How the Mind Works (1997)
by Steven Pinker (1954-)
This is an ambitious book, and similar in intent to my own program of understanding how human minds work. Similar, but not identical. Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist, and his object is to illustrate how the principles of natural selection acting on our ancestors could (must) have resulted in minds like ours. The book is largely successful in its aim, but does not address my interest: how do human minds work? Pinker occasionally treats the evolution of minds within organisms that interact socially, but does not make that his primary theme. Nonetheless, there are many interesting aspects of his story, and I marked more than 70 passages of the book, perhaps more than any other book except Barzun’s Dawn to Decadence. (I might have marked more, but I was running low on the sticky flags I use for this purpose.)
Early in the book, Pinker takes a design stance. He isolates a mental phenomenon and reverse-engineers it, to see what design characteristics would be needed to produce it in a hypothetical robot. Where there are alternatives, he appeals to natural selection among plausible or known precursors. He is frankly reductionist, and acknowledges this with the following: “Behaviorist philosophers would insist that this is all just loose talk. The machines aren’t really understanding or trying anything, they would say; the observers are just being careless in their choice of words and are in danger of being seduced into grave conceptual errors. Now, what is wrong with this picture? The philosophers are accusing the computer scientists of fuzzy thinking? A computer is the most legalistic, persnickety, hard-nosed, unforgiving demander of precision and explicitness in the universe. From the accusation you’d think it was the befuddled computer scientists who call a philosopher when their computer stops working rather than the other way around. A better explanation is that computation has finally demystified mentalistic terms. Beliefs are inscriptions in memory, desires are goal inscriptions, thinking is computation, perceptions are inscriptions triggered by sensors, trying is executing operations triggered by a goal.”
On page 96, Pinker quotes part of an amusing sci-fi story by Terry Bisson, which he says is widely circulated online. (Later, I found it, and found he quoted nearly all of the two-page story.)
In a section about neural networks (“connectoplasm”), he says: “… a hidden-layer network is a high-tech implementation of an ancient doctrine: the association of ideas. Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Hartley, and Mill proposed that thought is governed by two laws. One is contiguity: ideas that are frequently experienced together get associated in the mind. Thereafter, when one is activated, the other is activated too. The other law is resemblance: when two ideas are similar, whatever has been associated with the first idea is automatically associated with the second.” He goes on:
Raw connectoplasm has trouble with five feats of everyday thinking. The feats appear to be subtle at first, and were not even suspected of existing until logicians, linguists, and computer scientists began to put the meanings of sentences under a microscope. But the feats give human thought its distinctive precision and power …
One feat is entertaining the concept of an individual. … It is easy to confuse the relationship between a class and a subclass, such as “animal” and “horse”, with the relationship between a subclass and an individual, such as “horse” and “Mr. Ed”. … the networks of the mind have to be crafted to implement the abstract logical notion of the individual, analogous to the role played by an arbitrarily labeled memory location in a computer. …
A second problem … is called compositionality: the ability of a representation to be built out of parts and to have a meaning that comes from the meanings of the parts and from the way they are combined. Compositionality is the quintessential property of all human languages. …
Another mental talent you may never have realized you have is called quantification, or variable-binding. It arises from a combination of the first problem, individuals, with the second, compositionality. A quantifier is a symbol that can express “There exists a particular x who …” and “For all x it is true that …”. A thought can then be captured in a proposition built out of symbols for concepts, roles, quantifiers, and variables … Not only can a proposition be about an individual, it must be treated as a kind of individual itself …
The trick that multiplies human thoughts … is not the slotting of concepts into three or four roles but a kind of mental fecundity called recursion. … We humans can take an entire proposition and give it a role in some larger proposition. Then we can take the larger proposition and embed it in a still larger one, creating a hierarchical tree structure of propositions inside propositions.
