Saturday, November 7, 2009

ON HUMAN NATURE: Steven Pinker and "The Ghost in the Machiine" by Judy Joyce

Steven Pinker is a native of Montreal and received his B.A. from McGill University in 1976. His Ph.D. is in psychology from Harvard in 1979 where he later served on the faculties of Harvard and then Stanford.

Prof. Pinker moved to MIT in the early 1980s. A research psychologist, Pinker is Peter de Florez Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; and director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

In an "In Depth" C-Span interview of August 2008 while speaking about his book "ON HUMAN NATURE" Prof. Pinker observed the following:
We all depend on theories, tacit or explicit, of what makes human’s tick. So much depends on it. We use our conception on human nature to manage relationships, to bring up our children, and to control our behavior.

Our assumptions about learning in our theory about human nature guide our policies in education; it’s assumptions about motivation guide our policies in law and government. And because a theory of human nature delineates: what we can achieve easily; what we can achieve only with sacrifice and pain; and what we cannot achieve at all, it effects our values - what we think we can easily strive for as individuals and as a society.

In an interview with, Steven Pinker stated about himself "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".

For the "In Depth" discussion, Prof. Pinker admitted he is unschooled in Theology. Within this context, Pinker states that the Judeo-Christian theory of human life as evolved over the centuries into subjects we would consider today to be subjects of biology and psychology.

From Pinker's perspective the Judeo-Christian Theory of Human Life\Nature is that the mind is a system with a number of faculties such as capacity for love, the moral sense which presents us with standards of right and wrong and an ability to make choices which is Free Will. Free in the sense that it is not subject to the laws of cause and effect.

(PPA Notes: Secularist Pinker equates the mind with the soul in his interview discussing Judeo-Christian ideas even though Catholics consider the soul as seperate from the mind and the body).

A Catholic perspective rejects the Cartesian Duality notion of Human Nature that Pinker also rejects below. However, Catholics reject Pinker’s explanation as also inadequate. (See Christoph Cardinal Schonborn below)
It can be said that Pinker has remarked in lectures he gives that if the mind is separate from the body it holds out the hope that the mind can survive the death of the body. ......(also) freedom, dignity, and choice are often considered incompatible with a view of the mind as reductionist or determinative.

Pinker adds in his lectures that "no one really knows what these terms (reductionist or determinative) mean but everyone knows it’s something bad". (see Schonborn below to the contrary)


From a secularist perspective, Pinker distills what he believes is flawed but popular influences in child rearing even today. His criticism is largely focused on the philosophical roots of liberalism established through the teachings of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau with Descartes thrown in for good measure.

Prof. Pinker identifies: John Locke’s "Blank Slate Theory" where infants are entirely shaped by external forces; the "Noble Savage Theory" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and Descarte’s "Theory of Dualism" in which the human mind is independent of the human body.

BLANK SLATE THEORY IN INTELLECTUAL LIFE - Humans are Paper to be Written On.

For the entire 20th century Social Scientists claimed that except for a few spontaneous reactions of infants to loss of security and fright, man is entirely devoid of instinct ie Public Intellectuals and Anthropologist Ashley Montague according to Pinker.

This Doctrine is widespread with ideas that express it:

I think of a child’s mind as a blank book.
The first years of his life much will be written on
the pages. The quality of that writing will effect his life profoundly. - Walt Disney

Big Problem with Blank Slate Theory.

Pinker considers the "Blank Slate Theory" a denial of the existence of human nature. Blank Slates don’t do anything just sit there forever receiving inscriptions unless they had something in their organization that actively re-combined their inscription on the slate and used them in the pursuit of certain goals. No one denies the importance of learning socialization and culture. Only a madman would say everything is in the genes and experience doesn’t count.


Big Problem Noble Savage Theory

The term "Blank Slate" comes from a poem by John Dryden called Conquest of Granada. However, the term is attributed to John Locke. "Noble Savage" is often attributed to French philosopher John Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed the savage was the youth of the innocence of man. Man in his best state. Man only became more decrepit from self-interest.

Rousseau vs Hobbes

Steven Pinker cautions that you can’t really understand someone’s argument unless know what Rousseau was arguing against. He was arguing against many, many authors but most particularly Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes famous passage on war. Hobbes' Leviathon calls for the need for authority to dominate human life or humans are always in a state of war.

Much of the appeal of Rousseau’s "Noble Savage" argument against Hobbes was because if we are in a state of nature, we are naturally peaceable so there is no need for Leviathon or government police to keep us from each other’s throats that Hobbes promoted. But if we are basically nasty then conflict is a permanent part of the human condition.

