Stephen Fry & Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment Today


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STEPHEN: Wonderful. Thank you so much, everybody, it's a thrill to be here. I love sitting next to heroes, and Steven is a hero of mine. As John has said and as I'm sure most of you know, he is what one of the leading public intellectuals - there are others phrases one can use, but I hope you accept that one - in the English-speaking world. I first encountered him as a linguist; as a man who explained and seemed to be Noam Chomsky's physical manifestation on earth, in terms of his explanation of some of Chomsky's generative grammar and all those things. The Language Instinct; Words And Rules, wonderful books like that; and then of course, The Blank Slate. 

One sensed a move then from Stephen, who is a genius in all kinds of areas of thought - cognition, evolutionary psychiatry and all kinds of areas of neuroscience and language - which are fascinating. But the move from writing about language to writing about the Blank Slate - which, while obviously connected to the human mind - one sensed a move towards something a little more political; something a little more addressing what, I think, you have seen as a fault in public discourse about the mind and about society, and about culture and about intellectuals. That was picked up with the wonderful Better Angels Of Our Nature, which shocked people with its optimism - Steven is now considered a new optimist -and this wonderful book, Enlightenment Now. A great title - and one which I'm sure we can all think 'Yes, finally someone has come up and spoken for the Enlightenment" - continues this journey. 

So I wanted to say, Steven, everything you do I admire - except your spelling of the name Steven. We'll overlook that - and if I can ask you; if it has been unconscious, or you felt impelled to move from the more academic sphere of linguistics, psycholinguistics and neuroscience into the cultural sphere?

STEVEN: I made the crossover when people would ask what I did for a living, and I would say 'I study language; how it develops in children, how it works'. People say 'Wow, that's really interesting'; and I thought, there is a market for bringing ideas about language and the mind to a broader understanding. There had been a breakthroughs in public communication of science in areas like evolution, in cosmology, in dinosaurs; but no one that I knew of had tried to bring the discoveries of cognitive science to a broader public, and I thought, 'Well, it'd be fun to try.' So I wrote The Language Instinct, which tries to explain everything you always wanted to know about language in what I hope would be an accessible format; and I guess it was an accessible format, because people responded to it and one thing led to another.

STEPHEN: Right; and then this moved from that to the more, if I can say, political side of it. You might have been looked at as a typical Harvard intellectual academic with sort of left-leaning principles - a liberal in the loose sense of the word - but of course in the last few years, it's as if everything has changed in terms of our sense of what a left or right means; and you have infuriated both left and right to some extent, with both The Blank Slate and then The Better Angels Of Our Nature. I wonder if you tell me about your journey in that regard; if you think you've stayed the same but the world has changed, or you have altered your view of politics.  

STEVEN: Well, from the position inspired in part by Noam Chomsky - that language is a human faculty; it's one of our innate capabilities - I extended it to the question of, what are our other innate faculties? In How The Mind Works I suggested that together with language, we have a suite of emotions; fear, jealousy, love, anger, gratitude. We have a set of ways of construing the world, a kind of intuitive physics and intuitive biology and intuitive psychology. We have aesthetic reactions to the world; a sense of which landscapes are beautiful vs threatening, which faces are attractive or not; and that this suite of psychological reactions could be explained in large part by evolution, the forces that give rise to innate mechanisms. 

But positing a complex human nature - at least for a lot of the 20th century, and beforehand - had more of a right-wing aroma than a left-wing aroma; and despite Chomsky himself, who was of course a rather flagrant leftist - as Mitt Romney might say, a 'severe leftist'; called himself a 'severe conservative' - so Chomsky did violate that equation. But there had been in traditional liberalism, a kind of utopian vision that was based on the assumption that human nature was infinitely malleable. We were not saddled with fatal flaws; we did not have to accommodate human jealousy or dominance, desire for revenge, differences between the sexes; but with the proper socialisation and child-rearing, we could engineer society to in turn engineer humans.

STEPHEN: Yes; I mean, in a way it comes down to the very simple nature-nurture debate, that you were pushing it more towards nature. That there was evolution; we were programmed, encoded with certain faculties and ways of perceiving the world and responding to it, as opposed to those being acculturated and the gift of a society in which we were born. Is that too simple?  

