The Blank Slate – It isn’t what Pinker thinks

By Paul So

In Steven Pinker’s popular book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker characterizes the Blank State as “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.” Pinker is characterizing the loose set of views, commonly held by today’s humanities and social science intellectuals, that emphasize the role of the environment and the malleability of the human mind. However, I think this is a very confusing way of using the term “Blank Slate,” and the definition Pinker provides is not only implausible, but historically inaccurate. It is odd to use a term deeply rooted in history to refer to a view which, as Pinker characterized it, has little or nothing in common with the definition provided by the figures who originally championed it.

I may give the impression that I am writing a review of Pinker’s book, and while I deeply respect and admire Steven Pinker, my main intention is simply to explain what the Blank Slate thesis really is, and to disagree with Pinker’s characterization of it.

Let’s recall that Pinker writes that the Blank Slate is “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.” On the face of it, this definition is implausible for several reasons. Historically, the term “Blank Slate” or tabula rasa stems from John Locke’s empiricist critique of rationalism in his book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke introduces the tabula rasa in opposition to the view that the human mind possesses innate ideas. Rather than having built-in content, Locke argues that all knowledge comes from experience. He does this by demonstrating that every argument that supports innate ideas is compatible with the tabula rasa.

Nowhere in Locke’s argument did he deny that the human mind has inherent structure. On the contrary, Locke, himself, posits at least one innate structure of the human minda domain-general mechanism that abstracts all concepts from sensory experiences.

David Hume actually expanded upon this by positing associative mechanisms to explain how ideas are developed from experience; mechanisms involving causation, contiguity, and resemblance. We develop and conjoin ideas in terms of their causal relation, distance, and similarity. The details of Hume’s associationist view of the mind are complex, but for now it is enough to point out that even the famous tabula rasa advocate, David Hume, thought that the human mind has “inherent structures.”

What I’ve said about Locke and Hume is already enough to show that, historically, the tabula rasa states that the human mind begins with no content, but does not rule out the existence of inherent structures that are used to acquire content.

So the definition that Pinker posits completely ignores what the Blank Slate originally meant, as well as the historical origin of the term. By using it to refer to a view that denies the existence of inherent structures in the human mind, he not only causes confusion, he also places serious constraints on how he can use the word and to whom he can attribute the view. For example, Pinker tends to use the word to refer to behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner, but if one interprets ‘Blank Slate’ literally, there is no way behaviorists would qualify. B.F. Skinner endorsed the black box” approach of the mind. In other words, he could only observe the inputs (i.e stimulus) and output (i.e behavior) of the black box (i.e mind), but not the contents of that box. Since he is completely agnostic about the nature of the human mind, he does not embrace the Blank Slate view and, consequently, does not take a position on the existence of internal content or structure. In fact, he eschews deliberation about mental states for not being sufficiently scientific.

Furthermore, unless one is engaging with a stereotypical, rabid, post-structural social constructionist, Pinker’s definition is so implausible that it makes use of the word practically impossible. He denies that the human mind has inherent structures, but what counts as an inherent structure of the human mind, in light of recent cognitive neuroscience? The visual cortex, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, motor cortex, and so on. It is extremely implausible that anyone would actually endorse the view that these structures do not exist. But if one were to endorse the Blank Slate as Pinker defines it, one would have to.

I suppose Pinker could revise his definition a bit to mean exactly what he intends to say, that is, one that would include behaviorists, but probably not deny the existence of the visual cortex. Nonetheless, it remains quite different from the historical meaning of tabula rasa. Is he warranted in this linguistic move? Someone who is sympathetic to Pinker might argue that he has every right to use an existing word to mean something else. After all, one could think of many words that people appropriate, in order to mean something else. The word ‘hipster used to refer to a 1940’s subculture of aficionados of jazz, but nowadays it means a young person, who appreciates irony, indie music, and artisanal crafts, broadly construed.

But then one might ask why Steven Pinker uses the expression ‘Blank Slate’ when he could use an entirely different one. Perhaps Pinker thinks there is something that a lot of contemporary intellectuals and academics have in common with the traditional empiricists, who accepted the Blank Slate. Unfortunately, whatever those commonalities are remain unclear.

Whereas empiricists, such as John Locke, think we can attain some form of knowledge, many postmodernists and radical social constructionists endorse radical skepticism. Where empiricists posit internal cognitive mechanisms, behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner remain agnostic about the structure and content of the mind by simply ignoring it all together.

Perhaps what the empiricists have in common with our contemporary intellectuals is that they both accept the nurture view of human nature. After all, empiricists believe that knowledge is acquired through experience, which seems to be in line with the spirit of the nurture side of the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate.

