Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

How Can Human Beings Transgress Their Biologically Based Views?1

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

How Can Human Beings Transgress Their Biologically Based Views?1

Article excerpt


Empirical evidence from developmental psychology and anthropology points out that the human mind is predisposed to conceptualize the world in particular, species-specific ways. These cognitive predispositions lead to universal human commonsense views, often referred to as folk theories. Nevertheless, humans can transgress these views - i.e. they can contradict them with alternative descriptions, they perceive as more accurate - as exemplified in modern sciences. In this paper, I enquire about the cognitive faculties underlying such transgressions. I claim that there are three faculties enabling us to part with these universal commonsense views of the world imposed by our nature. The first is our ability to represent representations - i.e. to form metareprescntations. The second is our ability to produce alternative representations both by explaining a familiar subject matter in terms of the principles governing different conceptual domains than the one that we are predisposed to apply to the subject matter and by directing our mind to new subject matters (for which we have no predisposed conceptual grasp), understanding them in terms of familiar domains. The third, finally, is our ability to give these representations an epistemic orientation.

Key words: Human cognition, Domain-specific knowledge systems, Cognitive predispositions, Folk theories, Cognitive flexibility, Human - nonhuman distinction.

1. Introduction

Human beings - as any other species - are predisposed to interpret their environment in a set of species-specific ways. These predispositions, determining the way we conceptualize about particular aspects of the world - as, for instance, other species, physical happenings and other minds - are often referred to as modules or domain-specific knowledge systems by cognitive and evolutionary psychologists (Tooby & Cosmides 1992; Pinker 1997; Carruthers 2006). Those innate domain-specific knowledge systems lead to a set of folk theories we entertain about the world. In this regard, we share a particular 'folk physics', 'folk psychology' and even 'folk biology' with all of humankind. I will refer to these universal human commonsense theories about the world as 'biologically based' or 'biologically determined' views, since they are strongly determined by our genetic constitution.

While all other species on this planet are endowed with such biologically determined views of the world, human beings - 1 argue - are unique in their ability to transgress them. We are, in other words, able to reject and substitute those beliefs about the world, which are rooted in our particular cognitive nature. Indeed, while other animal species might be able to update and change simple beliefs about their environment through experience (as, for instance, the location of food or even expectations with regards to the behavior of conspecifics), homo sapiens is able to change its biologically determined core beliefs, generated by innate cognitive predispositions, as - for instance - the assumptions underlying its uncritical representation of the physical and natural world.

This is what I mean by 'transgressing biologically based views'. It entails not merely belief alteration or update, but a radical shift in the way one views the world and accounts for its phenomena. Einsteinian physics, for example, rejects our deeply grounded intuition that time and space are two absolute, independent entities. The probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, on the other hand, rejects our intuitions about causality and physical determinism. Human beings, in this regard, transgress their biologically determined views, substituting their intuitive grasps of the world with theories they perceive as better descriptions of the subject matter. An analysis of our ability to 'transgress', in this context, does not pretend to explain creativity in general (what cognitive faculties enable genuine originality), nor can it be reduced to analyzing mere belief change (what enables us to change a belief through experience). …

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