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!