Are We Really Just a Blank Slate? A Conversation with Steven Pinker

Interview with Steven Pinker

Thinking in Public

March 2, 2011

(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Just who are we? Are we a mind? A soul? A body? This is one of the most perplexing questions of the modern age. And it’s a question that is addressed by several from different fields of cognitive science, of psychology, psychiatry, language studies, and all the rest. Rarely are all of these brought together in one person. But that one person is someone with whom we’re about to speak.

Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of psychology at Harvard University. You probably know him by his books and his appearances in the media. Previously he taught at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research subjects include visual cognition and the psychology of language which he’s won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences. He is known as one of the top public intellectuals of the world. He was listed in Time Magazine ‘s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” His latest book is The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Dr. Pinker, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Pinker: Thank you.

Mohler: If you are to think of your own thinking in the shape of your thought where do you think you begin with first principles? Where does your worldview find its grounding?

Pinker: As a scientist who is interested in the human mind, I think it would start from the idea that the mind is a product of the activity of the brain. The brain is a physical organ probably the most complex object in the universe. Certainly the most complex object in the known universe with a hundred billion neurons and a hundred trillion connections. And that all of our thoughts, emotions, desires, drives, feelings consist in activity in this magnificent organ called the brain. The brain is shaped in part by the genes during embryonic development. Then as soon as it’s active, begins to process information environment, from the five senses, information from the surrounding culture, from other people. And that the genes in turn going back one more step were selected over the course of biological evolution. For the shaping the brain from primate ancestors to the special demands of a human lifestyle that is cooperating with one another, figuring out how the world works, developing tools and technologies, exchanging information with language. So that in about two minutes is my general approach to understanding the human mind.

Mohler: Well that’s a fascinating place to begin. I think in terms of first principles what emerges to my mind out of that is the fact that you are looking at the human brain from basically by at least my observation a naturalistic set of assumptions. You’re assuming that the brain is self explanatory just in terms of itself. And that’s pretty much how you see the larger question of human nature isn’t that right?

Pinker: Yes, I think that human nature is a topic in science. Just like the formation of volcanoes or the distribution of butterflies. It’s the study of one organ and one species. And the naturalistic approach is indeed the one that I take. It’s an assumption, but it’s a bit more than an assumption because reality also tells us whether our assumptions are warranted. Whether we’re barking up the wrong tree or whether our assumptions need to be a good match with what we’re studying out there in the world, in this case the human mind.

Mohler: So as you follow your assumptions in terms of your empirical science, you find basically the validation of the prior assumptions.

Pinker: That’s right because you don’t want to stick with your assumptions all your life. They may be wrong. You want the point of science is to get some echo or feedback from the world telling you whether your assumptions are reasonable and when you have to revise them.

Mohler: In your book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature you really offer a worldview I would say in terms of understanding humanity in the larger questions. You also deal with many of the most controversial issues that are of public debate today. But what really fascinates me is how you very directly deny what you characterize by going back to the idea of a ghost in the machine. You really see no dualism whatsoever. In other words you don’t believe there is such a thing as a soul.

Pinker: Yes that’s right. I mean I don’t believe it in the sense that I don’t believe it’s separate from the activity of the brain.

Mohler: Well let’s play that out in terms of what that means. So all of our consciousness, all of our perceptions of agency and emotion, intuition, analytical, critical thinking these are all basically biological processes.

Pinker: Yes, they’re all completely biological processes I would say. Of course they’re biological processes that thrive on information from other people. That’s why we have education, and debate, and discussion. It’s like the software of the brain has to get inputs from other brains. And such as what you and I are doing right now. We ask each other questions when we do that we’re affecting each other’s brains when we learn something from one another that involves microscopic changes in our brains. So it’s ultimately all changes in the brain although it’s not that brains are isolated our brains don’t float in vats thank goodness. They’re embedded in bodies, bodies talk and communicate with other people so the brains become coordinated with shared ideas and assumptions and beliefs, thanks to all of the cultural transmission we do via language and other channels of communications.

