Steven Pinker's Sentience

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. The text is a popularization (i.e. meant for non-technical audience) of Pinker’s work in cognitive science. It’s argument is largely founded on the theory of evolutionary psychology. It is an interesting theory, and I’m particularly interested in its accounting for the (perhaps simultaneous) development of consciousness and symbolic behavior during the Upper Paleolithic era. Pinker has the usual scientist barbs for humanities and postmodernism (he actually refers to something called "deconstructionism"), but those little quips aren’t very captivating, nor especially well thought-out.

One of the more thought-provoking elements which I don’t think I’ll get into my book is Pinker’s discussion of sentience. Pinker finds science capable of explaining consciousness in terms of "self-awareness" or self-recognitin and gaining access to information in and through the body (e.g. to tell me the dominant color of this website). However, science cannot explain consciousness as sentience, as "subjective experience, phenomenal awareness, raw feels, first-person present tense, ‘what it is like’ to be or do something, if you have to ask you’ll never know" (135). This mystery, he continues, "remains a mystery, a topic not for science but for ethics" (148).

Now as I intimated earlier, Pinker doesn’t hold much value in the humanistic in this text. He characterizes much of the humanities’ study of art as status-building, as a way of seeming superior to the under class rather than anything else. I don’t disagree, though if we are going to compare egos, one could at least say that humanists don’t presume themselves to be gods, as science sometimes does. And if, the products of humanistic scholarship are often of little utilitarian value in the world, at least they are not gas chambers or atom bombs or weaponized diseases, to name just of few of the nifty products of science. However, despite these remarks, Pinker does seem to appreciate the value of art in the rich panalopy of human life, even though he views it as generally extraneous to the processes of evolutionary psychology. And, for the record, I am not the sterotypical anti-scientific, can’t do math, luddite humanities prof.

Poets understand the intersections of math, science, language and aesthetics, even if literary critics and evolutionary psychologists may struggle to see them.

But I digress.

Pinker essentially suggests that understanding sentience is perhaps not all that important in understanding human behavior. After all his discipline gets along fine without it, though he does point out its importance in "moral reasoning." At the end of the book, he suggests that the questions of sentience and free will, along with other philosophical questions, may be unanswerable by the human mind, that they represent our encounter of a certain "cognitive closure." We’re just not capable of understanding these things; our brains have limits.


But that seems to ignore the fact that we do have explanations for why/how we are sentient (or not) and why/how we have free will (or not). They’re just not scientific explanations. What if we recognized that scientific, rational methods for explaining the world, while wonderfully effective most of the time, represent just one part of the many cognitive abilities humans have? Science cannot explain sentience. Fine. Of course it has yet to really explain consciousness or evolution or the beginning of the universe or DNA–or it would be better to say that the explanations are in process, under discussion. The difference, as Pinker points out, is that with the latter, it is at least possible to conceive of a scientific hypothesis that could explain these phenomena.

This of course is where humanities come in (or should come in). I agree with Pinker’s critique of humanism; he points out our weaknesses. We are at are best as intellectuals, scholars, philosohpers, artists, writers, etc when we are engaged in these "unanswerable" questions. The computational mind Pinker describes has obvioiusly given us many advantages as a species–technology, complex social organization.

But as my mom used to say, it’s all fun and games until someone exterminates the planet (okay I paraphrased).

The computational mind has given us the power to destroy the planet quickly or slowly, to perform acts of what you would want to call unthinkable cruelty except for the fact that someone obviously thought to do it, and all sorts of other Pandora’s Box type things.

If we are going to keep ourselves from destruction, it will not be because of our computational mind’s ability to build a better mousetrap; that’s how we got in this mess to begin with. Our future lies in the inexplicable addendum to consciousness: sentience. That part of the mind science cannot account for, will never account for according to Pinker.

If sentience can keep us from destroying the planet, it will turn out to be not only our species, but also this entire biosphere’s most important evolutionary adaptation. So understanding how sentience works, the labor of philosophy, literature, and art may be our best chance for survival.

Get to work humanists!

