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Steven Pinker Wants Enlightenment Now!

Pope Francis is part of the problem, nuclear energy is part of the solution, and libertarians need to admit that not every regulation will turn us into Venezuela.

Rose Lincoln, Harvard UniversityRose Lincoln, Harvard UniversityAmerica, observers are fond of saying, is the only country based upon an idea. That idea—that all men and women are created equal and have inalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness—is directly informed by the Enlightenment, the movement that dominated ideas and culture in the 18th century.

But are we still an Enlightenment nation?

"The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious," writes Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. "I wrote this book because I have come to realize that it's not."

Pinker is a linguist who teaches at Harvard and is the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Blank Slate, and How the Mind Works. He's been named on the top 100 most influential intellectuals by both Time and Foreign Policy.

In this wide-ranging interview with Reason's Nick Gillespie, Pinker explains why he thinks Pope Francis is a problem when it comes to capitalism, nuclear energy is a solution to climate change, and why libertarians need to lighten up when it comes to regulation. He also makes the case for studying the humanities as essential to intellectual honesty and seriousness even as he attacks that "cluster of ideas, which is not the same as the humanities, but just happens to have descended over large sectors of the academic humanities: "the deep hatred of the institutions of modernity, the equation of liberal democracy with fascism, the feeling that society is in an ever-worsening spiral of decline, and the lack of appreciation, I think, that the institutions of liberal democracy have made the humanities possible, made them flourish."

Produced by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Mark McDaniel and Krainin.

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The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. For an audio version, subscribe to the Reason podcast.

Nick Gillespie: What comprises the Enlightenment?

Steven Pinker: My point of view identifies four things: reason, science, humanism and progress. Reason being the ideal that we analyze our predicament using reason as opposed to dogma, authority, charisma, intuition, mysticism. Science being the ideal that we seek to understand the world by formulating hypotheses and testing them against reality. Humanism, that we hold out the well-being of men, women and children and other sentient creatures as the highest good, as opposed to the glory of the tribe or the race or the nation, as opposed to religious doctrine. And progress, that if we apply sympathy and reason to making people better off, we can gradually succeed.

Gillespie: Why did the Enlightenment happen when it did?

Pinker: Because it only happened once, we don't really know and we can't test hypotheses, but some plausible explanations are that it grew out of the scientific revolution of say the 17th century, which showed that our intuitions and the traditional view of reality could be profoundly mistaken, and that by applying reason, we can overturn our understanding of the world.

Maybe the more proximate technological kickstarter was the growth of printing technology. That was the only technology that showed a huge increase in productivity prior to the Industrial Revolution. Everything else had to wait for the 19th century.

Gillespie: You talk about how basically between the year 1000 and about 1800, in many places people saw very little increase in material well-being.

Pinker: Yeah. Economic growth was sporadic at best. But printing technology did take off in the 18th century. Pamphlets were cheap and available, and broadsheets and books, and they got translated. They were circulated across all of the European countries as well as the colonies, so that the exchange of ideas was lubricated by that technological advance.

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  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Another possible contributor was the historic memory of the wars of religion. That showed that dogmas about faith and scripture and interpretation and messiahs and so on could lead to tremendous carnage, and people thought, 'Let's not do that again.'

    This is a topic I'm very interested in. For we have seen many religious wars in history that were atrocities, just as you said. But I wonder how much of it is really religion and how much is just that the church was the major international institution in those days, and thus it carries the blame.

    Or to put it another way, how much of it is just an inherent warlike tendency of man, and how much of it is any particular institution.

  • John||

    A lot of it. To say that religious wars are all about religion and not about other things that religion is used as a rationalization for is to be pretty historically ignorant. I have no idea who Pinker is, but he seems to have nothing interesting or particularly enlightening to say.

  • Zeb||

    I'd give him another chance. I find that he has quite a lot that is interesting to say about his actual subjects of expertise, which are psychology and linguistics.

  • ||

    ^^^ This guy gets it.

  • Echospinner||

    Which is like applying physics, neuroscience, and physiology as to why a perfect three point set up by LeBraun James is just awesome.

    I am trying to teach the new puppy about catching the tennis ball in the air. He will eventually understand.

    The joy of catching the ball is not about Newtonian equations although those are fun.

    So I agree with you. He is missing the point. The joy of living and all the crap we deal with is the point.

  • SIV||

    Pinker is a pseudo-scientist and a huckster.

  • John||

    I tend to agree with you.

  • Tony||

    You just said you have no idea who he is.

  • SIV||

    He does now.

  • gormadoc||

    That's not what Pinker said at all. He said that religious dogma led to tremendous carnage in the form of the [European] wars of religion, which are a specific series of wars. The dogma relevant to the Enlightenment philosophers from 1552 AD to 1700 AD was religious dogma and the animosity between Protestants, Anabaptists, and Catholics was primarily along religious lines. Most European wars of this time had religious dogma as an element. However, Pinker does not believe that these wars were only due to religion; you're just reading into it extremely uncharitably. Politics certainly played a role.

    In fact, everything that he said is empirically true. Religious dogma did lead to an extremely protracted series of conflicts (in addition to other factors) and then once the Enlightenment was in full swing wars waged over religious conflicts in Enlightenment Europe virtually ceased, although it certainly played a factor in the normal (but fewer) wars.

    If it makes you feel better, I am sure that Pinker blames all forms of totalitarian dogma and not just Renaissance Christian doctrines for terrible wars.

  • JeremyR||

    Politics was a major role. France allied with the Protestants against other Catholics because they didn't want a German and Spanish dominated Europe.

  • skellmeyer||

    Pinker is grossly ignorant of history. The idea of equality and equal rights is directly informed by Christianity, NOT the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment stole it from Christians. Humanists have been parading around in this Christian skin ever since, pretending they owned it.

