I just read The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker. When I finished it I was disappointed. I had heard so much about Pinker (this is the first book of his I’ve read), and I felt like I had learned very little about human nature. But as I reflected on it over the next few days, my opinion radically changed. I kept bumping into things that were illuminated by the insights in this book.
For example, I read an article about how robots are being programmed to follow some of the basic modes of human thought so they interface with humans better, and these basic modes are exactly what Pinker outlined.
The basic message of the book is that there are deep structures in our brains, evolved over countless millennia, which allow us to make sense of our sensory experience. These are very similar to the “categories of understanding” described by Immanuel Kant 225 years ago. Pinker lists space, time, substance, object, causation, force, possession, and goal as the basic concepts that form the scaffolding that constructs our mental model of the world.
These models are very useful for helping us to navigate the physical world, but science has discovered that our evolved models don’t accurately match reality. Pinker writes, “They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic.” In other words, the basic concepts box us in; they restrict how we can think about reality. This is why quantum physics is so hard to comprehend, and also why it is so difficult to put spiritual experiences into words.
Causation is one of the basic concepts, and it forms a big part of our worldview. We attribute causation whenever we see an action by an autonomous actor. Scientists have done studies where shapes move on a computer screen. If, for example, a yellow triangle moves towards a red circle and stops just when it touches the circle, and then the circle starts moving, subjects overwhelmingly say, “the triangle caused the circle to move.” There’s been research with shapes on computer screens in which the movements are so involved that the subjects start telling stories about the shapes as if they are living creatures, even imbuing them with emotions.