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Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.

0:00:00.000

Wright: Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His books include "The Language Instinct" "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate." I interviewed him at Cambridge, Massachusetts. I guess I have to start with a question that will be on everyone's mind, which is what's the story with the hair?

Steven Pinker: Well ... when I was a teenager I had to get my hair cut and now no one can force me to cut my hair.

Wright: Ok..

Steven Pinker: And so...

Wright: So you've had it a long time?

Steven Pinker: Yes I have. There was some there was some bad times in the 80s when I felt really really out of style and so I actually cut it quite a bit shorter, years after everyone else did...

Wright: I see.

Steven Pinker: ... although the 90s were a good decade. Grunge came in and bad hair was ok again so ...

Wright: And there's Kenny G too.

Steven Pinker: That's right There's Yanni.

0:00:51.000

Wright: Ok, now that we've got that out of the way, you are evolutionary psychologist. Do you have a good kind of one or two sentence definition of evolutionary psychology?

Steven Pinker: Evolutionary psychology I think is just bringing to bare on the study of the mind constraints from evolution so ideally evolutionary psychology I think should disappear, it should just become part of psychology for the same reason that in psychology now the brain is becoming part of psychology. There is this discipline called cognitive neuroscience which tries to bring to bear on the study of the mind and most people think that eventually it will just merge with psychology and I hope the same thing will happen with evolutionary psychology.

Wright: And you think it's such a natural merger because after all the brain was created by natural selection so ...

Steven Pinker: Exactly the ... you can't really understand anything especially something that shows signs of complex design without thinking how did it get there and why does it have the organization that we see why why did the brain develop the way it did as opposed to the thousands of ways we can imagine that it may have developed but it didn't. This is something that that is routine in rest of psychology in perception for example you take it for granted that the whole perceptual system isn't just some arbitrary machine but was constructed for a purpose so to speak not not a divine purpose that was deliberately engineered by some conscious being but the equivalent that we know that natural selection can build in in the rest of the body you just take it for granted that the reason that we have stereo vision is so that we can see in depth and we don't bump in to trees or fall off cliffs or we take it for granted that in memory whatever flaws there might be the fact that I can't remember everything that I want to on a moments notice because any information retrieval system would just get cluttered with information unless it had some kind of bottle-neck to differentiate between what is useful and what is useless. It's the whole idea of usefulness, utility, function and purpose, we take it for granted in cognitive psychology which is my field of training... things like memory, vision and language and I think evolutionary psychology is seen as a separate field just because it tries to do that for areas of psychology like social interaction or the moral sense where no one before ever bother asking a question what is it for? what's it designed to do?

0:03:19.000

Wright: Ok. Now it sounds like a pretty innocuous enterprise as you've describe it and yet...

Steven Pinker: And yet...

Wright: ... it arouses certain amount of controversy. And I think you believe that some of the controversy is grounded in misconceptions about the field. Most people in the field seem to think that...

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: ... do you... are there some basic misconceptions that you can you can tick off?

Steven Pinker: Yes there are a number of misconception, one of them is that if you seek the adaptive basis for a particular aspect of the mind then you're also committed to saying that every aspect of the mind was naturally selected and is there for some evolutionary purpose and I certainly don't think that's true. I don't think that music for example has any adaptive function or at least none that anyone has been able to make a convincing argument for... the content of dreams despite a century in which people have tried to figured out what dreaming is for for all we know dreaming might be a kind of screen saver that doesn't really matter what the content is as long as certain parts of the brain are active. So those are just two examples of things that may not be adaptation but might be brought by products. None the less there's a misconception that evolutionary psychology says that everything is adaptive.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: Another one is that that if you believe that the genes as selected by the evolutionary process shaped some aspects of behavior emotion or thinking then you're committed to determinism that we're somehow wind-up dolls or marionettes that are genetically programmed to carry out certain actions regardless of any input from the environment which is just crazy for one thing because any intelligent organism has to take in information about the environment if it's going to stay intelligent...

Wright: And it's the genes that kind of help it do that presumably I mean the program for accepting environmental information is presumably in the genes.

Steven Pinker: Something has to be in the genes. The bucks gotta stop somewhere. In fact that this is how I personally got interested in the idea that some things are innate and therefore shaped by natural selection... my background is in language acquisition and I started off trying to model how children acquire their mother tongue in the first few years of life.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... and to do that you gotta build something in if only the mechanism that do the learning and it's just I think a logical requirement that you can't have learning without a learning device and so it's really the learning device that's innate and the the motives that power it not the actual content.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: Also I think it's a it's a I've noticed a funny feature of of intellectual life ... people I think are really use to thinking there is nothing whatsoever that's innate and whenever anyone suggests that there's some effect of the genes that immediately gets translated into the idea that everything is in the genes...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... the idea that say half the variation in personality traits is genetic which is what behavior geneticists tell us, something that is very hard for people to accept, they whenever I mention in a talk or class between a quarter and three quarters of the variation of some trait is genetic the immediate response is "Oh so you're saying it's all in the genes" even though 25-75% is not all it's ...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... it's some.

0:06:46.000

Wright: And another kind of misconception I've encountered is is the conflation of evolutionary psychology with what you just mentioned, behavioral genetics. Behavior genetics is the study of genetic variation among people that sometimes figures into evolutionary psychology but more fundamentally you're looking at universals among people everywhere right?

