Reason Magazine interviews Steven Pinker about his book The Blank Slate.
Pinker debunks three myths about the mind:
The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine. Feminists, Marxists, and others on the left wing like the Blank Slate myth. It means human nature is culturally malleable rather than biologically determined.
The Noble Savage myth believes that man is naturally good until he is corrupted by society.
The Ghost in the Machine myth states that human thought is somehow special and different from the rest of biology. They insert a soul or a ghost to create pleasant-sounding myths about “who” we are instead of how we think.
Neural Networks are fascinating. The brain functions like a parallel computer. There are some 10^11 neurons and even more synapses. Neurons basically turn on and off – they let an electrical pulse go through or they don’t. The sheer size of the network allows complex patterns to emerge. Thoughts come from waves of activity in certain areas of the brain. This gets mixed in with chemical reactions – peptides help retrieve old memories by activating the brain in a certain way. Hormones stimulate other areas of the brain. Complex thought emerges from a large number of simple inputs.
If you seriously understand the process of biological evolution and self-organizing complex networks, then it easy to understand how this occurs. If you don’t, it looks like magic.
Evolutionary psychology is a new field (it used to be called Sociobiology). It notes the obvious – genetics and neural networks inteact to create human behavior. In other words, there is a biological human nature that does not require a soul. Morality is even driven by biology, not religion or culture. Culture really just adds another layer to natural behavior.
Biology is politically controversial to Left-wingers as well as the religious, both of whom prefer to remain delusional rather than accept reality.
Reason: What is the aim of your new book, The Blank Slate?
Steven Pinker: To explore why the concept of human nature and biological approaches to the mind in general are seen as so politically suspect. Why do they arouse so much emotion? Why do people think that there are great moral issues at stake, as opposed to empirical issues about how the human mind works?
Some of the issues I explore are concerns of the left, which sees evolutionary and genetic approaches to the mind as reactionary. Others annoy the right, which thinks that a materialist view of the mind that incorporates computation, neuroscience, evolution, and genetics undermines the basis of morality and leaves us with only a dangerous amoralism.
Pinker’s books are excellent and highly recommended. There’s a lot of information to debunk social myths. He talks about the natural causes for violence, altruism and the like. To me, this is much more interesting than idealistic statements about souls or political utopias.
Mechanism is threatening to all kinds of idealistic political sentiments. So be it.