Steven Pinker, a professor in the cognitive science department at MIT, is best known for his theories of language acquisition, as described in his book The Language Instinct. In this book, he takes a swing at the larger problem of how the mind works. His thesis, in his words: “The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people.” (p.21) He examines each of the problems that parts of our brain were designed to solve, from vision to emotions to social relationships, and theorizes about why certain algorithms were developed by natural selection. It’s a somewhat reductionist approach, and he freely admits that he has no answer to some of the harder questions, like where consciousness, or sentience, comes from. But it is an interesting attempt to break down some of the mind’s behaviors into understandable chunks. I didn’t really get any sense of “aha!” from reading this, but there were lots of small-scale points to ponder.
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