A Conversation with Prof. Steven Pinker

A Conversation with Steven Pinker

It’s difficult for us (now) to grasp the significance of the enlightenment, as an intellectual movement. If human history were a physical object- say a long piece of timber- it would be a tiny slice at the end which represents the birth of the age of reason to the present day; a period which emphasised reason over superstition, science over blind faith and valued the principles of what we now call humanism.

The enlightenment gave us the foundations for scientific endeavour- and as Steven Pinker says, ‘the Scientific Revolution was revolutionary in a way that is hard to appreciate today…’ – he goes on to describe how an educated Englishman in 1600 would most likely have believed that witches can summon storms… that Circe really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs… that rainbows are signs from God and that the earth stands still and the sun, and stars, turn around the earth every 24 hours. These were the modes of thinking ingrained into humanity- and a move towards science, scepticism, fallibilism, open debate and empiricism were radical.

Steven Pinker (Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard) is a remarkable thinker. He is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his nine books, including The Language InstinctHow the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Natureand The Sense of Style. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’sWorld’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”

In this exclusive interview, I speak to Steven Pinker about the ideas contained within his most recent book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progresswhich has been described by Bill Gates as ‘my new favourite book of all time…

Q:  What is enlightenment thinking, and when did it emerge?

[Steven Pinker]:  The Enlightenment was not a creed with an official doctrine.  When I refer to Enlightenment ideas, I am speaking of the quartet of ideas in the subtitle of my book: reason, science, humanism and progress.  Not all Enlightenment thinkers endorsed all of those ideas, and they weren’t conceived from nothing.  There were antecedents in Ancient Greek thinking and they can be seen sporadically through the history of the East and West.  But they came together in the second half of the 18th century, so “Enlightenment” ideals seemed the best label. I could also have referred to them as “secular humanism” or “liberal cosmopolitanism.”

Reason is the ideal that we ought to guide our beliefs and values by the application of reason rather than, say, scripture, dogma, charisma, authority or traditionScience is the application of reason to the understanding of the physical world,  and it’s  driven by the view that our ideas should be testable and calibrated by observations of the world.  Humanism is the moral stance that the ultimate good is the wellbeing of humans and other conscious beings as opposed to the glory of the tribe, faith, race, or clan, or the propagation of some mystical quest, dialectic, or struggle.  Progress is the idea that if we apply reason to the goal of making humans better off, we can gradually succeed – that is, if we try out ideas for improving our wellbeing, keep the ones that work, and discard the ones that don’t,  we can indeed, make ourselves better off.

Q:  Why do we see societal pushback against enlightenment thinking?

[Steven Pinker]:  There has never been a time at which Enlightenment values predominated in any culture.  They have always faced pushback from forces that are embedded in human nature – tribalism, deference to authority, magical thinking, vulnerability to cognitive illusions and biases. Indeed, no sooner did the Enlightenment emerge than it was faced with a Counter-Enlightenment of romantic, nationalistic and heroic movements.  Today we’re seeing a recrudescence of those counter-enlightenment themes in authoritarianism, populism and nationalism.

The very idea that – say – Make America Great Again – should be our guiding creed captures almost all the counter-enlightenment themes..  It idealises the greatness of a nation as the ultimate good, as opposed to making all people healthier, safer, happier, richer and better educated.  Rather than looking ahead to the progress that can be made, it looks back to a hypothetical golden-age to which we must return.

Q:  How can we find meaning in our lives and a basis for morality?

[Steven Pinker]: In answering the question Which principles make an act moral or immoral, we find morality ultimately hinges on some notion of impartiality.  I cannot argue that my own interests are special simply because I’m me and you’re not and expect that you will take me seriously.  Now, if I were Galactic Overlord with unlimited power, and never had to enter into discourse with any other being, then perhaps I could maintain that only my interests mattered,  but all of us,  in reality, depend on the actions of others, and we articulate our own interests by making arguments to others. And in doing so, the nature of logic forces us to cede our own pre-eminence, because there is nothing in the pronoun ‘you’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ which confers some special status. Morality also hinges on the fact that there are countless ways in which people acting for mutual benefit leave everyone better off than if everyone narrowly seeks their own self-interest.  I’m selfishly better off if I live in a world in which neither you nor I gets to kill, beat or rape anyone. Sure, an individual might enjoy a temporary advantage of exploiting someone else, but they would suffer the greater cost of being exploited too.  In a mild paradox explained by game theory it’s often better to cede dominance and authority and live under a social contract which grants everyone the legitimacy of their interests. This impartiality can be fleshed out in different ways: in Kant’s Categorical Imperative; through the utilitarian dictum that we ought to seek the greatest good for the greatest number; in  what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere,” derived from Spinoza’s viewpoint of eternity.’ These are all ways of getting outside ourselves and adopting a viewpoint in which none of our interests are privileged.

