How the Mind Works

by: Steven Pinker, read in 2011

12 "A common man marvels at uncommon things; a wise man marvels at the commonplace." – Confucius
21 "The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural slection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people." I'll accept this as a definition of 'mind'.
21 The "" are unfounded and I disagree with them.
24 "The brain's special status comes from a special thing the brain does, which makes us see, think, feel, choose, and act. That special thing is information processing, or computation." Unwarranted assumption. Compare to a smart phone.
24 " ...the computational theory of mind ... is one of the great ideas in intellectual history, for it solves one of the puzzles that make up the "mind-body problem": how to connect the ethereal world of meaning and intention, the stuff of our mental lives, with a physical hunk of matter like the brain." Not so fast. It doesn't explain this "ethereal world" in which "knowing" and "wanting" exist. Knowing and wanting are not computational entities.
25 "The computational theory of mind resolves the paradox. It says that beliefs and desires are information, incarnated as configurations of symbols." No, it does not resolve the paradox. Beliefs and desires are (or may be encoded as) information, but they are NOT knowing and wanting. The "incarnation" of them is left unexplained.
25 Handwaving mumbo-jumbo mis-using the term 'bit'. In one case he means "chips...or neurons" and later he says they "constitute a symbol". The transformation of symbolic representation of "beliefs and desires" cannot explain the conscious act of knowing or wanting. Does the appearance of "orange juice" on a grocery list prove that the grocery list "wants" orange juice? Hardly.
26 "That [variety of animal mentality] does not imply, of course, that the brain is irrelevant to understanding the mind!" True. But it may be just as irrelevant as are the transistors and circuit patterns in understanding a smart phone.
31 "Our physical organs owe their complex design to the information in the human genome, and so, I believe, do our mental organs." The former is far from being established. The genome codes for the specification of protein molecules, not – so far as we understand now – for the organization and development of these into organs. So the latter is an unfounded belief.
31 The fact that a function is not learned does not imply that it is encoded in the genome. It could have been designed – just like the functions of a computer/program.
33 "But learning ... does not happen by magic. It is made possible by innate machinery designed to do the learning." OK. But "designed" by whom?
34 "And for this reason, the relative importance of innateness and learning is a phony issue." Yes. And it is a straw man used by Pinker to obscure my previous question.
36 "How the genes control brain development is still unknown," True.
36 "but a reasonable summary of what we know so far is that brain modules assume their identity by a combination of what kind of tissue they start out as, where they are in the brain, and what patterns of triggering input they get during critical periods in development." True: that is a reasonable summary of what is known so far. But it is woefully incomplete and inadequate. It is equivalent to explaining how a car assumes its identity by a combination of the material used in its parts, where the parts are located in the car, and what patterns of activity occurred on the production and assembly lines. The most obvious and critical component is completely missing and ignored, viz. the designer.
36 "Our organs of computation are a product of natural selection." The strategy of repeating this unfounded assumption grows tiresome.
40 "The human mind is a product of evolution" Tedious. So are cars and computers.
42 "... the generator of behavior: the package of information-processing and goal-pursuing mechanisms called the mind." Woefully inadequate description; it leaves out conscious experience.
47 "The debate over human nature has been muddied by an intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to make moral arguments when moral issues come up. Rather than reasoning from principles of rights and values, the tendency has been to buy an off-the-shelf moral package (generally New Left or Marxist) or to lobby for a feel-good picture of human nature that would spare us from having to argue moral issues at all." I agree.
47 Interesting (mis)characterization of Leftwing/Right Wing dichotomy.
54 "Science is guaranteed to appear to eat away at the will, regardless of what it finds, because the scientific mode of explanation cannot accommodate the mysterious notion of uncaused causation that underlies the will. If scientists wanted to show that people had free will, what would they look for? Some random behavior? But a random event does not fit the concept of free will any more than a lawful one does, and could not serve as the long-sought locus of moral responsibility." The "randomness" may only be apparent with the true cause remaining unknown. That's what I think is the case.
55 "The science game treats people as material objects, and its rules are the physical processes that cause behavior through natural selection and neurophysiology. The ethics game treats people as equivalent, sentient, rational, free-willed agents, and its rules are the calculus that assigns moral value to behavior through the behavior's inherent nature or its consequences." So what are these "agents"?! Without the agent, there is no ethics.
