Steven Pinker


Steven Pinker is a respected experimental psychologist, popular science writer, and academic ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth from MIT to Harvard, currently residing in the latter as the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. Pinker was intense nearly from the get-go. Born September 18, 1956, he was raised in the ‘argumentative’ English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal. However, he quickly shed the beliefs of his community, demonstrating a strong individuality when he deconverted at the age of 13 (though he was a “serious cultural Jew at various times”). From that point on, he devoted his life to the study of human nature.

Pinker has had quite a bit of influence on my personal philosophy as an atheist/humanist. In The Blank Slate, we join him on a quest to reach a complete understanding of human nature, along the way cutting the branches of myth and misconception from our path. Forget the folk-tales about the infinite capacity and malleability of the human brain (for instance, “Did you know that we only use 10% of our brains?” BULLSHIT!), etc. In the book, we get the skinny on the moral and practical repercussions of a detailed, mostly fixed (yet also somewhat malleable) human nature which doesn’t vary from society to society. These repercussions are much less serious than you’d be led to think by the culture zealots on the left and the religious zealots on the right. At its best this book is a fascinating look at human nature and perception, and the histories thereof, imparting upon the reader a wealth of knowledge on these subjects. It demolishes many of the biases and myths about human nature which often permeate and pollute intellectual discourse. At the very least, The Blank Slate is optimistic about the human condition.

Other pop-sci books Pinker has written are The Language Instinct, in which he argues that humans are innately capable of language; How the Mind Works, wherein he derives explanations of the mind from its “reverse-engineering”; and Words and Rules, which examines language again, but focuses particularly on regular and irregular verbs, and is apparently a bit more technical. He has also written many scientific papers. You should check out his bibliography here.

Although he is widely recognized as one of America’s most prominent secular intellectuals, and is a self-identified “bright,” he does not fight religion head on, a la Dawkins. No matter, his writing is so sharp that it cuts away all excess rhetoric, religious or political, in favor of lean empirical explanations for many of the exciting puzzles of human nature.

Read about his worldview.

[UPDATE: The Sunday September 23, 2007 New York Times reviewed Pinker’s new book The Stuff of Thought.]

Comments (5 comments)

Prometheus / September 22nd, 2007, 6:23 am / #1

Excellent choice for Atheist of the Week. I’m a huge fan of Pinker; The Blank Slate was positively brilliant, a work of art as well as a forceful scientific argument.

Liquid Egg Product / September 23rd, 2007, 3:33 am / #2

Can I throw in my weekly dose of negativity and devil’s advocate-ism? I’m with Hitchens on this one: the term “the brights” sounds unnecessarily arrogant, even if that wasn’t the intent.

By the way, if you learn how to use 100% of your brain instead of 10%, you can teleport yourself up to a distance of 50 feet…

BlackSun / September 24th, 2007, 9:20 am / #3

Liquid Egg Product,

I admit “the Brights” has a slightly off-putting ring to it, but I almost think that works in its favor. Because anyone who is curious about it might check it out and learn that it’s supposed to be used as a noun not an adjective. I count myself as a member of the Brights constituency, and I think the perception of an arrogant connotation may evolve. It’s either an adaptive meme or it’s not. Time will tell.

Right now atheists as a movement are in the “jump up and down and get attention” stage, having been marginalized for so long. After all, what we are saying is “pay attention to knowledge.” If that’s not bright (using it as an adjective), I don’t know what is.

John B. / October 4th, 2007, 11:05 pm / #4

I’m a week or so late weighing in on this, but I strongly identify with the comment from Prometheus (#1).

I recently bought Pinker’s newest book (The Stuff of Thought) and look forward to the day (soon, I hope) that I can start reading it. My reading list is always long, but right now I have 4 of them waiting on my shelf, with one in hand.

Pinker is indeed one of the truly remarkable atheists of our society. He probably won’t ever get the media attention of Dawkins but I like the fact that he dispels the notions of theism through his ongoing work, rather than a frontal assault. There’s room for both. But Dawkins, like Pinker, is such a brilliant scientist that I would rather have him doing that work (and giving us his beautifully articulated reports) and leave the frontal assault to people like Hitchens and Harris.

Keep up the fine work, Shady.

Black Sun Journal » Archives » Ayn Rand / October 12th, 2007, 1:57 pm / #5

[…] Interestingly enough, my last AOTW article on Steven Pinker happens to be very poignant right about…now. If you have read any of Rand’s works, especially Atlas Shrugged (this I will detail further in just a sec), you know that her fictions deal with characters of extraordinary intellect, will power, and faculties of reason. They are endowed with Herculean characteristics, and their brilliance is very absorbing and inspiring. Under our microscope, this brilliance is shattered. […]

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