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: Do you have a personal philosophy?
Steven Pinker: I think my own personal philosophy – one that I think offers a sounder basis for knowledge and wisdom than religion – is based on reason. Now as soon as soon as we’re having this conversation, as long as we are trying to persuade one another of why you should do something or should believe something, you are already committed to reason. We are not engaged in a fistfight. We’re not bribing each other to believe something. We’re trying to provide reasons. We’re trying to persuade, to convince. As long as you’re doing that in the place first place, you’re not hitting someone with a chair, or putting a gun to their head, or bribing them to believe something. You’ve lost any argument you have against reason. You’ve already signed on to reason whether you like it or not. So the fact that we’re having this conversation shows that we are committed to reason. That is the starting point. And from reason many other things follow. I think science is just the application of reason to the natural world. There’s no such thing as the scientific method in the sense of a recipe or a formula, because techniques in science are always changing to handle the problems in front of us. Science is really an attempt to explain things, to answer the question of why it’s the way it is as opposed to some other way it could have been. And it’s an attempt to do your darndest to figure out the things that you believe are true. It’s the application of reason in the most purified and concentrated form, in a way that I think is continuous with philosophy, with law, with political organization if it’s done right. And I think it also provides much of the grounding for ethics and morality. At heart, morality is treating other people the way one would want to be treated oneself; and some version of that, of interchangeability of perspectives. It’s the fact that I’m not the only entity in the universe, and I have no grounds for privileging my interests over yours. That’s really what most or all moral systems ultimately boil down to. And again, as long as I’m talking to someone, as long as I am providing reasons, I can’t say that I am a unique, privileged person and hope for you to take me seriously. Why should you? You’re you, I’m me. Anything that I come up with as a code of behavior … any reason that I give you for how you should behave has to apply to me in order for me not to be a hypocrite or to contradict myself. And once you do that, then I think much or all of morality follows. And I think that the alternative that many people appeal to, mainly faith, is … immediately refutes itself. Faith means believing something with no good reason to do it. Once you’re talking to someone about what they … what is good to do, what they ought to do, or what they have reasons to do, you cannot appeal to faith. You’re committed to reason. For me the biggest issue facing the world – at least in the human realm, sociopolitical realm – is how to get the ideas that I think have worked for us. Basically the ideas of enlightenment, of democracy, of science, of skepticism, of reason, of rationality, of humanitarianism, how to get the rest of the world to capitalize on that trend that we enjoyed for so long. It didn’t come easy to us. It doesn’t mean that we’re superior in any cosmic sense, but we have hit on a way of living that is better to the alternatives; that is classic, liberal democracy informed by science and reason. There are large chunks of the world that haven’t got there yet. They could do a lot of damage until they have their secular enlightenment. I have no solution as to how to make … how to speed that up. Clearly sending armies in and imposing it by force hasn’t worked too well. It’s unclear to me what will work well, but I wish we knew. If the United States has some role in spreading the values that we associate with the enlightenment – like tolerance, and reason, and skepticism and so on – then it clearly can’t hold itself as a … as exceptional. It can’t say that there’s something uniquely special about the United States because it’s the United States and … anyone else to take that seriously. In doing so, that would be immediately contradicting the very idea that it would be nice to spread – namely that no entity is special by virtue of being that entity. It’s got to make its case to other entities that … are considered to be equal partners in the conversation. So while I think it’s okay to say for the United States and other liberal democracies to say, “We found a system that works. Here’s why it works. Here’s what’s good about it,” they can’t do it by virtue … by saying, “We’re going to impose it because we’re us and we can do that.” Those two ideas are in contradiction. The whole advantage of liberal democracy is that you make your case not because of who you are, but because you’ve got a good case and you can persuade others. And you don’t privilege your own vantage point over theirs.
Recorded On: 6/13/07