Having discharged my highly emotional reaction to Steven Pinker and his book The Blank Slate, I figure I will now analyze his argument a little more rigorously, if not entirely dispassionately, to try to weed out any straw man or “view from nowhere” arguments on my part and his. Warning: This is about to get pretty abstract, so skip it if you’re not into that kind of thing.
Agents and demons
The first thing I want to keep in mind is the distinction between determinism per se and agency, which I think was an unspoken tension in my last post about Pinker. I understand determinism as a “meta-” thing, a precondition of thought, agency etc., to the effect that “one thing leads to another.” Whatever happens or has happened was always going to happen. Effects of quantum randomness on large-scale galaxy structure formation notwithstanding, my dad was always *going to be* an alcoholic and I was always going to have my reaction to that. But dwelling too much on that will only drive you (me) crazy and / or miserable.
The free will or agency thing is about how beings such as ourselves respond to our environments, to the stuff outside of ourselves, based on the physiological capacities and cognitive toolkits inside us. E.g., if I could go back in time and stage a therapeutic intervention for my dad, what would it be and what would be its odds of success given what we know about agents like my dad? Hence Jonah Lehrer’s latest book, How We Decide, is very much about the free will “problem.” Pinker is talking about what I would call developmental constraints on agency.
A deeper shade of Pinker
I can also appreciate Updike’s rule #1 of book reviewing: “try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I’m not reviewing Pinker, but I want to try to understand Pinker on his terms first. The most productive spin on what he was doing with TBS is he wanted the NPR crowd to rethink “the nurture assumption“; to realign its prior assumptions about how much of our identities – the stories we would tell to define ourselves – would have turned out the same if at the moment of birth we had been handed to two folks unrelated to us and raised in a different family structure, socioeconomic stratum, culture and so on.
I’m glad Pinker wrote his book. He actually convinced me I was wrong on a few important points. I can hardly blame him for coming from a particular context and having particular goals. By pushing an extreme rhetoric, he is moving the “Overton window” of discourse around human nature in a contextually productive way. But the discourse treadmill has a momentum of its own, because every new frame contains the seeds of its self-destruction, ripe for the sowing by hungry proto-pundits such as myself. I’ll try to advance the treadmill by pointing out contradictions and potential traps in Pinker’s execution of his project.
Ok, that wasn’t so bad, right?
More soon, and thanks for bearing with me.