Posts Tagged “Steven Pinker”

08w03:1 The Moral Instinct

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The Moral Instinct | Steven Pinker
Link (New York Times Magazine)
“Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. […] Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care. […] The starting point for appreciating that there is a distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing how moral judgments differ from other kinds of opinions we have on how people ought to behave. Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (‘killing is wrong’), rather than merely disagreeable (‘I hate brussels sprouts’), unfashionable (‘bell-bottoms are out’) or imprudent (‘don’t scratch mosquito bites’). The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted.”

04w47:1 Steven Pinker

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Good Reads Mailing List | 2004 week 47 number 1 (Steven Pinker)

I’m rather depressed lately, not simply because I’m an officially-undiagnosed sufferer of S.A.D, but also because Kerry lost the election, and now the right-wing nut jobs think they have free reign to go to town. And, as of today, FOX News is going to be allowed to broadcast in Canada. I would like to think that the Canadian education system is good enough that Fox’s bullshit will be seen as such, and that it will never quite catch on here, but given everything I’m no longer so sure. I’m also really depressed over the fact that there’s all this talk of religion. I come from the philosophy where that stuff should be kept to yourself. I mean, my personal collection of goodreads includes religious articles but I’ll never send them out on the list, because why should you care? People are smart enough to find what works for them when it comes to feeding the spirit. Anyway, talk of Creationism makes me want to tear out my hair, and so I wanted to pass this on to y’all ‘cept that it’s so short that there’s no point linking to it, I might as well quote it:

Re Creationism, I must point out an unfortunate subtext that’s no longer quite so obvious. Having grown up in the previous iteration of the rural American south, I know that what *really* smarted about Darwin, down there, was the logical implication that blacks and whites are descended from a common ancestor. Butt-ugly, but there it is. That was the first objection to evolutionary theory that I ever heard, and it was a very common one, in fact the most common. That it was counter to Genesis seemed merely convenient, in the face of an anthropoid grand -uncle in the woodpile. – William Gibson, blog posting November 17th 2004

Gibson was commenting on a recent decision by Pennsylvania requiring the teaching of “intelligent design”. He linked to this article before commenting. His latest posting as if this writing is a quote of Martin Luther King’s on American god-zealots.

So in keeping with the sanity of evolution, here are some articles on Steven Pinker, whose work as a psychologist gives us a much more sensible view of reality than “the superman in the sky” theory as I like to call it. Anyone who I talk to regularly knows that reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate earlier this year has had a profound influence on my thinking, so it’s about time that I sent out these links to two videos and two articles. – Timothy

An Interview with Steven Pinker | Steven Pinker and
“The main question is: ‘Why are empirical questions about how the mind works so weighted down with political and moral and emotional baggage? Why do people believe that there are dangerous implications to the idea that the mind is a product of the brain, that the brain is organized in part by the genome, and that the genome was shaped by natural selection?’ This idea has been met with demonstrations, denunciations, picketings, and comparisons to Nazism, both from the right and from the left. And these reactions affect both the day-to-day conduct of science and the public appreciation of the science. By exploring the political and moral colorings of discoveries about what makes us tick, we can have a more honest science and a less fearful intellectual milieu.”

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature | Steven Pinker
From the book jacket: Our conceptions of human nature affect every aspect of our lives, from the way we raise our children to the political movements we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the very idea. They fear that a biological understanding of the mind will be used to justify inequality, subvert social change, and dissolve personal responsibility and strip life of meaning and purpose. In The Blank Slate Pinker retraces the history that led people to view human nature as dangerous, and unsnarls the moral and political debates that have entangled the idea along the way. ” Real Video file, various streamspeeds available. Video length: 1.52 hr, Pinker begins at 10.55min

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language | Steven Pinker
Why does a three year-old say ‘I went,’ then six months later start saying ‘I goed’? When you first heard the word ‘fax,’ how did you know the past tense is ‘faxed’? And why is it that a baseball player is said to have ‘flied out,’ but could never have ‘flown out’? After fifteen years of studying words in history, in the laboratory, and in everyday speech, Steven Pinker has worked out the dynamic relationship -– searching memory vs. following rules -– that determines the forms our speech takes. In one of his final lectures at MIT Pinker gives the ultimate lecture on verbs, in a rich mixture of linguistics, cognitive neuroscience, and a surprising amount of humor. If you’ve ever wondered about the plural of Walkman, or why they are called the Toronto Maple Leafs and not Leaves, this lecture provides answers to these and other questions of modern language. ” As above, this is a Real Video presentation, various streamspeeds available. Length is 1:09:38, Q&A begins at 59:32