Steven Pinker: That's right and the evolutionary psychology is really the study of the universal human nature and most evolutionary psychologists attribute differences among people to the environment not to the genes.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: In the case of language what people actually say is going to vary radically because of the environment...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: .. I mean the reason that some people Japanese and other people speak Yiddish and still others speak Swahili has nothing what so ever to do with the genes it just depends on where you grew up but underneath all that variation there maybe in the case of language what Noam Chomsky called "the universal grammar" something much more abstract than the actual rules of a particular language and this universal grammar presumably bears the stamp of the learning abilities that allow particular languages to be acquired and one of the reoccurring messages in evolutionary psychology is that if you look superficially how people move their muscles and what they actually say human behavior is going to vary all over the map but if you try to boil it down to the underlying motives than you might find much more universal signs of human nature. What's likely to be universal, what's likely to be innate, what's likely to be a product of natural selection is not so much behavior but emotions and patterns of thought.

0:08:27.000

Wright: Well and certainly I think you've played a very big role in this this synthesis of of kind of cognitive science with with Darwinian theory and in fact certainly it informs you see it both the language instinct but also certainly in in your magnum opus to date at least "How the Mind Works." Did you by the way, ever consider giving this an ambitious title or?

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: You finally opted for the low-profile marketing approach...

Steven Pinker: Well I think simple words are best. Short words... mono-syllables.

Wright: They are they are small words. Very unpretentious words yes...

Steven Pinker: Yes that's right.

Wright: ... in this title that's good. But anyway this is very much infused with the cognitive perspective and a computational perspective which is something you brought to bare and you drew heavily on the successes and failures of artificial intelligence and in fact one of the key insights that you draw on is the fact that it's actually extremely hard to get computers to behave intelligently, to do intelligent things. How is it that that informs your view of the human mind?

Steven Pinker: If you try to program a device to do what we take for granted you know pick up glass without crushing it or dropping it or walking across the street without tripping without trying to step over what you know is a shadow... it's a remarkable difficult engineering problem but it's something that any 4 year old can do and that immediately gives you an appreciation of how much complexity there has to be in the brain and if there's that much complexity it immediately raises the question of where did it come from and in the rest of the organism we attribute complexive adaptive design to the operation of natural selection and it naturally raises the question of what evolution's role has been in the rest of the mind. Language also, the reason you can't talk to your computer or if you do the best you can do is talk one word at a time like that ... is that just the process of recovering words from continuous speech is something that engineers haven't been able to solve let alone meanings that you could actually tell your computer to make some plane reservation in a few words and it would go off and do it and come back to you...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: That's not something that computer can achieve but any human being can.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: All of these things... just allocating time during the day so you don't die of thirst. But you don't sit locked in the kitchen figuring out how to prioritize physical safety, finding a mate, satisfying physiological needs, learning about the world, something that all of us do is another thing that we haven't been able to program a robot to do...

0:11:12.000

Wright: Right. So one thing this suggests is that intelligence is a generic property, it didn't just show up all of a sudden and we were intelligent in some generally way it allowed us to take care of our selves.

Steven Pinker: Yes it suggests that just saying the brain having being inflated in evolution probably wasn't enough that there isn't this generic stuff called smarts or intelligence there is an awful lot of engineering in there.

Wright: Ok. Now I want to tick off a few key theories in evolutionary psychology, some of which you've already alluded to in fact and just get you to say just a few sentences on why you think they're what strikes you as important about them. One is kin selection.

Steven Pinker: Yes kin selection I think is the is really the key to understanding our social relationships, why everywhere people care more about their blood relatives than about strangers, why why we care so much about our children, why blood is thicker than water, why the airports are clogged around Christmas time with people wanting to put their bodies in the same room as their as their blood relatives and then over the course of history you have look over European history and it's strategic marriages and dynasties and wars and civil wars over succession to the throne all based on blood relationships, suddenly it's even more obvious in traditional societies in tribal societies where kinship is almost everything.

Wright: And it's an idea that is surprisingly subtle I mean people take for granted the fact that you you like your kin well at least sometimes you like your kin anyway you you have stronger feelings about your kin than you do about the average person and and yet the Darwinian rational is in a way straight forward and in a way extremely subtle and and there are people who kind of think they get it and really don't in a way...

Steven Pinker: Well I think the part that is most subtle but perhaps most profound are the implications that Robert Trivers drew out of the theory of kin selection which is yes I I love my brother and sister because they share 50% of their genes with me and my parents and my children and so on but 50% isn't the same as 100%...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... since every person shares 100% of genes with themselves but only 50% with a parent or sibling or child you got room for conflict of interest that what I want for me and what I want for my sister isn't the same thing that my sister wants for my sister my sister wants from me and so on. That I think gives rise to all of the labyrinthian complexity ...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... of relationships, that we're not like ants which are pretty boring when it comes down to it, we have family dynamics and family politics and family dramas that that person the people who are most important to you in the world are not necessary one's whose interests coincide with yours 100% much more than for any stranger it's still not 100%.

0:14:16.000

Wright: Right. Speaking of Trivers what about the theory of reciprocal altruism?

