Features, Interview, Politics, Social Science

Steven Pinker: Counter-Enlightenment Convictions are ‘Surprisingly Resilient’

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and is the author of several books including Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progresspublished by Viking Press earlier this year. Editors at Quillette contacted Professor Pinker for a Q&A: what follows is a transcript of our Q&A, conducted via email.

On Psychology

Quillette: What are some of the classic experiments in psychology that you think an educated person should know about?

Steven Pinker: Where to begin? I’d cite studies of illusions and biases, to remind people of the fallibility of our perceptual and cognitive faculties. These would include experiments on visual attention by the late Anne Treisman and others showing that people are unaware of visual material they don’t attend to, together with any experiment on memory showing how un-photographic our recollections are (for example, Elizabeth Loftus’s studies on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, or even the low-tech study in which people are asked to draw a penny, an object they have seen thousands of times). Let’s add Slovic, Tversky, and Kahneman’s demonstrations of illusions in reasoning about probability and risk. Overconfidence and the Lake Wobegon Effect (everyone is above average). Cognitive dissonance and our self-serving rationalizations. The Fundamental Attribution Error — we overestimate the importance of individual traits, and underestimate the power of the situation. And the basic findings of behavioral genetics: that all individual differences are partly heritable.

Q: Who is the most underrated psychologist of the 20-21st Century?

SP: Judith Rich Harris, who was kicked out of the graduate program in my department (Harvard psychology) in the 1960s because she “didn’t fit the stereotype of a psychology grad student”), and after writing several textbooks, came out in 1998 with The Nurture Assumption, the first book on parenting and personality that took the results of behavioral genetics seriously. She showed that people (including psychologists) were deluded by the heritability of personality into overestimating the effects of parenting on personality, and that peers, not parents, are the primary socializers of children.

Q: Who is the most overrated (or most influential beyond the strength of their theories)?

SP: The “attachment theorists,” for the same reason — all studies of the effects of parenting on anything are fatally confounded by genetics unless they use adoptees, twins, or polygenic scores.

On Art

Q: Your latest book places a great deal of emphasis on the value of reason and its contribution to human progress. What role do music, poetry, dance, painting, the novel etc play in human self-understanding and flourishing? Are there areas of the human condition that the best art can illuminate that reason and empiricism cannot?

SP: In The Better Angels of Our Nature I endorsed the theory from Lynn Hunt, Martha Nussbaum, and others, that realistic fiction encourages readers to put themselves in the shoes of others unlike themselves, expands their circle of empathy, and makes them more receptive to humanitarian reforms such as the abolition of slavery and torture. There is some evidence from psychology studies of empathy for the hypothesis, though it is far from proven. Ironically, literary scholars tend to hate this theory—it seems to make fiction too utilitarian, too Oprah.

Q: Elon Musk has responded to your arguments about AI by distinguishing functional/narrow AI (used for cars) from general AI which apparently has the potential to be many millions of times more powerful than narrow AI. Do you still hold the same views on AI given this distinction?

SP: “General AI” does not exist at present, and is probably an incoherent concept: a sloppy extrapolation of individual differences among human beings. Intelligence has to be defined relative to goals and the knowledge needed to attain them. In any case the argument against the doomsday fear-mongering of existing AI extends to more powerful systems: any system that monomaniacally pursued one goal (such as making paperclips) while being oblivious to every other goal (such as not turning human beings into paperclips) is not artificially intelligent: it’s artificially stupid, and unlike anything a technologically sophisticated society would ever invent and empower. And scenarios in which the systems take over themselves commit the fallacy that intelligence implies a will to power, which comes from confusing two traits that just happened to come bundled in Homo sapiens because we are products of Darwinian natural selection.

On the Academy

Q: There has been much discussion on Quillette and at Heterodox Academy about the leftist tilt of the academy, especially within the social sciences and the humanities. Yet some of our critics have argued that these concerns are overblown. How does one strike the balance between scrutinizing academic trends without becoming pessimistic or alarmist about the state of education in general?

