21 March 2008

Central in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate are three philosophical doctrines that would have dominated 20th century psychology: empiricism (the Blank Slate), romanticism (the Noble Savage), and dualism (the Ghost in the Machine).

In “An Essay concerning Human Understanding” (1690), John Locke argued that all reason and knowledge is derived from sense-experience. Everyone would be born with a blank mind, except for a few basic instincts. Locke’s empiricism would have significant social implications. The doctrine would undermine hereditary royalty and aristocracy as well as the institution of slavery, as both groups could neither be considered innately inferior nor superior; rather, all are equal. From this point, Pinker showed by results from cognitive neuroscience that innate mechanisms exist in the genetically determined brain and that therefore the Blank Slate is incorrect. Pinker forgot, however, that Locke never denied the existence of human nature. Every human has basic instincts, innate properties, and sense organs to be able to obtain knowledge about the world. Pinker’s assumption that the Blank Slate and human nature exclude each other is therefore incorrect.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that civilisation corrupts the fundamental goodness of human nature. The ill effects could be moderated by active participation in democratic consensual politics. In other words, Rousseau claimed that ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, are social constructions that form the conscience of the individual. This 18th century romanticism continues to be influential, as it provides an argument in favour of anything natural and against anything artificial. Showing results from evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural genetics, Pinker argued that humans are not peaceful, but in fact, have and can inherit brain mechanisms associated with aggression, violence, and mental illness. But do these results really contradict Rousseau’s doctrine? Rousseau merely showed that nurture influences how the conscience of humans is shaped, and Pinker showed that nature can also influence the either good or bad behaviour of people. Moreover, Pinker’s anthropological argument that conflicts and wars are human affairs in all cultures only seems to support Rousseau’s.

The oldest doctrine is dualism by René Descartes, who regarded the domain of reality in terms of two independent principles: the mind and body. Although the body is subject to mechanical laws, the mind or soul would be free, indivisible, and will survive the death of the body. The term “Ghost in the Machine” was coined by Gilbert Ryle, who, like Pinker, attempted to undermine Descartes’ ideas on mind and matter, which gained wide appeal nonetheless. This dualist idea underwent the supposedly contradictory results from cognitive neuroscience as presented by Pinker. Emotions, motives, and goals can be understood in terms of cybernetics, namely mechanisms of feedback and control. Pinker showed that all human experiences, thoughts, and emotions correspond to physiological activity, electrical impulses, in the tissues of the brain. But does that mean that all is biological? There still are physical and mental processes that have both mental and mechanical causes. Indeed, certain behaviour is caused by physical causes, but people can be mentally ill whereas they are physically fine. Pinker’s argument therefore only proofs that one should not separate mind from body as extremely as Descartes might have done.

Pinker, S., The Blank Slate. The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.


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