Mohler: Now, one of the arguments you make in The Blank Slate is that this form of biological reductionism does not lead to a denial of moral agency. What you specifically deny is that this implies determinism.

Pinker: Quite right that the brain first of all being so immensely complex is not going to be a completely predictable or in that regard it’s like the weather only more so. I don’t think we need to invoke any magic in talking about what makes rain fall or temperatures rise and fall it’s all physics. But the physics is so fantastically complicated that we couldn’t possibly know the weather hour by hour by calculating it a few weeks in advance. So and that is even more true of something as complex as the brain. The other feature of the brain is because it does take in information from the environment as I mentioned before some of the information that it can take in is of the people’s reaction to our behavior whether they hold us responsible. If we have a society that says if you harm other people, if you rob the liquor store we’re going to throw you in jail. Well knowing that the brain is going to take that into account and one hopes would be less likely to rob liquor stores or exploit other people. So I believe that moral responsibility is completely compatible with a naturalistic view of the brain as a biological organ.

Mohler: So, the matter of moral decision making here or the act of moral agency is basically how one responds to information that the brain should be able to understand in terms of a moral context or what we might me call a moral context.

Pinker: Exactly right. I think we have some moral intuitions that might even be in a, you see even in small children in acts of kindness and generosity and helping. I think that compassion towards certainly our children, our family, our closest friends seeks to be a human universal and that there are good reasons to think that is one of the gifts of evolution. On the other hand if you leave people just with what nature gave them they’re not going to be nearly as kind as nice and generous as we would all like and that’s why we have laws, and moral codes, and shame, and praise, and gossip, and ostracism to say nothing of police and prisons.

Mohler: Now what about the idea of nihilism you straightforwardly address the fact that many persons would attach a necessary nihilism as an implication of this kind of physicalist understanding of the human consciousness but you suggest that isn’t so.

Pinker: That’s right. I think that there’s, that that is one of the what I consider fallacy that I address in The Blank Slate namely that even if the mind is a product of the brain, and the brain is a product of evolution there are all kinds of things that give our lives meaning and purpose. For me, for one thing, figuring out how it all works would be part of a wonderful enterprise to try to figure out how it all works has, I think, gives life a thrilling purpose but more generally there’s a moral purpose to expanding our circle of concern, and empathy, and sympathy to other…creatures that for one thing it’s work in neuroscience and biology that tells us that all humans are made of the same stuff and feel the same pleasures and pains. And so that encourages us to extend kindness to babies, and to people in other cultures, and people of other races, and to a large extent to members of other species, other animals have the same brains more or less than we do. We have every reason to think that they feel pleasure and pain and that commends a moral consideration for the entrust of animals. Pushing it even further and this is not so much science but just a little of rationality when you think about how we behave with regard to one another as soon as we’re in conversation with one another we have to take each other’s interest into account. If I’m talking to you, trying to persuade you of how to treat me, appealing to your reason, you shouldn’t step on my toe, or run me over with your car just because you think it would be fun, I demand that you not do that, well that compels me not to do it to you either. There’s nothing special about me just because I’m me that differentiates me from you. It’s basically the intuition behind the Golden Rule and when you realize that humans don’t innately follow the Golden Rule, but the more you reason with one another the more you learn from the lessons of history. The more you see that as a reasoning being are have no choice but to follow the Golden Rule if you want to claim to be rational, if you want to press your interest with other people, that gives a very profound meaning to the human purpose. It means constantly struggling with the fact that innately I’m going to be selfish but my reason tells me I really shouldn’t be selfish. That’s a struggle that all of us deal with all of our lives.

Mohler: Thinking of nihilism as a worldview, it would seem to me that it’s a difficult thing to avoid in the end if all of life and consciousness is basically something of a cosmic accident however fortuitous at least for us. What is the grand meaning of all of this or is there any grand meaning to this at all?

Pinker: See, I don’t think there are two questions that one has to keep distinct. One of them is does the universe have a grand meaning or a cosmic purpose? And there I would say no it doesn’t. The whole, everything we’ve learned from science says the universe unfolds according to physical laws, and it does not care about puny human beings. That’s not the same thing as saying that humans have no purpose. I have a purpose I like to think that it’s a purpose that I share with many other people. I’m a human being I care about my own well being and that commits me to caring about the well being of others. I have a drive to increase human knowledge and well being and beauty. Those are human purposes. The solar system might not care about them but I sure do, and I suspect that most of your listeners care about them too. So the reason that I think this does not lead to nihilism is that absence of a cosmic purpose, of a purpose to the universe doesn’t say that there’s no such thing as a human purpose.

Mohler: Well, that’s a very interesting distinction there. So you’re going to argue that there is a real purpose to human existence corporately and individually that is separate from the larger question of cosmic meaning. So in some sense you’re arguing over against the atheists who would claim that nihilism is the absolute necessity of the atheistic worldview.

Pinker: I think that very few atheists who would say that. I suppose perhaps Nieztche,the German philosopher in the late 19th century perhaps but most of the atheists I know would call themselves humanists that is and they’re very far from nihilists, they believe that there are things that are absolute worth striving for and that basically boil down to human happiness and flourishing. That is the ultimate goal is that people be as free of suffering and pain, and oppression as possible and as best able to pursue their own happiness and meaning as long as they don’t infringe on the happiness and meaning of other people. So it’s not nihilist but it’s not a morality certainly that comes from say scripture or organized religion though it might be compatible with it in some ways but it’s definitely not nihilistic.

Mohler: So it’s a form of humanism absolutely without transcendence without any kind of theistic grounding for that humanism at all

Pinker: Yes, that’s right

Mohler: Which leads me to a question of great interest to me how would you as a scientist and as a public intellectual explain the for instance the persistence of traditionally Christian understanding of the human being of human nature and of human consciousness and moral reasoning?

Pinker: You mean why does, why are so many people committed Christians?

Mohler: Well that would be one aspect of it but even beyond those who are committed Christians there’s a basic, well I guess you might call it a dualistic understanding of human consciousness. In other words the idea of at least the ghost in the machine seems to be extremely deeply rooted in most of our thinking and those of our neighbors.

Pinker: Yes indeed and I think I would say that it’s a very interesting fact of our psychology that we can’t help but be dualists when we think about other people. There’s a collaborator of mine Paul Bloom who wrote a book called Descartes’ Baby arguing that we are all innately dualists. And for one thing we experience our own consciousness and it’s very hard not to project which is very mysterious to us if you’re from the inside because when I’m looking around I don’t feel like a brain I feel like a person. I don’t, when I see a red object in front of me, I don’t think the back of my brain is flaring in certain patterns I just see oh, there’s a red object in front of me. So the workings of our brain are hidden from us. It’s not only natural, and also when I deal with other people I can’t deal with them like they’re robots or wind up dolls, I deal with them as if they have thoughts and feelings that they experience like I experience my own and that’s probably necessary for us to get along as well as we do. Also, in a sense, until the revolution in neuroscience in about a hundred years ago dualism was actually a pretty good scientific theory because when you think about it we dream. What happens when we dream? Well, our bodies are in bed the whole time but some part of us seems to be up and about in the world. What about death? A person can be walking around one moment and then lifeless another. The body as far as we can tell looks the same. What happened? Well, it’s natural to think that some invisible part that animates the body, the soul, has left the body and parted company and that’s not a bad explanation if you have to explain what you see with your own eyes. I think more recently in the last hundred years we have a better theory mainly bodies contain brains, the activity of brain is not something you can tell unless you have all the tools of modern science. You can detect things like brain waves and neuro firing and the chemicals that power the brain. So now we have a much better theory that the mind consists of activity of the brain but for most of human history that knowledge just wasn’t there science hadn’t advanced to that point, dualism was a perfectly reasonable theory.