SP: As with anything else, empirical data are essential: one has to assess how orthodox, how intolerant, how narrow professors and students truly are, and compare them (as best one can) to comparable data from the past. The Heterodox people have cited some alarming trends, though recent findings from the General Social Survey (analyzed by Justin Murphy) indicate that support for free speech (in principle) remains strong.

On fostering dialogue and open inquiry

Q: Part of the cause of our current polarisation seems to be a narrowing on all sides of the scope of reasonable disagreement. Where might a reasonable person put those limits? Is there, in other words, a means by which you distinguish between ideas so beyond the pale that they must be opposed and those about which reasonable people of goodwill ought to be able to differ in good faith?

SP: The answer must differ when it comes to the law (where the question is the exertion of government force) and the academy (where it concerns the institution’s goal of developing knowledge). One can endorse the neo-Nazis’ right to publish and demonstrate without inviting them to give a departmental colloquium or a slot on the op-ed page. In the case of the university, the criteria should include scholarly thoroughness, intellectual rigor, and the absence of an obvious motive to demonize or antagonize for its own sake. It’s clear that many of the famous protestees have in fact met this standard and have been persecuted simply because their views are heterodox.

Q: What can some of the thinkers from the 17th and 18th Centuries teach us about the importance of reason and open inquiry? What do you think they would say to us today, particularly if they were to come and visit our university campuses?

SP: I can’t get into their heads to answer the question, but it’s not really the right question. Some Second Culture critics and religious apologists have misunderstood the point of the book as arguing that the Enlightenment philosophes were a bunch of great guys and we should venerate them and credit them for everything that went right in the past 250 years while absolving them for what went wrong. They think that I’ve set up a contest between my saints, heroes, messiahs, and great men and theirs. In fact, it’s the ideals of reason, science, and humanism that I’m endorsing, and I use “the Enlightenment” as a handy rubric for that set of ideals (since their most vehement and enduring expression can be found in that era). For all I know, if Voltaire or Leibniz or Kant stepped out of a time machine and commented on today’s political controversies, we’d think they were out to lunch.

On Enlightenment Now

Q: What is the best counter-argument you have encountered to your general thesis?

SP: I can’t answer this: Enlightenment Now makes a number of arguments, rather than having a general thesis, and there are counter-arguments to many of its points that can’t be ranked in terms of “the best.”

Q: In your book, you anticipate your critics by outlining some of the causes of what you call ‘progressophobia.’ Nevertheless, the vehemence of your opponents has taken us aback. People seem to feel personally affronted by your arguments, moderate and backed by copious data though they are. What accounts for the antipathy – some of it personal – that your good news elicits?

SP: Some if it is turf-protective: some highbrow pundits, cultural critics, literary intellectuals, humanities professors, and other members of C. P. Snow’s “Second Culture” resent the incursion of science, data, and quantification into territories traditionally fenced off and claimed by them. And a surprising number are cultural pessimists who despise the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress. They prefer hermeneutic to analytic reasoning (one of the reasons they are sympathetic to religion even if they are atheists), valorize the consumption of elite art (as opposed to the well-being of the mass of humanity) as the highest moral good, and believe that Western civilization is on the verge of collapse and is so decadent and degenerate that anything that rises out of the rubble is bound to be an improvement. These convictions go back to the 19th-century counter-enlightenment and are surprisingly resilient.


Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, Better Angels of Our Nature and his latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is available now on Amazon. 

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  1. As to the question of whether society is getting better or worse, the answer is two-pronged.

    With regard to material well-being, we are better off than ever and continuing to improve. Global poverty is being reduced at an incredible rate, and the well-being of every class is improving, with the lower classes gaining faster than the higher ones. These truths are incredibly threatening to advocates of socialism, of course, but hard to deny objectively.