55 "Free will is an idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable. Euclidean geometry requires idealizations like infinite straight lines and perfect circles, and its deductions are sound and useful even though the world does not really have infinite straight lines or perfect circles." Good point. In my view, the idea of individual sentient human beings is an idealization in Pinker's sense. In reality, human beings are vehicles being driven by the only real sentience, and that sentience experiences the illusion, during episodes when a human body is being "driven", that individual humans are sentient.
56 "The mechanistic stance allows us to understand what makes us tick and how we fit into the physical universe. When those discussions wind down for the day, we go back to talking about each other as free and dignified human beings." How convenient! And after "winding down" and the humanness separates from the body during sleep, you have no explanation of what the "free dignified human being" really is.
57 "...the dichotomy between "in nature" and "socially constructed" shows a poverty of the imagination, because it omits a third alternative: that some categories are products of a complex mind designed to mesh with what is in nature." This is the same advice I gave you, Pinker, commenting on pages 31 and 36.
62 "Intelligence, then, is the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules."
62 Behaviorism discredited.
63 Knowing and wanting; beliefs and desires, and their roles in "intuitive psychology"
69 "...the feature of commercial computers that is most starkly unbiological [is] the ordered list of programming steps that the computer follows single-mindedly, one after another." I disagree. The gene is an ordered list, processed sequentially to assemble protein molecules. That is ubiquitously and "starkly" biological.
71 "The system wants to know whether Gordie is its biological uncle." Hardly. It is the user of the system who wants to know.
76 "What have we accomplished? We have built a system out of lifeless gumball-machine parts that did something vaguely mindlike: it deduced the truth of a statement that it had never entertained before." Yes, but it is only equivalent to, and no better than, Searles' Chinese Room. It is only "vaguely" mindlike because there is no conscious experience. It may mimic a mind, but it is neither mind nor "mindlike".
76 "...the machinery was crafted so that if the interpretation of the symbols that trigger the machine is a true statement, then the interpretation of the symbols created by the machine is also a true statement. The computational theory of mind is the hypothesis that intelligence is computation in this sense." This is a theory of intelligence (albeit inadequate by his definition) but not a theory of mind. The latter would need to explain conscious experience.
77 "...we need not assume that the computation is made up of a sequence of discrete steps," Really? It seems that there is an awfully lot of serial searching of those memories going on in his example.
77 "The key idea is that the answer to the question "What makes a system smart?" is not the kind of stuff it is made of or the kind of energy flowing through it, but what the parts of the machine stand for and how the patterns of changes inside it are designed to mirror truth-preserving relationships (including probabilistic and fuzzy truths)." That may be "the key idea" of how intelligence works, but the key (title) question is how the mind works. This isn't even addressed.
77 "Why should you buy the computational theory of mind? Because it has solved millennia-old problems in philosophy, kicked off the computer revolution, posed the significant questions of neuroscience, and provided psychology with a magnificently fruitful research agenda." I disagree. None of these would have happened without conscious awareness and willful action. Neither is explained by the computational theory.
78 "...computation has finally demystified mentalistic terms." Yes, some mentalistic terms. But not "knowing", "wanting", or "conscious experience".
78 "...we'll get to consciousness later in the chapter." Fair enough; I'll wait.
83 Typical conflation of "mind" and "brain".
90 It isn't clear that all "mentalese" functions occur in the brain. Yes, the mentalese traffic appears there, just as TV picture information appears in a TV set. But the TV program, and I think the mental concepts, originate and reside outside the device – TV or brain. The hippocampus may be the antenna circuit for the brain.
97 Pinker's critique of Penrose's "The Emperor's New Mind".
97 "One big problem is that the gifts Penrose attributes to his idealized mathematician are not possessed by real-life mathematicians, such as the certainty that the system of rules being relied on is consistent. Another is that quantum effects almost surely cancel out in nervous tissue. A third is that microtubules are ubiquitous among cells and appear to play no role in how the brain achieves intelligence. A fourth is that there is not even a hint as to how consciousness might arise from quantum mechanics." In my view, these problems, big as they are, are smaller than those that arise from the computational theory of mind.
114 "Raw connectopasm has trouble with five feats of everyday thinking." 1. Individuality, 2. Compositionality, 3. Quantification, 4. Recursion, 5. Creation of rule systems.
124 "...nature gave us one memory system for each requirement: an "episodic" or autobiographical memory, and a "semantic" or generic-knowledge memory,"
124 "Just as an ability to add 1 to a number bestows the ability to generate an infinite set of numbers, the ability to embed a proposition inside another proposition bestows the abilty to think an infinite number of thoughts." Careless and erroneous premise and inference. – All too common.
