A Dead Horse

I’m going to beat this dead horse a little longer.  This essay sums up how I interpret Pinker and others with a similar view.  In itself, that is another matter and doesn’t really go to the point of this series and how we can evaluate differing narratives.  In a round-about-way however, it touches on many of the same areas.  I’m not interested however in his main point of noting the differences between Pinker and Lakoff, except, again, in a round-about-way.  In other words, I’m not interested in who is right, Pinker or Lakoff.  I don’t care.  What I am going to do is just pull out some quotes and speak to how those are relevant to the present series and the last several posts/comments dealing with Pinker.
“There are still obstacles. Lakoff, on the one hand, points to powerful anti-Enlightenment forces, in part based on fundamentalist religion, leading a sort of anti-democratic counter-revolution. On the other hand, the original Enlightenment itself partly developed, he claims, a faulty understanding of reason that still seriously affects both science and progressive political and religious thought and practice. Lakoff therefore has to battle simultaneously on several fronts, against religious transgressions into the worlds of science and politics, against conservative politics, and against bad science and bad philosophy. In this article, I will examine his debate with Steven Pinker who combines what Lakoff considers to be disastrous political views with misguided Old Enlightenment philosophy and defective science…Making morality and politics scientific
One of the claims of the Enlightenment was its promise to overcome the perpetual religious, moral and political conflicts and wars that were grounded, so it was said, in the arbitrary claims of religion and tradition.  Politics and ethics should be built on grounds that are available, in principle, to any reasonable person, independent of history and culture. They should be genuinely rational. Scientific knowledge and a scientific worldview should replace religious ones based on authority and arbitrary dogmas.”
Notice the writer himself and his summing up of what Lakoff and Pinker are speaking of assumes they take the Enlightenment as something not only good but truthful and something that should speak to every area of life, not simply to rudimentary science or science as method.  Just in case anyone cares, this is how people talk about the Enlightenment or Christianity all the time.  No one ever feels the need to break it down to the specific propositions or assertions of each.  Why?  Well, I guess because they assume people are somewhat familiar with the basic understandings of each one and the differences between the two.    
“Both Lakoff and Pinker claim, although in different ways, that they are placing moral and political discussions on a more scientific basis. Yet, for Pinker, Lakoff is a prime example of both bad science and a misuse of science. In 2006, Pinker published, originally in The New Republic, a scathing critique of Lakoff’s book Whose Freedom?, concluding that “There is much to admire in Lakoff’s work in linguistics, but … his thinking about politics … is a train wreck.”
Notice here that even when we have two promoters of the Enlightenment, two scholars who believe it to be good and believe it to represent a way to view the world that is truer than other (especially religious) ways of viewing the world, must still interpret what they think the “facts” and the “science” mean and they, shocker, can still come to different conclusions.  How did that happen?  I thought if we all just “restricted” what we could claim to be true to those things that could be shown empirically/scientifically we would have a basis for consensus?  I guess not.  It would appear that both can restrict themselves in that way and still see the other person’s views in certain areas (politics), as a “train wreck.”  But hey, look at the bright side, they both still believe the world is round.  That’s something.
“Science as salvation
The idea of science as a replacement for religion, traditional worldviews, and moralities has been around for a long time. At the heart of the set of stories modernity tells about itself, we find the notion of science as savior. The economist Robert Nelson describes “the idea of elevating science to the status of religion” as “the ‘modern project’ of the past three hundred years in the Western world”.  Humanity has grown up, matured and taken control of its own destiny. Science and science-based technology, economics, and politics are the primary tools for creating a mature kind of humanity and for building the future, a world of prosperity, democracy, justice and freedom. In this salvation history, “the Enlightenment” is the watershed, the salvific “event” that replaced religion and tradition with science.”
Again, we see people employing the term “Enlightenment” to comprehensively sum up a varied set of perspectives and philosophical ideas that move in one direction and not another, that determine other views to be false or true, accurate, inaccurate, good, bad, etc.  Right people, I wasn’t the first to do it.  If anyone wants to pick up a random historical or philosophical journal—they will find example after example of people using the term this way both by promoters and detractors of the Enlightenment.  Go figure.  No one accuses them of making a category error either—or that they should check their dictionaries. 