How Much Art Can the Brain Take? | Steven Pinker
“Thorstein Veblen’s and Quentin Bell’s classic analyses of taste and fashion, in which an elite’s conspicuous displays of consumption, leisure, and outrage are emulated by the rabble, sending the elite off in search of new inimitable displays, nicely explains the otherwise inexplicable oddities of the arts. […] The steadfast patrons of the arts are the aristocracy and those who want to join them. Most people would lose their taste for a musical recording if they learned it was being sold at supermarket checkout counters or on late-night television, and even the work of relatively prestigious artists, such as Pierre Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, draws derisive reviews when it is shown in a popular ‘blockbuster’ museum show. Modern and postmodern works are intended not to give pleasure but to confirm or confound the theories of a guild of critics and analysts, to e’pater la bourgeoisie, or to baffle the rubes in Peoria. The banality that the psychology of the arts is partly the psychology of status has been repeatedly pointed out, not just by cynics and barbarians but by erudite social commentators such as Quentin Bell and Tom Wolfe. But in the modern university, it is unmentioned, indeed, unmentionable. Academics and intellectuals are culture vultures. In a gathering of today’s elite, it is perfectl y acceptable to laugh that you barely passed Physics for Poets and Rocks for Jocks and have remained ignorant of science ever since, despite the obvious importance of scientific literacy to informed choices about personal health and public policy. But saying that you have never heard of James Joyce or that you tried listening to Mozart once but prefer Andrew Lloyd Webber is as shocking as blowing your nose on your sleeve or announcing that you employ children in your sweatshop, despite the obvious [un]importance of your tastes in leisure-time activity to just about anything. The blending in people’s minds of art, status, and virtue is an extension of Bell’s principle of ‘sartorial morality’: people find dignity in the signs of an honorably futile existence removed from all menial necessities.”

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emailed by Timothy on Thursday 18 November 2004 @ 8:59 PM


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Note: I was using an incorrect calendar for the week numbers – this is week six. – Timothy


The machine that invents | Tina Hesman
“Thaler, the president and chief executive of Imagination Engines Inc. in Maryland Heights, gets credit for all those things, but he’s really just ‘the man behind the curtain,’ he says. The real inventor is a computer program called a Creativity Machine. What Thaler has created is essentially ‘Thomas Edison in a box,’ said Rusty Miller, a government contractor at General Dynamics and one of Thaler’s chief cheerleaders. ‘His first patent was for a Device for the Autonomous Generation of Useful Information,’ the official name of the Creativity Machine, Miller said. ‘His second patent was for the Self-Training Neural Network Object. Patent Number Two was invented by Patent Number One. Think about that. Patent Number Two was invented by Patent Number One!'”
Related Link

Biology vs. the Blank Slate | Ronald Bailey & Nick Gillespie
“Pinker: […] The blank slate mentality is popular with people who believe that any human trait can be altered with the right changes in social institutions. It’s popular in the more radical branches of feminism, although not with the original core of feminism that stressed the drive for equity between the sexes. I think it allies to some degree with Marxist approaches to society. Not that Marx literally believed in a blank slate, but he certainly believed that you could not intelligently discuss human nature separate from its ever-changing interaction with the social environment. […] The noble savage myth is behind the sensibility that violence is learned behavior, a slogan that is repeated endlessly whenever violence is chronicled in the news. It’s also behind the Romantic idea that violent nonconformists are actually seeing the hypocrisy of society and challenging social institutions from a marginalized viewpoint, as opposed to the idea that such people are psychopaths and that we should prevent them from wreaking havoc on everyone else. [The doctrine of the ghost in the machine…] is there in a vaguer way, too, among others who fear that a materialist viewpoint–the idea that human experience and choice are products of a physical organ called the brain–is corrosive of morality, meaning, and ultimate purpose.
reason: Why do you call these ideas myths?
Pinker: Because they’re wrong. ”

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emailed by Timothy on Monday 02 February 2004 @ 1:15 AM