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Review:How the Mind Works

Hemos posted more than 15 years ago | from the the-hypothalamus-the-frontal-lobes dept.

Science 236

Janice Wright has been gracious enough to send us a review of Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. Obviously not a programmming manual (well, perhaps more then we want to think. Hmm.), this is an insightful book into the little that is known about how the human brain functions. Click below if you like your grey matter.

Book reviews often start "If you only read one book this year...", but considering the slashdot readership, I'll amend that to: "If you only read one non-fiction book not published by O'Reilly this year, this one would be a good choice." The second chapter is about computers, and the second to last chapter is about sex, so a geek's gotta love it.

Though to be honest, the computer bits aren't terribly technical. They focus on the computational theory of the mind, and how as a theory, it gives us a useful, but woefully incomplete understanding of the human mind. There is, however, a fascinating technical explanation of stereo vision and how stereograms (magic-eye pictures) work, why some people can't see them, and a great explanation of how to do the trick with your eyes that you need to see them - the stereogram in the book is the first one I've ever been able to see, and it's almost worth the cover price just for that.

Reading Stephen Pinker, I always get the impression that his style comes from years of trying to keep his first-year university psychology class awake on a Monday morning at 9am. He does this with a combination of some very challenging ideas and highly entertaining writing.

In the first chapter, he makes the somewhat radical claim that innate biology has an equal, if not greater role than culture in shaping our desires, thoughts, and actions. He then spends the next 500 pages convincing us with a combination of well reasoned arguments and the results of rigorous scientific studies. He is, however, careful to remind us regularly of the limits of scientific enquiry, and of how much we still don't know "Virtually nothing is known about the functioning microcircuitry of the human brain, because there is a shortage of volunteers willing to give up their brains to science before they are dead." (p. 184)

His main thrust throughout much of the book is to debunk the "natural = good" equation that is quoted to so often these days. Aggressiveness, for instance, especially in male humans, is 'natural' in the sense that it was once adaptive (i.e. a trait that allowed it's organism to reproduce more successfully). Aggressiveness, is therefore 'natural' to male humans. This doesn't mean that men "can't help" being aggressive, or that men who beat their wives are somehow not at fault because it is "in their genes". As Pinker puts it:

"...happiness and virtue have nothing to do with what natural selection designed us to accomplish in the ancestral environment. They are for us to determine. In saying this, I am no hypocrite even though I am a conventional straight white male. Well into my procreating years I am, so far, voluntarily childless, having squandered my biological resources reading and writing, doing research, helping out friends, and jogging in circles, ignoring the solemn imperative to spread my genes. By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic looser, not one iota less than if I were a card-carrying member of Queer Nation. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake."
Having explained how the brain thinks and how the eyes see, he goes on to consider how the capacity for emotion may have been adaptive (and therefore selected for) in our early evolution, and starts with a great example: "the yuck factor". We get a very cool theory of why we find certain things disgusting, why what's considered disgusting is highly cultural, and why the thing that elicits the strongest "yuck factor" response is food.

The first six chapters have covered key aspects of the human condition:

Chapter 1: The Standard Equipment talks about how the brain is wired
Chapter 2: Thinking Machines covers the "human mind as computer" and the computational theory of the mind
Chapter 3: Revenge of the Nerds explains Pinker's theory of how early humans prospered by exploiting what he calls the "cognitive niche"
Chapter 4: The Mind's Eye explains the role that vision, and in particular colour, stereo vision as one of the factors that allowed humans to evolve such prodigious brain-power
Chapter 5: Good Ideas is about how we use logic, comparison, and statistics in interpersonal relationships
Chapter 6: Hotheads deals with the gamut of human emotions from altruism to envy

All this has laid the groundwork for the second to last chapter, which he calls "Family Values". Some theories in the social sciences claim that people are born as virtually "blank slates" and that their upbringing, socialisation, education, etc. accounts for the way they 'turn out'. Criminality, substance abuse, and even the more petty human failings such as greed and vanity are assumed to have psychological underpinnings that come from one's childhood experiences. Pinker claims instead that some parts of the 'dark side' of being human is genetically encoded. He emphasises that this does not in any way excuse anti-social behaviour, but is simply another way of looking at what our conscience is up against when we feel the urge to take the credit for another's idea, sneak onto the subway without paying, help ourselves to the larger piece of cake, or cheat on our partner.

It's a long book, and it may take a little perserverence to get though it, but it's worth the effort because Pinker's ideas are interesting, challenging, and thought provoking. I don't agree with everything he says, and I think he sometimes over-simplifies an example to the point where it's no longer valid. Often, I found myself thinking "But human being are more complicated than that!" when he was explaining some facet of modern human behaviour in terms of the selection pressures of hunter-gatherers on the savannah. But all-in-all it is well worth reading. And at the end of it either you'll be able to see stereograms or you'll know exactly why you can't. To pick this book, head over to Amazon.

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Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923046)

Actually, It does- I have read this book, and it talks about the phenomenon of running amok. Amok is a papua New Guini(sp) word for going crazy and killing everyone in sight.

Very good book, I highly recommend it.

Disecting the trenchcoats (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923047)

Perhaps the desire to be associated with a socially unacceptable underground movement - and progressing from there. (h/p/a/v culture is perhaps the same phsychology?)

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923048)

Of course they shot themselves at the end.

Doesn't seem to be a reproductively motivated act....

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923049)

Try explaining the young men's suicides. Suicide is not explainable (as far as I know) through evolutionary psychology. If these young men were only following the pattern of agression to acquire the opportunity for mating, then it would follow that they would have raped some of the girls to garner what they couldn't get before. I do agree that the whole "jocks get the girls" factor was a real influence, but humans are much more complicated than a set of contemporary psychological theories to rationalize this horrible event as "natural".

Mind != brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923050)

How much more time will it take mankind to realize the mind is not the brain?

Lets hope the 19th century psychology "science" doesn't carry us too far into the new century.

Mind != brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923051)

I'm off the opinion the brain is a nerve control center that you use to operate your body. The mind is your recording of everything you've ever done. It is /you/ that reviews the mind's storage, move the body about and actually make the decisions.

IMO, The brain is probally the second most over-hyped piece of meat man has ever gotten involved with :)

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923052)

One thing I've been wondering is why these mass school
murders generally seem to occur in small towns. In places
like LA or NY, you see killings due to gang rivalries, but you
don't seem to see nut cases killing strangers. Anyone care
to offer an explanation?

Pinker and Black Parrot are not birds of a feather (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923053)

I saw Pinker give a speech a few months ago. The entire speech demonstrated all of the testable hypotheses his theory had, and the statistical data to back it up.

For instance, his theory on irregular grammar, such as irregular verbs, was backed up by extensive statistics and cross language studies.

His theory is very appealing and accounts for data that doesn't fit, like General Relativity accounts for the orbit of Mercury.

If you've got some credentials and some counterarguments to Pinker's theory, present them, don't just sit back and call someone's theory bogus without giving a counter argument.

Who the hell are you anyway? What is your background? Where are your published papers?

Looking in from outside of the box (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923054)

For sake of discussion, assume

me/you == spiritual entity

mind == collection of pictures you've carried for

brain == the control center for the current body you are amusing yourself with (massively overrated)

Those are the givens I opened this thread on.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923055)

I think it's the students having cars. At the city schools I'm familiar with (in Rochester, New York) parking is scarce, and most families can't afford cars for their kids. I can't imagine any of these trenchcoat brains loading up with a long gun, several handguns, pipe bombs and other weapons and walking down a busy street, or getting on a city or school bus, and getting very far. In the 'burbs, load up your BMW and drive right up to the door.
The opposing, NRA approved viewpoint is that the students in the city schools would have been carrying also, and would have been able to return fire.
GeorgeH, trying not to be an AC

Ahh...a Functionalist ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923056)

Damn it, not the Chinese Room AGAIN...
Look, this is relatively simple.
By Searle's argument, the man inside the room just has a lookup table in his book. That is, if he gets "squiggle", he outputs "squaggle", always. Searle is absolutely correct in saying that that man doesn't understand anything; unfortunately, this picture has nothing to do with reality, since neither brains nor computers actually work this way.
Even if we fix Searle's analogy so that the man inside the room is running some sort of a program, all we have succeeded in doing is "proving" that HUMANS don't understand anything, either. The key idea here is that the entire system (man, room, program) understands Chinese, not any single one of its components.
A more modern objection to the CRA is that the brain (and the Internet) is a vast neural network, not just a single man running a program, and so the analogy does not hold.