“As scientists, they [Lakoff/Pinker] produce a form of public philosophy or secular political theology, but they fail to recognize much of what actually determines their thinking. It is easy to see that much of the force of their arguments, rather than coming from their research, comes instead from taken for granted, even naturalized, cultural, moral, and ontological assumptions. The result is that the actual justification for their moral and political positions to a large extent is left out of the debate. This makes the discussion distorted and often extremely polemic. The fierce tone between Lakoff and Pinker is just one example. But because they cannot see or admit this, their discussions proceed as if their own assumptions are self-evident, while the assumptions of their adversaries are illicit ideological distortions.”
This comes from the deceptive notion they are both just objective observers of the “facts” and “evidence” and just following the clear and obvious correspondence between things.  The other person must be wrong or illogical because he should be able to “see” I am right if he would only follow my logic or reasoning and “see” the evidence the way I do.  What they fail to do is get behind their own presuppositions and commitment to a narrative, even if the same one.  They still “see” things differently and it has nothing to do with the other being ignorant or unaware of the other person’s evidence or facts.  This also goes to my point that the only difference in Pinker’s strategy as opposed to mine is that he just presupposes the Enlightenment understanding to be true and argues from there, begging-the-question.  It is why I begin elsewhere and offer the outcomes as possible hints or signs (not proof) that could lead one into further reflection and investigation regarding the ideas, the narrative that gave rise to those outcomes.
“Another complication is that Lakoff’s theoretical work in cognitive science, his special area of research, has not reached general acceptance in the cognitive science community. On the contrary, it is highly controversial and represents a minority view. Many would say that much of what Lakoff describes as functioning metaphors are dead metaphors that function non-metaphorically.”
What?  But don’t we all agree the earth is round?  Don’t we all agree the sun is hot?  What is going on?  I thought if we could all only agree on such “consensus” areas that peace would break out everywhere and the world would be nothing but rainbows and butterflies.  I am so disillusioned now.  Oh wait.  You mean at the level of theory and philosophy of science, the fact we can agree the sun is hot becomes entirely irrelevant and we still have varied interpretive opinions—even in science?  Yes, exactly.
“So it might seem strange to criticize him, as Lakoff does, for proposing a disembodied view of reason. Lakoff is critical of Pinker’s modular view of the mind. It implies, he says, “that language is just a matter of abstract symbols, having nothing to do with what the symbols mean, how they are used to communicate, how the brain processes thought and language, or any aspect of human experience—cultural or personal.” It is also this view of language and thinking as “algorithmic symbol manipulation”, Lakoff thinks, that makes it possible for Pinker to defend the idea of a universal disembodied reason as a normative ideal and to criticize Lakoff for relativism. Pinker can agree with Lakoff that “‘universal disembodied reason’ is not a good theory of how individual people instinctively think”, but it is still “a normative ideal that we should collectively strive for in grounding our beliefs and decisions”.  Otherwise we end up in relativism. Lakoff, on the other hand, thinks this is impossible. Our minds simply do not work like that. But one may still ask, is not his own claim to a “higher rationality” similar to Pinker’s attempt?”
This is just an aside.  The interesting thing here is that whether it is Pinker’s “universal disembodied reason” or Lakoff’s “higher rationality,” both are attempts to ground morality objectively.  In other words, they are an attempt to replace God.  Both are trying to get around the logic of what their naturalism/materialism reduces ethics to, which is that it makes them subjectively no more right or wrong than anyone’ else’s subjective assertion of what is ethical.  Everything is flattened.  There is no higher or lower.  Every act, every choice is matter-in-motion and nothing else.  Differences are settled, ultimately, by power—not by an appeal to something greater, like a universal reason or a higher rationality.  Thus, getting rid of God doesn’t get rid of this issue.  Pinker and Lakoff realize this and want morality grounded somehow.  Neither wants to live with the logic of their naturalism as far as what it means for ethics and morality.
“Empirical studies of morality have recently become a growth industry. However, these studies have not led to any new consensus. We see rather replications in new forms of earlier debates in moral philosophy and theology. The very different positions of Pinker and Lakoff are examples of this. The empirical studies they cite do not, by themselves, help resolve their differences because their claims about the nature of morality are embedded in philosophical, political, and moral differences. For example, they agree that morality is based on moral sentiments, that people are bad at calculating probability, and that human reason is flexible. However, they draw very different conclusions from these shared viewpoints.”
