Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Thoughts on Pinker's _Blank Slate_

I very much enjoyed The Blank Slate, but I haven't been in the blogging mood lately.  So I won't be doing chapter-by-chapter blogging.  I'll just comment on a few over-arching themes:

First, people obviously fear theories of genetic factors underlying intelligence and other abilities because of the attraction that such theories hold for racists, sexists, and other foul bigots.  Pinker concedes the need for caution, but also notes that the idea of humans as malleable blank slates was beloved of Marxists.  And the Marxists have managed to hold their own when it came to killing and oppressing.  Ultimately, the problem with racists is the same as the problem with communist:  They want to control people on the basis of their theories, and kill anyone who gets in the way. If we conclude that individual abilities are strongly (but not solely) influenced by genes we can either oppress people whom we deem to be genetically unsuited for certain paths, or develop a plethora of different educational paths for everyone to find and hone their strengths.  One of these things is very different from the other.

This is somewhat reminiscent of my observation that a theory of success is not enough; you also need a theory of failure.  If you have a theory of success, your theory of failure could be that disadvantaged people lack the characteristics that lead to success, or that they are denied the opportunity to utilize/develop those characteristics.  There's no such thing as a standalone theory of success that blames or exonerates the disadvantaged; to have such a theory we have to supplement it with a theory of why the disadvantaged didn't or couldn't do whatever it is that our theory says is critical for success.

Second, Pinker argues that the effects of parenting are smaller than people want to believe. I think he's over-stating his case (more on that in a moment), but to whatever extent parents don't matter, teachers must matter even less.  Also, he argues that neural plasticity isn't as powerful as people like to think, i.e. brains aren't as malleable as people believe.  As a person responsible for teaching 18 year-olds, I wish he'd also said that to whatever extent the brain is plastic, that plasticity decreases (which is different from saying that it completely disappears) with age.  You can't expect me to change people as much as a kindergarten teacher can, and you can't expect a kindergarten teacher to change people as much as a parent can.

Third, when he argues that parents matter less than we want to believe, he refers to the fact that well-designed studies of parenting practices and household characteristics don't find that those variables explain much of the variance of various outcomes.  However, the proper control groups are people from similar social classes, neighborhoods, etc.  I think it follows that if we just vary one characteristic of a household but keep everything else in that household similar to the rest of the neighborhood (i.e. the rest of the control group) then not much will change.  Well, that just means that what matters is that parents provide the same general baseline as everyone else, not that they get everything right or jump on every fad.  A parent who doesn't provide the same overall baseline as the rest of the neighborhood could very well produce a different outcome (better or worse) than a parent who does the same as the rest of the neighborhood.  A particular fad or whatever doesn't matter, but overall adherence to the big picture does.

Of course, he also says that even if parents don't matter for various long-term sociological outcomes as many people would like to hope, so what?  Parents matter as long as they are in a child's life.  Failure to do the basics would matter, provision of the basics matters a lot, and loving family relationships enrich life.  They might not move the needle much on sociological outcomes but who cares?  Not every moment of our lives has to be calibrated to some social reform agenda.  We can simply live as social primates with loving bonds and make the most of that.

Finally, I like his point about how literature, poetry, and other artistic endeavors might be better windows into human nature than much of the ideologically-constrained and often non-replicable social science out there.  That doesn't mean that every poet, novelist, or sculptor out there is equally possessed of timeless insight, but if something is widely-recognized as brilliant it might be resonant with something in human nature and human experience.  We can learn a lot about humans by pondering those works that have resonated with us throughout the ages.

So I guess I'd better keep reading.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Next book: The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

My next book will be The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.  He talks about human nature, its biological contributors, and why people deny it.  Since human ability is a constant concern of educators, this should be well worth reading.

Nietzsche: Eh.

I agree with much of his cynicism about human nature, but I want insight, I want to understand the origins of bad ideas more deeply, and I want to know the origin of GOOD ideas as well.  I agree with him that most people will never free their minds, but I freely choose to use my mind for some end that betters society, because I actually do believe in my endeavors, and in service.  I am not getting that from him 80 pages in.  I'm getting increasingly tedious prose.

The one point I really liked was when he noted that there are people who could free their minds but choose to follow the leveling impulse and pursue fuzzy egalitarian agendas.  I suppose I'm at a midpoint between him and them.  I'll never drink their kool-aid, but I do want to make things better.  I just want my eyes to be open as I do it, because I honestly believe that it will be better for other people, better for my sanity, and better for the bigger intellectual project that I actually care about.

The other point that I really liked, as noted in the previous post, was that all philosophies only contain what philosophers want them to contain.  I think the deeper point is that no idea can contain more than went into it.  This is something that I think about a lot in physics.  I still can't quite believe that the Hamilton-Jacobi equation, which gets us within an inch of quantum mechanics, is an inevitable consequence of Newtonian mechanics (with time reversibility made more explicit than Newton made it).  I need to think more deeply about this, and figure out where the hidden assumptions are.

So, auf wiedersehen, Herr Nietzsche.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

"Beyond Good and Evil", chapter 1

Chapter 1 is a rant about what philosophers get wrong.  I don't have a lot of time, but he seems to make 2 big points, plus an ancillary one relevant to a hobby of mine:
1) Philosophers and scientists haven't really come to terms with the fact that humans and their brains are material things, operating by the rules of the material universe, and aren't really separate from the universe. So where do thoughts and sensations come from?  How do we separate our thoughts and sensations from the outside world?  How can we honestly consider thoughts as something of conscious volition?

2) A philosophy is what the philosopher wants it to be.  He might portray it as the inexorable consequence of some defensible assumptions, but those assumptions were chosen to give a particular conclusion.  If he didn't like the conclusion he would modify his assumptions.  Honestly, this sounds particularly post-modern.  "All ideas just reinforce your preferences in service to the power structure, man!"

3) He thinks the similarities between German, Greek, and Indian philosophies arise from grammatical similarities of Indo-European languages, and ventures that speakers of Uralic languages would philosophize differently.  That is an extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Very extreme.  Since linguistics is a minor hobby of mine (I have a dictionary of Indo-European root words) I am amused by this hypothesis.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Next book: Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche.

My next read will be Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche, largely because of a recent op-ed that I read, which argued that Nietzsche wrote about how people search for meaning in a world that has lost religion.  I think this has much relevance to academic life and the restlessness I see.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The restlessness (cont.)

I can't find a link to it (it seems to only be in the print edition) but this morning's LA Times ran an op-ed by Sue Prideaux, who was explaining how the far right has taken Nietzsche out of context.  I am not qualified to evaluate that argument, but I was fascinated when she said that Nietzsche's famous "God is dead" quote refers to the problem of humans seeking meaning and order in the world when they no longer have belief in God as a source of authority.  I think this is part of why people are so desperate to derive "ought" from "is", because they have no higher authority than material facts.