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Steven Pinker (1954 – ) is a Canadian-born American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, now at Harvard University. The faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker


Quotations from Steven Pinker

Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali is the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them–or worse, who credibly rebut them–they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.

The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence…the gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason.

It’s natural to think that living things must be the handiwork of a designer. But it was also natural to think that the sun went around the earth. Overcoming naïve impressions to figure out how things really work is one of humanity’s highest callings.

Much of what is today called “social criticism” consists of members of the upper classes denouncing the tastes of the lower classes (bawdy entertainment, fast food, plentiful consumer goods) while considering themselves egalitarians.

The scriptures present a God who delights in genocide, rape, slavery, and the execution of nonconformists, and for millennia those writings were used to rationalize the massacre of infidels, the ownership of women, the beating of children, dominion over animals, and the persecution of heretics and homosexuals.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.

Our minds are adapted to a world that no longer exists, prone to misunderstandings correctable only by arduous education, and condemned to perplexity about the deepest questions we can ascertain.

The recent debunking of beliefs that invite or tolerate violence call to mind Voltaire’s quip that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

The ultimate goal of natural selection is to propagate genes, but that does not mean that the ultimate goal of people is to propagate genes.

We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naive to work toward a better one.

Not speaking the same language is a virtual synonym for incommensurability, but to a psycholinguist, it is a superficial difference. Knowing about the ubiquity of complex language across individuals and cultures and the single mental design underlying them all, no speech seems foreign to me, even when I cannot understand a word.

Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.

Sources of the quotesGoodReads, Google


COMMENTS

Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful. When a society is dominated by a single belief system an individual may not raise his voice in opposition without risking ostracism and death. Therefore, it is essential to maintain a multiplicity of different and opposing sub-groups to maintain a basic freedom of speech. This will result in endless sub-lethal conflict, but it will maintain the health of the greater society.

The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence…the gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason. In my decades of living in Berkeley, California I never heard anyone, except some Scientologists, talk seriously about believing in permanent souls, but here in Bend, Oregon it is not an uncommon statement. I agree with Pinker that it is a malignant belief, because it cuts a person off from relating directly with the reality they physically live within, and they suffer a lesser level of happiness in this physical world.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. The classic religious stories have an appalling amount of ugly violence, and people who subject themselves to reading an abundance of these stories can’t help but integrate them into their living habits. Those horrible stories embedded in their subconscious can’t help but generate fear and thus a shutting down of flexibility of thought, and thus these stories promote an inflexible relationship with their world.

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