Steven Pinker and Human Opportunity in Science

Steven Pinker is a psychologist and linguist who I feel is one of the best thinkers present in American culture today. In a recent edition of The New Republic, he argues that science has given us an opportunity to totally change the world for the better and that in spite of how it often appears, great strides are being taken toward that end.

But, in this article (, he commits the sin of irreligion, that being the sin of approaching reality with a perspective other than that of “literarylew.”! He argues that science is creating opportunities for us, opportunities that are often gravely hampered by childish, self-serving obscurantism often voiced most vehemently by the religious. He argues that this “dishonesty” is often present even in science itself when scientists are unwilling to be self-critical about their own pet theories. Here is one paragraph in which he makes this point:

The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.

The acquisition of knowledge is “hard.” I would attribute this to the phenomena of resistance, that tendency to not want to see things other than we see them already. And he clearly sees the relevance of this to science, the tendency for scientists to succumb to “subjective certainty” and fail to look critically at their own perspective.

And though he does not spell this out as pointedly as he could, the same could be said of religion and faith. Yes, spirituality also usually falls victim to this human need for “subjective certainty” and we end up believing only what we want to believe, not daring to consider what is obvious to everyone else—our faith is only a form of self-indulgence. And when faith devolves into that narcissistic morass, it fails to offer a redemptive influence in the culture. One writer, George Marsden, described this as the “cultural captivity” of religion. And, if one reads the gospels critically, one can see that Jesus saw this clearly about the religion of the day, calling them “hypocrites” which actually means “actors.” Those whose faith is wholly in the grip of contemporary culture can only be “actors”, having a “form of godliness but denying the power thereof.” Thus I close again with the pithy observation of Shakespeare on this note, “When love (or religion) begins to sicken and decay/It useth an enforced ceremony/There are no tricks in plain and simple faith/But hollow men, like horses hot at hand/Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.”


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