How the Mind Works .
By Steven Pinker.
Norton. 660 pages, $29.95.
The MIT linguist Noam Chomsky once drew an important distinction between problems and mysteries. A problem in Chomskian parlance is a question that is symbiotically fused to an ascertainable answer; it is an explanandum (a thought-provoking puzzle) that has, somewhere out there, a matching explanation-one, moreover, that must be attainable (at least theoretically) by a universally accepted method. How hot is the core of the sun? and When was the last crater on the moon formed? would be problems in this sense: we might not ever find out the answers but they are at least theoretically available. A mystery, on the other hand, is a question that, while it makes perfect grammatical sense, cannot in principle be answered, at least by an assertion that could command the assent of all through a prior agreed-upon method.
One example of a mystery in this sense (not used by Chomsky) would be Martin Heidegger’s famous question at the beginning of his Introduction to Metaphysics: Why are there things that exist rather than nothing at all? Now this obviously is a question that science is not even remotely competent to answer. If there exists an answer to the question, it must be accessible only through some other mode of insight. Indeed, those who claim to furnish answers to such imponderable mysteries are called, both by themselves and by others, believers, a clear admission on the part of all that some answers, if they exist, come to us by some faculty other than problem-solving reason. As Pascal says with his usual precision, Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.
It is striking how many of these Chomskian-style mysteries cluster around the issue of the human mind. There seems to be nothing like the topic of mind/soul/self/spirit for generating such unanswerable questions as: Everyone knows that perception is perspectival, but why am I the one who is looking out on the world through this bodily window and not someone else? Why was I born in this century and not another, of this sex and not the other, of these parents in this nation and not elsewhere of someone else? If materialist neuroscientists are correct that the brain secretes thoughts the way the liver does bile, why are they my thoughts? Bile, after all, is a chemical concoction produced in that metabolic factory called the liver; but thoughts are not chemicals, just thoughts. How is it, as Thomas Huxley once put it, that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue?
As the title of his new book indicates, Steven Pinker has set himself the challenge of telling us how this remarkable feat happens. But it soon becomes clear that the boldness of his claim depends on his skill in finessing any number of mystery issues. He clearly thinks the time is ripe for moving the topic of mind from the Mystery to the Problem column, but even he admits that certain mysteries remain, among which he includes sentience, consciousness, free will, and our sense of personal identity over time-not exactly peripheral issues to how the mind works. (The second sentence of the book openly admits that we don’t understand how the mind works. And later he asks the reader, How can a book called How the Mind Works evade the responsibility of explaining where sentience comes from? Tellingly, he never gets around to answering his own question, which makes the title a bit of a tease.)
But one must at least give the author credit for not defining the problem out of existence. Unlike so many of his colleagues in the field of evolutionary psychology (like the theorist he cites who claims that consciousness is a late cultural development, a feature of the human species unknown either to the Greeks of Homer’s day or to the Hebrews of the Old Testament), he at least does not resort to the expedient of wishing the problem away with a bit of terminological legerdemain. He rightly says that there is something about the topic of consciousness that makes people, much like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, believe six impossible things before breakfast, among which one would surely have to include the notion that Moses was a mere bundle of unconscious physiological reactions who was personally unaware of the taste of salt or that Homer didn’t know red when he saw it. (There is also an opposite absurdity floating around among the Artificial Intelligentsia: the claim, as in David Chalmers’ new book The Conscious Mind, that thermostats and galaxies are conscious, a thesis that recalls, once more, Pascal’s insistence that if reason operated rightly it would not lead us astray with delusions about its own greatness.)
These strange expedients are obviously an effort to work around the mystery of consciousness by wishing it away. What makes Pinker’s book so instructive is his willingness to address the problem of the mind while staying inside the circle of common sense, which can recognize a mystery when it sees one. But science-which is an outgrowth of problem-solving reason-does not like to stub its toe against mysteries, and so is all too prone to wave the problem out of existence by invoking the magic of Redefining Terms (bait-and-switch is Pinker’s useful term for the strategy). This is why so many previous efforts to explain the phenomenon of consciousness were basically high-grade versions of behaviorism, a research program that simply begged the question by translating consciousness into behavior, which was itself then explained strictly in terms of stimulus-response, a physical phenomenon open to problem-solving reason.
