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  #1  
Unread April 5th, 2006, 11:36 AM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Pinker's Blank Slate

As recommended by the moderator, I've finished the first part of The Blank Slate- titled The Blank Slate, The Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. Pinker states that he makes his case for hereditary determinism here in these first five chapters - and then uses the remaining sections of the book to discuss the implications.

I did not find that he made his case here. I found an old history of mistaken notions about psychology and epistemolgy from a few hundred years ago. I found circumstantial evidence for his case but nowhere did I find the slam dunk I was expecting. One problem may be that I have never doubted that genes have a lot to do with who we are. My problem comes when someone tells me that those genes will make it impossible for women to be good at science or that some racial subgroups could never handle democracy. But I also disagree with the cultural determinists about many things.

I think both sides - in fact all the human sciences - are stuck in a cognicentric view of human nature that causes their practitioners to look scrupulously under the wrong rocks to find their answers. IMO the rocks that reveal who we are are labeled emotions. The already proven genetic connection to the systems that mediate our neurotransmitters, hormones and other brain chemicals hold the answers to who we are. Those emotions can act over long periods to shape our minds, as our identity emotions do. Or, they can act violently over shorter periods of time to shape our minds, as happens to those who experience combat or natural disasters find that their minds (the emotional responses that direct their cognition) no longer fit into a more normal existence - PTSD.

But, the title of the book, The Blank Slate, is a bit of a Red Herring. I heard about the blank slate in school, not in psychology but in philosophy. And it was introduced as an interesting part of the nature - nurture question, not as dogma. That was way back in the sixties. I haven't read any contemporary books supporting the concept of the blank slate. Everyone these days seems to think it is still an interesting question that's about to find some new evidence as nuero-biologists find new clues every day. Like at Scans suggest IQ scores reflect brain structure

Using Pinker's metaphor I'd say that our minds are not a blank slate at birth, but are a slate with a grid pattern on it, like a scheduling board in a factory. Certain kinds of information are processed in the various grid boxes. There are probably some small differences in the sizes of those boxes between genders and racial sub-groups. But, the gridded slate called human is different in very regular ways from other mammals. I suspect the number of functional boxes and their relative sizes are similar for all humans. The variations that do exists between genders or racial sub-groups are the genetic treasure that carry the adaptability that we may need as global and long-lasting environmental changes come along.

Here is my bias. I find it very strange when one group of humans claim that their particular box sizes and connections - that are due to a million years of both genetic and environmental influences - are superior to those of other humans. This is a question that our genome will work out by itself over the next millenium and it will be reflected in changes in that genome. It is not a question that can be effectively answered by human minds conceptualizing their own existence, driven by their own egos. IMO the task of science is to figure out how to make life better for this human genome and whatever variations may exist - not to use science as just another version of the ancient claim for tribal privilege.

I think the lines that separate the grid zones in our minds are wide and do not have sharp edges. Adjacent zones share some information processing characteristics so that according to the recurring emotional experiences we have in life - some kinds of information can work its way over into an adjacent zone making its box relatively larger than the genes originally specified. I also suspect that the innate efficiency of the connections between the functional boxes could vary somewhat by gender or racial sub-group - and even more so by individual. But, I believe that our emotional experiences in life constantly refine those connections to make them more efficient (adaptable) to our life experience and the particular world we live in.

That all says nothing about the particular mental images that are processed in those zones - which I believe are almost entirely cultural.

Back to The Blank Slate. Before I read about the implications of herditary determinism I'm going back to read this first section again to make sure I've given him the best shot I can at making his case. I'd appreciate anyone here who has read this book and who does see where he proves his case in there to tell me where I should be paying most attention. Or better yet, restate what you consider to be his best case for proof of hereditary determinism here in your own words.

Margaret
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  #2  
Unread April 5th, 2006, 12:54 PM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate

Margaret:

1) There are possibly more than a few genetic differences between me and thee, some of them related to differences in our minds that emerged from differences in our genes. Some of those differences may lead to your rejection of Pinker's work and to my rabid acceptance of it.

