In this interview with Hugh Hewitt, Pinker explains two points from his recent book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. His arguments illustrate the magical power of prestige. Titles before and letters after a person’s name can give an air of profundity to arguments that would lose a high school debate contest. The quote from the book emphasized in the interview is this: “Few sophisticated people today profess a belief in heaven and hell, the literal truth of the Bible, or a God who flouts the laws of physics.” So in Pinker’s view, Oxford professor, Alister McGrath, who holds Ph.Ds in molecular biology and theology, John Polkinghorne, Cambridge professor of mathematical physics turned Anglican priest, and Francis Collins, former head of The Human Genome Project, are all unsophisticated.
Pinker obviously uses “unsophisticated” simply to mean people who don’t agree with him. The irony is, of course, that throwing out a blanket insult to erudite people simply because they don’t agree with the premises of your argument is exactly what unsophisticated people do. This is a common tactic among facile-but-confident teenagers.
He also shows a lack of sophistication in referring to the “literal truth of the Bible,” which is the same as referring to the literal truth of the library. It is a nonsense statement unless one clarifies what section in the library or what book in the Bible is to be understood literally. Like a great many atheist intellectuals, Pinker has made a name for himself ridiculing something he doesn’t understand.
But the most ridiculous point in the interview is when he pontificates about religions evolving to be better by ceasing to believe in miracles and no longer appealing to the Bible to justify what’s right and wrong. He even magnanimously says he’s all for religion “mobilizing people’s moral sentiment to make the world better.” One of the reasons why it’s so hard to take people like this seriously is that they so consistently undermine their own philosophy.
Pinker is a materialist. This means he believes that all reality is reducible to matter. In this view, the natural elements are all that exist; there can be no supernatural. What he and others like him choose not to see is that materialism (aka “naturalism”) necessarily eliminates the concept of “better,” just as it eliminates the concept of morality. “Better” means the thing that’s getting better is conforming more and more to an ideal standard—a standard by which the thing that’s getting better is measured. But the act of measuring cannot take place unless the standard of measurement is a separate thing from what's being measured. If all there is is matter, matter cannot measure itself against or in reference to anything else. A ruler can’t be used to measure a piece of paper if paper is all there is. The materialist wants to measure human beings, which he believes to be 100% matter, against some immaterial ideal, which he claims cannot exist.
When thought out, Pinker’s argument goes something like this: There is no reality that doesn’t consist entirely of material elements. Matter, in all its various forms and combinations, is all there is. Also, it is very encouraging to see the complex form of matter known as “humanity” getting better, which means humanity is conforming to an ideal. Of course, an ideal is a idea or a conviction which, by definition, cannot be reduced to material elements (chemicals and atoms can’t be good or bad, noble or nasty), so it is impossible that there could exist anything apart from the material world which could tell us whether that world is getting better or worse. But nonetheless we are very encouraged by the mobilization of people’s moral sentiment which is making the world better.
His thought has all the cogency of the approach to mathematics demonstrated by Ma and Pa Kettle in this video.
But in the minds of many people, the same slapstick nonsense somehow becomes profound when it’s uttered by a Distinguished Professor of Psychology from Harvard University.