It was the great merit of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics to have exploded that project from within by showing that language acquisition in children could never occur under the behaviorist rubric, as if children learned a language by imitating the observed verbal behavior of their elders inside a schema of reward/punishment. On the contrary, Chomsky showed, the child is endowed with an ability for generating-and understanding-an infinite set of sentences that are themselves the medium for expressing entirely new thoughts that had never been expressed before. No wonder Chomsky called one of his most seminal books Cartesian Linguistics, for the inevitable implication of his theory was that the mind belongs to an entirely different order of reality (where Mysteries rule) than does the body, whose functioning is one vast Problem that can be studied under the rubric of scientific methodology.
No wonder also that Chomsky has been one of the sharpest critics of Darwinian explanations for evolution. He is no creationist and would never dream of denying evolution per se, but he has always found Darwin’s theory of natural selection to be a vast non sequitur, that is, a theory that invokes the explanandum in the explanation: It is perfectly safe to attribute [innate mental structures] to natural selection,’ he says, so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena . . . . In the case of such systems as language and wings it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them.
The uniqueness of Pinker’s book (and part of what will certainly make it one of the most influential works on the human mind of this decade) is due to the uniqueness of his pedigree: he started off at Montreal as a behaviorist, but when working on a doctorate in psycholinguistics at Harvard he took courses under Chomsky at MIT and converted, if that is the right word, to his teacher’s Cartesian model of language acquisition; but when he became a faculty member at MIT (largely a Darwin-free zone, at least in the Linguistics and Psychology Departments) he apostatized, so to speak, and became that strangest of animals in the intellectuals’ menagerie: a Darwinian Chomskian.
His first book for the general public, The Language Instinct, was largely an exposition of Chomsky’s linguistics for the lay reader, but even there his Darwinian colors were evident, starting with the title (Darwin called human language an instinct). But if Chomsky is right, how can Darwin be right? The problem is that the expressive power of human language is so much more powerful than would seem to be needed in some hypothetical hominid setting; bees after all speak a purely instinctive language of semaphoric dances to indicate location of pollen sources, but their form of communication has no power of, or need for, infinite sentence-generation.
Pinker’s rejoinder to this conundrum in The Language Instinct was the old Yiddish retort, What’s the matter, is the bride too beautiful? Meaning, no one ever complains that cheetahs are faster than they need to be, or that eagles don’t really need such good vision as they in fact enjoy. But this rejoinder might be too clever by half: Rather like the embezzler who claims that his coworkers are helping themselves to office supplies for private use, this argument merely extends the challenge to other areas. To add to his difficulties, Pinker frankly admitted in this, his first best-seller, that an evolutionary scenario for language acquisition might permanently elude us for lack of fossil evidence. Archaeologists who look for evidence of the evolution of language amid such tangible remnants as stone tools and cranial capacity are for Pinker like the drunk who looks for his keys under the lamppost because that is where the light is best.
But if evidence for the evolution of language is permanently closed to us, that leaves a Darwinian Chomskian in the unhappy position of answering Chomsky’s challenge to Darwin’s hypothesis with his own pure-spun hypotheses, which is why the conditional mood abounded in this section of the book (Thus the first traces of language could have appeared as early as Lucy, etc.). Clearly, Pinker was going to have to move the argument to higher ground if he wanted to avoid the logical hole of shoring up one hypothesis with another; and so we have here in How the Mind Works Pinker’s more full-scale defense of a Darwinian explanation of the mind that does not, he claims, lapse into the absurdities of behaviorism or invent evidence where none is available.