In any event, your blindness is yours to manage.

2) You're working on a book and using this forum as a resource. As Bob Wright once commented to me, "It happens more than you would believe."

JB
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  #3  
Unread April 5th, 2006, 03:58 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate

JimB said,
Quote:
1) There are possibly more than a few genetic differences between me and thee, some of them related to differences in our minds that emerged from differences in our genes.
Isn't that the question? Did our differences emerge from differences in our genes or in our experiences? I'd say probably both. With the genes laying down a structure that may have been fairly similar, who knows? But our separate experiences seem to have the most to say about our opinions on this - I'd think. I went through a pretty intense attachment to Ayn Rand in the early sixties. I then went through some very emotional times (the anti-war years) and came out of that quite liberal - but emotionally more than intellectually. I didn't think much about those things for many years but then when Newt Gingrich said that people who think like me were responsible for the death of Susan Smith's children - I started paying more attention.

Quote:
Some of those differences may lead to your rejection of Pinker's work and to my rabid acceptance of it.
Well, I'm not exactly rejecting Pinker's work. I'm asking for help in understanding his main argument supporting his position. And, I don't understand why a scientist would rabidly accept anyone's work. Shouldn't that be left to the ideologues?

You said, In any event, your blindness is yours to manage. I've never been able to appreciate the conservative tendency to see everyone as an enemy or an ally. No wonder Fred is so comfortable here.

You said,
Quote:
2) You're working on a book and using this forum as a resource. As Bob Wright once commented to me, "It happens more than you would believe."
I'd like to think I had a book in me about human nature. I haven't reached the place where I feel that I have a good overview of the subject. I've written things in the past that seemed really stupid not long afterward. I think if I tried to write a book about this stuff now that's what would happen. Besides I have no credibility in this area. It would be a really tough sell.

Cultural determinism feels like the stronger side of the argument to me but I need to really understand your side better before I can believe that I am right or wrong. That's why I wrote the last post. It's just a fascinating question to me. Most of my writing experience has been technical writing. Although you're sort of accusing me of dishonesty - I am somewhat pleased that you would think I'd be working on a book.

But, I'm not writing a book and I'm not looking for a fight - although I have regrettably responded to some of your posts that way. I just want to discuss these ideas (hereditary determinism which seems to be the underpinning of EP) with someone who is capable of defending them. Someone with PhD who runs a forum on EP that is open to people like me should be able (and willing) to do that - I would think.

So far you've only told me to read certain books and then I'd apparently see why I was wrong. I have been doing that but have not found what you said I would. So, now I'm asking you to tell me in your own words (or your rewording of Pinker's) why you are right.

Margaret
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  #4  
Unread April 11th, 2006, 11:06 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate

Quote:
MM: I think both sides - in fact all the human sciences - are stuck in a cognicentric view of human nature that causes their practitioners to look scrupulously under the wrong rocks to find their answers. IMO the rocks that reveal who we are are labeled emotions.
Consider that the primary emotions of we humans are essentially equivalent to that of many mammals—fear, anger, disgust, etc. What primarily distinguishes us from other mammals is the reality of our enhanced cognitive ability, our intelligence, the “cognitive” in Ledoux’s mental trilogy. What other mammal can comprehend the objective truth of infinite primes or of pi; or can comprehend concepts like “mental trilogy” or self ?

Your inability and/or refusal to accept or acknowledge this reality, despite the overwhelming evidence that has been provided here and in the excellent resources you’ve recently been reading, suggests that your cognitive capability is less than optimal and/or or that you’re blinded by your emotions.