[Connectoplasm] easily implements a fuzzy logic in which everything is a kind-of something to some degree. … People share a stereotype, project it to all the members of a category, recognize the stereotype more quickly than the nonconformists, and even claim to have seen the stereotype when all they really saw were examples similar to it. … Fuzzy and crisp versions of the same category can live side by side in a single head. … People think in two modes. They can form fuzzy stereotypes … but people can also create systems of rules – intuitive theories – that define categories in terms of the rules that apply to them, and that treat all the members of the category equally. Law, arithmetic, folk science … are rule systems in which people all over the planet reckon. The grammar of a language is yet another. … Rules and abstract categories help in dealing with the natural world. By sidestepping similarity, they allow us to get beneath the surface and ferret out hidden laws that make things tick. And because they are, in a sense, digital, they give representations stability and precision. Crisp symbolic representations allow for chains of reasoning in which the symbols are copied verbatim in successive thoughts, forming what logicians call a sorites [like a syllogism].
Pinker mentions the notion of the meme, and criticizes some simplistic views of cultural evolution, then says, “Models of cultural transmission do offer insight on other features of cultural change, particularly their demographics – how memes can become popular or unpopular. But the analogy is more from epidemiology than from evolution: ideas as contagious diseases that cause epidemics, rather than as advantageous genes that cause adaptations. They explain how ideas become popular, but not where ideas come from.”
In a discussion of the categories people seem to use naturally, he says: “What is an artifact? An artifact is an object suitable for attaining some end that a person intends to be used for attaining that end. The mixture of mechanics and psychology makes artifacts a strange category.” Later, “Mental states are invisible and weightless. Philosophers define them as ‘a relation between a person and a proposition.’” The relation is an attitude like believes-that, desires-that, hopes-that, pretends-that. The proposition is the content of the belief, something very roughly like the meaning of a sentence. … The content of the belief lives in a different realm from the facts of the world. There are unicorns grazing in Cambridge Common is false, but John thinks there are unicorns grazing in Cambridge Common could very well be true. To ascribe a belief to someone, we can’t just think a thought in the ordinary way, or we wouldn’t be able to learn that john believes in unicorns without believing in them ourselves. We have to take a thought, set it aside in mental quotation marks, and think ‘That is what John thinks (or wants or, or hopes for, or guesses).’”
Concerning mathematics as an example of an unnatural capability: “On evolutionary grounds it would be surprising if children were mentally equipped for school mathematics. … Mathematical concepts come from snapping together old concepts in a useful new arrangement. But those old concepts are assemblies of still older concepts. Each subassembly hangs together by the mental rivets called chunking and automaticity: with copious practice, concepts adhere into larger concepts, and sequences of steps are compiled into a single step. … Evolutionary psychology has implications for pedagogy which are particularly clear in the teaching of mathematics. … The problem is that the educational establishment is ignorant of evolution. … mastery of mathematics is deeply satisfying, but it is a reward for hard work that is not itself always pleasurable. Without the esteem for hard-won mathematical skills that is common in other cultures, the mastery is unlikely to blossom.”
Also in the chapter on Good Ideas, he says “Space and force pervade language. Many cognitive scientists (including me) have concluded from their research on language that a handful of concepts about places, paths, motions, agency, and causation underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words and constructions, not only in English but in every other language that has been studied. The though underlying the sentence Minnie gave the house to Mary would be something like ‘Minnie cause [house go-possessionally from Minnie to Mary].’ These concepts and relations appear to be the vocabulary and syntax of mentalese.”
Concerning creativity: “Geniuses are wonks. The typical genius pays dues for at least ten years before contributing anything of lasting value. During the apprenticeship, geniuses immerse themselves in their genre. They absorb tens of thousands of problems and solutions, so no challenge is completely new and they can draw on a repertoire of motifs and strategies. They keep an eye on the competition and a finger to the wind, and are either discriminating or lucky in their choice of problems. They are mindful of the esteem of others and of their place in history. They work day and night, and leave us with many works of subgenius. Their interludes away from a problem are helpful not because it ferments in the unconscious but because they are exhausted and need the rest (and possibly so they can forget blind alleys). They do not suppress a problem but engage in ‘creative worrying,’ and the epiphany is not a masterstroke but a tweaking of an earlier attempt. They revise endlessly, gradually closing in on their ideal. Geniuses may also have been dealt a genetic hand with four aces. But tey are not freaks with minds utterly unlike ours or unlike anything we can imagine evolving in a species that has always lived by its wits. The genius creates good ideas because we all create good ideas; that is what our combinatorial, adapted minds are for.”
