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Review:How the Mind Works 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.
How The Mind Works
author Steven Pinker
publisher US: W.W. Norton; UK: Penguin Books
rating 8
reviewer Janice Wright
ISBN 0393318486
summary teven Pinker tackles some of the biggest questions in psychology and sociology (How did humans develop the capacity for abstract thought? Will we ever understand what it means to be self aware? Why do we fall in love?) from an evolutionary biology perspective. This book makes some worthwhile points on the nature/nurture debate.

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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Review:How the Mind Works

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 :)
  • 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.

  • Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

    Cartoonish it may be, but it still happens.

    I've had people call me a nigger, to my face. Usually it's white people who've come to my defense when it's happened.

    Our home grown, specially brewed, hand crafted racists can often be pieces of work, but all to often they're just pieces of shit.

    Intelligent and rational don't mean the same thing.
    Consider Hitler for example, by any measure the man was a sociopath, his irrational hatred of the Jews is the supreme example of this, but the mad had to be a genuis to take the broken nation of Germany and make it an industrial and military power.

  • Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

    >>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.

    Why fossils? We have living examples in reptiles, amphibians, and fish like the Siamese walking catfish.

    What makes you think that we won't find the fossils of which you speak, let's just think for a moment, the oldest land animals we've found are in the hundreds of millions of years old. How deep beneath the surface of the earth do you think a 3 billion year old fossil would be? What makes you think that after 3 billion years any of the remains would be intact?

    Artifacts that have been on the ocean floor for a few hundred years disintegrate after only a few hours of exposure to air. How about remains which have been under the sea for several billion years?

    >> As a person who became a Christian through evidence concerning the divine origins of the Bible

    Evidence, like what? Rev. Jones says so? I'm a person who became a pagan because of evidence that the Bible was written by men to serve their own means.

    Perhaps the Bible and other religious texts were devinely inspired, but like all men, the people who put pen to paper added their own biases in prejudices to the work.

  • by gavinhall ( 33 )
    Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

    >>Better yet, please name a single counterexample from any place or time in the entire history of the human race.

    Thank you for asking.

    SWITZERLAND! The swiss are required to have "Assault" rifles and ammunition. They live in peace with a low crime rate and even Hitler was afraid to anger them.

  • by gavinhall ( 33 )
    Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

    I'm @ work right now, but I'll get the source fot eh Jefferson quote and post it.

  • Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

    "The constitutions of most of our States assert that all power is inherent in the people; that... it is their right and duty to be at all times armed."

    It's about two thirds the way down, and they list where they found it as well.

  • Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

    >>By the way, though, the riff about "Klinton and her husband" is pretty close to a direct quote from a militia web page. There are people out there, mostly in places like Michigan, who say those things in a very sincere and serious way. They are not joking. That's the scary thing: My troll was not an exaggeration.

    You don't have to be a "militia type" to believe that the Clintons are corrupt. Or to believe that constitutional rights are important.

    You also don't have to be a "right wing extremist" to believe that we are all the militia.

    "[The] governor [is] constitutionally the commander of the militia of the State, that is to say, of every man in it able to bear arms."

    --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811.

  • Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

    >>That's why I fell for it -- it wasn't an exaggeration. I know people who think like that. But I started suspecting when it started getting as far out as the "Klinton" thing; I doubt a nutcase that extreme would be the sort to hang out on Slashdot.

    Why is one who sees the Clinton for the scum that they are a "nutcase"?

  • 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).
  • 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".
  • by crayz ( 1056 )
    Did he really say he was a "pathetic looser"? Or did Janice mentally change loser to spell it like a geek would?
  • Big city schools have security guards and metal detectors.
  • um.

    Divine origins of the Bible?

    divide any circumferences by diameters lately?
  • um.
    Canis lupus
    Canis familliaris

    nope. Same, um (kingdom,phylum,class,order,family,genus,species)
    Genus. but they can breed?

    whussup wid dat?
  • I blame the Jocks.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • Check this [] out. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist and relays some interesting information. I'm not studying philosophy, psychology, or anything else for that matter. But this book is an excellent read.
  • "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.

