The Blank Slate Summary (8/10) — Unearned Wisdom
The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker is about the nature of the human mind. Throughout history, there have been many different conceptualizations about the human mind, and these have had real consequences of politics, law, ethics, relationships, and religion. The way in which we choose to define the human mind is no mere intellectual exercise.
The “blank slate” idea is that the human brain is not made up of pre-existing structures that determine how a human being behaves. This theory holds that all human transgressions are learned not inborn. Similarly, there is another theory, “the noble savage” which was advanced most famously by Rousseau. This theory states that if left to his own devices, the human being is a peaceful creature. It is the corrupting influence of culture that transforms this peaceful creature into something evil and violent.
Lastly, there is the “ghost in the machine” hypothesis — this is most commonly a religious idea that insists on a separation of physical body and mind. That is, there is an immaterial soul that belongs to each person, and that is what endows human beings with dignity. Without such a soul, there is no reason for us to think of humans as innately valuable, as ends in themselves, or as worth of reverence. If we were simply the by-product of blind physical forces, as Thomas Hobbes or the more recent computational theorists of mind would argue, then what makes us fundamentally different from a rock?
Pinker doesn’t think we need any of these ideas to preserve what we value in human beings. If we think of the mind as something that behaves like a computer, in that sense that it functions according to the same principles, then we don’t need to invoke the existence of a soul to simply console ourselves. The argument by neuroscientists who compare the brain to the computer are not saying that brains are computers, but that they do engage in computations much in the same way that computers do.
But at the same time, human behaviors are not predetermined by these calculations. Neurological structures may increase the probability that certain behaviors are carried through, but it is simply probability, not certainty. Yet, as Pinker notes, it is little consolation to believe that a criminal with a brain abnormality is 90 percent rather than 100 percent more likely to commit a murder.
The consequences of thinking of the brain as a soulless machine is not just a worry for the religious but for the legal system as well. If we can prove that any kind of deviant or criminal behavior can be explained by differences in neurological circuits, which themselves were designed to optimize the survival of a person’s ancestors, then what justice would be reached by punishing those who perpetrate crimes? Are they not merely responding to their biology, which was determined without their consent?
Pinker’s overall argument is that it is neither pure biology nor pure environment that determines people’s behavior, but a delicate interplay of both. There are further theories from thinkers like Diamond that show how something like geography can shape the destinies of people for thousands of years. The point being — it is not useful to hold on to human agency for its own sake. Many things are indeed out of our control, and our brain structures is just another one of those things. We may not be completely free, but perhaps we don’t want to?
Pinker refers to Dennett who makes the argument that free will should be utterly undesirable if we want a just ethical and moral system. After-all, a truly free person would never respond to a system of rewards and punishments, and therefore can never be deterred from doing whatever they want to. Such a person is “free” but that doesn’t mean that he is any more responsible or worthy of respect than someone who is not free.
In the end, violence, prosperity, innovation are all determined by a multitude of factors that are beyond our control, whether these are geography, climate, the nature of plants and animals, the structure of the human brain, or the peculiarities of a culture. It makes no sense at any point to say that because there are so any variables that influence human behavior, that human beings have no freedom to act. It is perhaps the case that humans have a little bit of freedom to act, and that’s all that is required. Too much freedom would be problematic since things would spiral out of control, and no freedom at all would be problematic since it would prevent the possibility of holding anyone accountable for their actions, including ourselves.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com on March 29, 2022.