Blog Rating

Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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An obvious comment: the mind is hard to study. One of the reasons we don't have very good theories of the mind is because its almost impossible to get at directly; hard to run take apart for the purposes of experiment design, and hard to quantify the results of those experiments definitively.

Now one partial exception to this is language. Language is an emergent property of the mind, yet it can be studied concretely; it can be taken apart, experimented with, and quantified fairly neatly (in many respects, at least). And thus we can also come up (in principle) with nice, elegant theories about language.

The trouble is when we try to integrate those theories into a broader theory of the mind. Apart from how language works, we definitively understand very little about the mind - about the structures and systems it employs. And so we end up relying more on intuitions and the consensus of pop psychology than we do on the sort of experimental results that science should be made of. And if we aren't careful we'll even end up ignoring some of the 'harder' facts about language that real science has actually uncovered. I think Pinker is guilty of this; but I also think just about everything out there that goes beyond the domain of language as a natural object, seeking a comprehensive theory of the mind, is guilty of the same thing. And I don't just mean technically guilty, but majorly, obviously, glaringly guilty.

I don't want Pinker and others to stop writing their books. but I do want them to be clear about the things we know from scientific investigations and the things we infer by speculative processes.
BLOGGER: I don't suppose I disagree with any of this, except that I am not persuaded language can be separated from the minds that produce it without doing it serious damage. True, we can kill a butterfly, study its remains in the lab, and thereby learn something of its anatomy. But we won't learn how it lives. If we want a sense of the butterfly or language we have to study it in vivo as well as in the laboratory. So even those who give language a whiff of ether and study its corpse need to recall this is only part of the picture and probably not the essential part at that.

Brian Bayly

I am happy to disregard Pinker and to pick up Blair's own point, that "... joint attention brings two or more people into conscious harmony ...". YES, but even with joint attention and harmony each of two peoople is on his or her own mentally: Pat feels harmony with Chris and separately Chris feels harmony wih Pat. And why does Chris have that feeling? --- because Pat's behavior matches what Chris expected. If Chris expects Pat to smile and Pat does smile, it is the good match that creates the harmony Chris feels.
(I am taking the opportunity here to push my favorite proposal, that MATCHING is fundamental. Social life is harmonious if things match, but also we enjoy patterns (with matching components) and we form categories and words for them by a matching process. Does anyone else see matching as crucial for our mental lives?)

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