  • 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.
  • 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")
  • You're all right; I read a very good refutation of this by Larry Hauser today. I guess it's obvious I don't keep up.

  • Had you read the complete post you would have read his explanation

  • 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 ??
  • >>... 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.

  • The problem with TLI is the content, not the presentation. While the universal grammar stuff seems to fit reasonably well to English, it starts falling apart (even to a layman such as myself) when considering Hebrew (my other language). This is particularly surprising in view of the fact that Chomsky knows Hebrew. I can only imagine what happens to the theory outside of its cosy English-Japanese-Hebrew playpen.

    The popular anti-nativist work is _Educating Eve_, by Geoffrey Sampson. Unfortunately, both sides of this debate use very poor scientific arguments. The "argument from lack of data" (note the medievalist-sounding name) is a fine example: Nativists (Chomsky etc.) claim that there are insufficient data available to a child learning a language, particularly with regard to incorrectly-formed sentences (the child never hears someone being corrected for saying "the the the an orange chimpanzee", yet still knows it's wrong). Therefore, there's got to be some innate knowledge. The empiricists (anti-nativists, in this case) claim that grammar is the "simplest" explanation of the sentences presented to the child, so it gets selected.

    But both sides present depressingly unscientific arguments! You'd think someone would go out and CHECK what children actually hear, but Sampson gives an example where Chomsky couldn't possibly have seen data for what he's claiming (creating the yes/no question for a sentence; you need to ask about the main verb, not about the first verb, and Chomsky claims that most children won't have heard a single example). Sampson gives examples of plausible sentences which would settle the matter. Of course, neither side has bothered to check it in the field.

    But still, the empiricists seem to have it right :-)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • No, the mind is simply one of the brain's more important tasks.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • by Hooptie ( 10094 )
    Nor does it explain the horrifying level of violence that always seems to result when everybody is armed all the time
    Perhaps you could give us some examples of places where everyone is armed all the time and the resultant "...horrifying level of violence..."
  • I have read most of Hofstadter's books (GEB,
    Mind's I, the one about fonts, and Metamagical Themas). I'm too scared by the size of LTDBM to pick it up just yet.

    I was pleasantly surprised to see this review, and then this thread, since this book has also been sitting on my shelf for months and on my mental list of books to read for what seems like a year. By the way, why is this review appearing now when the book isn't all that new?

    I guess I had nothing of substance to say except, Ra ra ra!
  • I'm sorry. That quote is NOT Homer Simpson. I forget who it is but I used to have it on my favorite quotes page and I know it much older than the Simpsons.
  • 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.
  • Penrose, a fine mathematician, came up with a non-repeating tiling. A toilet paper company apparently thought it was neat, so they stuck it on their product - I guess toilet paper needs texture or something. Penrose was upset by this, sued, but I think it settled out of court. Almost as funny as Apple's prototype named Sagan. Carl Sagan filed suit, Apple changed the name of the prototype to "Butthead Astronomer"

    Re: Emperor's new Mind, I agree that if the human mind works in a fundamentally different way than computers, then we shouldn't be surprised if computers cannot emulate them. However I never quite saw Penrose do anymore than throw out lamebrained theories regarding what those different fundamental processes are. I don't have the book with me at school right now so I am going off the top of my head right now.
  • 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.
  • You can't (accurately) determine someone's intelligence based on whether you agree with them.
  • Yes, that's probably why you don't think everything about the mind can be explained in terms of neural networks.

    Let me just point out to you that current computer models of neural networks are not quite the same as animal brains. Computer connection machines like neural networks are all synchronous and therefore deterministic. They are actually Turing machines. However animal brains are asynchronous and chaotic, not deterministic. They are not Turing machines and may therefore compute things that Turing machines may not compute.

    However, computer neural networks can serve as a useful and illustrative schematic model of how some low-level structures (cell assemblies) in "wet" neural networks do operate. This much has been proven experimentally.
    Consciousness is not what it thinks it is
    Thought exists only as an abstraction
  • a better solution than banning guns (which those kids probably weren't "allowed" to have anyway, and see what that accomplished),

    Oh how typical. It seems that there are people brought up in your culture who are completely unable to think from any other perspective than 'guns are good'.

