🇬🇧 Steven Pinker: “How The Mind Works”

Pinker’s 1997 cognitive science behemoth is a great introduction into how evolutionary psychology frames its problems. One realises right away that the move from what is here called the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ (SSSM) is quite severe and may come across the wrong way to some readers. According to the SSSM paradigm, the mind is a general-purpose cognitive device shaped almost entirely by culture. Pinker studies very seriously the evolutionary, biological, ‘human nature’ approach and that runs the risk of contradicting powerful cliches that we have all tacitly accepted since the counterculture movement to the point of equating them to scientific fact. Pinker himself notes that both denial of human nature and emphasis on it have been used, by the left and the right respectively, for harmful ends. However, one must stand besides what one trusts is the objective, scientific truth, regardless of the “secular catechism of our age”. Emotions, for example, are universally the same, not cultural products, and they are not impacted by language, regardless of the fact that a term for a certain feeling exists in one language but not another.

For Pinker here, all problems must be framed in the evolutionary paradigm, where he can ‘hack away’ Darwinian solutions, some more persuasively argued than others. He continuously makes subtle clarifications about his view of evolutionary theory throughout the book. Among the most important, I noted the belief that evolution is not a ladder, but something like a tree. The evolutionary process does not culminate in, nor does it strive produce intelligence (the focus of the work is on the human mind, let us not forget). Natural selection does whatever the organism needs for its circumstances. He also addresses the common misconception that this will imply the sole purpose of human striving is to reproduce by drawing attention that it is the genes which have the goal of replicating themselves, not people. Ergo, the point of human striving is not to spread our genes. In order to work with morality and other philosophical aspects of human endeavor, Pinker also underlines that just because something happens in nature does not mean that it is right or wrong and that innateness does not overrule free will or exempt from responsibility. It comes as no surprise, then, that even happiness is theorized to come from the things that work towards Darwinian fitness: being healthy, well fed, comfortable, safe, loved, etc; which, while undeniably true, is a little too simplistic for my taste.

So how does the mind work? Steven Pinker is a proponent of something called the computational theory of the mind. It is a transdisciplinary effort from linguistics, philosophy, and cognitive science to form a view where the human mind acts as an information processor and cognition as a form of computation. In short, according to Pinker and his colleagues, the mind, which is not the brain, but rather some of what the brain does, and the modular, non-monolithic way in which it does it, engages in understanding, which, as we mentioned is, at its core, computation: manipulation of symbols and concepts that happens at an incredibly fast rate with immense amounts of information. Ergo, much of cognition is represented by back-propagation neuron networks structured into programs for manipulating symbols. Pinker reduces rational and flexible thought to smaller and smaller networks of information processing, but he does all of this in the aforementioned framework of evolutionary psychology. This becomes very apparent when, for example, he notes that our minds are not adapted to deal with abstract entities. They have adapted to deal with objects and forces in nature: fighting, food, health, etc. We keep the inferences under such concepts, but remove the content and apply it to different domains, resulting in metaphorical thinking. The examples are few and, although he does explain some (such as love is a patient in sayings like sick relationship and virtue is always up in sayings like high-minded), I cannot help but point out this feels like an over-extension.

“How The Mind Works” is by no means and easy or accessible read. Pinker spends dozens of pages on physics, anatomy, and even the neurology of sight, for example, since it emphasises how the mind evolved to solve many of the difficulties that come with seeing: such as interpreting 3D objects from 2D images on the retina, by making assumptions about the world. However, I believe it to be a very compelling read for the curious armed with patience and the understanding that there may be more to the great mysteries of the Universe than evolutionary theory.

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