The Blank Slate Notes

Chapter 3 of Steven Pinkers The Blank Slate is brilliant. It might be the best, most concise debunking of the ‘we are souls, in control of our actions’ line of thinking I’ve come across. Thanks Shaun for the intro.

See disorganised rambling notes below…

There is no “ghost in the machine” – no indivisible soul, spirit or whatever that exists separate from our body. Soul, spirit, or a less supernatural yet equally black-boxey term like ‘intelligence’. All terms used to gloss over the fact that really, we don’t know much about how things work up there.

The popular ‘the brain is a computer’ saying is not quite accurate, but it’s close. Our behavior, decisions, etc. can all be modelled using computational concepts. Algorithms, conditionals, functions, feedback loops, etc.

The computational theory of mind explains why we think, know, and try – without leaning on a ghost in the machine.

We are programmed by a core set of algorithms which have evolved through generations of genetic ancestors. There’s variation in these algorithms, as there are genetic variations which lead to different traits like eye color or height, but overall humans share an overwhelming amount of the underlying software which instructs our day to day behavior.

All global languages are remarkably similar. All have the concepts of subjects, prepositions, verbs.

Behavior may differ across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary. Intelligent behavior is learned successfully because we have innate systems that do the learnin. And all people may do the learning, but not everyone may translate them into behavior in the same way.

Many qualities we’ve previously seen as innate, have been shown to correlate with the presence, or lack of certain genes, or to be related to the makeup of individual brains. People with a smaller pre-frontal cortex have been found, on average, to display more aggressive sociopathic tendencies. Einstein had a larger part of the brain linked to spatial reasoning and numbers.

Proximate vs. ultimate causation “I want sex because it feels good” vs. “I want sex to reproduce” Very different. One can override the other easily. Contraception lets one have the first without the second.