52 in 52 Book Summaries

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker


How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker


The Essence

Combining the theories of natural selection and computational theory of mind, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker shares how the mind thought of as a system of organs, designed over long periods of time, functions to solve the problems of a species within the ecological niche such as the Homo Sapiens. Our ancestral environment had obstacles, and the Homos capacities for seeing, social living, throwing things, and cooking food helped us overcome them. Pinker posits that the mind is what the brain does, and as scientist learn more about the brain and genetics we will have answers to the hardest questions; like what the brain has to do with Phenomenology.

How the Mind Works Journal Entry Notes:

This is my book summary of How the Mind Works. My notes are a reflection of the journal write up above. Written informally, the notes contain a mesh and mix of quotes and my own thoughts on the book. Sometimes, to my own fault, quotes are interlaced with my own words. Though rest assured, I am not attempting to take any credit for the main ideas below. The Journal write up includes important messages and crucial passages from the book.

A vast text that attempts to explain what the mind is, where it comes from, and how it lets us see, think, feel, interact, and pursue higher callings like art religion, and philosophy.
• Contents of the world are not just there for knowing but have to be grasped with suitable mental machinery.
• “Everything you’ve learned… as ‘Obvious’ becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe”
• Psychology is engineering in reverse. In order to figure out our specialized information processing tool, we can use psychology to search for what the brain was designed to do. It is the hunt for universal inherited characteristics of the Homo Saipan.
• Ideas are gifts, communication is giving, the speaker is the sender, the audience is the recipient, knowing is having.
• Science and morality are separate spheres of reasoning. Only be recognizing them as separate can we have them both.
• Step outside your mind for a moment and see your thoughts and feelings as the magnificent contrivance of the mental world rather than as the only way that things could be.
• Why us? What makes it so that the Homo developed the unique capacities we now pride ourselves for.
1.Visual animal
2.Group living
3. The Hand.

• “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, outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people.”

• Each of our mental modules solves its unsolvable problem by a leap of faith about how the world works, by making assumptions that are indispensable but indefensible- the only defense being that the assumptions worked well enough in the world of our ancestors.
• There’s nothing common about common sense. No database could install the facts we tacitly know, and no one ever thought them to us.
• Human evolution is the original revenge of the nerds.
• ‘Cognitive niche’: Using knowledge of how things work to attain goals in the face of obstacles.
• The mind is what the brain does.

• The mind was ‘designed’ to attain the maximum number of copies of the gene that created it. Only replicators whose effects tend to enhance the probability of their own replication come to predominate.
• Two important theories to consider when thinking about how the mind works:
The theory of natural selection of replicators:
The only evolutionary forces that ‘designs’ organs that accomplish improbable but adaptive outcomes.
The world is finite, so the replicators will compete for its resources.
Computational theory of the mind:
Beliefs and desires are information, incarnated as configurations of symbols.
Beliefs are inscriptions in memory, desires are goal inscriptions, thinking is computation, perceptions are inscriptions triggered by sensors, trying is executing operations triggered by a goal.

• “Mental Organ”: It is clear the mind is structured heterogeneously with many specialized parts.
• Free will is an idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable.
• Intelligence, as used in a majority of the text, is the ability to attain goals in the face of an obstacle by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules.
• The concept of the individual is the fundamental particle of our faculties of social reasoning.
• Life is a densely branching bush, NOT a scale or ladder, and living organisms are at the tips of the branches, not on lower rungs.
• Evolution is about ends, not means; becoming smart is just one option.
• Human brains evolved by one set of laws, those of natural selection and genetics, and now interact with one another according to other sets of laws, those of cognitive and social psychology, human ecology, and history.
• Consciousness has various forms. We can have self-knowledge, access to information, and then there’s the big mystery of sentience.
Access to information consciousness is a mere problem, not a mystery. Therefore, one day we will understand our minds ‘consciousness’ however, the answer may not be as satisficing as sentient experience makes its self out to be.
• Learning is often described as the indispensable shaper of amorphous brain tissue. Instead, it might be an innate adaption to the project scheduling demands of the self-assembling animal.

If you liked what you saw. Here are 3 titles that I recommend based on what was discussed in How the Mind Works.

  1. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
  2. The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition by Richard Dawkins
  3. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Find the book on Amazon: Print | Audio

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