Steven Pinker, fully Steven Arthur Pinker

Pinker, fully Steven Arthur Pinker

Canadian-born U.S. Experimental Psychologist, Cognitive Scientist, Linguist, and Popular Science Author, Psychology Professor at Harvard University

Author Quotes

With a few thousand nouns that can fill the subject slot and a few thousand verbs that can fill the predicate slot, one already has several million ways to open a sentence. . . . And if the number of sentences is infinite, the number of possible thoughts and intentions in infinite too, because virtually every sentence expresses a different thought or intention.

With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.

Words let us say the things we want to say and also things we would be better off not having said. They let us know the things we need to know, and also things we wish we didn't.

You can't hear a word and just hear it as raw sound; it always evokes an associated meaning and emotion in the brain.

You could think of an ecosystem as a bunch of antagonistic arms races, almost: Everything that an animal depends upon for food is the body part of some other animal or plant who would just as soon keep that body part for itself.

You don't like to be lied to, by your friends or in your business dealings. So why would you want to be lied to when it comes to the origin of life or the fate of the planet?

You have to remember that not every creature that was evolving left behind its skull or its tools for our convenience tens of thousands of years later. Most bones or most tools rot or get buried and are never found again.

You know that when Irving puts the dog in the car, it is no longer in the yard. When Edna goes to church, her head goes with her. If Doug is in the house, he must have gone through some opening unless he was born there and never left. If Sheila is alive at 9 A.M. and is alive at 5 P.M., she was also alive at noon. Zebras in the wild never wear underwear. Opening a jar of a new brand of peanut butter will not vaporize the house. People never shove meat thermometers in their ears. A gerbil is smaller than Mt. Kilimanjaro.

You wouldn't believe the kind of hate mail I get about my work on irregular verbs.

Why are empirical questions about how the mind works so weighted down with political and moral and emotional baggage?

Why do people believe that there are dangerous implications of the idea that the mind is a product of the brain, that the brain is organized in part by the genome, and that the genome was shaped by natural selection?

Why give a robot an order to obey orders?why aren't the original orders enough? Why command a robot not to do harm?wouldn't it be easier never to command it to do harm in the first place? Does the universe contain a mysterious force pulling entities toward malevolence, so that a positronic brain must be programmed to withstand it? Do intelligent beings inevitably develop an attitude problem? (?) Now that computers really have become smarter and more powerful, the anxiety has waned. Today's ubiquitous, networked computers have an unprecedented ability to do mischief should they ever go to the bad. But the only mayhem comes from unpredictable chaos or from human malice in the form of viruses. We no longer worry about electronic serial killers or subversive silicon cabals because we are beginning to appreciate that malevolence?like vision, motor coordination, and common sense?does not come free with computation but has to be programmed in. (?) Aggression, like every other part of human behavior we take for granted, is a challenging engineering problem!

Why is it surprising that scientists might have long hair and wear cowboy boots? In fields like neuroscience, where the events you are recording are so minute, I suspect scientists cultivate a boring, reliable image. A scientist with a reputation for flamboyance might be suspect.

Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition. A connected and educated populace, at least in aggregate and over the long run, is bound to be disabused of poisonous beliefs, such as that members of other races and ethnicities are innately avaricious or perfidious; that economic and military misfortunes are caused by the treachery of ethnic minorities; that women don't mind to be raped; that children must be beaten to be socialized; that people choose to be homosexual as part of a morally degenerate lifestyle; that animals are incapable of feeling pain. The recent debunking of beliefs that invite or tolerate violence call to mind Voltaire's quip that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Whorf?s Radical Position: We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from world phenomena we do not find because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic system in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data that the agreement decrees.

When it comes to explaining human thought and behavior, the possibility that heredity plays any role at all still has the power to shock. To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, war, greed, genocide, nihilism, reactionary politics, and neglect of children and the disadvantaged. Any claim that the mind has an innate organization strikes people not as a hypothesis that might be incorrect but as a thought it is immoral to think.

When it comes to genes, people suddenly lose their ability to distinguish 50 percent from 100 percent, "some" from "all," "affects" from "determines."

When people talk, they lay lines on each other, do a lot of role playing, sidestep, shilly-shally and engage in all manner of vagueness and innuendo. We do this and expect others to do it, yet at the same time we profess to long for the plain truth, for people to say what they mean, simple as that. Such hypocrisy is a human universal.

When time permits, I try to see interesting people in the cities I visit. In Seattle, I met Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who is shy in personality but flamboyant in his philanthropy.

When you combine these two aptitudes?metaphor and compositionality?the language of thought can be pressed into service to conceive and express a ceaseless geyser of ideas. People can discover new metaphors in their efforts to understand something, and can combine them to form still newer and more complex metaphors and analogies.

Whenever you speak to someone, you are presuming the two of you have a certain degree of familiarity - which your words might alter. So every sentence has to do two things at once: convey a message and continue to negotiate that relationship.

Who is familiar with the academic life knows that it generates ideological cults prone to dogma and resistant to criticism.

We will never have a perfect world, but it?s not romantic or na‹ve to work toward a better one.

We're living in primate heaven. We're warm, dry, we're not hungry, we don't have fleas and ticks and infections. So why are we so miserable?

What is the payoff of connecting the social and cultural levels of analysis to the psychological and biological ones? It is the thrill of discoveries that could never be made within the boundaries of a single discipline, such as universals of beauty, the logic of language, and the components of the moral sense.

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Pinker, fully Steven Arthur Pinker
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Canadian-born U.S. Experimental Psychologist, Cognitive Scientist, Linguist, and Popular Science Author, Psychology Professor at Harvard University