    Why don't you try reasoning for once.

    (1) In any society there is always a small proportion of lunatics and wired misfits.

    (2) A lunatic with empty hands or even with a knife is dangerous but a lunatic with a gun is an order of magnitude more dangerous in terms of the number of people he can kill before he is forced to stop.

    (3) If guns are generally available in society, anyone will be able to get one if they want to; the law just means they have to steal one or buy one illegally.

    Therefore - and for the hard of thinking, it really is this simple - if you make guns generally available then you will always see atrocities like this.

    For the even more stupid who maintain that all the students should have been armed as a matter of self defence - and I know there are Americans who say things like that - how many students do you suppose would have been killed or injured in that school in the last five years due to accidents, grudge shootings and spontaneous gun battles?

    Its time America grew up a bit and realised it's not the Wild West any more. People living in cities have to live by civilised rules, and walking around armed to the teeth is not civilised by any stretch of the imagination.

    Consciousness is not what it thinks it is
    Thought exists only as an abstraction
  • I'm sorry to be the one to have to tell you, but there is no evidence concerning the divine origins of the human bible. For an observation to be considered as evidence it has to be independently reproducible or otherwise verifiable. If such evidence were found we would all know about it and believe me I would be very interested. Third-hand accounts of supposed eyewitness testimony many years after the event are not 'evidence'.

    Organisms transmit their biological characteristics to their offspring. That is why your children look like you, and that is why selective breeding of domestic animals has been successfully practised for millennia. Genetics has even become an applied science at the molecular level. To deny the validity of this theory is to deny the evidence of your own eyes. It isn't even worthy of debate. By the way, the 'father' of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was a monk.

    Natural selection merely states the obvious fact that those organisms who produce no offspring having died young or having been unable to win a mate, will not transmit their biological characteristics to the next generation. Natural selection certainly was and continues to be a major factor in the way species evolve, because ultimately it is only a description of this obvious and observable fact about population dynamics. By the way, Charles Darwin was a deeply religious man throughout his whole life. If you really read his writings you would know this.

    I don't deny the possibility of God's existence. I'm not even going to argue about the likelihood (or not) of His Direct and Personal Intervention in the evolution of species on this planet as it would take up too much space. Let's just agree that it can't be ruled out. But whether he did or didn't intervene, evolution would still have happened by the ebb and flow of population dynamics modulated by changing environmental conditions (like climate) and spiked by the very occasional random mutation. We know from common experience and experiment that all these things happen and we also know that when they do they affect the shape of successive generations.

    Where does that leave God in terms of a role in evolution? As a 'God of the Gaps'. I don't have any particular philosophical difficulty with that although some do. But throughout history, as these gaps in our knowledge have been progressively illuminated by new discoveries the God of the Gaps has like the darkness been steadily driven away.

    At the end of the day I doubt I can convince you because the only line of reasoning that can sustain a viewpoint like yours is a closed and circular one that denies all experience and all logic. But think on this:

    There is an epistemological viewpoint that the 'truth' of any theory cannot be regarded as an absolute because we can never know everything there is to know, and some as-yet-unknown fact may just be lurking around the corner waiting to overturn the applecart of that particular theory. Therefore we can only evaluate theories in terms of how useful they are - not merely in providing an explanation of our observations, which could be a false explanation - but in terms of whether they allow us to make accurate predictions of that which is not yet known directly, and in terms of whether the theory can be applied to create new useful technologies.

    The scientific community admits that the theories of evolution and the origin of life on Earth are not yet complete. However what is 'known' about them is enough to be usefully applied in selective breeding, genetic engineering and the treatment of genetic diseases. Moreover paleontology has been assembled into a successful and mostly self-consistent picture of biological history. Gaps and a few inconsistencies in the model at any given time do not invalidate the usefulness of the whole theory as long as most of its predictions continue to be in agreement with new discoveries.