After describing the different realms of emotions and intellect, dating back to the Romantic movement (often tacitly accepted by scientists), Pinker says, “We often call an act ‘emotional’ when it is harmful to the social group, damaging to the actor’s happiness in the long run, uncontrollable or impervious to persuasion, or a product of self-delusion. Sad to say, these outcomes are not malfunctions but precisely what we would expect from well-engineered emotions. … Each human emotion mobilizes the mind and body to meet one of the challenges of living and reproducing in the cognitive niche. Some challenges are posed by physical things, and the emotions that deal with them, like disgust, fear, and appreciation of natural beauty, work in straightforward ways. Others are posed by people. The problem in dealing with people is that people can deal back. The emotions that evolved in response to other people’s emotions, like anger, gratitude, shame, and romantic love, are played on a complicated chessboard, and they spawn the passion and intrigue that misleads the Romantic.”
In discussing disgust, which has a physical basis but is highly contagious to thinking persons, he is led to food taboos. He suggests that they originated as a means to keep people in a group. Sharing food is a practical necessity in forming a friendship. If a food of a neighboring tribe is disgusting, ten one can’t form a friendship with a member of that tribe.
In discussing fear, he points out common objects: snakes, spiders, heights, storms, large carnivores, darkness, blood, strangers, confinement, deep water, social scrutiny, and leaving home alone; all situations that endangered our ancestors lives or ability to find mates.
Happiness motivates a striving for the things and situations that represent fitness. But fitness is a relative thing, differing from one place and time to another. The “right” amount of fitness is recognized by looking around, and seeing those who are a little better or worse off than ourselves.
“The essence of love is feeling pleasure in another’s well-being and pain in its harm. … The sacrifices made for love are modulated by the expected reproductive life of the beneficiary … and they are modulated by the beneficiary’s own feelings of love. People love their grandmothers not because their grandmothers are expected to reproduce, but because their grandmothers love them, and love the rest of their family. That is, you help people who enjoy helping you and helping your relatives. … The other parent of my child has as much of a genetic stake in the child as I do, so what is good for her is good for me.”
“Honor and vengeance are raised to godly virtues in societies that are beyond the reach of law enforcement.”
Pinker corrects a common misconception about “cognitive dissonance”. This is a kind of mental tension that arises when we perceive a contradiction between some circumstance and the proposition “I am nice and in control.” When cognitive dissonance reaches a certain level, people doctor their own beliefs, fabricating a self-serving story to hide (from themselves) the evidence that they are not as beneficent and effective as they would like people (and themselves) to believe.
“In Human Universals, the anthropologist Donald Brown has assembled the traits that as far as we know are found in all human cultures. They include prestige and status, inequality of power and wealth, property, inheritance, reciprocity, punishment, sexual modesty, sexual regulations, sexual jealousy, a male preference for young women as sexual partners, a division of labor by sex (including more child care by women and greater public political dominance by men), hostility to other groups, and conflict within the group, including violence, rape, and murder. The list should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with history, current events, or literature. There are a small number of plots in the world’s fiction and drama, and the scholar Georges Polti claims to have listed them all. More than eighty percent are defined by adversaries (often murderous), by tragedies of kinship or love, or both. In the real world, our life stories are largely stories of conflict: the hurts, guilts, and rivalries inflicted by parents, siblings, children, spouses, lovers, friends, and competitors.”
Of course evolutionary biology and psychology must emphasize the role of kinship, the sharing of genes. But humans create fictive kin that also benefit from evolutionary effects. Spouses and in-laws are common examples. This leads families to have a strong interest in the choices of spouses and in-laws of their own young. Pinker says, “With the stakes so high, it is no wonder that the parents’ generation always teaches that romantic love is frivolous or does not exist at all. The intellectuals who conclude that romantic love is a recent invention of medieval troubadours or of Hollywood scriptwriters have taken this establishment propaganda at face value.” Later, “Another surprising consequence of kin solidarity is that the family is a subversive organization. That conclusion flies in the face of the right-wing view that the church and state have always been steadfast upholders of the family and of the left-wing view that the family is a bourgeois, patriarchal institution designed to suppress women, weaken class solidarity, and manufacture docile consumers. The journalist Ferdinand Mount has documented how every political and religious movement in history has sought to undermine the family. The reasons are obvious. Not only is the family a rival coalition competing for a person’s loyalties, but it is a rival with an unfair advantage: relatives innately care for one another more than comrades do. … totalitarian ideologies and religions always demand a new loyalty “higher” than, and contrary to, family ties.” He says that incest laws are created by rulers in stratified societies, and are not aimed at unions between close relatives, but at more distant ones such as cousins, with the object of preventing families from accumulating wealth and power and becoming strong rivals to those already in power.