6 replies on “Steven Pinker's Sentience”

It’s interesting to see you reading Pinker. I haven’t read what you’re reading now, but enjoyed *The Language Instinct* very much. There, his discussions of consciousness start & end with the recognition that language is more than a tool: it’s a biological and social imperative. It’s who we are. Your mention of his *How the Mind Works* seems to suggest 1) that it’s sort of ironic that Pinker would himself dismiss sentenience as not useful for understanding “human behavior” when language is the fundamental human behavior and 2) that he’s splitting science from poetry and philosophy and rhetoric, all arts that try to use language to account for and embody the human imperative for making meaning.
For me, the question is about thinking well. That usually means arguing well–winning the day, planting your flag, humilating the losers with your words–and of course rhetoric has a long agonistic history. But by “thinking” I’m thinking (sorry) of something more speculative and process-oriented. Maybe “creativity” would be a better word if it didn’t connote people splattering paper with emotions and calling it quits. Maybe what Pinker is missing is not just a bigger sense of sentience, nor even a better understanding of the human desire to make stuff (which seems to me a pretty lame definition of creativity), but the urge to do something *well.*
Doing something well is the big issue for me as a teacher. I don’t just want my students to write something to get be more “self aware” or to get a grade, or to get a degree, but in order to claim their right to do something well. It’s an act of claiming. It doesn’t (yawn, I’ve said this a million times) mean just good table manners, or getting pats on the head, but learning to write in such a way that the act of writing takes them to uncharted territory. Actually, any writing always does that. That’s what makes it so hard (and valuable). Writing screws with the tidy assumption of a tidy “writer” who knows what to say. The big struggle in writing is between the inner Polonious who knows it all and the inner Hamlet, who finds all his words keep referring to other “words, words, words.”
Doing something well means knowing what you want, knowing your tools, knowing your purpose, but it also means being able to be surprised by what you uncover and learn. Doing something well is always a confrontation with fear–fear of the familiar, of failure, of the unknown.
So for me, the really scary future, one overridden (and overwritten) with scientific technology that solves immediate problems, is the way it keeps most of us from thinking and making (my parents are scientists, so I’ve seen that the practice of science is very creative, as is marketing science’s products). It lets us assume that all problems are soluable and must be solved, and that we ourselves are really out of the loop when it comes to these problems (except when we purchase the solutions!). And as you noted in your post, this view of science ignores what the humanities provide, space for learning how to encounter language fully. My main claim is just that learning to do things in language–a rhetorical consciousness–is the best way to dirty up the rush toward sterilizing and neutering problems. Rhetoricians practice affirming and doubting (*dissoi logoi,* anyone?) and by doing so, are as writers are confronted with the problems of doing something well. Because it takes time and money to teach writing–and because quantative science is a joke when it tries to explain writing–wrtiting only gets taught as a skill, not as a human enterprise.
Rhetoric as a discipline is the process of making this argument (and practice) about writing have effects in and outside the academy.
Battery low! Got to go.


“And if, the products of humanistic scholarship are often of little utilitarian value in the world, at least they are not gas chambers or atom bombs or weaponized diseases, to name just of few of the nifty products of science.” – That’s the best you can do to value humanistic scholarship? That’s your authentic estimation of science? Wow!


So, non-scientific abilities can detect and explain sentience… ? We have intuitions but they can be fooled, no? The ancients inferred sentience to exist in various natural phenomena we wouldn’t today – wind screaming in trees – Zeus sending thunderbolts – volcanoes demanding virgins. The closer we are to describing something in purely reductionist terms, the less inclined we are to see any sort of “mind” at work. Science has progressed via increasing reductionism, leaving minds behind. Also, this sharpens for any given conscious person, the “problem of other minds”


Sentience as the ability to feel things is not a theory of self. Self is to understand oneself as a sentient being, which (most) animals have no capacity for. Neither sentience or consciousness are well defined but his definition of sentience is far from an ordinary or useful one. It seems ridiculous to me that he could make such an elementary mistake.


“And if, the products of humanistic scholarship are often of little utilitarian value in the world, at least they are not gas chambers or atom bombs or weaponized diseases, to name just of few of the nifty products of science.“

What about some of the ‘nifty products’ of the humanities, such as fascism, communism, and other ‘isms’ that require the poisoning of the fruits of science into cruel abominations to supplicate whatever ‘pure’ ideology that has erupted from the salons and schools of erudition?

Scientists don’t sit around coming up with gas chambers, they are pressed into service by failed artists and whiskey priests.


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