    However, when it comes to our culture, our “souls” if you will, we are in decline. A growing number of people are in open rebellion against every principle and norm that has built our prosperity. Depression, opioid abuse, and suicide are on the rise. Nihilism reigns. Someone recently shared this article with me: https://www.kirkdurston.com/blog/unwin?fbclid=IwAR20PVLp14Iz-HJlnQqTSoMY4q45Bhvryb6kvVY1a7mOi1cRVtljq8pXsSc. It captures what some might consider a narrow slice of our cultural decay, but makes interesting arguments as to that area’s significance.

    Unfortunately, those who arrogantly call themselves “progressives” believe that the material trends are bad and the social trends are good, which is the opposite of the truth on both counts. Acceptance of their narratives is the greatest threat to humanity today.

  2. Thanks for posting the link to that wonderful article.
    I have to agree with Theodore Dalrymple that the problem lies with the solipsism that is so prevalent on the left, what I like to call the Virginia Woolf syndrome. Thus those who are well off can afford to ignore te old moral code. Like te Blomberries they can jump from bed to bed and have children out of wedlock, because they have the social networks and the finacial backing to make it possible. But once they openly abandon moral respectability and glorify that abandonment, they open up the world to untold misery, because the lower orders don’t have the social support systems and the money to overcome the problems that a lack of moral certitude brings with it.
    Of course our ‘‘progressive’’ friends understand this to some extent. Why else are they such fervent fans of ‘‘traditional cultures’’ other than their own? Also we have seen a strong strand of feminism that seems to think that most sexual intercourse should be discouraged and that we need new rules on consent that in reality hark back to aperverted idea of Victorianism. It isn’t for nothing that the wokescolds on the left are known as the new puritans.

  3. Commissars are resilient. Not such a surprise, given history.

  4. Definitely one of the most harmful aspects of the Left’s cosmopolitan liberal elite, and they are constantly inventing new ways to mess with the working class and underclass. Katherine Birbalsingh’s ‘Digital Detox’, a school program aimed at reducing the harmful effects of social media and unsupervised access to the internet, has met with it’s most vocal opposition from Upper Middle Class women championing the poor, who, of course, have the time (and help) to know how check on their kids internet use and social media. Meanwhile, several kids have died as a result of contact with violent drug gangs…

  5. This was just as true when I was young, in the 1960s. The world has survived and prospered from there, and this is exactly why I remain convinced that it prosper even more in the future. Today’s young people are noticeably more conservative than we were at the time. They have learned from our experiences with drugs, and sex seems to have become taboo once again.

    And the global situation? We spent our childhoods fearing global thermonuclear war. Now it’s down to developing world brushfires and terrorism by substate actors. When I was young, we had Communism to fear while China and India were noted primarily for starvation. Look at them now!

  6. All very true. But there had to be a lot of people holding to what’s right to keep society together against that tide. We can’t take for granted that that will always be the case.

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  1. Cnan says

    Conflation of scientific opinion with science is the problem. To the extent that enlightenment thinking or other is behind this handicap, yes steven you will find some sticky opposition.

    Besides, the majority of your oppositors amongst western academia, also would trace their lineage to the enlightenment and secular humanism!

    So if there are any vested interests, majority lethargy, bullying or herd effect, it is with the enlightened bunch. 🙂

    I too demand rationality, yet remember that no rationale completely satisfies. The problem for you are the areas where empiricism doesn’t reach, and the religiosity which takes over.

    • dirk says

      Religiosity is good for you, we learn from Harari and Peterson. Unless, of course, you are in a country and a time freed from warfare or hegemonial aspirations (as is mine, the NL).

  2. Chris says

    Cnan, I don’t know what you mean by “Conflation of scientific opinion with science”, would you take the time to explain please? Thanks.