What?  Again, I thought we all agreed the earth was round?  I thought we all held to a correspondence theory of truth?  How is this happening!
“We can thus see how both Lakoff and Pinker assume certain stories about USA and its founding, and these in turn are inserted into wider narratives about the development of humanity (group selection and empathy contra self-interest and competition), science (the source of their own authority), Enlightenment (Old and New), and so on. It can be described, in Lakoff’s terms, as the way they frame their analysis. And this framing, which is mostly implicit and not argued for, is more important for understanding them than the results from cognitive science they report. It is the implicit narratives (tending to converge to two large, partly overlapping, meta-narratives) much more than their detailed arguments that give force to their broader views about morality and politics.”
It’s all about the narrative folks.  And, we see again, that Pinker simply assumes his framing (Enlightenment) rather than argues for it.  It is self-evident to him.   
“Sociologist Christian Smith contends that American sociology is primarily “animated, energized, and made significant by one of two historical narrative traditions”. This describes well the difference between Lakoff and Pinker. On one side we have “the inspiring drama” of “Liberal Progress” and on the other “the more sobering satire” of “Ubiquitous Egoism”. Both, however, are derived from the Enlightenment master narrative, which in turn was, so Smith claims, a secular renarration of the Christian narrative. The division reflects “the optimistic and pessimistic themes that Christianity’s theological anthropology united but the Enlightenment split apart.’”
Does anyone doubt that although Pinker and Lakoff differ over the results of their research, that both would agree the Enlightenment gave us a new and better, truer, more accurate way to view the world?  And if we were to ask, “In that sense, can we say the Enlightenment is the more truthful narrative than Christianity?” does anyone out there believe that all of a sudden they would both shuffle their feet, look down, and say, “Ah shucks, I don’t know if we can say that.”  Seriously?  Come on.
“Both Pinker and Lakoff assume that the modern world has left the age of religion and reached the age of Science. They presuppose what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as a “subtraction story”. It was the overcoming of religious dogma and religious moral ideas that paved the way for science and modern liberal democratic society and therefore for the creation of a new type of society of freedom and prosperity. The Enlightenment is the turning point. Religion can continue to exist as private beliefs, but when it becomes embodied in individual and social life it becomes dangerous, although Lakoff likes to see a domesticated good religion as an ally. Religion must then, by political, legal, and intellectual means, be kept inside strict limits. We see clearly how the idea of Science functions for both Pinker and Lakoff exactly as John Gray says: as providing hope and silencing heretics.”
“The problem is, so Lakoff’s story goes, that even many progressives are imprisoned or blinded by bad philosophy and outdated science. This is precisely what makes someone like Pinker dangerous: he is not only a highly influential promoter of Old Enlightenment philosophy, outdated cognitive science, and older evolutionary psychology that minimizes the extent to which humans are hard wired for sympathy and cooperation, but also someone who uses these perspectives for attacking progressive views. So the stakes are high. But there is salvation. Lakoff himself has provided the decisive weapon to win this war between good and evil.  Pinker provides us with a very different set of stories, although the primary metastory of the Enlightenment, the progress of science, and the place in the story given to his own type of science are parallel to Lakoff’s.”
Again, look at the use of the term “Enlightenment.”  It stands a placeholder that not only sums up a moment in history but speaks to what it envisioned, what perspectives, and what philosophies were then brought forth out of it and began to impact culture.  In that sense, I’m sure both Pinker and Lakoff would say it is a “true” narrative or gives us “truth.”  Or put it negatively if you wish.  Whatever it does, however its “truth” value is asserted, it reveals (we are told) that other perspectives/narratives are false or give us false views of the world.  Such views, like those of the Christian narrative, cannot be trusted to give us truth about ourselves and the world or an accurate picture or account of existence.
“But they live on as potent ideological instruments in the struggle for the future. Lakoff and Pinker reveal no awareness whatsoever about existing research in these fields and they seem to live in secular enclaves in which such assumptions are never questioned. The historian John Sommerville writes: ‘Secularism hasn’t had to explain itself for several generations and has become as muddled as religion was when it was simply dominant.’”
Exactly right, Pinker never tells us why the Enlightenment is true (or true as in what derives from it being true, philosophical naturalism, materialism, secular reason, etc.) he just assumes it and goes from there.  Maybe he does somewhere, but I’ve never seen him make a case for the Enlightenment perspective or deal with the current critiques of the Enlightenment both by secular and religious scholars. 

