Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pinker's Blank Slate: Part 1

I have begun reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) at the behest of a friend who declares that it is the antidote for the sloppy, mentalist reasoning that stands in the way of a well-ordered and scientifically based civilization. Having studied B.F. Skinner and being familiar with the prescientific notions of human consciousness and personality that he critiques in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), I approach Pinker with the expectation that I shall find little new and much that claims to be.

Acknowledging the generally recognized unfairness of critiquing a book one has not read - but also confessing that I lack the organization and self-discipline (sorry, Prof. Skinner: I don't know a better way to express it!) to complete a project of this magnitude in the accepted way - I propose to address it publicly much as a student in a philosophy class would: by making assumptions about where the author is going with an argument and arguing with those assumptions. Subsequent posts will reflect my changing understanding of Pinker's arguments and, in the end, a hoper would hope to find a fair and balanced assessment of Pinker's thesis.

On with the first installment.
For the sake of those who are unfamiliar with the notion of the Blank Slate and others, like myself, who have not considered it for many moons, I should begin with a brief summary of The Doctrine.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke (1632-1704), the father of British Empiricism, argues that all knowledge is the result of experience via the senses:
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. (cited in Pinker, p. 5)

Locke's argument that all knowledge must come from the senses is generally recognized as the foundation of the empirical sciences and, even though Empiricism as a philosophical theory of knowledge was considered dead after David Hume (1711-1776) exposed its inherent contradictions, empiricism continues to be to popular epistemology as Newtonian mechanics is to baseball, billiards and bowling - fundamentally flawed but utterly useful. Though Locke never used the term Blank Slate, which can be traced as far back as Aristotle (384–322 BCE), the fit was too good to ignore and Blank Slate it became, finding its way into and dominating 20th century humanistic psychology and educational theory.

My first presumed quarrel with Pinker is on page 6. He writes, "During the past century the doctrine of the Blank Slate has set the agenda for much of the social sciences and humanities." If that is the case, I might agree it is not a good thing, but I must be convinced of that. I suspect Pinker is setting up a straw man so he can knock it down. More on that in a future post.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

An Obaminable Easter Message

A*bom`i*na"tion, n. [OE.
abominacioun, -cion, F. abominatio. See
Abominate.] 1. The feeling of extreme disgust
and hatred; abhorrence; detestation; loathing; as, he holds tobacco in

2. That which is abominable; anything hateful,
wicked, or shamefully vile
; an object or state that excites disgust and
hatred; a hateful or shameful vice; pollution.

Antony, most large in his abominations.


3. A cause of pollution or wickedness.

Syn. -- Detestation; loathing; abhorrence; disgust; aversion;
loathsomeness; odiousness. Sir W. Scott.

From the 1913 Webster Unabridged Dictionary -- copied from

The word abomination is overused in Christian circles, but I think it aptly describes the interweaving of Passover/Easter with self-congratulation in President Obama's April 3 weekly address. The President's slide from exaltation to banality begins as he praises the "peace of mind" that comes from working for a paycheck and touts his administration's reversal of the "devastating slide" of the economic crisis of the last eighteen months.

Thou Art Covered

"Our health is the rock upon which our lives are built." No, this is not a modern translation of Jesus' words in response to Peter's Confession: "You are the messiah, the son of God." It is President Obama's trite and inartful attempt to cast health care reform, for which I am grateful, as the Central Saving Act of his Presidency. Christians and Jews; Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims; atheists and believers alike should be equally disgusted by this crass blending of ecclesiastical and civil religion. Even the Clintons acknowledged, in answer to Harry and Louise, that "we're all going to die." No health care system can change that fact and I, for one, hope I shall be remembered for more than my reasonable copays and eyecare coverage.

Ecclesiastical religion has its pitfalls: it provides cover for unspeakable crimes by trusted shepherds; it entices the faithful into a fantasy world and away from the liberating discoveries of science. Civil religion is fraught with danger as well: it relegates those who see no relationship between god and country to second-class citizenship and harnesses religious bigotry to justify acts of intolerance and agression. But this sloppy stew of priggish platitudes should offend sacred and secular sensibilities alike.

One can hope or pray, as one chooses, that President Obama will spare those who actually listen to his weekly addresses any further displays of this sort. They insult the people and cheapen his image.