    What useful predictions and tricks can you or anyone else do with your 'theory'? You can't answer that, can you!

    That is the real difference between a a community operating under careful peer review to develop a theory based on solid evidence, and a horde of self-deluded halfwits with a book of ancient fairy stories. Between fact, and fantasy.

    Consciousness is not what it thinks it is
    Thought exists only as an abstraction
  • Idiot! The US Constitution is a statement of position, not of proposed fact. You can't believe that a statement of position is "true" or "not true". So how can you make any comparison?

    What you are saying is that, for you, no logical reasoning can ever provide a higher authority than the Constitution as it is today. Interesting. I do believe there were a number of amendments made to the Constitution over the last two hundred years, precisely because good men debated the merits of making these changes and it was in each case decided that the Constitution could be improved upon.

    Thank heaven people like you don't run the world.

    I guess you learned how to think at the same institution where they taught you how to spell, huh?

    If your people don't amend that 'right to bear arms' nonsense then innocent civilians - including children - will continue to die painfully and horribly. Is the right of aggressive lunatics to strut around like Rambo worth that cost?
    Consciousness is not what it thinks it is
    Thought exists only as an abstraction
  • That's very interesting. But you're failing to take into account all the other deaths from gunshot wounds that have happened because somebody with a grudge or a bad temper had access to a gun.
    Consciousness is not what it thinks it is
    Thought exists only as an abstraction
  • firearm-committed mass murders in the US

    like the ones in Colombia, south-east Turkey, El Salvador and Yugoslavia?

    The US is a culture of extreme violence. It has always relied on force for the subjugation of the legitimate owners of raw materials, of labour organizations, and of potential "good examples" of independent development.

    Ever played "Cowboys and Indians", boys?

    Money talks. So do guns.

  • the man had to be a genius to take the broken nation of Germany and make it an industrial and military power.

    Not really. It was very obvious public policy: spend lots on public works and armaments. Boost investment prospects with public spending to attract foreign capital. Make sure everybody was occupied and/or intimidated so that no-one would object to what *else* was going on. Steal land, capture slaves, take revenge on the enemies you respect and bring them under your wing.

    But he didn't have to be a genius to throw it all away in a ridiculous conquest of the largest territory on earth, committing two-thirds of his country's armed forces in uncontrollable territory along a front four thousand kilometres long. *That* was the act of a fanatical madman who really thought that Germans could beat numerically and industrially superior forces simply by virtue of being superior Aryans. Stalingrad proved it.
  • by xoddam ( 11546 )
    The Swiss culture of violence is one of disciplined self-defence. These people take oaths to defend their community, and they have an active democracy where every adult (until recently, only every man, but it's only men who are required to be armed) has a say in decision-making. While Swiss capitalism has a lot in common with the American one (free markets for everyone else, protection and subsidy at home), wealth is fairly evenly distributed amongst the population.

    The American culture of violence is one of conquest and coercion. American democracy is a farce. Important decisions are made by investors and corporate lawyers, while politicians rubber-stamp them and rant at the public about religion, sex and "freedom" which means, protect the power of investors at all times.

    The kind of ranting about the right to arm bears which many Americans go on with is purely selfish. It has nothing whatsoever with respecting the integrity of other citizens, let alone other *people*.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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"

  • ALL law abiding adults should be armed at all times.

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

    Would you mind citing where Jefferson said that? Or are you paraphrasing him to the point of semantic alteration?

    This is not meant to be a flame. I just have a hard time believing that Jefferson actually said that. The "right to keep and bear arms" is one thing; the obligation to be armed every moment of one's life is another thing entirely. Why would it be a duty anyway? What would be gained? Or is it a disembodied moral imperative?

    Of course, even if Jefferson did say it, that doesn't make it true. Nor does it explain the horrifying level of violence that always seems to result when everybody is armed all the time.

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

  • . . . one one of them was quoted saying "I hate niggers"

    Do people ever really talk like that? It seems so cartoonish. All the racists I've known have been very respectable types and/or loudmouthed pseudo-libertarian morons, neither of which will ever admit it as explicitly as that. They always say "I'm not a racist, but . . ."