All this goes back to my original point: Pinker is making a very similar argument to mine; he just begins by saying (to paraphrase): “These outcomes are good, and we should not be surprised to find these good outcomes coming from this true narrative…”  That is really it, at bottom.  The form is different (and question-begging) but the same logic of connection is there.  He links the two and in that linking his assumption the narrative is true, better, more accurate, (again, use any honest term you wish) is as implicit as it is obvious.
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20 Responses to A Dead Horse

  1. Burk Braun says:


    Entertaining, as usual!

    Firstly, you mix up the quotes from the proximate author, who is writing in a theology journal and is a theologian of some kind, with those from Pinker/Lakoff. The latter would represent the enlightenment views, etc. but the former may not. The theologians' commentary is interesting, but not demonstrative of what Lakoff is thinking.

    Secondly, the top description of enlightnement thinking is fair, and note that it does not make any specific claims. It only says that those of religion are routinely suspect, or implicitly false, and are no way to found a society or a philosophy. What we actually do find as being factual through this enlightenment toolchest is not at all presumed. There is no creed, only skepticism and a dedication to better philosophy. Yet again, if you read carefully, you will find we are all consistent.

    Thirdly, “In other words, they are an attempt to replace God.”. This is what cracked me up. What is god? Where is god? What does it say? No one knows. Perhaps the Iranians know. There is nothing there to replace. Just alot of priests claiming/conning to speak for him/her/it. I will grant that this is nothing worse than Pinker's assumption of correctness that you have noted in his general polemic approach. But in either case it (the implicit assumption) can be consciously raised and analyzed … as Pinker did in his Templeton piece.

    Fourth, “Neither wants to live with the logic of their naturalism as far as what it means for ethics and morality.” Pinker very much does want to live with the morality that he draws from naturalism, or whereever he draws it. He lauds it at every turn. It is one based on humans- what we want, and what we can arrange based on a respect for the individual existence.. in short, humanism. This probably is not drawn mathematically from naturalism, since that is basically amoral, intrinsically. But it is what we are left with when the various magics and fantasies of religion have been drained away, and we are left with our actual emotions and desires, plus a realistic model of the world.

    But the issue for you seems to be that this does not lead to one unique, verified and authorized *morality*. No, it does not, since it is not based on a narrative with specific claims, since the enlightnment is not a narrative with specific claims of that kind. It just provides a toolchest of skepticism and thought that clears away the false models that have led to so much weird morality and misdirected certainty. What we are left with is a much more reasonable, but still highly diverse, base for humanist morals.

    “These outcomes are good, and we should not be surprised to find these good outcomes coming from this true narrative…”

    Words into his mouth, again. He regards the enlightenment as a toolchest that injects some needed humility in the rampant hubris of religious fantasy.. how about that for a definition. Nothing particular is postulated or creeded, other than that if you look closely, the religious stories make no logical sense.. psychological sense, yes, but not logical or scientific sense. So we should take them psychologically at best, and add them in to the pot of our general psychological knowledge… out of which may come .. better morals, etc.


  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “He regards the enlightenment as a toolchest that injects some needed humility in the rampant hubris of religious fantasy.. how about that for a definition.”

    So if Christians began to say that Christianity was a “tool-chest” that injects some needed humility into the rampant hubris of scientism, would you be fine with that definition?

    “Nothing particular is postulated or creeded, other than that if you look closely, the religious stories make no logical sense.. psychological sense, yes, but not logical or scientific sense.”

    I love this. “We are not asserting anything. Except that what “you” believe is psychological, illusory, and illogical.” Good one.

    Of course none of this goes to the main point, but whatever. Pinker believes that “tool-chest” is the true tool-chest and all others false. And he thinks it leads to some good things. And that is fine. But to think he is not making that argument is ridiculous.


  3. Burk Braun says:


    I am reading the theology piece, and it is very good- well written. But let me reiterate that his characterization of the enlightenment is of a method and a toolchest. It represents a “maturity” of man, where we give up illusions (projections) and study more exactly what we are. Are we evolved from animals, or were we born from Adam's rib, by the hand of the bearded being? The difference between these conceptions is profound, and affects our self-understanding on all levels.

    But evolution was not part of the original enlightenment.. it was a fruit of its tools, whereby the grip of religious ideology was loosed, and thinkers let themselves look at the world with .. dare we say it… objectivity, not psychological projection. Rasmusson alludes to all this as well.

    So again, the enlightenment made some simple psychological points about the nature of religion and human tendency to fantasize and worship. If those are your points of contention, then fine.. it is about a certain truth, of a psychological nature. That seems quite different in kind from making a series of specific creedal historical and ontological claims about all levels of reality.

    The theologian's insistance that the enlightenment be read as a “salvation” story is a small projection, ironically. The better frame is one of growing up, and out of childish things (as in the subtraction theory, perhaps). But as a Christian, he can not seemingly escape his own passionate drama, thus forming the opposition into an image of his own faith. On the other hand, I accept much of his critique of misplaced authority, of Pinker et al. using scientific credentials to cover philosophical arguments. True, the PhD covers philosophy explicity, but not well. I would respond that theology has hardly covered itself in philosophical glory either, over the years, (and nor have philosophers per se), so I think we are on even footing, overall.

