Wednesday, December 01, 2004

I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate on and off for a while now but hope to finish it fairly soon. It is actually not a terribly good book as it deals with either the blindingly obvious or the totally unjustified with very little in between. Pinker usually gives the impression he is talking to the converted rather than bothering to refute serious counter arguments. He also never questions his assumptions which means you get utterly fed up if you don't share them.

The book is intended to debunk three 'myths' which Pinker calls 'the blank slate', 'the ghost in the machine' and 'the noble savage'. The first of these is the belief that we are all determined by nurture rather than nature. Since no Christian can deny sinful human nature, this is really a dig at the political left who apparently claim we are born as a 'blank slate' and everything is down to our upbringing. There has been some controversy over this, especially with respect to racism and sexism, and Pinker is mainly just speaking common sense when he says that we need to take account of human nature rather than just wish it away. 'The noble savage' is the romantic idea that we are all good at heart and that savages untouched by western decadence all behave like angels. This I have come across a lot and its latest guise is to blame Europeans for all the Third World's problems. Again, no Christian can believe we are untainted at root or the corollary that we can create heaven on earth through our own efforts. 'The ghost in the machine' is the soul. To Pinker, this is another myth. As far as he is concerned, consciousness is nothing but an epi-phenomenon resulting from material processes. He does say this with utter confidence but I couldn't spot where he actually deals with all the arguments against materialism. He just assures us that 'neuroscience' has killed the soul and leaves it at that. In fact, there is an important debate here but Pinker doesn't touch it.

The main body of the book is intended to assure us that science has made the world safe for libertarians. Throughout this section, his arguments are either blindingly obvious (that genetic predisposition does not mean we will automatically become psychos) or totally unjustified (that moral responsibility exists even if we lack freewill). His efforts to explain sin as an evolutionary mechanism are deeply embarrassing as he clearly has no idea what he is talking about.

I'll post it here if the rest of the book provides anything useful but right now I'd only recommend it to the followers of Ayn Rand. My real interest is in the relationship between neuroscience and the soul. This, as I said, he hardly touches. Luckily a good few other writers do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The latest issue of SKEPTIC magazine has a not very flattering article in response to Pinker's book.