Pinker on what science has to offer…and what Theism doesn’t

Thanks to John P who showed me the Templeton Conversations.  Some of these responses are just a riot: smart people willfully and stereotypically ignoring good questions.  And then of course there’s Chris Hitchins, the opponent I find likable; and Nancy Murphy, the ally who does more harm than good.  But as usual the winner of my “Good Enough to Lead Us to Hell” prize is Steven Pinker.  Here’s some of his answer to the question: Does science make belief in God obsolete?

Yes, if by “science” we mean the entire enterprise of secular reason and knowledge (including history and philosophy), not just people with test tubes and white lab coats.Traditionally, a belief in God was attractive because it promised to explain the deepest puzzles about origins. Where did the world come from? What is the basis of life? How can the mind arise from the body? Why should anyone be moral?

Yet over the millennia, there has been an inexorable trend: the deeper we probe these questions, and the more we learn about the world in which we live, the less reason there is to believe in God.

Though this line is typical enough that most Christians should recognize it as bad, it introduces a theory of knowledge that looks like the traditional Christian idea.  Note the use of “science” as a word that encompasses all endeavors for truth: history and philosophy are included.  Note also that Pinker switches “truth” with “secular reason and knowledge”.  I would argue that “reason” is a vague concept for Pinker, as is “knowledge”. 

Though this mimics the Christian idea of “science”, it certainly is not.  Reason and knowledge are not secular – whatever that means – and the various sciences (kinds of endeavors for truth) are subjugated to the science of Theology.

Though this epistemological mindset is threatening, the most seductive part of Pinker’s article is his use of neurology as psychology.

For many people the human soul feels like a divine spark within us. But neuroscience has shown that our intelligence and emotions consist of intricate patterns of activity in the trillions of connections in our brain. True, scholars disagree on how to explain the existence of inner experience—some say it’s a pseudo-problem, others believe it’s just an open scientific problem, while still others think that it shows a limitation of human cognition (like our inability to visualize four-dimensional space-time). But even here, relabeling the problem with the word “soul” adds nothing to our understanding.

People used to think that biology could not explain why we have a conscience. But the human moral sense can be studied like any other mental faculty, such as thirst, color vision, or fear of heights. Evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are showing how our moral intuitions work, why they evolved, and how they are implemented within the brain.

With one foot in neuroscience and the other in philosophy Pinker can slyly exchange tough questions for those that look like he might be able to answer them, at which point he throws the cure-all concept of evolution at it.

This leaves morality itself—the benchmarks that allow us to criticize and improve our moral intuitions. It is true that science in the narrow sense cannot show what is right or wrong. But neither can appeals to God. It’s not just that the traditional Judeo-Christian God endorsed genocide, slavery, rape, and the death penalty for trivial insults. It’s that morality cannot be grounded in divine decree, not even in principle. Why did God deem some acts moral and others immoral? If he had no reason but divine whim, why should we take his commandments seriously? If he did have reasons, then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

Those reasons are not to be found in empirical science, but they are to be found in the nature of rationality as it is exercised by any intelligent social species. The essence of morality is the interchangeability of perspectives: the fact that as soon as I appeal to you to treat me in a certain way (to help me when I am in need, or not to hurt me for no reason), I have to be willing to apply the same standards to how I treat you, if I want you to take me seriously. That is the only policy that is logically consistent and leaves both of us better off. And God plays no role in it.

For all these reasons, it’s no coincidence that Western democracies have experienced three sweeping trends during the past few centuries: barbaric practices (such as slavery, sadistic criminal punishment, and the mistreatment of children) have decreased significantly; scientific and scholarly understanding has increased exponentially; and belief in God has waned. Science, in the broadest sense, is making belief in God obsolete, and we are the better for it.

Yes, Steven, because you think that society can deal with the old questions without God we are better off without God.  Because you reassure us that evolution has arbitrarily set up our morality, we are now assured that the good life and the good city is safe from chaos.  Your article Steven has cured me from the joy of life in Christ, and has offered me the same fruits (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, etc) from a different spirit I am no longer worried.

Our teenagers so lack the fortitude they feel the need to slice open their skin with razorblades.  The midlife crisis years are expanding.  I’m so glad that neuroscience can free our society from God.

[end sarcasm.] 

I understand why the abstract idea of God is painful, abhorrent, and even a bad societal influence.  That’s why knowledge of God starts with the experience of His Persons.  Holy Trinity, save us all.


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