Untying Pinker’s knot I: the Overton treadmill

April 13, 2009

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.

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3 Responses to “Untying Pinker’s knot I: the Overton treadmill”

  1. Dina Says:

    I haven’t read any of these books so clearly I can’t comment directly on what the authors did or did not demonstrate. However, as a member of the NPR crowd, I feel required to defend your implication of my overly simplistic viewpoint. And I say that with a smile. My personal belief is that genetics will out, based on observation of my own half-sister and friends with adopted children. Yet there is no doubt that my parents actions have had an impact on my decisions. I can say that graduate school had a major impact on my personality. I can see that I become more like my father in personality as years pass. My point is, I can’t see how you can deny that we are products of genetic background and our environment, including parents and peers. Whether one contributes more than the other frankly I don’t care. I’m too busy trying raising my kid.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Dina, your points are well taken, as always. Taking the last one first: I’ll agree that getting in too much of a huff about how to weight genetics versus environment frequently indicates ones has a) too much time on her hands and b) an axe to grind. Both of which fit here. And to Pinker’s credit, the thing he was arguing against was the idea that culture or environment are *everything*, which is a notion I’ve found coming from the post-structuralist camp. (You’ll remember one camper in particular.) Re: the wisdom of the NPR crowd, as I mentioned in my earlier post, I like NPR. And just the other day I heard Ira Glass (?) co-commentating on an opera and saying something about the GENES of the musicians in reference to their skillz!! So I guess Pinker did his job. Although I hate talking about “genes FOR x” because it’s so easy for the uninitiated–e.g., my mom–to equate that construction with genetic determinism. Feel me?

  3. The Glenn Beck Review Says:

    I just discovered the Overton Window today. I’d love your comment on my view of it.


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