He has an interesting section on sibling rivalry. It includes a theory of the formation of personality traits as survival strategies in different niches faced by different siblings.
In discussing dominance: “Humans evolved language, and a new way of propagating information about dominance: reputation. Sociologists have long been puzzled that the largest category of motives for homicide in American cities is not robbery, drug deals gone sour, or other tangible incentives. It is a category they call ‘altercation of relatively trivial origin; insult, curse, jostling, etc.’ Two young men argue over who gets to use the pool table in a bar. They shove each other and trade insults and obscenities. The loser, humiliated before onlookers, storms off and returns with a gun. The murders are the epitome of ‘senseless violence,’ and the men who commit them are often written off as madmen or animals.” He goes on about the importance of credible deterrence to allow a man to keep a reputation as one who can’t be pushed around.
Related to dominance is prestige. Driven by conspicuous leisure, conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste, and conspicuous outrage (or offensiveness). These are expensive traits, and the conspicuousness is supposed to convey the message that its owner can afford the trait.
In discussing friends and acquaintances, he mentions the tit-for-tat strategy as a way of assessing one’s acquaintances, and modulating altruism. Then, “Companionate love, the emotion behind close friendship and the enduring bond of marriage (the love that is neither romantic nor sexual), has a psychology of its own. Friends or spouses feel as if they are in one another’s debt, but the debts are not measured and the obligation to repay is not onerous but deeply satisfying. … the line of credit is long and the terms of repayment forgiving.”
“The enigma of war is why people volunteer for an activity that has an excellent chance of getting them killed. … if the spoils are certain and divided up fairly, the level of danger doesn’t matter.” This requires an unrealistic amount of arithmetical reasoning to be a true motive, but if the analysis is compiled into genes favoring the behavior it would work. “The theory also predicts that men should be willing to fight collectively only if they are confident of victory and none of them knows in advance who will be injured or killed. If defeat is likely, it’s pointless to fight on. And if you bear more than your share of risk it’s also pointless to fight on.”
After exposing many grim facts, he says “So should we all just take poison now and be done with it? Some people think that evolutionary psychology claims to have discovered that human nature is selfish and wicked. But they are flattering the researchers and anyone who would claim to have discovered the opposite. No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it’s all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another. The task of evolutionary psychology is not to weigh in on human nature, a task better left to others. It is to add the satisfying kind of insight that only science can provide: to connect what we know about human nature with the rest of our knowledge of how the world works, and to explain the largest number of facts with the smallest number of assumptions. … If the brain has not changed over the centuries, how can the human condition have improved? Part of the answer, I think, is that literacy, knowledge, and the exchange of ideas have undermined some kinds of exploitation. It’s not that people have a well of goodness that moral exhortations can tap. It’s that information can be framed in a way that makes exploiters look like hypocrites or fools.” This is one of the themes of my Memetics Manifesto. Pinker goes on to show how humor is one of the tools that can be used to puncture the self-importance of exploiters.
Speaking of the way the arts stimulate the brains pleasure circuits (whatever they are), he says “Now, if the intellectual faculties could identify the pleasure-giving patterns, purify them, and concentrate them, the brain could stimulate itself without the messiness of electrodes or drugs. It could give itself intense artificial doses of the sights and sounds and smells that ordinarily are given off by healthful environments.”