Have you ever had a dream, Margaret, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? Sooner or later, Margaret, you’re going to have to accept that there's often a difference between what you feel, and what is real. Free your mind, Margaret—we can only show you the door—you're the one that has to walk through it.
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  #5  
Unread April 11th, 2006, 03:09 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate

Fred, You said,
Quote:
Your inability and/or refusal to accept or acknowledge this reality, despite the overwhelming evidence that has been provided here and in the excellent resources you’ve recently been reading, suggests that your cognitive capability is less than optimal and/or or that you’re blinded by your emotions.
I am responding to your post despite my stated determination not to respond to such ad hominem attacks. You might say that I'm giving you one last chance to stop being a jerk. I am doing this because you are obviously smart and I hate to dismiss your ideas. But I will not respond to any post in the future that like this one, suggests that I am stupid because I don't agree with you. This is a common way that you respond. It is something that you seem to have developed to a high skill. I realize you must have a had a troubled childhood but using educated prose to insult people is not the best way to get back at those who picked on you so many years ago. In any case, I will not be your enabler.

Also, you should try to understand that differences of opinion are not attacks on your identity. They can easily become that way if you start attacking the intelligence of those who disagree with you. That's what I'm trying to avoid so that the substance of what we are discussing can be considered - without the strong personal emotions that you insist on bringing in. It's called objective discussion. Despite my misgivings I will attempt to have one of those with you now.

You said,
Quote:
Consider that the primary emotions of we humans are essentially equivalent to that of many mammals—fear, anger, disgust, etc. What primarily distinguishes us from other mammals is the reality of our enhanced cognitive ability, our intelligence, the “cognitive” in Ledoux’s mental trilogy. What other mammal can comprehend the objective truth of infinite primes or of pi; or can comprehend concepts like “mental trilogy” or self ?
What other mammal can comprehend the objective truth that negroes are subhuman and should be held as slaves for white men, that women were created from Adams' rib 6000 years ago in the Garden of Eden or that Jews should be exterminated as a race? There are many humans today who would claim the objective truth of each of those assertions - and some perhaps who would consider killing you if you did not agree.

My point is not that humans do not a have a powerful intellect. It is that our intellect only affects our decisions according to the emotional strength that we attach to the various ideas or concepts that we create or consider. And that is something that we have little control over. It depends on how well those concepts support or grate against the beliefs that we already hold in our minds - beliefs that we probably adopted when we were very young.

I would go so far as to say that belief is an emotional response to an idea that conforms to our existing higher level identity beliefs.

In that way, our intellectual conclusions are first guided by our existing beliefs (in that some ideas won't fit with our identity beliefs and will be rejected before we consider them) and those that we do consider will only be weighted in our decisions according the emotional strength we subconsciously grant them.

You said,
Quote:
Have you ever had a dream, Margaret, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? Sooner or later, Margaret, you’re going to have to accept that there's often a difference between what you feel, and what is real.
I would counter that what anyone actually believes (to be true) is only that which they feel to be true. Without that emotional validation they can not truly believe - no matter what they might say. The difference between us is where we find our emotional validation. Is it in facts about human nature that can be observed - or in bromides about free will and atheism that make you feel so good when you hit the submit button? I know this will make no sense to you - but I offer it to consider if you wish.

But, this is similar to my free will challenge. We can not choose any behavior that does not optimize the predicted emotional outcome for our benefit. In that same way we can not believe anything that emotionally violates our existing higher level identity beliefs.

Michael Behe, despite his PhD in biochemistry believes that some supernatural intelligence designed life in the universe. He has proposed no falsifiable theory to explain this. Like Behe, most of us spend far more mental energy justifying our existing beliefs than logically and objectively examining them before we adopt them.

You said,
Quote:
Free your mind, Margaret—we can only show you the door—you're the one that has to walk through it.
Who is the we here? Your conservative admiration for authority and your need to feel that you somehow belong to that grand structure is showing. Try making your own arguments and stop seeking validation from those who have their own ideology to promote. Consider yourself on double secret probation.

Margaret

PS - I have no need to convince you of anything. Only the quality of your arguments will make any difference to me. If you screw this up there are plenty of interesting forums where I'd rather be spending my limited time. The only door I'll be going through is the one outta here.