On the right track, but ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923057)

Pinker's basic theory states that human intelligence
derives from multiple brain centers.
These in turn are adapted from earlier brain functions that may have been used differently.

Its an interesting hypothesis,
but is any of it testable to decide the truth
or falsehood.

Earlier book "Language Instinct" is better (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923058)

I recommend his other other book too.
I think it is less speculative than the brain book.

Compare and Contrast to Hofstadter anyone ?? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923059)

Pinker looks at the biological aspects of the minds
evolution, while Hofstader is from logic and Denner from philosophy.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923060)

I can't help but comment here. As a person who became a Christian through evidence concerning the divine origins of the Bible, I understand these comments about Creationism as a "cute story." However, it saddens and confuses me when I see discussions about a disproven theory: Evolution by means of natural selection. I know this is a little off the topic, but maybe it will add something to the whole discussion

Darwin's theory of evolution should result in several transitory fossils being found. That is, natural selection is a slow process, so as fish began to turn into land animals, there should be plenty of fossils of these fish/land animal hybrids. However, that is not the case.

Given the inherent problems with Darwin's theory, I do not see how it could be used to explain any human behavior without creating "a cute story" with no evidence to back the story up. Even more recent theories (e.g., punctuated equilibrum) are variations of natural selection.

However, I do see one connection between the Colorado incident and Darwin: racism. As the news agencies have reported, the boys were out to get minorities "and" jocks. Someone earlier posted the theory that the boys targeted jocks because the jocks were having sex and the boys were not. I guess this idea was supposed to fit into the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest (i.e., he who has the most offspring is the fittest). But how do minorities fit in? Is sex the answer there too?

As some people may know, the original title of Darwin's book was "On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." Darwin wrote that he envisioned the European race wiping out inferior, dark-skinned races. To see Darwin's views on this, you can see his entire book on-line at several sites.

While I'm rambling on this topic, I wanted to mention the connection to Hitler (and racism) since it was also stated that the boys committed the crime on Hitler's birthday. Hitler borrowed the concepts of eugenics (i.e., breeding human to possess certain traits or to eliminate certain traits) from America. I believe the person who first discussed eugenics in scientific terms was a Harvard professor by the name of Agassiz. Of course, Hitler took the conceps to a horrible new level.

Just some food for thought. I hope this adds to the discussion.

Philosophy in the Flesh (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923061)

"Philosophy in the Flesh" is $21.00 @ Amazon [] .

Cause: Gun control insanity. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923062)

Neither God nor I cares preciely what went on in the brains of the "Trenchcoat Mafia". It's obvious enough that the secular humanist rejection of life played a role, but that's not really important.

What matters is this: In a free society, the other students would have gunned those killers down almost immediately. This tragedy was caused by a coercive government that denied those students the right to defend themselves. Klinton and her husband are directly and personally responsible for this tragedy. The blood of these innocents is on their hands. The war crimes tribunal which eventually sentences them will be sure to take this crime into account.

How long must it be before the ocean of innocent blood shed by the liberals is acknowledged and justice is done? How long before the divinely-ordained sanctity of life is writ large in the blood of tyrants?

That's a joke? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923063)

Amok is a Vulcan word meaning "terminally horny".

True, but they got it from New Guinea or wherever.

intelligent?? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923064)

>In an AP article on yahoo; one one of them was quoted saying "I hate niggers" before firing his gun.

One of the most disturbing (to me) implications of explaining much of human behaviour through evolution is that racism is probably an evolutionary advantage for genes. People who look like you are more likely to have similar genes to you than those who don't. So killing those who don't look like you, once your niche is established, may work out to be advantageous for your genetic survival.

Evolutionary theory NOT disproven (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923065)

You could try correcting your ignorance of evolutionary biology by viewing the FAQs [] on the Talk.Origins website [] . And if you have further questions, rather than deciding that what you have read makes no sense therefore evolution is wrong, you can ask some of the regulars on the newsgroup [] . There's nothing more common than someone unwittingly misunderstanding something (not necessarily even their fault, it could just be poorly written or wrong), deciding it's nonsense, and never asking an actual expert to see if their understanding is correct.

Your claims about "missing transitional fossils" are quite common and quite wrong. I don't think they're addressed in any one place in the FAQs, but you can start with Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution [] and Observed Instances of Speciation [] .

As to the rest of your points: I think it's stupid to try to shoehorn human behavior into a Darwinian straitjacket, nor does evolutionary theory require human behavior to be dictated solely by evolved reactions to environmental pressures. However, it would be equally stupid to deny that biology can and does play a role in human behavior (e.g., hormonal influence of emotions), and those things often are related to evolutionary pressures.

Finally, those who advocate "social Darwinism" (such as wiping out "inferior" races) fundamentally misunderstand evolutionary theory, which does not proscribe morals nor even speak of "inferior". (It speaks of "less well adapted" species in the technical sense that they are poorer at reproduction.)

Incidentally, natural selection may not be the whole story when it comes to evolution; other mechanisms (such as self-organization as espoused by Kauffman) may play a role. As for the punctuated equilibrium you mention, you might want to see the FAQ on Punctuated Equilibrium [] since it is often misunderstood.

Cowards blame society (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923066)

Why is everyone afraid to hold parents accountable for kids having enough spare time on their hands to plot mass executions, assemble pipe bombs with timers in their own homes, and accumulate weapons and ammunition? Bill Clinton has done a wonderful job of teaching us all how to blame everyone else for anything we do wrong.

John Brunner, wasn't it? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923067)

"Stand on Zanzibar" by David Bruner

Haven't read it, though. Is it good? I last remember seeing it in bookstores around 1983 or 1984 . . . I was young at the time and, probably for no good reason aside from appearances, wrote it off as "boring pseudo-literary" (a.k.a. "British" :) SF, which I'd probably have more patience with nowadays. Then again, maybe not. IMHO SF which tries to make the grade by current "literary" standards is a massive foot-shooting excercise, since the great natural advantage of SF is that it doesn't have to fit that mold. IMHO/YMMV/std::disclaimer/etc.

Cowards blame Bill Clinton (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923068)

Standard anti-liberal accusations. It's just as simple-minded to blame "liberals" for the ills of society as it is to blame "society" for the crimes of individuals. (And I didn't see Bill Clinton telling people to blame society for what those kids did.) You're looking for a scapegoat just as much as you claim others are. Rather hypocritical, I'd say.

Cowards blame Bill Clinton (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923069)

uh, isn't the above person saying the parents should be accountable????

Cause: Gun control insanity. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923070)

"It's obvious enough that the secular humanist rejection of life played a role". That's crap. Not only do "secular humanists" not "reject life", but there are plenty of black-wearing, heavy-metal-listening atheists who are well-adjusted and would never think of killing somebody. Myself included. You're falling into the typical religious fallacy of buying into stereotypes and blaming the "unbeliever" for all of society's ills. P. "What matters is this: In a free society, the other students would have gunned those killers down almost immediately. This tragedy was caused by a coercive government that denied those students the right to defend themselves." Hmm. Maybe I just fell for a troll. You don't actually believe that, do you? Having every member of society -- including adolescents and other pre-adults -- be constantly armed with lethal range weapons?

"Klinton and her husband are directly and personally responsible for this tragedy. The blood of these innocents is on their hands. The war crimes tribunal which eventually sentences them will be sure to take this crime into account." Okay, it is a troll. That'll teach me to read more than one sentence into something before I start replying to it.

Pinker and Black Parrot, birds of a feather... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923071)

"Pinker comes from that Chomskyite school where everyone is willing to pontificate/argue about anything -- provided they can avoid getting pinned down on a testable hypothesis. This conveniently allows them to be "right" in perpetuity. Meanwhile they "debunk" competing theories that do make testable hypotheses by portraying the failures in the worst possible light, portraying exceptional failures as the typical case, and using them as subject matter for jokes in order to ridicule them."

