Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

How do you make sense of the unknown?

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Steven Pinker starts by asserting that using the word God or faith for that which you don't know is a cop out. He goes on to describe what he sees as humankind's purpose.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”


Question: How do you make sense of the unknown?

Steven Pinker: I think that using the word God or the attitude of faith toward that which you don’t know is a copout. It’s a way of slapping a label on something rather than trying to understand it. Or since we may not understand everything, just say there are some things we don’t understand. To invent stories that sound as if they were true or could be true, to pretend that they’re true just so that we can have a story I think is unsatisfying, and it could even be immoral because it could lead you to mistaken policies to getting in the way of your best understanding of how the world works, to doing things that lead to more harm than good. A concrete example would be treating a cancer with some cockamamie herbal or homeopathic formula instead of the best medicine that we have. Or justifying invasions, and murders, and sacrifices on the grounds of appeasing some god or carrying out some divine mandate. There’s nothing but mischief that can come from inventing stories for that which we don’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with saying there are some things we don’t understand. There are some questions that may not have answers because they are bad questions. A question like, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” It may just be a stupid question. The question of why am I here, why was I put here, what is my greater purpose, might be like that. Given that I am here, I do think that I have an ethical imperative to be good to other people, to put my life to some purpose that I can define like understanding the world better, helping other people, taking the best advantage of the gifts that I find myself with; but some cosmic reason as to “why me” seems to me a kind of arrogance or egotism. Why should the cosmos care about me? That’s seems to be the height of grandiosity to think that it would. One of the things that I think science show us is that the idea that there’s some purpose to the universe is one that we should outgrow. There’s a purpose to each one of our lives, and we can articulate what that purpose is and why we have it; but why humans emerged on earth, why there is a planet earth, why the universe does what it does, we’ve got to outgrow these questions. It is very clear that there is no purpose in that sense. The fact that the sun will expand and consume the entire earth; that the universe might blow apart; that 99 percent of species go extinct and it would be sort of arrogant to say that homosapiens would be the only one that doesn’t; the fact that the earth is one out of presumably thousands, and millions, and billions of planets that could support life – that there’s nothing distinguished about our solar system. All of those realizations say that the idea that we were put here for some purpose is a kind of medieval ignorance and arrogance. That doesn’t mean that we humans, with the brains that we have, with our understanding of what we value and don’t, don’t have a purpose. And in many ways there is a kind of fulfillment of human purposes that has gone on through history owing to the cumulative efforts of humans to make something of their lot to achieve something worth while. We know more. It’s astonishing how much we do know. There’s lots we don’t know, but the fact that we know the genetic code of life; that we know how old the universe is; that we know how the earth was formed; that we know the basic constituents of chemistry, this is mind boggling stuff. People in the 17th century would have given up anything for a glimpse of what we know today. That’s something to be . . . to celebrate. The fact that we’ve gotten less violent over time. We no longer have human sacrifices. We’ve outlawed slavery in most of the world. We no longer have capital punishment for trivial crimes and misdemeanors. We don’t have routine torture, burning at the stake, disemboweling, crucifixion. The number of wars has gone down in the last 50 years. By many measures we’ve become a less violent species; not because there is some force in the universe pushing us in that direction, but I think because we recognize the futility and the undesirability of violence. And we tinker in various ways to reduce them. And in some degree slowly, incrementally we’ve succeeded. It’s hard to know what the obstacles are. There are certain features in human nature. People, I think, are left to their own devices, tribal. People left to their own devices are dogmatic. They’d rather their truth be imposed than challenged. They are, I think, by nature self-deceived. It’s painful to work your way out of those alter human traits, and it’s a constant battle. To live in a modern society is to be criticized; to be refuted; to be hemmed in by rules that you wish wouldn’t apply to you; to have to state your case; to constantly justify what you do. You take a historian of ideas that is wiser than he to diagnose how the west managed to do it in a way that could apply to other cultures. How modernization took place. Part of it might be technological. The spread originally of the printing press and affordable books. But we live in an age today where we have even better media like the Internet, and that isn’t the magic wand that brings the entire world into the enlightenment. How those attitudes change is, I think, an important and unsolved puzzle.

Recorded On: 6/13/07