    Just one example: Galatians 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." There are DOZENS more quotes demonstrating the same principle here. Google search "all are equal in christ jesus" and click the second link, openbible.info

    The comments about the wars of religion are equally ignorant.
    Read the Great Big Book of Horrible Things, probably the definitive work on human atrocities. Of the top 25 body-bag producing events in recorded history, only FOUR can credibly be attributed to religion.

    The wars of SCIENCE have created hecatombs of bodies. WW II leads the list. It was eugenic race theory in action. The Germans considered Jews and Slavs racially inferior,
    The Japanese considered Chinese, Koreans and southeast Asians racially inferior
    The Americans considered Japanese racially inferior.

    And what about atheistic communism, part of the science of economics?
    Religion is nowhere near effective at mass murder as humanism and science is.

  • JoeBlow123||

    There is some truth in what you say just as there is some falsehood due to the extremes you take your argument. One way or the other, however, it does not matter much whether science or religion can take credit for more bodies because it was still the same humans performing the actions. We are the common denominator.

  • gormadoc||

    You missed the point. The Enlightenment philosophers criticized religious dogma because it was the biggest factor they saw in the preceding wars. They didn't have access to the political reasons that we can see now, and they still criticized what would become nationalism for contributing to war. I am 100% sure that if they saw the trauma non-religious dogma would inflict in the future that they would reject it as well.

  • gormadoc||

    I want to also point out that Galatians 3:28 is directed at Christians and does not include non-Christians. It was really just a way to get Christians to stop fighting each other, which was really the whole point of Galatians. And for all of this supposed equality, life was certainly stratified unequally until we were well within the Enlightenment.

  • JFree||

    Religious dogma did lead to an extremely protracted series of conflicts

    No it didn't. It was used as a way back then to mobilize populations in exactly the same way as posters of Germans bayoneting babies was used in WW2 - or epithets/rhetoric (eg dominoes will fall, commies are everywhere, etc) are used to fearmonger now.

    Blaming the dogma is just a way of excusing the fearmongerer and the establishment.

  • Mcgoo95||

    The same could be said of John...

  • JWatts||

    I think this is a laughably bad example. I'll cite both WW1 & WW2 as examples of why people didn't actually come to the conclusion of 'Let's not do that again.'.

  • ThomasD||

    Rather than looking at those wars as separate unrelated incidents, look at them as two parts of a single longer conflict. Then consider what has followed.

    Although, I do think the impulse remains. Just that, in modern times, the totalitarian 'isms' has filled the niche formerly held by diety based religions.

  • JWatts||

    "Just that, in modern times, the totalitarian 'isms' has filled the niche formerly held by diety based religions."

    Yes, agreed.

  • Rich||

    Blasphemy!

  • ThomasD||

    If you want to know what someone really worships ask them what you cannot riducule.

  • Get lit||

    The truth.

  • SQRLSY One||

    I am into anti-ismizationism!

  • SQRLSY One||

    But then again, my other "ism" is GovernmentAlmightyism...

    Scienfoology Song… GAWD = Government Almighty's Wrath Delivers

    Government loves me, This I know,
    For the Government tells me so,
    Little ones to GAWD belong,
    We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
    Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
    Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
    And gives me all that I might need!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    DEA, CIA, KGB,
    Our protectors, they will be,
    FBI, TSA, and FDA,
    With us, astride us, in every way!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Organized religion is just a particular form of tribalism. It doesn't matter whether it is Protestants vs. Catholics, Serbs vs. Bosnians, or Jacobins vs. the aristocrats. People will dehumanize and attack the Other, because most people have not self-actualized enough to overcome our biological heritage of pack mentality. Why do wolves kill the pups of a competing pack?

  • John||

    It can be a form of tribalism but it doesn't have to be any more than any other set of beliefs does.

  • ThomasD||

    Which makes sense when you consider that Marxism - international socialism was a direct reaction to the international/universal appeal (appeal, not as "attractiveness," appeal as "offer") of classical liberalism.

  • John||

    A lot of the appeal of Marxism lies in its offer of being part of an elite that was helping to bring the world into a better state. Moreover, the heart of Marxism is the collective guilt based on economic class, which is nothing but tribalism. Socialism is nothing but tribalism. Tribalism says that your fortunes and misfortunes belong to the tribe. if you fail, the tribe will take care of you. If you succeed, the benefits of that go to the tribe. Socialism is the exact same thing with fancy rationalizations.

  • ThomasD||

    I guess I wasn't clear.

    One of the central tenets of classical liberalism, one of it's novel ones, is it's universality. Part of the point of the exercise was to escape tribalisms. This was not accidental in any way.

    Yes socialism tends towards tribalism which is not exactly surprising since tribalism is always based upon some social group. Which is exactly why Marx posited something universal - ie international socialism. He had to. At that point in time, a world where there already was a "way out" of tribalism anythign that didn't at least promise it's own solution was going nowhere fast.

    Marx wanted to keep his collective, and that was the only way to square the circle.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "Moreover, the heart of Marxism is the collective guilt based on economic class, which is nothing but tribalism."

    I am not sure you can charge the impoverished Prussian serf or the upper England coal miner as possessing of class guilt. Perhaps the bourgeois intellectual leadership, but not the worker bees.

  • JoeBlow123||

    And honestly to both you guys I think you are underplaying the class conflicts in Europe during the 1800s. I would not exactly be enthralled with the state of the world if I was born into peasant stock and had to watch nobles and aristocrats parade around with land, titles, and deeds simply because the were born into aristocratic stock. It would probably make me pretty annoyed and maybe even turn me Marxist if they were the only people offering me a solution (whether political triumph or bullets) to my aristocrat problem.

