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Pinker in the Harvard Crimson

Steven Pinker has published an interesting op-ed in today’s Harvard Crimson, criticizing the current report of Harvard’s committee on general education. If one could reformulate Pinker’s dogmatic pronouncements as questions to be examined, this would be a good essay. For example,

  • What is faith?
  • Is Earth truly an undistinguished speck in the cosmos, or is there something special about it?
  • How is the paramount value of “reason” affected if the mind and its thoughts are merely products of chemical activity in the brain?

Opinion –Less Faith, More Reason
Published by The Harvard Crimson
On 10/27/2006 4:36:48 AM
By STEVEN PINKER

[T]he picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university.

My second major reservation [about Harvard's new Report of the Committee on General Education] concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement.

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these….

SOURCE: http://www.thecrimson.com/printerfriendly.aspx?ref=515314

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33 Responses to Pinker in the Harvard Crimson

  1. “that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos;”

    Undistinguised. Well, except for the fact that its inhabited by life- the only known place, thus far, in the universe to have any life whatsoever. More so- it has human life…men and women, like Pinker, capable of pondering this very fact. Maybe Pinker hates himself and sees himself as somehow being a speck of nothingness in the cosmos, but most would disagree.

    You have to love his arrogant attitude as well. You’d think he was a god himself, since he so clearly states that he KNOWS the mind is nothing but a chemical process from the brain, that the earth is but a tiny speck that means next to nothing in the vast cosmos, and the rest of the inane statements he makes.

    You quickly reach the problem area with Pinker’s worldview. If what he writes here is nothing but a chemically process that he has no control over- why should we listen to any of it to begin with? My mind is nothing but some chemicals I have no control over, but it somehow allows me to write that it’s mere chemicals I have no control over. Why listen to anything he has to say if it’s all just random firing neurons with no basis in objective truth?

    He goes on to make the completely absurd statement:

    “Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these.”

    Can ANYONE, and I mean anyone here confirm what he says here? Do you consider your faith something that you believe and have no good reasons in doing so? That is NOT what faith means when it comes to religion. Faith does NOT mean believing in something without good reason or believing in something without evidence. Does Pinker really believe that a brilliant man like CS Lewis, for example, was a simpleton who believed what he did and had not a single good reason to do so? Did Pinker forget all the books Lewis wrote that detailed the varied reasons to believe as he did? What of other well known theologians today? Moreland, William Lane Craig, and many others…I don’t think anyone using critical thinking skills can conclude these men and women believe what they do and do so without reason or evidence.

    That goes alone with the arrogance of Pinker’s thinking. I wonder what it feels like to be soooo smart, knowing everyone who doesn’t share your nihilistic worldview is but a moron, ignorant in everything they do…? It’s a disgrace that institutions like Harvard even give this guy a soapbox to speak from at all.

    One bright side- he didn’t say anything about his desire to kill newborn babies that are unwanted! You’d think that alone would brand someone a lunatic- unfortunately, at Harvard (they gave him the soapbox afterall), this isn’t the case. Which is one reason I’d never pay for my kids to attend that school.

  2. “One bright side- he didn’t say anything about his desire to kill newborn babies that are unwanted!” JasonTheGreek

    Jason, are you confusing Pinker with Princeton’s Peter Singer? Or does Pinker hold this view as well?

  3. Pinker in the past has defended women killing their infants on the grounds that our hunter-gatherer ancestors sometimes found this practice adaptive (in times of drought or famine, better to kill an infant and thus keep onself alive to reproduce at a more opportune time when both parent and offspring are likely to thrive). This brilliant piece of analysis appeared in the New York Review of Books as I recall (ca. 1997). I encourage someone to track down the precise reference — it was quite a remarkable piece of insanity.

  4. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these….

    As good an example of an argument from arrogance that you’re going to find. On the other hand, that definition of faith would fit a philosophical naturalist like Pinker quite well.

    I’d recommend that Pinker spend a little time reading some Alvin Plantinga.