    Then again, maybe I've led a sheltered life.

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

  • the whole idea of "transitions between species" is rather ill-defined; nature doesn't put up nice neat dividing lines between species.

    Yeah, as I understand it, that's what led poor Plato astray. If A is a horse and B is a horse, but they're not identical, why are they both horses when C (a goat, also not identical) is not a horse? Eek! Well, jeez . . . So Plato went through all these contortions trying to kludge a way to postulate a hard-and-fast line between horse and not-horse. In fact, the right way to look at it is that "A and B are pretty goddamn horsey, while C isn't very horsey at all (while still being horsier than a fruit-bat)". That's all you get. Ha ha, you see what you learn from reading a popular book on fuzzy logic? Yeah! :)

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

  • Some student said he said that, true. I was wondering if the student was possibly misquoting? But that really doesn't make much sense, does it.

    Not that anybody here would know for sure anyway, of course. :)

    I think I was asking more of a rhetorical question than anything else, based on aghast disbelief that people can really be such overt, knowing dumbasses. Then again, these kids were shooting people right and left, weren't they, and that's a bit of a dumbass move to begin with.

    What really freaked me out was a quote on cnn's website, from one of the students who escaped:

    ". . . these guys shot to kill, for no reason. ... They didn't care what race you were. It didn't matter."

    Note that the second ellipses are not mine; they are there in the article that I'm quoting []. That having been said, maybe I'm too sensitive, but it looks to me almost as if the kid is implying that if they were shooting people on the basis of their race, it would somehow make sense. That's weird. Then again, a quote mangled in a hurry by journalists can't be taken too seriously anyway. We don't know what, or how much, is missing where it's elided. Some of the rest of the CNN articles about this are downright incoherent in spots; obviously CNN was in a hurry to get things in print.

    Oh, well.

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

  • Cartoonish it may be, but it still happens.

    Ugh. How depressing. I mean, if they're "polite" about it, that at least implies that they know there's something wrong with it. It suggests that they're not inhabiting a perfect moral and intellectual void. Of course, IMHO those are the most dangerous, because you can't always see them coming. Being more respectable, they gather a lot more power.

    Intelligent and rational don't mean the same thing.


    Consider Hitler for example, by any measure the man was a sociopath, his irrational hatred of the Jews is the supreme example of this, but the man had to be a genuis to take the broken nation of Germany and make it an industrial and military power.

    I don't know. I think a lot of what he did was just getting everybody moving in the same direction, enthusiastically. Morale is worth a lot, and it still works if it's based on psychotic premises. I often think that psychological manipulation is such a delicate art that you just can't do it in a calculated way, much like playing music (but with more destructive results). Still, I really don't know. If we knew exactly what happened there and how and why, we'd be a lot better off.

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

  • Perhaps you could give us some examples of places where everyone is armed all the time and the resultant "...horrifying level of violence..."

    The African-bloodbath-nation-of-the-week, anytime in the last ten years. See CNN for particulars. The Balkans (before NATO), ditto CNN. Russia in 1917 and for a few years after. Afghanistan in recent years. Also any place, any time where there's no reasonably strong and stable central government.

    Better yet, please name a single counterexample from any place or time in the entire history of the human race.

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

  • a good definition is they're the same species if they can mate (and produce offspring)

    Yeah, I think that is the standard thing, but it has to be viable offspring. But what if they don't turn each other on? What if they're tired, or they have a headache? Even at best, you'll have to wait for the offspring (if any) to reproduce successfully before you've got an answer. It's a lot easier to just compare it to the Archetypical Horse and blow off the details. :)

    "Once a solution is found, a compatibility problem becomes indescribably boring because it has only... practical importance"
  • Duh. I knew that :) Yeah, they all do have such weapons -- but if they show up for exercises (once a year for everybody, IIRC) with the seal broken on the ammunition, they catch hell over it. Furthermore, they aren't required to carry their rifles at all times; far from it. The guns stay in a closet or under the bed.

