Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker

Steven Pinker, renown cognitive scientist and linguist, is clearly a brilliant mind. And with this exhaustive yet highly readable book he means to prove once and for all that human beings as a species poses an innate nature that varies between it’s individual members. This arises from the specific cocktail of genes and mutations that each of us are born with. Admirably, he’s essentially firing a shot across the bow of left-wing academia, who for too long have insisted that man is entirely a product of his environment- i.e a product of society.

The beginning is dedicated to discrediting the concepts of Noble Savage, The Ghost in the Machine, and The Blank Slate. Ideas that have long been held to the detriment of Pinker’s stated case.

With all the thoroughness and aggression of a veteran prosecutor he relentlessly assaults the established “wisdom” of the academic world. Pro-actively confronting the notions that innate differences in individuals would condone things like racism, Nihilism, and Social Darwinism.

The book really gets interesting though in the section titled Hot Button Issues. Here Pinker applies his findings to contentious subjects like; politics, parenting, gender equality, the arts and violence in society. He even gives a disclaimer; something to the extent of, this may ruffle some feathers

I’ve read this thing twice. The first time was about four years ago and I thought it was one of the most brilliant and edifying books I’d yet come across. Since then my world view has changed dramatically and so I decided to give it another reading. It’s amazing how much difference a few years can make. To be sure, this book is comprehensive, logical, and skillfully argued. My main problem this time around is not with the thesis, which is impeccably argued as I said. It’s basically with the smug tone of his flippant dismissal of the doctrine of the Ghost in the Machine.

This is actually a problem with something larger than this book’s subject alone. It’s to do with the materialist or physicalist approach to understanding humankind and our universe. Specifically, the claim that brain equals mind and nothing more. It’s an approach that by necessity takes a very dim view of anything outside the realm of rationalism or empiricism; in effect vulgarly reducing anything metaphysical or spiritual to mere superstition. Basically, the stance that if science can’t prove it, it aint worth bothering with. His apparent need to constantly quote an insufferable prick like Richard Dawkins does little to help his case with me.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Stephen Pinker
Penguin 2002

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