The Blank Slate and Other Myths About How the Mind Works

Link: Reason: Biology vs. the Blank Slate: Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker deconstructs the great myths about how the mind works.

This was a fascinating interview that appeared in Reason magazine a few years ago. It’s great balancing what people link Pinker are saying in the evolutionary psychology field with what I’m learning about Freudian psyschology. Pinker talks about morality, about free will, Hobbes, and other great stuff. Go read the whole thing. Below are excerpts:

The blank slate [myth] is the doctrine that the mind has no unique structure and that its entire organization comes from the environment via socialization and learning. The blank slate mentality is popular with people who believe that any human trait can be altered with the right changes in social institutions. It’s popular in the more radical branches of feminism, although not with the original core of feminism that stressed the drive for equity between the sexes. I think it allies to some degree with Marxist approaches to society. Not that Marx literally believed in a blank slate, but he certainly believed that you could not intelligently discuss human nature separate from its ever-changing interaction with the social environment.

The doctrine of the noble savage is that people have no evil impulses, that all malice is a product of social institutions. The noble savage myth is behind the sensibility that violence is learned behavior, a slogan that is repeated endlessly whenever violence is chronicled in the news. It’s also behind the Romantic idea that violent nonconformists are actually seeing the hypocrisy of society and challenging social institutions from a marginalized viewpoint, as opposed to the idea that such people are psychopaths and that we should prevent them from wreaking havoc on everyone else.

The doctrine of the ghost in the machine is that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus of free will and choice and which can’t be reduced to a function of the brain. The ghost in the machine [idea] lies behind the religious and cultural right — literally in the case of people who want to couch the stem cell debate in terms of when ensoulment occurs…

Neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life — every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory — can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain. Cognitive science has shown that feats that were formerly thought to be doable by mental stuff alone can be duplicated by machines, that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation. Not computation the way your IBM PC does computation, but computation nonetheless — a kind of fuzzy analog to parallel computation. So intelligence, which formerly seemed miraculous — something that mere matter could not possibly accomplish or explain — can now be understood as a kind of computation process.

I don’t really know where the moral sense is located in the brain because, in a sense, it encompasses a number of the different faculties. Morality encompasses a mentality of autonomy and interchangeability of interests. It is also tied to notions of purity and defilement and to notions of conformity to community norms. If you could take any person and tap his or her moral intuitions, you would get this melange of sentiments, not all of which coincide with morality as it would be understood by a moral philosopher.

People, for example, tend to equate morality with high rank. We see that in the language: words like noble, which are ambiguous, [meaning both] high ranking and morally exalted. We see it in celebrity worship: People think that Princess Diana and John Kennedy Jr. were highly moral people, but they were pretty average. People tend to blur good looks with morality. You can give them a bunch of photographs and ask them to judge how nice they think the people are. The better-looking people are judged as being nicer.

All that is to say that the psychology of morality is multifaceted. There is no one answer to where morality is in the brain. Recent research has been looking at the part of the brain called the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex, pretty much the part of the brain that sits above the eyeballs. When that is damaged by early brain injury, you grow up with what looks like defective conscience, an inability to empathize, an inability to think through conflict resolution. But I suspect that it’s a complex system involving a number of parts of the brain….

An extreme authoritarian Marxist would sacrifice all freedom to the goal of the equality of outcome. Perhaps an extreme libertarian position would sacrifice any kind of equality of outcome in favor of equality of opportunity. If those are the terms of the debate, science can’t tell us what’s the optimum point along that tradeoff.

Now, the moral principle regarding equality is simply that people not be prejudged on the basis of certain group averages, the averages of the groups to which they belong. That is, you should not discriminate against someone based on gender or ethnicity. That doesn’t say that all races and all ethnic groups and all genders are indistinguishable, although they may be. It says that you don’t even have to worry about that; you should treat individuals as individuals.

2 comments on “The Blank Slate and Other Myths About How the Mind Works

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *