The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
We are living in an era of blank state of mind operated by leviathans that bind our collective social wills under a doctrine of the Standard Social Science Model established by intellectuals, such as sociologists, behaviorists, philosophers, and artists under the aegis of postmodernism. That we become who we are and what we are as a result of our relationship with society has become an ethos of our time. Yet, do we really have to believe that what we think and what we do is nothing but a product of social conditioning, excluding our own unique individual constitutions? Is our own hereditary individuality the enemy of free will and perpetrator of biological determinism that needs to be constantly kept in check by the bastion of rationalism? So Steven Pinker presents his passionate and erudite thesis on the illogicality and fallacy of the modern ethos in The Blank State in terms of social and cultural norms of our society and offers a breakthrough point of view on human nature based upon cognitive science which invokes Anton Chekhov’s aphorism “Man will become better if you show him what he’s like.”
Pinker straightforwardly avers in the beginning of the book that the current intellectual ethos is tainted with intellectual complacency, a vice of so many intellectuals who do not bother to exert their academic efforts to find the truth of human nature. Instead most of them conveniently refer to a mob psychology and social relations to avoid being labeled as anachronistic or even supercilious intellectuals in agreement to postmodernistic political and cultural trends that have been in vogue since the mid 20th century swept by the motto of the blank slate. Hence Pinker introduces the reader to the fathers of the liberalism whose doctrines reverberate gloriously in the every theater of our modern societies. In fact, the philosopher John Locke coined and deployed the term “tabula rasa,” which mean “the blank slate.” Locke undermined a hereditary royalty and aristocracy and supported abolishment of successive monarchy. He motivated his political philosophy and paved a foundation of Liberal Democracy with the motto of the blank slate. Also, Rousseau’s avocation of the “noble savage,” the belief that humans in the primitive state are free from social ills is still regarded as an antidote to our overtly modernized society with moral decay.
To top it all off, Descartes’ dogma of the ghost in the machine promulgates dualism of human nature by which our body can be nonexistent by the use of our thinking faculty which belongs to the mind; it can also promote our imagination of having the body as a mere hallucination. This may sound true and wonderful to think that our mind can do wonder, when in fact, it nihilistically denies the sciences if human nature itself. The aforesaid doctrines are the tenets of the intellectual ethos of our time in which the modern consciousness is collectively corrupted by the repercussions of the Enlightenment philosophers. That is, these airy, fallible ideas are deeply entrenched in our consciousness. It is the ultimate liberator of human will – the mind of man by the power of social communication jettisoning him from biological determinism.
With respect to dominant psychology of out time, Pinker brings out that Behaviorism is an offspring of associationism that bans a talent or an ability, ideas, beliefs, desires, and feelings. That behavior is not a physical manifestation of hereditary factors is indeed hostile to the studying of human nature. The core of behaviorism is the blank slate that is inscribed with sensations and ideas conditioned by social interactions. Thus the most natural and popular topics in psychology, such as love, hate, work, play, food, religion, and art are invisible from the texts because regardless of our individualities, we are only a group of blank slates operated by social devices.
In case of the arts, Pinker asserts that contrary to intellectuals’ grown indispositions that the possibility of sustaining high culture in our time is considerably dwindling problematic, the arts and humanities are not in a pickle. In fact, advances in technology have made art more accessible to the masses than ever before with the advent of personal computers and other information-related apparatuses. It has always been that in every era for thousands of years critics have bemoaned the decline of culture because competition of praise inclines to a reverence of antiquity, for we contend with the living, but with the dead. Such human nature is duly reminded by the Gospel: “Old things are passed away; and lo! All things are become new.”
Furthermore, Pinker disagrees to the indiscriminate acknowledgement of postmodernistic view of art and culture in the name of social reality that does not appeal to the senses – human pleasure. In his opinion, a work of art and appreciation thereof are universal human traits across the boundaries of culture, race, and geography. It is an epitome of conspicuous consumption, a pleasure technology, such as erotica, food, and drug. According to Pinker, western societies are good at providing things that people want in art forms appealing to basic human tastes and engaging a universal human aesthetic experience due to the eclectic and appropriating nature of western culture. This notion of the versatile adoptability of western societies may stir a fit of rancor in today’s overtly politically conscious societies, but Pinker’s forthrightness results from consilience of the understanding the knowledge of sciences with that of humanities on the grounds of cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience that attempt to explain human nature and the mind in scientific terms not rooted in airy philosophical observations.
This book is a testament to the erudition, intelligence, and conscience of an intellectual who sees a fallacy of theories heavily influenced by political motivations and personal ambitions that are so prevalently found in various strata of our society and theaters of academics and arts. In this heavy tome, Pinker expounds his knowledge of the subject matter and tries to make the reader understand the illogicality of the theory of the blank slate to the fullest extent. Anyone who does not believe in this theory or other popular theories that encourage nihilistic approaches to human existence will find a kindred spirit in this book. Upon reading this book, the reader will feel a sense of relief that (1) this world is not an arbitrary construct – a phantasm created by social contexts only – and that (2) our own period is not of decline because human nature has not been changed and will remain unchanged until humankind exists.