  3. Archy says

    I agree with what Pinker says from beginning to end… the only problem I have with this discussion is that there is this tradition in the Anglo-Saxon countries to link the birth of science and its values ​​essentially to the Enlightenment only, as if they were “born” only in the eighteenth century. The truth is that science is much more ancient, and can certainly be traced back to the ancient Egyptians and the great Greek thinkers who began to develop a scientific mentality, applying categorization in natural fields (just think about the immense work of Archimedes, Aristotle and their preecursors) in numerous fields, from physics to the astronomy. And in the same way it must be said that science has existed and developed even during the Middle Ages (it is in that period that we begin to develop – in full Catholic tradition – the historical concept of “scientific method”, with two schools of thought, one of Albertus Magnus/Thomas Aquinas and the other of Roger Bacon), where thinkers began to coin experiments and observations that could later verify their hypotheses. And finally, one can not transcend from fundamental thinkers such as those of Renaissance humanism, such as Leonardo, Erasmus or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who were the true precursors of both the modern seventeenth-century science of Galileo and Newton, and of the subsequent eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

  4. Pinker will be remembered fondly by history. I think that his finest hour lies yet ahead, though soon enough. I’m still waiting for him to chime in on CRISPR gene editing vis-a-vis race & IQ. (Not just IQ, but other cognitive traits valued by society.) IMO, this is how HBD catch gear in the Progressive establishment.

  5. Andrew Roddy says

    I signed out after ‘realistic fiction’. Jesus, wept.

  6. stillalive says

    In talking about general AI, Pinker seems to ignore the orthogonality thesis. Anyone who claims that a computationally smart system could not possibly be morally stupid has the burden of proof.

    Also there’s no reason a program would develop a will to power… except if given a goal that can be better achieved if one has power, such as, jeez, no examples come to mind.

    Please note that people worried about AGI are not (or not all) progressophobes, as some of the most worried are also the most enthusiastic about the positive potential of AGI, E. Yudkowsky for instance. The same holds for nuclear fission in power plants: though very useful to society, we prefer that its safety be taken seriously.

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  8. They think that I’ve set up a contest between my saints, heroes, messiahs, and great men and theirs. In fact, it’s the ideals of reason, science, and humanism that I’m endorsing, and I use “the Enlightenment” as a handy rubric for that set of ideals (since their most vehement and enduring expression can be found in that era).

    Can someone remind me again of the difference between an ideal which exists nowhere but can be partially instantiated in a particular place and time and a deity? Especially when they both collect pantheons of saints, heroes, messiahs and great men?

  9. Adam Kolasinski says

    There is a simple, one word answer to the question in the title of this interview:


    I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read various essays by Pinker, and listened to various podcasts. Nowhere have I heard him ever respond to Nietzsche’s critique of Enlightenment rationalism.

    Does he do that in his latest book? Because if not, he’s missing the most obvious reason why anti-enlightenment ideas have proven to be so resilient.

    • Nietzsche stands outside both the enlightenment and counter-enlightenments by my reading, he could be employed as an ally of either and is better understood as a herald of their synthesis in modernism.
      Further, Nietzsche didn’t seem to have a problem with science (take note of his 6th little essay in Beyond Good and Evil, for example) instead his argument is against moral philosophy, of which he claims there is no “impulse to knowledge”, rather the philosopher already has his conclusion in mind, and works backwards to meet it, even going so far as to invent irrational epistemology where-ever it might be deemed necessary (as it was with the defense of God for the likes of Rousseau, Kant and others).
      Of course Nietzsche was able to see the value of the God concept as itself a rational construct, that irrational justification was unnecessary and having led to the mess which was the death of the public respect for the concept. Though perhaps this was just a necessary dialectical stage, the Church and philosophy had corrupted the concept, and their irrational, selective literalism needed be cleansed such that the logic of the God concept might again shine forth.

      This is the sense in which it seems to me that Nietzsche criticises the self-proclaimed rationality of philosophers.