Last edited by Margaret McGhee; April 11th, 2006 at 03:49 PM.
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  #6  
Unread April 11th, 2006, 03:48 PM
TomJrzk TomJrzk is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate

Quote:
Originally Posted by Margaret McGhee
If you screw this up there are plenty of interesting forums where I'd rather be spending my limited time. The only door I'll be going through is the one outta here.
This is just the sort of thing I was hoping to prevent with my initial warning about Fred. I hope you'll consider staying on this site regardless of Fred's problems; it would be a shame if Fred's was the face of Evolutionary Psychology for those who pass through. I know it's hard but I'd really appreciate it.

Thanks!
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  #7  
Unread April 11th, 2006, 07:15 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate

I realize that the argument I am making - that we only believe what feels good to us, that we only believe what supports our higher level beliefs - makes me equally subject to the charge of subjectivity. Also, that any claim I make that my pov is less subjective than someone else's, is rightfully suspect. I think that's what makes science so difficult to pursue - and why it is so commendable when real scientists do it right.

Whether we are scientists or not, I think what it takes is a constant effort to understand where our own prejudices come from and to account for those in our opinions and conclusions. The one thing that can destroy any attempt to reach a better objective understanding of any topic is for either side to question the motivations or the intelligence of the other. It's impossible to be reasonable with someone who is beating you with a baseball bat - unless maybe your last name is Ghandi. But, I'm not Ghandi and it makes me feel like an idiot for letting them do it. And then you then have to choose to either respond in kind and destroy any future attempt at understanding - or try to ignore the bat, which doesn't work too well either.

Evolutionary Psychology is full of concepts that violate or support the higher level identity beliefs that we all have. Those beliefs form the cognitive dimension of our identities - and we will all defend our identities if they're threatened. It is important in these discussions to remember that most EP topics are therefore likely to push someone's buttons one way or the other. That's why when we question others' beliefs on these things we have to go out of our way to do it very respectfully.

That is assuming that the purpose of the discussion is to examine these things and gain a better understanding of them. If anyone is here to be a warrior for their particular camp then a better understanding of any EP topic will not be possible. That's why it is so maddening to constantly have to deal with that.

As I have stated before, it seems to me that some EPists discount the effect of environment and culture on behavior and they seem to do so ideologically - in an inti-PC way. I did not get that message from my initial reading in this area (The Moral Animal, The Third Chimpanzee, The Naked Ape long ago, etc.). But, maybe I just wasn't getting the message. I certainly haven't gotten that message from Le Doux, Damasio, Calvin, Blackmore and others.

Pinker doesn't seem to be saying that only genes determine behavior and that culture has no effect. He makes the point that some behavioral psychologists try to avoid seeing any genetic influences on behavior. I haven't found any of those yet but I'll take his word on that because he does not seem to be so ideologically motivated to me.

Last Thursday I went to an award ceremony in Seattle at the U put on by the "Foundations for the Future". Bill Calvin accepted the 2006 award for his book, "A Brain for All Seasons". In an FFF brochure I read this regarding a March 2005 workshop on human evolution where both Calvin and Pinker participated. It said,

Quote:
Steven Pinker, Johnstone Prof. of Psychology at Harvard U gave a presentation "Can We Change Human Nature" focused on voluntary genetic enhancement, which may be constrained by the complexity of neural development and the rarity of single genes with large beneficial effects. "If we can't even find a single gene behind defects like autism or schizophrenia, it's even less likely that we'll find them for talents like music, intelligence and so on," he said.
The phrase complexity of neural development says to me that Pinker believes that questions about cultural and genetic influences on neural development are complex and not well understood at this time - which seems like a reasonable opinion that coincides with most other books I've read.

Since human behavior is determined by the results of that neural development then I prefer to see EP (as exemplified by Pinker's pov) as devoted to understanding more about the role that both genes and culture have on behavior - not as devoted to some ideological battle to prove that one or the other is determinative.

Added for clarity: It seems obvious to me that if we have the capacity for our environment to shape our personality and behavior in various ways, that it is a genetic capacity that evolved and that we inherit from our parents.

