Wednesday, May 21, 2008


It just keeps happening.
Steven Pinker has thought longer and harder about human language, its structure and functions, its origins and its relations to human thought, than anyone alive.
Shouldn't people jump all over him when he says something stupid, then?
It's just a witless snot-faced child tugging on Superman's cape.
I assume we will never hear John Derbyshire whining about elitism anymore. Right? Right.

Herr Derbyshire is really being dense here:
You yourself weigh in on "Pinker's (in)famous line about how music is nothing more than accidental 'auditory cheesecake.'" Surely you appreciate that Pinker was just trying to

(a) Offer an informed cog-sci speculation for the esthetic appeal of music,


(b) render that speculation in terms a lay person can grasp.

Pinker did (a) because he's a cognitive scientist, and that is the kind of thing cognitive scientists are paid to do; he did (b) because he is a skillful and successful popularizer of his science. If you think his speculation is way out in left field, give us an informed criticism of it — or better yet, a speculation of your own. Why does music appeal to us?
"Music as cheesecake" is a glib, reductivist theory that betrays Pinker's dismissiveness of anything beyond the barely material. It's fine for scientists to act as if matter in motion is all that exists when conducting science, but to smuggle that materialism from physics to metaphysics is wrong. A related problem is to see literally everything that happens in the natural world as an expression of natural selection. It's a convenient starting point - see a behavior, assume an evolutionary explanation. But one can't stop with mere assumptions. You have to look, think, put some damn intellectual effort into understanding the phenomenon. A provisional theory is provisional; a heuristic is a guide.

Why is that so hard to understand?

Taking "music as cheesecake" on the merits, it confuses the pathological appeal of music and what makes music specifically musical. I hate to harp on old theory, but Hanslick made the distinction in 1854. Crack a book?

John Derbyshire has also written recently about panpsychism and contemporary philosophies of mind. I've noticed two problems, to which I may get later: panpsychism is insane and cognitive scientists still haven't absorbed Kant. Causation is still assumed to hold among things, not merely among things as objects of the mind. If someone solved causation while I've been in law school, I would appreciate a comment. Thanks.

One might think the philosophical status of music, minds, or causation makes little difference to the science being done. But in fact that science assumes a certain philosophical viewpoint, without which its conclusions would not hold without modification.

John Derbyshire objects to the description of Pinker's piece as "[A] bizarre and astonishing display of paranoid vitriol," because John comes at Pinker knowing he's smart and expecting him to say smart things. But look - Pinker was saying that dignity is bad. That's bizarre. Accusing the pro-dignity people of having some dangerous agenda is, well, paranoid. If you actually read what he's saying instead of sighing dreamily and thinking "He's writing! The love of my life, Steven Pinker, is writing! This is so smart and wonderful!" then it's a weird position. What's the truly moral way to act - to treat people as lumps of flesh? Or what? Bizarre rants make people think you're crazy - imagine that!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home