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After reading Flynn's book I read most of The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. I have always had a somewhat negative impression of Pinker, for several reasons, but had never read any of his books first hand. Since I consider myself a pretty die hard empiricist, and the title and premise of this book seemed to be marketing itself as a wholesale attack on empiricism, I figured I might be able to learn something from reading it, or at least get a better impression of Steven Pinker. I figured if I read other books by him, like The Better Angels of our Nature, I'd probably agree with most of the conclusions even if his way of arriving at those conclusions was sloppy, so it wouldn't be worth my time. An attack on empiricism would be more worth it, even if his thinking is a bit sloppy, since it would give me some idea of what kinds of objections people have to such a seemingly straightforwardly true doctrine.

I certainly found The Blank Slate worth reading, it covers an intersection of a lot of different topics that I find extremely interesting, and he points out a lot of connections between abstract ideas and ideologies I hadn't fully put together before. So in that sense I was impressed with the book, and would recommend it. On the other hand, I felt there were some annoying things about it and he certainly didn't manage to unconvince me of empiricism, if that was his aim. Rather, I concluded that he and I have extremely different interpretations of what the essential doctrine is about, and from my perspective, he just seems to miss the point. Now that I'm reading Jerry Fodor's book (see below), he explains this difference of interpretations further, and contrasts Pinker's view with that of Noam Chomsky's. This confirms my impressions that Pinker is a pretty sloppy thinker and doesn't really understand some things very well, despite being interested in many of the same topics as me and having done a lot of homework on them. However, ironically, I feel like on the important issues I agree with Pinker a lot more than with Fodor or Chomsky, who seem much more fundamentally wrong. Will also get to that in a minute.

After reading enough of The Blank Slate to feel like I got Pinker's points, I started reading Jerry Fodor's book The Mind Doesn't Work that Way, which is intended as an exposition of the limits of the computationalist view of philosophy of mind, which Pinker champions. The title is a direct reference and response to another of Pinker's books, The Way the Mind Works. I'm not that far into it yet, but my response to it is similar to that of Pinker's book in that I am learning a lot and it's very thought provoking, but I just don't feel like I see eye to eye with the author on some issues. One issue where I certainly side with Fodor is his appreciation for the limits of computationalism. I consider myself more on the connectionist side of the spectrum, to the extent I understand both points of view, although like Fodor, I have never imagined that any simple approach like the pure version of either of them is going to cut the mustard. Pinker seems much more of a fundamentalist here, and indeed, hearing Fodor explain the tenets of computationalism makes me realize it's even more crazy than I had originally imagined, and probably more wrong than even Fodor seems to realize. (He considers himself a computationalist, but isn't a fundamentalist about it like Pinker.)

That's where I agree with Fodor more than Pinker. So where do I disagree more? Fodor explains what I had already suspected about Pinker--that there's a key difference between the way that Chomsky (where Pinker draws a lot of his inspiration) thought about nativism (the idea that some parts of thought, like language, are innate rather than learned) and how Pinker and friends think about it today. Chomsky's ideas, according to Fodor, were much more closely connected with rationalist epistemology (Descartes, Kant, et al.), while Pinker's are about rationalist psychology. I feel like I only very weakly reject rationalist psychology, whereas I very strongly and fundamentally reject rationalist epistemology. Fodor takes the exact opposite view from me, and thinks that Chomsky was more on the mark here, and that Pinker has misunderstood and mishandled Chomsky's ideas. Fodor and I both seem to agree that Pinker has no idea what he's talking about when it comes to epistemology, and he seems to be very confused in thinking that what he believes is at all related to epistemology. Indeed, that's exactly the feeling I kept getting while reading Pinker's book--I thought the facts he presented made a decent case for rationalist psychology, even if it was at times over exaggerated. But occasionally he slipped into places where it seemed like he was dismissing all of the ideas of Locke or other empiricists, simply because they were in his view "the bad guys" and the rationalists were the good guys, but without actually understanding that the epistemelogical issues are independent of the ones he is really concerned with, as evidenced by his focus during the rest of the book. And he dismisses them without much knowledge or thought about what those issues actually are.

I'm still reading Fodor's book, which is not that long (only started it a couple days ago), but so far my big problem with Chomsky and Fodor is that even if rationalist psychology is somewhat true (ie, if there are more innate ideas in the human mind than anthropologists and cultural studies professors would like to admit, for example if some of language is innate, as I suspect it is) I don't see at all how that should convince someone to *trust* those innate ideas. And I don't see how Fodor or Chomsky can claim that this counts as "innate knowledge". Knowledge is a form of justified belief, but the two big problems I see with their claims is that 1.) language is not a belief, and 2.) even if it were, having some beliefs hard coded into humans via their genes would not in any way provide a justification for those beliefs. For example, we might instinctually have a tendency to believe in the supernatural, or to favor animate causes over inanimate causes for things, but those don't provide justifications for thinking we can trust those beliefs. If anything, learning that they were programmed into us by a semi-random process like evolution should cause us to question those beliefs and begin rejecting some of them. Perhaps Fodor addresses this later in his book, I would be curious to hear how he and Chomsky handle this problem. But it seems like a pretty insurmountable one, offhand.



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