Does the Mind’s System Reflect a Judeo-Christian View of Human Nature?

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“The mind is modular, with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action.

It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules. Cutting across these data-processing systems are mental faculties (sometimes called multiple intelligences) dedicated to different kinds of content, such as language, number, space, tools, and living things.[...]

More generally, the interplay of mental systems can explain how people can entertain revenge fantasies that they never act on, or can commit adultery only in their hearts. In this way the theory of human nature coming out of the cognitive revolution has more in common with the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature, and with the psychoanalytic theory proposed by Sigmund Freud, than with behaviorism, social constructionism, and other versions of the Blank Slate. Behavior is not just emitted or elicited, nor does it come directly out of culture or society. It comes from an internal struggle among mental modules with differing agendas and goals.

The idea from the cognitive revolution that the mind is a system of universal, generative computational modules obliterates the way that debates on human nature have been framed for centuries. It is now simply misguided to ask whether humans are flexible or programmed, whether behavior is universal or varies across cultures, whether acts are learned or innate, whether we are essentially good or essentially evil. Humans behave flexibly because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software that can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior. Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary. Intelligent behavior is learned successfully because we have innate systems that do the learning. And all people may have good and evil motives, but not everyone may translate them into behavior in the same way.”

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From Steven Pinker’s epochal The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

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The Girls of Fall

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John Updike

“Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear; by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of a vacuum lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fragrance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousand-fold on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city.

[...]

Now I peek into windows and open doors and do not find that air of permission. It has fled the world. Girls walk by me carrying their invisible bouquets from fields still steeped in grace, and I look up in the manner of one who follows with his eyes the passage of a hearse, and remembers what pierces him.”

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The opening and closing paragraphs of the short story “In Football Season” by John Updike. (Full text)

More from the master:

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski

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John- December 2005 668

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

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“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski, whose family fled from their home in Lvov, Poland in 1945, and who now divides his time between Paris and Houston, where he teaches in the creative writing program at U of H.

The photo: taken in the Bayou Bend gardens, Houston.

HANDOUT  zagajewski1.jpg

“It’s a Quagmire”

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Dick Cheney

“Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place?

That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have to the west. Part of eastern Iraq, the Iranians would like to claim, fought over for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire.”

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Dick Cheney, riffing in an interview with CNN on April 15th, 1994.

Go on:

What Would Lawrence of Arabia Do about the Middle East?

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T. E. Lawrence

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

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Rule #15 in T. E. Lawrence’s “Twenty Seven Rules” which summarized for the British army his approach to Arab warfare. It was published in 1917.

Credit to TheDish.

“One Time” by Christian Wiman

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Car at the Dead Sea

But the world is more often refuge
than evidence, comfort and covert
for the flinching will, rather than the sharp
particulate instants through which God’s being burns
into ours. I say God and mean more
than the bright abyss that opens in that word.
I say world and mean less
than the abstract oblivion of atoms
out of which every intact thing emerges,
into which every intact thing finally goes.
I do not know how to come closer to God
except by standing where a world is ending
for one man. It is still dark,
and for an hour I have listened
to the breathing of the woman I love beyond
my ability to love. Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other, the grief
beyond which, please God, she will live
and thrive. And praise to the light that is not
yet, the dawn in which one bird believes,
crying not as if there had been no night
but as if there were no night in which it had not been.

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“One Time” by Christian Wiman.

Read my pal Matthew Sitman’s brilliant essay on Wiman, which opens with the following evaluation of “One Time” and what it means in the context of modern American Christianity.

Whatever else these heavy words might express, they reveal the paradoxical essence of Christianity, that there is no experience of resurrection that does not go through the cross, that defeat and despair mark the places from which solace unexpectedly emerges.

This capacity to avoid the empty optimism of so much American religion – the word “abyss” appears more than once in “One Time” – finds balance, however, in the flickering hope that also appears…

Listen to Wiman talk with Sitman and Andrew Sullivan, in an illuminating discussion of faith, doubt, meaning in suffering, and Philip Larkin, right here.

The photo: taken in the Dead Sea in Israel

Realizing Friendship

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Sam Harris

“In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me—he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.

That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance—the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person—seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than I could have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed those gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own…

Love was at bottom impersonal—and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love—I love you because…—now made no sense at all.”

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From Waking Up by Sam Harris. (Find the entire opening chapter, from which this excerpt is pulled, along with Harris’s reading of it here.)

What Could’ve Been among Jews and Arabs

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King Faisal of Iraq

Paris, March 3, 1919.
DEAR MR. FRANKFURTER:

I want to take this opportunity of my first contact with American Zionists to tell you what I have often been able to say to Dr. Weizmann in Arabia and Europe.

We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.

We Arabs, especially the educated among us look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organisation to Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate proper.

We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.

With the chiefs of your movement, especially with Dr. Weizmann, we have had and continue to have the closest relations. He has been a great helper of our cause, and I hope the Arabs may soon be in a position to make the Jews some return for their kindness. We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another.

The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria for us both. Indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the other…

I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of civilised peoples of the world.