Well, in that case, I'm sure you won't mind if we pin you down and ask you to cite some specific examples of Pinker's deficiencies, so we can be sure that you're not conveniently allowing yourself to be "right" while "debunking" Pinker's theories by portraying them in the worst possible light.

HA! What beautiful right-wingery. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923072)

I love it. First, right-wingers howl about "responsibility" -- and then they blame absolutely everything on liberals, blacks, homosexuals, foreigners, pornography, violence on TV, atheism, you name it. Of course, the great crime of all these guilty parties is supposed to be that they don't accept responsibility for things. When you get to the end of the rant, you can't help noticing that right wingers absolutely never accept any responsibility for anything themselves. It's true. All of our problems are caused by somebody else. The poor innocent right wingers are just victims of the big bad liberals. And this hypocrisy is drummed into everybody by the media to the point where hardly anybody notices the details any more.

Another closely related little nugget of hypocrisy is the fact that the right wing blames sex, violence, drug abuse, and homosexuality on books television. Why would they want to ban gays on TV if they actually believed that our environment is not responsible for our actions? Why ban Catcher in the Rye if J. D. Salinger is not actually responsible for what his readers do? That would make no sense. They want to have their cake and eat it: When black kids commit crimes, they howl for "personal responsibility", but when their own kids commit crimes, they blame it on TV. Cute. And we're letting them get away with it, too.

Oh, yeah, and what about all the genetics-govern-behavior crap? If my genes completely determine what I'm going to do with my life, who cares what my environment is like? Ha. I'm missing the point, of course. The point is that the genetics thing is convenient when an excuse is needed to blame poverty on poor people. For most other issues, it serves no purpose and so it stays on the shelf, replaced by other orthodoxies which explicitly contradict it.

More or less. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923073)

He's saying that Bill Clinton made the parents not hold themselves accountable. So the parents are accountable for the actions of their kids, but Bill Clinton is accountable for the actions of the parents. Actually, that's consistent, in a surrealistic right-wing sort of a way.

Cause: Gun control insanity. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923074)

Oh brother...

Big Assumption (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1923134)

all this is premised on one very big assumption - that matter is primary, and consciousness is an attribute arising from a complex enough assembly of purely physical/electronic (and biologic) processes. the book does not address this, but simply ASSUMES this, and goes on its merry way. what is not considered is that perhaps consciousness is primary and matter condeneses as a manifestation of this consciousness.

for example, if we take the lungs. you can look at it in two ways.
the mechanic (i.e. scientist) looks at a lung, and makes a machine
which has a pair of balloons, and a diaphram to expand and collapse
those balloons based on the principle of air pressure. as the
articulated branching structure expands and collapses, air is
pumped in and out. they determine the air flow as a by-product of
movements from without created by mechanical processes. then they
say they have made a lung. but this entirely leaves out of the
question how a real lung could put all their technical knowledge
to shame by virtue of the fact that a real lung has no engineers
building it up from outside, but rather it GROWS without any
external assembly-type process (even with nanotechnology, the
assemblers are still just smaller external machines, not actually
growing like a real lung). if the scientists tinker with
biology enough, they find a way to redirect the growth to their
purposes, but they still don't fundamentally know WHY it grows
any more than they know WHY gravity makes massive objects attract.

now, looking at this another way - within the lung, the air flows
move in and out of the lung in a cyclic fashion. the air moves
through the lungs rhymically, and distributes in a branching
pattern to meet up with the air sacks in which the oxygen is
exchanged into the bloodstream, and then is breathed out again.
now, imagine if you will this air pattern continuing to flow in
cyclic fashion without the attendent lung apparatus through
which it flows. i.e. air flowing in and out of lungs in exactly
the same shapes and patterns, with the lungs themselves not present.
if you could imagine water flowing into and out of the branching
structure, and leaving a small deposit of sediment with each
cycle of the breathing, you would find that the lung structure
would slowly begin building itself up from the very process of
the breathing itself! you could then say: "the movement exists;
and the organ forms around it."

this is analagous to the fashion in which i believe the universe
is composed. the LIFE consciousness exists, the strucuture of
the universe forms around the life process as a by-product of
life's activities (think of the development of a baby in the
womb - just *what* directs this development? scientists, at a
loss point to DNA, but who coded the DNA which takes thousands
of scientists years and years just to figure out the code, and
still have no idea how the code is translated into the dynamic
process of organ formation - if it takes intelligence to decode
it, how can we say it was created by random permutation? it is
about as ridiculous as to say that enough monkeys typing at
random will regularly output highly intelligent novels and
scientific papers). similarly, *thinking* is not an attribute
of the brain, but rather the brain's structure and electrical
activity is determined by pre-existent THOUGHTS. the course
of evolution is not determined by CHANCE as the darwinists
would suppose, but rather -- changes in evolution are a natural
outcome of a change in configuration of life consciousness
itself - or put another and somewhat more poetic way: the
universe is the outworking of god's thoughts. the fine tuning
then is therefore not "amazing" at all, but rather to be
expected. it just depends on which side you approach the
problem intially: matter on up, or vice-versa.

the funny thing is the person sitting here ("you"), typing
into a keyboard can't explain his own thoughts or existence
by empirical methods - because consciousness cannot be proven
empirically. you simply know you exist. but only once you
exist can you look for a reason for WHY you exist. so again,
science is at a complete loss to explain the WHY of life,
even if it is very clever at explaining that when a cow
kicks a can, the can tips over. but they don't know WHY
the cow wanted to kick the can in the first place.

(this, of course actually goes on into a discussion of
thoughts, and if all thoughts are simply an: i) input,
ii) black box, iii) output - type of unconscious reaction.
but that ignores the fact of what happenes when one *chooses*
to respond in full conscious awareness to what proceeds in
the thought process. the tricky thing about consciousness is
that you can observe your own thinking, and even stop it
and who is doing that!?).

the assumption that the aggregate
organisation of complex molecules leads to a development
of consciousness as an attribute of the complex organisation.
but that still is far from being demonstrated in any way. in fact, it has failed in the utmost to explain the actual observed facts.

Here ya go! (1)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923135)

Posted by FascDot Killed My Previous Use:

"Mind's I", which I've read more than once, is a good introduction to the subject. It has some good thought experiments and essays that point out the issues but don't come to any conclusions.

"How the Mind Works" goes into a great deal of cognitive detail and is excellent as a technical background.

"Consciousness Explained" is one good attempt at pulling everything together.

Two items (1)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923136)

Posted by FascDot Killed My Previous Use:

1) I also highly recommend his "The Language Instinct".

2) Someone below asked if HTMW can explain Columbine. As a matter of fact, there is a section on emotion from the perspective of game theoretic strategies that covers things very much like this.

Pinker and Pournelle, birds of a feather... (1)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923137)

Posted by FascDot Killed My Previous Use:

Pinker comes from that Chomskyite school where everyone is willing to pontificate/argue about anything -- provided they can avoid getting pinned down on a testable hypothesis.

On the contrary, even HTMW (a non-academic setting) contains a number of testable (and tested) hypotheses. For instance, check out the section on rotating figures.

We don't really know how the mind works, but we do know enough to say that easy answers are wrong answers.

I'd say that if a dense book like HTMW can only provide a cursory overview of a theory, it must not be supplying the "easy" answers.

Understanding how argumentation works (1)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923138)

Posted by FascDot Killed My Previous Use:

Those are the givens I opened this thread on.

Yes, I know. And I'm attacking those premises since they give rise to false conclusions.

For instance, where does the mind store these pictures, if not in the "massively overrated" brain? The liver? How does a purely "spiritual" (undefined term, BTW) interact with the physical "control center" in order for you to move your arm? Etc.