Tom, Thanks for the encouragement. I'll be here as long as we can discuss that question, if not always objectively, then at least politely. I admit that I tend to see neural development and behavior as more influenced by culture than most others here. I'm willing to be persuaded to see a stronger effect of genes but it will take a good non-ideological argument. Can anyone here make one of those?

Margaret

Last edited by Margaret McGhee; April 11th, 2006 at 08:22 PM.
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  #8  
Unread April 12th, 2006, 09:11 AM
TomJrzk TomJrzk is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate

Quote:
Originally Posted by Margaret McGhee
The phrase complexity of neural development says to me that Pinker believes that questions about cultural and genetic influences on neural development are complex and not well understood at this time
My 'hearing what I want to hear' says that "complexity of neural development" is more about neural development itself being complex, without saying whether there are any genetic or cultural effects, much less their respective influences. In other words, I think you might be reading a bit more into the statement than the words convey to me.

And I don't think anyone here argues with your statement in an earlier post:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Margaret McGhee
There are probably some small differences in the sizes of those boxes between genders and racial sub-groups.
except for the subjective term "small".

Maybe IQ differences are 'small', maybe they're not. I don't know. But, if there ARE differences the question that might get a lot of argument here becomes what should we do about it? We're dealing with people's children here and if anyone thought that aggression over personal opinions brought up emotions and irrationality, that's nothing next to having someone's children being short-changed, which is what much of evolutionary psychology is about. I don't think we can answer that question here.
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  #9  
Unread April 12th, 2006, 10:23 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate & Doors

Quote:
MM: I would counter that what anyone actually believes (to be true) is only that which they feel to be true. Without that emotional validation they can not truly believe - no matter what they might say.
While we humans may “feel” that something is “real” we nevertheless are quite capable of knowing, cognitively, that it isn’t—e.g., phantom pain, the feeling of pain from tissue damage of part of a limb that no longer exists—although the pain itself may be “real,” and may even trigger various other emotions, we’re capable of knowing, cognitively, that the tissue damage that the pain portends is not.

And whether or not one is able to achieve the required “emotional validation” to “actually believe” that there are an infinite number of primes, that there are is nevertheless an objective mathematical truth; and it was true (as is all objective mathematical truth) before humans (the ancient Greeks in this case) evolved and discovered the unassailable proof showing that it is true.

Margaret, while I may empathize with the emotional turmoil, and perhaps cognitive dissonance, that your circumstances may have engendered; and while I may appreciate that your own “intellectual conclusions are first guided by [your] existing beliefs,” and then “weighted” by the “emotional strength [you] subconsciously grant them”; I nonetheless do find your predilection for projecting that MO onto everyone else to be childishly presumptuous.

At the beginning of the 20th century, virtually all scientists believed that our universe always existed, was static, infinite, and unchanging. But current science and evidence now tells us that our universe in fact had a beginning and is expanding; and most scientists no longer “believe” or “feel” what they once did. You see, Margaret, we simply follow the science and evidence wherever it leads, and then modify our beliefs and emotions accordingly—LeDoux’s downward causation . . . no one is saying that this is easy Margaret, it’s just the door to reality, a door that some seem unable or unwilling to go through.
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  #10  
Unread April 12th, 2006, 10:37 AM
TomJrzk TomJrzk is offline
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Default Re: Pinker's Blank Slate & Doors

Fred, a good forum moderator would insist that you remove the term 'childish' from your post. Could you please do the adult thing and remove it yourself?
Quote:
Originally Posted by Fred H.
phantom pain
Interesting page at http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/en/pain/mi...medicine2.html including
Quote:
They asked people with amputations of the arm and phantom limb pain to place their arms inside a mirror box so that they saw their remaining arm mirror-reversed to look like their amputated one. When they moved their remaining arm in the box they were 'fooled' into thinking they were moving their amputated one, and their pain was reduced.
Fascinating.
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