Book Review: The Blank Slate

Questions such as, What is human nature? or, What is the human mind? must be preceded by a procedural question: By what means can such questions be answered?

One person will say we must bring all such question to the Bible, another to the sociologist or the psychologist. One will say the biologist, another the neuroscientist or the geneticist. Still another will say it is a matter for the student of evolution.

Author Steven Pinker argues that all of the above (except perhaps the Bible) contribute to the picture at different levels. This position protects him from the kind of simplistic reductionism by which some might claim, for example, that all human reality is to be explained by a study of our DNA.

More specifically, Pinker is seeking to counter a trio of notions that have tended to dominate scientists’ views of human nature since the Enlightenment. They are:

1. Blank Slate: The human mind, said John Locke (followed by J. S. Mill, James Watson, B. F. Skinner, et. al.) is a blank state on which experience records its lessons and thus forms the mind.

2. Noble Savage: The romantic side of the Enlightenment (as opposed to the rationalist side) followed Rousseau’s idea that we begin life essentially good and would remain so, were not society such a powerful negative force on us.

3. Duality: Descartes thought of the mind and the body as co-existent but quite distinct from one another. The mind is something intangible which is to the body something like a ghost in the machine.

Pinker’s book is an extensive, carefully researched book, meticulously assessing the latest scientific theories about human nature and the human mind. As such, it is excellent. The essential idea of the book, however, the idea that we are a complex blending of mind and body strikes me as too obvious. It is as if science is just beginning to catch up with common sense. And with Genesis 1-2.

I confess, as a non-scientist, to finding the sheer amount of detail a bit overwhelming, though the book is well written and not overly technical. I can’t pretend to have read every page with care so maybe it is just poor reading that caused me to miss the answer to my most intriguing question: How are impulses directed along the innumerable electro-chemical circuits in the brain?

It is fascinating to know that electrical activity in one part or another of the brain is increased, depending on what work the brain is doing. If the brain is just an extremely complex set of circuits, what causes a particular impulse to follow one route rather than another?

Can you help me with this?


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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