Pinker Again

Well, here is another poor bloke misreading, misunderstanding, and misrepresenting Pinker.  Or, maybe not.
He makes a very good point here:
“…even those who are skeptical about the scientizing enterprise must stand with the scientists [which I do on questions of the earth’s age and so on, just as most Christians do as well], though it is important to point out that the errors of religious fundamentalism must not be mistaken for the errors of religion. Too many of the defenders of science, and the noisy “new atheists,” shabbily believe that they can refute religion by pointing to its more outlandish manifestations. Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally. When they read, most believers, like most nonbelievers, interpret.”
Any readers of this blog must know at this point that I’m no fundamentalist (or a very poor one) and any arguments tailored to fundamentalism will fail here.  Quite a few still do not understand this.  It will be very difficult for readers to understand my posts if when they think “religion” or “Christianity” they only see fundamentalism.
Putting all that aside, there is another way to look at what Pinker was doing in his now infamous essay defending scientism.  He was basically making this point: Look at all the positive outcomes that we can link to the Enlightenment narrative.  And those positive outcomes say something significant, something true about that narrative.
Burk was alluding to basically the same thing, which I noted in my last post.
Or as one of Pinker’s critics put it:
“Pinker’s argument, very briefly, is this: people in the humanities should stop complaining about the rise of ‘Scientism’. Scientism is great. Science has helped to cure diseases and invent the aeroplane and the electric toaster. But more than that: scientific progress has undermined, exposed and debunked animist and religious beliefs, leading to a radical disenchantment of the world. In place of the old supernatural beliefs, scientific progress has opened the way for the rise of secular humanism, by which Pinker means the desire for the flourishing of sentient beings.”
Clearly, this is all debatable as to whether or not “Scientism” or the Enlightenment narrative is responsible for what Pinker thinks it is and if other narratives play a part or could also said to be responsible.  But Pinker is also, just as clearly, linking outcomes to a narrative and he wants us to understand that such is significant—that it says something “true” about that very narrative and not some other narrative.  What else would he be saying?  “These are great outcomes, but too bad the Enlightenment espoused and was so wrong about what is actually true.”  We know he is saying no such thing.  We know Burk wasn’t saying any such thing. He wasn’t saying these outcomes are great, but too bad modernity/rationalism is false or doesn’t speak to, or about, anything that might be true…such as, the truth of atheism.  
Here are the questions we need to think about:
Do ideas have consequences?  Do philosophies/world-views/narratives/faiths have real cultural/societal impacts?  Can those be linked, the ideas with the outcomes?  Can we evaluate those outcomes?
If we answer yes to any of the above, then the next set of questions are these:
What, if anything, can this tell us about those ideas—those narratives?  If we see the outcomes as positive and good, then can we, like Pinker and Burk, assert that such tells us something about the truthfulness of those narratives?  Both Pinker and Burk believe those narratives to be true in the same sense Christians believe their narrative to be true.  And I know Burk will have some question-begging responses to that assertion.  He will say yes, but the Enlightenment narrative actually is true and we have evidence.  Yawn.  But back to the point, both sides think the way these narratives impact our actual lives says something about their truthfulness.  For instance, if one believes the Enlightenment narrative and its impact on the question of God’s existence (or how that question perhaps informs the Enlightenment) is a true narrative, tells us something actually true about our existence and the world, Christians believe the same about the Judeo-Christian narrative.  So, when one wants to know how Christians link these ideas, they can simply think about how they do the same with the narrative they believe to be true.  They are linked by the same logic.
Again, this isn’t “proof” or an assertion we are proving something empirically/scientifically; it is more a common-sense nod, or leaning toward one narrative over another.  Unless, of course, Burk wants to defend his belief that because we can link positive outcomes to the Enlightenment, it means God does not exist.  I doubt he would go that far.  And neither am I.  I’ve said over and over my argument is not “This proves empirically/scientifically that God exists.”  My thesis and these series of posts were an attempt to answer the question, “If we cannot found narratives empirically/scientifically, then how can we know which ones are true?”
Now, where does one find the errors of logic in Pinker or Burk’s line of thought here, which is exactly the same line of thought I’ve been putting forth?  In one’s schematic, or points 1, 2, or 3, where does their logic fall down for you?  Or does it?  If not, why? 
In other words, the question we may need to ask here is not, do you accept my thesis, but do you accept Pinker’s? 