  • ThomasD||

    I don't think I'm underplaying it. The same issues existed in the 1700's as well. However the responses that were generated in each century - the French Enlightenement and what it begat vs. the Scottish Enlightenment and what it begat couldn't be more telling.

    Saying that the Marxists were the only people offering a solution is grossly overplaying someone's hand.

    If I'm underplaying anything it is the abject horrors that were unleashed upon the world by Rousseau and his ilk.

  • ||

    People will dehumanize and attack the Other, because most people have not self-actualized enough to overcome our biological heritage of pack mentality. Why do wolves kill the pups of a competing pack?

    The self-actualized people aren't actually any more 'self-actualized' and, instead just erecting new religions and tribes.

    Read the implications of Dunbar, you can't just will yourself into greater computing power and adaptability to nuance any more than you can will enemies, detractors, and competitors out of existence.

    Ants have something like 250K neurons, less than 1,000th of 1% of the neurons in the human brain and they still manage to drum up the behavioral equality of 'other' and 'tribe'. You'd have to annihilate nearly all life on Earth to fully divest or transcend away from tribalism.

  • John||

    Reason being the ideal that we analyze our predicament using reason as opposed to dogma, authority, charisma, intuition, mysticism. Science being the ideal that we seek to understand the world by formulating hypotheses and testing them against reality. Humanism, that we hold out the well-being of men, women and children and other sentient creatures as the highest good, as opposed to the glory of the tribe or the race or the nation, as opposed to religious doctrine. And progress, that if we apply sympathy and reason to making people better off, we can gradually succeed.

    He sounds like an over-earnest 8th grader there. The idea that humans are the highest good and not the collective is dogma you fucking half wit. Just because it is your dogma doesn't mean it isn't dogma.

  • Mickey Rat||

    There is also that many attempts to apply extreme rationalization to human existence have ended up very bloody. The last two centuries plus has been a testament to that. Just because a movement calls its guiding light "reason" does not make it immune to the foibles of human nature and that it won't be just another bigoted tribe.

  • John||

    Gillespie to his credit brings up the French Revolution. And Pinker's response is almost comical

    Gillespie: His great example of that was the French Revolution, which leveled all sorts of past institutions.

    Pinker: Here's the way I would put it, though: Yeah, the Enlightenment as a movement, obviously, was filled with flaws. Because they're just guys. They couldn't have gotten everything right on the first try. They disagreed with each other, and there was a lot of stuff they didn't know. They didn't know evolution, they didn't know thermodynamics. It's really the ideals that I associate with the Enlightenment that we ought to venerate.

    He sounds like a Marxist dismissing Stalin there. "Hey no everyone agrees and things just got out of hand". Well no shit. The fact that not everyone agrees and if you start setting up Gods, even if you name them nice names like "Science" and "reason" things do get out of hand. That is the whole point of bringing up the French Revolution.

  • Mickey Rat||

    I am not sure how knowledge of thermodynamics and evolution would have prevented how the French Revolution went wrong. It seems a category error.

    I just finished a video course on the French Revolution. It was irritating to what pains the lecturer was going to to say that the Jacobins were on the right track but they went a bit off yhe rails with the Terror because they were under so pressure from Austria and Prussia and the counterrevolts that were springing up.

    One of the Revolutions grand ideas at rationaluzing life was implementing a ten day week. Of course, that meant you only got a day off every tenth day rather than every seventh. They seemed confused that many people were not hsppy with that.

  • Eidde||

    "what pains the lecturer was going to to say that the Jacobins were on the right track but they went a bit off yhe rails with the Terror because they were under so pressure from Austria and Prussia and the counterrevolts that were springing up."

    But with all the unrest and Johnson in the White House, I just got so stressed, baby!

    (I could look up the exact quote but that would be trying too hard)

  • JoeBlow123||

    Is he a bit extreme? Yes. But ultimately he is right, we need to hold onto the things that actually made America great. Opportunity, hardwork, equality. That comes hand in hand with celebrating the people and ideas that guided the Enlightenment, especially the British branch of the Enlightenment. If we crap on something just because it is not "perfect" then you are being unrealistic.

    Yes, we should be celebrating the Enlightenment just as long as we never treat the ideas and ways of thinking discovered then as an orthodoxy but as the first step on the road towards greater understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Brits like John Locke were a practical people, we should continue to hold onto those kinds of ethics.

  • Longtobefree||

    You want enlightenment?
    Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
    Nothing in there about nuclear power, global climate warming changes, or regulations.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    That's gonna leave a mark.

  • Dick Puller, Attorney at Law||

    Actually no, I've had all the enlightenment I can stand, thankyouverymuch.

    What I'd actually like is a horde of crazed barbarians lopping off enlightened heads.

  • Rich||

    Do not unto others what you would not have others do unto you.

  • Star1988||

    wtf??? I will not pollute the air you breathe as I would hope you would not pollute the air I breathe. And if we both cannot agree organically to not pollute the air we breathe, then we need ... regulations. Clearly Pinker is correct about the Libertarian insanity of equating every common-sense regulation with a descent into Venezuela.

  • Lester224||

    Do unto others: I include putting the shit you use for farming into the river flowing downstream that people drink into the category of doing unto others something that you wouldn't want done to yourself. How do you prevent people from doing that without regulation? They are free to put the shit into the river because it's on their property. Isn't there something about the commons that requires regulation to some extent. Similar issue for air pollution and the factory that you own.

  • John||

    Yeah, so we can't credit the Enlightenment for that, because it was part of the transition to modernity. But it got a boost in the 19th century with the formation of professional police forces and with the more systematic application of criminal justice, and then in the 1990s and the 21st century with data-driven policing.