  5. Yeah, Russ, both of them hold similar views on this.

    Here is what I find via google:

    http://www.findarticles.com/p/.....i_n8773695

    http://topics.nytimes.com/top/.....0&

  6. for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

    I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated.

    Earth is not undistinguished compared to the rest of the universe as far as we have been able to see. Therefore it is axiomatic until proven otherwise that Earth is extremely distinguished because it is the sole source of life as far as we have been able to prove.

    Doesn’t the law of conservation of energy say that energy is never lost? That it simply changes form? i.e : from http://library.thinkquest.org/2745/data/lawce1.htm

    “Energy in a system may take on various forms (e.g. kinetic, potential, heat, light). The law of conservation of energy states that energy may neither be created nor destroyed. Therefore the sum of all the energies in the system is a constant.”

    What is a human? Is it the body or is it the consciousness and mind in the body? Are we simply primates or are conscious entities in primate bodies? His simplistic approach is masquerading as profound.

    The current state of research on how the mind works does not come anywhere near to the dogma pronounced by Pinker. That is his personal opinion and it is certainly not shared by many of those who make it their lifes work to study the mind brain relationship. It is field rife with conflicting views.

    The idea that we should expect “truth” should be something which is counter to and violates common sense is making a pretty bold statement about the nature of truth. From what I read most scientists claim that “truth” can rarely be known perfectly. What to speak if some “truth” violates common sense. That seems to be an unscientific attitude. Truth is rarely if ever actually proven to be violating common sense. It’s usually theories, not proof, which violate common sense.

    Materialism needs a new spokesman. Preferably someone who isn’t high or drunk while making his silly pontifications.

  7. DonaldM wrote:

    As good an example of an argument from arrogance that you’re going to find. On the other hand, that definition of faith would fit a philosophical naturalist like Pinker quite well.

    Philosophical naturalists aren’t all bad, Donald. It’s the arrogant, condescending anti-theists–those who treat faith as a poison and the faithful as stupid imbeciles worthy of disdain–who are the real bad guys.

  8. Someone should send him (Pinker) a copy of “The Privileged Planet”- book and video.

    Then we through in a little RJ:

    “A sound explanation may exist for the explosive birth of our Universe; but if it does, science cannot find out what the explanation is. The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation. This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth… At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” — Robert Jastrow

  9. “It’s the arrogant, condescending anti-theists–those who treat faith as a poison and the faithful as stupid imbeciles worthy of disdain–who are the real bad guys.”

    And unfortunately, they are the ones we always here from. They are the ones the media loves and have labeled “real” scientists. I for one am sick and tired of hearing from all these loud-mouthed, logic-lacking Dawkinites who have chosen to abandon science in favor of materialist fundamentalism.

  10. Pinker fails to understand that it is quite reasonable to have faith.

    Further, Pinker restricts “reason” to what is materially measurable which is not reasonable.

    Further, while I suspect that Pinker will admit that there are things he does not know, I suspect he is incapable (which is unreasonable) of admitting that it is faith that keeps him from fearing what he does not know.

  11. Too bad Pinker’s own mother hadn’t realized she could do better with a different child at a later time.

  12. But universities are about reason, pure and simple.

    I wonder if he knows that Cotton Mather, of Salem Witch Trial fame helped found Yale.

    His father, Increase, was a president of Harvard.

  13. Pinker also confuses “having a reason” with being rational. For example, his own belief that one ought to have a reason for one’s beliefs is a belief for which he has no reason. And if he did, then we would simply ask for the reason for that reason, and so forth, ad infinitum. What Pinker will have arrived at are first principles, or properly basic beliefs, that are rational to believe in but for which he has no reasons, since the very nature of first principles is that they are first.

    There are other problems with Pinker’s view of faith and reason. First, he has no clue as to the rich and robust debate that is going on right now in academic philosophy of religion and religious epistemology. Second, as with most of his ilk, he stipulates, rather than argues for, his most controversial premises. For example, he defines faith in a pejorative way, but violates his own principle of offering reasons as to why we should accept his definition. He stipulates his straw man and then burns it to the ground.