Steven Pinker: That that is the other major theory of that explains why we're we have social interactions, why we care about people who aren't related to us like friends, colleagues, and it may account for a large part of what made us smart, mainly to keep track of what we owe other people what they owe us to make sure we're not exploited to cultivate relationships that will have a relatively open reciprocity over long period of time versus ones that are shorter term where we remember who did what for whom act by act... and it's probably the thing that differentiates humans the most from other animals where benefitting someone who isn't your blood relative is pretty rare and it may not be a coincidence that we're a species with these preposterously big heads and we obsess over our reputation over what we've done for other people what they've done for us and we form complex societies unlike other organisms. These probably went together and and Triver's theory provides a very deep reason why they do.

Wright: It seems to me that one thing evolutionary psychology can do is is kind of put you in touch with your motivations I mean after all we we the human mind wasn't designed I put design in quotes when I'm talking about something natural selection produces but the human mind wasn't designed to understand it's own motivations I mean if you for example say you have a social rival and you're subjecting him to particularly harsh moral scrutiny and suggesting to people that he's immoral the mind isn't designed to A: realize that the reason people are inclined to do that is because it helped get their ancestors genes into the next generation, B: the mind isn't designed necessarily to even understand you are subjecting your rivals to harsher scrutiny than people you don't really care about more than your allies and there are there there are a number of I mean you know for example laughing at at jokes of high status or high powerful people you know you may you may kind of be a little more generous in your assessment of how funny their jokes are without even realizing you may really real think that the jokes are funny. Evolutionary psychology can and bring you in touch with the fact that you are doing these things and so can really be something that you carry around with you in the course of your everyday life right? And I'm just wondering whether on balance you find it more kind of a blessing or a burden?

Steven Pinker: Absolutely a blessing I mean I can't say that it's lead me to do with my life any more wisely it's really the old question of does psychotherapy help so if you had a brilliant insightful therapist who really could tell you why you did what you did what would it actually help you? And the jury is out on that and it might be out on evolutionary psychology as well but I think it's got help you realize you're prone to self deception you realize you have your assessments of other people of the same sex and the opposite sex may not be in your own interests of your own long-term happiness that give insight into your marriage how much this actually changes behavior is really an open question but it's better to have it than not to have it.

0:17:56.000

Wright: What's what's an example of how you think it could help?

Steven Pinker: Well the the idea that in in an argument people are likely to when they hear a good argument from the other side they're like to assume that the other person must be providing it out of some ignoble motive that they must be dishonest or out to burnish their reputation and that seems completely outrageous at the time what may seem like a even a personal attack knowing that we're liable to think that way and so's the other guy and there are good reasons why we're both likely to think that way and those reasons have nothing to do with the merits of the respective arguments. I think it allows you to maybe take a bird's eye view and take a more critical look at your own ideas and perhaps a more charitable look at the other side. Both academically and in a marriage and in a friendship and so on.

Wright: Do you think in a number of ways it does help you attain more detachment?

Steven Pinker: I hope so. I like to think so yes.

Wright: I mean you would and you wouldn't. You wouldn't want I mean say if you you know love your siblings or your offspring or something you wouldn't want the experience to be somehow diminished by the the knowledge that at the level of the gene there's a kind of cynicism about the love.

Steven Pinker: Right. This is something that I write about both in a little bit in "How the Mind Works" and even more in the book that I'm currently working on, "The Blank Slate."

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... that these are really different levels of analysis and there's even though I think the metaphor of the selfish gene is a brilliant metaphor very useful... so I'm not criticizing the metaphor itself but we got to realize that it is a metaphor that stretches of DNA aren't literally selfish in the way that we are and also this is a different level of analysis from the kind of real motives that the brain has and I think there's a it's easy to think of the DNA as our essence and that what the genes metaphorical motives are are our real deep down motives and it makes it easy to think that we're somehow hypocritical for thinking that we really love our kids our our our spouses that deep down there's really a selfish agenda...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: But I think it's not the right way of thinking about it because it almost a mixture of Freudian ideas that beneath the surface motivation there's some deeper and darker ulterior motive and the sociobiological metaphor of the selfish gene and these are just different levels of analysis that the that the feeling that we have towards our kids or our husbands and wives and so on could be 100% pure or ....

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ...some percentage pure even if deep down they're 100% the motives of the genes are 100% simple...

0:20:53.000

Wright: Right well it seems to me that it evolutionary psychology can lead to a cynical perspective in two different senses and one is invalid in exactly the way you describe I mean the fact that in some sense it's in my genes interest for me to love my children does not make my love of them for the most part and less pure I mean the fact is I would run into the burning building. You know that is self sacrifice at the level of the human being that's utter self-sacrifice. On the other hand with reciprocal altruism for example the theory suggests and the data suggests that sometimes the logic behind the altruism is not pure in the same way as it is with kin selection so that you're professions of commitment to a person may be less great than the actual commitment is and it seems to me awareness of that can lead to a more valid kind of cynicism and might be a greater complication to a person as you go around kind of living living your life.

Steven Pinker: Yes it is. There is an opening for real pure altruism even in that case it's an addition to the Triver's theory of reciprocal altruism that people like Robert Frank and John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have suggested that there if in addition to trading favors with people we're always assessing people for how good a trading partner they are.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... how committed they are, will they calculate their advantage down to the last nickle so that as soon as it's in their advantage to knife you in the back they'll do so as opposed to someone who isn't going to be tallying it who values the relationship of any particular transaction now that if we're always on the look out for the difference between a true friend and a fair weather friend that could at the next level up actually start some selection for being a true friend for actually being genuinely generous so that someone whose doing their hardest to uproot any kind of cynical selfishness or hypocrisy isn't going to find any.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: Now this isn't likely to apply species wide and I think common sense would say that not everyone is completely generous and self-sacrificing but some people are and maybe most people are to some people some of the time and so there could be the corner of the landscape of human relationships in which there really is a sacrificing psychology.

