Of Course Someoneís At Home - Grandma,
the Wolf and a Boojum
A Reply to ĎSomeone's at Home - This is Goodí by Nikolas Lloyd
by David Large
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The Great Blank Slate Debate page
First Iíd like to thank Nikolas for making
such a full reply. Perhaps he, and you the reader, will forgive me if I seem to
have been a bit mean-spirited to Steven Pinker - at least heís had a go. Then
again he is a great big Professor, in a huge University, with an absolutely
massive amount of research, and fabulous databases at his disposal, who tours
the world to great acclaim selling millions of books etc, etc, etc. I, in sharp
contrast, am only a moderately paid charity sector worker with a couple of
philosophy degrees and some Russian novels in translation.
For the sake of clarity I should point out that my piece was
not, and was never meant to be, an academic paper, suitable for an academic
journal. It was, however, aimed at a certain academic attitude that treats the
latest ideas as the only ideas, and that steamrollers over the objections of
non-academics, no matter how crazy these latest ideas may be.
While I donít believe Nikolas holds this attitude there are a
lot of things in his paper that I just flat disagree with. Here I will address a
couple of these issues before moving on to discuss a couple of Nikolasís points
where I see some room for manoeuvre.
One thing I must insist on is that very intelligent people
often do hold very stupid beliefs; or, to put it another way, being a very
intelligent person doesnít stop you from saying and doing very stupid things. As
my Grandma said to me, Ďnever listen to an expert off their subjectí.
Another thing I insist on is that data is just data. It
doesnít matter how much you have of it, it doesnít turn into something else or
acquire new properties; itís still just data. No one should be impressed simply
by the amount of data gathered nor by the number of citations listed. Size is
Science, especially non-physical science, works by
persuasion. It attempts to explain by description why a particular theory is a
correct theory. It is no secret that in this way it is radically
underdetermined. Like syntax and semantics, no matter how much evidential
description is presented this alone can never constitute an explanation. There
is a qualitative difference between the two.
With respect to others, the job of the scientist is to
present, explain and persuade while all the time knowing that it just takes one
piece of genuine disconfirming evidence, Popperís black swan, and the whole show
is over. Pinker, to my mind, fails miserably to do this while remaining very
popular. Richard Dawkins, memes excepted, seems to do this very well while
provoking ire and dislike. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher, seems to get things
What I talked about before, but didnít say explicitly, was
that I think Pinkerís ĎThe Blank Slateí has good bits and bad bits. That said,
the good bits are enormously derivative, and the bad bits are quite mad.
Listening to, and reading about, Pinker discussing his book and his thoughts
only reinforces this impression, hence the piece.
This doesnít mean that when Pinker debates with others he
always loses. Indeed, to my mind, when in the company of other scientists and
journalists he very often comes out on top. Does this mean that what Iím saying
is that all scientists are mad but Pinker isnít quite as mad as the rest? No, at
least thatís not my belief. Does this mean then that while Pinker has read some
philosophy the others have read none at all, and if only they all read lots of
philosophy then everything would be all right? No; while thatís closer to what I
believe, it isnít what Iím saying either.
My position is much more like that of Dennett who says that
the role of philosophers is to clarify and unify the sciences. While I
wholeheartedly subscribe to the clarificatory role of philosophy Iím not so sure
that philosophers can, or should presume to, unify the sciences or anything
else. On the other hand, there is a notion that once something is clarified it
can be agreed and once everyone agrees about it, then it seems reasonable to say
that it has been unified.
Looking at our debate about evolutionary psychology, one
thing that just isnít clear to me is the enormous emphasis on our Stone Age
ancestors. This approach seems to run on the worst sort of genetic determinism;
roughly, once we find out, in space and time, where our genes came from then we
can know what we are and why we are like we are, on the basis of what we were
and what things were like when these genes came into being. Well surely, to give
one example, this sort of argument would hold that anything with wheels is a
standing stone transporter!
Worse, it invites the following sort of regression: To know
about the Present Age look at the Stone Age. To know about the Stone Age look at
the Mud Age. To know about the Mud Age look at the Amphibious Age, and so on.
