Steven Pinker, HOW THE MIND WORKS, post 4

Chapter 8, “The Meaning of Life,” is the last 45 page chapter of this 565 page (counting only text) book. Here he covers matters of human culture, much as Wilson did at the end of his 1978 book. Given that so much of human behavior makes sense in terms of evolutionary strategies for survival, can this kind of analysis provide insight into some of those commonalities of all human cultures that seem to have no obvious survival value? Like music, stories, religion, humor? Again, this is a summary, not a review, though my editorial comments to Pinker’s claims [[ are enclosed in double brackets ]].

(Here I’m abandoning bullets and trying to reduce my notes to readable paragraphs. And I’m leaving in some specific page references for passages I might quote, in yet one more post.)

Author begins by wondering why people spend so much time on activities that, given the struggle to survive, seem pointless. Stories, jokes, singing and dancing, rituals, and supernatural beliefs “that contradict everything else they know about the world.” The more frivolous some of these activities are, the more people consider them exalted, even sublime. Art, literature, philosophy, religion. This isn’t a philistine question. Every college has a faculty of arts, without ever wondering why people pursue the arts at all.

There are several reasons perhaps. First, the arts aren’t just about aesthetics, but about status. Having time to devote to the arts is a sign of wealth. As discussed earlier, the elite are always pursuing new fashions to separate themselves from everyone else. These ideas about status are familiar — but are never mentioned in the university. The elite brag about their ignorance of science, but in society you can’t be ignorant of the arts, 522b. [[ A familiar point going all the way back to C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. discussed here. ]]

Beyond that, taking the POV of an alien biologist, we might wonder why people take pleasure in even the simplest shapes and stories and myths? In passing, Pinker makes a key point I’ve never seen expressed before: that since tastes and standards are always changing is why trying to define art is fruitless. But is there a definition for excellence in the arts?

Excellence and the avant-garde are designed for the sophisticated palate, a product of years of immersion in a genre and a familiarity with its conventions and cliches. They rely on one-upmanship and arcane allusions and displays of virtuosity. However fascinating and worthy of our support they are, they tend to obscure the psychology of aesthetics, not to illuminate it.

[[ I quote this bit because it has struck me that much science fiction criticism is tangential to the plain content of science fiction stories, including most essentially what SF stories posit and speculate about. I’ll expand on this… later. ]]

Another reason is that the arts are not adaptive in the sense we’ve been using; not everything the mind does is necessarily adaptive. People find ways to give themselves pleasure with work, so to speak. Drugs are one way. The senses are another. Especially those that evoke healthful environments. Pornography is another; the arts are yet another.

There are also questions that can be asked that the mind may not be equipped to answer, even if there are answers, 525m. Religion and philosophy are the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solved, 525.7. Various ideas about the function of the arts – like bringing a community together – may be true, but they’re not about adaptation in the sense of this book. But some aspects might be true.

[[ This goes to philosophy, whether the mind can understand everything conceivable; and to science fiction, the notion that, whether or not this is true, aliens might possess intelligence as far beyond humans’, as ours is above dogs. (( I’m sure I just read this somewhere… I’ll add a reference when I think of it )) OTOH, you’d have to try to understand why aliens would have evolved such intelligence; but that’s likely a parochial answer, ourselves presuming we exist at some ideal level. ]]

Arts and Entertainment.

Ordinary photos and paintings evoke familiar objects. What about abstract art? They are formed of the same components we look for to make sense of objects we see. Examples. [[ Well… I don’t think this is a complete solution. I really admire many Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko paintings, which I think must appeal to much baser sense of color and arrangement. ]]

Music is an enigma. It seems to serve no useful biological purpose. Every culture has its own styles; people most enjoy the style they grew up with. Musical sophistication varies widely. Music cannot tell a story. So is music a technology, not an adaptation? It may be related to language. There may be a universal musical grammar. [[ Just today, this piece at Big Think: Do all humans feel music the same way?, subtitled “After listening to the same playlist, people from the United Kingdom, the United States, and China reported feeling nearly identical bodily sensations.” ]]

Music has various standard components, 529b. Notes, pitch. Overtones. Dominant, octave, perfect fifth, major third. And so on. Pentatonic scales. Other pitch combinations have various emotional colorings. Melodies come from sequences of pitches organized in three different ways, 532m. Motifs, phrases, and so on. Then there’s metrical structure. Then there’s a reductional structure. 533m. And there’s prolongation reduction. Author goes on about this in some detail, and cites a 1959 book by Deryck Cooke [[ who later became famous as the first one to “complete” Mahler’s 10th symphony ]].

