The Essential Steven Pinker | Conversations with Tyler

The Essential Steven Pinker | Conversations with Tyler


COWEN: I’ve been reading through a lot of
different aspects of your work, a lot of your books — reading or rereading. I’ve
been trying to figure out to myself what’s the underlying unity in the thought and writing
of Steven Pinker, from irregular verbs to world peace, and yes we’ll get to that.
Let me try to give you my account of what I’ve taken away, which I’m sure is not
the same as yours, but it’s a way of prompting you to tell us your view of the underlying
unity in all of the things you did. I see you as very often trying to stake out
a midway position. If there are people out there, say like the blank-slate theorists,
who don’t see much structure to the natural world or the social world or the linguistic
world, then you reject that. Then on the other hand there are people who postulate too much
structure. And (at least early) Chomsky would be an example there.
You’re trying to create some kind of intermediate position where there’s room for reason to
operate, but within laws of nature. You’re trying to rearticulate this modern
21st- and 20th-century vision of what does the Enlightenment mean for now, and how might
we apply Enlightenment kinds of reasoning across all the different areas you’ve written
on. Then figuring out, shown in all these books, what are the methodological prerequisites
for that. It’s levels at which we’re willing to
talk about structure, and levels at which we’re not willing to talk about structure;
and you staking out this intermediate — what you might call voluntarist — pro‑reason,
pro‑science position. That’s what I took away from the whole corpus of Steven Pinker.
Tell me, what is your take on that? PINKER: I think that’s not too far from
the way I would see myself. Not so much in taking an intermediate position that’s just
“find the Goldilocks zone.” Like, “Oh, the truth is always halfway in between two
extremes.” It isn’t always. On the other hand, I do believe in the Enlightenment
vision that by understanding our world, that the world is intelligible, that we can understand
it. That progress in understanding and therefore progress in rational action are possible.
Including, pointedly, ourselves.That is, there is such a thing as human nature. It can be
studied scientifically the way other phenomena are studied. That it’s good to understand
human nature because then we can discount, when necessary, illusions that are quirks
of our own makeup. That we can understand what it is that gives humans fulfillment and
satisfaction and pleasure, what are the resources that we have to work with in improving a political
system. I also think that often — going back
to finding a middle ground — the middle ground isn’t finding, say, the arithmetic
mean between the two extremes. But rather it’s trying to go down a level of more finer-grain
causal mechanisms underneath the phenomena. To state a position that may not look like
either of the original extremes, because it’s more precise.
In the case of language, for example, I’ve always been bored by the idea of “is language
innate or is it learned.” It’s neither. It’s not halfway in between because that
doesn’t give you any insight either. Rather there is an innate structure that does the
learning, because learning doesn’t happen by magic. There has to be something in place
that does the learning. Let’s characterize the nature of the learning
mechanism in terms of its information-processing abilities. What is its computational architecture,
as the computer scientists say? Once you have that, that is the solution to
the nature-nurture problem; namely, what’s innate is an ability to learn. Since any mechanism
does some things well and some things not so well, that gives you insight as to what
and how we learn. That makes irrelevant the question of “is it innate or is it learned?”
There is something that’s innate, but the innate stuff allows us to learn.
It gets beneath a dichotomy into something that I like to think is more intellectually
satisfying.

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