In my post graduate studies, I became bored with the same old interpretations of literature. In 3 hour seminars, I would sit, my shoulders slack, eyes blinking slow with sleep. Literature seemed to be going nowhere new, no undiscovered country.
Can you believe that literary scholars in this century would still be using Freud to interpret great works? Sure, the man was a drug addicted genius, but literary scholars act as if psychology equals Freud.
At about 9:00 PM one evening, I was semi-slumped in my linguistics seminar when the instructor mentioned, in passing, the connection between languages, mind, and cognitive science. She said the name Pinker. I was startled to hear that there were existed loads of relatively new fields, including cognitive linguistics, cognitive science, and neuroscience.
Of course, being a geek, I ran out and bought the book which mesmerized me. When I picked up Steven Pinker's, How the Mind Works, my life and studies exploded with new possibilities. Ever since, I have loved the man, despite his flaws, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology.
Pinker has written a slew of important books on the mind, and he recently participated in the Reddit "Ask Me Anything," where readers can throw questions at a famous person and get them answered. He shared many insights into his work and the human mind, and I recommend a full read. I engage one of his responses here.
Does a scientific world view make you less happy?
Pinker contends that a "naturalistic" conception of human nature and evolution are essential to becoming a knowledgable adult, and understanding evolution and neuroscience of the brain is exhilarating. We are opening the human mind, and in doing so we better understand the human brain, culture, and ourselves.
In a brilliant description of an intelligent, informed life, he defines wisdom and happiness:
Wisdom consists in appreciating the preciousness and finiteness of our own existence, and therefore not squandering it; of being cognizant of what makes people everywhere tick, and therefore enhancing happiness and minimizing suffering; of being alert to limitations and flaws in our own judgments and decisions and passions, and thereby doing our best to circumvent them.
If she empathizes with all humans because they are similar to herself, her behavior should promote the happiness of others, anticipating that she will be treated the same way. The more people who are educated with this point of view, the greater the happiness of human beings as a species. This hints at the underlying role of education in elevating the consciousness and happiness of the world. We will attain happiness when we treat each other with kindness, and education in science advances the cause.
Knowing more about our own brain leads to greater happiness, and wisdom, the scientific understanding of our brief existence, brings joy. This is a hopeful and optimistic view of humans, despite the obvious conflicts with traditional religious conceptions of our existence. Wisdom is the solution to the world's problems, and Pinker thinks that wisdom can grow and thrive as we discover more about ourselves, our minds, and then educate others.
Theists have little to quibble with, although they might take offense with the conclusion of his response:
The exhilaration comes from understanding that we are a part of natural world; that deep mysteries can be explained; and that the world -- including our own mental lives -- can be intelligible, rather than a source of superstition and ignorance. Yes, mortality sucks, but given that it exists, I'd rather know that than be kept in a childlike state of delusion.
- Appreciating finiteness + preciousness of life = wisdom
- Wisdom + altruism = happiness
- Understanding our part in the natural world + explaining mysteries = exhilaration
- Lack of understanding + ignorance = delusion
- Delusion does not equal happiness
He subtly targets the theists who disregard science in varying degrees. There are many who simply deny evolution and and anything else that does not fit into their mythology, and others who simply mold the science to fit their beliefs. Both are examples of ignorance, according to Pinker, though theists should remember the true definition of ignorance. He is not calling them stupid, but pointing out a lack of knowledge or a willful disregard of facts.
Pinker has said elsewhere that he does not judge theists for their belief in the supernatural, but he does see it as an impediment to an enlightened understanding of who we are as human beings. I agree with Pinker in this regard, although his choice of wording many times implies judgement: willful ignorance and delusion.
What you can take from Pinker
- Seek to understand as much as you can about the science of your evolutionary past, your human brain, and the evolution of the cultures you live in.
- The knowledge you gain will develop you into a mature individual who sees the precious fragility of human life.
- Mature and knowledgable individuals understand that altruistic, or kind, behavior benefits all of humanity.
- Happiness increases for all as education spreads scientific knowledge, maturity, and encourages altruism.
- Scientific education helps to tear down the barriers of ignorance that foster potentially harmful beliefs in the supernatural.
In a simple, spoken paragraph, Pinker captures the exhilaration and happiness that the current enlightenment holds for those willing to embrace knowledge and science with an open mind. Although he challenges beliefs in the supernatural, he grounds his argument with references to solid science, empirically proven. He speaks of scientific fact and theory, but we must remember that a theory in scientific lingo does not suggest that it lacks evidence or testing.
Theories in science have been tested many times, probed from all angles, questioned by experts, doubted, and yet found to hold up to all attempts to defeat it. The term theory indicates that the knowledge is fact, as long as it continues to hold up to testing and new knowledge.
The theory of evolution, then, is not a guess at how humans came to be, but the beautiful and complex story of human history. This elegant truth makes me happy.
You might also enjoy reading the scientific articles:
- Genes to Memes - Human and Cultural Evolution
- Smart tech dumbs us, says the Wall Street Journal: Find out how to power your brain instead
- Albert Einstein, the god: Even when wrong, he was right
- Improve your mind now: Neuroscientific discoveries about mono-tasking
- Top Technology 2012: Neuroscientists Pinpoint Thoughts and Words in the Brain Using fMRI
Before you go, I know you must have a reaction to Pinker's ideas, could you share them with us? Feel free to disagree or correct me. What are your thoughts on having a scientific mind and being happy?