Author suspects music is auditory cheesecake, which works to tickle at least six of our mental faculties. Language; auditory scene analysis; emotional calls; habitat selection; motor control; and — something else as yet unidentified. This is all speculative, but it’s given as an example of a mental faculty that is the least likely of being an adaptation. [[ IIRC Pinker discussed this notion about music, as a “spandrel” using Stephen Jay Gould’s term, in THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT. ]]

There are anecdotes about people who can’t, or don’t, distinguish actors from their characters, but they may not literally be deluded, they’re just enhancing the pleasure they get from losing themselves in fiction. Where does this motive come from? Writers have suggested that the purpose of literature is twofold: to delight and instruct.

Enjoying stories is like enjoying life. What about stories with unhappy endings? Maybe to maintain unpredictability. What about the tearjerker? Benign masochism? Like pushing the envelope? While knowing no actual harm will occur? People enjoy the foibles of ordinary people via ‘gossip’; knowledge is power. What about how literature instructs? Stories are hypothetical situations in which the reader is allowed to explore the consequences. Even in science fiction, lawful causes and effects are expected. A story like Metamorphosis allows one initial (fantastic) premise, then proceeds from there. In stories like Alice that are *about* logic and reality, anything can happen.

In any story, a protagonist is given a goal to pursue in the face of obstacles. Analogous to the way intelligence works. What kind of goals? The basic ones: to survive and to reproduce. The difference between fiction for children and for adults is: sex and violence. Similar appeals drive tabloid headlines – examples 542m, which are revealed in an endnote to be one-line descriptions of  various famous novels. Fiction is compelling when different people have incompatible goals.

Stories are preparations for life, the way books of famous chess games are training for chess players. People are always, to some extent, in conflict. (All the circumstances explored in the previous chapter.) Fiction explores options about how some of these conflicts might work out.

[[ So if (mundane) fiction is rehearsal for life, what is science fiction? At its crudest, battles for life translated into exotic settings; at its best, philosophy. ]]

Is there any way we can characterize “good” art? Perhaps the property of ‘repleteness’, a sort of metaphoric unity of all aspects of the narrative. (I.e., nothing superficial.)

What’s So Funny?

Koestler pondered the problem of humor. What is its survival value? We can supplement his ideas with actual studies of humor and laughter. Laughter is involuntary noise making. It’s contagious. Being noisy, it’s a form of communication. It’s involuntary for the same reason other emotional displays are: the brain goes to the effort to convince the audience that an internal state is heartfelt rather than a sham. Similar noises occur in other primates. Humor can be a kind of aggression, as when one is being laughed at. Children laugh when others hurt themselves. And some adults. Long example from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And a short one from Indiana Jones. It’s not just cruelty; the butt of the joke has to be seen as undeserving of dignity and respect. Thus the high and the mighty are inviting targets of ridicule. Similarly sexual and scatological humor, as reminders that no one maintains their dignity around the clock. Humor is also a prized tactic of rhetoric and intellectual argument, with examples of Reagan’s quips, and Voltaire.

So, Koestler said: humor comes from a train of thought hitting an anomaly, something that makes no sense, but which does make sense by shifting to another frame of reference. Author gives examples, p550. The sequence is: incongruity, resolution, indignity.

Other parts of Koestler’s theory suffered from old-fashioned ideas. We need new ideas to answer the question of what humor is for. First, it’s a way of challenging dominance. Second, dominance is impotent before a mob. This may explain laughter, which functions as a signal among a group. Third, we reflexively interpret others’ words so they make sense, the so-called “Principle of relevance” (i.e. we understand context that the speaker doesn’t spell out). Quips make an audience consider a proposition they might otherwise dismiss, were it spelled out.

Not all humor is malicious. Some is teasing and self-deprecation, and isn’t necessarily particularly funny. Examples of ordinary banter between friends and acquaintances. Perhaps it’s anti-dominance in a way to resolve questions of status and friendship. Thus kidding is a way to assess a relationship with another person, by gauging their reaction to a bit of teasing.