125 "In computer science and psycholinguistics, ...[e]ach simple structure (for a person, an action, a proposition, and so on) is represented in long-term memory once, and a processor shuttles its attention from one structure to another, storing the itinerary of visits in short-term memory to thread the proposition together. This dynamic processor, called a recursive transition network, is especially plausible for sentence understanding, because we hear and read words one at a time rather than inhaling an entire sentence at once." The "shuttling of attention" deserves more scrutiny.
129 "Like many issues surrounding the mind, the debate over connectionism is often cast as a debate between innateness and learning." How about Socrates' suggestion of remembering?
131 Consciousness
132 "Consciousness presents us with puzzle after puzzle. How can a neural event cause consciousness to happen? What good is consciousness? That is, what does the raw sensation of redness add to the train of billiard-ball events taking place in our neural computers?" My answers: 1. By providing a communication link between the brain and the One. 2. To allow the One to willfully act in the world. 3. It allows the act of knowing to descend into the world. All these have parallels in a Mars rover.
132 "And if consciousness is useless—if a creature without it could negotiate the world as well as a creature with it—why would natural selection have favored the conscious one?" It is not useless. The Mars rover in communication with JPL is better able to negotiate Mars than one that is not.
134 Three different definitions of 'consciousness'
146 "I have some prejudices, but no idea of how to begin to look for a defensible answer [to the question of sentience]. And neither does anyone else. The computational theory of mind offers no insight; neither does any finding in neuroscience, once you clear up the usual confusion of sentience with access and self-knowledge."
147 "How can a book called How the Mind Works evade the responsibility of explaining where sentience comes from?" How indeed?!!
147 "Many thinkers, such as Dennett, conclude that worrying about them is simply flaunting one's confusion: sentient experiences (or, as philosophers call them, qualia) are a cognitive illusion." And exactly who or what is deceived by the illusion?!!
147 "Once we have isolated the computational and neurological correlates of access-consciousness, there is nothing left to explain. It's just irrational to insist that sentience remains unexplained after all the manifestations of sentience have been accounted for, just because the computations don't have anything sentient in them." Well then call me irrational. In my opinion Dennett and his ilk contribute absolutely nothing of value to the discussion. The only really interesting question remains: How do we explain qualia?
147 "Most people are uncomfortable with the argument, but it is not easy to find anything wrong with it." What's wrong with it is that it doesn't answer the question. Duh!!
148 "But saying that we have no scientific explanation of sentience is not the same as saying that sentience does not exist at all." I agree. The question needs an answer.
155 "The fallacy that intelligence is some exalted ambition of evolution is part of the same fallacy that treats it as a divine essence or wonder tissue or all-encompassing mathematical principle. The mind is an organ, a biological gadget. We have our minds because their design attains outcomes whose benefits outweighed the costs in the lives of Plio-Pleistocene African primates." The fallacy of this book is the conflation of brain and mind; of intelligence and consciousness.
155 "Natural selection has a special place in science because it alone explains what makes life special." An arrogant erroneous statement. What makes life special is consciousness. Natural selection provides no explanation. We should consider Natural selection to be incomplete. There must be something more.
174 "Anything that showed signs of design but did not come from a long line of replicators could not be explained by—in fact, would refute—the theory of natural selection:" I think the DNA code is such an example.
176 "But could the selection of random variants really improve the design of a nervous system? Or would the variants crash it, like a corrupted byte in a computer program, and the selection merely preserve the systems that do not crash?" IMHO the latter.
182 Typo: Should be "ephemeris"
215 "Any retinal image, then, could have been produced by an infinite number of arrangements of three-dimensional surfaces in the world" Wrong! An example of the all-too-common abuse of the word 'infinite'.
219 Wheatstone discovered stereo vision in 1835
241 "Though stereo vision develops in childhood and is sensitive to experience, it is not insightfully described as "learned" or as "a mixture of nature and nurture"; the development is part of an assembly schedule and the sensitivity to experience is a circumscribed intake of information by a structured system." He overlooks the possibility that that "structured system" just might reside outside the brain.
243 Bayes' Theorem
329 "Mental states are invisible and weightless. Philosophers define them as "a relation between a person and a proposition." The relation is an attitude like belives-that, desires-that, hopes-that, pretends-that. The proposition is the content of the belief, something very roughly like the meaning of a sentence..."
