So I reached the end (with only minimal skipping) of Pinker's excellent book 'How The Mind Works'. Throughout, he explains that the mind (like the body) is a system of modules, which have been designed by natural selection, over time. The heart is a pump, the eyes sophisticated cameras and the brain is a computer designed to process information. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, and I would say that he's absolutely correct in almost everything he writes.
But when it comes to his final chapter on the meaning of life, Pinker throws a spanner into the works and declares that there are just some things we may not have the computational abilities to understand:
Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with. If these conjectures are correct, our psyche would present us with the ultimate tease. The most undeniable thing there is, our own awareness, would be forever beyond our conceptual grasp. But if our minds are part of nature, that is to be expected, even welcomed. The natural would evokes our awe by the specialised designs of its creatures and their parts. We don't poke fun at the eagle for its clumsiness on the ground or fret that the eye is not very good at hearing, because we know that a design can excel at one challenge only by compromising at others. Our bafflement at the mysteries of the ages may have been the price we paid for a combinatorial mind that opened up a world of words and sentences, of theories and equations, of poems and melodies, of jokes and stories, the very things that make a mind worth having.
And here I absolutely disagree. History has shown that the human brain is quite capable of things which our ancestors couldn't even have imagined (like sending probes out to the far reaches of the solar-system) and given enough time of peaceful productivity (with no catastrophic natural disasters) our species would have a very good chance of solving any and all of the major questions that face us. It is funny that Pinker quotes Ecclesiastes:
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to love, and a time to hate.
Because in a recent post on Ecclesiastes, I quoted this:
You must have noticed that no modern romantic who quotes this passage (“For every time there is a season…”) ever quotes the conclusion to the passage: “What's the point of bothering with anything, since the ceaseless round is ceaseless?”
And that is exactly my criticism of Pinker's book. How can you so fully explain the mind and human behaviour and then just stop short? Everything is pointless, really is just the logical conclusion. Funny that both Dennett and Pinker preach a similar philosophy of evolution and its impact on human being, but just can't quite find it in themselves to say "everything is pointless"...
Finally, I present one last quote from 'How The Mind Works' which sums up my entire attitude towards the arts (something Pinker spends some time discussing - concluding that most of it is a kind of stimulant for the brain):
Anyone who lived through the craze for Indian raga music after George Harrison made it hip in the 1960s appreciates that musical styles vary from culture to culture and that people most enjoy the idioms they grew up with. (During the Concert for Bangladesh, Harrison was mortified when the audience applauded Ravi Shankar for tuning up his sitar.)
One man's untuned sitar is another man's groovy tune. Get me off this ride, they're all fucking insane...Go Top