    Still, it's valid (none of the above caveats would ever prevent anybody from doing what the kids in Colorado did) and I feel kinda stupid for forgetting about it.

    (My information is from La Place de la Concorde Suisse by John McPhee, by the way. If you haven't read it, it's a cool look at the Swiss military, with incidental material on general Swiss history, wine, and scenery. It was written IIRC in the early 80's.)

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

  • Other than that, IMHO most of the rest are a matter of opinion. Actually, Dershowitz' line is a matter of opinion, too -- but IMHO (I have a lot of humble opinions :), it's a broader and more important point.

    As for Orwell, if you haven't read Homage to Catalonia, read it immediately. It's way cool and he says even better things about armed citizens in there.

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

  • Well, if someone hoses down a high school with the same ammunition, he can expect to catch hell over it, too. Doesn't look like "catching hell" is much of a deterrent, does it?

    Must be something else.

    Read my post again. I already said that: "none of the above caveats would ever prevent anybody from doing what the kids in Colorado did."

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

  • Everyone being armed deters violence.

    In theory that's true, but unfortunately the theory is based on wishful thinking rather than facts.

    The few real-world examples where an armed society is actually polite, are atypical in a lot of ways. For example, the Swiss aren't being deterred from violence by the presence of arms in their homes; they're simply too fat and happy for violence to be appealing. They also have a far more civilized culture than the U.S., which is a hairs-breadth from barbarism at best. There are a hell of a lot of armed societies that are absolute bloodbaths.

    It does not deter social unrest.

    Please clarify that.

    "Once a solution is found, a compatibility problem becomes indescribably boring because it has only... practical importance"
  • I've gone full circle from finding obscene stupidity angering to merely fascinating.
  • a good definition is they're the same species if they can mate (and produce offspring) - saw this in some museum or other
  • I've not read the book but wanted to respond to your comments concerning the shooting.

    The explanation that they targeted jocks because jocks have increased mating opportunities seems plausible, but may be oversimplifying and/or innacurate. There are multiple factors to consider:

    - Kids at that age are incredibly cruel. The pointless insults that adults hold in check are often not held back during adolescence. Humor at the expense of others (because they wear a black trenchcoat, for instance) is easy to add to the "warchest" and is not a tool only for jocks.

    - A society that glamourizes adult desires (sex, power) while simultaneously limiting their adult privileges (drugs, alcohol, driving, the ability to make money).

    - A society of increasing complexity (technology, legislation) that must seem insurmountable to some at that age, with the full expectation that they will be thrown into it after graduation.

    Anyway, just some random thoughts. BTW, this is one of the best threads I've ever seen on /.
  • 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.

  • Ok, so point us to a comparable text on evolutionary psychology.

    Try "The Adapted Mind" by Tooby & Cosmedes.

    Very gnarly.. Goes into mucho detail.

  • > Could having smaller schools with a closer
    > student body help prevent the allienation that
    > seems to be a common factor in the many school
    > shooting's?

    No, no, no. The smaller your school is, the more likely people won't be able to find a group they can be part of, be comfortable with. If I go to a school with, say, 100 people, and 99 of them are total tools -- sports, pop music, GAP jeans, the whole nine yards -- am I, as a nonconformist, more likely to turn into a conformist and join your "closer student body" or am I more likely to just hate and fear all of the tools?

    Or, conversely, if I'm in a school with 10,000 people in it, am I more likely to be an outcast and never find anyone that agrees with me or thinks like me, or am I more likely to find twenty kids who know where I'm coming from and like me?

    Don't force us to be "close" to each other and therefore just like each other, like tools on a shelf. Let us be as dissimilar as the myriad flakes in a snowstorm, and as beautiful.
  • I graduated 1998 from a school which had around 500 students, in a town with about 6400 inhabitants. It was in Kansas, a state not well known for tolerance (or much of anything else :-). I, also, speak from experience.

