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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 27 May 2016

"The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker

I don't re read many books but The Blank Slate is so important that I had to read it again after several years.

Steven Pinker, who wrote the phenomenal The Better Angels of Our Nature previously wrote this even better book. In it, he seeks to demolish three sacred cows:
The Blank Slate which holds that our genes have no part in our personalities and it is our environment that makes us who we are. It is the received wisdom of the self-help guru: you can be whoever you want to be, and the mantra of the left. Unfortunately the scientific evidence suggests it is not true.
The Ghost in the Machine which suggests that we have a soul, or a personality, or a consciousness that is somehow separate from our biological physicality. "'John's body' ... presupposes an owner, John, that is somehow separate." (p 10)
The Noble Savage which suggests that we were perfect and innocent before we were expelled from the Garden and that we need to get back to the perfect state of nature.

He doesn't spend a lot of time on the latter two but he uses twin studies and logic to demolish the Blank Slate.  "The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don't do anything. ... Something has to see a world of objects rather than a kaleidoscope of shimmering pixels." (p 34). It is clear that genes affect how animals behave, why on earth should we believe that the sole influence on human behaviour is 'culture' (which in any case has many remarkable similarities across the world)? "The evidence is overwhelming that every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of our brain." (p 41) eg (p 42):
  • Electrical stimulation of brain tissue causes lifelike experiences
  • Brain damage causes loss of some function
  • Brain death = death
There are clearly things about us that are hard-wired; despite many attempts there is no evidence that any gay man has ever been 'cured' of his homosexuality. (p 94)

This leaves a problem. "If the slate of a newborn is not blank, different babies could have different things inscribed on their slates. Individual sexes, classes, or races might differ innately in their talents, abilities, interests, and inclinations ... if groups of people are biologically different, it could be rational to discriminate against the members of some of the groups ... the differences cannot be blamed on discrimination, and that makes it easier to blame the victim and tolerate inequality." Furthermore, eugenics becomes defensible (p 141)

Pinker describes this as the "the 'naturalistic fallacy': the belief that what happens in nature is good." (p 150). He thinks it is dangerous to base a moral code on a scientific fact which may turn out to be incorrect (as Pinker has, with overwhelming evidence, shown that it is). "We should not concede ... that if people do turn out to be different then discrimination, oppression, or genocide would be OK after all" (p 141) he suggests. "The case against bigotry ... is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups." (p 145) "All humans can be assumed to have certain traits in common. No one likes being enslaved. No one likes being humiliated. No one likes being treated unfairly." (p 145) "Social Darwinism: the belief that the rich and the poor deserve their status" (p 149) is wrong.

Does this mean that we have no free will, no personal responsibility? Don't blame me, blame my genes (p 176) Again, he thinks it need not. He points out that Daniel Dennett (who wrote the brilliant Consciousness Explained) says that a truly free will would not be deterred by punishment, shame, guilt etc (p 177); in any case the environmentalists might have it that we can evade personal responsibility by blaming our mothers (or our cultures; is the prevalence of female genital mutilation in some cultures morally defensible?). Pinker believes that morality has the practical effect of helping selfish individuals get along in society: from reasons of reciprocity "it pays to insist on a moral code, even if the price is adhering to it oneself." (p 187) In any case, he believes that some aspect of morality, such as fairness, are part of our genetic inheritance. "If we are so constituted that we cannot help but think in moral terms ... then morality is real for us as if it were decreed by the Almighty or written into the cosmos. And so it is with other human values like love, truth, and beauty." (p 193)
This is a truly important book, liberating moral philosophy from a number of blind alleys and allowing a twenty-first century ethical code to emerge.

Not only that, but it is also very well-written and extremely readable. 

May 2016; 434 pages

1 comment:

  1. Apparently it's getting republished later this year with a new afterword. Keep an eye out!

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