The more we learn about the human mind, the more fascinating it becomes, according to Harvard cognitive scientist Steve Pinker. He's known for his research in evolutionary psychology, or the idea that human nature has adapted over time to improve chances of survival.
He's written some bestselling books "How The Mind Works," and "The Blank Slate," and last night answered readers' questions during a fascinating Reddit "Ask Me Anything". We've included some of the highlights below:
On how language is the most fascinating thing about the human mind:
Here we all are, banging at keyboards and reading squiggles on screens, and somehow we're exchanging ideas about consciousness, hunter-gatherer societies, rape, the meaning of life, and hair-care products (I'll get to that). Of course we're using written language, not to mention computer technology and the Internet, but we could be having the same conversation at a bar, dinner table or seminar room, so it's language itself that is the astounding phenomenon.
On how understanding the mind affects happiness:
I find a naturalistic understanding of human nature to be indispensable to leading a wise and mature life, and it is often exhilarating. Wisdom consists in appreciating the preciousness and finiteness of our own existence, and therefore not squandering it; of being cognizant of what makes people everywhere tick, and therefore enhancing happiness and minimizing suffering; of being alert to limitations and flaws in our own judgments and decisions and passions, and thereby doing our best to circumvent them.
On if society will ever develop a better theory for consciousness:
As for the strange problem of consciousness — whether the red that I see is the same as the red that you see; whether there could be a "zombie" that is indistinguishable from you and me but not conscious of anything; whether an upload of the state of my brain to the cloud would feel anything — I suspect the answer is "never," since these conundra may be artifacts of human intuition. Our best science tells us that subjectivity arises from certain kinds of information-processing in the brain, but why, intuitively, that should be the case is as puzzling to us as the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, relativity, and other problems that are far from everyday intuition.
On why AI will never match human intelligence:
We do have a decent understanding of consciousness in the sense of why an intelligent system might make available a pool of information to a variety of its modules while keeping other information encapsulated within those modules. The only sense of consciousness we don't understand is whether the artificially intelligent computer or robot we build would subjectively feel anything — but that has nothing to do with how we built it. That's why the problem is "strange."
On atheism and why religion is a "puzzle in psychology":
Atheism is simply the denial of one set of beliefs, and it has never been a priority to stipulate one among the many things I don't believe in. The atheist/humanist/freethinker/secularist/bright movement found me (and I'm happy to support it) because I presented a thoroughly naturalistic, ghost-free account of the mind in How the Mind Works, including an analysis of religious belief as an interesting puzzle in psychology.
On the hypothesis that depression is an adaptation:
I don't know the literature well enough to say, but it's not implausible that occasional, mild, temporary depression in response to an identifiable setback is an adaptation — the main reason being the phenomenon of depressive realism, namely the more accurate assessment of outcomes and probabilities among the (mildly, temporarily) depressed than among happy people. Clinical depression is another story.
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