"Asking the Right Questions," the two-day colloquium held on October 6 and 7 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), featured four panels of speakers who discussed their individual scholarship in the humanities and then engaged with audience members on questions ranging from the creative process to current world events.
Joshua Cohen, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and head of the Department of Political Science, who also was chair of the SHASS colloquium committee, welcomed the standing-room-only crowd to Wong Auditorium.
"Since 1950 the school has been home to extraordinary scholarly activities by composers and economists, linguists and literary critics, historians, anthropologists, philosophers and many others.
"The right way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the school, we decided, was to have an event in which we do what we do when we do it well. That is, to think, talk and argue about themes of real human importance. Our hope is that you'll come away from these two days with a deeper sense of the contribution to knowledge that comes from the school," Professor Cohen said.
Each of the four colloquium sessions focused on a single topic, formulated as a question. Members of the MIT faculty served as moderators and introduced the topic and individual panelists.
Samuel Jay Keyser, the Peter de Flores Professor of Linguistics, emeritus, raised the first question -- "What do we know about human nature?" -- and introduced the colloquium's first speakers.
"Welcome to the School of Humanities version of 'The Three Tenors,'" Professor Keyser quipped, indicating Institute Professor Noam Chomsky of Linguistics; Steven Pinker, the Peter de Florez Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; and Hilary Putnam, the Cogan Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University.
Professor Pinker outlined the main secular theories of human nature, each of which, he noted, had its unique appeal while being threatened by other, newer theories. Among these, Professor Pinker cited the "Chomskyan revolution in linguistics and cognitive science," developmental psychology, behaviorial genetics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology and neuroscience.
"The revolution in cognitive science is seen as a threat to deeply held values, but that threat is more apparent than real. Taking human nature into account can help us clarify these values," he said.
Professor Putnam advised the panel and the crowd to apply Godel's Theorem to the session topic. He commented archly, "The human mind has succeeded in proving it contains something it cannot prove." Professor Putnam went on to speculate whether the brain of an "ideally competent mathematician... a mathematician who makes errors but corrects them on reflection -- could be replicated in a computer program." The mind, he noted, is not the same as the brain.
Professor Chomsky, speaking without notes, opened with the observation, "In general the pattern of inquiry has focused on norms of reaction in the mapping of the environment onto genetic constitution. Human nature is those norms of reaction."
But, he continued, "Since Descartes, intelligence has not been a matter of enough intelligence, but of the right kind. In principle, cognitive capacities can be isolated and studied. Moral nature is harder to isolate than language."
Moral nature, as it is expressed in choices on behalf of human rights, has long been Professor Chomsky's deep, active concern.
"The real world offers illustrations and painful choices," he said. "The question about human nature is: How deeply do these ideas enter into struggles for human rights and into the idea of rights?"
Professor Chomsky added a note of optimisim to the proceedings in saying, "History reveals a deepening appreciation of human rights."
Asked by a reporter for the Boston Globe why one would study humanities at MIT, Professor Chomsky responded cryptically, "Sputnik."
Professor Chomsky continued, "Of course US scientists knew Sputnik [the 1957 Russian satellite] didn't mean a thing, but at that time MIT changed from an engineering school to a science-based university, creating more demand for humanities, and more need for a rich surrounding environment."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 18, 2000.