Why or why not?

On another note, thisWow, nice.

This entry was posted in Consequences, Narrative, Steven Pinker. Bookmark the permalink.

267 Responses to Pinker Again

  1. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    The correspondence theory of truth is a disputed theory for many reasons, but all that is a side issue here. I only noted it because you thought it might be a point of agreement. It is held by several prominent evangelical apologists, most notably J.P. Moreland at BIOLA University. You are welcome to seek out his writings and others like him. But it should give you pause if you hold to that same theory and find it also a favorite of evangelicals and fundamentalists. What might that tell you?

    Of course, getting back on track here, you failed to address my points or questions. Care to give that a shot?

    It is clear exactly what type of Enlightenment thinking and emphasis I am addressing, that of Pinker’s.

    You guys pick the strangest battles.


  2. Darrell says:

    Oh, and by the way,

    “On the second question, I still don't understand what you (let alone Christians in general) mean by non-corresponding truths, so as JP suggested, sorting definitions might be a good start.”

    My question has nothing to do with contested epistemologies. What is hard about this?

    Regardless of what anyone thinks about what the better or correct epistemology might be- that shouldn't prevent anyone from answering those two questions.

    It is a simple question. Do they represent different approaches? Yes or no? If this was a question on a freshman high school history exam, what would the answer be? Burk says they do and he is clearly correct, do you agree with him?

    This is becoming rather silly.


  3. Hi Darrell

    I think your question has everything to do with contested epistemologies, and that's what makes it hard to give yes/no answers.

    One can not answer whether or not two groups have different concepts of truth without knowing what those concepts are. And although I know you do not hold to correspondence notions of truth, I don't understand what non-correspondence notions would look like.

    If Christian truth claims do indeed lay claim to things being true, without corresponding to reality, then it is certainly the case that this would represent a departure from Pinker's point of view (and mine).

    However, I'm not convinced this is a fair treatment of Christian viewpoints. So, for example, if we consider the issue of life after death, I suspect you think it is true in a correspondence style way. That is, you believe not just that eternal life is true in some non-realist sense (say true insomuch as it is a concept that gives meaning to your existence) but also in the correspondence sense that you do expect that in reality, your soul will actually survive death.

    Now, if I have you right on this, then the Christian and Enlightenment views of what constitutes truth may have a significant overlap.

    If I have you wrong, however, and your belief in God is not, for example, a belief that in reality there is a God (so a correspondence belief), then I suspect a great deal of the debate over our beliefs could be ended here and now.



  4. Darrell says:


    I mean seriously- this is like asking “Do you agree there are differences between Republicans and Democrats?” It doesn't mean one is saying there are no points of agreement between the two or that one need comment on the particulars or reasons for those differences. Those are entirely different questions. The question has nothing, whatsoever, to do with disputed epistemologies. None. Zero. You are as wrong as wrong can be here. But fine, if you don’t want to answer, again, no worries. I’m moving on. This is silly—any reasonable person, who has the slightest semblance of understanding of those two streams of thought, would know the answer is “Yes.”

    For future reference though, should we take this to mean you don’t believe Pinker sees any difference in the two perspectives (what flows from the Enlightenment and Christianity) or that any difference is irrelevant and both have more areas of agreement than disagreement?


  5. Hi Darrell

    If your question changes to, are there differences between Christianity and the Enlightenment, then of course the answer is yes. There are very many differences, not least that which Burk identifies, a difference of kind. Christianity entails a set of contested beliefs about the nature of the world (God's existence, immortal souls, objective moral values etc) whereas The Enlightenment might be characterised as perhaps an epoch, or in its modern guise, as an attitude towards the accumulation of knowledge. It's not at all clear what contested beliefs sit at the heart of Enlightenment thinking, as Pinker characterises it.

    But this was not your initial question. You wondered also, whether a Christian necessarily has a different conception of what truth even means, from someone like Pinker. That's much harder to answer. It may be there is a difference, if the Christian is committed, as you suggest, to non-corresponding truths. However, I think that you do believe God really exists, and the soul will really survive death, and in this correspondence sense, there is no difference between the two groups, as to what is meant by truth.

    Remember this whole discussion stemmed from the idea that Pinker, by praising the Enlightenment, was committing himself to some set of truths not held by Christians. This may be true, if for example Pinker derives his atheism from Enlightenment principles, although because I'm unclear on how exactly Pinker defines and justifies his atheism (it could be he's somewhere on the agnosticism spectrum, for example, in which case speaking of truths might be an error).

