How the mind works

In a conversation about religion and science on Joi Ito’s blog, John Jensen recommended Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works for a scientific perspective on the origin of culture and religion. The book fails at that mission, but is interesting in a more limited scope.
The parts of the book backed up by experimental research are fascinating. In readable prose, Pinker summarizes research about how the mind processes visual images, logic, and math. The experimental evidence supports a coherent theory that intelligence is composed of modular components.
The parts of the book about emotions, altruism, and values have much less experimental content. Pinker uses evolution as myth — canonical stories about hunter-gatherer cultures and primate ethology are used to draw broad lessons about human nature. One of Pinker’s “insights” — humans have evolved to assess the trustworthiness of others, and also to deceive themselves and others. Another: addictions to food and sex derive from biological desires for pleasure. Another: human cultural achievements are driven by desire for status.
Damasio’s based analysis of emotion and consciousness based on clinical neurological research and Terrence Deacon’s analysis of the neuroanatomy of the brain are more empirically based, and have more compelling insights about the relationships between emotions, language, and consciousness. When Deacon strays off the empirical farm and does evidence-free, evolution-based mythic speculation, he gets shallow too.
Pinker’s use of evolution as a myth doesn’t lead to more insight than traditional explanations of human complexity (desire leads to suffering in the Buddhist tradition; the “good inclination/evil inclination” framework in the Jewish tradition). These traditional sources don’t have evolutionary science as their base, yet they perceive the conflicts in human nature, and can reach wise insights about how to handle the conflicts.
A good part of the argument in “How the Mind Works” is polemic against foolish politically-correct academic conventional wisdom that humans don’t have natural tendencies toward selfishness, deceit and violence.
But in arguing against “culturist” extremism, Pinker misses the point about culture. Pinker ties himself into knots trying to explain why people would engage in behavior that contradicted a basic evolutionary program — why a successful scientist would focus on career and marry late, why a family would adopt a child.
He doesn’t understand that cultural rewards like prestige and social experiences like nurturing can extend underlying biological programming. It’s not enough for Pinker to reverse-engineer the biological roots of behavior, he needs to explain the higher-level behavior in terms of the lower-level behavior. This is like explaining the plot of a video game in terms of assembly language, or even the game’s object model.
In summary, Pinker does fine as a scientist, but he hasn’t successfully made the transition to moral philosopher. And he certainly hasn’t made the case that scientific research has made moral philosophy obsolete.

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