Steven Pinker – How do you make sense of the unknown?
This is a transcript of an interview with Steven Pinker on the Big Think website recorded On: 6/13/07. I thought it was some of the clearest thinking I’d heard in a long time. The whole interview is below, and I’ll make noteds in between as I see fit. You can watch the video here.
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.
Very well put indeed. This is one of the main reasons I blog about religion and atheism. So many people take a stance like “I don’t care what people believe as long as it doesn’t affect me or hurt anyone.” the problem with this statement is, depending on the political, social or public standing of the believer, their beliefs can be harmful to others, if not directly then by means of their decisions which can be skewed because of some false belief. Here in Australia we have decision-makers who are making statements about the future of the people in this country based on their own religious beliefs, as has been happening in the USA also.
Likewise people like Meryl Dorey and the AVN group here and Jenny McCarthy in the USA, using their baseless stance that vaccination can cause more harm than good, are causing people to stop vaccinating and thereby causing pockets of disease across the country, and these are diseases we once had good control over.
Religion aside, do you feel a sense of purpose?
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.
Great point, and one I have tried to make in the past. The whole idea of being special in a cosmic sense is not only a bit infantile, but brazenly selfish. It’s this kind of selfishness that makes for bad decisions. Even if there were an all-powerful creator God, why on earth would he favour some people over others or give two thoughts about the wellbeing of one person over the next? The world was not put here as our playground by a god, and the sooner we realise this the sooner we can get on with fixing the problems we all have to face.
Does humankind have an overarching purpose or direction?
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 homo sapiens 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.
When put like this it is really important that we see what we as humans have achieved historically. We as a species have no purpose but to reproduce, andwe don’t want to do this at the expense of comfort and happiness, so we strive and progress, and this gives us a secondary sense of purpose; the drive for betterment of the human species.
What are the obstacles to secular enlightenment?
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.
This is where you and I step in. We now have the means, via our technologies, to spread real information, good information, reasonable, rational and secular information around the globe. We now have the power to influence people who would have otherwise never have read our words. This is such an important time in history. We have an opportunity to make real decisions for the betterment of the whole planet, rather than just for greed, ego and belief. Either we get it right now, or we will be forever cleaning up our own mess. And I for one think we can make change.
I get giddy when someone is this lucid