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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Steven Pinker's 
'The Blank Slate'

Alien to Science?
One way of shortening your reading list is to separate out the wheat from the chaff: those that have got the goods from those who merely promise them. Or course, fantasy can be a great read in itself: thus you know Alice in Wonderland and Bullfinch's Mythology are fictions, and enjoy them regardless. Others you would rather give a pass, such as tomes like the Enron Annual Report, or George Bush's CIA reports on WMD in Iraq. Steven Pinker's 'The Blank Slate' is thankfully one of those books. And why? Because its premise is, like Lewis Carroll's looking glass world, alien to science. To explain this out of this world claim, I will use an out of this world analogy that is unfortunately, true. 
Evolutionary Psychology: A Copernican Revolution!
Before mankind learned to write, they thought they had the universe right. Constellations of gods and goddesses were literally painted in the sky, and the stars were fixed on a celestial sphere of crystal that spun round the earth. We were part of the equation of course, and the astro-logical course of the stars was bound to human fates in a mechanical and determined clockwork. It was all because God naturally selected things to be this way, the rest was a mere exercise of logic, working backwards to reverse engineer the mind of God. Later on, as mankind began to use symbols, the logical morphed into the mathematical, and Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 175 AD) made it all work out right by positing a complicated celestial racetrack that had the sun and planets revolve around the earth while doing cartwheels in their courses. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (ca. 1575) had a better idea, and placed the sun in orbit around the earth, with the planets in turn orbiting the sun. Copernicus (ca. 1525) had the simplest proposal of all, and saw the planets as orbiting the sun in perfect circles that also spun in their courses like Ptolemaic worlds, and framed of course with a firmament of stars glued to a celestial sphere.
Now quick, was any of this scientific? Nope. That's because none of the premises of these models were at the time time testable. The 'functional' logic worked out of course, but it worked out for all realities. From Ptolemaic to Copernican, they all made sense, and all predicted the ways of the worlds, but implied an underlying reality that was ultimately wrong. True explanation was wanting, and explanation would only occur when the tools were developed (e.g. telescope) that could test these hypotheses, and reveal the actual workings of the solar system, and in turn, of the universe. Debating issues without giving time or even respect for explanation thankfully vanished for the physical and biological sciences long ago in tandem with the development of new and more powerful tools for the observation of nature in all her workings. Unfortunately, this contempt for explanation still occurs now for the latest ironically Copernican revolution, evolutionary psychology. Like the Ptolemaic reasoning that predated it, evolutionary psychology infers how the brain works by inferring why it must work. For Ptolemy, it was heavenly selection, but for evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker, it's an evolutionary sort.

A pivotal argument for evolutionary psychology, like the ancient one of an orbiting vs. stationary earth, is the nature vs. nurture debate that has obsessed philosophers since the days of John Locke. Yet, it may be argued that the nature/nurture argument is no more scientific than arguments about the heavens in the days predating the telescope. Very simply, explanation is wanting for such an argument because an explanation of the brain is wanting. Arguing against Locke or B. F. Skinner for that matter is meaningless if the subject matter for all that heated discourse is an unobservable brain. And that's what Pinker does in 'The Blank Slate'. Logically, of course he makes his case quite well. Nonetheless, logical debates are not scientific debates because the functionalism of logic is not science. Explanations are science, and by ignoring the brain evolutionary psychology denies science. Although Pinker gives lip service to neuroscience, his arguments are scarcely informed by it, and are arrayed instead against the metaphorical and brain-less arguments common among the political left, humanists, and the religious. Whether this becomes a case of the blind leading the dumb or vice versa, the result is a lot of heat but very little light. Indeed, nature/nurture debates are ultimately meaningless because all such arguments can ultimately be made to fit the surface facts, and thus be 'proven' right.

Dicotomies are exciting things to contemplate. They introduce some drama into the logic of thinkiing, and neatly categorize intellectuals into us vs. them. Good vs. evil, reason vs. emotions, nature vs. nurture all have a logical resonance to them, but they have precisely zero resonance when the neuro-psychological is involved, and that's precisely the point. In particular, for a psychology that is informed by neuro-scientifically accurate pictures of the human brain, the nature/nurture dichotomy does not exist. Both nature and nurture interoperate in tandem, and to reduce them to competing or incompatible forces is as foolish as to say that the frontal cortex competes with the hypothalamus. Competition is merely a metaphor, and to say that nature 'competes' with nurture is to impute motives and roles to the biological functioning of the brain that it does not have.

The heated arguments that have pervaded evolutionary psychology  rise above the facts, but are ultimately decided by them. That evolutionary psychologists blithely ignore the facts of the brain is something they do at their peril, much as the friars who refused to look through Galileo's telescope. It is to the nameless posterity of those       priests that Pinker unknowingly aims. To this writer, he is well on his way to that anonymous fame.

The best statement of this neurological argument, an argument that Pinker was invited to but never has responded, is in an article by the distinguished neuro-psychologist Jaak Panksepp.that in my opinion decisively dismantles evolutionary psychology. Hyperlinked above, it is most recommended. Otherwise:

Ptolemy: no, it's circles within circles, within circles
Tycho: no, it's circles within circles
Kepler: it's elipses
Copernicus: no, it's circles
Workable Worlds: Four Quite Sensible Versions of the Solar System 
(requires no cheating by using telescopes!) 
(please circle the correct answer, or correct circle)

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