Philosophers would settle for this being an infinite regression and reject it as
truly explanatory on that basis. Empirical scientists wonít like this
legerdemain so letís take it back to - To know about the creation of the
Universe look at the Sub-Sub-Atomic Particle Age. This Age may only last a
million-billionth of a second but bear in mind that this was all the time in the
world. And then of course, the bell tolls, or clangs rather - This is just what
physicalist, materialist, empiricist scientists do! But, with regard to human
nature etc, this isnít any sort of explanation at all.
So it looks like, either way, evolutionary psychologists are
hoist on their own petard. They have here either an infinite regress, or they
end up trying to explain behaviour in terms of something ludicrously
quantitatively remote and qualitatively distinct, or both.
And then you see what happens when philosophers play
Dennettís clarificatory role. The people youíre trying to help, the scientists
and psychologists, feel insulted, take umbrage, and choose to ignore
philosophers and their presumptious ilk. Once this has happened just about the
best you can hope for is books like the Blank Slate! As my Grandma said to me,
Ďno good turn goes unpunishedí.
Now, in their discussions of human nature, freewill etc
philosophers often bring into play the notion of the person. In particular, it
seems useful to introduce the notion of the person to help find a way out of the
maze of genetic reductionism, including questions about Ďgenes forí and
From what Nikolas has written Iím not sure that he has
understood Ďpersoní to be the loaded philosopherís term of art that it is. What
the notion of person is certainly not is the commonplace usage meaning roughly
Ďyou thereí nor is it in any way a noun for a strictly defined object to be
treated by the methods of empirical science.
The notion of a person says something like when something is
in such a position within a society, a culture, an economy, a political system,
a discourse, a set of facilities, and, yes, a certain maturity, then there arise
certain considerations for that something. These considerations involve rights,
responsibilities, freedoms, sensibilities, aesthetics, political inclinations,
and, yes, material and intellectual resources. It is these considerations that
go towards making up dispositions and choices for that person.
Simply looking at the physical and genetic make up misses all
this out. If you choose to ignore this situation, if you choose to dismiss these
considerations, or replace them with something else, then you throw the baby
out with the bath water. On this view, human nature and dispositions do not
reduce below the level of the person.
No one is saying that you have to accept this view. What I am
saying is that if you want to reduce things below this level you have to a) come
up with some reasons and arguments for what you are doing and b) show why this,
the generally accepted view, is wrong. It seems to me that neither Pinker nor
Nikolas have done this.
The news that many empirical scientists deny that there is
such a thing as human nature is truly alarming indeed. I have given above one
argument why this may be. Put simply, whether they know it or not, human nature
is not something that falls within the scope of their enquiry. Bear in mind that
thereís nothing to stop very clever people saying very stupid things. Okay so
Pinker wants to argue against these people - Yes, this is good news. It may go a
long way to explaining why when I hear Pinker debating with such people I find
his comments comparatively reasonable and sane. It is how Pinker presents his
own views and his arguments for these views that is the problem. And, Nikolas,
telling me that things are worse than I thought doesnít make things better
What Pinker does is assume that the person-centred view is
wrong, a non-starter, and talks about the sorts of things he thinks are right.
In doing this he does more than many others but nevertheless walks straight into
a whole set of long discussed philosophical arguments which, I am sorry to say,
he appears to be woefully equipped to deal with. Now, okay, itís his book. He
can say what he likes, how he likes, and maybe he doesnít want to write a
philosophy book. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see these longstanding
positions acknowledged. If he then wishes to dismiss them out of hand then
thatís up to him. It seems that Nikolas is in a very similar position.
Further, it is not sufficient to say that Pinkerís books are
popular works, as if the real arguments are to be found elsewhere. That they are
positioned in the popular genre of course means they are fair game for
journalists and commentators. And if these journalists and commentators take up
stupid positions then who is to blame - the journalists and commentators for
reading and remembering what the books say, or the author, whoever they may be,
for withholding the true, sensible, positions?
Having said all that, let me make it clear that I have no
personal animus toward Professor Pinker. Indeed, earlier this year, I very much
enjoyed listening to him and his musical selections on Radio 3ís Private
Passions: Oliver Nelson - Now, Steven, youíre talkiní!
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