Mohler: As I was listening to Steven Pinker speak what struck me was how consistent he is with the worldview that he holds. How honest he is about how he arrived at his initial consideration and then how sees this playing out in his research and in his further thought. One of the most important things we have as human beings is the opportunity to share and exchange ideas. One of the ways that is made possible is through the publication of books and Steven Pinker’s list of books is noteworthy not only for the fact that they are substantial but for the fact that they are read. That’s why I’m looking forward to addressing other issues from his writing and research with Steven Pinker.

Professor Pinker you have covered the waterfront of so many different issues in your writing and research. After all you have a great deal to do with how words are defined in the dictionary. You have a great interest in language. How would you define the importance of human language? Or to make the question slightly differently, as I read your work it appears to me that one of the reasons that you can draw distinction between human beings according to your thought and other sentient or conscious creatures is that we are the creatures with language.

Pinker: That’s one of the things that make humans so unusual in the natural world. I think it’s not the only thing that makes us unusual, but it’s certainly the first one that you notice. So humans have language other creatures don’t. They certainly communicate, they bark, they squeak, they twitter, they whistle, but what they don’t have is grammatical language. The ability to convey new complex messages where the meaning of the message can be computed from the meanings of the individual signals that is words and crucially the way they’re combined that’s the grammatical part. That allows us to exchange an infinite number of ideas but all kinds of subject matters. Now the reason I say it’s not the only thing that makes human unique is that if you simply took a chimpanzee and you somehow managed to inject language into it you still wouldn’t have a human being because humans also have much richer mental lives in the first place. We figure out how the world around us works, and we parlay that knowledge into technologies. We’re also social and moral creatures. We cooperate with other members of our species even if we’re not biologically related to them. Something that’s actually pretty unusual among animals, and we have moral emotions about other people. We feel righteous anger. We feel gratitude, and awe, and admiration, and trust. This complex I would say of social and moral emotions technical knowhow and language that triad, that threesome, is what makes humans unusual.

Mohler: And where do these things come from? Is this just according to your thinking the product of an evolutionary system of development? A trajectory that wasn’t necessary but nonetheless happened?

Pinker: Yes, that’s right. I think that there were ancestors of humans and common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees, chimpanzees are our closest relatives, we share 98.5% of our DNA and a lot of our skeleton and brain structure. And then some prerequisites in place chimpanzees are already pretty unusual animals because they’re smart, they have hands, they have color vision, and 3-D vision, they cooperate socially, they make primitive tools. So if our common ancestor was in any way similar to modern chimps that gave them a head start then being smart is a very useful thing. You can outsmart other animals. You can devise traps. You could in a sense outsmart plants. We usually don’t’ think of plants as being kind of smart but plants are filled with poisons and toxins and bitter substances and so called primitive peoples, tribal peoples all over the world have developed clever techniques for making plants edible. Like fermenting them or soaking or cooking. So there’s lots of ways in which if you’re trying to eek a living out of an environment being smart is a useful thing. Being social is even a social thing because among other things you can share your discoveries. You can profit from other people’s discoveries. Language is the way to do that. Cooperation allows you to do things that acting individually would allow you to do. So a number of advantages to being social and being smart that propel the way. The reason, another reason that other organisms haven’t become as intelligent as we have is that all organisms face a cost benefit trade off. It’s great to be smart but a brain is a big expensive organ. It uses up a huge amount of oxygen and calories. It makes child birth difficult because you have this enormous head of a baby that has to get through the birth canal. It makes us vulnerable to falls and brain damage, so it’s always a trade off in any lineage whether the evolution favors getting smarter at the expense of this cumbersome brain or just relying on instincts that have worked for so many millions of years.

Mohler: No, I was going to say that one of the things that I appreciate about your writing is your candor. I want to test something with you here a good many if not a majority of contemporary proponents of evolution suggest that there is no necessary linkage between biological evolution and then social Darwinism. And yet when I read your work, I find it pretty candid assessment of how things related to questions of gender, and children, and other things you seem to think that biological evolution does imply a certain understanding of other things as well.

