Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works" Quotes 3

This time, I can offer some substance. Pinker argues that the “Computational Theory of Mind” (CToM) is the “correct” theory, and that opposing theories are incorrect. Coincidentally, the two alternative theories that he contrasts against are two theories that I am already familiar with.

The first (actually not a full-blown theory, as much as a counter argument) is Searle’s Chinese Room, which you can read all about on Wikipedia. I believe I first read of Searle’s argument in the late 90s, and at the time, the Wikipedia hadn’t even existed. So I had independently derived what Wikipedia calls the “System” argument, believing that the man-book system is the system which understood Chinese. It seemed just as obvious to me as the idea that individual neurons don’t understand English, but all my neurons taken together as a single system, does. The source I had read Searle’s argument from didn’t bring up the system argument, and so I was left to wonder whether anyone had come up with this counter argument before me (surely, they must have), and if so, what was Searle’s response.

Well, Pinker’s book brings up the system argument, and it does list Searle’s response. Pinker then gives a response to that. At its core, it’s essentially the same response as what Wikipedia calls the “virtual mind” response, but here, Wikipedia goes much deeper and explores the implications with more clarity. Wikipedia also lists Searle’s response to the virtual mind experiment, whereas Pinker doesn’t.

Searle’s response to the virtual mind argument is that it is begging the question, assuming that there must be “something” out there which is understanding, but I feel this is a strawman: Searle is proposing an argument, and people are are showing where the flaws in his argument are. They are not necessarily saying there is something which can understand; merely that Searle hasn’t proven that there isn’t anything which can understand, which is what Searle is claiming he has shown.

Anyway, back to Pinker.

My own view is that Searle is merely exploring facts about the English word understand. […] If people balk at using the vernacular word understand to embrace exotic conditions that violate the stereotype but preserve the essence of the phenomenon, then nothing, scientifically speaking, is really at stake. We can look for another word, or agree to use the old one in a technical sense; who cares? The explanation of what makes understanding work is the same. Science, after all, is about the principles that make things work, not which things are “really” examples of a familiar word. If a scientist explains the functioning of the human elbow by saying it is a second-class lever, it is no refutation to describe a guy holding a second-class lever made of steel and proclaim, “But look, the guy doesn’t have three elbows!!!”

The second alternative explanation Pinker mentions is Roger Penrose’s, specifically in his book “The Emperor’s New Mind.” As a disclaimer, I’ll note that I’m a big fan of this book, and so I may be a bit biased, but I feel Pinker treats this text unfairly. First of all, Pinker allows himself a bit of ad hominen in pointing out the arrogance of Penrose choosing such a title. My immediate reaction to this is to point out the title of Pinker’s own book, “How the Mind Works”.

Second, Pinker claims:

Penrose’s mathematical argument have been dismissed as fallacious by logicians, and his other claims have been reviewed unkindly by experts in the relevant disciplines. […] In fact, the most interesting implication of The Emperor’s New Mind was pointed out by Dennett. Penrose’s denunciation of the computational theory of mind turns out to be a backhanded compliment. The computation theory fits so well into our understanding of the world that, in trying to overthrow it, Penrose had to reject most of contemporary neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and physics!

but does not offer much citation or other evidence; for example, what mathematical arguments were fallacious, and where were the fallacies? What aspect of neuroscience, evolutionary biology and physics were overthrown? Etc.

To be fair, I agree with Pinker’s assessment that Penrose’s conclusion is quite disappointing. While I found the journey (exploring Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Turing Machines, thermodynamics, set theory, etc.) extremely enjoyable, Penrose ends his saga with (paraphrasing here) “so basically, we don’t know how the mind works; maybe it has something to do with quantum gravity”, without giving any indication why quantum gravity would be any more likely a source of understanding than, say, investigating string theory or black holes instead.

It’s not clear to me if Penrose even intended for his book to be an explanation of how the mind works, but I have to agree with Pinker that his book doesn’t do a good job of explaining how the mind works. That said, I think it’s an excellent introduction to why a great breadth of topics, which is what I imagined Penrose’s intent to be. I see his book as an introductory survey of the various disciplines that one is likely to work with and within in the neurosciences.

 
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