    “Moreover, because of its lack of self-consciousness, it is poor theology.”

    Excuse me, but this is self-parodic. Who is unwilling to entertain psychological explanations for the anthropomorphic projections they are emitting in all directions? Who fails even to realize that the word “theology” is one such projection?

    But I appreciate his description of Lakoff's work. It does strike me a good bit like Freud, Jung, et al., who found out that we have an unconscious, and riffed with insight, but not always rigor, from there on out. Indeed rigor was/is impossible by this seat-of-the-pants method. But that recognition, and its implications for the content of religion, remain highly important, and an indirect dividend from the .. enlightenement. Finding out what lurks in there in any systematic way is a different story- it has yet to take place.

    His discussion of the contested evolutionary theory highlights the lack of explicit content of the enlightenment, or indeed moral content of Darwinism. Nietzsche can pop out of it just as well as Marx or Pinker. That is why humanism is invoked specifically by atheists/naturalists, rather than assuming that a particular morality descends from the program/narrative otherwise.

    And this goes again to your central point, which is that Pinker argues the enlightenment is good by way of its consequences. But if it does not dictate a particular morality, then how can those consequences be assigned all the way back to the enlightenment? Only in an indirect way, perhaps by breaking down the hold of religion and leaving a free field for other theories, good and bad.

    .. cont …


  4. Burk Braun says:

    .. cont …

    Lastly, what can neuroscience tell us? The article is appropriately skeptical on that score. But simply to throw water on the rational actor fixation in economics and moral theory is a big advance, one enlightenement thread critiquing another. And the whole mirror neuron story, making it OK and understandable to be empathetic. And the homosexuality story as well- a testament to the power of ontology/knowledge of how we are as beings to affect values. So, like the overall replacement of false stories with true ones in many other fields, the contribution of neuroscience will likewise keep our future narratives on a far more even keel than they have been in the past, what with witches, demonic posession, and the like. But we have a very long way to go before we understand the human condition to any depth in naturalistic terms.

    Do scientists have any special expertise here? They have nailed down a very few aspects of human nature in rigorous form, which is surely a step ahead, however far anticipated by novelists, politicians, and, well, everyone else by intuitive means. So, not really. But do religious leaders? Also no, other than by the fact that they have gained a political position by whatever means that represents influence over others. But as far as serious insight into the human condition, one can just as well call on novelists and artists as on theists.

    “Theologians self-consciously and critically deal with moral, political, and ontological issues. They discuss the role of worldviews, background convictions, metaphorical language, and narratives. They develop theories about human nature and historical development.”

    Oh, right.. too bad these theories are all wrong, and that the theologians fundamentally fail to call into question the one thing they dare not doubt, and on which their salaries are based.

    “Theology as a discipline, on the other hand, has been forced for a long time not only to historicize the object of study, but also to historicize itself. It knows that it “is always beginning in the middle of things.”

    This is an interesting observation. Why does science see itself as a-hisotrical in some sense? Because it is. Once we find out about Newton's laws, we don't have to do that again. We may refine them and find out related things, but some truths are timeless and ahistorical (though admittedly, little of this timelessness applies to scientific truths about human nature as yet). Not so with religions, which cycle on ceaslessly through human history, going from one fanstastic projection to the next. From pantheism to the angry father god, to the nice god, to the UFO aliens, to who knows what comes next. The lack of truth comes out in the wash of historicity.

    “Christian theology may thus contribute to the desacralisation of Science, critiquing the myth of Science for the sake of both society and of the sciences themselves. As Conor Cunningham says, “Scientism is a massive intellectual pathology”118 that is destructive for a society’s moral and political thinking and practice as well as for the immensely important work of ordinary science.”

    That is pretty funny. Not completely insane, but definitely the pot calling the kettle black, even if the kettle is a little less shiny than it likes to think.

    Sorry to go on so long!


  5. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “Rasmusson alludes to all this as well.”

    I hope you realize he is just giving a fair view of the Enlightenment perspective (what those who hold it would say about it) but doesn't assert the same himself. He is not a supporter or proponent of the Enlightenment, in other words.


  6. Hi Darrell

    Not sure there's much unturned earth on this one. Maybe a question is apt, something I'm not quite getting. I'm having trouble imagining what it might mean to believe in 'The Enlightenment narrative.' If one believes in The Christian narrative, then I understand some of the things that might entail. It would mean believing in a conscious life that extends beyond death, it would mean believing in certain moral truths, and so forth.

