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

The predators may respond to the defensive reprisals of their prey as if they were the ones under attack, and experience a moralized wrath and a thirst for revenge. Thanks to the Moralization Gap, they will minimize their own first strike as necessary and trivial while magnifying the reprisal as unprovoked and devastating. Each side will count the wrongs differently?the perpetrator tallying an even number of strikes and the victim an odd number? and the difference in arithmetic can stoke a spiral of revenge,

The problem lies in the credo that one can do everything with a generic model as long as it is sufficiently trained.

The problem with the religious solution [for mysteries such as consciousness and moral judgments] was stated by Mencken when he wrote, Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing. For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones. What gave God a mind, free will, knowledge, certainty about right and wrong? How does he infuse them into a universe that seems to run just fine according to physical laws? How does he get ghostly souls to interact with hard matter? And most perplexing of all, if the world unfolds according to a wise and merciful plan, why does it contain so much suffering? As the Yiddish expression says, If God lived on earth, people would break his window.

The mind is a neural computer.

The more you think about and interact with other people, the more you realize that it is untenable to privilege your interests over theirs, at least not if you want them to listen to you. You can?t say that my interests are special compared to yours any more than you can say that the particular spot that I am standing on is a unique part of the universe because I happen to be standing on it that very minute.

'The most common of all follies,' wrote H. L. Mencken, 'is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.' In culture after culture, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts, saints . . . and gods.

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you?re pretending to communicate.

The main danger in using these forms is that a more-grammatical-than-thou reader may falsely accuse you of making an error. If they do, tell them that Jane Austen and I think it?s fine.

The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don't do anything. . . . The inscriptions will sit there forever unless something notices patterns in them, combines them with patterns learned at other times, uses the combinations to scribble new thoughts onto the slate, and reads the results to guide behavior toward goals.

The importance of genes in organizing the normal brain is underscored by the many ways in which nonstandard genes can give rise to nonstandard minds.

The inability to set aside something that you know but that someone else does not know is such a pervasive affliction of the human mind that psychologists keep discovering related versions of it and giving it new names.

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader?s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader?s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

The historical trajectory of violence affects not only how life is lived but how it is understood.

The human capacity for compassion is not a reflex that is triggered automatically by the presence of another living thing.

The human mind has evolved a defense against contamination by biological agents: the emotion of disgust. Ordinarily triggered by bodily secretions, animal parts, parasitic insects and worms, and vectors of disease, disgust impels people to eject the polluting substance and anything that looks like it or has been in contact with it. Disgust is easily moralized, defining a continuum in which one pole is identified with spirituality, purity, chastity, and cleansing and the other with animality, defilement, carnality, and contamination. And so we see disgusting agents as not just physically repellent but also morally contemptible. Many metaphors in the English language for a treacherous person use a disease vector as their vehicle?a rat, a louse, a worm, a cockroach. The infamous 1990s term for forced displacement and genocide was ethnic cleansing.

The idea from the cognitive revolution that the mind is a system of universal, generative computational modules obliterates the way that debates on human nature have been framed from centuries. It is now simply misguided to ask whether humans are flexible or programmed, whether behavior is universal or varies across cultures, whether acts are learned or innate, whether we are essentially good or essentially evil. Humans behave flexibly because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software than can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior. Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary. Intelligent behavior is learned successfully because we have innate systems that do the learning. And all people may have good and evil motives, but not everyone may translate them into behavior in the same way.

The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard. Obviously, it did not seem so to Freud, who wrote that as a boy he once had an erotic reaction to watching his mother dressing. But Freud had a wet-nurse, and may not have experienced the early intimacy that would have tipped off his perceptual system that Mrs. Freud was his mother. The Westermarck theory has out-Freuded Freud.

The idea that children are passive repositories to be shaped by their parents has been massively overstated. A child's peer group is a far greater determinant of its development and achievements than parental aspiration.

The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements into empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in selective analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations.

The great appeal of the doctrine that the mind is a blank slate is the simple mathematical fact that zero equals zero.

The European wars of religion were more deadly than the First World War, proportionally speaking, and in the range of the Second World War in Europe. The Inquisition, the persecution of heretics and infidels and witches, they racked up pretty high death tolls.

The fact that people can forget these simple truths when intellectualizing about children shows how far modern doctrines have taken us. They make it easy to think of children as lumps of putty to be shaped instead of partners in a human relationship.

The fashion accessories of Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice, express the logic succinctly: (1) scales; (2) blindfold; (3) sword.

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