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Great writing, funny jokes, and essential reading for anyone interested in the mind
on 20 February 2015
Some spoilers ahead...
Steven Pinker's view is that much of what we perceive as intelligence, personality and thought is inherited; in other words is a product of evolution.
Many supporters of artificial intelligence cling to a hope that the brain is made of general purpose grey matter, and that intelligence will spontaneously spring into existence if you can create the right sort of 'connectoplasm'. Professor Pinker demolishes that hope: our brains are made up of specialised modules, the product of millions of years of evolution
Post-modern social scientists, not to mention teachers, parents and religious leaders, cling to a hope that mind and personality are social constructs, that it is not 'all in the genes'. Professor Pinker quotes statistics that show that they are largely wrong, that genes play the key role in our character.
Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of 'memes' and Daniel Dennett extended the idea of evolution to include non-genetic selection. Professor Pinker thinks they went too far. For Pinker, the overriding force in what it is to be human is genetic -- good old Darwinian evolution.
However, the book is not all negative. Chapter by chapter, Pinker picks an aspect of human behaviour, character or thought, and shows how it is the result of Darwinian selection and the 'selfish gene'. His insights are far more cogent and persuasive than previous writers such as Freud or Jung, because of this scientific basis in evolution. Pinker really has found a key to unlock at least some of what it is to be human, and it makes his book essential reading for students of human character.
To me, there are two weakness to the book, and I think they are related.
Pinker addresses the idea of Consciousness, meaning his sense of there being an 'I', the subject of his experiences. The colour red is a range of wavelengths of light; it causes excitations in particular nerve cells; the verbal centres of the brain respond and cause his mouth to say 'red'. But nowhere in that description is the obvious truth that Steven Pinker experienced red colour. Daniel Dennett in his excellent, if ambitiously named, book 'Consciousness Explained' claims that there is no such thing as the experience of red, other than that physical explanation of the wavelengths and nerve excitations. Pinker disagrees. He thinks that consciousness cannot be explained away (I think he is right). However, he asserts that it is not something that can be explained, because humans are simply not clever enough. A hyperintelligent alien might be able to explain exactly what consciousness is in humans and how it relates to the brain and the mind, but a human would not have the mental capability to understand the explanation.
To me, this is a cop out. By evading the question of consciousness, Pinker leaves the door open to some pretty weird ideas (you know what I mean, you've probably read the books too).
My related complaint is that Pinker takes his own introspective intuitions about what is happening inside his head too literally. His introspection tells him that he sees a picture of the world: so he assumes that inside his brain there is a two-and-a-bit-dimensional picture of the world mapped out in neurons, for some other piece of brain to look at. His introspection tells him that he thinks in words, though he knows it cannot be English: so he assumes that his internal thoughts are in 'mentalese'.
These intuitions are what Daniel Dennett calls the 'Cartesian Theatre', and for him they pave a road leading to infinite regress and incoherent ideas about consciousness.
I'd love to see a book co-authored by Dennett and Pinker. They both write superbly well, and in a way that is accessible to all readers. They both start from the same scientific premises. Yet they have very different answers to some key questions. Until they write such a book together, you must read them separately. But please do -- they are not right about everything, but they will lead you to a better understanding of Mind than any other writer living.