0:23:31.000

Wright: Yes and it might have made even more sense in the evolutionary environment which is what's always of of ultimate relevance in assessing human behavior because that's the environment we were designed to live in and there presumably you would've had a fairly constant set of small people fairly constant and small group of people with whom you're interacting so you're reputation could ...

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: ...have consistency of reputation didn't matter... At the same time...

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: ... strictly speaking with kin selection what's being selected for is the altruism and with reciprocal altruism even in the case you're talking about what strictly speaking matters is the perception of you as being altruistic. You're just saying in the real world that may tend to align with being consistently altruistic...

Steven Pinker: I think there's a mixture I think there's there's obviously...

Wright: I mean betrayal happens! I've seen...

Steven Pinker: Betrayal happens absolutely.

Wright: ... in the real world I've never done it myself of course...

Steven Pinker: Of course.

Wright: ... but I've seen it in others.

Steven Pinker: But the fact I think the fact that there can be genuinely pure-hearted people or at least pure-hearted interactions but you never know I think is one of the engines of a lot of the literature that...

Wright: Yes.

Steven Pinker: ...say in a marriage or a relationship or even within a family the fact that the interests partly overlap and partly don't is what makes for all the different plots of allies who wonder whether they can trust each other or might think that they can't whereas in reality the other person has made a sacrifice for them...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: So I think it's we shouldn't become utter cynics we should be exactly as cynical as a good novelist.

Wright: Yes and the other thing is cynicism applied to yourself can have a morally healthy effect.

Steven Pinker: Yes right.

Wright: In theory...

Steven Pinker: In fact it's the it's one of the goals of a lot of sort of religious drive...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... to know yourself and realize that you're maybe you've sinned and...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ...you're going to do it again ...

Wright: I think Luther said a saying to someone who knows that everything he does is egotistical or words to that effect...

Steven Pinker: Oh right.

Wright: ... and I don't think he used the word egotistical.

0:25:27.000

Wright: Of course the fear you hear all the time is that people react in the opposite way and say well if it's natural you know if the temptation to philander or whatever cheat on my spouse betray my friends in some sense has a natural basis why not do it?

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: What kinds of reactions do you get from people who read your stuff? I mean do you have a sense that some of them are using it in ways you'd rather not see?

Steven Pinker: Well I I try to guard against that by almost always having the proviso perhaps to the point of repetitiveness and boring the reader by saying by the way this doesn't mean that it's ok to exploit your children, cheat on your spouse, betray your friends and so on, that the reason that we have these moral standards the reason they're not completely unrealistic is that there is a some corner of the brain that that that can do things out of principle it's probably in the frontal lobes it's not doesn't commit me to believing in a soul or anything non-biological probably has an evolutionary basis in making you a kind of person that other people want to trust and and engage with and a lot of what moralizing is is trying to appeal to that part of the brain and get people to use it to over-ride whatever the darker side of ourselves that might be more prone to out and out exploitation.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: But I do remind people of it, first of all just the logical point that the the way things evolved and what we ought to do are two different things and that this doesn't mean that you're some kind of dualist, that there's a biological organ called the brain that makes us sin and then there's a soul that prevents it from going down the path of evil, that there actually is maybe a part of the psyche that evolved in order to be completely good and trustworthy but that isn't the only part of the brain and that a lot of mental life consists of the internal battle between these two parts of the self.

0:27:31.000

Wright: Well it's certainly true in principal you would think that evolutionary psychology knowledge of your underlying motivation would give you the opportunity of prevailing over your natural inclinations upon reflection. Are are there are there cases where you have very consciously decided to to just go against the genetic imperative I mean something that that you understand is kind of the natural impulse but you've taken a stand and...

Steven Pinker: I hope so.

Wright: Nothing you'd care to share with the world? Ok. Well...

Steven Pinker: I'm certainly... I think you know we do this all the time I mean it's the old world for it was wisdom foresight appreciating...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... human nature and people use to get it from literature, religion, observing lessons of history and sometimes it's quite self-conscious I mean in the the debates over the American Constitution. I mean those guys were all psychologists, Madison and Hamilton and so on and often they were evolutionary psychologists in a sense at least they had this element of cynicism toward themselves and were saying well it's great that we're going to overthrow the British even though it would be very tempting now to crown ourselves kings since we know that we're not likely to be infinitely virtuous and wise maybe we should build into the system something that will protect other people against us for the same reason that we're now liberating other people from the British and you have statements from people like Madison and Hamilton that were cynical exactly in the way that evolutionary psychology is and which we led to this terrific thing called democracy.

0:29:16.000

Wright: And and religions as you say I mean are full of of kind implicit Darwinian wisdom I mean the idea that you find in all kinds of religions that basically boils down to the whole notion of of sin it seems to me rests partly in the idea that certain types of behavior are addictive, there's a slippery slope, the idea that that extra-marital sex is is prohibited absolutely that's the idea behind sin kind of implicitly recognizes that the more you do the more likely you are to keep doing it and the whole idea of you know of falling and and and you know Buddhist ideas like the idea that the pursuit of pleasure is almost inherently in a sense a futile struggle because you know happiness is almost kind of designed to evaporate once you reach the various goals you're supposed to reach because as organism we're not designed to ever be happy with what we are really...