Nothing really new! (1)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923139)

Posted by Karym:

If it was available in english, I would recommend Henri Laborit's "La Nouvelle Grille" which basically superseeds what I read of the review. I'm actually even thinking to myself whether Pinker translated it and adapted it to his words. Even the part about aggressiveness being part of human nature has been said by Laborit. The stuff pretty much resembles Laborit's claims, except that Laborit wrote his book in 1973. Not only does he make the "radical claim" of how much biology influences our actions, he even goes so far as saying that it dictates our actions and that, in fact, we don't really have any "freedom" in our choices more than an electron has of turning around a nucleus. If you really want to learn about the brain and how it influences social behavior, etc. you probably should start by learning french :)

Cause: Gun control insanity. (1)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923140)

Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

>>Hmm. Maybe I just fell for a troll. You don't actually believe that, do you? Having every member of society including adolescents and other pre adults be constantly armed with lethal range weapons?

This is not a troll. ALL law abiding adults should be armed at all times.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, it's not only out right but our duty.


Ahh...a Cartesian... (2)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923148)

Posted by FascDot Killed My Previous Use:

I suggest you read "Consciousness Explained" by Dennett for an excellent debunking of Cartesian dualism (especially the modern, silent variety).

The Chinese Room?? bwahahahaha (2)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923149)

Posted by FascDot Killed My Previous Use:

I didn't realize anyone besides Searle actually still clung to that argument.

You should read some of Hofstadter's (or even Pinker's) material regarding The Chinese Room--I think you'll find that in order for Searle to be as wrong as he is, he'd almost have to be trying to deliberately mislead people.

The basic counter-argument is: The whole analogy is false since it presupposes a homunculus in my brain that does the understanding "for me". I think it should already be obvious that "understanding" is not the function of some part of the brain, but a whole brain function. Thus, mapping back to the Chinese Room we might be able to say that the entire system (man, books, paper, pencils, door, etc) does in fact "understand" Chinese.

Of course, the many many concommittant "implementation" problems of Searle's formulation make this a difficult proposition at best. For instance, just how big would The Chinese Room have to be? And how long would it take the man inside to craft a response?

BTW, neither Dennett nor I am a "functionalist" if by that you mean "operationalist".

Looser (1)

crayz (1056) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923150)

Did he really say he was a "pathetic looser"? Or did Janice mentally change loser to spell it like a geek would?

Why is this being reviewed? (1)

AMK (3114) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923155)

I haven't read the Pinker book and can't comment on its quality, but wanted to respond to your statement "Pinker's book is more than a year old and I can't figure out why slashdot would give it this kind of bandwidth." I don't think reviews need to be of books that are necessarily new; they should be concerned with books that are interesting, no matter what their age. Much of my reading consists of remaindered books that looked interesting, so I'm usually reading books that are a few years old, yet many of them are excellent and deserve attention.

cool (1)

Lurking Grue (3963) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923156)

This sounds like an entertaining read. I just finished "Phantoms in the Brain" by V.S. Ramachandran (ISBN: 0688152473), and would highly recommend it. I was wondering what to read next, and it looks like this might be the one.

Thanks for the pointer and review!

on mind and matter (1)

Leapfrog (4220) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923158)

"What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind."
--Homer Simpson

To anyone interested in AI and such, I recommend Goedel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadler. An intriguing and highly challenging book on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carrol.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

Jonathan (5011) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923159)

Something that's worth remembering with all these recent books about "evolutionary psychology" (really, just 1970's "sociobiology" trying to make a comeback, which in turn was just a rehash of ideas floating around practically from the time of Darwin himself) is just how speculative they are.

We know next to nothing at this point in time about the genuine biological causes (if any) of aggression and other human behaviors. Certainly one can postulate an evolutionary origin for them, but really this is no more "scientific" than traditional psychological explanations for aggression such as bad childhoods or too much movie violence. If we can find a series of genes involved in aggression *and* we can find versions of these genes in other animals *then* we can have meaningful research into the evolution of aggression. This is the level of evidence required by modern biology. Until then the subject belongs more to science fiction than science.

As a biologist who has written papers concerning molecular evolution, it worries me that from books like "How the Mind Works" and "The Moral Animal" the general public thinks evolutionary biology is nothing more than coming up with cute stories. No wonder Creationism is still thriving -- if people think evolutionary biology is just a matter of cute stories they feel free to choose another cute story instead.

Ahh...a Functionalist ... (1)

cthonious (5222) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923160)

I suggest you read "Consciousness Explained" by Dennett for an excellent debunking of Cartesian dualism (especially the modern, silent variety).
... and I suggest you read John Searle's "Chinese Room Arguement" that debunked just about all the rubbish Dennet ever came up with. No one takes functionalism seriously any more, AFIAK. Roger Penrose also has a great book out about this (and AI in general - "The Emporer's New Mind")

Compare and Contrast to Hofstadter anyone ?? (1)

MeerCat (5914) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923163)

This is sitting on my shelf, but I haven't got round to it so far .

I've read and enjoy Hofstadter, anyone care to compare and contrast this to Hofstatdter and Dennet's "The Minds I" or Dennet's "Conciousness Explained" ??

Does it say much new compared to those two ??

Ahh...a Functionalist ... (1)

MeerCat (5914) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923164)

>>... and I suggest you read John Searle's "Chinese Room Arguement" that debunked just about

Spare me, not Searle and his "foolish schoolboy error".

As for Penrose, he might be a good mathematician (and friends at Oxford tell me he is) but his "E-N-M" book is the biggest load of twaddle I've seen in a long time.
This is the only book I've _ever_ taken back to a book shop and asked for my money back, 500 pages of "my version of a popular intro to Quantum Mechanics" followed by some garbage about "a brand new physics" based on the basic Searle error on page 27 or so .... file it along with Edward De Bono's simplistic and patronising works.


Compare and Contrast to Hofstadter anyone ?? (1)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923166)

Hofstadter is more speculative. He's not talking very much about the actual mechanisms of cognition (well, some of the essays in Mind's I do), but largely doing Philosophy of Mind in discussing the philosophical consequences of materialist models of the mind and consciousness. Also, Hofstadter is more involved in computational models (although he is largely from the pre-connectionist school) Dennett is also a philosopher, not a scientist; Consciousness Explained is more an argument against other models of consciousness than an explanation of the neurology of consciousness.

The Dennett book is more of a cogsci primer: there are other good ones out there, too. The "Invitation to Cognitive Science" series by MIT is a good one.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923167)

I don't think evolutionary biology can really go that far in explaining the kind of alienation that creates these events - the American school system is a bizarre social pressure cooker; coupled with the transience of American society, in which people don't know their neighbors and other people are viewed as rivals, threats, or outsiders instead of members of the same community, is a product more of social evolution than anything else.

However, if you really want to work the theory, consider that their suicide-mission has increased "respect" (fear of and alpha-identity for) their "tribe." Which increases the breeding success for the whole type, which makes the latent suicide-mission response an adaptive one.

Mind != brain (1)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923168)

No, the mind is simply one of the brain's more important tasks.

Pinker and brain science. (1)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923169)

Agreed. To that end, the Rethinking Innateness book by Elman et al - shipped along with some very good neural net tools and tutorials - makes for interesting reading that looks beyond some of the current straightjackets.

Pinker and brain science. (2)

Lemmy Caution (8378) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923171)

Stephen Pinker is a very good scientist; however, lest everything he say be taken at face value, it should be noted that there are some other perspectives on cognition and language that don't always get represented by the Chomsky/Pinker/MIT school.

They tend to be modularist in their perspective - claiming that the ability to perform syntax is a product of the development of specialized structures that organically develop to do them. While there's definitely a component of syntactic ability that is modular, there's also room for questioning how extensive that modularity is. Also, Chomsky/Pinker et al tend to leave semantic ability out of the picture.

Structured connectionism offers a plausible explanation for semantic ability - see Terry Regier's "The Human Semantic Potential" for some viable models using neural networks, that do excellent jobs of understanding, for example, the difference between "on," "above" and "over" with fairly quick learning, and distinguishing between the German "auf" and "an". Also, I recommend the work of George Lakoff, especially "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things - What Categories Reveal About The Mind."

Emporer's New Mind? (1)

FigWig (10981) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923175)

Did anyone actually like this book? It seems to me that Penrose spent most of the book providing a lackluster introduction to modern physics and computational theory. Then he basically says that we don't understand quantum gravity, we don't understand the mind, so (much hand waving) they are obviously related.

The book left a bad taste in my mouth. Remember, this is the guy who sued a toilet paper company.