    • Quite right, but Pinker hasn’t a clue about Nietzsche. He dismisses Nietzsche abruptly in a recent interview, while clearly (and conveniently) understanding nothing whatsoever of his philosophy. Pinker, that mighty avatar of Reason, hopes he can simply sneer and that no one will notice.

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  11. Phil Tanny says

    I haven’t yet read Pinker’s book, only reviews here and there, and so I’m wondering if his book takes the following in to account.

    Consider where reason and science have brought us so far. On one hand recent centuries have delivered too many wondrous miracles to begin to list, and on the other hand they have delivered a mechanism (nuclear weapons) for erasing all those miracles in a near blink of an eye.

    If the knowledge explosion continues, likely at an ever accelerating pace, it seems the current reality will be further multiplied, giving us ever more wondrous miracles, and ever more powers capable of crashing civilization.

    As is the case with nuclear weapons today, all powers capable of crashing civilization will have to be successfully managed every single day forever. A single failure a single time with a single power of this scale will bring us to the end of all the miracles the Enlightenment has delivered. I see nothing in the record of human history to suggest that such a pattern of perfect management is possible.

    Does Pinker address this concern? If so, how?

    Thank you.

  12. dirk says

    @Phil: there are optimists, and pessimists, people who see everywhere shining lights, or everywhere shadow and doom. It is very easy to cherry pick tables and statistics to prove the validity of either one. Pinker belongs to the first category, it is as simple as that! Being an American, I think, (because I am not one) makes it easier to belong to that first category.

    • dirk says

      Anybody noted the similarity in appearance of Pinker and Voltaire? Incidental? I can’t believe it! There must be more behind it.

    • Phil Tanny says

      Dirk, thank you for you’re reply, appreciated. I’m open to hearing the optimistic perspective from Pinker, but to be persuaded I need to understand if/how he proposes to solve the problem I’ve pointed to above. Unless that problem can be resolved in a decisive manner, I’m not sure I even see the point of doing further science. As example…

      Imagine that I walked around all day every day with a loaded gun in my mouth. What would be the point of me making big plans for my career given that it’s only a matter of time until I trip over a curb or bump my head on a car door, and blow my head off? In that case wouldn’t reason strongly suggest that I first focus on the gun in my mouth and resolve that before turning my attention to other matters?

      So I’m attempting to learn if Pinker really is a person of reason. Is he focused first on the gun in our mouth, that upon which all else depends?

      • Joe says

        The only way you exist at all is by being alive. While you are alive you face a range of possibilities, opportunities, ambits of choice. Depending on how act you may make your life miserable to the point of wanting to end it, or joyful to the point of wanting it to go on forever, or anything in between. This notion that because you are in danger of the end of all things there is no point in living is misconceived. Life is dangerous. You always have some kind of gun in your mouth. If the psychopathical robots don’t get you the mindless carcinogen will. The “problem” cannot be solved and need not be solved. Focus on living well while you live.

        • dirk says

          Or, as Voltaire ended his Candide (to prove there was not much reason for optimism and belief in a benevolent God),: il faut cultiver notre jardin.

  13. dirk says

    There are calamities, more threatening than bombs or guns (not in my mouth, but controlled (that bomb) by a trigger aware body of responsible seniors and international agreements) such as the deteriorating climate, energy situation, water problems, nature (insects, birds, ecology in general), resources (such as phosphor), as I read yesterday in my dutch newspaper, in a letter warning for the naive optimism of Steven Pinker. The letter (- the ticking time bomb)-, was headed with Pinker’s picture that reminded me of Voltaire. The writer (Wouter vd Weijden) ended with expressing the need of more alarming books, as just only optimistic one of the type of Pinker. I think, he is right there!

    • Will E Newbern says

      My feeling is that climate change, broadly speaking, is a huge problem for Pinkerists. Things for many other species have gotten steadily more awful since the Enlightenment. And are already taking tolls on humans. Does anyone know how Pinker addresses this other than by a faith that only science will save the world as we know it, or pure Panglossian faith that whatever happens will be for the best (with evidence found for this)?

