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How the Mind Works How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker
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How the Mind Works Quotes Showing 1-30 of 56
“Just as blueprints don't necessarily specify blue buildings, selfish genes don't necessarily specify selfish organisms. As we shall see, sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is build a selfless brain. Genes are a play within a play, not the interior monologue of the players.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“The supposedly immaterial soul, we now know, can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, started or stopped by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or by insufficient oxygen.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Why give a robot an order to obey orders—why aren't the original orders enough? Why command a robot not to do harm—wouldn't it be easier never to command it to do harm in the first place? Does the universe contain a mysterious force pulling entities toward malevolence, so that a positronic brain must be programmed to withstand it? Do intelligent beings inevitably develop an attitude problem? (…) Now that computers really have become smarter and more powerful, the anxiety has waned. Today's ubiquitous, networked computers have an unprecedented ability to do mischief should they ever go to the bad. But the only mayhem comes from unpredictable chaos or from human malice in the form of viruses. We no longer worry about electronic serial killers or subversive silicon cabals because we are beginning to appreciate that malevolence—like vision, motor coordination, and common sense—does not come free with computation but has to be programmed in. (…) Aggression, like every other part of human behavior we take for granted, is a challenging engineering problem!”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Some people think that evolutionary psychology claims to have discovered that human nature is selfish and wicked. But they are flattering the researchers and anyone who would claim to have discovered the opposite. No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it's all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Thinking is computation, I claim, but that does not mean that the computer is a good metaphor for the mind. The mind is a set of modules, but the modules are not encapsulated boxes or circumscribed swatches on the surface of the brain. The organization of our mental modules comes from our genetic program, but that does not mean that there is a gene for every trait or that learning is less important than we used to think. The mind is an adaptation designed by natural selection, but that does not mean that everything we think, feel, and do is biologically adaptive. We evolved from apes, but that does not mean we have the same minds as apes. And the ultimate goal of natural selection is to propagate genes, but that does not mean that the ultimate goal of people is to propagate genes.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“the mind is a neural computer”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Trivers, pursuing his theory of the emotions to its logical conclusion, notes that in a world of walking lie detectors the best strategy is to believe your own lies. You can’t leak your hidden intentions if you don’t think they are your intentions. According to his theory of self-deception, the conscious mind sometimes hides the truth from itself the better to hide it from others. But the truth is useful, so it should be registered somewhere in the mind, walled off from the parts that interact with other people.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“The typical imperative from biology is not "Thou shalt... ," but "If ... then ... else.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard. Obviously, it did not seem so to Freud, who wrote that as a boy he once had an erotic reaction to watching his mother dressing. But Freud had a wet-nurse, and may not have experienced the early intimacy that would have tipped off his perceptual system that Mrs. Freud was his mother. The Westermarck theory has out-Freuded Freud.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Evolutionarily speaking, there is seldom any mystery in why we seek the goals we seek — why, for example, people would rather make love with an attractive partner than get a slap on the belly with a wet fish.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Solving a problem in a hundred years is, practically speaking, the same as not solving it at all.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Many textbooks point out that no animal has evolved wheels and cite the fact as an example of how evolution is often incapable of finding the optimal solution to an engineering problem. But it is not a good example at all. Even if nature could have evolved a moose on wheels, it surely would have opted not to. Wheels are good only in a world with roads and rails. They bog down in any terrain that is soft, slippery, steep, or uneven. Legs are better. Wheels have to roll along an unbroken supporting ridge, but legs can be placed on a series of separate footholds, an extreme example being a ladder. Legs can also be placed to minimize lurching and to step over obstacles. Even today, when it seems as if the world has become a parking lot, only about half of the earth's land is accessible to vehicles with wheels or tracks, but most of the earth's land is accessible to vehicles with feet: animals, the vehicles designed by natural selection.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“At first happiness might seem like just desserts for biological fitness (more accurately, the states that would have led to fitness in the environment in which we evolved). We are happier when we are healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved. Compared to their opposites, these objects of striving are conducive to reproduction. The function of happiness would be to mobilize the mind to seek the keys to Darwinian fitness. When we are unhappy, we work for the things that make us happy; when we are happy, we keep the status quo. The problem is, how much fitness is worth striving for?”