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« Steven Pinker Interview | Main | Elsewhere »

December 04, 2003

Nietzsche and Pinker


I couldn’t help but notice when I read the Edge interview with Steven Pinker (that you so thoughtfully linked to in your post below) that it almost seemed as if Mr. Pinker were channeling the spirit of Nietzsche. Obviously, Mr. Pinker has his own points of view, and I wouldn’t assume that he shares all of, or even any of Nietzsche’s more wild-and-crazy points of view, but the echo of the one in the other is, to put it mildly, striking. I thought I’d juxtapose quotes from the interview and from Beyond Good and Evil:

PINKER: Most intellectuals today have a phobia of any explanation of the mind that invokes genetics. They're afraid of four things.

First there is a fear of inequality. The great appeal of the doctrine that the mind is a blank slate is the simple mathematical fact that zero equals zero. If we all start out blank, then no one can have more stuff written on his slate than anyone else. Whereas if we come into the world endowed with a rich set of mental faculties, they could work differently, or better or worse, in some people than in others. The fear is that this would open the door to discrimination, oppression, or eugenics, or even slavery and genocide…

[…[L]ife itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation….But there is no point of which the ordinary consciousness of Europeans resists instruction as on this: everywhere people are now raving, even under scientific disguises, about coming conditions of society in which “the exploitative aspect” will be removed—which sounds to me as if they promised to invent a way of life that would dispense with all organic functions.--Nietzsche]

The second fear is the fear of imperfectability. If people are innately saddled with certain sins and flaws, like selfishness, prejudice, sort-sightedness, and self-deception, then political reform would seem to be a waste of time….

[If however, a person should regard even the affects of hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule as conditions of life, as factors which, fundamentally and essentially, must be present in the general economy of life (and must, therefore, be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced)—he will suffer from such a view of things as from seasickness. --Nietzsche]

The third fear is a fear of determinism: that we will no longer be able to hold people responsible for their behavior because they can they can always blame it on their brain or their genes or their evolutionary history—the evolutionary-urge or killer-gene defense….

[The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance and society involves nothing less than to… pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.—Nietzsche]

The final fear is the fear of nihilism. If it can be shown that all of our motives and values are products of the physiology of the brain, which in turn was shaped by the forces of evolution, then they would in some sense be shams, without objective reality. I wouldn't really be loving my child; all I would be doing is selfishly propagating my genes. Flowers and butterflies and works of art are not truly beautiful; my brain just evolved to give me a pleasant sensation when a certain pattern of light hits my retina. The fear is that biology will debunk all that we hold sacred.

[A proper physio-psychology has to contend with unconscious resistance in the heart of the investigator, it has “the heart” against it: even a doctrine of the reciprocal dependence of the “good” and the “wicked” drives causes (as refined immorality) distress and aversion in a still hale and hearty conscience—still more so, a doctrine of the derivation of all good impulses from wicked ones.--Nietzsche]

By the way, as one final thought, note the use of the term “physio-psychology”—a bit prescient as a description of certain trends in modern science. Not bad for a book written in 1886, no?



posted by Friedrich at December 4, 2003


"Thus Sprach EvoBio"! Echoes a-plenty. I wonder what the evo-bio crowd would make of Nietzsche's tone of glee? Whether they'd agree with it, or maybe think it's misjudged, if only from a p-r standpoint.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 4, 2003 4:04 PM

"To do is to be." Hegel

"To be is to do." Nietszche

"Do be do be do." Sinatra

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 4, 2003 9:34 PM

Oh, it's definitely not good from the P.R. standpoint.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 5, 2003 12:55 AM

Pinker also describes the brain as a battleground of competing interests, like Nietzsche.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on December 5, 2003 3:07 PM

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