    The fact that someone as educated, talented, and accomplished as Pinker can get away with this, and not even realize that in fact he is getting away with something, shows the deep intellectual fragmentation of the academy. No longer can we assume that our most accomplished scholars in a particular field are truly educated, that they are able to understand and communicate in an even rudimentary way the most important questions with which their civilization has wrestled for millennia. What we have produced are intellectual barbarians, deeply knowledgeable of their subject, but unwise about the intellectual patrimony of the universities they inhabit.

  14. Francis,

    You are right on the money! Bravo!!

  15. crandaddy

    Philosophical naturalists aren’t all bad, Donald. It’s the arrogant, condescending anti-theists–those who treat faith as a poison and the faithful as stupid imbeciles worthy of disdain–who are the real bad guys.

    Yes, I agree. That is why I qualified my statement by saying “philosophical naturalistis like Pinker. Perhaps I’ve should have been a bit clearer in distinguishing between PN’s like Pinker and others like, say, Quentin Smith or Kai Nelson.

  16. Dr. Beckwith writes:

    No longer can we assume that our most accomplished scholars in a particular field are truly educated, that they are able to understand and communicate in an even rudimentary way the most important questions with which their civilization has wrestled for millennia. What we have produced are intellectual barbarians, deeply knowledgeable of their subject, but unwise about the intellectual patrimony of the universities they inhabit.

    Well put and I agree. But note what Pinker writes in his essay:

    The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

    I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated.

    Clearly Pinker’s idea of what it means to be “educated” is far different that what Dr. Beckwith implies in his comment. Beckwith’s concept promotes inquiry, reflection, and seeing the connections between disciplines in a fundamental way. Pinker’s concept stifles inquiry and promotes adherence to the established dogma going so far as to consider someone who may question it, even in earnest, as not “educated”.

  17. “Too bad Pinker’s own mother hadn’t realized she could do better with a different child at a later time”
    This is a really terrible comment. Really terrible. We may (& probably do) disagree with a lot of Steven Pinker’s opinions, but he is an incredibly highly-regarded linguist & cognitive scientist, which of course has no bearing on matters outside his expertise. What on earth is being suggested here – do we not welcome disagreement & debate – I may be reading this wrong but it sounds like “Not precisely agreeing with me – they should not exist”.

  18. Pinker claims that one ought to subject one’s claims to empirical tests, even though that claim itself is non-empirical since it is logically prior to any empirical test. Given that, he should have no fear that this precious belief will be cruelly falsified, since it cannot be.

  19. littlejon,

    I cannot speak for DaveScot, but I believe he was, somewhat in humor, alluding to Pinker’s belief, as stated by William Dembski, “Pinker in the past has defended women killing their infants on the grounds that our hunter-gatherer ancestors sometimes found this practice adaptive (in times of drought or famine, better to kill an infant and thus keep onself alive to reproduce at a more opportune time when both parent and offspring are likely to thrive). This brilliant piece of analysis appeared in the New York Review of Books as I recall (ca. 1997). I encourage someone to track down the precise reference — it was quite a remarkable piece of insanity. ”

    In other words, it seems a bit ungracious, now that each of us had the good fortune of being born, to be so very cavalier about our fellow humans’ lives. Of course, in true Darwinian Materialist style, we may say, “yes, but if I wasn’t born because my dear mother decided that it just did not fit into her busy schedule to grant me birth and life, well, than I would not be here to wonder about it, so what the heck, how can we complain!!”

    Of course, you are absolutely right that we should and do welcome disagreement and debate. Life would be boring without differing viewpoints, which is exactly why “the system” should never squelch alternative theories such as ID. In fact, Universities and academia should welcome such views. I wonder why they don’t? Hmmm.