Pinker’s end-run around the lack of evidence consists in perhaps the most important concept of the book, reverse-engineering: On the analogy of the Defense Department taking apart a MIG fighter-jet when a North Korean pilot defects or a future archaeologist who might wonder what a strange contraption like the cotton gin is for, the author says that we can do the same with all organisms shaped by natural selection. This is because natural selection selects for functionality: what functions best in its environment has higher chances of living long enough to pass on its genes to the next generation, thus keeping the selected variation in the population, something that could occur only if the variation were useful for a purpose. If the proverbial Martian received a FedEx package on his planet with the bones of a terrestrial bird in it, he might be able to figure out that the wing bones were for flying, provided he knew that the earth’s atmosphere was dense enough to sustain flight.
As this example shows, many assumptions can slip in unawares in reverse-engineering: a Martian ignorant of the earth’s atmosphere could easily leap to all kinds of other conclusions about the meaning of wing bones: perhaps they are appendages for signaling or are the scaffolding for feathers of sexual display, like the feathers of the peacock. (Nor would such a guess be all that absurd: if our putative Martians had been sent a whole moose skeleton via interplanetary UPS, the little green man who first guessed that antlers were for sexual display would not be that far off the mark, since antlers evolved-or so says the theory-from the increasingly competitive battles among bucks for does.)
This thought-experiment clearly points out the danger to Pinker’s enterprise. What will prevent him, and not just our favorite Martian, from indulging in a lot of similar after-the-fact storytelling, much in the manner of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, those fanciful (and delightful) tales about how animals got their traits? Even more awkwardly, mythology too is rife with Just So stories, called by experts etiological myths, such as the Greek story of how mulberry trees got to be red: because of the blood spilled by the slain lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, who haplessly met for their fateful tryst under a mulberry tree.
Pinker’s project of reverse-engineering his way back through evolutionary history will be filled with dangers and pitfalls, and he alerts the reader to his wariness of these methodological potholes. He is, for example, more than a little embarrassed by the cottage industry that evolutionary psychology has become, as when he distances himself from such loopy theories as these: men don’t like asking for directions because in caveman times to ask a stranger for directions would have been risky; brown hair comes from the primatial need to hide among coconuts; happiness evolved because happy people are pleasant to be around and so they attracted more allies, thereby upping their chances for survival. All very charming, and barely a step up from Kipling’s nursery tales. But it turns out Pinker’s objections to the methodology of these scenarios (which is where the real problem lies) are mostly of the tinkering variety: who says women are all that eager to ask for directions, goes one of his objections.
One can see why Pinker can only pick away at the edges of this kind of reasoning, because when he gets to his own version of reverse-engineering, he veers off into Kipling Land himself, as in his hypothesis that primates developed 3-D vision the better to spot insects against a forest bed of identical-seeming leaves, or that men take women to restaurants on dates because in our hunting-gathering days hunter-men brought home the meat of dead carcasses to gatherer-women. It is not that these stories are out-and-out incredible, like the Pyramus and Thisbe story; it’s just that, formally speaking, they are as fanciful as the brown-hair-and-coconut hypothesis they are meant to replace. And above all, they are hypotheses that are meant to shore up the original hypothesis that was supposed to be the question at issue but which somewhere along the line got assumed into the fabric of the argument the better to justify his reverse-engineering project.
In saying this, I must stress that I am not indulging in a little amateur Darwin-bashing. The thesis has been floating about for some years now that Darwin, Marx, and Freud are the three great Founding Fathers of modern reductivism (man is nothing but his evolutionary history, economic self-interest, infantile neuroses, and so forth), and now that Marx and Freud have received their comeuppance, it’s Darwin’s turn. I don’t think that will work. For one thing, Darwin’s personality is not open to the charges of misanthropy, manipulation, and megalomania that have recently been leveled, with considerable justice, against Marx and Freud.*
Nor is the fact of evolution even remotely deniable, as Pope John Paul II recently averred, to a certain amount of annoyance, even consternation, in some quarters. Of course, the theory of natural selection is certainly a matter for ongoing debate; but however debatable certain features of the theory are, the fact of Mendelian genetics compels the recognition of certain basic biological realities, such as: 1) genes replicate digitally; 2) there are always minor, random variations in each succeeding generation of replicates; and 3) the generation of offspring takes place at increasing rates of expansion (parents generally procreate more than two offspring).