    Our tools didn't accept anyone who didn't fit one of their molds, they instead ridiculed them and cast them out. If you didn't play a sport, go to one of their churches, and agree with most of what they agreed to be truth, then you were only barely acceptable as a person, and you certainly weren't invited to be *friends* with them.

    Also, there was more than one operative clique in the school. We also had this group who liked to feel different -- they listened to NIN and wore either black leather or flowers in their hair -- but had nearly the same rules as the preps. The significant change was that you didn't have to play a sport, but you had to have some feature that let them know how different you were.

    My point is that stratification is going to happen no matter what the size of the student population is, but if it's bigger instead of smaller you don't get as many strata with only one person on them. My point is NOT that people only get along with people from their own strata, and should be closed minded to all others, please don't read it that way; I had friends and acquaintances that were totally nothing like me.

    If you think that your small school is special, and that it's not like that where you're from, you might try a little ad hoc experiment of mine. Look around a crowded room, like your lunch room or some such, and pick out five people that you don't know very well or don't like. Tally all of the parties you've been at and they were there, all of the clubs/teams that you're both on, and all of your mutual friends. Now pick out five people you like and hang out with. Not your best friend or anything that might throw off the numbers, but friends. Add up the same number for them.

    LOOK! The number for the strangers is far, far less than the number for the friends, because you are on different social strata! You might not consider those strangers bad people or worthless people, but they certainly aren't nearly as close as the people in your clique. Don't be ashamed of being in a group, be happy, you are cool enough, and a good enough person that you were able to go this long without even noticing the strata!

    I've actually done a lot more thought and writing about high-school stratification than I want to express in this little tiny slashdot box. Email me ( and we can talk about it at greater length if you please.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • No, Amok is a Vulcan word meaning "terminally horny".

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

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

  • > 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.
  • > 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.
  • > I don't understand your "innativity vs. adaptivity" though

    No, I wasn't using the term as trade jargon, nor talking about evolution. I was thinking in terms of the ability to process language in the right hemisphere when a problem prevents it from working in the (default) left hemisphere, self-organization, "re-adaptation" of parts of the cortex in response to an injury, and all that kind of stuff.
  • > Evidence: grammars are so complex, babies wouldn't stand a chance with just general-purpose reasoning capacaties.

    That's my problem with their whole school of thought: this isn't (IMO) "evidence", but rather "Chomsky's claim". Just because Chomsky doesn't think kids are smart enough doesn't mean that they aren't. The only observable evidence is that childern do learn their languages; it is nothing more than an unsubstantiated assumption to claim that they could not do so without some built-in help.

    In the absence of a biological demonstration of such a helper organ, and/or a convincing argument that one really is needed, I feel like Occam would prefer we proceded without positing one (I would certainly prefer it!).

    In the running skirmish between Pinker, Fodor, and that lot vs. the connectionists, every time the one side points out a flaw in the latest connectionist model and says "Ha! Your networks could never do X", the other side comes back with a new model that does in fact do X.

    But such arguments are not diagnostic: it seems that either side can up the ante on the other, and there's no indication of who'll be last in the ring.

    I ramble...
  • 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.
  • 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, this is kind of getting off topic, but...

    After Dark (the screen saver) had a Penrose tile option. It's a wonder he didn't sue them too! That would be like Einstein suing someone for using E=mc^2.

    I don't have the book in front of me either and it's been a while since I read it. But iirc his assertion was that the brain solves problems in a quantum manner. All 'possible' solutions exist simutaneously in a state of superposition until the state vector collapses to a single solution. This effectively parallelizes the solution to the problem. One manefestation of this process is when solutions pop into your head out of the blue when you're thinking about something else entirely.

    I'll agree that the evidence of all this was less than overwhelming, but he admitted that in the book. I think it was mostly presented as food for thought and to try to spur on some research in directions heretofore unexplored. He may have modified this argument somewhat in the second book, as I said, I understood little of that one.

    In any case, along the way I learned a lot about chaos, number theory, relativity & quantum mechanics, all of which I find more interesting than AI anyway.

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • I didn't think his book was groudbreaking

    Ok, so point us to a comparable text on evolutionary psychology. Whoops, there aren't any.