    What, though, would I believe if I believed in The Enlightenment narrative? As I understand it, the narrative proposes that we can use reason and close attention to detail to further our understanding of the world. But I suspect everybody in this conversation believes that. I suppose I'm interested in whether it makes any sense to speak of the Enlightenment narrative standing as an alternative to the Christian narrative, at least in terms of truth claims.

    Maybe, as Burk suggests, we're best to see The Enlightenment as providing a set of tools, of intellectual habits, if you like, that are trusted purely on the grounds that they produce reliable models of the world (and hence are open to constant revision).

    Perhaps the two greatest heroes of The Enlightenment narrative, Newton and Kant, were both religious, were they not, so this opposition between Enlightenment and Christianity doesn't seem exactly right to me. You may have a different model in mind (which years and countries do you mean, in terms of that period)?



  7. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I'm relying entirely upon Pinker's view of the Enlightenment and as unpacked by the writer. You may want to address those areas specifically.

    More importantly, keeping on track here, I think the post and the essay support the points I've been making.


  8. Hi Darrell

    If Pinker sees The Enlightenment as justifying specific truths about the non-physical world, then I suspect I would disagree with him. Without seeing the specific line of reasoning however, I can't be particularly confident in my opposition.

    You might help by pointing out what specifically these truth claims he's making are. I don't see them quite as clearly as you seem to.



  9. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    “If Pinker sees The Enlightenment as justifying specific truths about the non-physical world, then I suspect I would disagree with him.”

    As an atheist, Pinker doesn't believe there is a non-physical world, right? Does that arise from his promotion and view that the Enlightenment represents (again, whatever word you wish) a better, truer, more accurate view of the world than religious narratives? Is there any connection at all? Or is his atheism and criticism of Christianity and religion in general based on something else and incidental to his obvious support of the Enlightenment narrative and its derivatives- modern naturalism/materialism?

    I will let you figure that out. In the meantime, are you saying that there more areas of agreement between the Enlightenment narrative and Christianity than there are differences? Or are you saying the differences are minimal and insignificant? I’m not quite sure what you are suggesting. I think if you answer those questions, you may answer these other questions you have. I do think there are some areas of agreement between the two, but I think Pinker and the modern day philosophical naturalists have made it clear they believe the narrative and its derivatives should lead us to believe Christianity, belief in God, and other transcendental views to be false. Do you agree?

    And by the way, again, when Lakoff talks about a “new” Enlightenment or Pinker talks about the Enlightenment, none of them specify whether or not they mean the French Enlightenment, or Scottish, or American. Again, they are assuming we know, in general, what they mean. I am going to assume the same. If you do not know what they mean, then maybe more study is needed on your part. I’m certainly not going to do what for you here.

    From this site http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/ we see there are differences within the Enlightenment narrative. Note that they are described as forms of “religion” which I’m certain would upset Mr. Pinker.

    “It is convenient to discuss religion in the Enlightenment by presenting four characteristic forms of Enlightenment religion in turn: deism, religion of the heart, fideism and atheism.” (Section 2.3)


  10. Hi Darrell

    You're right. Although I've read a lot of Pinker, it's mostly been his stuff on language and the brain. I'm not at all familiar with the logical structure of his claims for atheism (it even well be he's an agnostic in terms of the non-physical world, many atheists are) and so I find it difficult to assess the case you're making against him.

    Personally, I don't see how you can get from the Enlightenment habits of mind to belief the universe is purely physical (not even sure what 'purely physical means') but that's not say Pinker doesn't have such an argument. Or it may be, as you suggest, he simply makes a faith commitment to a religious version of Enlightenment belief at this point, and if he does, well I'l not be following him.



  11. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I’m not making a case against Pinker. In fact, I’m trying to show the similarity in method. He links ideas to outcomes and believes both say something about the other. Something “true” or significant or meaningful, powerful, accurate, better, good, preferable, (again) use whatever word you wish. It is within the realm of possibility that his atheism, his criticism of Christianity and religion, his criticism of people like Francis Collins, is significantly related to an Enlightenment view (its derivatives, naturalism/materialism)? I think it is. I think that’s a somewhat logical connection. I seriously doubt Pinker would say it was entirely incidental or that there was no connection. Even if his atheism was of a pure existential decision of the will, foregoing any rational, logical, communal, conversational, study, empirical, or other factor, do we doubt, in hindsight, that as he learned of the Enlightenment and its impact, its derivatives, he would not agree that this lines up and supports his view and gives it narrative form and history?

