rebecca_newberger_goldstein's picture
Philosopher, Novelist; Recipient, 2014 National Humanities Medal; Author, Plato at the Googleplex; 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
Philosopher, Harvard University; Author, Betraying Spinoza

We Have the Capacity to Understand One Another

Sharp polarities between clashing points of view are wreaking all sorts of havoc in the world right now. Perhaps for many of us the divide that cuts closest to the quick is that between science, reason, and logic, on the one hand, and sectarianism, faith, and religion, on the other. My optimism is anchored to one aspect of human nature: We have the capacity to understand one another.  Evolution has bequeathed us a sketchy folk psychology, just as it has a sketchy folk physics. We come equipped with the understanding that we are engaged with others who manifest propositional attitudes—beliefs, desires, regrets, dreads, hopes: the whole gamut. We come equipped, too, with skills for discovering what those propositional attitudes of others might be.

Since at least the 1940s social psychologists have been studying our capacity to attribute mental states to others. In one early important experiment (Heider & Simmel 1944), almost every single subject, when shown a short movie consisting of geometrical shapes moving on a screen, attributed propositional attitudes to the shapes. Subsequent research has strengthened the view that our capacity for mental attribution is universal and nearly reflexive—in short, an aspect of human nature.

Our folk physics—involving ideas about space and time, about objects and forces—can be extended and deepened, refined and corrected by that sophisticated enterprise we call science. So, too, can our primitive folk psychology be expanded and refined. We can even come to understand those whose propositional attitudes diverge significantly from our own. We humans may never be able to know what it's like to be a bat, but Daniel Dennett could, in principle, know what it's like to be a believer, to hold that life has meaning only if it conforms to some larger-than-life purpose, say, or to be the victim of a dread of death so overwhelming that comfort is gained only from denying the reality of mortality altogether. And so, too, Pope Benedictus XVI could, in principle, understand the propositional attitudes of a proponent of naturalism, determined to trim his ontology to the entities required only by science because of a higher-order desire never to be duped into believing something which is false and, therefore, committed to the highest standards of empirical evidence. (Not all propositional-attitude bearers share this higher-order desire not to be duped, which can come as a shock to many in the scientific community. )

Quite obviously, to understand the propositional attitudes of another is not to endorse them; it isn't the same as wanting them for one's own, although that can, of course, occur—as when, as occasionally happens, we learn from one another. Still, to come to know better the propositional attitudes of others, grasping what the world is like for them, can be intrinsically interesting. It can also be useful—in fact, often essential to survival and reproduction. (A seducer will get nowhere without at least a rudimentary grasp of the propositional attitudes of the seducee. ) It is also implicated in widening the circle of sympathy that promotes the outward dissemination of ethical attitudes.

And of course the most effective means for changing someone's mind usually involves grasping the mind he already has.

Just as science improves on our primitive folk physics, we have an enterprise that extends the primitive skills of folk psychology, refining them into a means of arriving at a complex and shared knowledge of what it's like to have propositional attitudes and representational structures quite different from one's own. This enterprise is the narrative arts. What gives me any optimism at all in this dark season of dangerous divides is that there is a trend among contemporary novelists to turn their artistic attention to the divisive themes of the day. Given the nature of the literary enterprise—what it is that novels do—this effort to develop narrative techniques for taking the full human measure of such divides can only contribute to deepening our understanding of what lies behind what seem like irreconcilable differences—and which often are just that: irreconcilable. We are not, ever, going to become an attitudinally homogenous species. Someone who desires, above all, not to be duped into believing something false will not be turned into someone who, say, wants his beliefs, above all, to affirm his affinity with his community, nor vice versa. Still, it's instructive for both to make their way into the other's mind. There's even a slight chance that someone's mind might be changed in the process. But the deepening of understanding isn't measured solely by changes of that sort.

So, at the end of the day, I am tethering my optimism to the work of our contemporary novelists—which is probably another way of saying that I'm pretty darned pessimistic.