But these matters are very complicated. Empiricists may deny that there are innate ideas, but they do not necessarily deny that there are innate preferences and behaviors. Moreover, a robust view of human nature is at least compatible with the tabula rasa. It may be the case that we lack innate concepts, but we still have other innate features that make us uniquely human.

Though Pinker’s use of ‘Blank Slate’ is distracting and confusing and flies in the face of how it is commonly understood, there are some positive qualities to Pinker’s book. His attempt to tackle sensitive subjects and go against the political orthodoxy, for example, is particularly laudable. But as a student of philosophy and admirer of the champions who articulated the Blank Slate thesis, I feel a small duty to respectfully correct misunderstandings of, or potential confusions about, their view.

Categories: Essay, Essays

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27 Comments »

  1. I have not read that Pinker book, partly because I already disagreed with him on this issue, partly because I had been disappointed by an earlier book.

    In any case, Margaret Boden says something similar in “Computer Models of Mind: Computational approaches in theoretical psychology” (at around page 187).

    Presumably the child brain is something like a notebook as one buys it from the stationer’s. Rather little mechanism and lots of blank sheets.

    That struck me as a complete misunderstanding. I always took Locke as saying that there was little knowledge of the external world. But, to me, this implied that there had to be innate learning methods that could acquire such knowledge.

    Perhaps Boden’s and Pinker’s idea of the blank slate is what AI proponents were advocating.

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  2. Paul,

    A nice essay. But! As regards this:

    “Nowhere in Locke’s argument did he deny that the human mind has inherent structure. On the contrary, Locke, himself, posits at least one innate structure of the human mind – a domain-general mechanism that abstracts all concepts from sensory experiences.
    David Hume actually expanded upon this by positing associative mechanisms to explain how ideas are developed from experience; mechanisms involving causation, contiguity, and resemblance. We develop and conjoin ideas in terms of their causal relation, distance, and similarity.”

    This has become quite a popular thing to say. I know Chomsky is fond of saying it. However I don’t think it’s true. Hume and Locke and others do not so much posit an inherent structure of the mind as help themselves to it. They do want to tell a story about a truly blank slate with no unacquired structure but when that view becomes inadequate, structures and capacities get smuggled in. For Hume we do not have an associative faculty. It is merely that things become causally associated in our mind. We see fire. We see smoke. We see fire. We see smoke. Later we think of fire and the thought of smoke “naturally” (ie automatically) comes to our mind. For Hume it is a causal mechanism, a kind of echo. not an active capacity.

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  3. Hi Paul, enjoyed the essay. My only criticism would be that you begin to conflate brain and mind. Physical structures within a brain do not mean one’s mental activities have structure, even if we would expect that a well organized mind would require some well organized physical architecture.

    ……….

    Hi David O, wouldn’t having such a causal mechanism require some sort of organizing capacity within the mind? Perhaps passive rather than active, but there is still some underlying (connective) capacity.

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  4. db,

    “wouldn’t having such a causal mechanism require some sort of organizing capacity within the mind? Perhaps passive rather than active, but there is still some underlying (connective) capacity.”
    Do you need that for a philosophically adequate view? Absolutely. Is that what Hume takes his view to be? I don’t think so. Hume can also be read profitably as assuming certain capacities. I don’t deny that. My only point is that officially Hume denies that that is what he is doing. I know less about Locke but I think it is a parallel situation.

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  5. Ottlinger,
    Thanks for your comment. I suppose I need to go back reading Hume and Locke to see if you’re right, but suppose that you are right. I would argue that the blank slate is at least compatible with the idea that there are some unacquire capacities. As long as the tabula rasa is construed as the view that all ideas derive from experience, it’s compatible with the other idea that there are some innate capacities that abstract ideas from experience. So, assuming that you are correct in your reading, I might say that Pinker is making the same mistake as Locke and Hume: they all suppose the blank slate is incompatible with some minimalist version of innate capacities. But I guess this really supports a different claim than the one I made in my essay.

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  6. Hi Paul,
    The Blank Slate was perhaps click-bait for a book jacket. I don’t think it is a copyrighted phrase and Pinker goes to some lengths to explain what HE means by this catch-all blanket phrase.
    Pinker characterizes the Blank State as “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.” For myself I would have said “inherent knowledge”. This “knowledge” is a comprehensive inherited store of memories of useful data distilled from the empirical experiences of countless members of a myriad of successfully procreating forebears. Such things as inborn fears of, say, snakes or spiders and mice, recognition of friends and family and social interaction. It is all part of a package that gives us our evolved opposable thumbs and big brains and an inborn ability to acquire bi-pedal stance for example. Pinker argues that these are not solely due to lifetime cultural learning and that it is dangerous to suppose that our behaviours are totally malleable.