None of these facts is in the least assailable, and they all serve as foundational to Darwin’s explanation of evolution (the fact that his theory needed the results of Gregor Mendel’s research but that he was unaware of the work of his contemporary monkish botanist is, in my opinion, a testimony to an impressive leap of imagination on Darwin’s part, one that is necessary in all scientific hypothesizing). But precisely because evolutionary biology is by definition a retrospective enterprise, it is particularly prone to the lazy assumption that because we know the outcome, we know the cause: yes, men do take women to restaurants on dates, and yes, hunter-men brought home the bacon to forager-women in nomadic times, but it’s a pretty big leap to say the latter caused the former; and it is into that gap that Pinker falls with the regularity of a vaudeville comedian doing a slapstick routine. (Pinker, the reader will not be surprised to learn, has an evolutionary explanation for slapstick.)
Where Darwinism is liable to go astray is in its final assumption: granted that life hands itself on by replication with minor variations in the replicates, Darwinism must then go on to say that those variants are selected that best serve the survival and reproduction rates of the offspring, which become by definition the fitter variants. Critics accuse this postulate of being tautological, and in a way it is (only the fittest survive; and who are they? the ones that survive). But since a tautology is a statement true by definition, that rejoinder can hardly render the theory false, provided the remaining principles are empirically grounded.
What is crucial is not the tautology but the way this tautology, when married to the rest of the package, can both generate real insights and yet also (and at the same time) lead a thinker astray. As for the real insights, Pinker can be quite interesting.
Reproduction leads to a geometric increase in descendants, and on a finite planet not every organism alive in one generation can have descendants several generations hence . . . . [Thus] everyone alive today is a descendant of millions of generations of ancestors who lived under these constraints but reproduced nonetheless. That means that all people today owe their existence to having winners as ancestors, and everyone today is designed, at least in some circumstances, to compete.
True enough, but the trouble is that this applies to all organisms alive today, which deprives the insight from providing any explanatory purchase on the here and now. (Both Woody Allen and Arnold Schwarzenegger are heirs of winners, so why not say the cult of bodybuilding has been selected-for just as comedy has?) This vast explanatory sprawl is most unfortunate, because it undermines what is surely Pinker’s central thesis: that the human mind, pace Chomsky, is not an all-or-nothing affair but is essentially modular. Modularity is obviously crucial for Pinker, since discrete components of mind are much easier to fit into a schema of natural selection than would be a sudden emergence of human mind with its famous epistemic grasp reaching to infinity. For Pinker’s central assertion in this book is that nature is not just a blind watchmaker that can unthinkingly devise complex organisms but is also a blind programmer that has, unbeknownst to itself, selected for a computer-like human mind endowed with discrete programs outfitted for discrete tasks.
Whether he is successful in the evolutionary segment of the argument can be questioned, but I found his mapping of the mind’s essential modularity convincing. In one amusing image, he compares the mind-whose components do not necessarily work in perfect complementarity-to the Israeli or Italian Parliament, whose many factions, splinter parties, and shifting coalitions make it rather difficult for outsiders to discern who has actually got the floor (or government) at any one moment. In a passage faintly reminiscent of St. Paul’s famous dissection of the servility of the will in Romans 7, Pinker shows how this modular cacophony can undermine our best interests, as in the case of the man who sits glued to a TV set who should be preparing for tomorrow’s business meeting, knowing that he will regret it, and wakes up the next morning in a cold sweat and does regret it. And he notes our strange ways of defeating self-defeating behavior: placing tempting snacks out of reach, putting the alarm clock across the room, setting our watches five minutes ahead, etc.
So one can easily grant Pinker’s insights into human nature (he is a sharp observer of the human scene), while remaining puzzled at the bizarre evolutionary scenarios he weaves into the insights. But despite his explanatory promiscuity, there are still some further ways of wringing a bit more non-tautological mileage from the fact of competition, survival, and reproduction-especially in mammals. Mammals by definition are an animal-type whose females nurse their young through their mammary glands, and from this and a few other basic features of mammalian life we can deduce the following ineluctable conclusions:
First, a single male can fertilize several females, which forces other males to go mateless. That sets up a competition among males for access to females . . . . Males therefore vary in reproductive success. A winner can beget many offspring, a loser will beget none.
