Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pinker and Anti-Pinker

I am a fan of Steven Pinker's thinking and writing.  Well, the first third of every chapter of his writing, I should say.  I don't know what happens to him, but he starts off beautifully and then becomes boring.

Pinker is in agreement with Chomsky that a good deal of the structure of language is embedded in us at birth (The Language Instinct, 1994).  There is not universal agreement with this among linguists, cognitive scientists, and others who study this, but I think the evidence is pretty strong.  Extending this idea, Pinker wrote The Blank Slate about ten years ago - it is actually a refutation of the blank slate theories of Rousseau - and did a wonderful job, really, of showing how much of human behavior is not learned but comes pre-loaded.

Now comes his The Better Angels Of Our Nature.  I haven't read it, only read his NYT article and excerpts from the considerable discussion about it at the moment.  But the argument seems to be that the dramatic decline in war, murder, and violence over the last few centuries, especially the last 60 years has been the result of ideas that have become more common.  Worse, the ideas he thinks are doing much of this good work are Enlightenment ideas - rather the heartland of blank slate thinking.

So which is it?  There can be balancing, mediating effects, and subtlety in all large ideas, of course.  We need not insist that a thinker taking a side in a discussion be always required to be at the extreme of that side, granting no sensibleness to his opponents.  But if he is going to largely switch sides, we want him to at least notice this, so he can explain his change.  Pinker doesn't seem to.  He thinks he's not very far from where he was two, or ten, or twenty years ago.  I don't get it.

Here is some of what I think is behind it.  Pinker is devoutly secularist, and believes that the Enlightenment comes from the application of nonreligious, humanist, scientific ideas to understanding humans.  Well, he's rooting for his side, whether he sees it or not.  Confirmation bias is powerful in history.  Let me root for my side, just for a bit.  I think a better case can be made that these Good Ideas can be seen growing, century by century, in every place that Christianity sits down and influences the culture.  The murder rate started dropping long before not only the Enlightenment, but even the Renaissance. 

We can't replay history and measure what would have happened if Christianity had not come to Europe.  But we can say that the growth of science, the rights of man, tolerance, and all the good stuff we take for granted in the modern world seems to have slowly grown up like this precisely once in human history, other regions falling back after progress.

Secondly, the violence of the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions are left off the ledger.  They are not left out of his book, but they are absent from the calculation of the ideas affecting the world.

It's curious.


Larry Sheldon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry Sheldon said...

There are two of us!

I did not realize I was in such august company.

james said...

Is it true that there's a lot of evidence for Chomsky's theory? While the theory seemed pretty obvious and straightforward, I'd gotten the impression that researchers hadn't been able to find commonalities that would let them infer that "the brain does X in devising/understanding language."

Larry Sheldon said...

I am not a linguist, cunning or not.

In fact I have no official credentials at all except a Bachelor of Science in Management, that is, a BSBS.

Regarding evidence, we need to take a lesson from the global warming enthusiasts and understand that there is credible evidence, demonstrable evidence, hearsay evidence, etc, and so forth and so on.

I am a Feynman fan in that I think it was he who taught us to work it out ourselves from first principles (or was it First Principles?).

I come to conclusions that Pinker makes more sense that others I have read, or that I have suffered under. (See for some illumination.)

I strongly suggest reading Pinker on the subject in the same sequence that he wrote on the subject (which sequence I believe to be correctly reported here: )

Assistant Village Idiot said...

james - I recall at the time I was reading it I was convinced. I only remember some of why, now. Sigh.

For openers, language is enormously similar - we make vocalizations within a limited range of tones, volumes, and frequencies. That is also an argument for single-origin of speech rather than multiple sites, BTW. We could presumably have added various slaps, taps, and other noises just as sensibly. The order of acquisition and age of acquisition of nounish and verbish things is similar, and there is the very similarity that we have nounish and verbish things at all. Science fiction writers and speculators have imagined other possible forms of communication for alien creatures.

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