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BROCKMAN: But haven't there been objections to the computer metaphor of the mind?

PINKER: Some critics think it is an example of our mindless incorporating the latest technology into our theories. The objection goes: when telephone switchboards first came into existence, people thought the mind was a switchboard; before that, when fancy water-powered mechanical toys were the rage, people said the mind was a hydraulic machine, and so on. Of course there's a danger is taking metaphors too literally, but when you're careful, mechanical metaphors really do increase our understanding. The heart and blood vessels really can be better understood by thinking about pumps and pipes, and the switchboard metaphor offers a clearer understanding of the nerves and spinal cord than the models that came before it.

And I think the theory of computation, and in some cases real computers, do offer principles that are essential to understanding how the mind works. The idea is not that the mind is like a commercial computer; it's that minds and computers work by some of the same principles. When engineers first came to understand flight as they designed airplanes, it provided insight as to how birds fly, because principles of aerodynamics, like shape of an airfoil or the interplay of lift and drag, are applicable both to planes and to birds. That doesn't mean that the airplane is a good model of the birds. Birds don't have propellers and headphone jacks and beverage service, for example. But by understanding the laws that allow any device to fly, one can understand how natural devices fly. The human mind is unlike a computer in countless ways, but the trick behind computation is the trick behind thought÷representing states of the world, that is, recording information, and manipulating the information according to rules that mimic relations of truth and statistical probability that hold in the world.

BROCKMAN: Haven't there also been political objections to the biological approach you are taking?

PINKER: Many people lump together the idea that the mind has a complex innate structure with the idea that differences between people have to be innate. But the ideas are completely different. Every normal person on the planet could be innately equipped with an enormous catalog of mental machinery, and all the differences between people÷what makes John different from Bill÷could come from differences in experience, of upbringing, or of random things that happened to them when they were growing up. To believe that there's a rich innate structure common to every member of the species is different from saying the differences between people, or differences between groups, come from differences in innate structure. Here's an example. Look at number of legs÷it's an innate property of the human species that we have two legs as opposed to six like insects, or eight like spiders, or four like cats÷so having two legs is innate. But if you now look at why some people have one leg, and some people have no legs, it's completely due to the environment÷they lost a leg in an accident, or from a disease. So the two questions have to be distinguished. And what's true of legs is also true of the mind.


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