Mind games

October 22, 1999

Steven Pinker, as always, makes some bold predictions ("Uniting the branches of knowledge", THES, October 8). "The fundamental division," he writes, "between the humanities and sciences may become as obsolete as the division between the celestial and terrestrial spheres."

It is by now, familiar stuff: beauty, violence, sexuality, reasoning, family conflict (his examples) will all be illuminated by the light of evolutionary psychology. What a shame that it is so much baloney.

How so? We need only take Pinker's main topic, the workings of the human mind. Such workings, Pinker thinks, are to be equated with the brain's workings, for mind and brain alike are to be explained in physical terms. How wearisome these claims are: was Ryle the first, or was it Wittgenstein who first pointed out that while the brain is a physical thing that can be investigated empirically, "the mind" is no sort of thing at all?

To disagree with Pinker is not to be in hock to some silly prejudice. On the contrary. For, suppose we say "Steven Pinker knows a great deal about the workings of the human brain". Nothing wrong with that. Doubtless he does - a very great deal more than most people. And the kind of knowledge we would be talking about would be factual knowledge. Next, suppose we say "Steven Pinker knows a great deal about the workings of the human mind and the sometimes twisted logic of thought". Again, we might well be right. But we would be saying not that he knows certain facts but that he is someone, who is attentive to the nuances of human character and the possibilities of self-deception. Such knowledge is not empirical in kind.

Of course, I am cutting long and tangled arguments very short. But the point stands: to understand scientifically the brain is one thing; to understand the mind's workings, something quite different. To conflate the two, as Pinker does, is to contribute to the end-of-century seemingly unstoppable tide of hyper-inflated pseudo-science.

Wil Coleman Associate lecturer University of Manchester and University of Salford

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