    “Personally, I don't see how you can get from the Enlightenment habits of mind to belief the universe is purely physical…”

    I don’t either, but many seem to, right? You haven't seen a connection between those who support and promote the Enlightenment and their atheism or agnosticism? Burk, maybe you can explain how you feel this happens. You, after all, note that part of what your blog is about is “defending” the Enlightenment.


  12. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    When you write “As an atheist, Pinker doesn't believe there is a non-physical world, right?”, you seem to imply that an atheist will not believe in a non-physical world. This seems a complete non sequitur to me. Perhaps you can elaborate.


  13. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    I guess I'm just not that aware of too many atheists who believe at the same time that there is more than just the physical or material. In other words “yes” to the transcendental but “no” to god. Are you aware of some?

    If an atheist told me he didn't believe in God but thought there was more than just the physical or material, I would wonder then why couldn't God exist? It is the prerequisite belief for belief in God or anything transcendental, the idea first of its possibility.


  14. Hi Darrell

    The term atheism, like Christianity I guess, encompasses a fairly broad church. So some atheists couch their position in terms of their being nothing beyond the physical, and will happily pronounce that existence is purposeless, for example. Some hold a similar view, but express it only in terms of probability. Dawkins, for example, speaks of there probably not being a God. A very great number, and Dawkins is certainly amongst these, also hold that there's likely a great deal that lies beyond the horizon of intelligibility. Indeed, this is a fairly straightforward implication of evolutionary theory. If our minds are the products of a selective process, then we have no good reason to believe we have reached the stage where our information processing capacity can deal with the world as it is. We only have to look at any of the many non-human brains out there to see that concepts which are helpful to us are meaningless to them (what does a birthday meant o a slug?) And just as the concept of a birthday sits beyond the slug comprehension horizon, so we should imagine a great may things lie beyond the grasp of the puny human brain. From a naturalistic stand point, this is an orthodox conclusion.

    The deep divide between theists and non-theists is not so much whether the transcendental exists, but whether our minds have any access to it. I wonder if this is most properly seen, then, as a dispute about the nature of the brain and how it works. A dispute that is unresolved at any fine level of detail, but one that may well prove to be resolvable. Who knows?

    The non-theist is betting that the evolutionary story is the whole story, and that our minds are the products of complex arrangements of mindless matter. The theist is betting there's more to it than that, that somehow our brains are able to pick up signals from the transcendental world, (to recognise moral truths, for instance) and to arrange themselves in such a way that they survive death.

    I must confess to be greatly puzzled about the model of the brain the theist has in mind, on any number of fronts – when the alzheimers patient dies, at what point in their life history is the mind restored, for instance? If it's pre-degeneration, then presumably it's missing crucial memories that make up part of that individual soul's identity. Too far down the path of degeneration, and who is that has survived?

    Part of this is my ignorance of modern theology, I confess, but I'm it's interesting to me how rarely theologians lead with their brain/mind models.

    Perhaps this is Pinker's stumbling block too. It is area of particular interest. Just as evolution robbed us of the hands on creator, could it be that brain science will rob us of the immortal soul? And maybe some believe it already has (Dennett is a possible example?). Is that a blow Christianity could survive, do you think, or is surviving death too central to the theology?



  15. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I think we are getting a little far afield here. I’m not going to address the complex and very complicated issue of the mind-body problem in a comment section.

    “…And just as the concept of a birthday sits beyond the slug comprehension horizon, so we should imagine a great may things lie beyond the grasp of the puny human brain. From a naturalistic stand point, this is an orthodox conclusion.”

    Well you may think it an orthodox conclusion but many, many other naturalists believe there is enough within the grasp of the human brain to conclude God does not exist and that the material is all there is. I think if more, like you, realized the truth of Shakespeare’s words, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” there would be far fewer atheists and certainly none like Dennett or Pinker.

    “The deep divide between theists and non-theists is not so much whether the transcendental exists, but whether our minds have any access to it.”

    Well, the non-theist has to address the historical and present reality (fact) that the great majority of people, in all times and places, have asserted a sense, a perception, of the transcendent. It would seem the great majority of people do have some sense or perception of the transcendent. This is not “access” or understanding however. But it does seem to (unless the vast majority of peoples in all times and places have been delusional) indicate the ability to sense or perceive a transcendence to existence. This is the default posiiton of humanity. Period. I think most naturalists recognize this. They do not conclude however that perhaps, given this vast counter to their own experience, they may be wrong. They normally seem to conclude that all these people suffered (and still suffer) from some psychological projection (of course the naturalist could never be projecting!) and that any transcendence existing or being real is false.