STEVEN: In a sense, yes; although what evolution programmed into us was a set of mechanisms, all of which we could learn - because it would be a stupid organism indeed that did not respond to information about the environment, including other people - and what I explored further in The Blank Slate was the political and moral and emotional colourings of the nature-nurture debate; why the nature-nurture debate is not just a scientific debate, but also a political one. And it's because traditionally, there was at least a strand of left-liberalism that seemed to be committed to humans as blank slates, as infinitely malleable. Whereas there is a strain of conservatism that began with the assumption that humans are tragically limited - that we are innately competitive and jealous, and also limited in our cognitive faculties - with implications such that we're not smart enough to design society from the top down, so we have to rely on distributed bottom-up systems like markets. That because humans are perennially tempted by conquest and exploitation; then we need deterrents like the rule of law and armed forces to deter invasions. So you had a kind of tragic vision which leaned a bit right, and you had a more utopian vision depending on a blank slate which leaned a bit left. I kind of explored those historical roots, then tried to scramble them by pointing out that it's really not a dichotomy; that if human nature is complex, if it has multiple parts, then you don't have to come down on the side that either humans are inherently selfish, tragically flawed, ultimately limited, or infinitely malleable plastic blank slates. That rather, we have a set of motives; some of which have regrettable features, like our desire for revenge. On the other hand, there are parts of human nature that can channel and control and inhibit our darker impulses. We have a capacity for self-control in our massive frontal lobes; you know, we can count to ten and save for a rainy day, and hold our horses and so on. We have cognitive faculties, such as the very ones that I explored in the books on language and the mind. We can have create new ideas by combining old ideas, in a combinatorial explosion of possibilities; we can have ideas about our ideas, and ideas about our ideas about our ideas.

STEPHEN: Is that what you mean by combinatorial and recursive thinking?  

STEVEN: Indeed.  

STEPHEN: It's a big thing of yours, isn't it?  

STEVEN: Indeed; so a recursive representation is one that can contain an example of itself. So every time you say, "Well I think that he thinks that I'm coming, but I'm not" - that is, you had one thought within another thought - you're having a recursive thought.  

STEPHEN: That covers theory of mind and various other things, yes.

STEVEN: Indeed. So theory of mind essentially depends on a kind of recursive mentalizing.  

STEPHEN: Being able to picture what other people might think?  

STEVEN: Indeed, but thanks to language, we also have the ability to learn from each other; so as society tries out innovative arrangements and some of them work better than others, we can share our ideas about which ones that work and which ones that don't. So there is scope for progress, for social improvement, given the toolbox that evolution gave us; the cognitive toolbox.

STEPHEN: Right; so again using your language idea, it may be true that language - the language instinct competence - is encoded into us, but that doesn't mean we're all going to speak the same language.

STEVEN: Well, yes indeed. Whatever nature gave us is a set of systems that are-  

STEPHEN: Infinitely flexible.

STEVEN: Designed to be nurtured, in the sense that even a capacity for language is not a capacity for English, or for Japanese; it's a capacity to take in information from our fellow humans and allow us to speak and understand an infinite number of sentences going forward.  

STEPHEN: Exactly; and I will share with you my terrible joke, which is that it's actually a mistake to think it's just nature and nurture. It's about human will and the passion to succeed, however brutally; so it's really nature, nurture and Nietzsche.  

STEVEN: (laughs)

STEPHEN: We'll come to Friedrich Nietzsche very soon, because he's very much a Bugaboo of yours; but if we now look at this extraordinary book, Enlightenment Now, most people have an idea of what the Enlightenment is. We can think of printing giving rise to the Renaissance, giving rise to science and the Age of Reason, which then gives rise to what is known as the Enlightenment. I'd love you just to sketch briefly - you can use your wonderful quotations from Kant if you like, who himself defined enlightenment Aufklärung - I wondered if you could just explain what you see the Enlightenment as meaning.

STEVEN: I identify three themes as animating the Enlightenment, and they form most of the subtitle of the book: Reason, Science and, uh-

STEPHEN: Humanism. And Progress!

STEVEN: Well, which collectively lead to progress, indeed. So reason comes from the realisation that traditional sources of belief are actually generators of error - things like authority, tradition, dogma, charisma, hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts, the subjective glow of certainty - and that there is no substitute for a reason, and in fact reason is, in a very real sense, not negotiable.  

STEPHEN: Yes, but also even unreasonable ideologies use reason to justify themselves.

STEVEN: Indeed.  

STEPHEN: That's the whole point, isn't it?  

STEVEN: Indeed. As soon as you even began to propose some alternative to reason and try to persuade people why it was better than reason, you kind of lost the argument. Because as long as you're not threatening people, as long as you're not amassing an armed posse to convert people to the cause-  

STEPHEN: Bribing them.  

