Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

As I may have mentioned before, I hold in fairly low esteem most treatises and philosophies on who and what we are and where we're going and what our purpose is and if there is any purpose to start with. Most 'thinking' by 'thinkers' on the subject—past and present, and especially present, when these idiots should really know better, given the wealth of available evidence!—sucks majorly, mainly because these people rarely think about the thoughts they're thinking and the assumptions and biases that ultimately determine their 'thinking'. In other words, while they're preaching the amazing properties of the recursive nature of our thoughts, they rarely do much recursion themselves; but they also exhibit this self-limiting behavior that one finds in the openly irrational and loony philosophies of the ages. You know what I'm talking about, yes? Anything basically that claims some kind of 'rational' foundation and is treated rationally, but which isn't subject to some kind of 'reality check'. Meaning mainly religion and ideology, no matter whether its source is 'cultural' or whether it's just been cooked up by some cooky pseudo-rational academic philosopher.

I'm sure there are people who do some valuable thinking—and indeed, a number of them, many of whom I didn't know about, are mentioned in Pinker's book—but it's a lot like searching for precious gems in a city garbage dump. The overall stench is enough to turn you off trying, and giving up seems so much easier, and finding the odd gem doesn't seem worth all the trouble and tribulation and endless showers one needs, because the stench seems to cling like that of rotten fish.

The Blank Slate was a bit of an air-cleaner to put it mildly. I have some issues with Pinkers basic scientific philosophy, but these are nuncupatory with regards to the subject at hand, which is, whether there's something like—mostly genetically determined—'human nature' and whether there are variations on the theme, also mostly genetically influenced, that make one human being different from another in the sense that such differences are a) there before any 'conditioning' by culture/environment takes place, and b) may be sufficiently deep to indeed over-rule the in vogue notion that "you can be anything, if only you set your mind to it"—in a purely 'potential' sense, if you will, and ignoring the inevitable life-vicissitudes that may interfere with the implementation of whatever if it you might be wanting to be.

On other words, just as there are people that will never, ever become Olympic athletes, no matter how hard they try or how much they might want it, so there are those that will never be piano virtuosi or first-class mathematicians—or, if I may say so, writers or film makers or actors or, even closer to my heart, story-tellers.

The Blank Slate is an attempt to summarize the evidence for 'human nature', as opposed to the wishful-thinking that would deny such a thing. People are different in how they start off on their path of life, and what they can and will do with it, is subject to the limitations imposed on them and the potentialities they happen to be endowed with. This applies to every area of life, from that requiring certain skills and talents, such as in the areas of, say, logical thought or creativity or imagination—which are partially determined by genetics—as well as those areas relating to what you might call 'social' things; like empathy and compassion. People with inadequate mirror-neuron systems may be geniuses and hugely talented in some things, but they're likely to end up exhibiting all the signs of autism; or, going off in a different direction, as psychopaths.

Pinker also provides a very informative overview over the politics of blank-slate-ism, which is an impressive litany of how irrationality rules over evidence; even in the hallowed halls of that most 'rational' of all human activities: science.

I tend to judge 'fact' books by how much they're making me tell myself "Now why didn't I consider that?" Not in the sense of not having considered any of the gazillion stupid things I might have considered—and may have, on occasion, like the existence of God, the power of 'reason' as an ultimate arbiter of what is 'truth' and other silly things like that—but of having looked at something that is basically in line with the way I understand things in a sufficiently different way to say "Now that's interesting!"

The Blank Slate provides a number of such points, and thereby qualifies as valuable reading; something that was worthwhile spending time on. Since it is a cogent book, and since I disagree with a number of aspects of Pinker's philosophy, and also some of his assertions and his interpretation of the very evidence he cites, I've also been prompted to new thoughts about why something actually isn't as he says it is, and what's missing from the book and what's missing from Pinker himself. That, too, is very valuable, because it has helped me to clarify things in my own mind that otherwise might have been left unattended.

What I come away with—apart from some interesting ways of looking at things that really have helped me to understand some important previously-missing connections—is a sense, again!, of how cognitive philosophy has become a slave to a) the computational paradigm and b) connectionist thinking. Pinker is one of a class of cognitive philosophers who qualify as more perceptive and keen to 'go with the evidence'—as the CSI shows tend to put it—than many of those wrapped up in loopy ideologies and political agendas. However, he, too, is blinkered by the limitations he imposes on his own point of view. A lot of his evidencve is gleaned from studies in what you might call 'western nations', and—necessarily!—studies done during recent years, meaning, just to put a number on it, 100 (being generous). This means that said studies were done on urban man, and are therefore subject to the limitation of...well, of being done on urbanized humanity. If nothing else, that severely limits their value, since the societies we live in now and which have been studied, do not necessarily represent anything more than a blip in the timeline of humanity. To take them and to draw the sweeping conclusions Pinker draws, makes him just as guilty of over-reaching his scope as do those he berates. There is no evidence in anything he writes that he is aware of these limitations. He appears to be unaware of the very existence of social history. Much as he also appears unaware of the overpowering force and mind-shaping power of religion and ideology; which can alter people's minds beyond recognition and drive them into intellectual dead alleys and/or darkness forever, without any hope of ever getting out of them.

The other thing that strikes me is that, like just about every other cognitive philosopher, Pinker actually has very little grasp of the actual 'nature', if you will, of 'the Mind'. That doesn't mean, I hasten to add, that I think he's missing things like 'ensoulment' or 'spirit' or anything like that. I think those things are primitive concepts emerging from the natural inclinations of people to conceptualize in what are basically 'materialist' ways. ('Soul' and 'Spirit' are materials, substances, things. They're just somewhere else than in the physical reality, that's all. But they're still essentially 'stuff'. Think 'ectoplasm'.) No, what I think cognitive science is missing—and it basically is in that corner because of the philosophical traditions out of which it grew—is that while there is no other 'stuff', there nonetheless are dimensions to 'existence', which are ultimately subject to scientific enquiry, but which we simply don't investigate because we haven't gotten our heads around the questions we need to ask.

One might argue that that doesn't matter. Science is fairly complete as it is, in terms of the scope of its questions. Well, maybe. But there are questions it cannot answer. Questions about things that are. And how they are. Not just about this and that in the human mind, in you and me, in the strange phenomenon of 'consciousness'—a problem Pinker thinks will be resolved within this decade!—and how it happens and what it is. Recursiveness and computational modules aren't 'it'; and if they were, the definite answer would already have been produced.

The problem is that science and 'rational' thinking—I keep putting 'rational' in quotes, because it's such an abused term, almost universally not understood by its advocates!—are essentially 'materialistic' and concerned with the logic emerging from...well, the material nature of the computational processes in our brains. Anything that 'computes' needs to be material, even if it's a 'quantum computer'. We think 'material' in everything. Even Plato, with his loopy idealism, was still thinking of ideals as 'things'; some kind of 'stuff', even if it existed in an ideal universe.

The breakthrough will come when science breaks free of this, and when philosophy follows it along the path. Until then we'll have intelligent, insightful, interesting books like The Blank Slate, that help us understand a lot of things, but which still do very little to answer the questions that—deep inside of us, even the dullest I'd guess—we'd really like to know how to ask; and preferebly have them answered as well.

What are they?


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