    The world extends beyond Europe. I love the Enlightenment as much as anyone. But lots of pre-enlightenment or even anti-enlightenment societies had very low crime rates. And some countries today have enormously bad crime rates. Data-driven police policy? Wow, if only places like Mexico or El Salvador knew that the solution to their problems is data-driven police policy. Wow.

  • Jake Z.||

    You're a fucking idiot blowhard lol. How about you read the damn book before you prattle on like a reactionary retard?

  • Sevo||

    "Pope Francis is part of the problem, nuclear energy is part of the solution, and libertarians need to admit that not every regulation will turn us into Venezuela."

    Two out of three ain't bad.

  • brokencycle||

    He'd be a hall of famer in MLB.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Maybe, exccept Pope Francis may more represent Peronista ideology more than good Catholic theology.

  • John||

    The problem with guys like this is that if "reason" and "science' are so infallible, then why have any respect for freedom except when reason and science tell you that you should? The idea that we can use reason and science to find answers to value questions like what is the good is just as romantic as fascism. And the belief that reason and science are somehow infallible and should always guide our actions is just as Utopian as any form of Marxism.

  • Mickey Rat||

    That idea forms a large part of the foundation of Marxism. Marxism styled itself as a scientific ideology.

    That does not it is entirely without merit, but it is easy to become arrogant and authoritarian when people disagree with your ideas.

  • John||

    Yes. Every form of Utopianism cloaks itself in reason and claims to be science. The Fascists did it too. So claiming, just follow reason and science is no more enlightening than saying "just follow your heart."

  • GILMORE™||

    "" if "reason" and "science' are so infallible, ""

    This isn't what he argues.

  • John||

    Okay, then what does he argue? If he doesn't, then what is his point? That reason and science are great unless they are not? No shit.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    [gets popcorn]

  • John||

    Don't get your hopes up. Gilmore will run away or launch some invective and name calling and various harrumphing about how obvious his point is and how stupid I must be to question it if he stays. I doubt he has the sack for an actual discussion.

  • GILMORE™||

    You're making the "is" vs. "ought" fallacy.

    Reason + science doesn't tell you what you ought to do; it tells you what is. It informs value-laden arguments, it doesn't replace them.

    Its the same zero-sum complaint that everyone makes about pinker, mostly because no one actual responds to his arguments: they respond to what they *imagine* his argument is.

    e.g. Pinker himself:

    "Science is not enough to bring about progress," and "scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values."

    "An endorsement of scientific thinking," he writes, "must first of all be distinguished from any belief that members of the occupational guild called 'science' are particularly wise or noble." It is humanism, he argues, which "provides the ought that supplements the is."

    You're free to try and use the product of rational inquiry and scientific analysis to whatever value-laden end you want; what you're not free to do is misconstrue or misrepresent scientific results themselves.

    e.g. pinker makes lots of evidence-based argument that "the world is getting better"

    idiot in New Republic goes, "Uh, NUH UH" but doesn't even bother addressing Pinker's data or arguments.

    basically, the latter guy handwaves the facts away as irrelevant. This is the sort of mindset Pinker's book is trying to undermine.

  • John||

    And again, no shit. And that would all be fine and good if he then didn't turn around and claim religion and mysticism and all the rest are so bad. How make these value judgments without such things? You can't. Or you can try, but then you are right back to using science and reason as some kind of infallible Gods.

  • GILMORE™||

    that would all be fine and good if he then didn't turn around and claim religion and mysticism and all the rest are so bad,

    he doesn't actually make this argument either

    in fact he suggests specific benefits that both offer

  • John||

    Then he is saying nothing, other than wouldn't it be nice if everyone were reasonable. Big fucking deal.

  • GILMORE™||

    "Pinker thinks X"
    "No he doesn't"
    "Well then fuck him he has no point"

    QED

  • John||

    Yes QED. Your argument is "Pinker doesn't say that". And my response is "what does he say". And then your response to that is always a null set. Sorry but "religion and mysticism is great in limited senses then it should be reason and science" is not a profound or even meaningful point. It is just a fucking platitude.

  • GILMORE™||

    ""Your argument is "Pinker doesn't say that".""

    technically that's not "my argument", its simply observing that you're talking about something which pinker doesn't actually say.

    "religion and mysticism is great in limited senses then it should be reason and science" is not a profound or even meaningful point.""

    1) i didn't say what you just quoted
    2) that sentence doesn't even make any sense.

    what i specifically said, (and which is my own bad-summary of pinker, not to be confused with his own work) was

    "Reason + science doesn't tell you what you ought to do; it tells you what is. It informs value-laden arguments, it doesn't replace them."

    i.e.. you can use 'religion and mysticism', or any non-scientific argument, to make appeals to Ethos or Pathos... but you can't really use them as a replacement for Logos.

    in the example i gave above i pointed to a TNR article attempting to "rebut" pinker which effectively ignored the arguments pinker made (about improving human conditions around the world).

    That was an example of the "anti-science" mindset, which pretends to be able to draw conclusions completely contrary to what basic data say; its anti-intellectual, irrational, and illiberal (and has nothing to do w/ 'religion' fwiw).

    that's what he's talking about. not your contrived "anti god" strawman, or whatever it is.

  • John||

    "Reason + science doesn't tell you what you ought to do; it tells you what is. It informs value-laden arguments, it doesn't replace them."

    If you can't understand how it is an assumption saying "reason and science tell you what is", I don't know what to do for you. To say that reason and science have value, you have to define what value is. And even if you do that, how much value it has and how much it should inform your decision making and when is the entire fucking debate that man has been having since he first became self aware. Pinker is saying nothing. He is just begging the question.

