The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Author: Stephen Pinker
Viking Press, 2008

Stephen Pinker

The author, Stephen Pinker

Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Stephen Pinker unites the human mind with human biology and criticizes those who do not. In his first chapter he faultsthe French philosopher Rousseau (1712-78), who believed that humans were made corrupt by civilization, as if before civilization there were people – Noble Savages – whose minds had been blank slates on which civilization had written its corruption. Pinker points out that Rousseau did not believe literally in a Blank Slate, but he describes Rousseau as believing that wickedness comes from society rather than from characteristics that "Noble Savages" also possessed.

Looking back to the original believer in the mind as a blank slate, Pinker raises the subject of John Locke (1632-1704), a founder of modern psychology and a believer in politics as a social contract. Pinker is easy on Locke. Locke saw the mind as a blank slate, to quote Pinker, in opposition to "dogmatic justifications for the political status quo, such as the authority of the church and the divine right of kings, which had been touted as self-evident truths." Locke wanted to separate the mind from what conservatives were describing as eternal truths that supported the Divine Right of kings, and he wanted to separate royalty and aristocracy from their claim of innate wisdom. They began like everyone else, believed Locke, as having a blank mind on which their experiences were written. Conservatives held that monarchies were created by God and God was a force within the human psyche and human heart that made it natural and imperative that humans support their old institutions.

Another philosopherwhom Pinker disagrees with is René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes proposed that the human mind and body were completely separate – what philosophers described as dualism. Pinker associates Descartes'belief with the "Ghost in the Machine," the ghost being the soul, independent of the body (the machine). Of Descartes, Pinker writes:

He noted that we cannot doubt the existence of our minds – indeed, we cannot doubt that we are our minds – because the very act of thinking presupposes that our minds exist. But we can doubt the existence of our bodies, because we can imagine ourselves to be immaterial spirits who merely dream or hallucinate that we are incarnate.

As a psychologist Pinker cannot accept Descartes'separation of the human mind from its biology. One cannot understand anything without taking into consideration such a significant connection. To a modern psychologist the mind does not float in a vacuum.

Pinker describes contemporary attitudes that rest on a blank slate theory of mind – first in psychology. He complains that "In behaviorism, an infant's talents and abilities didn't matter because there was no such thing as talent or an ability." He writes of the behaviorist John B. Watson (1878-58) as having "banned them from psychology, together with other contents of the mind, such as ideas, beliefs, desires and feelings."

Pinker complains about "Ghost in the Machine" scientists. He writes:

Many biologists still thought that living things were animated by a special essence, an elan vital, and could not be reduced to inanimate matter. A 1931 history of biology, referring to genetics as it was then understood, said, "Thus the last of the biological theories leaves us where we first started, in the presence of a power called life or psyche which is not only of its own kind but unique in each and all of its exhibitions. (Pinker lists the quote as from Charles Singer, A Short History of Biology, note 54, chapter 2)

Pinker writes with approval of a bridge having been created between biology and culture, resting on five points:

1. The mental world grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.

2. The idea that the mind cannot be a blank slate because blank slates don't do anything.

3. An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind.

4. Universal mental mechanism can underlie superficial variation across cultures.

5. The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts.

Pinker writes that educated people, of course, "know that perception, cognition, language and emotion are rooted in the brain. But it is still tempting to think of the brain as it was shown in old educational cartoons, as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user – the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the 'me.'But cognitive neuroscience is showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems."

Pinker complains of people still refusing to acknowledge differences in people. The Blank Slate attitude, he writes, "perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering." The Ghost in the Machine mentality "threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering." The idea of the Noble Savage, he writes, "invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of 'a government of laws and not of men.'" He adds that the Blind Slateattitude "blinds us to our cognitive and moral shortcomings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions." He concludes that the Blank Slate "is an anti-life, anti-human theoretical abstraction that denies our common humanity, our inherent interests and our individual preferences."

Pinker divides his book into six parts:

Part I. The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine.

Part II. Fear and Loathing.

Part III. Human Nature with a Human Face (the fear of inequality, fear of imperfectibility, fear of determinism, fear of nihilism, the many roots of our suffering, the sanctimonious animal).

Part IV. Know Thyself.

Part V. Hot Buttons (politics, violence, gender, children, the arts).

Part VI. The Voice of the Species.

Copyright © 2008-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.