Steven Pinker: No I think that's right. Also in religions in which actually thinking something is sinful and this is ...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... in one sense this is completely unrealistic because we have 100 thoughts for every action...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... on the other hand there is there is some cognitive psychology behind that, namely if you think about thing you're going to calculate ways of attaining it, that's what thinking is for...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... and so thought control for better or worse will have some probabilistic influence on behavior.

Wright: Right. People aren't designed to fantasize just in order to keep fantasizing. There's ...

Steven Pinker: The fantasizing is there...

Wright: ... to make their fantasies real...

Steven Pinker: Yes because there's often very complicated ways of getting what you want and if you think through all of the causal chains you're more likely to know how get what you want in the world.

0:31:07.000

Wright: Right. And what about really one of the more fundamental threats this world view could pose to reality which is the idea that even your deepest moral intuitions are suspect.

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: Taken far enough and I mean this is part of the idea that for example when you feel moral outrage about betrayal it's it's a function of reciprocal altruism which is just something that happened to evolve on a particular planet.

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: The the whole notion that good deeds should be rewarded, bad deeds should be punished... if these don't have some kind of absolute moral standing you know the fear is that everything will fall apart...

Steven Pinker: Right that we're one step away from nihilism kind of Nietzschean idea that there there isn't any there there so you may as well take everything...

Wright: Yes you're probably looking at this in the book you're writing now too.

Steven Pinker: Some yes that's right. I think there are a couple of answers. One of them is that the even if you think of morality as something like color vision or our sweet tooth or you know our stomach ache is just a figment of the brain, it is one that evolved in response to a real fact about the universe namely that in in a social species when people interact not all codes of behavior are going to lead to outcomes that everyone wants and that there is a logic to morality that benefits people who simultaneously adopt it compared to them all abjuring it that's what your own book "Nonzero" in large part was about. So there is a kind of it isn't as arbitrary as responding to light of a certain wavelength and then some other species like bees they they can detect ultra-violet light which we can't leading to the fear that our morality like our vision is something that arbitrarily could have gone the other way around if our evolutionary history was slightly different. I think this might also tie to a notion that philosophers bat around which they call moral realism, that there may be a sense in which some moral statements aren't just figment or or artifacts of a particular brain wiring but are part of the reality of the universe even if you can't touch them and weigh them in the same way that some mathematicians say subscribe to mathematical realism that 1 and 1 equals two or the Pythagorean theorem aren't just things that we concocted as a fantasy, there's a sense in which they're really true independent of our existence I mean they're out there and in some sense it's very difficult to grasp but we discover them we don't hallucinate them. It's conceivable that moral truths have something of that status that we discover them and if so it would have to be something like that like this I if I want you to behave in a certain way that will befit me and I try to convince you that you should do it, you ought to do it, it's logically impossible for me to maintain that directive to you without accepting it as a directive on myself because why...

Wright: ...just because it won't work? I won't let you get away with it?

Steven Pinker: Well you you won't let me get away with it and if I try to justify it by appealing to your intellect ...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... there's no way that I can do it unless it's reciprocal...

Wright: That's flattering that you think my intellect wouldn't like that wouldn't get by...
(0:34;38)

Steven Pinker: Well it wouldn't take long for someone to say well why that's not fair, why should I kiss up to you if you don't kiss up to me? Why should I refrain from stealing from you if you feel perfectly free to steal from me and so on. You know, why should I not sleep with your wife if you're perfectly willing to sleep with my wife and so on. So there is something in the logic of the situation that as soon as you have an iota of rationality and as soon as you call on someone to do something as soon as you invoke this strange question of should or ought it's got to work out it's way to certain conclusions which may be why in all moral systems you have something like the golden rule, some version of it, which in a way ties into the logic of reciprocity, namely it makes sense only if I do it to you and you do it to me as well.

Wright: Ok.

Steven Pinker: ...something about the interchangeability of people's interests and viewpoints that underlies all of morality that you you couldn't imagine an organism evolving with some part of what we call morality that is not based on that core at least for it to be recognizable by us as moral as opposed to having to do with food or sex or or color vision.

Wright: Ok so it seems to me that you've got two in some ways separate ideas floating around here: one is the idea of moral is it realism?

Steven Pinker: Realism yes.

Wright: ... the idea that moral truths are kind of out there, there is an absoluteness to moral truths in the sense that mathematical truths are kind of out there in a Platonic world or something...

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: And the other is that the system I mean the evolutionary system I gather you mean naturally converges on these truths as a practical matter.

Steven Pinker: Yes that's right. That's exactly right. Here's here's another analogy... depth perception is is a contingent property of the brains of certain organisms that and particular kinds of depth perception like stereo vision, recovering vision from the difference in the view of the two eyes, so the way it evolved we have it fish don't... many other animals like sheep don't have it because their eyes point sideways instead of straight ahead so it's because of the particular evolutionary history of primates that we happen to have stereoscopic vision but it still taps into some aspect of the of geometry that was true before we evolved and will always be truly...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ...namely you can you know just do the Euclidean geometry and figure out that there's information about depth in binocular parallax so it's a mixture of something that we've evolved because it was useful and something that is out there and that pre-existed us and it could be that there's a logic to morality that some extraterrestrial or cosmic being could calculate...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... if we never evolved, but we evolved circuitry that taps into it and that that allows us to grasp this these relationships.