Programming of the Adolescent Brain (1)

baglunch (11210) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923177)

The only thing I have to contribute to your comment is my disagreement of abstract thought (as you defined it) occurring after/during adolescence. I've tutored low-GPA 3rd graders and easily taught them about x=5, but then x=3 in the next problem. And then showed them how if x=3, then x^3=27, etc. I've found these particular kinds of abstract thinking are pretty easy to teach if you have the time and good nature to explain it in a way they can understand.

intelligent?? (1)

baglunch (11210) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923178)

You can't (accurately) determine someone's intelligence based on whether you agree with them.

intelligent?? (1)

Omnifarious (11933) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923187)

Even the most intelligent among us are often possessed of opinions that are demonstrably wrong, or at least, unpleasant. Dismissing neo-nazis as stupid is a dangerous underestimation.

Their attack took, at the very least, a fair amount of dogged planning. It sounds like some of the explosive devices they came up with took a lot of research and a fair amount of intelligence. Dismissing them as 'stupid' is just a 'they aren't like me, I would never do anything like that' response. In an attempt to understand, a response like that isn't very helpful.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

Omnifarious (11933) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923188)

This was a gang rivalry. An oversimplification is that gangs are just what cliques are called when the participants are of a lower social class.

Agassiz was Swiss, IIRC (1)

Venomous Louse (12488) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923189)

He's mostly known for "discovering" the Ice Ages. Nobody took him seriously in Europe, and he ended up at Harvard where he was received more favorably. I guess you don't believe in glaciation, either, since it's supposed to have taken place so long ago. If that's the case, are you familiar with all of the evidence? It's a bit hard to explain in any other way.

As for Agassiz' racism, I've never heard about that, but I'm not an expert on the man by any means. All I know about him I learned from John McPhee's writings about geology.

Darwin's theory of evolution should result in several transitory fossils being found.

Ummm . . . no. It suggests that such transitory organisms existed at some point, but a theory of natural selection makes absolutely no predictions about which fossils must necessarily survive until the 20th century, or which surviving fossils must be found. If such fossils have not at this point been found, that does not prove that they don't exist. I never heard of Columbine High School until this morning. So what? It existed anyway.

I really don't know whether fossils of that sort have been found or not, because I don't follow paleontology very closely.

Finally: Like a lot of theories, evolution is the best explanation that we have for the facts available to us. It makes a hell of a lot of sense. Also like all theories, it's probably not perfect. Do you know how many theories have come and gone trying to explain the building of mountains? The one we've got now looks pretty good, and I'm betting that it will turn out to have been substantially accurate, but no responsible geologist will tell you that he knows the absolute and final truth about it. This is where religion and science part ways. Religion demands a "final truth"; science does not. This is where creationists are coming from when they criticize evolution: They see a discrepancy somewhere, and they conclude that therefore the theory is not the absolute final truth. As religion, evolution is therefore unacceptable. So they reject it. The problem is that it isn't meant to be religion. It's science. Scientists aren't looking for an infallible moral compass, they're just trying to explain what they've observed as best they can.

Evolution fits the evidence reasonably well, while creationism requires us to ignore a massive body of evidence. As for me, I'll go with the one that doesn't ask me to forget half of what I know.

"Once a solution is found, a compatibility problem becomes indescribably boring because it has only... practical importance"

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (2)

Biomorph (15806) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923204)

Hear hear, thank you for a delightful review of a truly captivating book; I'm glad to see the academic athiests finally getting some coverage of their books, as I am terribly sick of reading all the /. reviews of books like "finding god in the web" and other such drivel.

As for the tragedy yesterday and how an understanding of it can be approached from an "evolutionary psychology" perspective, I'll take the first stab at it:

After immediate survival, the next most important goal of the human psyche is to increase social status among peers, which in turn results in increased mating opportunity. There are many tools in the "mental warchest" that humans employ to achieve this goal. Arguably, it is for these very reasons that the human brain has exploded in size over the last million years or so (see Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow): Not as a tool of survival in "the wild", but as a tool to manipulate and influence other humans.

The willingness to employ physical violence is one of the natural tools with which we are endowed; particularly among men, there is a certain thrill to the kill of another man, powerful, confidence inspiring, and impressive amongst others (usually both male and female). Witness professional sports, or Quake: A stage upon which to play out all of the symbols of violence, without the actual death. Why do we love to play out these symbols? Because jocks get laid.

And these kids didn't get laid. (Seen their pictures?). And they targeted jocks in their killing spree.

Consider what would have been the outcome of their carefully planned attacked in the "ancestral environment", in which your world consisted of 100-200 persons, all of whom you knew and would likely live your entire life with.

The jocks, who had all of the mating opportunity in your little community, would be conveniently removed from society, while at the same time the killers would wear new mantles of (fearful) respectability.

From natural selection's standpoint, what happened yesterday was a viable and intelligent career move.

From "our" standpoint, however, the evolutionist's mantra must be repeated: " "is" does not mean "ought" ", in other words, to say that we ARE a certain way (in a "natural sense") does not mean we SHOULD be that way, or that we SHOULDN'T bother to try to work against our "natural" inclinations in order to foster a more amicable society. This is why we have laws, against killing for example.

Reason clearly shows anyone who reflects upon it that the "strategy" employed yesterday, although instinctive and "natural" from an animal sense, would be pointless in modern society, in which we have arranged things such that those who commit physical violence are guaranteed to have zero future mating opportunity. And, not seeing any other solution to their "problem", they concluded that their own lives were not worth continuing, thus ending the day in suicide.

There, I hope I have done a decent job "spinning" yesterday's awful events in a style congruent with Pinker's "How the Mind Works". If anyone else (who has actually read the book, please!) can do better, I'd love to hear it.

The Stephen Jay Gould syndrome (1)

Chris Worth (18843) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923208)

Along with Stephen Jay Gould, Pinker makes the mistake of putting forward his views as fact. I liked the book (as I like Gould) but felt a little annoyed at the way he arrogantly assumes his theories are truer than anyone else's without any compelling evidence. That said, the book's a great way to think about how we'd grow an AI.

Pinker and brain science. (1)

crush (19364) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923209)

I agree that there is a lack of rigour in the definitions of "modularity" and hence a confusion in classifications that use this term. I don't understand your "innativity vs. adaptivity" though: I see adaptation as a process that results in, and acts on, innate structures. Perhaps you are using adaptive in some other sense? Is this a common one in cog.sci.? My perspective comes exclusively from molecular evolution.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

JabberWokky (19442) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923210)

No, Amok is a Vulcan word meaning "terminally horny".

Evan "Useless post, but then, I just woke up" E.

Pinker and Pournelle, birds of a feather... (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923211)

Pinker is to cogsci as Pournelle is to compsci -- lots of name recognition, completely clueless, perfectly happy to speak ex cathedra for all that.

Pinker and Pournelle, birds of a feather... (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923212)

> Care to back that up? Pinker does have an easygoing & accessible writing style, but he's also got the credentials to back it up.

Pinker comes from that Chomskyite school where everyone is willing to pontificate/argue about anything -- provided they can avoid getting pinned down on a testable hypothesis. This conveniently allows them to be "right" in perpetuity. Meanwhile they "debunk" competing theories that do make testable hypotheses by portraying the failures in the worst possible light, portraying exceptional failures as the typical case, and using them as subject matter for jokes in order to ridicule them.

Meanwhile, if you start looking at the assumptions they build their own theories on -- if I may so stretch the use of the word "theory" -- it always turn out to be ungrounded intuitions and lame arguments of the "it must be the case" type. Moreover, the analogies dragged in for support are not always apt, and the anecdotes are subject to shallow, a priori analyses.

The whole genra smacks of Plato's juvenile analysis of the way the world works. In fact I recommend treating Pinker and the rest of that tribe just the way Plato should be treated: entertainment, if you go for that kind of thing, but not science. Pinker is a pop star, not a scientist.

> You're not a closet Behavioralist, are you?

Nope. I figure investigating cog sci is like walking a tightrope over Hell, with a demon called "Skinner" below you to one side and another called "Chomsky" on the other. You've got to stick to the straigt and narrow. We don't really know how the mind works, but we do know enough to say that easy answers are wrong answers.

