an introduction to human nature

by Neville Moray

a book published by Authorhouse 2014

Table of Contents




Part 1 Thinking About Stories

Chapter 1. Introduction


Part 2 Thinking about Thinking

Chapter 2. Causes and explanations

Chapter 3. Ways of Thinking: Philosophy

Chapter 4. Ways of Thinking: Science

Chapter 5. Probability


Part 3. Thinking About Humans

Chapter 6. Names, Nouns and Things

Chapter 7. Life

Chapter 8. Evolution

Chapter 9. Making a Person

Chapter 10. Abilities: Nature and Nurture

Chapter 11. Artificial Intelligence

Chapter 12. Brain, Mind and Consciousness

Chapter 13. Free Will and Responsibility

Chapter 14. The Soul


Part 4. Thinking It Over

Chapter 15. Epilogue


Appendix 1. Calculating Statistics

Appendix 2. Bayesian Statistics




References and URLs shown in footnotes will also be found in the Bibliography.

 322 Pages


Although we are all human, human nature is full of mysteries. It is all too easy to opt for a simple approach through science, religion, or personal intuition. Take any group of well-educated and successful people with time to think about their own natures. They may have had successful careers in banking, commerce, entertainment, journalism, industry, law or even the sciences. They may be widely read and interested in the modern world. Some will be sympathetic to religion, the majority probably not.Buttwo things that are common is that they often find it difficult to understand and evaluate scientific discoveries, and usually have not looked in detail at the ideas, the Everyday Stories as we shall call them, that they take for granted about human nature. Those ideas, whether asserted or denied, include words like soul, mind, consciousness, self and will.


Such ideas used to be a matter for philosophy. People used to speculate endlessly about, “What is life?” “ Does our soul survive death?” “ Do we have free will?” It was enough just to sit and think about them. But today such questions seem increasingly a matter for science. Can we make life? Can education improve intelligence? What would it be like to clone a human? Does the electrical activity of the brain mean that free will is an illusion? Will we soon share the world with intelligent machines? If one has not studied science it is difficult to assess modern research: if one is unfamiliar with philosophy it is difficult to criticize one’s intuitions.


This is a good time to study human nature. We understand the chemistry of the stars, the age and origin of the universe, and the fundamental structure of matter. While the twentieth century was the age of physics, we are now in the age of biology. We understand ever more about the biochemistry of living bodies, the basis of heredity, the electrical activity of the brain and the physiology of nerve cells. We have invented devices that mimic muscles, sense organs and human thought. Some claim that we can tell from patterns of brain activity when people are telling the truth, when they make voluntary choices, and even when their religious belief is active.


What are we to make of such claims, which seem to be about mental or spiritual activities, but are measured by physical events? How does the new science relate to the classical ideas about our nature that have come down to us as “the wisdom of the ancients”, the subject matter of philosophy? The answers lie on the border of biology, philosophy, science and technology, a border that is getting rather crowded these days. The underlying theme of this book is that mere scientific knowledge does not by itself deepen our understanding of human nature. We must relate it to ideas that were common before the rise of science. But neither is philosophical speculation enough: we must examine different kinds of knowledge, how they relate one to another, and see how a synthesis can help us better to understand what we are.


There are traditional words that seem intrinsic to human nature. I call them Fundamental Words and they include “self”, “body”, “mind”, “will”, “soul”, and “life”. Are such words the names of parts of a person, non-physical, immaterial, or “spiritual”? People are loath to abandon them, but do they fit in with the new scientific discoveries? Many books today discuss modern neuroscience and biology as if their success means there is ever less reason to retain older ways of talking. That risks impoverishing our understanding. In this book we will try to connect the old and new ways of thinking. We will go backwards and forwards in the history of thought far beyond what is usually considered in contemporary discussions of, for example, neuroscience. We will concentrate on the nature of the individual human. What we decide about free will not tell us how to treat a murderer, but will help us to understand whether people are responsible for what they do. If people are indeed responsible for their actions that should make a difference to the law, but exactly what difference will depend on a particular culture, and that I leave to others.


I want to examine different kinds of knowledge, how they relate one to another, and how a synthesis can help us better to understand human nature. So we have to start by looking at science and philosophy themselves. Then we can look at the Fundamental Words and what science has to say about them. Don’t always expect answers. Indeed I shall have succeeeded only if at the end of the book readers have more questions than they had at the beginning. But at least they will be their own questions.


Although the chapters are not in a strictly logical order, they fall broadly into two sections. It would be nice to plunge directly into what science has discovered about life and the mind, but we can’t really do that. If we are to accept the claims of science which are made with such certainty we need to understand something of the nature of science. After all, even Norbert Wiener, who founded cybernetics, maintained that in science there was no such thing as certainty. So we start by thinking about the nature of science as such, and about probability. How can we reason about ideas themselves? How can we relate what we take for granted to challenges posed by new discoveries? The same applies to philosophy. How can we use it to examine how we think?


The choice of topics may seem rather arbitrary. Why is there a chapter on evolution? Why is intelligence discussed at length? Why is there a chapter on prostheses and artificial intelligence, on probability? The reason is that in discussions over many years I have found that people often do not realise what modern science and philosophy say about such topics. People will often argue passionately for positions without really understanding the evidence. For example, they will argue the “nature vs. nurture” issue in relation to intelligence without knowing that almost all the research is based on IQ tests, without knowing how IQ is measured, and without knowing what recent research says about the nature of race and heritability. Many people surprisingly have only the vaguest idea of what is meant by “evolution”, and what the evidence is for it. And many, who hold strong opinions about whether machines can think, do not know what has been achieved by artificial intelligence and advances in computing, or what the general theory of machines asserts. I have chosen topics that seem of general concern, but where there seems a need for at least some familiarity with recent advances.


All too often books about modern science take an aggressive stance toward people who believe in older philosophical and religious ideas. In turn, people who still think in terms of souls, wills and minds are dismissive of modern science. What a shame! The richness of human nature requires an equally rich approach. So we will look at recent scientific discoveries but also at classical ways of talking about humans. We will think about how to think about humans. Then we will go on to see what new discoveries tell us about genetics, abilities and the brain, and how they change our ideas of life, mind, and even soul. We are looking for a synthesis, not a knock down and drag out defeat of some imagined opponents’ views or straw men.