Amber Hager

Liz Beck

Erica Olsen

Psyc 452


Pinker, S. R. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York: Viking


Chapter 10, The Fear of Determinism.


            The question of what really controls our behavior is something that scientists continue to try to uncover.  If one uses the theory of the ghost in the machine, then it is a self or a soul that we have inside of us that decides how we will behave in certain situations.  From a biological standpoint, behavior is caused by physiological activity that is automatic and a consequence of our genetic make-up, not a choice (Pinker, 174).  These two views are very different and raise different philosophical and psychological questions. 

Pinker suggests that there are two types of fears relating to determinism.  The first of these is a “gaping existential anxiety: that deep down we are not in control of our own choices” (174).  This means that our brains or our genes decide everything we will do in life. There would be no need for morality or knowing right from wrong because there would be no conscious choice.  Yet, with much study of the brain we know that making a decision involves neural processes that allow us to choose behaviors according to the information we receive from our senses and our ability to predict future consequences.  This means that not all of our behavior could be predetermined if we use incoming information from our senses.  The second fear of determinism is the fear “that an understanding of human nature [eats] away at the notion of personal responsibility” or the possibility of free will (175).  With the ghost in the machine theory, the soul or the self would take responsibility if an action or decision went sour.  This is not possible with the biological theory because one could not hold an individual responsible for a behavior that was caused by their genes or evolutionary history, since they have no control over such things in the first place.  Pinker explains this sense of responsibility by saying,

“We blame people for an evil act or bad decision only when they intended the consequences and could have chosen otherwise.  We don’t convict a hunter who shoots a friend he has mistaken for a deer or the chauffer who drove John F. Kennedy into the line of fire, because they could not foresee and did not intend the outcome of their actions…We don’t put a small child on trial if he causes a death, nor do we try an animal or an inanimate object, because we believe them to be constitutionally incapable of making an informed choice” (175).

Taking a biological perspective on human nature suggests that no one may be held accountable for their actions because blame cannot be based on the genes that were uncontrollably given.  No person has control over how they will be formed in the womb, so if a malfunction in the brain causes someone to act violently one cannot say that they are responsible since they did not have control over their body in the first place.  The excuses in school will change from the dog ate my homework to “the genes at my homework” (176).

            Relying on free will to support the idea that we all still have a personal responsibility in regards to one’s actions will not be useful because free will implies that we can do whatever we want no matter if it was the responsible thing to do or not.  Pinker says that if humans really had free will then there would be no need for punishment, no one would feel guilty for their actions, and no legal or moral code would work because people would be free to do anything (177).  We know though that humans are affected by punishment and how others view them, which means that we are not truly free since we factor these things into our decisions.  Therefore science may be revealing that free will does not really exist.  Pinker used a philosophical quote from Hume to express what might be the true nature of responsibility: “Either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them” (178).

            Much attention has been directed to the fears surrounding biological determinism when really it is environmental determinism that seems to be creating most of the “bad behavior.”  It has become popular to blame our actions on media violence, black rage, or a poor childhood.  Environmental determinism seems to shift the idea away from something being wrong with the body to something being wrong with society.  Pinker says, “If you try to explain an act as an effect of some cause, the explainer is saying that the act was not freely chosen and that the actor cannot be held responsible” (179).  Hence, if someone behaved badly due to being abused as a child, they cannot be held responsible for their behavior.

            There has been great confusion in understanding the difference between explaining and excusing behavior.  Biological and environmental theories try to explain the causes of behaviors not praise the behaver.  If behavior is random then the person is not responsible, but if the behavior is not random then there must be some explanation for it.  The question Pinker addresses is how behavior can have both explanation (cause) and responsibility (free will)?  Before this question can be answered though one must understand the function of responsibility, which is “deterring harmful behavior” (180).  We hold others responsible in an attempt to prevent similar crimes in the future.  The need to punish those who do wrongful acts may stem from a need to retaliate or get even and not directly from wanting to prevent future crime.  The criminal penal system today works because every wrongdoer is punished on a matter of principle to uphold justice regardless of the immediate satisfaction or effects.  Pinker gave an example of someone on death row committing suicide, “If a death-row inmate attempts suicide, we speed him to the emergency ward, struggle to resuscitate him, give him the best modern medicine to help him recuperate, and kill him.  We do it as part of a policy that closes off all possibilities to “cheat justice” (181).  Deterrence has led to the “evolution of emotions that desire justice” (182).  Those people who are more willing to even the score when someone has harmed them, will be exploited less often.

            Pinker suggests that the paradox of deterrence needs to be evaluated, so that fewer innocent people are punished.  If someone has no idea they are causing harm then punishing them would not be productive because it will not prevent them from causing harm in the future since they were unaware of what they were doing in the beginning. Explaining behavior in terms of a biological theory can be a helpful tool in understanding the causes of some actions, yet it does not fully excuse everyone’s actions.  The brain is a very complex organ and even though one aspect may not be functioning properly, there is no explanation as to why other parts of the brain would not be activated to inhibit behaviors (183).

            Since the ghost in the machine does not exist, every act we perform comes from some cognitive or emotional system in the brain. In an attempt to make the issue of free will and responsibility less black and white it might be necessary to expand responsibility to a multilevel domain that “weights the benefits of deterring wrongdoing against the costs of inflicting harm” instead of saying there is either responsibility or there is not (185).