0:37:44.000

Wright: Ok well speaking of cosmic beings, there's a kind of teleological flavor to this in my mind in other words if A: you know these moral truths are really out there they they're absolutes and B: we naturally evolve in that direction I mean if we naturally evolve toward moral truth that's suggest to me in a vague way there is some purpose to the whole exercise. Now your analogy with things like perception kind of undermines this claim because there there you don't think of teleology the same way it's just you know organisms are being fitted to the physical world obviously they reflect the properties of the physical world but I guess maybe that's what I mean. It's clear that organisms are being fitted to the properties of the physical world but it's not clear that there would be fitted to the properties of a moral world or that there is for them to be fitted with the properties of ... in other words it seems to me you're saying in the process of being fitted to the physical world they happen to align themselves with some kind of moral world whose existence is controversial to begin with I mean philosophers...

Steven Pinker: Indeed. Yes.

Wright: ... and if that's the case that seems to me to imply that there's some point to the whole exercise which as you know is something I'm the prospect I'm more partial to it than you are...

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: ... does that make any sense to you?

Steven Pinker: It does I don't think I would go in that direction but I mean it does make some sense. The another way of thinking about it is it's not that organisms can evolve to aspects of the world that aren't strictly physical like let's say number ...

Wright: Like the math that describes the physical world.

Steven Pinker: Exactly.

Wright: Yes but morality doesn't well doesn't describe the physical world in a straight forward way you're saying it's there are what you could call moral principles that describe realities about interactions among social beings in a certain sense.

Steven Pinker: That would be one way of thinking about it so I mean to be more concrete and simple minded but just to get the idea across say in a prisoner's dilemma simulation like the Axelrod in Hamilton computer tournament that ...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... that turned out to implement Triver's tit for tat strategy that was Triver's reciprocal altruism strategy in the form of a tit for tat algorithm. You look at the reciprocity algorithms like tit for tat that do well they have something like a crude version of a moral sense...

Wright: Oh yes.

Steven Pinker: Don't don't hurt someone without any good reason if some's nice to you reward them...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... etc. Be nice yourself first try. What took place inside a computer was governed by some kind of logic or law that doesn't have anything to do with any stuff... doesn't depend on the computer using the silicone as opposed to anything else but it kind of had to come out the way it did and so there's a sense in which there's a logic to that kind of reciprocity that in some sense is out there if only you meet the initial conditions that would lead you to run into it. Whether that's a kind of goal or teleology or whether it's simply that if you're plunked in one part of the space of possible designs more or less at random then locally there's one way there's a particular way to go, maybe that's the way to...

0:41:17.000

Wright: Yes well I guess maybe the what I would say at the minimum is that if you were arguing to begin with that there is a teleology at work that natural selection was set in motion by some super-intelligence to achieve something and if you're arguing further that it's to achieve something good then what you're saying is what you'd like such a person would like to hear right? I mean what I mean is is this could fit into it may not logically imply a teleology but it could fit into a teleological scenario...

Steven Pinker: ...it wouldn't refute a teleology yes.

Wright: It would what?

Steven Pinker: Would not refute a teleology.

Wright: And more over if you're looking for a teleology that has a redeeming value you know a kind of a an upbeat teleology this this could fit into a scenario like that, the idea that under what maybe fairly generic conditions of social interaction the system naturally converges on in some sense a moral truth what... ideas that one good turn deserves another for example although at the same time I mean I don't think either of us would say all human moral intuitions and certainly not the way people apply them in the everyday life can be defended ...

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: ... in objective terms as truly as truly moral...

Steven Pinker: Right. There comes a point I mean I think all of what you're saying makes makes sense although there comes a point where I think we almost run out of our own intuitions in trying to ponder questions, we've got an intellect that can send us head long into certain directions past the point where we have any grounding in intuition to know whether what we're saying is makes any much sense and just to give an example of say of of moral deep moral intuition where it's very hard to know what it would mean to justify it or not so running to the burning building to save your child let's say the choice is saving your child versus saving five children that aren't yours. Now...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... it's a very deep imperative to say yours and is that morally defensible...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... or not. In the one sense it obviously is because we're we're a certain kind of creature that can't help to have a certain kind of moral feelings that no one would quibble with but it's clear how that came out of our evolutionary history it's clear that it is not the morality of the fish that in the aquarium that eats it's young unless you keep it in a separate partition. And it's even clear that that is justifiable on moral grounds and there are moral philosophers who say that buying your child a bicycle instead of taking the money and donating it to OXFAM is sinful...

Wright: Peter Singer ...

Steven Pinker: Yes exactly there's not a lot of adherence to that and even Singer himself confesses that in his own life he doesn't meet up to that standard meet up to the standard... but at that point it's you're you're you're brain kind of hurts trying to think it through. At what point do we get reach the the the point at which we're questioning that with which we're doing the questioning...

0:44:36.000

Wright: I guess the the one thing we can certainly say about our moral intuitions as they have evolved is something that you alluded to earlier... whatever their failing from the point of view of a true utilitarian like Peter Singer in fact who who thinks that everyone's happiness deserves equal consideration as actually I do in theory although none of us live up to that ...

