Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Pinker On How The Mind Works

I'm about half-way through Steven Pinker's 'How The Mind Works' and I must say it's not remarkably different from Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained', which I guess is good news because they both highlight that science is certainly on the right track to explaining how the mind actually works! First, an extract:

The complex structure of the mind is the subject of this book. Its key ideas can be captured in a sentence: The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and out manoeuvring objects, animals, plants, and other people. The summary can be unpacked into several claims. The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation. The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules' basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history. The various problems for our ancestors were subtasks of one big problem for their genes, maximising the number of copies that made it into the next generation. On this view, psychology is engineering in reverse. (p.21)
None of which should really come as a surprise. Pinker's thesis is essentially a marrying of the computational theory of mind with evolution, to produce a very useful explanation of mental phenomena. I'm suppressing the urge to skip straight to the last chapter on the meaning of life, and I'll report back further, when I've finished reading the whole thing.

But, I want to relate this to my previous two posts on 'math angst' (which is the angst regarding what mathematics actually is). Pinker is arguing that human beings are computational machines, built by natural selection and specialised in the 'cognitive niche' (whereby our ancestors were particularly good at outwitting other organisms, to their benefit). And here again, for those people who don't quite get my 'existential angst' is an illustration of the absurdity of existence. We survive to reproduce. We compute to survive. To compute is to calculate and to calculate means to do maths. But maths is mysterious and the best I can come up with is that it is somehow related to the structure of the universe. From Wikipedia:
Mathematics (colloquially, maths, or math), is the body of knowledge centred on concepts such as quantity, structure, space, and change, and also the academic discipline that studies them. Benjamin Peirce called it "the science that draws necessary conclusions". Lynn Steen and Keith Devlin maintain that mathematics is the science of pattern, that mathematicians seek out patterns whether found in numbers, space, science, computers, imaginary abstractions, or elsewhere.
So it seems that organisms that could identify patterns in the world (and perform mathematical calculations on them) found that the answers were useful to helping them survive and reproduce. But there is no inherent meaning in any of this. Maybe this explains why humans are drawn to the patterns of music, art and mathematics - but I don't really see pattern worship as anything particularly interesting. One woman's unmade bed is another man's modern-art after all.

More on Pinker soon.