329 "The content of a belief lives in a different realm from the facts of the world."
386 Some phobias
420 "No one knows what, if anything, grief is for."
433 The "evil" stepparent
448 The 5 personality variables: 1. extroversion-introversion, 2. neuroticism-stability, 3. agreeableness-antagonism, 4. conscienciousness-undirectedness, 5. openness-nonopenness.
448 "Much of the variation in personality—about fifty percent—has genetic causes."
448 "Being brought up in one home versus another accounts, at most, for five percent of the differences among people in personality."
449 "No one knows where the other forty-five percent of the variation comes from."
453 "The historian Frank Sulloway has argued that the elusive nongenetic component of personality is a set of strategies to compete with siblings for parental investment, and that is why children in the same family are so different."
492 The errors of Feminism
497 ""Cultures of honor" spring up when a rapid response to a threat is essential because one's wealth can be carried away by others. They develop amng herders, whose animals can be stolen, more often than among crop-growers, whose land stays put."
508 Mao Tse-tung in his little red book: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend.""
510 "In foraging societies, men go to war to get or keep women..."
511 Biblical advice on how to conduct a war: kill the men; keep the women.
518 "Slavery, harem-holding despots, colonial conquest, blood feuds, women as property, institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism, child labor, apartheid, fascism, Stalinism, Leninism, and war have vanished from expanses of the word that had suffered them for decades, centuries, or millennia. The homicide rates in the most vicious American urban jungles are twenty times lower than in many foraging societies. Modern Britons are twenty times less likely to be murdered than their medieval ancestors."
518 "If the brain has not changed over the centuries, how can the human condition have improved? Part of the answer, I think, is that literacy, knowledge, and the exchange of ideas have undermined some kinds of exploitation." Yes! Now we need to better understand "knowledge".
523 "What is it about the mind that lets people take pleasure in shapes and colors and sounds and jokes and stories and myths? That question might be answerable,..."
525 "Given that the mind is a product of natural selection, it should not have a miraculous ability to commune with all truths; it should have a mere ability to solve problems that are sufficiently similar to the mundane survival challenges of our ancestors." Yet we have that ability! Therefore, the premise must be false!
558 Baffling questions about consciousness. I have answers to these.
558 Baffling questions about the self. I have answers to these.
558 Baffling questions about free will. I have answers to these.
559 Questions about meaning, knowledge, and morality.
My summary of the book: Pinker presents a story that almost exactly parallels the story told by Dean Wooldridge in Mechanical Man which I read as a young man. Wooldridge claimed that man was nothing more than a machine. His book methodically went through the various aspects of man pointing out how each one was nothing but a mechanical function. All the while I was reading it, I was wondering how he was going to deal with consciousness, which I was, and remain, convinced is not mechanical and not explainable by the physical world. He dealt with consciousness in the last chapter, and there he dodged the question by saying that since all other aspects of humanity have mechanical explanations, sooner or later a mechanical explanation of consciousness will be discovered. (The last sentence of Wooldridge's book is still burned in my memory. He wrote, "A man who knows that he is a machine should be able to bring more objectivity to bear on his problems than a machine that thinks it is a man.")
Pinker claims that the mind has been constructed by natural selection processes and he methodically goes through the various aspects of mind showing how evolutionary theory provides a plausible explanation for the emergence of each of those aspects. Again, I read the book eager to learn how he was going to explain consciousness that way. I didn't, and still don't, think it can. Sure enough, he left consciousness to the very end and instead of providing an explanation, he ended his book by admitting that he couldn't explain consciousness, the self, free will, meaning, knowledge, or morality.
In my opinion, this book adds nothing important, and ends at the same dead end as Wooldridge's book. I remain convinced that if we posit that the important mental functions—his list of six: consciousness, the self, free will, meaning, knowledge, and morality—are not resident in, nor are they a product of, the brain, then we could deduce a plausible explanation of those functions. I agree with Descartes: the mind consists of very different stuff than the brain. The body-with-brain is like a Mars rover-with-onboard computers whereas consciousness, the self, etc. are like the JPL scientists who drive the rover and who literally exist in a different world. Using this analogy, except for the communication link to another world, Pinker explains the functions of the on-board-computers in the rover. But he has nothing to say about, nor does he even acknowledge the existence of, the scientists at JPL. It is in, and only in, these scientists where we find the hope, dreams, wants, desires, willful choices, knowledge, meaning, joy, disappointment, and now even grief associated with the rover.

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