Pinker: I think it informs a lot of our grappling with these issues, so I mean gender would be an example. I think that the science of biology says that men and women probably are not indistinguishable there are some differences between men and women. Now, of course this is for many people kind of obvious you know like married people or parents who have both son and a daughter. But there are people who deny that there are any differences between men and women I think largely out of a fear that this would send women back into the kitchen and keep them out of the work force. And I do argue that there is no incompatibility between a doctrine of fairness that says that everyone should be judged for their own talents and their own abilities. And the possibility that groups of people like men and women aren’t exactly the same. They have overlapping distributions.

Mohler: Now, one of the other areas of writing that fascinates me is how you write about children and to what degree is the child a product of genes? To what degree is the child a product of family, and environment, and education? You dive pretty deeply into that pool.

Pinker: Yes, and ordinarily we can’t tell because we’ve got our kids and our kids grow up a lot like us. The problem is we don’t know how much of that is from the way we bring them up and how much of it is because they inherited their genes from us. And we know that people differ in how nice they are, how nasty, how smart, how dull, how ambitious, how lackadaisical. And you need special experiments to tease those apart because in any ordinary biological family, they’re smooshed together. Now one way of telling them apart is to look at what happens with adoption. Do the adopted kids resemble the parents who gave them up for adoption that they never met? Or do they resemble their siblings and parents that brought them up and with whom they grew up? In general I think a lesson is that a big chunk of the variation from one person to another is genetic. Nowhere near all but to some extent how smart you are, how kind you are, how happy you are, how likely you are to get addicted part of that variation we have reason to believe comes from genes. A simple demonstration is that when you have identical twins separated at birth and brought up in different homes they’re correlated in their personality and their behavior. Not nowhere near perfectly but statistically on the other hand we also know there’s got to be a huge amount of the person that depends on their cultural environment. How do we know that? Well, another obvious experiment is immigration. Someone comes to this country from some part of the world that is very different and as long as the kids grow up with Americans, they become Americans. That suggests that your taste in food, and in music, and the particular language you speak, and your cultural values are all things you pick up from the environment. That doesn’t by the way necessarily mean you pick it up from your parents, you might pick it up from your peers, but it shows a lot of cultural learning has to be from the environment.

Mohler: Scientists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have been identified with the movement known as the New Atheism. To what degree do you share their concerns?

Pinker: Well ,I mean I share their atheism, I share their humanism that is their belief that an atheist does not have to be a nihilist. I tend to be a little less rude to organized religion then Richard Dawkins. I think that religions over the course of history have been responsible for a lot of violence and suffering. Although I think that some atheistic ideologies have also been responsible for a lot of suffering and misery like communism, Nazism to take two. So and I think that religions have also at certain moments in history been responsible for very good and progressive developments. So I would argue for a humanistic approach to human values which religion sometimes oppose and sometimes sign onto.

Mohler: You have a very esteemed post and a good deal of influence at Harvard University. Taking that institution as something of an institutional biography it was begun in a worldview of orthodox Christianity for the purpose of training Christian ministers and is now a very different institution. Is this transition towards a secular worldview? Is this part and parcel of higher education as a project?

Pinker: Well, I would say it’s part and parcel of the way most of the west has been going. I mean Harvard still has a certainly has a very vigorous divinity school. And many astute societies, Jewish society, Catholic. Protestant, humanist, Buddhist and so on. So it’s certainly not no one would call it an atheist institution. But most of the institutions of government, of science, of universities and even religions themselves have become much less theistic in the sense of positing a god who intervenes in everyday affairs. Even religions themselves of course have changed of the centuries and over the millennia. And I think the whole society is moved in that direction. The concept of God even within religions tends to become more abstract than most people don’t visualize God as the, you know, that’s the man with the beard who makes good and bad things happen in your lives. Some, many people do, but many people who call themselves religious don’t think of that kind of god. So I think it’s a broad change in which a university like Harvard is part of.