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  7. Perhaps Steven Pinker was focusing on the popular idea of a tabula rasa: babies are a blank slate upon which society can imprint any idea or behavior. I remember the big deal that was made of the idea that sexual identity was entirely a learned cultural thing, that there was no innate difference between boys and girls. All the inequalities between men and women could be eliminated if society would just treat boys and girls the same. Numerous subsequent studies showing psychological differences between the sexes perinatally put that idea to rest, except, perhaps, for the most committed of social justice warriors. ‘True’ justice can not be served by denying the ‘real’ differences between individuals – a fact that is again being highlighted by the gender wars of today.

    Political considerations are also a major element in the discussion of the so-called Free Will issue. Marxism and socialism are very uncomfortable with the religiously inspired idea of a free agent, one being ultimately answerable only to oneself or, gasp, to a god. By lefty lights, society must be the only arbiter.

    Putting all these aside, a disinterested view would strongly suggest that the structure of the brain and the mind are so closely related that, in the end, understanding of one would entail an understanding of the other. A beguiling feature of our minds is the seamlessness by which it moves from our personal feelings to an appreciation of the external world. This makes it hard for some to entertain the fact that the entire show is just a product of intact brains situated in healthy bodies.

    Thus, the concept of the whole person must arise in an intact brain, not in one suspended in a nutrient vat. All parts of the person make a contribution, but all the thinking happens only in the brain. It does not matter whether one calls this information processing, data processing or signals processing. The reason for this, I think, is rather simple: the brain functions by monitoring ALL the activities in our body, including its own! It is the conductor of the symphony, it senses and it directs. The facts related to this are so complex that one can only speculate. For instance, there are multiple (numerous?) communication systems in the body. The idea of billions of neurons firing across trillions of synapses to explain consciousness is a gross oversimplification, IMHO.

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  8. DB Holmes:”Physical structures within a brain do not mean one’s mental activities have structure, even if we would expect that a well organized mind would require some well organized physical architecture.”

    Wouldn’t such a highly structured system evince structural features throughout?

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  9. Hi Liam, well like I said it would seem natural to assume an organized mind might require an organized physical neural system, or that an organized neural system must entail an organized mind. But this can be cut down in both directions.

    Small organisms, or even groups of microscopic organisms, appear to be able to process information (even hold memories) and make decisions, without any obvious architecture… heck, we are even talking about slime molds! I think well-defined architecture may be necessary for greater efficiency, or might be a by-product of how each new capacity must emerge in a multi-cellular eukaryotic organism, but not absolutely necessary for the existence of organized thought.

    In the other direction, the modular nature of our brain processing was a relatively recent discovery and not considered necessary. As it is, it seems brain activity in damaged regions can be compensated (to some degree) by areas outside specified “modules”, arguing for some level of generality, and normal activity within existing architecture can lead to unusual “organizations” of information within the mind. Synethesia is one of the first examples that comes to mind.

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  10. “Small organisms, or even groups of microscopic organisms, appear to be able to process information (even hold memories) and make decisions, without any obvious architecture…”

    DB Holmes, all living creatures have structure and organization – they are all ‘organisms’, so I am a bit surprised by your statement. Some bacteria are quite ‘simple’ with less than 200 hundred genes, but most are quite complicated at a DNA level, coding for thousands of proteins. We are still learning about their intracellular architecture. Single celled Paramecia code for about double the number of proteins compared to humans.

    Systems can not exist without structure. Our minds most definitely seem to be systematic. I would be surprised if there is any aspect of the mind that is not systematic, organized or structured. We will have to wait and see.

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  11. Hi Johannes, you are right that systems cannot function without structure (and organization) of some kind. I apologize for any confusion if it looked like I was arguing otherwise.

    My statement was really meant to be limited to neural architecture, particularly distinct modular processing structures. I had been questioning an inherent equation between the existence of organized multicellular structures to organization of the mind (information processing). Of course I do believe based on experimental work (as Paul So suggests) that organized structures in the human brain are related to the nature of organized information processing of the mind. But such structures are not a guarantee a brain is creating appropriate (or appropriately ordered) mental capacities, and some capacities seem reliant on experience to activate (properly).

    Anyways, it appears my tiny nit-picky issue has created more confusion than it was worth, more so than the tiny error I thought he made. 🙂

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  12. dbholmes:

    Of course, we — people — process information, in the sense that we interpret strings of symbols, phonemes, and even situations and events — but insofar as this activity is essentially linguistic and thus, governed by public rules, it is not something which is going to be identical with some sort of brain activity. Brains, themselves, do not interpret anything. They engage in electro-chemical activity.

    I know that this is hard for people to swallow, but intentionality, representation, and interpretation are social *all the way down*. They are not reducible to any lower level activity.

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  13. http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/67160-inborn-knowledge-the-mystery-within/

    ” Locke held that the contents of the mind are more-or-less veridically impressed upon it from without. McGinn devotes considerable time to arguing that this is untenable, on a variety of grounds. The mind is not, and cannot be, a blank slate. It has structure, resulting from the unfolding of a genetic program. But of course no contemporary empiricist denies this.”