  20. From the article: “for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos.”

    Well sure, from a physical standpoint, we are merely a speck. And I suppose it might make one feel a bit insignificant, if one felt like physical space was some sort of relevant barometer or measure of significance. You know, like we would expect God, as we know him, to bring forth some sort of small, shabby cosmos. If that was the case the skeptics would be throwing in our face “what kind of God would put this little play pen together?”. But no, since the cosmos is so huge and so amazing, they go to plan B to somehow discredit the notion of God because the cosmos is too big and amazing, and we are too small. Just like Darwinian thinking, every card in the deck finds its way into their hands to make the play.

    Hey, but let’s not stop here. Why not have a little fun with this physical space sort of thing? How many square miles is Yale? Or all the high-brow Universities combined? OK, so, as a percentage of the total land mass on the planet, what percent does this make up? Lets give it a rough estimate of .00001%, or one-one hundred thousandth of a percent. Why should be give one micro-gram, or nano-gram if such a thing exists, of credence to this tiny piece of real estate. Hey, instead lets poll the entire planet and evenly weight the opinion by physical space, since it is so darn important. You know, each person on the South Pole will have an opinion worth about 1 million people in Manhattan or the Bronx. What a hoot!!!

  21. Pinker: “I believe that a person for whom this understanding [see the previous paragraph] is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated.”

    How do clowns like this get advanced degrees at major universities?

    This is a complete mystery to me.

  22. Gil wrote:

    How do clowns like this get advanced degrees at major universities?

    How do clowns like this get teaching positions at top-notch institutions like Harvard? I’ve long suspected that such schools may not be all they’re cracked up to be. To be sure, Pinker’s remarks only exacerbate my suspicions.

  23. littlejon

    All I did was take Pinker’s own idea that mothers kill their offspring after they are born and made it personal. It was merely to drive home a point about how horrible it is. It’s probably true though as post-birth killing of offspring is common enough in other mammals. Young rodent mothers often eat their entire first litters. My daughter and I had the unfortunate experience of seeing a pet hamster do exactly that. Ekstasis was correct in his guess about my motive for writing that.

  24. Pinker’s piece is pretty ironic, and Bill went straight at the point of irony. Pinker wants to say that a “reason” approach to the world is superior to a “faith” approach to the world, but why? Presumably, he believes that a “reason” approach results in conclusions that better reflect the truth. But how can that be? Both the “faith” approach and the “reason” approach are just chemical activity in the brain, according to his conclusions. It makes no sense to say that one chemical reaction is more true than another. His belief that “Earth is an undistinguished speck in the cosmos,” which was supposedly arrived at by “reason”, is only chemical activity, he says. But how can that chemical reaction be true, or have anything whatsoever to do with the earth’s ultimate place in the cosmos, or do either of these things any better than the chemical reactions in different person’s brain? The answer is that it can’t, of course; it’s a nonsensical category error.

    Also, if Pinker wants to say that somehow his beliefs are true; that they more correctly capture an external standard of truth than the beliefs of Joe Religious who disagrees with him, then he invalidates his own conclusion about the Earth’s place in the cosmos. Does every planet have creatures living on it that somehow capture ultimate truths about the cosmos inside their heads? Surely that would distinguish this one.

    You’d think that Pinker, given his prestige and position, would have had to have dealt with these issues seriously and carefully instead of going off dogmatically and half-cocked, and that everyone must somehow be reading him wrong. But as Francis pointed out, the guy lacks even a rudimentary grasp of the basics of rational discourse.

  25. Deuce:

    Pinker’s piece is pretty ironic, and Bill went straight at the point of irony. Pinker wants to say that a “reason” approach to the world is superior to a “faith” approach to the world, but why? Presumably, he believes that a “reason” approach results in conclusions that better reflect the truth. But how can that be? Both the “faith” approach and the “reason” approach are just chemical activity in the brain, according to his conclusions. It makes no sense to say that one chemical reaction is more true than another.

    This is an excellent point and one I hadn’t considered before and SHOULD have!!!
    If faith and reason are both the end result of a blind, purposeless evolutionary process, then Pinker’s “belief” that reason supercedes faith represents a true statement is also the end result of that process.