  • GILMORE™||

    ...../ )
    .....' /
    ---' (_____
    ......... ((__)
    ..... _ ((___)
    ....... -'((__)
    --.___((_)

  • GILMORE™||

    "what pinker says is stupid"
    "what did he say"
    "he says you should have evidence for your beliefs"
    "wow. that doesn't sound too crazy. how are you so sure his argument is stupid"
    "i can just tell from this blog i read."
    "so you never actually read anything he wrote"
    "no, fuck that guy, why bother? its stupid"
    "wow, you totally pwned him"

  • Juice||

    And that would all be fine and good if he then didn't turn around and claim religion and mysticism and all the rest are so bad. How make these value judgments without such things?

    Are you actually asking why people shouldn't base their moral framework on a belief in magic and imaginary beings?

  • John||

    They have to base it on something. Everyone starts somewhere and it is all faith-based. You want to base your morals on reason? Okay, reason based on what principles? You can't use reason to justify its own assumptions. So where do your assumptions come from? They come from two places religion or preference. Unless you want to buy into total nihilism, which no sane human in history I know of ever has had the courage to do, then you are basing your morality on faith and imagination. That is all it is. You are no less of theist than the biggest holy roller. You just call your God "natural rights" or "reason" or "science" or whatever else you choose.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    [drives to the store to buy more popcorn]

  • Juice||

    They have to base it on something. Everyone starts somewhere and it is all faith-based.

    Well, you can start with axioms or assumptions, but that doesn't make the starting point faith-based. It's definitely not based on faith in spirits and magic, anyway.

    You want to base your morals on reason? Okay, reason based on what principles?

    You can, if you so choose, base your ethical framework on how you would like to be treated by others, ie The Golden Rule. When everyone treats each other the way they would like to be treated, then over time this will average out into a common set of morals and customs in the society in question. No gods needed. If you don't follow the general morals of the society, the members of that society will likely punish you or do what they can to make you stop violating "the rules." If you must believe that a god and not mere man will punish you for not following The Golden Rule, then go ahead and believe it. Most religions have some form of it in their books anyway.

  • John||

    Well, you can start with axioms or assumptions, but that doesn't make the starting point faith-based. It's definitely not based on faith in spirits and magic, anyway.

    Yes it does. You can't use reason to justify its underlying assumptions. Reason tells you the logical consequences of the assumptions but it can't justify them. So it is an act of faith. You are assuming the assumptions are true. You have to. If you didn't, then there would be nothing to reason from. And you can't prove them using reason. You have to have first principles or you can't reason. And those principles can't be reasoned. That has been known since Aristotle.

    You can, if you so choose, base your ethical framework on how you would like to be treated by others, ie The Golden Rule.

    Sure you can. But who says that is best? You like that, but I don't'. I have a different set of assumptions that tell me to treat people differently. Our two systems of ethics are totally incompatible and separate from each other. There is no way to establish one's primacy over the other. It is just a question of taste or faith.

  • ThomasD||

    " you can start with axioms or assumptions"

    You are just euphemising.

    In any sort of reductive argument you will always reach the metaphysical argument of "that's just the way it is."

    That you prefer to term them 'axioms' or 'assumptions' does not, in any meaningful way, distinguish them from 'magic' or 'imaginary beings.'

    You just think that makes them sound better.

  • Mrs. Renard||

    That you prefer to term them 'axioms' or 'assumptions' does not, in any meaningful way, distinguish them from 'magic' or 'imaginary beings.'

    Axioms and assumptions are falsifiable. In science, one can observe or create an experiment to potentially falsify any scientific theory, statement, or hypotheses. Science regularly discards any theory/statement/hypotheses that is observed to be untrue. If no experiment can be crafted that could falsify a statement/theory/hypotheses then it is not scientific.

    We cannot create an experiment that would falsify God. You have to take God on faith.

  • Juice||

    Unless you want to buy into total nihilism, which no sane human in history I know of ever has had the courage to do, then you are basing your morality on faith and imagination.

    Wait, really? I guess my eyes moved past this part too quickly.

    What do you mean by "total nihilism"? The realization that no part of existence has any purpose or higher meaning? And realizing this takes courage? Well, call me Harriet Tubman because that's the case. Life has no purpose or meaning beyond what you want to give it. Sorry to break the news to you.

  • John||

    Total Nihilism is believing in absolute moral relativity. It is believing that nothing is true or not true and no way to judge anything or make sense of anything.

  • Juice||

    Total Nihilism is believing in absolute moral relativity. It is believing that nothing is true or not true and no way to judge anything or make sense of anything.

    Uh, ok. There is very likely some immutable underlying reality to everything (maybe). If so, then some set of facts out there must be correct (or "true"), but not for human interaction. There is simply no single perfect moral framework. Of course there is always a way to judge things and make sense of them for yourself, but to say that your preferred way is "the" one correct way to do so when it comes to human interaction is ridiculous. I have a preferred moral framework, but there's no way I can claim that it's absolutely the "correct" moral framework because there's no such thing. It's just the one that I think is best. If you think your preferred way is the one way because your god said so, that's just delusional.

  • gormadoc||

    Nihilism is related to, but does not necessarily include, moral relativity. Moral relativity suggests that morality has some dependence on the individual and nihilism suggests that morality does not exist objectively, and therefore has no dependence on the individual. Besides, moral relativism does not actually require one to not judge another's morality; that's only a facet of post-1950s postmodernism.

    Besides, moral relativity != relativity of truth. Nihilism is foremost about rejecting the idea morality is real and that reality has inherent meaning, not about rejecting all of reality.

  • Kivlor||

    So where do your assumptions come from? They come from two places religion or preference. Unless you want to buy into total nihilism

    If all morals are preferences they're all equally valid. This is really just a dressed up way of dodging the fact that someone is a moral relativist. And moral relativism is just a dressed up way of dodging the fact that someone is a moral nihilist.

