Humanism, Enlightenment and Progress with Steven Pinker

by Scott Barry Kaufman, July 4, 2018

“Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desire among people.” — Steven Pinker

Today it’s a great honor to have Steven Pinker on the podcast. Dr. Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD from Harvard. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his ten books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, and most recently, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Pinker is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications. 

In this episode we discuss the following topics:

  • The main thread that runs through all of Pinker’s work
  • Does reducing economic inequality increase happiness?
  • Does increased autonomy lead to increased happiness?
  • How humanism is compatible with spirituality
  • Why we should not confuse evolutionary adaptation (in Darwin’s sense) with human worth
  • The difference between the ultimate and proximal levels of analysis
  • Why Evolutionary Psychology is often so misunderstood
  • Why human nature isn’t necessarily conductive to human flourishing
  • How the laws of the universe don’t care about you
  • Why do intellectuals hate progress so much?
  • What are some indicators of human progress?
  • Why should people care about human progress over the course of history?
  • The myth of the suicide and loneliness “epidemics”
  • Why we enjoy and care more about food and children than oxygen
  • Rates of sexual assault and mental health on campus
  • The increasing divisiveness and irrationality of politics
  • How the recent presidential election was a “carnival of irrationality”
  • Humanistic ethics
  • Can we have a good without a God?
  • The possibility of the unification of knowledge across the arts, humanities, and sciences
  • Toward a third culture


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