by Brad Nelson
In The Blank Slate, language expert Steven Pinker takes on some of the most cherished beliefs of the Left. These are ideas upon which many of the “soft” sciences are based and which therefore make them suspect. __________________________________________________
The Blank Slate isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of fun. But it’s highly instructive nonetheless. It’s like eating one’s spinach. It may not always taste so good but it’s good for you.
The three main dogmas of the Left (and a few that are, including #3, common with the right) are:
1) The Blank Slate
2) The Noble Savage
3) The Ghost in the Machine.
According to Pinker, all can be easily shown to be false. And Pinker does a good job with numbers one and two. The first idea, the “blank slate,” is the idea that we are malleable putty, that mankind has no inherent or innate traits and thus we can be molded into anything. And, according to Pinker, the reason so many people hang onto this idea so fervently is because they think that all our moral advances depend on keeping up this delusion. They think that if there actually were differences between, say, men and women, that that would then cause sexist ideas to flourish because this knowledge would somehow justify them.
But as Pinker repeatedly states, you can have ideas such as “treat people equally” regardless of whether or not people have differences. And to hang a doctrine on anything less is foolish because what if one day (such as today) the doctrine of “the blank slate” is proven false? Does it then become okay to discriminate against people? Of course not. What a silly idea.
And, according to Pinker, holding on to the idea of the blank slate, the noble savage, or the ghost in the machine is equally silly. And there are often dire consequences that come from these delusions or misconceptions, including the tens of millions killed by left-wing Communists. Pinker shows the inherent danger which comes with the belief that people are a blank slate which can be perfected. And how this tends to play out politically (because it is an inherently unworkable idea) is that instead of the people electing a new government, the government elects a new people; that is, those in power will tend to coerce, imprison, and murder people by the millions because that’s the only way one can ever make any kind of blank slate concept work.
But Pinker fails to mention a truism long known to conservatives, and that is that part of this problem of Leftist brutality is that the Left so falls in love with their ideas that people become expendable. But The Plan must always be salvaged — a point Jonah Goldberg covers expertly in “Liberal Fascism.”
Only fear and intimidation can even come close to producing a blank slate in people and get them to act as if they were infinitely programmable. Fear and intimidation are the standard technique employed by the Left and by political correctness. Al Sharpton, and all those like him, are but mini “reigns of terror.” You see the same thing from the many goons on college campuses who try to shout-down speakers who have differing opinions.
The second item, the dogma of the noble savage, is the idea that humans are pure and that if they show any form of corruption then it is culture that is to blame. Therefore all one has to do is institute the “correct” culture and all problems can be fixed. It is believed that in our natural state we are peaceful and nonpolluting creatures who don’t even need and such corrupting influences as politics. It would be Kumbaya 24/7 if we removed the warping influences (capitalism, sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, etc. — all the usual suspects).
And this has proven to be utterly and demonstrably false. Several anthropologists through the years, including Margaret Mead, either did very sloppy science or intentionally cooked the books to show what they wanted to show. The fact is that life in modern primitive hunter-gatherer societies is consistently more brutal and violent than almost any inner-city neighborhoods in the modern world. It’s not capitalism, it’s not “greed” or competition that is the reason that Utopia never breaks out. It’s because there are some realities to life and to human nature that prevent it, and no social planner can ever fix this, no matter how much power they have.
The third theme of the book, The ghost in the machine, is the idea that we have some kind of immaterial soul that stands apart from our gross flesh and makes free-will choices. According to Pinker, it has been shown that our mind needs the flesh in order to function and that somehow the flesh (the brain) produces the mind. And this kind of duality is logically apparent.
But, philosophically. this is probably the weakest part of Pinker’s book. He’s reasonable in his thinking regarding much of his critique of “the ghost in the machine.” But he comes from the perspective of the usual academic scientific materialist metaphysics. Rather than being as refreshingly objective as the other two parts of the book, Pinker seems to be of the mind that because religion has made assertions that can’t be proven or that have been demonstrated to be false, then there is no other way to view the world except through a radical materialist/reductionist lens.
And that stance doesn’t even past muster for a high-school-level philosophy class. But then you’re not apt to get much of a schooling in natural philosophy or natural theology at Harvard or anywhere else like that. Not even Steven Pinker can be omniscient, and for this he can be forgiven. But this is a chapter that is frankly a waste of time.
The really odd thing is that there is something about matter that doesn’t just give rise to consciousness and sentience but that is in some way itself alive, aware, and living. If “dead” matter can give rise to mind, then this must be so and/or “the ghost in the machine” is not such a bad idea after all. But as I said, you don’t even get high-school-level philosophy in this part of the book.