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  14. Daniel Kaufman,

    I think I understand your intuition regarding information and it being “essentially” public, with social rules, values, etc. Information then is a cultural communication, the communicators being fully fledged human beings, a meeting of minds not brains or neocortices. We are utterly dependent on others for this rich and wonderful experience. I do not imagine for one moment that I could come up with a Beethovian symphony or a Shakespearian soliloquy, historical artifacts without which we would be severely diminished.

    Culture as a system is composed of persons exchanging information and making things. However, 2 problems immediately come to mind:

    -There is much information that is not culturally derived. When we enjoy a beautiful fragrant flower, the information is completely generated, de novo, in our brain via massive physical inputs from our senses. (However, there is no fundamental difference between this generation of information and that when communicating with humans.)

    -The only locus of cultural information processing is within brains. A culture doesn’t do anything. There is no cultural organ that thinks or feels or creates. All the information residing within a culture therefore is virtual. It becomes real when it is processed inside a person, mostly within their brain.

    None of the above should be construed as a devaluation of culture, it is central to our existence and survival. Rather, we should enhance our culture by recognizing that there are multiple sources of information that affect it and we should work toward integrating it to the extent that we can. The final common pathway of all cultural information processing is within our bodies, not outside of them. Cultural information is therefore highly dependent on the conditions existing within our bodies. Strange but true.

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  15. I think the brain as information processor has some utility, but also shouldn’t be taken too literally. The problem is that the metaphor sets up a duality where we become passive receivers of information out in the world. Then these arguments spring up with regard to location. One argues it is in the brain, another that it’s in the world or social/cultural environment.

    I’m with Dewey that the mind is transaction between brain, body, world,culture etc… It doesn’t have a spatial location. In part the mind is creating it’s own experience not just passively processing information. There are structural aspects of the body, and brain that constrain our experience, and there are certainly aspects of the world that don’t rely on our interpretations of it. Our experience I think represents an interpenetration that cannot be captured by the computer/information metaphor.

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  16. Johannes Lubbe:

    It’s not an intuition. It’s the result of Wittgenstein’s Rule Following and Private Language arguments, and those arguments pretty much refute the main bullet points in your post.

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  17. Daniel Kaufman,

    I would love to shown how Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis helps us determine the significance of increasingly complex empirical findings regarding the functioning of our minds and brains.

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  18. I have gone through the rule following and private language arguments umpteen times on these pages and elsewhere. Ian Ground and I did a pretty comprehensive discussion of it last year.

    http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/31963

    I don’t see what “increasingly complex empirical findings regarding the functioning of our brains” have to do with anything, regarding the inherently public nature of semantic content. And given that minds aren’t “things” like brains are, those “complex empirical findings” haven’t told us anything about them whatsoever.

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  19. Daniel Kaufman:

    “And given that minds aren’t “things” like brains are, those “complex empirical findings” haven’t told us anything about them whatsoever.”

    It seems that my sense of these questions are completely opposite to yours. Our minds certainly do not appear to be material, but what else could they be? Sort of like gravity, if it is not material then what is it? My new puppy, Duncan, seems to have a mind, a canine mind, yet he is entirely made of materials of various sorts, functioning in a most immaterial way.

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  20. Thank you Daniel. I will examine it closely!

    In the meantime I was wondering about Wittgenstein, what he knew and how he approached empirical data. I found this short, sympathetic to Hacker and Bennett review which sorta fit in with my prejudices:

    Wittgenstein meets Neuroscience
    by Axel Kohler
    A review of Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience 
by M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker
2003, Oxford: Blackwell.
    (http://human-nature.com/nibbs/03/kohler.html)

    The giveaway for me is the apparent lack of interest or disdain for empirical data: “Although the book discusses an impressive range of material and provides detailed conceptual analyses for the major theoretical issues in neuroscience, many neuroscientists will find the arguments unconvincing; Bennett and Hacker render their conclusions immune against empirical results by their exclusively a priori style of reasoning.”

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  21. An important philosophical question then would be “By which a priori criteria, if any, could one decide that empirical data would never be informative regarding a particular a priori issue?”

    I would suspect that many an a priori question of the past had become an empirically informed issue, to the benefit of all concerned.

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  22. I don’t understand what you’re getting at. Surely, there are any number of questions that are not empirical in nature — questions concerning matters of value, for example — and with regard to which, therefore, empirical data is irrelevant.

    So, while questions about our brains are certainly empirical questions, questions about persons are equally certainly not. For those like Hacker — and me — questions regarding minds belong to the larger family of questions having to do with persons and thus, are not, for the most part, empirical in nature.

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