    The best refutations of this sort of non-sense that I’ve seen are C.S. Lewis in his book MIracles and Alvin Plantinga in his book Warrant and Proper Function where he gives his evolutionary argument against naturalism. The fact that Pinker believes that his cognitvie faculties, themselves the end products of this blind, purposeless evolutionary process, have as one of their primary functions the production of true beliefs is without warrant.
    At best he ought to be agnostic towards his belief, at worst, he ought to reject it outright. But that would be terribly inconvenient to his naturalism!!

  26. DonaldM, “The best refutations of this sort of non-sense that I’ve seen are C.S. Lewis in his book MIracles”

    Indeed, it is a good refutation of Humes anti-miracle arguments.

    The irony is, if materialism is true, there’s no coherent logical reason to believe it is.

  27. If Pinker is a mere “primate” inhabiting an “undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos,” and his arguments are the mere mechanical output of “an organ that runs by physiological processes,” what reason do any of us have to listen to him? He, and his argument carry no more weight than any other biochemical accident, arbitrarily spawned, and capriciously sustained.

    On the other hand, if he argues that he matters and his point of view is important and worth listening to, he stands in contradiction to all his most dearly-held presuppositions about the universe and the blind, purposeless processes that have cobbled him together. In this instance, he apparently manages to believe that he is meaningful, while the rest of the universe is not, and that his mind is somehow capable of independent, creative thought.

    Must be tough to live with the cognitive dissonance. I feel sorry for him.

  28. Pinker’s statement: “that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes;…”

    Is this not the perfect example of stating something that is true in the technical sense, but is misleading? True, humans are primates, but that does not itself mean that we are limited to a physical natures. We may as well say the latest model Lexus is a type of cart, and therefore all of its’ capabilities are simply the same as a Red Wagon Flyer, slightly enhanced but of the same nature.

    And, yes, the mind is certainly “run” by the brain, but again, this does not mean that the mind is limited to physical, chemical, and electrical activities, any more than what you see on your television is limited to the activity produced by the electronic components in the box, forgetting all about the signal from the cable connection or the waves received through the atmosphere.

    So, after implying very misleading inferences, he figures he has now built up the trust and credibility level with the reader to declare that “a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. ” In other words, if you do not agree with his interpretations and conclusion, you cannot even consider yourself to be educated. Incredible!!!!!

    Oh yes, if you do not agree with the official party line, you are not educated, and therefore by inference cannot get a degree or obtain a teaching position. Yep, here is educational Fascism in living color!!!!!

  29. Re #’s 25 & 26:

    Two other really good books which develop this line of thought are Victor Reppert’s C.S Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason and Angus Menuge’s Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science. I’ve read Reppert’s book and am currently in chapter 3 of Menuge’s. I’ve mentioned before to Mike that Reppert’s work was instrumental in convincing me to embrace a nonphysicalist view of cognitive faculties.

  30. It is interesting that when the topic on this blog involves an issue related to the details of some biological process or structure, the materialists are typically right in the fray, arguing for their point of view. But when the topic turns to broader issues like the one in this thread, they fall conspicuously silent. Of the 29 comments so far, why hasn’t even one person taken a shot at defending or supporting Pinker?

  31. Ekstasis:

    “We may as well say the latest model Lexus is a type of cart, and therefore all of its’ capabilities are simply the same as a Red Wagon Flyer, slightly enhanced but of the same nature. ”

    Well, in the sense that the Lexus is no closer to having an eternal soul than the cart, the metaphor stands up pretty well.

  32. tryster057,

    Ah, but the Lexus has a GPS unit. From an ambulatory standpoint, the Lexus falls in the same category as the Red Wagon Flyer — both are 4 wheeled vehicles. They have much in common regarding their physical motion. But it does not stop there, the Lexus has a navigation capability that is entirely absent from the Red Wagon Flyer. In much the same way, humans may have features that some or all other biological organisms are missing, a soul for example.

  33. I agree – it is indeed “much the same way” – humans too have a highly sophisticated computer on board. However, much like the GPS unit, smash one to pieces and that’s the end of it.

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