Sunday, May 20, 2007

What is Steven Pinker?

In last week's sermon (transcript) our pastor started a series on Faith and Doubt. He mentioned several books -- The God Delusion by Dawkins, God Is not Great by Hitchens -- and mentioned that a friend of his doesn't read this sort of thing for fear it'll injure his faith. I don't tend to read this sort of thing either, but for a different reason: the idiotic arguments made by supposedly intelligent people tend to make me mad -- especially since I used to say some of the same stoopid things, and I guess I feel a little ashamed of them. Also, I don't want to encourage them by giving them royalties. I pick some of these things up and I feel like yelling at the author or throwing the book across the room. Usually I manage to control myself, though.

Our pastor also mentioned Steven Pinker, who says that there really isn't anyone behind your interlocutor's eyes; a human being is just a biochemical machine.

I was having dinner with a friend the other night, and he asked me what evidence Pinker gives for this idea. I really couldn't remember, so I picked up my copy of The Blank Slate (which I bought used a few years ago), and succeeded in not throwing it across the room.

Basically Pinker attacks Cartesian dualism (body vs soul, mind vs brain) by drawing connections between the physical and mental, or between biology and culture -- the idea being that if you can bridge that gap, you've bridged 'em all, I guess. This is all in Pinker's chapter 3.

One bridge is "cognitive science" -- he writes about AI, and about Deep Thought's beating Kasparov in 1997.

The second is neuroscience -- "the evidence is overwhelming that every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of the brain" (p.41), he says, citing Phineas Gage's accident that permanently altered his personality. He also cites observations made by Gazzaniga and Sperry on patients whose corpus callosum (which joins the two hemispheres of the cerebrum) is cut. They found that

...each hemisphere can exercise free will without the other one's advice or consent. Even more disconcertingly, the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behavior chosen without its knowledge by the right. For example, if an experimenter flashes the command "WALK" to the right hemisphere... the person will comply with the request and begin to walk out of the room. But when the person (specifically the person's left hemisphere) is asked why he just got up, he will say, in all sincerity, "To get a Coke" — rather than "I don't really know" or "The urge just came over me" ....

The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient's left hemisphere is behaving any differently from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. the conscious mind — the self or soul — is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.

Pinker, The Blank Slate
(New York: Viking, 2002), p.43
The problem with this line of reasoning is precisely this: how do we know that the "baloney-generator" is not active as I read Pinker's words? Or, as Lewis wrote, "If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it? Today we might say "electrochemical reactions," but a purely mechanical explanation for intelligent thought is just as dumb an idea as it was in the early 1940s.

Does this Harvard/MIT psychology professor really not understand what any Stanford philosophy sophomore does -- that by impugning the rational capabilities of the human brain in general, he casts doubt upon his own arguments -- indeed, all arguments?

Pinker draws at least a couple more bridges between the mental and physical worlds, or between biology and culture. I do not dispute that there are connections, but his conclusion -- that there is no one behind blue eyes -- is a bit much.

Here's how I see it. Pinker will not imagine that a morally-responsible agent could be mediated by imperfect biochemical mechanisms, and therefore he insists that no such agent can exist. If we take the definition of "religion" offered by some wags, viz., "believing something you know isn't true," then I'll assert that Pinker's position on this point is religious.

Why? Because he has had intimate relationships, and you can't do that while believing that there's no one behind those eyes. Nobody can consistently hold the position that humans are ultimately just biochemical machines and live his life that way -- well, maybe some can, but we lock them up. I am not willing to believe that Pinker is so diabolical and deceptive and downright evil that he would seduce women while not actually believing in them. He may not believe as I do about their immortal souls, but it's unimaginable that he thinks of women as mere biochemical machines, or that they think he looks at them in that way.

No, it's far more reasonable to believe that Pinker is in many ways like I am, or like you are. We all have blind spots; we all deceive ourselves in little and not-so-little ways. He holds people accountable for their actions, because he knows (when he's not writing books) that the auto mechanic, the cop, the secretary, the waiter, his wife or girlfriend, and so on really are people -- that when he looks into their eyes, he's looking at someone's eyes, not just at some biochemical super-robot's visual sensors.

OK, I've been repeating myself for some time now; time to stop and make dinner.