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: Whatever the deficiencies of our moral intuitions in that sense those intuitions as they've evolved have done a remarkable good job of letting people play win win games which is something utilitarian is all in favor of, letting people you know exploit kind of nonzero sumness to make two people happier than either you know the sum total of their happiness being more than it would be if they were off on their own not interacting, not drawing on these moral senses...

Steven Pinker: Yes and I think that was a very convincing argument in "Nonzero" to explain something that people don't often acknowledge anymore but they use to namely that there has been moral progress I mean we don't in most countries kill people for offenses like theft or even rape or murder, when we do we don't nail one to a cross or or cut them limb for limb or having a horse pull them apart or all the other horrible tortures that the mind of man has devised over the millennia ...

Wright: Yes.

Steven Pinker: ...we don't in war rape is not considered a legitimate spoil of war the way it use to be, we don't use a infanticide as a method of birth control. So there are these remarkable degree of moral progress that we've enjoyed even though we're still you know pretty gruesome species but compared to the way we were say 1,000 years ago you know I'd rather be living now and that's a huge fact that many people deny because it seems to whiggish or too ...

Wright: Yes or because they weren't alive 1,000 years ago and haven't been reading a history book. In your view...

Steven Pinker: ...and it needs an explanation and I think the the nonzero sumness as as you explained it is as a way of making that not some sort of mystical miracle but grounding it in some some law of the universe whether it's one that sort of sucked us into a particular direction or one that we kind of stumbled upon and as soon as we got close enough we were attracted to it... it's difficult to say.

0:47:12.000

Wright: And in your view although this is a product of cultural evolution of cultural change over the centuries you were put on that path by genetic evolution there's a...

Steven Pinker: Well here's one here's a way to think of it I think so yes only only say it in one way and see if you agree with it... getting back to Peter Singer he had a lovely book called "The Expanding Circle"...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ...I don't remember whether you talked about it in "Nonzero" ...

Wright: Yes yes.

Steven Pinker: Basically says that the psychology of morality needn't have changed over the millennia over all of these wonderful developments but that one parameter as a linguist might put it may have changed as if we have a dial or slider that indicates what's the circle of people whose interests we treat as equivalent to our own...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... and maybe what was maybe the default that was installed by natural selection something like family and clan and village but that through a cultural process we have rewritten this from scratch but what we've done is expanded the circle or we've moved the slider over...

Wright: Yes.

Steven Pinker: ...so more and more people get treated the way we naturally treat our neighbors and family...

Wright: Yes.

Steven Pinker: ...that would suggest that even the loftiest universalist idea of morality everyone the interest of everyone on earth is equivalent to mine is not as radical a rewriting of our moral sense as you might think.

Wright: Yes we certainly been moving in that direction and of course Singer would like to see us eventually encompass ...

Steven Pinker: Animals.

Wright: ...non-humans right?

Steven Pinker: Right and other people I mean there are a lot of other directions that you could...

Wright: Right and it seems crazy now but then again where we've gotten would have seemed crazy to some people only...

Steven Pinker: 400 years ago yes.

0:48:57.000

Wright: Ok. And among the other reasons I'm I'm inclined to suspect it's at least possible that there's some kind of larger purpose unfolding is the existence in the sense of sentience in the sense that it of subjective reality the fact that it is like something to be alive and you are among the the commentators on sentience who I thinks gives due respect to the difficulty of the problem. I think not everyone does. In fact not everyone in the greater Boston area does I think ...

Steven Pinker: No this is I mean we're we're defiantly in agreement that there is a puzzle there and we're both vulnerable of being accused of being mysterians of saying that this is consciousness will never be solved, it's beyond the reach of neuro-science which is not what I believe and I think it's not what you believe in the sense of consciousness meaning the difference between conscious and unconscious processing. That I think is a perfectly...

Wright: Right. And I also don't mean it in the sense of correlating neurological phenomenon with specific states of consciousness.

Steven Pinker: Right.

Wright: I think you would...

Steven Pinker: Which is a scientific problem...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: We'll know more and more. No. I think we both agree that the problem we're we're now talking about is why should 1st person sentience or subjective experience exist to begin with.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: Why should it feel like something to be me here now?

Wright: Because if you're a true materialist then it would seem to be functionally redundant.

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: Superfluous. You agree? You kind of agree with that or?

Steven Pinker: Yes. Or at least we don't know why it exists I don't even know if you could state it as redundant in the sense that we don't even have the language to say that sentience is more than you would need. But it is something different. It is something that you wouldn't predict.

Wright: I mean we do we do all agree that if you ask the question why does the person withdraw upon encountering the flame you can there's a satisfactory account that is strictly physical. You can say well the information passes up the arm gets processed passes down the arm compels the muscles to contract...

Steven Pinker: And as a cognitive psychologist I believe that is going to be true even for higher thought process like you know writing a sonata.

Wright: Exactly.

Steven Pinker: Or falling in love.

0:51:12.000

Wright: So in principle you can explain all behavior without reference to subjective states.

Steven Pinker: Right. Except except if you wanted to say that subjective states are things that have a structure, there are a lot of them, they have certain consequences and behavior and so on so they could be...

Wright: You mean...

Steven Pinker: ...computational states.

Wright: Computational states but themselves can be described in physical terms, right?

