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How the Mind Works
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I just finished reading Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, and I can't say I was all that impressed.

He starts out all right, basically saying he's going to take the approach to the mind that science has taken to understanding most other phenomena. He talks about how he wants to reverse engineer the mind in order to understand it. That's all good. Also, he's taking an evolutionary perspective, and understands that the mind is the product of the brain, and that the brain was evolved for the sole purpose of replicating our genes. Again, that's all good.

But then, he says he's not going to talk about neurons or neurotransmitters or hormones or any of that other low level stuff. So he's basically setting himself up for failure. The rest of the book is basically an extended riff on whatever Pinker happens to think is interesting about the mind at the time. He talks about religion. He talks about sex. He talks about family. He throws out about a hundred open-ended philosophical questions. But gosh darn it, he never happens to get around to the topic of hand which is actually discussing how the mind works.

And then he ends the book with the hypothesis that we may just be too stupid to even understand how the mind works. In the same way that monkeys can't do long division, he posits that people may just not be able to understand philosophical puzzles dealing with free will, consciousness, and ethics. This of course seems like a big giant cop out.

It doesn't mean there's nothing interesting in the book. It doesn't hold together as a whole, but it's a pretty interesting stream of consciousness approach to things that Pinker thinks are interesting about the mind. And a lot of the stuff is interesting. It's just not very explanatory. He doesn't really reverse engineer the mind (or the brain) at all.

If you do want someone's explanation of how they think the mind works, one guy who takes a serious stab at the problem is Jeff Hawkins in his book On Intelligence. He actually does talk about subjective phenomenon like memory, reflection, perception, and other everyday cognitive functions. And he doesn't shy away from neurons. And he lays forth an actual theory about how the mind does what it does. He could be wrong, a little or a lot, but the title "How the Mind Works" would apply a whole hell of a lot better to Hawkins' book than to Pinker's.

I was sort of reading Pinker's book as part of my preparation for comprehensive exams which are coming up in the fall. It didn't help me for that at all. But like I said before I wouldn't not recommended it, I'd just take the title with a grain of salt.

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