Mohler: One of the hallmarks of our contemporary social moment is that there is a good deal of social stratification and a good deal of social distance between different groups. And so it’s not often that at least I would assume that you’re in conversation with an audience that would be made up of largely evangelical Christians. And I appreciate very much your conversation with us. I just wonder if you were to turn to speak specifically to this kind of audience what would you want to say?

Pinker: Oh, I don’t, I certainly wouldn’t tailor my message differently to different audiences. But I suppose the main message is one that you and I have covered in our conversation namely that atheistic belief is not nihilistic, it’s not anti-human, quite the contrary, that there is a great deal of overlap between secular humanism and the best of religions namely a concentration on the conditions that make humans flourish. Not just physical pleasure but knowledge, and beauty, and wonder, and cooperation, and peace all of these are purposes that I like to think transcend some of the divisions between the religious and the secular.

Mohler: I want to thank you for joining me today. The gift of a conversation is very gracious in itself. Thank you for joining me today for Thinking In Public.

Pinker: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Mohler: Well that was remarkable was it not? Just to be able to have a conversation with someone and to hear them speak to us knowing the distance between the two worldviews that are involved. When I was in the conversation with Professor Pinker, the first thought I had was that this is the kind of conversation that is all too rare. And it’s the kind of conversation that needs to happen. Far too many evangelical Christians are unaware of this kind of thought and what it means in terms of not only our cultural moment but the ideological and intellectual trajectory of the age. But it’s also good to know that a conversation like this is still possible. Let’s think about what it means.

Over the course of the last thirty or forty years or so Christians have come to understand the importance of worldview. Prior to that fact when Christians thought of themselves rather safely as an intellectual majority, safely in a majority Christian culture we really didn’t have to give attention to worldview. Worldview emerged from two different development or at least our concern for it emerged from first of all the discovery of what many intellectuals call “the other” that is religious diversity, worldview diversity. That came as a product of everything from the age of imperialism and commerce to well even the experience of two world wars in which Americans came to be rather forced to observe the fact that there are different worldviews, different ways of conceiving the world even of understanding what it means to be human. The second reason why this development of worldview became very important is because of what many Christians rightly perceive as an intellectual displacement in the larger world. We are now facing the reality that a good bit of this culture, the larger intellectual trajectories are not moving toward us but appear to be moving away from us. As evidenced in the very brief conversation with Professor Pinker about the biography of Harvard University. It becomes something of a parable of what happens. The secularization that took place in that one institution is pretty much what we see perceived in the larger world as well. So, when you start thinking about that you recognize that we’re giving attention to worldview not just because we decided to add it as an elective to our other discipleship concerns but because we understand it’s central.

Let’s consider the worldview implications at stake here. One of the things I most appreciate about Professor Steven Pinker is his candor and honesty. He’s intellectually courageous. He takes on a good many issues that even many of his colleagues would not take on. He willingly enters into the intellectual fray and for that we should be appreciative. He also seems to be rather honest in pulling out the intellectual consequences of his ideas. He is, as he acknowledged, an atheist. He holds to a purely naturalist understanding of the human being. Now one of the things I want to note is that if we began with the same premise, I believe we would be driven to many of the same assumptions. In other words, he is honest in really tracking his own intellectual outworking of those basic principles his work as a scientist and as a public intellectual are all part and parcel of that larger project. But let’s think about the consequences of this. When he denies what he calls the ghost in the machine making a reference from Descartes one of the things that becomes most clear is that we are our brains, and he said that pretty straightforwardly. But we’re not just a brain in an individual isolation as he pointed out we’re brains that are communicating with other brains. Other information is coming into us. I think a part of the brilliance of his contribution is how he does differentiate that kind of physicalism and naturalism, what we might even call a biological reductionism, from the forms that do not take into consideration what it means for that information to come into the process and for us to be accountable.

