going on in biology and cognitive science."[4]

The broader concern within philosophy is that a more complete understanding of cognition will eventually require any philosophical discussions of mind or personhood to be fully compatible with the materialist or neurobiological conception of the mind.  Were that to happen, normativity could be among the first losses, as the concept itself is context dependent and cannot be traced to single cognitive function or mental state.

While it seems standoff is inevitable between disciplines that embrace normative and non-normative theories of human nature, in practice the distinction matters significantly less than it does in theory. Cognitive science cannot offer ways to live or behave that promise "a good life" in the same sense that Aristotelian, Kantian or Christian doctrine can.  It can offer a perpetually increasing and improving body of observations about how and why people behave the way that they do.  The job of defining a good life falls to the individual, as does the responsibility of using the observations provided by cognitive science to pursue that end.  Such individuals rely primarily on what Rorty terms "a miscellany of empirical facts rather than around a vision of the good life"[5] and are forced to rely on experience, a personal teleology and sense of normativity emerging simply as a function of navigating daily life.  They must try out different approaches, different assemblages of values and standards of behavior in pursuit of an idealized good that itself may evolve along with the individual. 

The life yielded by such an approach might seem irreconcilable to a life lived within the bounds of a previously determined ideology; however few, if any, individuals are able to adhere completely to a previously established normative account of human nature.  The ends we find ourselves compelled to strive for, the motivations that we attribute to others, the assumptions on which we interact with the world are all constantly revised and augmented in response to experience and deeply influenced by our inherent dispositions.  Individuals relying on normative theories pick and choose among the proffered options based on practical considerations in much the same way a person relying only on observations does.  It is easier to find devout Christians who adhere to the Ten Commandments than to find similar individuals who adhere to the behaviors proscribed by Leviticus. Both texts contain Christian teachings that are normative in the most literal sense possible, but only the practical, useful aspects ("thou shall not steal") of that larger theory of how humans ought to be are acted on.

Rorty's insights regarding the role of normativity in philosophy and cognitive science are apt and yet it seems that he cannot quite decide whether he objects to science encroaching on philosophy"s normative tendencies because he would prefer that philosophy alone have that authority or because he would prefer that normativity cease to be a feature of theories of human nature in general.  While the latter seems unlikely given his earlier assertions that philosophical and religious theories were useful primarily due to their normative aspect, he seems to reveal a very different sensibility when his rhetoric turns away from broader claims about academic disciplines and focuses on the more specific experiences of individuals, asserting that

Every human being has convictions about what matters more and what matters less, and thus about what counts as a good human life. But such convictions need not - and should not - take the form of a theory of human nature, or a theory of anything else. Our convictions about what really matters are constantly modified by new experiences - moving from a village to a city or from one country to another, meeting new people, and reading new books. The idea that we deduce them, or should deduce them, from a theory is a Platonist fantasy that the West has gradually outgrown.[6]

Rorty's ultimate concern regarding cognitive science centers on this idea that it might claim to yield a form of "absolute" knowledge. By granting neural and cognitive sciences a foot in the door philosophers will have begun the is to begin the slide into a deterministic view of human potential and an impoverished understanding of the human experience.  If Rorty were correct and cognitive scientists did feel that

... Humanists ... only have opinions, but scientists have knowledge. Why not, they ask us, stop your ears against culture-babble (which is all you are going to get from those frivolous postmodernists and irresponsible social constructionists) and get your self-image from the people who know what human beings really, truly, objectively, enduringly, transculturally are?[7]

Rorty's objections and fears would be more understandable.  However, the sentiments that he attributes to the scientific community are not shared by all scientists and attempts to assert disciplinary dominance is not limited to the world of science.  Equally narrow theories of human nature have been posited by philosophers and religious leaders.  It seems that while Rorty"s ire in this specific case is directed at cognitive science, what he in fact takes issue with is any individual who would claim a privileged perspective that allowed them to limit or externally define the lives of other people. 

This is a valuable point, as were his observations about the role of normativity, but the fact that Rorty felt the need to couch it in a disciplinary face-off between cognitive science and philosophy is just another example of how deeply entrenched the suspicion of science as a limiting, deterministic force is within our culture. 

Rorty is not against normative theories so long as there are a multitude of such theories offered.  They are collections of observations about what sorts of behaviors result in various sorts of lives from which we can continually try out new ways of being.  Science poses no greater threat to this sort of exploration and self-determination than any other discipline.  Philosophy might feel threatened as the cognitive sciences continue to investigate the physiological basis of mental life that had previously been the territory of philosophy, but the questions being asked by each discipline yield such different  answers as to be essentially incomparable despite their common subject matter.



[1] Oakeshott, Michael. Experience and Its Modes. (Cambridge University Press, 1933)

[2] Rorty, Richard. "Philosophy-envy," Daedalus, Vol. 133, Iss. 4

[3] Rorty, Richard. "Philosophy-envy" p. 23

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rorty, Richard. "Philosophy-envy" pp.18-19

[6] Rorty, Richard.  p. 21

[7] Rorty, Richard. "Philosophy-envy" p. 23