The Situationist

Time Changes Mind

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 30, 2007

time-person-of-the-year-image.jpgIt was only last month that Time was heaping praise on us for, well, just being us . . . and for doing the things we do, like “seizing the reins of the global media, . . . founding and framing the new digital democracy, . . . working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game . . . .” For our brilliance, hard work, and good choices, we were named and seemingly immortalized as “Time’s Person of the Year for 2006.

Being us was great back then, wasn’t it?

What a difference a month makes. Now that our 2007 magazine subscriptions are all paid up, and even before the glow of our collective blush has faded, Time turned ugly this week with a cover that might as well have read, “Hey you, “Person of the year for 2006″! Guess what, loser. You’re clueless!”time-cover.jpg

We should’ve known it couldn’t last. Just when we were getting comfortable with the notion that we were unexpectedly spectacular, Time’s editors whipsawed us back toward the terrestrial. How?

Easy. This week’s “Mind & Body Special Issue” provides accessible, well-written, fascinating overviews of some of the recent research in the mind sciences. Buzzkill!

Among Time’s “brain bank” is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who provides the leading and longest article of the issue. Pinker cuts to the chase, taking aim at the most cherished component of our interiors, the very part that we always imagined made us so special, so human, so built for everlasting life: consciousness.

Illustration for TIME by Istvan Orosz

Within a half dozen, image-laden pages, Pinker peppers us with these bitter pills:

  • “Some of our deepest convictions about what it means to be human have been shaken”;
  • “[N]euroscientists agree . . . that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain”;
  • “Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain”;
  • “consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations”;
  • “the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive ‘I’ that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion”;
  • even “[o]ur authorship of voluntary actions can . . . be an illusion”; and, “people have a motive to sell themselves as beneficent, rational, competent agents.”

Not yet despondent? Just wait, there’s more. The implications of this mind-science research, Pinker claims, travel to questions about whether we will survive the death of our bodies (bye bye immortality) and whether we are, in fact, “free agents responsible for our choices.”

So, let me get this straight. In December, Time sells us on ourselves, giving us our propssteven-pinker-sm.jpg for choices well made. In January, Time brings in Professor Killjoy to inform us that we are active, if non-conscious participants in that selling and that we may not deserve much credit for our accomplishments. Makes me want to remove my museum-mounted Time cover from over the mantle and hide it under my bed until all this mind-science research fades from my consciousness or until my self-affirming motivated reasoning works its magic. But I won’t, because that’s just what they want me to do. And I can’t be manipulated. No, I can be, but I choose not to be. Don’t mess with “Time’s Person of the Year”!

Other disturbing articles and sidebars in the “Mind & Body” issue include: Time Travel in the Brain,” by Dan Gilbert & Randy Buckner; A Story We Tell Ourselves” by Antonio Damasio ; “How We Make Life and Death Decisions,” about Joshua Greene’s research; and “Marketing to Your Mind” about neuromarketing and research by scientists such as Read Montague.

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6 Responses to “Time Changes Mind”

  1. np said

    Hello Professor Hanson. I just found out about your blog and plan to read regularly. Steven Pinker is great.

    Best,

    Noah

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell said

    Pinker’s remarks remind one why he is a psychologist and not a philosopher.

  3. Matt said

    Patrick hits the nail on the head. Pinker authoritatively pronounces that “thoughts” “consist entirely of” physiological activity in the brain, as if that were fully coherent and unproblematic. Um, there are several whole disciplines within philosophy focused on the difficulties inherent in a statement like that. One gets the sense that this guy has never even thought about taking seriously those who take consciousness and its implications seriously, people like John Searle, Thomas Nagel, et al.

  4. Frank said

    I too was deeply troubled by the whole issue. I found Pinker’s article insufferably smug and infused with the kind of anti-religious, anti-spiritual bias that is increasingly emerging in his popular writing.

    Many of the other contributors are basically trying to redefine the philosophy of consciousness and ethics as a branch of psychology or engineering. I have critiqued the experimental philosophers (or X-Phi) in these posts (along with pointers to more comprehensive work on the topic):

    http://madisonian.net/archives/2006/07/14/experimental-philosophy/

    http://jurisdynamics.blogspot.com/2006/09/x-phi-limits-of-science.html

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell said

    After reading Matt and Frank’s comments I thought I’d proffer my own list of names by way of prompting those enamored by Pinker’s thoughts on ‘the brain’ and consciousness to see just how and why he’s so deeply mistaken on this subject. These authors are not of one mind although they (with the exception of Buller) do evidence an acquaintance with the crème de la crème in the ‘philosophy of mind’ literature:

    Auyang, Sunny Y. Mind in Everyday Life and Cognitive Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

    Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003).

    Buller, David J. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005). [Jerry Fodor wrote a brilliant review of this book for the Times Literary Supplement (July 27, 2005), a copy of which is found at Buller’s Philosophy Dept. webpage at Northern Illinois University: http://www.niu.edu/phil/~buller/index.shtml%5D

    Descombes, Vincent. The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

    Hutto, Daniel D. The Presence of Mind (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publ. Co., 1999).

    Putnam, Hilary. The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body, and World (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

    Velmans, Max. Understanding Consciousness (London: Routledge, 2000).

  6. Matt said

    I guess what’s most galling to me about Pinker’s writings here is that either he is actually ignorant of the philosophical sticking points that inhere in his position, or he’s trying simply to foist his view upon lay readers who have no reason to know about those difficulties. I hope that it is the latter (while irritating, I can well understand that sort of demagoguery and its motivations).

    But I fear that it may be the former. It certainly is not only Pinker who seems to have this apparent ignorance. It seems like every time I see mind-brain issues like consciousness brought up in the popular press, it always has this same bias and apparent ignorance of the long history of thinkers’ attempts (largely failed attempts) to understand the mind in any kind of coherent way. I am just a humble lawyer with a mere undergraduate major in philosophy, and I am aware of that history and those issues. It would be a terrible shame if professional academics like Pinker (who has a professional interest not only in consciousness, but also in language – a topic that has its own vast set of philosophical problems) are actually ignorant of it. I hope someone can reassure me that that is unlikely to be true.

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