The Inquisitive in Pursuit of the Inconceivable

Note Mencken quote and following Q p554. How does religion fit into minds supposedly designed to reject what’s not true? For comfort? But why? Religion isn’t about higher spiritual yearnings; think of all the violence and atrocities it’s given us. Pascal quote 555.4. It’s not a single topic. In the modern West it’s an alternative culture of laws and customs that has survived alongside the growth of nation-states. They usually serve the interests of the people who promulgate them – long para 555b Q.

Religion is a technique for success. Praying; Bierce quote. “What kind of mind would do something as useless as inventing ghosts and bribing them for good weather?” Because ghosts and spirits are terrifying and fascinating. The spirits are adapted from known things given special qualities. They’re exempt from one or more laws of biology, physics, or psychology. [[ These are good insights for considering what *real* sentient entities might be like instead. ]] But are otherwise recognizable. And people don’t bother to wonder how this would logically play out, 557t. “Compared to the … “ 557.2

But why imagine such ideas? Because it creates a market for a priest-class to serve as experts people need to trust. And beliefs about spirits don’t come from nowhere; examples of dreaming, illness, illusions.


Still, some problems continue to baffle the modern mind. Consciousness, the self, free will, meaning, knowledge, morality. [[ These are the lingering questions of philosophy ]] Example solutions include the notion of a disembodied brain living in a vat, of the universe being created 5 minutes ago, complete with all our memories. No progress has been made solving these big issues. Colin McGinn summarizes four kinds of solutions.

First, mysticism and religion. Divine sparks, souls, created by God. Rewards and punishments. The problem here was stated by Mencken: these explanations just give us new mysteries.

Modern philosophy has tried three other solutions. One: mysterious entities are an irreducible part of the universe, period. But this feels like a cheat; nothing has been explained.

Two: Deny that there is a problem. Questions about these things are meaningless. This just leaves us incredulous.

Three: We collapse these problems into ones that we *can* solve. Examples from neuroscience. But these leave the main problem unsolved.

Author is partial to a different solution, via McGinn, Chomsky, Stent, and Hume. Maybe these problems are hard because Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. [[ Yes! This corresponds with the possible fundamental limitations on what humans can comprehend … compared, perhaps, to alien intelligences ]] Examples. We can imagine animals with fewer cognitive abilities than ours, and what baffles them. [[ exactly ]] Might there be creatures with more cognitive abilities, or different ones? They might understand these things, and be unable to explain them to us.

[[ This a strong suggestion of how ‘philosophical’ sf can at least hint at things that might exist that we cannot comprehend ]]

We can’t prove this, but we have indirect reasons to suspect it’s true. But be careful not to draw unwarranted conclusions. E.g. this idea doesn’t justify religious or mystical beliefs.

In math the integers are closed under addition, but are still infinite. Perhaps we possess a kind of cognitive closure, to understand a limited amount of things, with infinite truths still out there. Is this a pessimistic conclusion? Not at all. The goal of this book is to get you to step outside your mind…

If the mind is designed by natural selection, why should we expect it to grasp all truths? Cognitive closure *should* be true.

We can glimpse why certain problems are beyond our ken. Our ideas are built out of simpler ones, in so many areas; while the big philosophical problems seem somehow holistic. Sentience, free will, meaning, are not made up of smaller things.

Last paragraph of the book:

If these conjectures are correct, our psyche would present us with the ultimate tease. The most undeniable thing there is, our own awareness, would be forever beyond our conceptual grasp. But if our minds are part of nature, that is to be expected, even welcomed. The natural world evokes our awe by the specialized designs of its creatures and their parts. We don’t poke fun at the eagle for its clumsiness on the ground or fret that the eye is not very good at hearing, because we know that a design can excel at one challenge only by compromising at others. Our bafflement at the mysteries of the ages may have been the price we paid for a combinatorial mind that opened up a world of words and sentences, of theories and equations, of poems and melodies, of jokes and stories, the very things that a mind worth having.

I’ll do one more post of quotes.

This is a book where all my ideas about science fiction, philosophy, and psychology (and science in general) come together. And my plan is to examine science fiction very closely and explain why these things are related.


Listening this evening to the first Neil Finn album, One Nil aka One All, with the song “Hole in the Ice” providing two of my favorite evocative phrases from all his albums: “Straw Daylight Desire” and “Pale Moonlight Desire”. A quick Google search does not reveal any deep meaning behind these lyrics. Will post more about that later.

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