Steven Pinker:
HOW THE MIND WORKS (Norton, 1997)

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(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

The American psychologist Steven Pinker takes off with the old adage that "the mind is what the brain does". He forgets to define "brain", so we are left with the vague idea that there is some part of the nervous system that creates the mind, and it sounds like Pinker believes that only the nervous system inside the skull creates the mind. It sounds like he does not grant any other entity the privilege of creating minds. Once a scientist corners himself in this manner, he is forced to abandon any explanation of where mind comes from (which physical process in the brain turns electrochemical signals into feelings and emotions and thoughts). And that's precisely what Pinker does.
Instead, Pinker delves into the somewhat obsolete concept of "intelligence" and tries to explain how it arose (vision, socialization, hands and hunting are his favorite traits).
Pinker is a strong believer in the computational theory of the mind: that the mind is innately capable of reasoning and language, and that specialized modules attend to our cognitive (mental) life. Thinking is a kind of computation. There are two kinds of computation: rules and networks. Pinker shows that networks per se cannot account for everything our mind does (associationism cannot account for the ability to represent the individual, for the compositionality of language, for quantification and for recursion).
Pinker also subscribes to the notion that the mind works in the way it works because that has helped us survive. The mind, just like any other organ, is the product of evolution, it was "designed" by natural selection.
Pinker is also a follower in Dawkwins' gene selectionism: the ultimate goal of an organism is maximizing the number of copies of the genes that created it. That applies to the mind as well: the mind is created by the genes and its purpose is, ultimately, to maximize the genes' chances to replicate.
These premises lead to an evolutionary psychology that relies far more on anthropology than on neuroscience.
For example, Pinker believes that, because they have no survival function, activities such as art, music, religion and philosophy are not adaptations but side-effects of ther evolved abilities.
The last chapters explore areas in which Pinker is obviously well versed: emotions, altruism, sexual behavior, creativity, art. These chapters are certainly appealing to a large sector of the public. Previous (lenghty) chapters on vision and reasoning are good surveys of classical studies.
The book is far less fascinating and certainly fas less provocative than advertised. Since it mainly rehashes popular theories of mind of the 1990s, it is hardly provocative at all. Since it uses standard Darwinian approaches, it is hardly creating any sensation.
Mostly, Pinker's book is a good introduction to the field for people who have never been exposed to modern theories of mind. It never mentions quantum physics once, and ignorance of modern science remains the single most serious weakness for books like this.

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