Second, the reproductive success of males depends on how many females they mate with, but the reproductive success of females does not depend on how many males they mate with. That makes females more discriminating. Males woo females and mate with any female that lets them. Females scrutinize males and mate only with the best ones: the ones with the best genes, the ones most willing and able to feed and protect her offspring, or the ones that other females tend to prefer.
In other words, Male competition and female choice are ubiquitous in the animal world.
An old joke has it that a neoconservative is a liberal with a teenage daughter. In a way, the veritable cascade of consequences that Pinker is able to draw from these elementary insights of mammalian life can be seen as an extended commentary on that witticism. Certainly there can be no contemporary intellectual more scathing toward what he calls the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM for short), a kind of First Principle and Foundation for liberal political theory, according to which there is a fundamental division between biology and culture. Biology might have given us a few basic drives like hunger and the instinct for self-preservation, and of course a capacity to learn, says the SSSM; but that capacity then takes over and perpetuates an autonomous entity called culture that arbitrarily assigns roles, determines identities, locks in futures, etc., arrangements that can-and do-vary from culture to culture.
All of this, Pinker insists, is simply, utterly, and totally false. He even makes so bold as to claim that there is a separate female nature different from male nature for the simple reason that sexual desires that were adaptive for one sex were tickets to reproductive oblivion for the other. Nor does it refute his view to say that he is relying on gender stereotypes, as if that alone were proof of falsity. As he says, the belief that spiders spin webs and pigs don’t fly is also a stereotype, but is no less true for that. Moreover, in its otherwise laudable attempt to undermine some genuinely sexist and eminently changeable stereotypes (women are shy and retiring, men domineering, etc.), the SSSM goes overboard and presents a philosophy of human nature that is incredible from bottom up.
A Martian [him again] who wanted to learn about human interaction from a textbook in social psychology would have no inkling that humans behave any differently to their relatives than to strangers. Some anthropologists have argued that our sense of kinship has nothing to do with biological relatedness. The conventional wisdom of Marxists, academic feminists, and café intellectuals embraces some astonishing claims: that the nuclear family of husband, wife, and children is a historical aberration unknown in centuries past and in the non-Western world; that in primitive tribes marriage is uncommon and people are indiscriminately promiscuous and free of jealousy; that throughout history the bride and groom had no say in their marriage; that romantic love was invented by the troubadours of medieval Provence and consisted of the adulterous love of a knight for a married lady; that children used to be thought of as miniature adults; that in olden times children died so often that mothers were unaffected by the loss; that concern for one’s children is a recent invention. These beliefs are false. Blood really is thicker than water, and no aspect of human existence is untouched by that part of our psychology.
Including politics. Again, Pinker can draw some extremely helpful insights from just a few basic facts of mammalian biology, insights that give a whole new theoretical foundation to neoconservative political economics.
Parental love causes the fundamental paradox of politics: no society can be simultaneously fair, free, and equal. If it is fair, people who work harder can accumulate more. If it is free, people will give their wealth to their children. But then it cannot be equal, for some people will inherit wealth they did not earn. Ever since Plato called attention to these tradeoffs in The Republic, most political ideologies can be defined by the stance they take on which of these ideals should yield.
Clearly, those who tilt toward the equality side will have to try to outwit or trump biology, which explains as well as anything why liberals and feminists are so insistent that biology is not destiny. And to a real extent they are right, for to require that biology be our destiny is to bring us right back to the error of social Darwinism, where survival of the fittest as a biological tautology becomes the might makes right ideology of fascism and the end justifies the means ideology of communism.
One way of steering clear of the Standard Social Studies Model without lapsing into social Darwinism is to look at the biology of polygamy, or more accurately, polygyny (the mating of one male with more than one female). In the mammalian reproductive arrangement it is simply a fact of life, as they say, that a fertile woman never has a shortage of willing sexual partners, and in that buyer’s market she can seek the best husband available, the best genes. This is why in despotic societies, where one male enjoys all the power, women may genuinely prefer to share one wealthy husband than to have the undivided attention of a pauper. But far from being the defense of polygyny that it sounds like, Pinker’s observation leads to the corollary: that egalitarianism and monogamy go together as naturally as despotism does with polygyny. Although he doesn’t quite say so explicitly, Pinker certainly lends credence to the claim of conservatives that democracy and the monogamous nuclear family go together and cannot be sheared off from each other without damage to both.
So polygyny seems biologically plausible only at first glance; further ethical considerations alter the recipe considerably, a point Pinker needs to make at almost every turn, lest he be taken as an apologist for every harem in history. In fact, the main problem with How the Mind Works, besides the clutter of his many Just So stories, is Pinker’s reluctance to bring forward the ethical challenge enough. For only a well-rooted ethical analysis can bridge the perennial gulf between those who want to root culture in biology and those who look to culture to free us from our biological constraints. Without the primacy of ethics, the former leads to Social Darwinism and the latter to Stalin’s ideal of the New Soviet Man.
This is particularly true in the case of the latest wrinkle in sociobiology, Richard Dawkins’ theory of the selfish gene. When not taken literally, the theory is, again, almost tautologically true: genes that build bodies that survive into their reproductive years get transmitted to the next generation; those that code for bodies that for one reason or another don’t procreate leave the gene pool forever. This rather obvious truth can lead to puzzles like celibacy and altruism, but most of these can be resolved simply by insisting with feminists that in fact biology is not destiny, or as Pinker puts it in his ringing autobiographical manifesto:
Nature does not dictate what we should accept or how we should live our lives . . . . Happiness and virtue have nothing to do with what natural selection designed us to accomplish in the ancestral environment. They are for us to determine. In saying this I am no hypocrite, even though I am a conventional straight white male. Well into my procreating years I am, so far, voluntarily childless, having squandered my biological resources reading and writing, doing research, helping out friends and students, and jogging in circles, ignoring the solemn imperative to spread my genes. By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser, not one iota less than if I were a card-carrying member of Queer Nation. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don’t like it, they can go jump in a lake.
Obviously, if genes botch the job over the long haul, they botch their own existence; and if genes code for mother love the better to help the infant survive into its own reproductive years, the better for mom, baby, and genes. But genes are not moral agents, or indeed agents of any kind, and on that insight hangs the key to the nature-versus-nurture debate.
Many people think that the theory of the selfish gene says that animals try to spread their genes. That misstates the facts and it misstates the theory. Animals, including most people, know nothing about genetics and care even less. People love their children not because they want to spread their genes (consciously or unconsciously) but because they can’t help it. That love makes them try to keep their children warm, fed, and safe. What is selfish is not the real motives of the person but the metaphorical motives of the genes that built the person . . . . The confusion comes from thinking of people’s genes as their true self, and the motives of their genes as their deepest, truest, unconscious motives. From there it’s easy to draw the cynical and incorrect moral that all love is hypocritical. That confuses the real motives of the person with the metaphorical motives of the genes. Genes are not puppetmasters; they acted as the recipe for making the brain and body and then they got out of the way. They live in a parallel universe, scattered among bodies, with their own agendas.
Does that mean, then, that the Standard Social Science Model is correct? Does biology operate in its own parallel universe and culture in another? By no means, says Pinker, no more than our emotions operate independently of biological imperatives. It would be much more accurate to say that ethics and biology operate in different universes of discourse.
Science and morality are separate spheres of reasoning. Only by recognizing them as separate can we have them both. If discrimination is wrong only if group averages are the same, if war and rape and greed are wrong only if people are never inclined toward them, if people are responsible for their actions only if the actions are mysterious, then either scientists must be prepared to fudge their data or all of us must be prepared to give up our values. Scientific arguments would turn into the National Lampoon cover showing a puppy with a gun at its head and the caption Buy This Magazine or We’ll Shoot the Dog.
Nor is this threat to shoot the dog an idle one. What Pinker is referring to here is the worrisome trend in courtrooms for juries to acquit admitted criminals whose defense attorneys can show the defendants’ brain states at the time of the crime, as if physical causation excused the criminal’s exercise of free will. This is now known as the Twinkie Defense, from the notorious case of the councilman who walked into San Francisco’s City Hall and murdered the mayor and a fellow alderman and who later got off with an involuntary manslaughter charge on the pretext that junk food impaired his free will. This is what Pinker calls (borrowing Daniel Dennett’s fine phrase) the Specter of Creeping Exculpation, a trend that will only increase if we do not concede at the outset the independent status of ethical judgment (and hence free will) over accounts of physical causation.
All fine and well, if only Pinker took his own eloquent words seriously. He obviously writes well and with real flair (this must surely be the only book in cognitive psychology to become a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club). Clever without being mannered, he has, what is more, a mind like grandmother’s attic: his mental gallery, much like a storage room in the Smithsonian Institution, is filled with factoidal bric-a-brac that he can call up at will and that, unlike the factoids flashed on the screen by CNN before a commercial break, he makes directly relevant to his point, whether it be Miss Manners on dating rituals, Mae West one-liners on mammalian imbalance between the sexes (men like women with a past, she says, because they hope history will repeat itself), or Yiddish sayings on village competition.
But over the whole project looms the ethical question, and for all his apparent concessions, it is a question that Pinker fudges.* This becomes especially blatant in his final chapter, which surprisingly turns into a revanchist exercise to explain religion using the very techniques Pinker had earlier admitted could not be used to explain consciousness or ethics-rather as if Pinker had become his own blind programmer cranking out assertions without testing them against the rest of the book. Religion, he blithely explains, is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success . . . . [This] demand for miracles creates a market that would-be priests compete in, and they can succeed by exploiting people’s dependence on experts.
This farrago of warmed-over Mencken sits poorly with earlier avowals that consciousness remains a mystery, that biology cannot dictate morality, and that morality and mystery go together: A final conundrum is morality, he says. If I secretly hatchet the unhappy, despised pawnbroker, where is the evil nature of that act registered? What does it mean to say that I shouldn’t’ do it? How did ought emerge from a universe of particles and planets, genes and bodies? Odd that Pinker has chosen the plot-line from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to illustrate his point, for it was precisely this epileptic Russian novelist who saw that without God everything is permitted.
And so it turns out, after all, that Pinker does have a major problem with mystery. Despite earlier avowals, the idea that reason has limits just won’t wash with him. And that is what most bothers him about religion.
The problem with the religious solution was stated by Mencken when he wrote, Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing. For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of original ones. What gave God a mind, free will, knowledge, certainty about right and wrong? How does he infuse them into a universe that seems to run just fine according to physical laws? How does he get ghostly souls to interact with hard matter? And most perplexing of all, if the world unfolds according to a wise and merciful plan, why does it contain so much suffering? As the Yiddish expression says, If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.
This passage is as good an example as any of the difficulty believers have in debating secular materialists, for to the believer it makes no sense to ask behind God. I myself don’t get much exercised by modern unbelief, since it is not so much up to the individual to defend God but God the individual (and anyway, I am sure God can defend Himself from Pinker’s shopworn, hand-me-down positivism). But it becomes hard even to debate the point when one is faced with these dormitory retorts, since the very God I believe in is the termination point for these mysteries, so that for Pinker to raise this objection is to deny the very God who is supposed to be the focus of the debate.
Pinker claims that believers invoke God to short-circuit their curiosity, but he ignores the way faith has served, at least in the tradition of Christian philosophy best represented by Thomas Aquinas and Etienne Gilson, as a provocation to further reasoning. That is why, if Pinker is as persistent in his intellectual curiosity as he claims to be, he can find answers to all of his Menckenesque questions except the last two in Book I of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, while the influence of spirit on matter is treated in Book II of the same work and the meaning of suffering and evil in a world created by a good God is treated in his separate works De Malo and his magnificent Commentary on Job.
Of course the acceptability of these answers depends on giving priority to faith and trusting that it can rightly guide (not replace) reason. For as Pinker makes clear, often against his own stated intentions, reason-baffling Mysteries still remain, and always will. This is why the last word in this debate must be given, as in so many other areas, to Pascal. How the mind works is of course via the brain, and it is no mere metaphor when people call a smart person brainy or say of someone’s financial woes that he’s got credit-card debts on the brain. But there is another organ of insight, one that Pascal calls the heart, and here the reference is purely metaphorical. But that is the whole point. Far better than relying solely on reason is simply to admit at the outset with Pascal that man’s condition is dual. That is why for Pascal without faith man would remain inconceivable to himself. Through the heart we immediately apprehend truths that reason, left to its own devices and without the guidance of faith, can never in principle reach. That is what faith is, says Pascal: God perceived by the heart, not by reason.
* Pinker is quite willing to join the recent Freud-bashing bandwagon, but adds a new Darwinian twist: Freud’s idea that male toddlers are sexually attracted to their mothers is, he points out, an evolutionary absurdity. Moreover, the incest taboo against sibling sex is a figment of the anthropologist’s imagination: Do brothers and sisters avoid copulating because their parents discourage it? he asks. If they did, he notes, it would be the first time in all of human experience in which a sexual prohibition worked. Avoiding incest is universal, taboos against it are not. Which brings us back to Freud, whose talent for misreading texts was nearly boundless. As any reader with the scantiest freshman’s exposure to the play could see, Freud completely misunderstood Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex: the eponymous hero, after all, married his mother unknowingly and was truly horrified when the truth came out.
For readers eager to know how he weaves that particular scenario, I offer his argument in a nutshell: First, when the human brain evolved to a certain size, man became not just a carnivore but an informavore, who could share information with his tribe at little cost to himself. That meant that information became crucial to a tribe and that therefore some of the males could win power (and hence females) because of their expertise and not just because of their brute strength. These brainy but not so brawny males, however, could also fake their expertise, because to check out the correctness of the information would be costly in time and effort (and brain power), so that some informavores gained power falsely. But once in power these soi-disant experts were hard to dislodge. That set up a discrepancy between assumed power and real strength. And since it is the whole point of slapstick to bring down the mighty to the level of ordinary mortals, public ritualized ridicule arose out of a sense in the tribe of the disjunction between those with power and those without.
Anyone capable of piling on such a mountain of hypotheses and assumptions and calling it an argument is clearly living in an ex post facto world of such blinding obliviousness that he has failed to see the missing link, as it were, in his chain of argument: to survive as an evolutionarily beneficial variation, this proclivity for slapstick would have to have helped the tribe and/or comedian survive the rigors of decidedly unfunny jungle life (nasty, brutish, short, etc.). A contemporary Woody Allen might be good for Manhattan cocktail party chatter, but it is a little hard to imagine how a primate version of Laurel and Hardy could drive along the engine of human evolution, though I suppose it does give a whole new range of meaning to the title of one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, Schlemiel the First.
Readers who have followed the argument thus far will not be surprised to note that Pinker justifies Hamlet as a survival manual. It became a classic-yes, even in the Darwinian jungle-world of theater critics-because the spectator sees the play and is horrified at the idea of dispatching his fiancée to a nunnery, thereby making her forfeit her chance to take a plunge in the gene pool, and this horror saves the spectator’s genes for posterity as well. Whether this evolutionary cleverness works better if he takes her to the play after a pre-theater caveman-style supper of red meat from dead animals Pinker does not say. Those who like Freud on Oedipus Rex will relish Pinker on Hamlet.
* In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Pinker provides an evolutionary explanation for infanticide, an explanation that quickly segues into an implied justification. (See James Nuechterlein, Infanticide for Beginners, FT, January 1998.)
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, and author Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Continuum). He is currently working on a book about evolutionary theory.