Our capacity to reason is recursive, combinatorial – we can reason about our reason – we can argue, criticise and develop tools that enhance our reason thanks to language and communication. We have the power to build on our reason, to enhance it.  We also have the power to expand our circle of sympathy beyond the puny parochialism that natural selection left us with, where we feel the pain only of our kin and allies and juvenile faces and cute furry animals. Our psychology is open-ended:  we can plug in variables, and are not just tied to constants.  We can expand our circle of sympathy – we can employ  the logic of impartiality, and the emotional prompts of human contact and vicarious experience, and expand our fellow-feeling from our family to our clan, our nation, tribe, and from there to all of humanity and even other sentient beings…

Q: Why are we phobic about progress?

[Steven Pinker]:  A number of cognitive and social forces that make us collectively pessimistic. People tend to have a sanguine view of their own fortunes, while at the same time having a melancholy view of entire communities and nations: personal optimism, and collective pessimism. One reason for the disparity is the Availability Bias – we assess risk, probability and danger by available images and anecdotes in memory.  We’re not wired to appreciate data and statistics as for most of our history, they didn’t exist.

Combine this bias with the news cycle, which is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen – and the fact that it’s much easier for sudden events to be bad than good.  Good things build up a few percentage points at a time and compound, like growth, prosperity, literacy, longevity and peace – but they don’t tend to erupt on a particular Thursday in October.  Our news outlets could report the fact that 137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday, every day for the past 30 years – but they never ran that headline, with the result that over a billion people escaped poverty and nobody knows about it.

In stark contrast, it’s easy for something bad to happen quickly.  That barely seems worth mentioning in an age where a pandemic took over the world in weeks – but that’s also true of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, economic depressions, and the outbreak of war.  And there’s another factor that pushes toward collective pessimism.  Professional critics,  particularly intellectuals, criticise the present as a backhanded way of putting down their rivals, the people who are in charge of running society. As Hobbes put it, there is a universal reverence of antiquity because men contend with the living, not with the dead.

Q: Why are we seeing a pushback against science?

[Steven Pinker]:  The cynical answer is that most social critics and commentators are not scientists and are threatened by science in the same way that a rival clan, or tribe would threaten them. You see this play out in universities, where there is resentment and jealousy over the pre-eminence of science in attracting students and funding. At the same time, it’s important to remember that despite the hostility to science- not least by our American political leadership at this moment- people do hold scientists in high esteem. They are among the most respected professions, far higher than politicians and journalists.

Negativity bias is also important.  It is the phenomenon by which negative events tend to have a greater psychological impact than positive ones. When many people think of science, they think of threats such as pollution, nuclear war, side-effects from drugs, but take for granted the discoveries science has made that have vastly improved our lives: public health, vaccination, mobility, the internet. Even now, during this pandemic, science and technology offer our greatest hope at minimising human damage. They have provided the means for us to connect, to have virtual meetings, seminars, classrooms and socialising. Imagine if the pandemic had erupted 25 years ago, before these platforms and high-speed connectivity existed. Life would have been far lonelier and more miserable.

Q:  How should we best understand information, as it relates to humanity?

[Steven Pinker]:  An appreciation of entropy is necessary to grasp that we are not entitled to wellbeing, progress, comfort, or health.  The forces of the universe are- at best, indifferent- at worse, antipathetic- to our interests.  Left to their own devices, things get worse

The extent to which we are fed, comfortable, and long-lived  is a gift largely, of knowledge and energy which- under the guidance of knowledge- allows us to rearrange the world around us in such a way that it works to our advantage rather than falling into disorder.

Knowledge isn’t always used to make people better off, of course. It can be used to make more lethal weaponry and more effective militia and armies – so we must couple knowledge with humanism, with universal sympathy, for it to be a force for good. Without knowledge, however, all the sympathy in the world would be impotent – they must exist together.

Q:  What are your hopes, and fears, for the future?