    • Al de Baran says

      Go tell Klaus Rohde,
      Go tell Klaus Rohde,
      Go tell Klaus Rohde
      To spam some other thread.

  14. As academics or experts, we have a vested interest in crises – they make us useful. Enlightenment Now undermines our role.

  15. dirk says

    Today, North Korea met South Korea, why this entente? Maybe because of the existence and the threatening with mass extinction weapons, as was the case with the end of communism end 1980s, and with Nagasaki and Hirosjima (without any threatening, but with the real thing, a smash that brought East and West together for the decades to come).

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  17. Al de Baran says

    ” I’d cite studies of illusions and biases, to remind people of the fallibility of our perceptual and cognitive faculties.”

    And I’d remind Pinker that the scientific methods and mindset he wants to privilege and exempt from scrutiny are also human creations. As such, they, too, exemplify “the fallibility of our perceptual and cognitive faculties”. To be clear, I am not talking about bad, false, or superseded science. I am talking about the very methods and concepts, themselves

  18. Atomic Lobotomy says

    Steven Pinker lives in his Harvard/Cambridge bubble. His specialty is linguistics, not climate change, nor economics, nor nuclear weapons, nor Middle East conflict, nor Islam. He seems blissfully unaware of the savagery that ripped through mankind in 19th and 20th centuries and shows little signs of abating (we are still counting the tens of millions). Pinker is, though, undoubtedly a man of the “Enlightenment.” Voltaire would have called him Pangloss–the character who in Voltaire’s “Candide” fatuously repeated “All is for the best .. in the best of all possible worlds.”

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  20. Barry Cooper says

    I found it interesting that he would denigrate attachment theory. It is usually both an easy and accurate assumption–in my personal, currently empirically weak view–to see the fetishizing of reason as connected to emotional imbalances resulting from attachment issues. Reason is a salve to those in conflict.

  21. Frank says

    Enlightenment thinkers were the progenitors of a science of ethnic differences, which has since been producing ever more empirical knowledge, and has today convincingly shown that ethnicity is not merely a social construct but also a biological substrate. As Edward O. Wilson, Pierre van den Berghe, and Frank Salter have written, shared ethnicity is an expression of extended kinship at the genetic level; members of an ethnic group are biologically related in the same way that members of a family are related even though the genetic connection is not as strongly marked. Numerous papers and the academic literature have come out supporting the view that humans are ethnocentric and that such altruistic dispositions as sharing, loyalty, caring, and even motherly love, are exhibited primarily and intensively within in-groups rather than toward a universal “we” in disregard for one’s community.

    A quick look at the historical record shows that conflict between different groups has been common throughout human history. Tribalism seems to be the default mode of human political organization. It can be highly effective: The world’s largest land empire, that of the Mongols, was a tribal organization. But tribalism is hard to abandon, again suggesting that an evolutionary change may be required. Cooperative defense by tribal peoples is universal and ancient and it is bound to have boosted the genetic fitness of those who acted to further the interests of their group. Under such circumstances it would be odd indeed if natural selection did not mold the human mind to be predisposed to ethnocentrism. Of course, this fact does not tell us what psychological mechanisms actually evolved to promote ethnocentrism or how these mechanisms can be controlled by inhibitory mechanisms located in the prefrontal cortex. For that, we will have to turn to the empirical research.

    Edward O. Wilson was pilloried for suggesting in his 1975 book Sociobiology that many human social behaviors might have an evolutionary basis; his Marxist critics wanted to keep the mind a blank slate, moldable by governments into Socialist Man. Research since then has established that Wilson was correct. From their earliest years, children wish to be part of a group, to obey its rules and to punish violators. People have an instinctive morality, a readiness to make any sacrifice in defense of their family or group. These and several other social behaviors seem to be inherent and therefore genetically based, even though the relevant genes are still being identified.

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