Pinker and brain science. (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923213)

> They tend to be modularist in their perspective ... there's also room for questioning how extensive that modularity is.

FWIW, my current thinking is that we've got to get away from thinking in terms of "modular" vs. "not modular". It seems that for every observation supporting modularity, there's another observation supporting plasticity/distributivity. Ditto for innativity vs adaptivity. I suspect we've come up against some analogs of the wave-vs-particle question that exercised physicists for so long, and that we won't make any real progress until we throw out this intuitive taxonomy of organizational possibilities.

Compare and Contrast to Hofstadter anyone ?? (1)

AstroJetson (21336) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923216)

Hmmm, I was thinking more along the lines of Roger Penrose. I read with fascination his musings in "The Emporer's New Mind" and I'd be curious to see how this book compares.

Emporer's New Mind? (1)

AstroJetson (21336) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923217)

I really dug it and didn't see any of what I would consider hand waving. Yes, it was pretty longwinded and he used a very roundabout path to get where he was going, but I thought it was an interesting path. I perceived his argument as more along the lines of: deep down, the mind doesn't work like a digital computer, it works more like a quantum computer so we can't expect a digital computer to mimic the operation of an intelligent mind.

Now his follow-up book left me in the dust; I barely understood a word of it. That smacked of hand waving I suppose, but I attributed it to my quantum computer not having enough states.

Didn't know about the toilet paper suit - that's funny. What was it all about? (Not that it has anything to do with this thread)


Well worth reading (1)

jslag (21657) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923219)

I was lucky enough to be in an undergrad linguistics class that reviewed the manuscript to HTMW over a couple months, and then met with Pinker for discussion. Having spent that much time and effort working through the material, I give it an unqualified thumbs-up. After 3 years of studying cognitive science, I was still able to learn tons from Pinker's work, yet it's accessible enough that my mother (an english major in college) was able to get into it.

For those whose interest is focused more on linugistics, Pinker's earlier work The Lanugage Instinct is also very highly recommended.

Pinker and Pournelle, birds of a feather... (1)

jslag (21657) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923220)

completely clueless

Care to back that up? Pinker does have an easygoing & accessible writing style, but he's also got the credentials to back it up. You're not a closet Behavioralist, are you?

intelligent?? (1)

Mechano (21811) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923223)

I keep hearing that these kids were supposedly
"intelligent". From what I've read they were
Neo-Nazi losers.

In an AP article on yahoo; one one of them was quoted saying "I hate niggers" before firing his gun.

Intelligent? No.

General Comments (1)

ywl (22227) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923226)

What a coincident! He came to my school to give a lecture just yesterday. My impression is that he
is a very good and entertaining speaker (and probably writer too). The theory I got from his
lecture is that human behaviors are the results of
biological adaptation of our hunter-gather ancestor. And he listed experiments on vision, emotions and etc as proof of his theory.

However, to me (as a psychologist/neuroscientist), what he said actually is nothing revolutionary.
Interpreting social and behavioral phenomena on
the grounds of evolution and biological necessity
has had a very long history. Only somehow in the modern age United States, this school of theory is particular popular.

Personally, I usually find general thoeries of
human and social behavior not particularly useful and prefer leave arguments on such a macroscopic level to philosophers or sociologists (who usually do a better job than us psychologists). Psychologists and neuroscientists now usually ask the question "how the brain work?" Using a computer metaphor: we all know that the purpose of a word-processor program; the interesting thing is how the program does it.

Pinker v. Dennet (1)

nwalker (23468) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923227)

One of the primary differences between Pinker and Dennet is their writing styles. Pinker is a linguist, and writes like a cognitive scientist, lengthily explaining using visual examples.

On the other hand, Dennet writes like a philosopher, using a style very similair to Socrates, using logic to make his arguements.

Also, Dennet's books tend to be a much quicker read. =)

good books... (1)

vassago (23470) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923228) .html

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan

the best books ever written about the evolution of intelligence... hands down...


Pinker and brain science. (1)

exa (27197) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923232)

From a computational perspective it's all very natural that a complex system is distributed, and yet it is modular... On the other hand, from the same perspective 90% of all psychologists seem very idiotic; they are awed at the most trivial of computational facts, and laws. They would not truly understand any theorem on Turing machines and still claim to be investigating limits of computation. And I'm bored of the way connectionists try to discover some magic aspect of mind. I can't understand how they can expect some very elementary model to scale up to a human mind. On the other hand, linguists and logicists are seeking something else entirely. Just a few remarks, take 'em easy said...

Pinker and Pournelle, birds of a feather... (1)

exa (27197) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923233)

Of course you don't mean that philosophy is for entertainment. Talking about old philosophers is fun, but not because they are simple minded or foolish. It gives a chance to see how ideas are developed... On the other hand, I also think that there is a lot of crap philosophy around. Stuff with neither strong background nor rigorous investigation. You know what Einstein once said about being simple. He actually meant that you should be sufficiently articulated in order to succeed in your work. So I greatly appreciate your observation about some theories of mind.

Pinker and brain science. (1)

Darkforge (28199) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923234)

Structured connectionism offers a plausible explanation for semantic ability - see Terry Regier's "The Human Semantic Potential" for some viable models using neural networks, that do excellent jobs of understanding, for example, the difference between "on," "above" and "over" with fairly quick learning, and distinguishing between the German "auf" and "an". Also, I recommend the work of George Lakoff, especially "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things - What Categories Reveal About The Mind."

Lucky you... Pinker agrees. He devotes a large section of his book to discussing just how connectonist networks work, and what they can and can't do given the size of the human brain. He, too, thinks that connectionism is a big part of the way the mind works, but his emphasis is on the "structured" part of "structured connectionism."

Pinker is giving a series of lectures here at Yale this week. His lecture yesterday basically outlined his book, and his lecture today will discuss how his theory relates to the question of human values. If it's interesting, I'll post a summary here.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

EQ (28372) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923236)

I wonder how this looks in light of those shootings in Columbine High School (Across town from where I live)? Can it exlplain the capacity to plan and cold bloodedly carry out mass executions? Can it explain not only why but how someone can be so intelligent yet so evil? Can it explain the immediate political response of "ban the guns" when all the things carried there were already illegal? Unlike the NRA, the gun-banners, the God squad, and the atheists, I dont have any pat answers.

How is the brain involved in moral decisions - is morality a fiction?

I've gone way off topic. Just rambling and still in shock from the carnage in my back yard.

lakoff (1)

mistabobdobalina (29109) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923237)

i took a lakoff class at berkeley (intro to cogsci) and his position boils down to this: the mind is embodied i.e. abstract thought is based on image schemas that arise from our physical interaction with the world. these basic schemas (see mark johnson's book the body in the mind) are NON-MODULAR in that they need to be seen as a gestalt to be understood i.e. the containment schema only makes sense when there is a containing structure and a contained/noncontained structure. these schemas are extended up via metaphor to form abstract thought. the levels are physical, social, epistemic, then speech-action. programmers tend to operate in the epistemic realm. metaphor is not just something from shakespeare, but is how we extend ALL knowledge from one realm to another. a list of the common metaphors in the western world is found here [] . This stuff is interesting because it turns out that artificial intelligence is not possible. lakoff and crew are doing interesting work called the neural theory of language project (NTL) where they are building software models of thought this is the page [] . more metaphor stuff is found here [] . lakoff and mark johnson have a new book called philosophy in the flesh , the premise is that western philosophy is based on the false premise that the mind exists independently of the body, that there is a gods-eye view. this stuff is NOT post modern however, as social facts can impact life etc. okay i need to get back to work, this is internet after all

Studying the mind without understanding the brain (1)

scruffy (29773) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923238)

Many scientists and philosophers study the mind by looking at what people do, but not understanding how that behavior arises from the brain. My impression is that, currently, neurobiology cannot explain how your memory is stored in the brain. For example, how is the information that "ls" means "list files" stored in the brain? If we can't explain "simple" phenomena like this, how can we hope to understand the mind as a whole?