  • Juice||

    If all morals are preferences they're all equally valid.

    They are all indeed equally "valid" if you attempt to compare them to some absolute standard because there is no such standard, but there are moral frameworks that are more "viable" than others.

    If a person's morality can be summed up as "all those who oppose my will must die," it's most likely not a very viable morality. The only thing holding him back is the will and ability of others, but large numbers of people will not abide it. Usually people with this sort of morality don't make it very far, so it's not very viable one.

  • Kivlor||

    Of course, you're basically ceding the ground that there's nothing wrong with this idea inherently. Heck, you've now ceded that there is nothing wrong with murder. Or with the Evangelicals suppressing the gayz. It's all a question of whether or not it can be implemented, right? Locking the Japs up in WWII was easily implemented, so nothing wrong with that, right?

  • gormadoc||

    There is no objectively correct way to play football. That does not mean that I'm as good a player as Clay Matthews.

    That's how most non-postmodern moral relativists work. In this view, there are no objective moral laws that you can somehow consult. You can still judge people based on a non-objective framework.

    Or to play at your "gotcha" questions, you have to admit that you don't have access to the objective book of moral laws that moral objectivism allows for. How then, can you judge the Evangelicals right or wrong? How can murder be wrong? You have to abide by a separate, non-objective, framework (like religion) and hope that it aligns with the objective framework.

  • Juice||

    Of course, you're basically ceding the ground that there's nothing wrong with this idea inherently.

    So? It's wrong according to me. I think it's wrong. Why? Because I have come to the conclusion, through reason, that if everyone had this same morality, my life would be in constant danger, and dammit, my survival instinct is pretty strong.

    Or with the Evangelicals suppressing the gayz.

    I personally think it's wrong because I have come to the conclusion, through reason, that if everyone had this same morality, my personal freedom would be in constant danger, and dammit, my instinct to do as I like is pretty strong.

    It's all a question of whether or not it can be implemented, right? Locking the Japs up in WWII was easily implemented, so nothing wrong with that, right?

    Ultimately, everything is a question of whether or not it can be implemented or not. But whether it's right or wrong is up to you. I personally think it's wrong because I have come to the conclusion, through reason, that if everyone locked up people they were afraid of, my personal freedom would be in constant danger, and dammit, my desire to not be locked in a prison camp is pretty strong.

    So if you need a non-religious starting point for a moral framework, then it's your survival instinct. It makes you think things like "I deserve to live" which is another way to say "I have a right to life." You can then go where that takes you.

  • Juice||

    Kivlor, there is no big rule book in the sky that to tell you that any particular morality is objectively right or wrong. I don't understand why you can't understand this.

  • Kivlor||

    Juice, I do understand what you are saying. And I haven't disagreed with that statement. What I have disagreed with is the positions that there is no objective right and wrong / that all positions on right and wrong are merely preference. What I don't get is how you jump from that to "Therefore Kivlor's religion".

  • Kivlor||

    I personally think it's wrong because I have come to the conclusion, through reason, that if everyone had this same morality, my personal freedom would be in constant danger, and dammit, my instinct to do as I like is pretty strong.

    This can be shortened and restated as: "Personally I think it's wrong because I've come to the conclusion that I have emotions and they are strong."

    That's all it is. "I have emotions and they are strong. Therefore Policy." Isn't this exactly what libertarians usually mock knee-jerk cries for legislation over? Is morality like broccoli or carrots or beef or potatoes: to be eaten if you like it and to be not eaten if you don't?

  • GILMORE™||

    I want Stephen Pinker's Hair. Now!

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    He's no James Altucher.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I want Stephen Pinker's hair so I can do something useful with it.

  • GILMORE™||

    No! that's the whole point. *it cannot be contained*

  • JWatts||

    "Gillespie: You talk about how there's a strong argument for nuclear energy if what you care about is how to get the most energy out of the fewest greenhouse gases. How did you come to appreciate nuclear?"

    +1

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Pinker is 100% correct, not every regulation turns us into Venezuela. That's obvious on its face, but speaking personally, it would sure be nice if certain segments of society would stop treating every lack of regulation as making us into Somalia.

  • John||

    Not every regulation turns us into Venezuela, but refusing to regulate doesn't turn us into Somalia! either.

  • Alcibiades||

    He's slowly morphing into Albert Einstein.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Pinker mentions "data-driven policing" which "put the police where the crime was starting to grow before it could explode" is seen in some sectors as racist.

  • John||

    It also buys into the assumption that crime is caused by lack of policing instead of other forms of societal breakdown. At heart, he is a technocrat. He dismisses religion and tradition and anything other than reason and science out of hand but then magically assumes that cops are going, to be honest, and laws justly and effectively administered because well everyone is just that reasonable.

    It never seems to occur to him that maybe there is more to ethical behavior than reason. That perhaps things like religion and tradition serve to give people a reason to be ethical where reason alone fails.

  • Juice||

    It also buys into the assumption that crime is caused by lack of policing instead of other forms of societal breakdown.

    Yup.

    That perhaps things like religion and tradition serve to give people a reason to be ethical where reason alone fails.

    Is forcing a woman to cover her face in public ethical or unethical?

  • John||

    Depends on how you define ethical. Why do you think your ethics are universal? Maybe I want women to cover their face in public and by my ethics, it is required. Who are you to say I am wrong? You can say you don't like it. But so what? I don't like your ethics. You go to your church and I will go to mine.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It's for her own protection. So you figure it out.

  • John||

    You can reason yourself into justifying anything. You just have to start with the right assumptions. That is why it is called a rationalization.

  • Juice||

    You can reason yourself into justifying anything.

    Just like you can religion yourself into justifying anything. But religion is the correct way to do it.