Ultimately The Blank Slate is a great refutation of the pinko-commie takeover of academia by the Left (even if Pinker is a part of the crowd to a great extent). And Pinker takes a number of shots at the right as well, many deserving, but a couple that just seem to be placed there to keep the minds of those left-of-center from completely shutting down. But make no mistake, The Blank Slate is a solid refutation of reams of Leftist garbage that has been built up over the years and has become mainstream.
The right is often chastised as being an opponent of science and reason, particularly because of the religious element. And sometimes this is justified. But they could learn a few lessons from the raucous anti-intellectualism and anti-empiricism of the Left. Your most hard-line Creationists would have to get up pretty early in the morning to even have a chance of keeping up with the radical and decidedly anti-rational Left. Christians’ faith issues are usually transparent and upfront. But the faith issues of the Left are multifarious and often hidden and well-disguised. The assumptions have become so ingrained, people do not even notice them, thus the value of Pinker’s book. To his great credit, he did notice them.
The issue that Pinker leaves hanging, or perhaps doesn’t answer to my satisfaction, is the issue regarding culture. I agree with him in his reasoning (and his evidence) that children are who they are because of a combination of genes and culture. But Pinker asserts a universal idea that because yutes tend to adopt the accents of their peers, not their parents, that therefore it is the case, and has always been the case, that one’s peers are more important than one’s parents in terms of influence. But there is a major problem with this, showing Pinker to be blinkered himself a time or two.
And that is that modern culture is an aberration in terms of how children are typically raised. It is only in our age that mass popular culture, sending kids off to government schools at the age of five, and two working parents not-at-home, have become the norm. Before that, it is arguable that parents and children were very much in synch as to the cultural practices of their parents because they weren’t separate from their parents. We know this to be true because it is not rare for societies to maintain their customs for centuries, even with quite differing customs right next door.
Pinker does provide many valid critiques in regards to those who say that culture is some kind of “superorganism” disconnected from people which is a favorite notion of the boutique Left if only because it allows them to play God (they get to be the “superorganism” controlling a sort of uber culture that will shape all else). And yet he doesn’t consider how parents might (either through their own interaction in the culture or their interaction with their kids) drive the culture that youths enter and that thus shape them even if it appears that yutes are doing all the shaping between each other.
After all, even if the kids are all running amok with other yutes, it’s still parents acquiescing to this. It wasn’t always this way. For Pinker, it’s the yutes who are driving the culture. And, again, that academic background could be narrowing his vision, for anyone connected with mass marketing and the tens of billions of advertising dollars spent each year to sell youth their products and concepts may have a different perspective on just who is driving whom. And it is arguable that mass marketers have far more influence now than either parents or the peers of yutes — despite the conceit of supposedly independent-minded yutes who wear the mass-marketed “Just do it” T-shirts.
Pinker therefore also seems to be treating culture as some type of disconnected “superorganism” (a yute-oriented one, in this case) that has a completely independent existence (from the families and the rest of the culture, in this case). It won’t be the first or the last time that someone in academia kowtowed to the popular conceits that yutes are so special (said like The Church Lady) and no other ingredient is needed. But these issues are complex, and I really wouldn’t have expected him to be able to wrap everything up in a nice neat bow.
But what some of you might find surprising (and probably some others of you not) is the assertion that basically all the parenting guides and all this modern emphasis on growing little Johnny’s brain during the critical first three year period is all completely unsubstantiated. The assertion is that basically, short of outright severe abuse of some kind, parents and families have almost zilch effect on their kids. It’s all in the hands of our genes, probably some randomness throw into our brains as they naturally grow, and the culture of our peer group outside the home. And apparently this is based on a lot of hard data from a number of sources over a number of years.
Certainly the studies of identical twins raised in separate homes confirms the power of the genes to impart personality and desires. And the parents who have more than one child will almost always confirm that children can be quite different even when raised exactly the same. But Pinker seems to be looking for reasons why parents aren’t important…again, somewhat of a academic hazard in his profession, I would think, wherein it’s just natural to downplay the importance of families. Academia has existed for decades now on the conceited fumes that higher education is a way to free yutes from the constraints placed upon them by backward-thinking parents. You do have to pick through the weeds while reading this book.
Pinker is a linguist, and apparently a very good one. And his jaunt into the realm of actually debunking some of the beliefs that underpin the Left is a brave and daring venture. And yet there is an aspect to this where he shows himself to be somewhat of a philosophical neophyte. That said, he presents some very interesting ideas. I think it’s a book the hardcore science readers will love. • (1550 views)