April 26, 2006

Steven Pinker on “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”

Posted in cu official shenanigans, people and interviews at 12:16 pm by cuenv-main

This may at first appear only tangentially related to sustainability issues, but–as many of you are no doubt aware–it is increasingly clear that understanding thought patterns on the individual and cultural levels is a critical part of raising the awareness necessary to achieving global sustainability. The work of Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker makes strong claims about the nature of these thought patterns that we would probably all do well to consider and understand–regardless of whether we agree with his ideas–and his resulting policy recommendations–or not:

Pinker argues that modern science has challenged three views that comprise the dominant view of human nature in intellectual life:

  • the blank slate
  • the noble savage
  • the ghost in the machine

Much of the book is dedicated to examining fears of the social and political consequences of his view of human nature:

  • the “fear of inequality”
  • the “fear of imperfectibility”
  • the “fear of determinism”
  • the “fear of nihilism”

Pinker claims these fears are non sequiturs, and that the blank slate view of human nature would actually be a greater threat if it were true. For example, he argues that political equality does not require sameness, but policies that treat people as individuals with rights; that moral progress doesn’t require the human mind to be naturally free of selfish motives, only that it has other motives to counteract them; that responsibility doesn’t require behavior to be uncaused, only that it responds to praise and blame; and that meaning in life doesn’t require that the process that shaped the brain must have a purpose, only that the brain itself has purposes. He also argues that grounding moral values in claims about a blank slate opens them to possibilty of being overturned by future empirical discoveries; and that belief in a blank slate human nature encourages destructive social trends such as persecution of the successful and totalitarian social engineering.

Wikipedia on The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

He’ll be here tomorrow Thursday 4/27 to discuss his book and work at 7 PM in 104 Jerome Greene Hall (Proskauer Auditorium). Doors open at 6:30 PM; seating is first-come, first-serve.

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