Pinker, S. R. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York: Viking


Chapter 11


            The last fear of looking at human nature from a biological perspective makes people question the meaning and purpose of life.  If everything we experience or feel are just biological events that occur in our bodies, then what is the reason for living?  Pinker wants to clarify two points: first that materialism does not mean amoral and second that religious explanations may not be the more humane option (187).

            This fear of nihilism has two versions, one religious and one secular.  According to the religious version, the Pope said that evolution probably took place, but it stops at the soul.  He said that the soul is created by God and thus could not evolve from living matter. The second version argues that it is possible that a moral sense evolved rather than just appeared.  Pinker notes that most children know what’s fair and how to share and most cultures know right from wrong and feel the need to help each other.  This suggests that a basic moral sense exists and we just expand upon it as we learn and grow (188).  Pinker reveals that just because something is tied to religion does not make it more humane.  Religion had to be passed down by word of mouth, so with each new generation there are slight variations in the stories.  Also, because some religious groups feel it is inhumane to do research on stem cells, new cures may be prevented from being discovered.  How is it more humane to just let people die from Alzheimer’s and not try to find a solution?  The last point Pinker makes, is that if the soul out lives the body then it devalues the life on earth, which is why attention is given to the afterlife or heaven.

            The secular version of why the biological theory takes meaning away from life is because it seems that biology belittles the values we believe in.  Pinker explained this by using the example of a parent who loves their child.  If we use the biological theory then love would simply be the release of neurotransmitters, which affects the way we care and protect our genes in our offspring.  Love loses it grandiose meaning and diminishes the value of being a parent with this thinking (190).  It would seem like evolutionary psychologists are “saying that we are all hypocrites, all the time” (190).  But many people do not understand that there is a difference between why the genes evolved and how they work for us now.  Pinker mentions Dawkins logic that our genes may have selfish motives metaphorically, but the organism itself has real motives.  Our genes could have selfishly wired in love for our children so that they (the genes) can survive, but today that unselfish wiring allows us to enjoy our children and care for them in more ways than just for survival (191).   The sensations we get from color, heights, sweetness, and disgusting things are “fancies of a nervous system that evolved to react to those objects in adaptive ways” (192).  This may also be the case for why we decide between right or wrong, important or unimportant.  Our brain has evolved to be able to think in certain ways, but it does not mean that the thoughts it has are not real. “Our perception of depth is the product of complicated circuitry in the brain…but that does not mean that there aren’t real trees and cliffs out there, or that the world is as flat as a pancake” (192).  This same abstraction can be carried into moral realism, which says, “right and wrong exist and have an inherent logic that licenses some moral arguments and not others” (192).  Morality not only allows us to decide between what is right and wrong for our own sake, but also what is acceptable and unacceptable in society.  Everyone seems to have evolved this “gut feeling” when they know something is not right.   Some may have a better intuitive ability than others, but we all have it nonetheless.  So we may never know what someone else’s experience of love or sadness is like or even if it exists outside of our brain, but that does not mean that those experiences cannot exist at all.

            Pinker is making the argument that the biological science of human nature is not trying to take away human values, but rather make them stronger.  He discussed both the fear of determinism and the fear of nihilism to show that these things are not bad ideas in themselves, but that we should not “say that people are responsible for their actions only because the causes of those actions are mysterious… [nor should we] say that our motives are meaningful in a personal sense only because they are inexplicable in a biological sense” (193).


Pinker, S. R. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York: Viking


Outline Chapter 10


I. What controls our behavior?

A.     Traditional theory-ghost in the machine

B.     Biological theory


II. Two types of fears relating to determinism

A.     Existential anxiety

            1.We are not in control of our choices

            2.Our brains already make our choices

B.     Loss of personal responsibility

1.Traditional vs. Biological theories

2.Explanation of why people may be blameless


III. Freewill cannot support notion of responsibility

            A. Do we have complete freewill or are we affected by external stimuli?


IV. Where does bad behavior stem from?

A.     Environmental determinism

1.It is society that is influencing our behavior not our genes


V. Explaining vs. Excusing Behavior

A.     Function of responsibility

B.     Where does the need for punishment comes from?

1.Explaining behavior is a tool, but not a defense against acting wrongly


Pinker, S. R. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York: Viking


Outline Chapter 11


I. Final fear of biological explanation of human nature

A.     Fear of Nihilism

1.What is the meaning and purpose of life?


II. Two versions of this fear

A.     Religious

1.Evolution stops with the soul

2.Religious explanation does not make human nature appear more humane

B.     Secular

1.Biology belittles the values we believe in

2.Difference between why genes evolved and how they work for us today (selfish gene theory)

3.Morality may have evolved (moral realism)




Critical Review


Interesting Points and Agreements

1)  By holding people accountable for their actions, you deter them from repeating offensives in the future.

2)  The fear that the there is only a biological explanation for the mind, which would take away responsibility, meaning and purpose from our lives.

3)  From psychology, we have learned that parts of our experiences may just be artifacts of how information is processed in our brains.



1)  Do we really only blame people that intended to cause harm?

2)  Has morality really evolved or has societal values just changed?

3)  Having a soul that outlives the body devalues the life we live while on earth.