    PS from this distance, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is far smaller than it appears close up!



  6. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    The thing is, you seem to mean much more by your questions that what appears at first sight.

    This is kind of obvious in your last answer to Burk where you say in effect that a “yes” answer implies an agreement with the fact that “it shows that Pinker is making a similar argument to mine [Darrell's]; he just begs the question in doing so.” Not quite, not by a large margin.

    Burk has been very careful to point out that the E and C are different in kind; they are not two endeavours aiming at achieving the same goals. Which means, in turn, that your seemingly simple question is ripe with potential misunderstandings (as illustrated by your comment I quote above).

    You may say that, in a sense, the E and C saw (some) truth claims differently but this is a very superficial (and misleading) reading of what went on. You also want to squeeze the E into your narrative framework, as an “over-arching perspective that touch on every area of life”. Again, I think this is reducing complex topics to a very small common denominator, to the point of making the comparison essentially trivial.


  7. Burk Braun says:

    Incidentally, there was an interesting discussion recently by Aaron Ra about how atheism should be interpreted to include agnosticism.. how gnosis and theism are orthogonal dimensions, to a large extent.

    He is a on the activist edge, but this piece makes quite a bit of sense.


  8. Darrell says:


    I only changed the question because you wouldn't even answer the first one. And the answer to the second and first one is obviously “Yes.”

    If you think Pinker doesn't derive his atheism from the same stream of thought reflected in the Enlightenment, then I have a bridge here in the Bay Area I would like to sell you. It is red and pretty.

    The clear point is that Pinker is linking outcomes to narrative, not to simply say the narrative is “good” but true, accurate, better, whatever word you want to use that makes up that difference he sees between the Enlightenment stream of thought and that of Christianity or any other narrative. This leads him to make ontological claims in his private life (God does not exist) and to other public propositions like “Science makes God obsolete”…” and give us “less reason to believe in God.”

    In public he is considered a champion of the Enlightenment and a very sharp critic of Christianity and religion in general.

    He is making a very similar argument as mine; he just starts off by begging the question.


  9. Darrell says:


    “This is kind of obvious in your last answer to Burk where you say in effect that a “yes” answer implies an agreement with the fact that “it shows that Pinker is making a similar argument to mine [Darrell's]; he just begs the question in doing so.” Not quite, not by a large margin.”

    Well, when you can show how this is not the case, please do. And the rest of what you note is irrelevant to answering the questions I posed, which is why Burk answered it. He knew it wasn't a capitulation–it was just being truthful.

    Do the Enlightenment and Christianity represent different approaches to truth claims and what truth even means?

    Yes, they do. To agree is not to concede anything, it is to be truthful. Truth is good.


  10. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    We have been through the main difference between your argument (from consequences upstream) and Pinker's (who does no such thing). What else do you need?

    Moreover, am I right in thinking that you interpret a “yes” answer to your question as an agreement that your's and Pinker's are similar arguments? This seems a total non sequitur to me.

    The Enlightenment does not represent an approach to truth. It was a cultural movement. According to Wikipedia, “Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange”.

    Sure, the Enlightenment privileged reason and the scientific method (among other things) against tradition and faith (Christianity) and was to a significant extent, I believe, a reaction to the dogmatism and power of the Church. Reason and science against faith and revelation? Yes, sure, very different. But to reduce this to your formula is overly simplistic.


  11. Darrell says:


    To claim, “The Enlightenment does not represent an approach to truth…” and to then note, “Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange” and then to write further, “the Enlightenment privileged reason and the scientific method (among other things) against tradition and faith (Christianity)…” but that this doesn’t represent an approach to truth staggers the mind.

    What? Please tell me what philosopher or history teacher who would not note that everything you point out here obviously touches on approaches to truth. Please, just one. You have to be kidding.

    “We have been through the main difference between your argument (from consequences upstream) and Pinker's (who does no such thing). What else do you need?”

    We have not been through it. We were sidetracked by the ridiculous notion that Pinker doesn't think the Enlightenment represents a truer, better, more accurate, whatever perspective than the Christian narrative. It now appears that Burk recognizes that he does, it looks like Bernard is leaning that way (or maybe not, one can never tell with Bernard), so what else do you need?