    He didn't make any substantial claims

    Pinker claims that the conditions present for evolutionary humans have a strong and direct causal link to our current psychological / cognitive reality, and that this link's explanatory power allows us to understand psychology / cognition more thoroughly than we could with out it.

    didn't have any facts to back up his claims

    Look at the copious footnotes to each chapter. I defy you to show one significant claim that isn't thoroughly defended. (note also that this complain contradicts your previous complaint)

    Very weak bit of trolling.
  • Due to the density of your commentary, excuse me if I don't continue the quote/retort technique.
    Briefly -

    1. Yes, there certainly are other works on the influence of evolution on the mind. You miss the word comparable, however - I'm somewhat familiar with the Dennett and Churchland texts you cite, and they argue for quite different points.

    2. OK, you got me there, I haven't read up on all of the dead people in the field, just the more prominent active members. I'll put Casti on my reading list, I promise.

    3. Footnotes vs. unshakable proof - I agree that the presence of footnotes is not sufficient grounds for accepting a statement as fact. My recollection, however, is that HTWM, like the rest of Pinker's works, is well-supported, meaning that relevant studies are cited in intellectually honest ways, so that Pinker can reasonably point to support for his claims (and not everything in HTWM is a claim, to be sure; some of the content is clearly more speculative).

    I think the problem you (and the other detractors here) are having is that HTWM is a higher-level text that explains aspects of Pinker's theories to a more general audience, and these theories are different than the ones you hold. Because the text aims to explain to a neutral audience, not win over a hostile one, you may find its rigor lacking; it does not have answers for all of your attacks. The same thing happens to me when I read stuff by the Churchlands.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    Right. What you've said was one of the most disturbing things I felt when reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I think that type of backwards thinking is a vestige of "inclusive fitness" that Dawkins talks about.

    Of course as an advanced society we should have evolved beyond that...

  • It's the article titled

    15 Dead in Colo. School Shooting - AP (04/21/99)

    Article at Yahoo. []

    To quote the relevant part...

    Cohn said one killer put a pistol to his head but did not shoot him. Instead, he said, the shooter turned his attention to a black student, saying, ``I hate niggers.'' Cohn heard three shots but couldn't see what happened.

  • 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.

  • 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. =)

  • .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...

  • all of the complex systems you deal with including yourself and the people around you are a function of structure... structure of neurons, cells... matter--all of it.

    get over it. it's a product of scientific endeavor and it is this endeavor which has unearthed nature's greatest mysteries. Sure, it has not yet unearthed _all_ of natures mysteries, but this is no reason to discard it in the wholesale fashion you seem to suggest.

    your lung argument is a hundred years late. read "The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins and you will have your answer to "who" created all of this. you fundamentally misunderstand darwinian evolution.

    you speak of the "life consciousness" as if it is a real thing. has it ever registered in anyone's experiments? does it yield to some system of modeling maybe in physics? chemistry? biology? I don't think so. It is clear now--thanks to science and only science--that all of biology (including your brain) is reducible to chemistry. All of chemistry is reducible to physics. Period.

    What is so terrible about science, after all? It has allowed us to harness electricity, refine manufacturing methods, and ultimately put your computer on your desk. Ditto for your television, microwave oven, processed foods, medications, automobile, i dare say, every human product you can possibly lay your hands on in your home has been accelerated in discovery and quality by science.

    Why not argue against science in a sane manner? how about making some points about nuclear weapons and responsibility? global warming? human experimentation? gene therapies? cloning? your arguments are boring because they are not arguments at all--only complaints brought about by your own misunderstanding of the subject.

  • Just one quick comment:
    What if, instead of our genomes containing all the pertinent information, they simply contain the basic seed, and the instincts can reliably grow from that. (i.e.:We have an equation for a fractal, then can take that relatively small amount of data and create an infinite and complex item).

    Excuse me if this sounds at all stupid to you, but I've got a chem exam tomorrow and I'm tired.
  • 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...
  • 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.

10.0 times 0.1 is hardly ever 1.0.