Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

Where are we?

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Steven Pinker see our greatest challenges as overcoming the obstacles to secular enlightenment in many parts of the world.

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: What are the greatest challenges we face?

Steven Pinker: 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. 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. Probably knowing that each of us is a fallible and partly self-deluded agent. If I had to put my finger on anything, that is the beginning of wisdom and enlightenment; that as right as I think I am – and like most humans I think I’m right all of the time – I have to step outside myself and realize, “Well no. Probably some percentage of the time I’m wrong and that other people are right.” Both me as an individual, and my family, and my society, and this point in history that there’s always something to learn, ideas that have to be discarded in the light of the appearance of better ideas that we have to absorb from other people. That, I think, is the hardest nugget of knowledge that’s necessary for everything else to fall into place. It’s the opposite of faith. It’s the opposite of dogmatism. It’s the opposite of certainty. I’d like to think that in addition to making some empirical discoveries – how little things work, for me in the case of language – I hope to have helped put things together. There’s so much of science and scholarship that consists of hyper specialized efforts. Necessarily have to pick one topic now because it’s retractable. It’s something that a single person can hope to make headway on in a lifetime. But when you do that, you also lose sight of the big picture. If you study … about irregular verbs, or experiments on word recognition, you lose sight of a question like, “What’s language for? How does it work?” A question that let’s say a lay person quite reasonably might ask, but which most specialists are completely ill-equipped to answer because they necessarily have to focus on a particular phenomenon. I’d like to think that I have also helped draw the big picture in the case of language, the idea that language works by an interplay between memorized units that we call words and rules for combining them; and that the reason that we have language is that we are a species that lives off social cooperation and know-how; and that language is an evolutionary adaptation that multiples the power of technological know-how by allowing us to share it; and that allows us to negotiate relationships. So that is a kind of nutshell description of how language works and why we have it. And I think it’s not so obvious that it’s helpful for someone to draw the picture in such broad brushstrokes. And I’d like to think that I’ve done the same … or helped to do something like that for the human mind. How does the mind work? What is a human mind for? The idea that the mind is a system of organs of computation – that is, information processing sub systems that evolved by natural selection to allow us to figure out how the world works and figure out how other people work as a survival strategy for homo sapiens. It is a general idea, but it does help to make sense of the whole shebang. I think it offers me some potential of a satisfying answer as to why we have a mind and what it does. So both at the microscopic end of how irregular verbs work and why kids make errors on them, and a macroscopic view of what is language, what is the mind? I hope that I’ve advanced the discussion a bit. I think the only way to make sense of nature and nurture is … obviously to point out that these are not alternatives; that you couldn’t have nurture – that is the creation and transmission of culture – without a rich system of emotion and learning to make sense of it; to create the culture; to acquire the culture if you’re faced with learning it as a child. And in the other direction, it would be a pretty useless kind of innate human nature if it couldn’t take in information from the environment; if it couldn’t figure out the kind of physical and social world that it had been placed in; and soaked up information as to how to prosper in it. In order to … So you need both. How do they interact? Well you have to specify, I think, the innate motivational systems, the innate learning mechanisms that make learning and transmission of culture possible. So something is innate. What is innate is not concrete behaviors or chunks of knowledge. What is innate is an ability to analyze the world and to learn in certain ways. Language makes it concrete where we certainly could not possibly be born with English. On the other hand, just an ability to learn generically isn’t enough because you could take a baby, or you could take a cat or a parrot, give them the same environment – the baby will learn to speak, the cat won’t. So something innate must be there as well. In the case of language, it would be a motive and an ability to analyze the signals coming out of someone else’s mouth as being formed out of units that have fixed meanings within a community and combinatorial rules that allow new ideas to be expressed by arranging these fixed signals in different orders and combinations. The brain mechanism that is equipped to do that – to find the words, the nouns, the verbs, the phrases – to analyze speech as having that logic . . . that’s what’s innate, not just a generic ability to learn at one extreme, not knowledge of English at the other extreme. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as free will in the sense of a ghost and a machine, a spirit or a soul that somehow reads the TV screen of the senses and pushes buttons and pulls the levers of behavior. There’s no sense that we can make of that. I think we are … Our behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain. On the other hand, when you have a brain that consists of one hundred billion neurons connected by one hundred trillion synopses, there is a vast amount of complexity. That means that human choices will not be predictable in any simple way from the stimuli that I’ve hinged on beforehand. We also know that that brain is set up so that there are at least two kinds of behavior. There’s what happens when I shine a light in your eye and your iris contracts, or I hit your knee with a hammer and your leg jerks upward. We also know that there’s a part of the brain that does things like choose what to have for dinner; whether to order chocolate or vanilla ice cream; how to move the next chess people; whether to pick up the paper or put it down. That is very different from your iris closing when I shine a light in your eye. It’s that second kind of behavior – one that engages vast amounts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes, that incorporates an enormous amount of information in the causation of the behavior that has some mental model of the world that can predict the consequences of possible behavior and select them on the basis of those consequences. All of those things carve out the realm of behavior that we call free will, which is useful to distinguish from brute involuntary reflexes, but which doesn’t necessarily have to involve some mysterious soul.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.I can’t claim to have insight from my own work and writing on particular political events like an election. I don’t think … I have opinions as a private person, but I don’t think they’re more valuable than anyone else’s. At the most general level, certainly I think it would be that our political leadership should be of a piece, engaged in the same dialogue with our scientific and intellectual community. It’s a bad state of affairs if you’ve got the universities, and the scientists, and the public intellectuals in one ideological camp and leadership in another. Now that involves … It has to involve modifications in both ways. I think a political leadership that blows off science is going to lead to nothing but disaster. But I think though for their part, people in universities and newspapers have to open their minds to have the same kind of critical self-reflection that everyone must have; realize that universities can also spiral into kind of a self-contained, ideological, almost religious cult; and that it’s important for universities to open up and welcome ideas from smart people who aren’t in that particular orbit. I think that think tanks and policy institutes have been invaluable in that regard; that there are certain ideas that don’t come out of university departments because a university becomes a tribe or a culture, has an ideology, and they have to realize that they’re not an infallible and welcome ideas. I don’t think universities have been completely successful in doing that either.

Recorded On: 6/13/07