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December 31, 2002

Innateness, Developmental Systems and Explanation

Innateness, Developmental Systems and Explanation Jason C. Jenson University of Sheffield 31 December 2002 Introduction The nature vs. nurture debate has been with us for decades now. The most controversial aspect of this debate is when various behaviors are claimed to be innate, hardwired, or inborn. In the 1970’s we had a short dalliance with what E. O. Wilson dubbed sociobiology. It seems reasonable to assume that if many aspects of our bodies can be explained in terms of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, then it may equally well apply to our minds. Wilson’s sociobiology met with stiff resistance from scientists and others. The worry was that if certain behaviors were innate, then people could be discriminated against based on innate traits they have. To some, a horrible return to eugenics appeared to be just around the corner. Even as recently as 1996 Herrnstein and Murray published the controversial book, “The Bell Curve.” It is posited in this book that there are innate differences in intelligence between the races. Regardless of whether any of this was true, it had the potential to effect government policy and funding. More sophisticated innateness claims have been developed in recent years under the aegis of evolutionary psychology by the likes of John Toby & Leda Considers (1992) and David Buss (1998). Steven Pinker is perhaps the most well known public spokesman for the view. His 1997 book, “How the Mind Works” has been very influential. Under evolutionary psychology it is not behaviours themselves that are claimed to be innate. Rather, it is the cognitive machinery that makes certain behaviours possible that is innate. Another strand of innateness claims goes back to Chomsky's (1980) thesis that there is an innate language acquisition device. Leslie (1994) has claimed our folk psychological capacities are innate while Carey and Spelke (1994) claim our “folk physics” is innate. With so much controversy and research surrounding the notion of innateness, we would do well to understand just what is being claimed when a trait is called innate....

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November 22, 2002

Pinker Redux

When I wrote this Limerick about Steven Pinkers new book "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" I wasn't saying that we are nothing but a blank slate but rather that Pinker for the sake of a commercially viable book had overstated the case for the biological component. The question never was if there was a biological basis for human nature,but how much it explains and what if fails to explain and why? Pinker slips from side to side as it suits his own prejudices. It seems I was not alone in that view. Louis Menand in a review of Pinker's book makes many of the the same points. WHAT COMES NATURALLY by LOUIS MENAND Does evolution explain who we are? "The new sciences of human nature." Well, why not? The old sciences of human nature didn't have such a fabulous track record. They gave us segregated drinking fountains, "invented spelling," and the glass ceiling all consequences of scientific theories about the way human beings really are. Possibly, there is a lesson there, which is that the sciences of human nature tend to validate the practices and preferences of whatever regime happens to be sponsoring them. In totalitarian regimes, dissidence is treated as a mental illness. In apartheid regimes, interracial contact is treated as unnatural. In free-market regimes, self-interest is treated as hardwired. Maybe this is unfair to the new sciences of human nature, though. It could be that the problem with the old sciences was simply that they weren't scientific enough that they were mostly wishful thinking projected onto dubious data about skull size and the effects of estrogen on the ability to balance a checkbook. Today's scientists might have the capacity to get right down there among the chromosomes and the neurotransmitters, and to send back reports, undistorted by fear, favor, or the prospect of funding, about what's going on. Maybe the new sciences of human nature are really scientific. It's worth a look. And a critical look is exactly what he provides, for example: Many pages of "The Blank Slate" are devoted to bashing away at the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian scarecrow that Pinker has created. or this: Having it both ways is an irritating feature of "The Blank Slate." Pinker can write, in refutation of the scarecrow theory of violent behavior, "The sad fact is that despite the repeated assurances that 'we know the conditions that breed violence,' we barely have a clue," and then, a few pages later, "It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers." Well, that should give us one clue. He sums the matter up: "With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution." This is just another way of saying that it is in human nature to socialize and to be socialized, which is, pragmatically, exactly the view of the "intellectuals." A brief aside Louis Menand is the author of one of the best books I've read in the past few years. The Metaphysical Club : A Story of Ideas in America if you are at all interested in American History, and Pragmatism in particular I can't recommend this book highly enough....

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November 18, 2002


Did you hear the one about the philosopher writing a book on humour? Simon Critchley, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex, investigates humour. And tells some pretty good jokes. Philosophy is a funny business and some philosophers are funny people. The philosopher asks you to look at the world awry, to place in question your usual habits, assumptions, prejudices and expectations. The philosopher asks you to be sceptical about all sorts of things you would ordinarily take for granted, like the reality of things in the world or whether the people around you are actually human or really robots. In this regard, the philosopher has, I think, a family resemblance with the comedian, who also asks us to look at the world askance, to imagine a topsy-turvy universe where horses and dogs talk and where lifeless objects become miraculously animated. Both the philosopher and the comedian ask you to view the world from a Martian perspective, to look at things as if you had just landed from another planet. With this rough resemblance in mind, I became interested in jokes, humour and the comic and I have just finished writing a short book on the topic.[1]...