STEVEN: As long as you're not bribing them; as long as you're giving them reasons. As long as you would insist if challenged that you're not full of crap, that people should take you seriously, then you've surrendered the point.

STEPHEN: It would be like saying there's no such thing as time, and I will tell you about it tomorrow. It just doesn't make sense; 'this is why there is no reason', the word 'why' is a reason word.

STEVEN: Precisely, that's exactly right.

STEPHEN: And reason, as you say, is the absolute basis; the non-negotiable basis of the Enlightenment.

STEVEN: Exactly; and science comes from the conviction that the universe is intelligible, that we can formulate- we can try to explain things; and moreover, since we can't a priori be certain of any of our explanations, we have an imperative to test them, to calibrate them against reality and to reject the ones that the world tells us are false.

STEPHEN: And that's what we call, sometimes, empiricism, for example; the testing of the validity and repetitive truth of an observation, for example.  

STEVEN: Indeed, and it's often said that science can't give us our values; it can tell us about how the world does work, but not how it ought to work or how we ought to behave. That is true as a matter of logical categorisation; that is, a statement of fact and a statement of value are not the same thing. On the other hand, there are many insights of science that I argue must form part of the worldview, including the moral worldview of any educated person. Such as naturalism; that the laws of the universe have no goal or purpose related to human well-being. That the laws of physics, they just don't care about you; they don't. If you get sick, there's no entity or agent that wanted you to get sick. If you fall off a cliff, there's no fate; it wasn't preordained, it's not fulfilling some mission or purpose. Stuff happens.  

STEPHEN: And I think if Victorians were as shocked as we think of them as being by Darwin - and actually, there's some historical evidence that they weren't quite as shocked as we think they were - it wasn't by the fact we may have descended from apes, or be apes. It was that it presented a natural world, which was so callous and unfeeling; and that we were the result of a simple - what we would now call 'algorithmic' - series of rules, not a design. And there was no purpose to our life, except the shallow purpose of reproduction.  

STEVEN: Indeed, there's no purpose judged by the laws of nature. Of course, once human brains come into existence, humans have purposes; but it's a mistake to project our purposes onto the laws of the cosmos. So that's an example of a scientific insight that has tremendous relevance for moral reasoning; including the fact that if we care about our well-being, we can't look to the cosmos to take care of us, that it's really up to us.

STEPHEN: We can test empirically if prayers are answered, after all.

STEVEN: And the results are in. [LAUGHS]

STEPHEN: Thoughts and prayers, nil.

STEVEN: And even another scientific insight with enormous implications for the human condition is the second law of thermodynamics; the law of entropy.  

STEPHEN: You spend a lot of time in this book talking about entropy, and I'd love you just to explain why this is more than just something that's important to physicists.

STEVEN: Yes. In the technical sense, the second law of thermodynamics is that an entropy in a closed system increases; that is, disorder.  

STEPHEN: Heat goes from a hot body to a cold.  

STEVEN: Differences in temperature which are necessary for to have usable energy will inevitably dissipate over time, - unless the system is exposed to energy or information from the outside world - but that in closed systems, disorder increases. One implication is that things going wrong don't need a special explanation, in terms of any designer or entity wanting things to go wrong. It's just the natural course of events for things not to go our way, simply because there are vastly more ways in which things can go wrong, than for things to go right. So we have to deploy energy and information in order to carve out a zone of beneficial order in our local environment, with the use of energy.

STEPHEN: And this was a recent discovery, because... You know, we forgive our ancestors for noting, above all, examples of explosions of energy. Volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides; they would think it was a world in which energy could just appear from nowhere.

STEVEN: That's true; misled by concentrated local sources of energy, such as the Earth's core and the Sun. One implication of that is we ask the wrong question when we ask 'Why is there poverty? ' Poverty is just the natural condition of the universe; the question that we should ask is, 'Why is there wealth? ', and indeed, that was a major obsession of a number of Enlightenment thinkers.  

STEPHEN: Most famously Adam Smith.

STEVEN: And his Scottish and Dutch precursors; but it does change the way you look at things, if you realise that really, what we ought to explain is why that we get to enjoy any order prosperity, life-giving, organisation at all.  

STEPHEN: So we live in a world - I think Tom Stoppard put it very well in Arcadia when the mathematician explains; 'If I take some rice pudding and it's got a lump of jam in the middle, and I take a teaspoon and revolve it five times, the rice pudding becomes pink. If I keep the teaspoon still and revolve it the other direction, I don't get the jam. You never get the jam back; and that's the rule of the world, not getting the jam.

 

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