The situation is somewhat like trying to explain what a computer does by playing with the GUI, but no clue about the implementation levels underneath. There would be a lot of guesses you would have to make, and a substantial number would likely be wrong.

My opinion then is that Pinker and others probably have very bad theories about how the mind works, but they are best ones we have until the mapping from neurons to mind is better understood. For those of us who are not strugging with the scientific or the philosophical problems, these books are best viewed as entertainment, not as firmly grounded theory to explain teenage shootings or ethnic cleansing.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

netwiz (33291) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923244)

I wonder how this looks in light of those shootings in Columbine High School (Across town from where I live)? Can it exlplain the capacity to plan and cold bloodedly carry out mass executions? Can it explain not only why but how someone can be so intelligent yet so evil?

Yes, it can. The thing to remember is that the incident in Denver wasn't an overnight decision. There had to be literally _years_ of buildup to that kind of behavior, including but not limited to: lack of social acceptance, weak personality development, possible peer abuse (you can kid around with your friends, tossing insults back and forth, but to someone who's not playing the game, it makes everyone look like complete assholes), poor home life, etc. The only real way to get to the bottom of this would be to have a series of psychological interviews with the students, the parents, the teachers, and most of all the suspects. Unfortunately, since they killed themselves, the mindset of the attackers will be forever left to conjecture.

But yes, you can troubleshoot psychological issues just like troubleshooting software, hardware, and network issues. The tools may be different (and the medium radically so), but in the end, the mind works on rigidly defined principles just the same.

Looking in from outside of the box (1)

netwiz (33291) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923245)

me/you == spiritual entity
mind == collection of pictures you've carried for
brain == the control center for the current body you are amusing yourself with (massively overrated)

no no no... You're approacing the issue from the wrong direction:

Brain = Layers 1/2/3/4/5 (base hardware and hard-coded communication protocols)

Mind = Layer 6 (the core OS, all subconcious processing, involuntary responses, handles image lookup, waveform matching, linguistics processing, sensory input sorting)

You = Layer 7 (the top level, what a person percieves as themselves, the voice you hear when speaking in your head. notice just how fast you can think w/o having to slow words down for speech)

this comparison isn't completely accurate, since the hardware eventually accelerates stuff normally handled in software. As an example, I noticed one day (by trying to read upside down and backwards) that my visual cortex has a small window used for text processing. It sits slightly below and off to the right of the center of my vision. What it seems to do for me is allow text in that area to be fast blitted into memory with very little overhead. When reading in the opposite direction (right-to-left and bottom to top), I found that in order to simply have captured the bitmap took more concentration than reading normally. This apparently holds true in the general case, as I tried it with cyrillic fonts and then Kanji to remove the possibility that it was the language and character set that made this happen.

Try it yourself...

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

that_guy (33618) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923246)

In "Stand on Zanzibar" by David Bruner, they have a word for them, muckers :)
It goes into a description of the word amok.
Its just scary to see the predictions (made in this book) come true..

Intelligence (1)

cynicthe (33709) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923247)

Take three entities growing.

One just spreads. Like a cancer or an avalanche or glass shards when a glass shatters. Certainly strong and robust but intelligent? No.

One has a feedback loop. Like the sense of balance. Or some sort of sense of danger. Strong or robust? Maybe. Ability to adapt? Yes. Intelligent? Not quite yet.

Finally, the last one has several inputs, a tool with which to coordinate inputs and build other soft inputs or interpretive strategies, and a storage mechanism. Its growth constantly causes slight distortions in the information received making it much easier to identify and classify the information. Its growth also requires a renewal mechanism that allows old information to be replaced. This in effect constitutes a feedback mechanism. Strong and robust? No way to tell without seeing it. Ability to adapt? Mostly involuntary adaptation, however it can learn about itself and train itself. Intelligent? Depends on its training and education. Self-aware? Maybe, maybe not.

Easy answers (1)

cynicthe (33709) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923248)

Some find it easier to hold onto the superficial image of the world that they see without reflecting and stepping out of the immediate world to a more general perspective.

Take Ptolemy. Sure his twisted geo centric planetary system was reasonably mathematically equivalent to Copernicus' But what a lack of intuition.

Take Emil Zola (the evil naturalist). Ok so he says all we have is our ears, eyes, skin, nasal passages, and taste buds. Imagination, ESP, souls, all those are nonexistent as far as he's concerned. Art ought to be a science that treats people's relationship difficulties as if they were symptoms of diseases.

Hmm, so why is it a blind man given his sight at a late period in his life wishes it taken away? Because he doesn't know how to use it. Our senses are man made. Our inputs are given to us by our DNA. I could bet Zola never had a sense of humor.

Qualifying because we see colors (1)

cynicthe (33709) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923249)

It often amazes me how chemists all get so excited about this and that molecule doing whatever it does when in fact the properties of the molecule and its atoms are not inscribed on the molecule's forehead but are a result of the number(a quantity not a quality) of protons and neutrons in those atoms.

But that's because we see colors not frequencies.

interested in the bases of abstract thought? (1)

mdillon (33712) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923251)

if you're *really* interested in the bases of abstract thought, check out _Philosophy in the Flesh_ by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. it runs circles around everything Pinker has to say (both in "How the Mind Works" and "the Language Instinct") and sheds much more light on the everything pinker deals with.

pinker's a good writer, and somewhat enjoyable, but he's largely deluded.

west side!!! (1)

mdillon (33712) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923252)

west coast cogsci is where it's at!

interested in the bases of abstract thought? (1)

SpinyNorman (33776) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923253)

Agreed - Pinker is smart and interesting, but IMHO often wrong - too Chompskian.

Lakoff's "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things" is also an excellent book.

Exactly (1)

SpinyNorman (33776) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923254)

Scientific progress is often made when we "get over" questions, not answer them.

If you're asking the wrong question, you're never going to get the right answer.

The Language Instinct (1)

octothorpe (34673) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923262)

Yes, I thought the Language Instinct was one of the best popular science books I'd ever read. He's very good at distilling complex concepts down to the readers level with losing content. The main idea of that book was that the basic structure of language is inborn and all human languages are really just variations within that structure. I've been consiously listening to the way people speak ever since I read it.
I may have to go out and get this new book.

I would highly recommend (1)

readams (35355) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923264)

I read How the Mind Works a couple of years ago (It was a gift from my father) and I found it absolutely fascinating. He offers trememdous insight into the workings of the brain and into its evolution.

If you've ever been curious about the topic, the book is not only well-written and very readable, it is difficult to put down -- which says a LOT for a non-fiction work.

Programming of the Adolescent Brain (1)

kaizen (35439) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923265)

Let me start by saying that I have read How The Mind Works and that I agree with much of the criticism that I've seen here (esp. Pinker's arrogance and statement of theory as fact) It is a great book, a great read, but the last 2/3 of the book seem very very far away from his initial disclaimers about Natural!=good. I, like our reviewer, found myself saying "But human beings are more complicated than that!"

Now, reguarding Biomorph's evolutionary psychology...I would argue that once you leave the realm of pure survival, and start what Pinker describes as a "cognitive arms race" your foundations are not quite so stable. "Evolution" in these area of emotions, abstract thought, stategies, etc. has been fast and furious and not necessarily proven.

Let's consider brain development. I these adolescent years, the human brain is developing many new capabilities....abstact thought for example. A friend's parents tried to teach her some algebra around the time she was ten. They solved the first problem : x=5. She went to the next problem, immediatly assumed x=5 for that one too. She was too young to abstact the variable x....this is one of the things that happens during adolescence.

If you made it through that age, look back at your journal or letters from those years...everything seemed so dire and that today you would shrug off, seemed so huge. Consider the idea that many different emotional attributes also develop during these years....and none of them at the same rate.

This can lead to a mental/emotional house of cards....all the right pieces are there, just not properly developed.....and in a "social pressure cooker" like high school you are likely to get one or two to snap.

Ug. All these ideas and the best that I can come up with is "they snap".

Sorry about the rambling, I just think that humans and consciousness are just too complex to try to explain by a handful of heuristics about DNA that wants to reproduce. There are other factors like brain development during adolescence and the relative newness of all psychological strategies(compare how long it took evolution to produce the human form with how long it took evolution to teach us to build social structures)

Programming of the Adolescent Brain (1)

kaizen (35439) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923266)

Yes, it was a very bad example. I would offer another example if I had one right now. But people who know far more about mental development would back me up in saying that something they call abstract thinking does develop (or better - increases) during adolescence.

