Surviving Steven Pinker – Abuse with an Excuse and the Blank Slate
I’ve said many times that some folks could do with a better version of atheism, that the species of atheism I so often encounter online is weak and it’s the one the Church is happy to contend with. Having said that, even so, even though I thought I was already there waiting for folks to catch up, I must confess: the Blank Slate, Steven Pinker’s thorough dissection of residual spirituality in intellectual and scientific thinking, has busted me, uncovered some leftover magical thinking in me too. Specifically, I’m having to face that I was still subscribing to some version of the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that while our bodies have been shown to be physical things, subject to biology and evolution, we still imagine a soul, a spirit, or a “mind” as a magical, non-physical thing). I still wasn’t quite seeing thought and feeling, our complex inner life as resulting from the processes of the machine. I think I was denying the ghost, but I hadn’t yet re-assigned its functions to the machine – and maybe that’s the main failing Steven was addressing, maybe a lot of us go that far and no farther along that line of reasoning.
Maybe we all want to cling to that idea, spirituality. After all, life as a machine, or as a component in the Big Machine, doesn’t seem to us to fulfill all the needs our complex inner life has. It’s understandable, especially because the idea of the ghost may actually be an evolved thought, the built-in way we understand the difference between living and non-living things, between dead and only sleeping people. At some point in our evolution, that idea was probably a revolution, a new level of understanding. But all that was in a different world, the world where our development took place is not the world most of us inhabit today.
This is a strange sort of plagiarism, I’m mostly just sharing Pinker’s book with you here, getting the idea out there. I must say, though, while Pinker made a solid case, my efforts at supporting his case in the preceding paragraph are my own. He didn’t say anything about the effect of or the cause of our first inklings of the idea of the invisible spirit that we naturally think is behind the appearances of life. He simply made a case that we do tend to think in those terms, and for natural reasons. He’s making a case for genes and evolution in this book, and for the cultural effects of false, primitive ideas – but not so much the effects of them in the deep past, more just through the latest century or two.
I don’t purport to have explained The Blank Slate here, proved it or anything; for that, I strongly recommend the book. It’s probably the best non-fiction thing I ever read, I actually stayed thrilled all the way through. Learning can be fun and Nature/Nurture questions are very close to my heart – so buy your own. My copy will be kept for reference.
I once wrote a post or two, “Hearing What You Don’t Want to Hear,” in which I bragged that at this advanced age, almost 55, I was still willing to risk hearing opposing points of view, that I was still trying to escape the trap of Confirmation Bias.
(not crucial to this post, the point’s been made . . . )
At that time it was about a Skeptic article regarding the objective reality of the existence (or not) of Jesus, which honestly, is only a tangential pursuit of mine.
The Blank Slate appeared to threaten my main cause – a damning critique of the use of punishment in child-rearing and elsewhere – I was pretty terrified to read it. Before I even began it, I already knew how my intellect, education, and access to intellectuals stacked up against Pinker’s. If Steven invalidated me, then invalid, incorrect and irrelevant I would indeed be, in my own estimation as well as in everyone else’s. Nevertheless, fearlessly, or rather with a strong faith in my ability to rationalize anything, I read it anyway. Let the chips fall where they may; if my cause didn’t survive, then it didn’t deserve to.
Still, tough to say after being on this train of thought for some thirty years. Worryable, to use a word coined by Jagger regarding Richards’ arrest and trial in Canada. Scary.
But I read it, and while my fears weren’t calmed through most of it, the joy of learning, and learning from as bright a light as Pinker, and about my favourite subject, made it a pleasure. As it turned out, “Children” was the second last chapter, so, non-fiction it may be, but he kept me in suspense almost until the very end. With that end, I shouldn’t probably have worried. First, he let me and anyone else who worries about abuse off the hook by exempting abuse from the discussion. As regards child-rearing, the disciplines of the study of Human Nature concern themselves with personalities, with traits – not with damage.
It was scary, though. He spent a lot of time refuting that a child’s personality is in any way under its parents’ control. Again, it was in terms of personality, and relative intelligence, but he basically pointed out that, other than providing a safe environment or not, parents have zero influence on their kids after conception. This, from some good theoretical science and a whole lot of adoption/sibling/twin studies and analyses:
First of all, intelligence and testable traits are somewhere between 40% and 50% heritable, genetic;
Individual, random stimulus (individual, personal experience, perhaps the meme that it’s not our problems but our reaction to them that make people what they are, really, still unknown factors) accounts for 50% of traits;
Common environment –shared households and parents – show almost no effect whatsoever! Pinker suggests that he’s being generous when he allows it to claim a large part of the remaining 10% of the pie.
A big part of the explanation of the parental inability to influence children is that kids learn their values and strategies from their peers, other kids. It’s certainly fair to say that the phenomenon Pinker is debunking is epitomized by the idea of increasing your kids’ intelligence by playing Mozart to her in vitro. It must be, because he said it.
I think what he’s said is that there is no way to make your child smarter than his genes, and no way to direct our children’s interest or capacity for what we hope they’ll do.
This seems to be the upshot of combining what I thought before and what The Blank Slate makes clear: the negative power of parenting (the destructive power of abuse) has no positive correlate. There isn’t a way to ‘enhance’ our children, only a myriad of ways to damage them. And the next thought that follows is this: if we have no power to improve the next generation of people, and only the power to hurt, then maybe that kills any sort of ‘greater good’ talk used to justify punishment of children, at all. Perhaps, with no up-side to punishing, no possible improvement, what I’ve always held to be true really is: only the down-side, only the damage matters. Maybe if our only function for our kids is safety and protection, then we need to practice it against ourselves a little more.
Perhaps, just like Steven says in the book, an honest look at the facts, free of magical thinking, will actually provide real life reasons why our morality is important, and why our moral sphere tends to expand, to be more inclusive. If our myths leave our kids out of the circle, maybe science and honesty will bring them back in.
For that bit of hope, Dr. Pinker, I thank you. Seriously.
In my personal life I recently witnessed an ongoing unfolding tragedy that would seem to bear out the idea, that positive influences have only a tiny fraction of the power of negative ones – possibly due to the simple fact that positive influences can’t be beaten into us, that backing positive influences up with force turns them into negative ones. We all enjoy hearing stories where a positive influence saves a kid, of course, but those stories are that good because of their relative rarity. If that was what we all saw most days, those stories wouldn’t be quite so satisfying.
That is a sad, sad state of affairs, isn’t it?
Again, my function, what passes for my talent, is only to help see the problems, the problems as they really are, in the hopes that eventually a solution might be found. Apologies, I know this was a real quickie. The conclusions here definitely want to be expanded, looked into a lot more closely.
Of course, I hope to do that. Sometime. Of course, I’m nobody, a tradesman. If anybody smart would like to pick this up, well . . . that’d be great . . .
August 31st., 2015
Oh yeah – Five Stars, for sure!
Somebody mind telling me who beat it out for the Pulitzer?