Big Problem Mind\Body Duality Theory

Professor Pinker discusses Descartes "Theory of Duality" where the mind (or soul for secularists) of man is entirely different from the body. Descartes reasons this by observing he could not distinguish different compartments of mind activity but could easily compartmentalize the corporeal. Later, this was derided by Philosopher Gilbert Ryle when several centuries later Ryle called it the "ghost in the machine". (PPA - NB: this was a derogatory remark).

The Ghost in the Machine - Ryle vs Descartes

Pinker observes that the "Ghost in the Machine" has much secularist appeal. People don’t like to think of themselves as only mechanical ...wheels. Machines are not sensate but built to be used and disposable.

From this, Pinker follows that humans are sensible, possessing dignity, and rights. Precious. That seems to come out of the doctrine we have a soul that is separate from the mechanisms of the body. (PPA- NB:Again Pinker equates soul with mind which is a secularist perspective).

Pinker’s notion about Machines vs Humans seems based on his reasoning that machines have merely a workaday purpose like grinding corn. Humans, we like to think, have a higher purpose - love, worship, good works, knowledge, beauty says Pinker. Machines follow laws of physics while we like to think behavior is freely chosen. Why Humans or Pinker for that matter "like to think this" is unclear.


The best way to understand Steven Pinker’s summation of his own research as well as assessments about Human Nature from his cognitive studies in biology and the human mind are best described in an Edge on-line coverage of Pinker’s debate with Steven Rose.

The summary can be unpacked into several claims. The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation. The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world.

The modules' basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history.

The various problems for our ancestors were subtasks of one big problem for their genes, maximizing the number of copies that made it into the next generation" How the Mind Works" by Pinker


Prof. Pinker's summation looks to the Behavioral Sciences as a lynch pin with the science of Biology ie natural selection evolved the brain\mind higher and higher to solve problems of hunting and gathering. However, Pinker expresses his theory in the very Cartesian way of thinking that Pinker debunks.

By that is meant, in Pinker's theory natural selection (biology) uses the separate mind to link with the body's hunting and gathering skills. This is analyzed as a mind\body apparatus.

Apparently the point of departure between Pinker and Descartes is that Pinker believes the systems are integrated while Descartes states them as dual or separate. Still, a new rendition of mind\body compartmentalization even though based on a "Theory of Integration" does not seem to go far enough to provide a comprehensive discussion of Human Nature.

Pinker - just as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Ryle before him, by-passes research of the life force that is responsible for the vitality that is a uniquely human way of mind\body integration, if that is indeed what is going on. Surely animals integrate genetically coded brain skills regarding hunting and gathering also.


There is no scientific research on the existence of an obvious yet unique "vitality" that allows the mind and body to integrate in a particularly Human way. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, this way would be explained as ensoulment.


For a deeper discussion of the soul as the additional life force separate from the mind and body by which the soul animates a uniquely Human Nature see Chance or Purpose - Christoph Cardinal Schonborn. This scientifically based presentation illuminates the difference between scientific evolution research which is valid vs. scientific evolutionism which is an ideology.


An interesting and thought provoking discussion of both the Secular and Theological expressions of what constitutes Human Nature is the well-framed argument of Dominican priest, Prof. Alejandro Garcia-Rivera of Cuba. Rivera points out that the question of the "what" of evolutionary theory (example: Pinker’s research on the evolved human mind\brain) is avoided in scientific studies.

Such a study, would require Pinker to research life as a noun not an adjective ie Life itself rather than a Living organism. (PPA NB: Rivera does not mention Pinker in his presentation on Cardinal Schonborn's book "Chance or Purpose")

Garcia-Rivera, whose credentials are impressive in both science (physics) and theology calls for studies of "the root of the subject of intelligibility itself". Garcia-Rivera believes that biologists (like Pinker) are rightly suspicious of any approach to biology that "smacks" of vitalism ie study of vitalism\life force animating mind and body.

Vitalism is a principle that is continuous with matter. And for this reason, Biology appears to have avoided asking the "what" of it’s own discipline. Prof. Alejandro Garcia-Rivera is a researcher for the European Biological Molecular Laboratory. (Rivera's remarks on this subject were made while challenging Christoph Cardinal Schonborn's Chance and Purpose - Domincan School of Theology Aug. 23, 2008 Berkeley, CA. as not going far enough.)

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