I think nevertheless in this conversation, I would just remind you again and again of the fact that I cannot deal with these questions without reference to the larger question of cosmic meaning. I cannot bracket that it is an intellectual impossibility to me. So perhaps one of the things we learn from a conversation like this is that among the many ways you can divide human beings one of them, to put it as bluntly as I think is necessary, is between those for whom cosmic meaning is necessary and those for whom evidently cosmic meaning is not. Now when you consider that latter group isn’t it interesting to note the enthusiasm of Professor Pinker’s speech? The power of his ideas the satisfaction he obviously finds in this teaching and in this intellectual work? He refers to his own form of atheism as a humanistic atheism and obviously he finds great joy in human beings and human relationships and he believes there is a positive obligation to work for human flourishing and so, you look at that and say ok here’s where we better be careful in talking about atheism. If we’re going to be intellectually honest we better be careful and say that to our way of thinking the absence of cosmic meaning does lead to a nihilism. But at least in an operational form the conversation with Professor Pinker ought to instruct us that in terms of day to day life it does not.

Now even in a conversation like this it was short and gracious. I wonder as Professor Pinker might wonder about those of who are hearing him how we actually think about these things when we close our eyes at night. Now how we actually think about these things when we’re not operating as a public intellectual but rather we’re dealing with one of those events that happens in our lives, one of those questions that…in our lives we simply have to answer and I find at least that they would be impossible to answer the question in any satisfying way without cosmic meaning. Which is to say that I am a Christian theist. I am a believer in not only the existence of God but in a personal God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and revealed himself in his written scriptures and thus the question of cosmic meaning is for me one that is not only necessary but it’s settled. I think this is why when we think about the clash of worldviews, we need to understand that sometimes we can talk at each other without actually talking to each other. Talking to each other is a beginning point. I appreciate the graciousness of the investment of time Professor Pinker gave to us in this conversation. I think it certainly helps to draw out some of these conclusions. I mean after all I have to say I do not find the moral agency that is possible in his understanding to be one that is long term sustainable. I still don’t understand how a merely physical mind that is to say a brain even as it is socially responsible for exchanging information with other brains can be really held to be morally responsible in the way I think there is a deep moral knowledge within us that we are morally responsible.

You know when it comes to language there is so much that we can learn from these cognitive scientists it tells us a great deal about what I would define as being made in the image of God. And when I ask Professor Pinker, is it language that distinguishes us from other sentient or conscious species and animals he said yes, but there’s more and I’m grateful for the fact that he sees more but I also think the instrumentality of language there is very, very important. I think it does tell us something about how we were made by a creator in order to communicate with him where it’s necessary actually to have a grammar and a rather complex, cognitive communication means in order to do that. I fully believe that the animals glorify God, but they don’t know that they are and they are not communicating and knowing him in the sense that requires language. I want to encourage you to read Professor Pinker’s writings and as you read them think about the implications and think about the worldview issues that are at stake. And recognize that it is an intellectual privilege to be able to share the process of reading a book and getting to know an author and coming to terms with his worldview. There are all kinds of questions we should bring to the table as we interrogate a book. As we even interrogate ourselves reading a book. But one of the things we should not be afraid of is to read what persons who hold very different worldviews are writing, what they’re saying, and come to terms with it. What we do not need for Christians in this generation is an intellectual defensiveness that says we’re going to wall ourselves off from these conversations. We need to enter them, engage them, and keep them going and that means until next time let’s keep thinking.

Thanks for listening to Thinking In Public. For more information go to my website You can follow me on twitter by going to twitter.comalbertmohler. For information about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information about Boyce College go to Mary and I and several of our friends are going to be taking a cruise to Alaska and up the pacific coast. We’ll be doing that July 30-August 6, this year. We would love for you to join us. It’s going to be an opportunity for intensive bible study, for wonderful conversation and fellowship, and it would only be better if you’re able to join us. For more information just go to the website at I’ll meet you next time for Thinking in Public.