My example sucks, the idea remains.

Programming of the Adolescent Brain (1)

kaizen (35439) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923267)

The point that I was trying to get at (but never got close to) was that the brain changes in fundamental/perceptual ways, but it doesn't happen overnight. A person develops with some of the new cognitive building blocks for a while and without the others. From a phychological point of view, this combination of underdeveloped/overdeveloped aspects of the psyche, this imbalance, probably leads to the emotional imbalance, confusion, etc, etc, etc that is synonmous with being a teenager. Ultimatly, the other building blocks develop, you become a well adjusted adult.

Just a little idea.

Pinker's questionable assumptions (2)

tangaloor (36819) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923269)

Stephen Pinker is notorious in many circles for his sometimes wild speculation about innate knowledge, predispositions, reactions, etc. (cf. his recent New York Times article explaining exactly why, in evolutionary terms, women might discard newborn babies (as has happened in a few very publicised cases).)
There are a few problems with the arguments used to support all of this innateness (or:nativism). Most importantly, it's generally based on questionable assumptions about the data (e.g. the language samples to which children are exposed) and the power of the learning device (the brain) which has to extract patterns from the data. Jeffrey Elman et. al. present a very interesting criticism of this common nativist argument in "Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development". Basically, they show that many of the functions that are supposedly impossible, and many of the strange patterns in learning which supposedly can only be accounted for by innate predispositions and knowledge can actually be simulated very well in neural networks which don't build in -any- knowledge of the subject area (e.g., they aren't born knowing Universal Grammar, yet Elman provides an example of a network which has managed to sort linguistic data according to grammatical category. This ability was not programmed in--it was independently learned by the network). Of course, all this is preliminary--we certainly don't have neural nets that can simulate human behaviour in total, or even close. But the assumption that we -need- innate knowledge to account for this type of stuff just doesn't fly.

An interesting point that Elman et. al. mention is that the genome just doesn't contain enough information to specify brain representations--it's not possible for this sort of knowledge to be encoded in the genes. 'Wiring of the microcircuitry'--i.e. specification of synaptic connections--'is essential if language, the quintessential higher cognitive process, is an instinct...' (Pinker, The Language Instinct, 93, 97). But, genetic prespecification of synaptic weights in the brain is just too much information for genes to carry--such specification could reasonably require on the order of 10 trillion base pairs of DNA just for our brain--and that's more than we have for our whole body.

Elman make another major contribution to the debate by describing an interactionist framework, where outcomes may be highly constrained and universal, but not themselves directly contained in the genes (or the brain) in any domain-specific way. (Notice that this is exactly the faulty inference of which Pinker and many other nativists are guilty.)

In sum, I think that Rethinking Innateness is an extremely valuable contribution to the old nativist/empiricist debate, most especially for their dissection of the concept 'innateness', which nativists use with abandon, but which really is ambiguous between a large number of possible interpretations.

Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection (1)

skelly (38870) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923270)

Please keep in mind that I am not attacking anyone's religeon. I only with to point out the errors of the previous post: 1. A theory is not a scientifically proven fact, it is just a hypothesis that happens to fit observations and has stood up to rigourous attempts to disprove it. Only certain theories ever become Laws- like Gravity because they have stood up to all attempts at disproving them. 2. Evolution has been difficult to prove because we have limited life spans. We cannot observe directly the course of evolution but we can infer from reliable methods of short term observations. The Galapagos islands variation of species, animal husbandry, and the proliferation of breeds of domesticated animals adds solid and ample evidence to support evoltion. Did you know that all dogs and wolves are genetically the same? Dogs are only domesticated wolves, that is why they can interbreed and have viable, reproductive offspring. 3. The fossil record thus far disciovered has been limited because it is a hit or miss proposition. Even with the best technology, it is still hampered by the enourmous surface area of the Earth. Geology has also made it difficult to find fossil records.
Glaciation, Volcanic eruptions, Plate Tetonics, Erosion have all served to hide the complete fossil record. The average age of the surface of the earth is only a few hundred million years in comparison to the surface of the moon which is over 4 billion years old. The lack of complete fossil records or even trackable progression can be accounted by geologic phenomena. Since 99% of all life forms that have ever lived are now extinct, it would be presumptuous to think that the fossil record would be found every where if you factor in geological progress. You should also consider that the majority of life on earth has a body mass of less than 1 kilogram- microbes, insects, etc.

There is one theory that accounts for that lack of slow progressive fossils-- punctuated equilibrium. This theory of evolution states that long periods of little or no change is riddled with moments of abrupt change. The fossil record of sponges and even the propogation of species in the Galapagos Islands support this. Fossil records would be drastically changed due to dramatic genetic mutations (the biological mechanism of evolution).

I do not wish to insult your faith or opinions but please be careful when trying to make assumptions about scientific theories. In science the worst mistakes often resulted from assumptions. Just look at the Michealson-Morely experiments with trying to find the Aether at the turn of the 19th century.

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

swk (39996) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923274)

First off, I wouldn't call Littleton a "small town". It's just a suburb of Denver, and thus part of a much larger community, albeit smaller than LA or NY.

As for the motivations of the nut case killers versus the gangs, here's a stab at it...

Notice that most of the "nut case" school shootings over the past few years have occured in predominatly white, middle/upper class communities. As my boss, a former cop, pointed out yesterday, "gangs are easy to figure out; their motivation is usually based on survival". I am not defending gangs, but for a lot of kids gangs have become surrogate families where they have some sense of belonging and protect it.

As for the senseless killings by otherwise "normal" middle class kids, certainly the "cult of the individual" so prevalent in our society has something to do with it. If all you do is spend your time immersed in your own individuality, it's hard to look out and have any natural feeling of compassion for others. This isolation and competitiveness when carried to an extreme (as in most high schools) could certainly lead to the tragedy that happened in Littleton.

Just my 2 cents...

Programming The Trenchcoat Brain (1)

swk (39996) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923275)

I don't agree this was a gang rivalry (or clique, or whatever else you want to call it)... more a couple of frustrated kids who went off the deep end. After all, how many times have you seen gang members go on suicide missions committed to taking as many people as possible with them?

Why is this being reviewed? (1)

Tom Parnevik (40029) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923276)

Pinker's book is more than a year old and I can't figure out why slashdot would give it this kind of bandwidth.

I didn't think his book was groudbreaking or even all that interesting. He didn't make any substantial claims and really didn't have any facts to back up his claims.

For my money, I would read Daniel Dennett. Darwin's Danegous Idea, Kinds of Minds, and his latest, Brainchildren are much better reads.

Studying the mind without understanding the brain (1)

Verde (40099) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923277)

I pretty much agree... I read this book as an amateur, and as such, I had a good time. It seems like current models are closer than they were 10 years ago, but it might be another 10, or 50 years until reasonably good understanding of the process is achieved.

Pinker and brain science. (1)

MySamoanAttorney (101175) | more than 15 years ago | (#1923281)

Both the Pinker/Chomsky/MIT and the Elman/Bates/UCSD groups are making substantive claims that should continue to be tested. As I understand the claims, they are (somewhat amplified):

[MIT] Language is built up out of domain- specific, innate modules which are evolved into the genome and are hard-wired into the brain at birth. Evidence: grammars are so complex, babies wouldn't stand a chance with just general-purpose reasoning capacaties.

[UCSD] Language is built up out of domain-general neural hardware which is neither innate nor hard-wired. We can thank the genome for general-purpose reasoning, but it is not correct to attribute language-specific neural wiring to evolution. Also, generative grammars *are* hard. Luckily only linguists (not babies) have to worry about generative grammars. Evidence: young children can lose the parts of their brains where the innate modules are supposed to be, and still do language.

These are not vanilla "nurture/nature" claims but rather substantive claims about how cognition work. Furthermore, they are important because they drive research in cognitive science and (American) linguistics. Finally (unlike much of generative grammar) they are testable claims. So let's continue to test them.

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