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Reductionism and Blank Slates 
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Post 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...

Thoughts?


----
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

Edited by: SciFell at: 7/9/03 5:15 pm



Wed Jul 09, 2003 3:10 pm
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Post Re: Reductionism and Blank Slates
I see genes as the constructor of the computer, and culture the software loaded in. There is only so much the hardware can do, but it is far more than the limited number of programs (culture) that have been in use to this date.

The key is to load the best, most productive, fastest programs, and to be free of glitches or hangups.

But how do the programs rewrite themselves if they are not allowed to shut down and restart?

I do see memes (units of culture or programs) eventually rewiring the computer (genes.)

Meme Wars




Thu Jul 17, 2003 9:24 pm
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Post Re: Reductionism and Blank Slates
Without having even opened the book, I would like to make some potentially unfounded comments on how I view the cultural/biological duality. For me, both terms are equivocal modes by means of which we talk about the same thing. This may seem like a simplistic view that doesn't lend understanding to the discussion, but I think the distinction perpetuated between the role of culture and the role of the individual is premised upon a fundamental ambiguity of the self. Strictly speaking, what evidence is there that the self, as a metaphysical object, exists? All knowledge of the self is limited to the the manifold of qualia, of constructed experience, but the experience of individuality, of self, does not imply actual individuality--that is the experience of the self as an object does not unshackle those experiences from the manifold of subjectivity. Dawkins' understanding of Darwinism suggests that organisms are not fundamental, that they are environments of genes interacting, not just with respect to themselves, but within a larger context of other genes. If we understand this to be true, it is therefore as equally misleading to say that an organism determines its own behavior as it is to say that the culture in which an organism exists writes with indelible letters upon the blank slate of the mind. The problem as I see it is the inability to ever distinguish with certainly the distinction between internal and external--which constitutes the the essense of knowledge--for reality exists only in that union.




Sun Jul 20, 2003 6:36 pm
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Post Re: Reductionism and Blank Slates
In one of Pinkers earlier books he talks about the brain as being a computer, and the mind as being "what the brain does". This is the "computational theory of mind".

This idea is opposed by many of the devotees of the Standard Social Science Model, and some of them use the word reductionism as a term of disparagement. Many of Pinker's (and Dawkin's) opponents think that human beings can only be understood in terms of higher level systems. One example of their argument is that you cannot study the waves in the sea by looking at the individual molecules, you can only understand it by looking at interactions taking place in the larger system. They think that deconstructing the system in the way that they allege Pinker, Dawkins and others are doing is of little help in understanding what it is to be a human being.

Reductionism is a term you won't find Pinker or Dawkins using.

The issue of culture is slightly different, The SSSM suggests that people are the product (almost entirely) of the environmental and formative influences they experience, especially in their early life: the blank slate view.

Pinker argues that we have a set of innate bahavioural influences hard-wired into our brain, and that, therefore, culture and other formative influences have much less of a role to play than the SSSM suggests.

No one thinks that we are genetically pre-programmed to act in any particular way (defined as genetic determinism) so that we do not have free will.

This is my interpretation anyway - any comments?

Edited by: PeterDF at: 7/21/03 3:34 am



Mon Jul 21, 2003 2:17 am
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Post Re: Reductionism and Blank Slates
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Pinker argues that we have a set of innate bahavioural influences hard-wired into our brain, and that, therefore, culture and other formative influences have much less of a role to play than the SSSM suggests.


I have to agree.

Yes, environment plays a part but, as in the software example used previously, it can only function within the hardware parameters that are present.

And I have to say that I'm more inclined toward pre-determinism than I feel comfortable with. We are composed of chemicals. Chemicals react predictably. Is that not predetermined?

Doesn't mean I like the thought, but I also feel it's an area that should be explored.


Lynne





Fri Aug 01, 2003 11:24 pm
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Post Re: Reductionism and Blank Slates
Lynne

I very much agree with you that it is a very unedifying concept. It is not at all nice to think that we came into being as a result of cold mechanistic battles between competing selfish genes. Unfortunately it seems undeniable.

This is exactly why I proposed the Humanity Horizon in my book as a way of coming to terms with this problem.

There may not be purpose in the cold mechanistic world below the Humanity Horizon but in the world above the horizon there is purpose: kindness, consideration, goodness and happiness are all things we can aspire to and which make the world a better place. We know this to be true because we know that feeling are real, and ultimately it is our feelings that are important.

I don't know if this helps - it's just how I see it.




Sun Aug 03, 2003 4:18 am
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Post Re: Reductionism and Blank Slates
Quote:

And I have to say that I'm more inclined toward pre-determinism than I feel comfortable with. We are composed of chemicals. Chemicals react predictably. Is that not predetermined?

(sorry about the plain-text quote, but I seem to be having a problem with the Java this morning)

Although I myself have been quite comfortable with the fact that my life has no meaning for quite some time now, I can definitely understand that others might feel differently...I suggest you read Dennett's Freedom Evolves, since he defends the position that meaning and free will can arise in a deterministic universe. I don't find his arguments convincing, but you might.

Louis




Sun Aug 03, 2003 11:13 am
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Post Re: Reductionism and Blank Slates
arcAngle
Quote:
And I have to say that I'm more inclined toward pre-determinism than I feel comfortable with. We are composed of chemicals. Chemicals react predictably. Is that not predetermined?
No.

The thing is, determinism should not be confused with predictability. Humes' Fork: Either everything is determined, in which case we are not responsible for our actions, or everything is random, in which case we are not responsible for our actions. The fallacy of "nature/nurture" is this: Environment affects genes, sometimes in predictable and sometimes in unpredictable ways; genes affect environment, likewise. The system is both open (in that the external environment is an input) and circular, in that each element affect the elements that affect it.

We feel like we have free will. The underlying system is deterministic but chaotic, and not predictable. The result is that experience confirms our feeling that there is a "me" deciding. Is it illusion? In some sense, it seems it has to be; but yet, it is just as real as love, hate, and every emotion that we feel, all likely evolved because they enhance survival. So I say, when you feel like you're in love, accept it as real; when you feel like you are free to decide, accept it as real. It is how our genes want us to live and it works both subjectively and objectively.

* In the interest of avoiding plagiarism: Most of these ideas are borrowed from Matt Ridley


Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system. It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived. E.O.Wilson




Sun Aug 03, 2003 12:30 pm
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