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November 16, 2002

Master of Myth

Joseph Campbell Saves The World In which the late, great master of myth reveals just how foolish all our religious impudence is, again By Mark Morford Essential items needed right now: internal fortitude, deep belly laughter that defies war, juicy blasphemy, thick socks, nuanced humanism in the face of raging and imminent oily conservatism. Red wine, gleaming personal vibration, hope for the decimated Democratic Party, sexy small cars, extra vibrator batteries, chocolate, bomb shelters for the soul and carefully wrought, nimble perspective. And Joseph Campbell. Lots and lots of Joseph Campbell. To fill that last category. This is mandatory....

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October 25, 2002

Pinker shoots blanks ?

There once was a king of cogsci Who thought all others small fry He claimed there's no blank A view he could bank What he claimed however was all lies...

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July 21, 2002

Blake and Nietzsche

The following paper is by Aaron Tabor, a student studying English at MSU in Wichita Falls, Texas. I met Aaron through my son Chris online at the Internet Chess Club. So what do Blake and Nietzsche have in common? Blake a Christian and Nietzsche an Atheist, you may be surprised by Aaron's conclusions. Blake and Nietzsche: Some Affiliations In this paper I would like to draw some affiliations between Blake and Nietzsche. As preposterous as it may sound to compare an avowed Christian with an avowed Atheist I ask the reader to bear with me. The parallels between these two great men are many, but I will restrict this paper to the similarities between �The Songs of Innocence and Experience� and �Of The Three Metamorphosis.� I will begin by examining the �contrary states of the human soul� in the �Songs� and then proceed into analogies implicit in Blake�s and Nietzsche�s conception of Innocence and Experience. This paper will attempt to show that Blake and Nietzsche are not as foreign to each other as many believe and that their poetic and philosophical vision carries with it some curious affiliations....

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July 5, 2002

The Commitments of Folk Psychology

Jason C. Jenson University of Sheffield 1. Introduction There has been much discussion of "folk psychology" in the philosophical literature in recent years. However, it has not been clear precisely what folk psychology is and what its commitments are. Many discussions of folk psychology begin by making an analogy to folk physics. Folk physics refers to the ordinary understanding of the lay people, who have no special training in physics, about the physical processes in their environment. Likewise, folk psychology should be taken to refer to the ordinary understanding of lay people, who have no special training in the cognitive sciences, about the behaviours of their fellow human beings....

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July 3, 2002

A Reply to Fodor�s Language, Thought, and Compositionality

Jason C. Jenson University of Sheffield 1 Introduction Jerry Fodor has been known to support some rather strange theses. One is that all of our concepts are innate. (Fodor, 1987) In a recent article, �Language, Thought and Compositionality� (Fodor 2001) he addresses the issue of which between language and thought bears content in the first instance. This paper is a response to this new work. He combines his love of compositionality arguments with this penchant for radical conclusions in this article....

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April 24, 2002

Getting Clear on Innateness

Getting Clear on Innateness J. Christopher Jenson Sheffield 1. Introduction You might think the world is at stake. At least that is the impression given by cognitive scientists engaged in the innateness versus acquired debate. Is this all sound and fury signifying nothing or is there a substantive debate? Is there any sense we can give to the concept �innate� that makes a useful explanatory distinction? For example, there was a concept �superlunary space� that was used by early astronomers. Although this term picks out a real place in the universe, it does not make a particularly useful distinction for modern astronomers. It should not be assumed from the beginning that innateness is a natural kind. The problem for cognitive scientists is that it is not clear what account of innateness various people have in mind when they make innateness claims. There have been many. Noam Chomsky has famously claimed that we have innate knowledge of the universal grammar....

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April 16, 2002

Flesh And Machines

The point of Rodney Brooks new book Flesh and Machines - How Robots Will Change Us is that we are machines. That our bodies are a mass of biomolecules that act according to a set of specifiable rules. He believes that his spouse, his children are mere machines, but that is not how we treat them. The crux of the book is why that is so and what that means to a future world that will include more robots. He tells the history of robotics, from Shaky to Kismet with dozens of other interesting characters in between, and what is on the horizon. What is already here ranging from artificial hearing to the prospects for artificial vision, to robots that can make our lives easier and free our time for more rewarding pursuits. He discusses the what and how of artificial intelligence. There are currently two main approaches to artificial intelligence one is a top down representational view, the other is a bottom up more evolutionary view. One way to look at it would be to compare the spectrum of views with a robot, a distributed network, and a desktop pc. The robot would be no representations, the distributed network non-discrete distributed representations, and desktop computer discrete symbolic representations. Check out Steven Pinkers How the Mind Works and Andy Clarks Being There for additional insight into this aspect of the question. The notion that we are machines strikes at the core of our belief systems, and Rodney spends several chapters tracing that history. We are special, we are not special, we are them. What it is that we think makes us special and why we are so reluctant to part with beliefs that our rational mind find unsupportable but which support that idea. He takes us from Galileo to Darwin to the present, one belief at a time. This book will enlighten and challenge you. Whether you agree or not you'll understand the issues. In discussing his early attempts at building a robot Mr. Brooks says "I did manage to get my first robot, Norman, to the point where it could wander around the floor, respond to light, and bumble its way around obstacles." That is exactly how this Norman started out in this world simply change the it to he and Rodney could be talking about my beginnings. Is that the leap he is asking us to make? Are you ready? Highly Recommended. Here is an added bonus, a One Act Play by Terry Bisson entitled "They're Made Out Of Meat" published in 1991, which provides an amusing look at the question from the machines point of view....

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April 14, 2002

False Dilemma

As in life the level of discourse on the internet ranges from excellent to really quite terrible. We are emotional animals and have to be careful not to let those emotions get in the way of clear thinking. Supporting our views with sound arguments, verifying information to the best of our ability and being willing to admit when we have erred. I have recently discovered two sites that are helpful in that regard. The first is Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies The other site I like is here and is part of the Nizkor Project. This site lists forty-two common fallacies including Ad Hominem, Straw Man, Begging the Question to mention a few. Stephen's site is slightly different he lists categories of similar fallacies, covering basically the same ground as the Nizkor site. For instance he has a category called Fallacies of Distraction which includes the following: 1. False Dilemma:two choices are given when in fact there are three options 2. From Ignorance: because something is not known to be true, it is assumed to be false 3. Slippery Slope: a series of increasingly unacceptable consequences is drawn 4.Complex Question: two unrelated points are conjoined as a single proposition I found his entry under False Dilemma particularly interesting. The first example of a false dilemma was "Either you're for me or against me" This had a familiar ring to it. Wasn't it President Bush that said that there was no room for neutrality in the war against terrorism "You're either with us or against us in the fight for terror." But as the president is discovering it is not quite that simple. It is not enough just to name the fallacy but that there is a method to prove it. In the case of a False Dilemma you would present the options given and show (with an example) that there is an additional option. So lets see a country could agree with us that the Al Qaeda are terrorists but not agree that the Iraqis are terrorists, in fact I believe many of them are making that point, and there you have an additional option they are neither totally with us or against. Proving the statement a false dilemma. This type of fallacy is very common and is often referred to as Black and White Thinking. As one of those left of left liberals I seldom have anything nice to say about our current president but I can certainly thank him for an excellent example of a logical fallacy....

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February 14, 2002

Motivations for Contrastive Explanation

An interesting paper on why a contrastive explanation works well for those pesky "Why X?" questions. Motivations for Contrastive Explanation...

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January 30, 2002

Nietzsche On Boby And Soul

I want to speak to the despisers of the body. I would not have them learn and teach differently, but merely say farewell to their own bodiesand thus become silent. "Body am I, and soul"thus speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children? But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body._ Friedrich Nietzsche...

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January 23, 2002

Explaining the Extended Mind

"Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism... it forms with it a system." - Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception; passage translated by David Hilditch in his Ph.D. thesis, At the Hear of the World (Washington University, 1995) from Andy Clark's Being There A nice way of looking at the role of brain, body, and enviornment, the mental realm being so much more that just the brain....

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January 18, 2002

Cognitive Science

"Will cognitive Sciences change the way we think as much as other sciences" a fascinating question here is a link I think you'll find interesting Click here...

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January 13, 2002

A Delightful Sunday Afternoon

What an enjoyable afternoon and evening hanging out on ICC, The Internet Chess Club watching the US Championship. Igor Ivanov (a friend) was playing Yuri Lapshun. Quite a battle, and during the game I was chatting with my son Chris. "Wanna hear a great quotation" he says. "Sure" I reply. We start lots of conversations this way. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." Kant "Cinn and I have been annoyed because philosophy of mind seems really still to be stuck on the same old problems of the empiricists vs the rationalists" he continues. (Cinn his partner also studying philosphy/cognitive science at Sheffield.) "Remind me in a nutshell the difference between the rationalists and empericists" I say. Empiricists think we get all our knowledge from experience, rationalists think we get it all from reason. This distinction between empiricist and rationalist is really crude of course. They each think we get some knowledge from both. Kant really did make some philosophical progress, if only to give the standard dualisms there dying breath, unfortunately people don't seem to realize that. In modern philosophy there is still talk of "representations" and there "contents" but this distinction is illusory, "thoughts without content are empty" Kant wasn't pointing out some special class of thoughts, the empty ones. Empty thoughts are not thoughts at all if representations are nothing without there contents, then why is there a distinction between representation and content. So there you have it damnit, fuck representations. This idea is in John McDowell's book Mind and World Interesting stuff I think I'll post it on my blog. "You should quote me on that blog page. I hate dualisms!" - Christopher Jenson. Well Igor won his game finished with 5.5 out 9 a decent score and it looks like GM Nick de Fermian and GM Larry Christiansen will tie for first. Well, I think I'll read for awhile and then call it a day....

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