Re: PSYCH: Book Recommendation: Pinker's "How the Mind Works"

GBurch1 (
Sat, 28 Mar 1998 07:54:11 EST

Mark Crosby pointed us to a debate between Steven Pinker and Steven Rose,
published at the Edge website, for which I am very grateful. (I've previously
endorsed the Edge - - as perhaps the highest quality discussion
forum on the net, but hadn't been there since the Pinker/Rose debate had been
put up on their site.) Whether you read Pinker's book or not, reviewing the
debate documented at the Edge is fascinating reading.

Then, in a message dated 98-03-23 10:58:39 EST, Mark Crosby wrote:

> Some may complain about the quality of much stuff
> posted on the Web; but, I'm more concerned when
> people want to learn about a subject outside of their
> profession and just pick one or two books by a few
> notable authors and base most of their conclusions on
> those. Thus, by relying on, for example, the
> Extropian reading list, one could end up being
> familiar with Richard Dawkins, Paul Churchland, and,
> now, Steven Pinker, without being aware that these
> researchers are considered to lie at extreme ends of
> the spectrum by many other researchers in their
> respective fields.

As it happens, although I haven't read Rose's most recent book "Lifelines", I
have read his book "The Making of Memory". Ironically, in light of some of
the criticisms of Pinker's book others have made, I wouldn't have endorsed
Rose's book here because I didn't find all that much in "The Making of Memory"
that added to a deep understanding of cognitive science (technically, it was
too finely focused on the neurochemistry of memory formation to be of wide
general interest, or so I would have thought) and the writing was a bit too
personalistic in a way I didn't find particularly appealing (perhaps lacking
the humor of the many brief detours one finds in Pinker's book).

With regard specifically to the Pinker/Rose debate, as a professional
rhetorician I found Rose's part of the discussion very patently an attack on a
straw man, which Pinker correctly pointed out. Rose and other "computational
evolutionary psychologists" (to coin a term) are not nearly the simple
reductionists that Pinker makes out. Pinker clearly states many times in his
book and in the debate that some important aspects of cognition cannot be
understood fully or really with any depth at all without an analysis of
higher-order cognitive constructs (e.g.. beliefs and desires), that such
constructs are very REAL and, if I understand the overarching theory he and
many others espouse, that the richness of human mental life is PRIMARILY a
function of the immensely complex action of such high-order mental phenomena.
In this regard, I think that one could only characterize Pinker and his
colleagues as lying "at the extreme end of the spectrum" by ignoring this
important point.

Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
-- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover