Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mind: Questioning "may haves" and "might haves" officially labelled "science"TM

In "A One Hundred Year-Old Challenge", Michael Flannery, author of a just-published biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, comments on Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's latest attempt to explain away the human mind, taking the non-materialist Wallace as a starting point:
Now, after more than a century, Pinker pledges to address once and for all the "profound puzzle" Wallace posed with "the cognitive niche." Let's see if Pinker's argument matches his bravado.

The cognitive niche is not new; it was first proposed by Tooby and DeVore in 1987. But Pinker believes it has special significance in explaining the evolvability of the human mind by means of natural selection, precisely what Wallace denied. The cognitive niche rests upon two hypotheses: 1) "a mode of survival characterized by manipulating the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation"; and 2) "the psychological faculties that evolved to prosper in the cognitive niche can be coopted to abstract domains of processes of metaphorical abstraction and productive combination, both vividly manifested in human language."

It all sounds impressive until Pinker tries to actually make a case for any of this. The narrative quickly degenerates into a trivial recounting of what humans currently do and then into a collection of speculative scenarios about how certain primordial hominids "might have" done this or "perhaps" did that. Festooned with hedges like "may have been," "may serve as," "perhaps," "may connect" -- twenty-one in a seven-page paper! -- Pinker promises to "dissolve" the Wallace paradox. If it were all mere speculation it might simply be chalked up to the desperate wishful thinking so common among evolutionary psychologists. But Pinker goes on to try and explain "how cognitive mechanisms that were selected for physical and social reasoning could have enabled H. sapiens to engage in the highly abstract reasoning required in modern science, philosophy, government, commerce, and law." His answer: most humans don't do that! Only a few humans were able to do what "all are capable of learning." Examples? Instead of Newtonian mechanical physics most human "physics" has consisted of intuitions more akin to "the medieval theory of impetus," most have believed in an "intuitive biology" like "creationism," most have reasoned towards "vitalism" over "mechanistic physiology," and with regard to the mind most people have adhered to mind/body dualism over "neurobiological reductionism." Only "some humans," he insists, were "able to invent the different components of modern knowledge." The mechanism for how the apparent "few" were able to achieve this comes from what Pinker calls the "psycholinguistic phenomenon" called "metaphorical abstraction."

Now this most surely isn't science; it's rank presentism and wishful thinking. It privileges those things Pinker values as "progressive" and "modern" and relegates all the rest to a self-fulfilling ignorance.
Find out why Pinker is surely mistaken: