Reading Steven Pinker

As I read more and more I find more and more that there are few things, or rather few thoughts or ideas that I’ve had that haven’t been said, not just once, but many times by others. What is one to do? Stop writing and continue reading? Since one knows that one’s ideas are already out there and with the Internet easily accessible, and in most instances need not be said again.

The thinker and Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, is right at the top of my own list of those who speak or rather write for me. A few months ago in TNR of August 6 of this year, he was making the case for Science as being the friend, not the enemy as often depicted, of the Humanities. And I thought wouldn’t a Humanities Professor do better whatever he might be doing if he had somehow mastered himself the major findings of modern Science? Yes, I said, and wouldn’t we all do better with these findings in our possession?

What are the major findings of modern science? And before I could begin to list them myself I saw that Pinker had given us his own list, and here it is:

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small.

We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

My list too. OK, I’ll admit that not all these “findings” would be readily accepted, if at all, by the true believers among us, of whom there are legions. Still I have always been astonished, intrigued by the fact that these findings, so obvious to some of us, have found so little acceptance in the many.

Presidents, members of Congress, the majority of the people themselves would probably not agree that “there is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers.” Nor that “the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures, their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies, are factually mistaken.”

When, if ever, will we admit that our prayers are not being answered (as any reading of modern history ought to make clear) and that the stories told by our sacred books are no longer believable, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of the real journey of our ancestors out of Africa and into the various and far flung regions of the earth ought to know?

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