  • John||

    It is not the correct way, it is the only way. You have to start somewhere. If you want to call where you start "natural rights" or the "golden rule", good for you. But stop kidding yourself and thinking that isn't a simple form of theism and religion.

  • Juice||

    It is not the correct way, it is the only way. You have to start somewhere. If you want to call where you start "natural rights" or the "golden rule", good for you. But stop kidding yourself and thinking that isn't a simple form of theism and religion.

    I never said The Golden Rule was some absolute standard of morality that exists outside of a human's mind. I simply said it's one way to have a moral framework without invoking the supernatural. And there's really no such thing as "natural rights" the way most people understand that term, but reciprocal behavior is a pretty natural thing for humans. You treated me well, so I'll treat you well. You treated me poorly, so I'll retaliate. It's just a thing that humans tend to do naturally.

    I think some people with strong religious faith realize that it's a sort of mental crutch, so to make themselves feel better about it, they assume that those who have freed themselves from such crutches must be fooling themselves and they actually must have some form of religious faith, because you're unable to comprehend living without it.

  • Mcgoo95||

    There's also social evolution....i.e. people have evolved to form relationships and social structures that are beneficial to them. No need for a zero-state set of assumptions, religion or what have you.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I like his observations on pessimism vs optimism.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Ugh, Schopenhauer, that dude was a ray of sunshine.

  • John||

    I like the 19th Century Germans a lot. Those guys owned up to being atheists and were willing to see the consequences and it wasn't pretty.

  • JoeBlow123||

    19th century Germans were by and large a bunch of worhtless pieces of Romantic trash that helped to spawn Hitler, Stalin, postomodernism, and all other forms of irrationality.

    We have on team A:
    1) Marx and his buddy Hegel with their dialectic retardation
    and on team B:
    2) Rousseau (I know, French) who helped lead to Nietzsche and their worship of amoral power ubermensch

    Who all helped continue the Continental romantic retardation that eventually were harnessed by totalitarians, postmodernism, and worst of all Derrida and Foucoult. I fucking DESPISE Derrida and Foucoult. Anytime any of my phony intellectual friends use the word dialectic in a sentence or deconstruction I want to about punch them in the face.

    By and large the rationality of the Brits was the biggest saving grace of the Enlightenment, the Continentals were all too built up with Catholic guilt and repression to actually look at the world rationally and in a positive manner.

  • Tony||

    Gillespie: You chastise the libertarian right for embracing a rigid dogma over serious introspection on things. Like, libertarians will go right from a regulation getting introduced to 'We're at the final terminus of the road to serfdom.'

    Pinker: The next thing you know we're Venezuela, yeah.

    What? Nobody's ever said such a thing. Certainly not here.

  • MarkLastname||

    It's a straw man, so of course it appeals to you.

  • Tony||

    I see John is throwing a tantrum because someone implied his sky grandpa might not be real.

  • Kivlor||

    Not really. You'd understand his point if you had a basic grasp of philosophy and logic.

  • Juice||

    I think that you can't grasp what it's like to be devoid of all religious faith. It's beyond your abilities.

  • Kivlor||

    And what exactly gives you this foolish notion?

  • Juice||

    All your comments.

  • Kivlor||

    You should try harder at reading then.

  • Tony||

    His point is that for some reason only a psychiatrist can explain he desperately needs to believe that some version of the fairy tale he was raised on is true.

  • Dariush||

    "... implied his sky grandpa might not be real."

    So you think everyone who practices a religion literally believes in a material deity/deities? Doesn't surprise me, the same 3rd grade religious thinking you assign to everyone is the same third grade political and philosophical thinking you display here day in day out with your usual hostility. I guess i would be bitter, angry and resentful too if I was a queer living in butt fuck oklahoma.

  • Tony||

    I don't give a fuck what form of magical fairy your stupid beliefs torture your rational mind into accepting as physical reality.

    But John definitely believes in a literal grandpa in the sky.

  • Dariush||

    Good one Tony. That must've been an example of that nuance you're always lecturing other posters on whenever they generalize one of your brilliant points. You may not worship magical faeries but you do comport yourself to the tenets of the faeries, which is sad. At least a nihilist, with any sense, would admit life is suffering and meaningless and snuff himself out, thereby being consistent. You, on the other hand, mime rationality and then go about your little rituals. Don't think for a second that the bullshit you spew out on a daily basis is any different from the dogmas repeated in those Gay Hatin' churches you fear so much.

  • Tony||

    WTF is faeries? Are you some kind of Canadian?

  • Dariush||

    You should know, you are one, lol.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    You know who else venerates the tribe over the individual?

  • Eidde||

    Both major parties in the U. S.?

  • Eidde||

    The Scottish part of the Enlightenment, as I understand it, was the part that influenced the American Founders. They went right out and called themselves the "common sense" school. That seems a bit more relaxed and non-silly than the French parts of the Enlightenment, which got a tad out of hand.

  • ThomasD||

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Reid

    It was Thomas Paine who most famously promulgated the phrase 'common sense' over here. Although he wasn't exactly working from the same page as the Scotsmen. He went decidely off the rails himself, and almost lost his head during the French Revolution, only surviving thanks to some string pulling by James Monroe.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Excellent remark from Pinker @47:26. The basis of free speech.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I really like his theory on where the anti-enlightenment attitudes are coming from on college campuses. @52:40

    It's something I haven't heard and it makes quite a bit of sense.

  • gormadoc||

    It's pretty much what I've always thought, but I think it's more that student affairs administrations more allow and amplify terrible students instead of driving it themselves. We got a bunch of questionably employable people, put them in jobs where suppressing internal unrest is of paramount importance, and then expanded their powers over several decades. Simple self-interest dictates that they'll quickly pander to tribalism and emotion, if only to galvanize their charges into one manageable "community." This all makes their job easier and even allows them to demand higher budgets and bigger departments. No political beliefs needed on their part.