Believe me,
Yours sincerely,
(Sgd.) Feisal. 3rd MARCH, 1919.

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letter sent from Feisal Husseini (above, center), then King of Syria and later Iraq, to United States Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (pictured below).

Read on:

Felix Frankfurter

Our Partisanship as a Moral Failing

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David Brooks 32

John Meacham: If our country itself is irreconcilably polarized, then in classic republican — lowercase “r” — thinking, that is going to be reflected in our political system.

David Brooks: I’m coming around to that view, which I was very resistant to over the last ten years. A lot of people have argued that [polarization] begins out in the country, not in Washington. I guess I more or less accept that now.

And I think it’s a moral failing that we all share. Which is that if you have a modest sense of your own rightness, and if you think that politics is generally a competition between half-truths, then you’re going to need the other people on the other side, and you’re going to value the similarity of taste. You know, you may disagree with a Republican, or disagree with a Democrat, but you’re still American and you still basically share the same culture. And you know your side is half wrong.

If you have that mentality that ‘Well, I’m probably half wrong; he’s probably half right,’ then it’s going to be a lot easier to come to an agreement. But if you have an egotistical attitude that ‘I’m 100% right and they’re 100% wrong,’ which is a moral failing — a failing of intellectual morality — then it’s very hard to come to an agreement.

And I do think that we’ve had a failure of modesty about our own rightness and wrongness. And I’m in the op-ed business, so believe me that people like me have contributed as much as anybody to this moral failure. But I think it has built up gradually and has become somewhat consuming.

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David Brooks and Jon Meacham, in conversation when Meacham subbed for Charlie Rose this summer.

More:

  • George Washington rips party politics
  • Mark Leibovich rips our cowardly political culture
  • Meacham and Brooks riff on Jefferson and Hamilton

John Meacham

Is the World Getting Worse?

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Martin Amis

“You ask yourself the question every time you open a newspaper or switch on the TV or walk the streets… You know the question. It reads: Just what the hell is going on around here?

The world looks worse every day. Is it worse, or does it just look it? The world gets older. The world has seen and done it all. Boy, is it beat. It’s suicidal… the world has done too many things too many times with too many people, done it this way, that way, with him, with him. The world has been to so many parties, been in so many fights, lost its keys, had its handbag stolen, drunk too much. It all adds up. A tab is presented. Our ironic destiny. Look at the modern infamies, the twentieth-century sins. Some are strange, some banal, but they all offend the eye, covered in their newborn vernix. Gratuitous or recreational crimes of violence, the ever-less-tacit totalitarianism of money (money—what is this shit anyway?), the pornographic proliferation, the nuclear collapse of the family (with the breeders all going critical, and now the children running too), the sappings and distortions of a mediated reality, the sexual abuse of the very old and the very young (of the weak, the weak): what is the hidden denominator here, and what could explain it all?

To paraphrase Bujak, as I understood him. We live in a shameful shadowland. Quietly, our idea of human life has changed, thinned out. We can’t help but think less of it now. The human race has declassed itself. It does not live anymore; it just survives, like an animal. We endure the suicide’s shame, the shame of the murderer, the shame of the victim. Death is all we have in common. And what does that do to life?”

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Martin Amis, writing in the short story “Bujak and the Strong Force, or God’s Dice,” contained in his collection Einstein’s Monsters.

Martin Amis

The Walk Back from the Mailbox

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John Updike 2

“And the other morning, a Sunday morning, around nine, walking back up my driveway in my churchgoing clothes, having retrieved the Sunday Globe from my mailbox, I experienced happiness so sharply I tried to factor it into its components. (1) The Christmas season was over — the presents, the parties, the ‘overshadowing’ — and that was a relief. (2) My wife and I had just made love, successfully all around, which at my age occasions some self-congratulation. (3) It was a perfect winter day, windless, with fresh snow heaped along the driveway by the plow and a cobalt-blue sky precisely fitted against the dormered roof-line of my house. I admired this blank blue sky…

Even toward myself, as my own life’s careful manager and promoter, I feel a touch of disdain. Precociously conscious of the precious, inexplicable burden of selfhood, I have steered my unique little craft carefully, at the same time doubting that carefulness is the most sublime virtue. He that gains his life shall lose it.

In this interim of gaining and losing, it clears the air to disbelieve in death and to believe that the world was created to be praised. But I inherited a skeptical temperament. My father believed in science and my mother in nature. She looked and still looks to the plants and the animals for orientation, and I have absorbed the belief that when in doubt we should behave, if not like monkeys, like ‘savages’ — that our instincts and appetites are better guides, for a healthy life, than the advice of other human beings. People are fun, but not quite serious or trustworthy in the way that nature is. We feel safe, huddled within human institutions — churches, banks, madrigal groups — but these concoctions melt away at the basic moments. The self’s responsibility, then, is to achieve rapport if not rapture with the giant, cosmic other: to appreciate, let’s say, the walk back from the mailbox.”

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John Updike, writing in the concluding paragraphs of his memoir Self-Consciousness.

More from Updike:

John Updike, Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1962

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