[Steven Pinker]:  Like many people, I am concerned about the climate.  We can see the potential for harm unfolding- and we know that under our current plans, aspects of life on Earth will get worse. There is hope in the ideas we have to mitigate this harm, and there are roads to dealing with climate change, but we don’t yet know whether they will be taken. Disease is also a constant threat to us, as it is to any organism. Our experience with Coronavirus will be a learning experience- we will no longer be able to write-off the threat of a pandemic as something entirely hypothetical. I also worry about authoritarianism, nationalism and populism, the counter-enlightenment forces that could push back against the trends that have made us better off. Today, we also have the low-probability but high-damage scenario of nuclear war.  It’s unlikely we’ll fall into one, but as long as the probability is non-negligable, it’s something to worry about.

On the positive side, over the past 75 years we’ve built global institutions, devalued national glory, and de-legitimised war.  We have made significant advances in our scientific understanding that has led to more effective medicines, better public health and even the potential for artificial intelligence to reduce meaningless causes of death such as automobile accidents. We are seeing an overall movement towards the universal consideration of human dignity – and even with the setbacks we may see – I think there’s cause for optimism.

View Interviewee Biography

Steven Pinker was born in 1954 in the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal, Canada. He earned a bachelor’s degree in experimental psychology at McGill University and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976, where he has spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT. He earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1979, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, a one-year stint as an assistant professor at Harvard, and in 1982, a move back to MIT that lasted until 2003, when he returned to Harvard. Currently he is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology. He also has spent two years in California: in 1981-82, when he was an assistant professor at Stanford, and in 1995-96, when he spent a sabbatical year at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Pinker is an experimental psychologist who is interested in all aspects of language and mind. His doctoral dissertation and much of his early research focused on visual cognition, the ability to imagine shapes, recognize faces and objects, and direct attention within the visual field. But beginning in graduate school he cultivated an interest in language, particularly language development in children, and this topic eventually took over his research activities. In addition to his experimental papers, he wrote two technical books early in his career. One presented a comprehensive theory of how children acquire the words and grammatical structures of their mother tongue. The second focused on the meaning, syntax, and acquisition of verbs, and what they reveal about the mental representation of reality. For the next two decades his research focused on the distinction between irregular verbs like bring-brought and regular verbs like walk-walked. The two kinds of verbs, he showed, embody the two cognitive processes that make language possible: looking up words in memory, and combining words (or parts of words) according to combinatorial rules. He has also published several studies of the genetics and neurobiology of language. Most recently, his research has begun to investigate the psychology of common knowledge (I know that you know that I know that you know…) and how it illuminates phenomena such as innuendo, euphemism, social coordination, and emotional expression.

In 1994 he published the first of eight books written for a general audience. The Language Instinct was an introduction to all aspects of language, held together by the idea that language is a biological adaptation. This was followed in 1997 by How the Mind Works, which offered a similar synthesis of the rest of the mind, from vision and reasoning to the emotions, humor, and art. In 1999 he published Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language which presented his research on regular and irregular verbs as a way of explaining how language works. In 2002 he published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which explored the political, moral, and emotional colorings of the concept of human nature. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Naturepublished in 2007, discussed the ways in which language reveals our thoughts, emotions, and social relationships. In 2011 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThis was followed in 2014 by The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.  His most recent book, published in 2017, is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and ProgressA collection of his academic articles called Language, Cognition, and Human Nature was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. Pinker frequently writes for The New York Times, The Guardian, Time, The Atlantic, and other magazines on diverse topics including language, consciousness, education, morality, politics, genetics, bioethics, and trends in violence.

Pinker is the Chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary and has served as editor or advisor for numerous scientific, scholarly, media, and humanist organizations, including the American Association the Advancement of Science, the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the Linguistic Society of America. He has won many prizes for his books (including the William James Book Prize three times, the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, the Eleanor Maccoby Book Prize, the Cundill Recognition of Excellence in History Award, and the Plain English International Award), his research (including the Troland Research Prize from the National Academy of Sciences, the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, the Henry Dale Prize from the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the William James Award from the Association for Psychological Science), and his graduate and undergraduate teaching. He has also been named the Humanist of the Year, Honorary President of the Canadian Psychological Association, Time magazine’s Hundred Most Influential People in the World Today, Foreign Policy‘s 100 Global Thinkers, and the recipient of eight honorary doctorates.

Pinker lives in Boston and in Truro with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The other writers in the family are his stepdaughters Yael Goldstein Love and Danielle Blau, his sister Susan Pinker, and his nephew Eric Boodman.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas S. Shah MBE is an award winning entrepreneur, strategist and educator who has built businesses in diverse sectors around the world for almost 20 years. He is also a consultant and advisor to numerous entrepreneurs, business and organisations globally.

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