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: I mean well here's here's something you say in "How the Mind Works," "...but in the study of the mind sentience floats on a plain high above the casual chains of psychology and neuroscience.."

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: Which I think I mean ...

Steven Pinker: We're talking about the same thing clear.

Wright: Yes and and given the fact again if you accept the contention that the trajectory toward more and more complex sentience is inherent in evolution in you accept my contention that that's true that seems to me to somehow make teleological scenarios somewhat more palatable especially in view of the fact that sentience is what gives life meaning it's a fact that it feels like something to be alive that makes happiness possible it's the reason we...

Steven Pinker: It makes it the reason it's bad to kill someone or hurt them...

Wright: Right. Right if they were robots who look just like they look as behaved complexly...

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: ...we wouldn't think it's any big deal to destroy one.

Steven Pinker: It'd be waste but it wouldn't be...

Wright: Yes.

Steven Pinker: ...sinful.

Wright: Unless it was the property of a sentient being...

Steven Pinker: Right.

Wright: ... in which case we would frown on it still.

Steven Pinker: No I agree and and I know where you're going which is that could this mysterious stuff called sentience be a sign there there's more more in heaven and earth than dreamed of in our very mechanistic goalless view of life so you're you're taking two mysteries or problems and saying they might have the same solution namely why should sentience as this extra coloring or ingredient have arrived and why does evolution why did it at least end up with this thing that we think is good namely creatures with a moral sense have actually used it to improve their lives so putting these two together ... I mean the way I I mean I I don't have any argument against that but I an alternative which maybe is not an alternative it's an alternative way of thinking about it is that sentience is something that is a an aspect of having a highly articulated set of internal representations that evolved for an evolutionary purpose why it has this extra aspect of subjectivity is just something that our mind can't grasp simply because the mind itself is a product of natural selection, just as some of the questions about morality make your brain hurt at a certain point and you run out of resources in which to think about alternatives or to take a high enough bird's eye view in which to say something sensible about why it's that way as opposed to some other way. My own gut feeling is that the question of why sentience exists might be like that.

Wright: Right.

0:54:27.000

Steven Pinker: But there's a funny sense in which we have a complete understanding of sentience and there's no mystery namely anything that you can say about it except for the fact that it exists. Anything you can say about is perfectly amenable to causal explanation...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: Why does sugar taste sweet? Why does why is sweet pleasurable?

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: Well I can give you perfectly sensible evolutionary explanation of that for everything except the fact that there is this someone whose experiencing it but if I say what is it that you're experiencing you say well I want more of it it puts a smile on my face and so on, everything you say about it I can explain in old fashioned evolutionary terms. There is something maddening about it in that it's on the one sense complete comprehensible and in the other sense bafflingly incomprehensible and what that makes me think is that we've run into some limitation in our own mind a kin to the one that make it very difficult or impossible for us to understand that time came into existence with the big bang.

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: Well what do you mean, time started there? Well, what was it like before that? No no no no you're not supposed to think before that there was no before that forget your ordinary way of thinking about things in terms of before and after and my sense is the puzzle of first person subjective experience is a bit like that. It's a point at which we keep a circle that we fall into that makes me think that there's a rule of the thinking game that is making us a victim of this but that that ultimately we may not need any notion of purpose of some other intelligence that gave it to us. It may fall out it of reasons that our mind can't quite grasp.

Wright: Yes I mean this is one thing I think you do so well in "How the Mind Works" is stress that the human mind is is very limited organ in a certain sense I mean it shouldn't surprise us that it can't answer a lot of cosmic questions, it was designed to solve a finite set of tasks on a on a on a particular planet. It says "our minds evolve by natural selection" I think this is very near the end of the book, it's in the final chapter "The Meaning of Life," "our minds evolve by natural selection to solve problems that were life and death matters to our ancestors not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we're capable of asking. We cannot hold 10,000 in short term memory. We cannot see in ultra-violet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the 4th dimension and perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience..."

Steven Pinker: Yes.

Wright: And I think really one of the I mean people consider evolutionary psychology kind of dispiriting in a lot of ways I mean many people don't understand it entirely but but one sense in which I think it has almost the opposite effect is to remind us that we should be a little humble about our ability to dismiss philosophical questions I mean we just don't we just don't get everything and we we probably by nature can't and and I think with respect sentience I mean it's possible there are metaphysical laws not not necessarily in the plain sense of metaphysics but in the once respectable sense of metaphysics... that we just perhaps we'll never comprehend.

0:58:03.000

Steven Pinker: Right. I mean the what one view is that there is actually a discipline devoted to topics that the human mind is incapable of understanding and that discipline is called philosophy...

Wright: Right.

Steven Pinker: ... and most philosophers hate that characterization but it was one of them, Colin McGinn, who suggested the philosophy is the subject is the study of problem that the human mind is incapable of understanding.

Wright: Yes.

Steven Pinker: But it has a natural affinity to religion and McGinn points out that virtually every problem in philosophy has had a religious explanation historically... free will, consciousness, morality, knowledge...

Wright: And often the specific religious explanations get debunked or are no longer tenable in light of science and yet the problem itself remains unsolved.

Steven Pinker: There's often some nugget, some kernel that remains unsolved. Yes.

Wright: That's interesting. Ok well listen thanks a lot.

Steven Pinker: Oh my pleasure.

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