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“At every moment we choose, consciously or unconsciously, between good things now and better things later.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Plato said that we are trapped inside a cave and know the world only through the shadows it casts on the wall. The skull is our cave, and mental representations are the shadows.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“In fact, without a specification of a creature's goals, the very idea of intelligence is meaningless. A toadstool could be given a genius award for accomplishing with pinpoint precision and unerring reliability, the feat of sitting exactly where it is sitting. Nothing would prevent us from agreeing with the cognitive scientist Zenon Pylyshyn that rocks are smarter than cats because rocks have the sense to go away when you kick them.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Contrary to popular belief, the gene-centered theory of evolution does not imply that the point of all human striving is to spread our genes.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“The stuff of life turned out to be not a quivering, glowing, wondrous gel but a contraption of tiny jigs, springs, hinges, rods, sheets, magnets, zippers, and trapdoors, assembled by a data tape whose information is copied, downloaded and scanned.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“It looks as if the offspring have eyes so that they can see well (bad, teleological, backward causation), but that's an illusion. The offspring have eyes because their parents' eyes did see well (good, ordinary, forward causation).”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“The task of evolutionary psychology is not to weigh in on human nature, a task better left to others. It is to add the satisfying kind of insight that only science can provide: to connect what we know about human nature with the rest of our knowledge of how the world works, and to explain the largest number of facts with the smallest number of assumptions.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“A...reason we are so-so scientists is that our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Language-lovers know that there is a word for every fear. Are you afraid of wine? Then you have oenophobia. Tremulous about train travel? You suffer from siderodromophobia. Having misgivings about your mother-in-law is pentheraphobia, and being petrified of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth is arachibutyrophobia. And then there’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s affliction, the fear of fear itself, or phobophobia.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Computation has finally demystified mentalistic terms. 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.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“Trend-setters are members of upper classes who adopt the styles of lower classes to differentiate themselves from middle classes, who wouldn’t be caught dead in lower-class styles because they’re the ones in danger of being mistaken for them.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“No society can be simultaneously fair, free, and equal. If it is fair, people who work harder can accumulate more. If it is free, people will give their wealth to their children. But then it cannot be equal, for some people will inherit wealth they did not earn.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“The unstated premise that nature is nice lies behind many of the objections to the Darwinian theory of human sexuality. Carefree sex is natural and good, it is assumed, so if someone claims that men want it more than women do, it would imply that men are mentally healthy and women neurotic and repressed. That conclusion is unacceptable, so the claim that men want carefree sex more than women do cannot be correct. Similarly, sexual desire is good, so if men rape for sex (rather than to express anger towards women), rape would not be as evil. Rape is evil; therefore the claim that men rape for sex cannot be correct. More generally, what people instinctively like is good, so if people like beauty, beauty would be a sign of worth. Beauty is not a sign of worth, so the claim that people like beauty cannot be correct.

These kinds of arguments combine bad biology (nature is nice), bad psychology (the mind is created by society), and bad ethics (what people like is good). Feminism would lose nothing by giving them up.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“The mind is not designed to grasp the laws of probability, even though the laws rule the universe.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“We should expose whatever ends are harmful and whatever ideas are false, and not confuse the two.”
steven pinker, How the Mind Works
“O auto-engano é talvez o mais cruel de todos os motivos, pois faz com que nos julguemos corretos quando estamos errados e nos encoraja a lutar quando deveríamos nos render. Nos desenhos animados e filmes, os vilões são degenerados que enrolam os bigodes e dão gargalhadas de júbilo pela própria maldade. Na vida real, os vilões estão convencidos de sua integridade.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
“You know that when Irving puts the dog in the car, it is no longer in the yard. When Edna goes to church, her head goes with her. If Doug is in the house, he must have gone through some opening unless he was born there and never left. If Sheila is alive at 9 A.M. and is alive at 5 P.M., she was also alive at noon. Zebras in the wild never wear underwear. Opening a jar of a new brand of peanut butter will not vaporize the house. People never shove meat thermometers in their ears. A gerbil is smaller than Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works

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