    “Part of this is my ignorance of modern theology, I confess, but I'm it's interesting to me how rarely theologians lead with their brain/mind models.”

    Why would they? They are not neuroscientists or cognitive scientists or even scientists in general. What would their having a “model” even mean? However, in the philosophy of mind area, they are very engaged and there have been a number of books, journal articles, conferences, and other avenues wherein this discussion between philosophers, science philosophers, and theologians have taken place. It is an ongoing discussion and it is far from settled.

    I would recommend David B. Hart’s new book to you http://www.amazon.com/The-Experience-of-God-ebook/dp/B00E64EH0K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382210661&sr=8-1&keywords=God%2C+Consciousness+bliss+Hart wherein he addresses the mind/brain issue (consciousness) in one of the most cogent and significant ways I have ever read. So this area is definitely being addressed and engaged by theologians and theistic philosophers.


  16. JP says:

    Hi darrell,

    I guess I'm just not that aware of too many atheists who believe at the same time that there is more than just the physical or material.

    Yes, if you mean that atheists are also often physicalists (or materialists), you are probably right. I was thinking in terms of logical necessity. It is perfectly possible to be an atheist and either believe in the “non-physical” or be agnostic about it. I rather agree with Bernard on the question of our possible cognitive limitations.

    Which is not to say that this hypothetical “non-physical” would be anything like the theists say it is, transcendent and all. I would be extremely surprised if it were.

    One more thing. In your last answer to Bernard you state that the non-theist has to address the historical and present reality (fact) that the great majority of people, in all times and places, have asserted a sense, a perception, of the transcendent.

    How would you know such a thing? Certainly some have asserted such, no doubt. But the “great majority”? This is a huge claim you're making, entirely distinct from the claim that the majority of humans have believed in some deity (which is true).

    I have known (and still know) a great many believers and I would be surprised if more than a handful, if any, said such a thing


  17. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    Yes, I worded that poorly. I just meant to say that the vast majority of people presently, and as far back as we can go historically, have been religious in some sense or another. Even those who would not consider themselves particularly religious or have a traditional type belief in God, more often than not, believe there is more to existence than purely the physical, whether they might classify this “moreness” as a force, karma, destiny, purpose, spirit, or someone other type attribute or quality. If we take both groups together, they (transcendentalists of some type) vastly outweigh the counter example of the atheist or even the agnostic.

    So if we cannot perceive or sense this aspect to existence, the non-theist or atheist has this huge problem (the existence of all these people who experience life otherwise) to account for or try to explain.

    I would be interested however to find the atheist who believes at the same time in some sort of transcendence. Logically, to me anyway, if there is a transcendent aspect to existence then one could not be an atheist because the very possibility of transcendence must leave room for a god, gods, or its not transcendence. At most, he would be an agnostic.


  18. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell, Bernard-

    Sorry to not be more involved in this discussion, but one item caught my eye, about our conceptions perhaps not being able to deal with some truth or reality, analogized with a slug's limits relative to ours. Let me differ with that.

    We are limited in many ways. In our computational ability, our emotional biases, and much else. But we do have an unlimited symbolic capacity to represent anything, – religion is a prime example of that, as is science fiction. We range from gluons to big bangs, and jealousy, and conspiracy, and far beyond. I am reading a bit of Douglas Hofstadter, who touches on this a bit. So I would say that we are conceptually ready for anything, and most of our work lies in extending the reach of our perceptions, and in controlling our somewhat overactive hypothesis engine.

    As for the transcendent and materialism, it is a slippery topic. Are ideas immaterial? They are to us, even though we can't think them without a material organ to do so, and nor can anyone else.


  19. Hi Burk

    'an unlimited symbolic capacity to represent anything…'
    That strikes me as somewhat overconfident. How would you go about building a case for that, I wonder?

    Our ability to work with symbols, metaphors, and analogies certainly extends our conceptual range beyond that which is directly experienced. But how far that extends, relative to the extent of reality – how could one possibly estimate that?



  20. JP says:

    Hi guys,

    One thing we cannot do is produce an argument with an infinite number of steps or, in general, execute what is called a supertask. (That it would not possible in this universe, I assume, is not the point – this is nevertheless a cognitive limitation.)

    Would this possibility leads to radically new knowledge, concepts and understanding? It's certainly not obvious it wouldn't. For instance, proving Fermat's last theorem would become trivial: simply try all possibilities.

    Likewise, we cannot represent an effective infinite set (enumerating all the elements). Yes, math can handle infinite sets, but only those that can be defined with a finite number of symbols. Others are out of reach.

    So, I agree with Bernard on this.


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