  • gormadoc||

    I thought that you might like to know that you started 7/17 of the top-level threads on this article, by my count.

  • ThomasD||

    Anti-enlightenment attitudes are coming from college campuses because the Frankfurt School (ie. Cultural Marxism) is an expressed enemy of the individual rights enshrined within enlightenment principles.

    None of it is accidental.

  • JeremyR||

    That argument about regulation strikes me as a strawman. Regulations benefit monopolies/large companies, not the government

  • DajjaI||

    I like him but he's a bit of a techno-fascist in that he believes that problems can be solved by rich industrialists donating money properly in the third world. This won't work. What will? Spreading freedom of speech, religion and press across the world. Because without that, all the money will be wasted and all the diseases you think you eradicated will return. Yes science is the answer, but it must be embraced by the people not imposed on them.

  • Carl Wolf||

    Congratulations Nick Gillespie and Todd Krannin - truly sparkling interview.

  • mtrueman||

    "Pinker: And also the wind is sometimes becalmed, and the sun doesn't shine at night. "

    Soundslike Romantic Green nonsense to me. The sun does shine, even at night. The earth spins upon its axis and the sun never stops shining. Answer: world-wide networked power grid.

  • Star1988||

    I thought it was really odd that he never mentioned adding storage to the grid. There is some work being done today on weakly bonded hydrides that offers some promise on addressing the economic conundrum of grid storage. I'm sure there are a lot of smart people looking into varieties of storage technologies.

  • mtrueman||

    " I'm sure there are a lot of smart people looking into varieties of storage technologies."

    Not a Harvard, apparently. At least not in the Linguistics department.

  • Lester224||

    Try MIT plus a ton of big corporations and start-ups. Storage will improve. Solar will be cheaper than nuclear.

  • skellmeyer||

    Pinker is grossly ignorant of history

    The idea of equality and equal rights is directly informed by Christianity, NOT the Enlightenment.

    Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
    or
    James 2:1-4 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or, "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

    There are TONS more quotes demonstrating the same principle.

    The comments about the wars of religion are equally ignorant.
    Read the Great Big Book of Horrible Things, probably the definitive work on human atrocities. Of the top 25 body-bag producing events in recorded history, only FOUR can credibly be attributed to religion.

    The wars of SCIENCE have created hecatombs of bodies. WW II leads the list. It was eugenic race theory in action. The Germans considered Jews and Slavs racially inferior,
    The Japanese considered Chinese, Koreans and southeast Asians racially inferior
    The Americans considered Japanese racially inferior.

  • Tony||

    All wars are fought with the help of science. No war has been fought over science. That's what's so great about science.

  • ThomasD||

    "The idea of equality and equal rights is directly informed by Christianity, NOT the Enlightenment."

    It is fair to say that absent Christianity there would have been no Enlightenment, but it is also fair to note that there was still reason and room for the Enlightenment in the presence of Christianity.

  • Wolf Larsen||

    His comments are interesting (and to me a bit of fresh air -- someone who can recognize both the risk of climate change and the error of attacking GMOs) but his attack on the Catholic church strike me as overdone, in particular his thesis that Catholicism is particularly anti-science. In point of fact, the contributions of catholic priests and monks to the development of science is well documented.

    Science, at its purest, has no soul. There is nothing, absent values obtained independent of science, that tells us US government experiments against unknowing subjects, or Nazi experiments on Jews in concentration camps, is wrong.

    Our values come from elsewhere. That isn't saying it must come from the Bible or a religion.

    While the Church has many wrongs to atone for historically, a strong anti-science bent isn't one I would attribute to it.

  • gormadoc||

    He means particularly now, exemplified by Pope Francis and his attitude towards everything good in this world.

  • Echospinner||

    "Pinker: Some of the concerns are religious—we shouldn't play God by extending human lifespans, or, conversely, we don't even have to worry about climate change because God wouldn't let any bad thing happen."

    That is pure strawman. I do not know of any major religion opposed to medical science and advancement. Nor do I know of any opposed to scientists learning about and countering environmental threats to humanity.

  • ThomasD||

    " I do not know of any major religion opposed to medical science and advancement."

    Depends on how you define your terms. What some call the 'medical science and advancement' in the treatment of gender dysphoria many churches consider sinful mutilation of God's creation.

  • Lester224||

    The Catholic church is vehemently opposed to stem cell research and any kind of genetic screening to avoid birth defects. I think that counts as a major religion opposed to some forms of advancement.

  • vek||

    I didn't watch the video, only read the transcript, which I don't think is the full interview.

    From my experience here and in the past with him, he will be more honest about accepting some facts as being real... But he then tends to interpret them wrong, and/or come to incorrect conclusions.

    The Enlightenment was a great thing that needed to happen. Many great ideas came out of it.

    That said, I think many take some of the ideas too far. People have become DOGMATIC about believing in the 100% correctness of ALL of the ideas, in ALL situations, and indeed extending some of the general ideas to areas where the original authors never meant them to go.

    Ultraegalitarianism is an example of this. Pinker will somewhat admit differences in people, which is good. But many refuse to accept any at all. This is bad, and completely contrary to reality.

    I think reality lies somewhere in between the enlightenment and the darker times before. I think human nature cannot be fully overcome, so accepting limitations due to biology is a must. Things like enforced social structures and traditions in fact create better individual lives for people, despite how contradictory that sounds at first. The pendulum swings, and we seem to be swinging back to more traditionalism in some ways now, perhaps we will swing back into the sweet spot.

  • Raymond Luxury Yach-t||

    Jesus Fuck Nick, you made him cry. Good job

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