Steven Pinker: THE BLANK SLATE, post 2

(Advisory: I’m traveling to Austin TX tomorrow through Sunday, and so will not be posting here until next Monday, likely.)

A key point about this book is that Pinker shows how the facts (the science) of human nature undermine both conservative and liberal ideological assumptions, or presumptions. It’s not that conservatives are the ones opposing scientific insights; liberals do so to, notably in ways that have led to what has come to be called “identity politics,” the idea that one’s rights derive from being a member of some group, rather than as an individual deserving of rights as any other individual. This theme becomes more specific later in the book, when he discusses politics and gender, for example. While he does tread carefully about the idea of differences between various ‘races’ of humanity, he’s unequivocal about differences between the sexes, in ways that go back to Wilson in 1978 and many following books (because their physiological differences have resulted in different reproductive strategies). But his bottom line point about morality is this: even if there *might be* differences between this or that group, you don’t judge a person by their membership in any kind of group. (Or maybe you do initially, in the sense that stereotypes exist because there’s *some* validity to them.) But ethically and morally, you treat people as individuals.

(Of course I might observe that since conservatives demonize other people not as individuals but in terms of their identities — this or that sexual or racial minority — it makes perfect sense to respond in kind. Pinker’s point is that neither position is moral.)

We’re still in Part I of the book here. This chapter runs from pages 30 to 58.

— Ch3, The Last Wall to Fall

Ancient ideas of the distinction between the perfect heavens above and the grubby earth below are obsolete. Newton’s set of the laws was the first event in what E.O. Wilson has called “consilience”: one of the great developments in human understanding: the unification of knowledge. Another was the understanding of life as a function of matter and energy, in the second half of the twentieth century. One wall was left: that between matter and mind, material and spiritual, physical and mental, biology from culture, nature from society, sciences from the social sciences, humanities, and art. And that wall too is falling.

Beginning in the 1950s was the first bridge: cognitive science, with five ideas:

1, The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.These amount to the ‘computational theory of the mind.’

2, The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blanks slates don’t do anything (as I described in yesterday’s post). Something in the mind must be innate, if only the mechanisms to learn.

3, An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind.

4, Universal mental mechanisms underlie superficial variation across cultures. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is an example.

5, The mind is modular, with many different parts; an urge from one can be overruled by another. [[ This goes at least back to Marvin Minsky’s THE SOCIETY OF MIND, in 1987. ]]

The second bridge: that between mind and matter: cognitive neuroscience. The brain is the mind; Crick’s book, taken for granted at the time by other scientists, was still ‘astonishing’ to many other people. [[ I made this point in my essay. ]] Examples of Phineas Gage and others with brain damage.

The third bridge: behavioral genetics, how genes affect behavior. Twin studies and sibling studies, and how the effects of genes are only probabilistic. The five dimensions of personalities.

The fourth bridge: evolutionary psychology, the study of the adaptive studies of the mind, via natural selection. E.g., given facts about the basic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, aspects of the modern human psyche suddenly made sense. Another example of how the mind is not a blank slate. With reference to that list of human universals, in this book on p435. How babies come with basic categories of mind. This debunked the doctrine of the Noble Savage; anthropologists have found that Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong. [[ This argument becomes a core of Pinker’s later book THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, in 2011. ]]

[[ I need to summarize the argument of Rutger Bregman’s HUMANKIND: A HOPEFUL HISTORY, from 2020, which takes Rousseau’s side, in part by nitpicking Pinker’s evidence. As in so many things, arguments can be made based on weights of selective evidence. It’s not so much that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, it’s that both sides can be right in different circumstances. Yet again: the world is not black or white. ]]

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