Reductionism and Blank Slates
In Ch. 2, Pinker gives an overview of the begginings of the doctines he plans on attacking and briefly describes the impact they have been making on modern intellectual life. What this all seems to amount to is the common belief that our cultural environment is what makes people who they are. Culture, in turn, floats freely in the universal "blank slate" that we all share. Culture is independant of any particular minds, and needs only be understood in terms of culture, not us little biological creatures that happent to be imersed in it.
The above claims are simply the idea that culture is not reducable and/or that behavior is reducable to experience. So what is reductionism? I notice this question was addressed in a thread from Unweaving the Rainbow, but I dont think a good enough answer was reached. Here is the best, precise definition of reduction that I know of:
Given two sets of facts, Set A and Set B, Set B can be reduced to Set A if the facts of Set B cannot be altered independantly of the facts of Set A. For example, A table can be reduced to its atomic structure. The reason is that any facts we can about the table (its collor, its size, its shape) inevitably requires changes to to the molecules (atoms) that make up the table. I cannot break the table in half, for instance, without also changing the relationships among the (now disconnected) molecules. What it means to be nonreducable is best illustrated by a current argument in phiolosophy about qualia (the "what it's like" of experience). It seems, claim some people, that we could keep all facts about the brain the exact same, and still invert colors (red to grenn, ect). If true, the set of facts about qualia can be altered independant of brain facts, which makes qualia nonreducable to brain states.
So is culture nonreducable in the way the Standard Social Science Model seems to indicate? Can the facts of behavior be changed independantly of our nature? Pinker seems to be laying the foundations to argue that facts we change about culture require changes in our nature (genes, evolutionary history,ect.) and that behavior cannot be simply reduced to experience (as we are not simplt blank slates). Before pouring over the evidence Pinker presents, would you agree that, a priori, there is nothing absurd about the idea that we can change facts about culture independantly of the facts about genes and (to some extent) evolutionary history? How about individual human behavior? Can I change the facts about behavior independantly of the facts about genetics?
I doubt anyone would say that culture and behavior are reducable to human nature alone. The real question, I suppose, is how much
of human life is reducable to our nature? With a solid definition of reductionism in mind, I predict that I will be in almost total agreement with Pinker that human culture requires a great deal of innate capacities and that we cannot alter the facts of behavior without changing our genetic makeup. The idea that "culture is responsible" is taken as a default position far too often. Nonetheless, is this really a very radical position? It seems tame, but it is looked at so harshly. Odd...
Edited by: SciFell at: 7/9/03 5:15 pm
It is our job here to bring our intellectual background into the foreground, to show that what have been taken as self-evident truths are really questionable opinions. -Lakoff