    And Pinker never tells us why what flows from the Enlightenment is truer, better, more accurate, than the Christian (or any other) narrative, he just assumes it. I don’t do the same in my approach, I work backwards and let people draw their own conclusion. Clear difference.

    Anything else?


  12. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Aiming at reforming society (which appears to be the driving force here) represents an approach to… social reform. Yes, the idea is to use science and reason to do this, because they were judged more accurate, I suppose.

    As an analogy, aiming at building a house using specific tools is an approach to house building, not to whatever can be said about tools.

    You are very quick to dismiss what I and others write as nonsense as if we were either idiot or dishonest. Perhaps it would be appropriate, once in a while, to assume we do know what we're talking about and that the problem is more one of communication/understanding than of bad faith. Just saying.


  13. Darrell says:


    To be specific, we all agreed he was linking outcomes to a narrative but then it was thrown out that this didn't mean he thought the Enlightenment narrative to represent a truer, better, more accurate (again, I don’t care what word we use here) perspective than Christianity. Maybe he thinks any narrative would have done this, or maybe the narrative even gives us false methods (secular reason) but still “good” outcomes.

    I think we are moving toward the view that he does believe that about the Enlightenment. Thus he is making a very similar argument to mine, he just starts by saying, “What derives from this narrative, secular reason, naturalism, etc., is true (or whatever), and it leads to these good outcomes…therefore, I am an atheist and strong promoter of the Enlightenment and critic of Christianity and religion…”

    Well, that is (what derives) all disputed and question-begging. That is why I say, “Well, let’s put aside for a moment whether or not such-and-such narrative is true (or can be proved empirically/scientifically). Let’s see if we can look at what it produces and see if that provides a further basis for reflection and investigation. And then a person can make up their own minds down the road.

    But the intrinsic linking of ideas to outcomes and both saying something “true” (again, whatever word you want) about the other is there in both Pinker’s reasoning and mine.


  14. Darrell says:

    Sorry, I meant he “does not” believe that about the Enlightenment.


  15. Darrell says:


    “As an analogy, aiming at building a house using specific tools is an approach to house building, not to whatever can be said about tools.”

    Right, and if I come along and say, I have another approach- it doesn't necessarily say anything about my tools either. That was my whole point, whereas you guys wanted to keep saying, “But, we have to talk about these tools first.”

    No, we don’t. The tools are disputed. We can first agree that there are different approaches to house building and the Enlightenment and Christianity represent different approaches to viewing the world or “building” a culture.

    You guys wouldn't even agree to that obviously true statement (or agree that Pinker would) and then you become defensive because I call it obvious.


  16. Hi Burk

    thanks for the link, an interesting read. I suspect it's slightly quixotic to argue in favour of any particular common usage in language, words will do what they will, ultimately, and we will follow them. Because I think the distinction between those who suspect there is no God, and those who have no idea, is important, I prefer the usage the write rails against, with atheist denoting the former, and agnostic the latter. Nevertheless, a blanket term including all those who lack specific belief in a God is possibly useful, I like non-theist.



  17. Darrell

    I'm being entirely genuine when I say I don't know to what extent Enlightenment ideals lead Pinker to his atheism.

    I understand you consider this preposterous, but consider the alternative. What if Pinker's atheism derived instead from his belief that science provides the best models of the physical world (hardly an exclusively Enlightenment viewpoint, after al you share it).

    Now, Pinker is greatly interested in the workings of the brain, and it may be, that his understandings of the working of the brain make it very difficult to believe in a mechanism that would either allow the self to survive death, or would allow knowledge of the extra-physical world to manifest itself within the physical brain.

    These key components of most theistic models (soul, and metaphysical knowledge) in essence propose an alternative model of the brain, and it may just be that Pinker, having done his best to understand the brain, concludes these models less likely, and calls this conclusion atheism.

    If this were the case, then it is not some elusive beast called Enlightenment truths that is driving Pinker toward atheism, but rather just good old fashioned attempts to nut out the workings of the a particularly complex physical system, using the methods we all agree work best in such circumstances.

    Note, he could do this without ever having to assume in advance that there is no extra-physical dimension to the brain, so it's not a case of needing an alternative philosophical framework to get started.

    Is it not at least possible that this is the way Pinker grounds his atheism? (It may well be you've read more about Pinker's religious philosophies and understand this is not his method).



Comments are closed.