Steven Pinker on Faith and Reason

By | November 25, 2006

In a recent issue of The Harvard Crimson, well-known psychology prof. Steven Pinker has an interesting editorial critique of a new report by the Harvard Committee on General Education. The editorial gets off to a pretty good start, but then descends into absurd posturing on the relation between faith (= religion) and reason (= science), which for Pinker are fundamentally at odds.

For example, consider Pinker’s list of scientific accomplishments:

[T]he picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. … [F]or example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified. [emphasis mine]

I’ll grant that some of these claims have been established beyond a reasonable doubt, but some, in particular the two I’ve italicized, can hardly be said to be deliverances of science. If anything, they are deliverances of Pinker’s philosophical materialism, not science. First, that our planet is merely an “undistinguished speck” is opposed by a convergence of information from many quarters suggesting that the universe as a whole, and our solar system and planet in particular, are quite special indeed (for a small sampling of sources, try here and here), and may even have been “fine-tuned” for life. Second, that the mind just is the activity of the brain, is a controversial philosophical theory that, while popular among academics, faces stiff challenges (e.g., here and here). Moreover, the view is arguably self-refuting. If thought is simply the result of physiological processes that are ultimately governed by the laws of chemistry and physics, then rationality would seem to be an illusion (for argument, see here). If so, then if the view is right, no one could rationally believe that it was right.

What’s absurd, though, is not that Pinker would throw out a few questionable ideas, but that he would then go on to say that “a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated”, as though there were no longer any reasonable controversy on any of the points made in the quotation above. That, as I’ve argued, is simply false. Moving on,

[U]niversities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these.

Now, this kind of sweeping juxtaposition of faith and reason is utterly without foundation. Despite what Pinker claims, “faith” does not mean “believing something without good reason”. The term “faith” has a range of uses in our language, but the core idea is simply that of trust – not trust without good reason – but just simply trust. For example, I can equally say that I “have faith” in my wife that she’ll remain faithful to me or that I “trust” my wife to remain faithful to me. Since the core idea behind “faith” is that of trust, it is clear that faith is compatible with reason. In fact, reason presupposes faith. Suppose that I want to become a great scientist but I refuse to trust anyone or anything. I don’t trust my teachers or parents, I don’t trust the reliability of my instruments or even my senses, and so forth. How could my scientific investigations ever get off the ground? I don’t see how they could.

Okay, so some kinds of faith are compatible with, and even necessary to, reason. But what about religious faith? What about faith in God? Perhaps Pinker’s idea is that this sort of faith is intrisically opposed to science. Again, that is not so. A number of studies of the historical development of science (e.g., here) have documented that it was religious faith, in particular theistic religious faith, that provided an encouraging worldview framework in which modern science could get off the ground. How so? Well, theism encourages science because it teaches that the universe is a creation of an intelligent being in whose image we are made. Thus, if theism is right, then we should expect the physical universe to be intrinsically intelligible and intelligible to us. Contrast this with Hinduism, the central teaching of which is that the physical world is an illusion that we have to transcend. Modern science could not (and obviously did not) have emerged in such a context. What about atheistic materialism? Could that worldview have given birth to modern science? Probably not. There is little in materialism to encourage the idea that the physical universe is intrinsically intelligible and intelligible to us. The fact that we as a species have survived and thrived suggests that we can make sense out of nature on a rudimentary or commonsense level. But what we don’t get, as we do with theism, is a reason for thinking that we ought to be able to get at the deep or fundamental structure of things. At any rate, the historical record is that theistic faith did in fact encourage the development of modern science.

Finally, Pinker writes

For us to magnify the significance of religion as a topic equivalent in scope to all of science, all of culture, or all of world history and current affairs, is to give it far too much prominence. It is an American anachronism, I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.

I think Pinker vastly understates the importance of religion because he is preoccupied with one particular species of it, namely, theism, and because he fails to appreciate the deep role that religious beliefs play in defining the worldviews that shape out outlook on everything, including history, science, culture, etc. A worldview is a framework of answers for the most basic questions that confront us: Where did everything, including ourselves, come from? How come there seems to be so much evil and suffering in the world, the so-called “human condition.” What, if anything, can be done about it? What, if anything, is the meaning or purpose of our existence? These questions and a few others are ones that every worldview must answer in one way or another. They are also the questions that all religions answer in one way or another. Just as everyone has a worldview, however inarticulate it may be, it is also the case that everyone has a religion, at least in the broad Tillichian sense of something that is of “ultimate concern” to that person. For Pinker it appears that materialistic science is his religion. He trusts it – has faith in it – to give his life a sense of meaning and purpose and he believes that it can ultimately deliver us from many of the evils of the human condition.

2 thoughts on “Steven Pinker on Faith and Reason

  1. Michael Pakaluk

    What I find striking in Pinker’s remarks is the contradiction between his praise of the value of science and his low view of human beings.

    He rightly says that a great university should be sensitive to “the ennobling nature of knowledge: to the inherent value, with consequences too far-reaching to enumerate, of understanding how the world works” at the same time that he says that this “enobling knowledge” informs us that we are “just primates” and that thought is no more than electical stimulation of neurons.

    I guess he’s the model of clear thinking that Harvard’s aiming at.

  2. Alan Rhoda

    Good point, Michael. The contradiction you note seems to confirm my suggestion that materialistic science is Pinker’s religion. If that’s what gives his life meaning, then it seems to follow that humans are not intrinsically valuable, but only valuable as a means toward the furthering of materialistic science.


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