Richard Dawkins & Steven Pinker: Is Science Killing The Soul - Page 11
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PINKER: It's a very interesting question. Yes, there is a sense in which the whole brain has interests in common in the way that say a whole body composed of genes with their own selfish motives has a single agenda. In the case of the genes the fact that their fates all depend on the survival of the body forces them to cooperate. In the case of the different parts of the brain, the fact that the brain ultimately controls a body that has to be in one place at one time may impose the need for some kind of circuit, presumably in the frontal lobes, that coordinates the different agendas of the different parts of the brain to ensure that the whole body goes in one direction. In How the Mind Works I alluded to a scene in the comedy movie All of Me in which Lily Tomlin's soul inhabits the left half of Steve Martin's body and he takes a few steps in one direction under his own control and then lurches in another direction with his pinkie extended while under the control of Lily Tomlin's spirit. That is what would happen if you had nothing but completely autonomous modules of the brain, each with its own goal. Since the body has to be in one place at one time, there might be a circuit that suppresses the conflicting motives. And in cases of neurological disease or brain damage, and even perhaps in psychiatric conditions, we may be seeing a relaxation or an imbalance or a defect in some of the mechanisms that coordinate different parts of the brain. Perhaps in an obsessive-compulsive disorder, motives that we all have, such as checking to make sure that the stove is off and washing our hands, ordinarily might be repressed by some other part of the brain that says "yes, it's good to do that, but not too much; there are other things to do as well." Obsessive-compulsive disorder may come from an imbalance among these different mechanisms.

QUESTION: I just wanted to bring up the very obvious point of biological reductionism which I think is raised by some of the speakers here -- in that while I agree about there being no ghosts in the machine I'm a little bit worried about what it's getting replaced with is seemingly a rather simplistic way of looking at the world as being the outpourings of the human genome project. And in that, I'm worried that I don't hear for example that human behaviors like aggression and so forth are the product of very social processes, shared processes, between groups, between people who are unfamiliar with one another, who have misperceptions of one another and so forth -- the kinds of processes that social psychologists talk a great deal about. What we're being offered instead is a sort of reductio ad absurdum biological form of reductionism. Are we just going from one form of ghost to another. It's not a ghost, but a rather simple way of looking at the world.

PINKER: I don't think any complex behavior can be explained directly in terms of the genes, which is why I emaphasized evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Behavior is produced by the trillion-synapse human brain, which assesses situations, absorbs values from the people that we grow up with, assesses the long-term consequences of actions, tries to impress other people, and many other things. All of the phenomena that we call culture are real and utterly indispensable, but they have to be connected to the emotional and learning mechanisms that our brain makes available. I think any behavior has to be explained at many levels; our inborn emotions and learning mechanisms are one important level, perhaps the most important level, but not the only level.

RADFORD: Can you break the notion of culture down into a reductionist argument?

DAWKINS: Reductionism is one of those words that makes me want to reach for my revolver. It means nothing. Or rather it means a whole lot of different things, but the only thing anybody knows about it is that it's bad, you're supposed to disapprove of it.

QUESTION: What we need is for science, cognitive science in particular, to evolve further, so we begin to grasp the mystery that is subjective experience. Dr. Pinker said that the mind is the activity of the brain, and went on to describe ways in which cognitive neuroscience etc explained that. But in a way -- I can't help thinking of the analogy of the television set. It would be naive to suppose that the program that you watch is actually produced within the television set, and yet somebody from another planet who didn't know about television might assume that the program was generated within the television set.

DAWKINS: Steve can give a serious answer; I'm going to say something about television sets. My friend Douglas Adams has a wonderful story about television sets. He imagines somebody who believes that there's a little man inside the television set who's juggling the pictures and making it all happen. Well, he's taken on one side, and it's explained to him all about cathode ray tubes and scans and radio waves, and the whole principle about television sets is explained to him, and he nods and he says, yes, yes, I think I've got that, right, I understand that, hmm, very interesting. But I expect there are just a few little men in there, aren't there?