Addressing humor: “First, dignity, stature, and the other balloons punctured by humor are part of the complex of dominance and status. Dominance and status benefit those who hold tem at the expense of those who don’t, so peons always have a motive to mount a challenge to the eminent. In humans, dominance is not just the spoil of victory in fighting but a nebulous aura earned by a recognition of effectiveness in any of the arenas in which humans interact: prowess, expertise, intelligence, skill, wisdom, diplomacy, alliances, beauty, or wealth. Many of these claims to stature are partly in the eye of the beholder and would disintegrate if the beholders changed their weightings of the strengths and weaknesses that sum to yield the person’s worth. Humor, then, may be an anti-dominance weapon.
Second, dominance is often enforceable one-on-one but impotent before a united mob. A man with a single bullet in his gun can hold a dozen hostages if they have no way top signal a single moment at which to overpower him. No government has the might to control an entire population, so when events happen quickly and people all lose confidence in a regime’s authority at the same time, they can overthrow it. This may be the dynamic that brought laughter – that involuntary, disruptive, and contagious signal – into the service of humor. When scattered titters swell into a chorus of hilarity like a nuclear chain reaction, people are acknowledging that they have all noticed the same infirmity in an exalted target. A lone insulter would have risked the reprisals of the target, but a mob of them, unambiguously in cahoots in recognizing the target’s foibles, is safe. Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the emperor’s new clothes is a nice parable of the subversive power of collective humor. Of course, in everyday life we don’t have to overthrow tyrants or to humble kings, but we do have to undermine the pretensions of countless blowhards, blusterers, bullies, gasbags, goody-goodies, holier-than-thous, hotshots, know-it-alls, and prima donnas.
Third, the mind reflexively interprets other people’s words and gestures by doing whatever it takes to make them sensible and true. If the words are sketchy or incongruous, the mind charitably fills in missing premises or shifts to a new frame of reference in which they make sense. Without this “principle of relevance,” language itself would be impossible. The thoughts behind even the simplest sentence are so labyrinthine that if we ever expressed them in full our speech would sound like the convoluted verbiage of a legal document.
The jester manipulates this mental machinery to get the audience to entertain a proposition – the one that resolves the incongruity – against their will. People appreciate the truth of the disparaging proposition because it was not baldly asserted as a piece of propaganda they might reject but was a conclusion they deduced for themselves. The proposition must possess at least a modicum of warrant or the audience could not have deduced it from other facts and could not have gotten the joke. This explains the feeling that a witty remark may capture a truth that is too complex to articulate, and that it is an effective weapon that forces people, at least for a moment, to agree to things they would otherwise deny. …
Not all humor is malicious. Friends spend a good deal of time in playful badinage in which no one gets hurt …
Not only is convivial humor not particularly aggressive; it’s not particularly funny. … Rober Provine notes, ‘The frequent laughter heard at crowded social gatherings is not due to a furious rate of joke telling by guests. Most pre-laugh dialogue is like that of an interminable television situation comedy scripted by an extremely ungifted writer.’
How do we explain the appeal of the barely humorous banter that incites most of our laughter? If humor is an anti-dominance poison, a dignicide, it need not be used only for harmful purposes. When people interact with each other they have to choose from a menu of different social psychologies, each with a different logic. The logic of dominance and status is based implicit threats and bribes, and it vanishes when the superior can no longer make good on them. The logic of friendship is based on a commitment to mutual unmeasured aid, come what may. People want status and dominance, but they also want friends, because status and dominance can fade but a friend will be there through thick and thin. The two are incompatible, and that raises a signaling problem. Given any two people, one will always be stronger, smarter, wealthier, better-looking, or better connected than the other. The triggers of a dominant-submissive or celebrity-fan relationship are always there, but neither party may want the relationship to go in that direction. By deprecating the qualities that you could have lorded over a friend or that a friend could have lorded over you, you are conveying that the basis of the relationship, as far as you are concerned, is not status or dominance. All the better if the signal is involuntary and hard to fake.”
Pinker has an interesting discussion of religion. He closes with some musings about why humans find certain philosophical problems intractable. He leans toward a theory that humans solve problems by harnessing mental modules that have evolved to support the solution of certain problems that are found in the world. Philosophical problems are hard because we have never needed the ability to solve them, and so don’t have the requisite machinery. On this somewhat depressing (which he calls exhilarating) thought, the book winds down.