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Steven Pinker on Language, Reason, and the Future of Violence (Ep. 14 — Live at Mason)

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Mercatus Center
Nov 2, 2016 · 51 min read

On the economics of irregular verbs

COWEN: I’ve looked at a lot of Steven’s work again lately, and I’d like to start with your early work on irregular verbs. It’s striking to me how much in this work you think like an economist.

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On Chomsky and universal grammar

COWEN: Moving chronologically through your career, let me ask you a big‑picture question about language. I come to linguistics very much as an outsider.

On the theory of mind

COWEN: Let’s turn from language to a closely related topic, theory of mind. Of course you’ve written a lot on this. We had Jon Haidt for one of these discussions, and he has this notion that in the mind there are these modules. They’re almost a bit independent. There’s an “empathy” module or a “being analytic” module.

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I think there are some cases where human intuition hits a wall and this is one of them. The nature of time. What could have been before the Big Bang, if that was the beginning of everything. How can the universe either be finite or infinite? There’s no reason to think that every aspect of reality will be intuitive.

COWEN: How about metaphysical determinism for the human will? Cause and effect; everything in the mind has a physical correlate, you’ve told us. You’re a Darwinian. The natural world is ruled by something like cause and effect and the laws of nature haven’t changed. So our minds are fully determined?

On the essential Steven Pinker

COWEN: I’ve been reading through a lot of different aspects of your work, a lot of your books — reading or rereading. I’ve been trying to figure out to myself what’s the underlying unity in the thought and writing of Steven Pinker, from irregular verbs to world peace, and yes we’ll get to that.

I do believe in the Enlightenment vision that by understanding our world, that the world is intelligible, that we can understand it. That progress in understanding and therefore progress in rational action are possible. Including, pointedly, ourselves.

That is, there is such a thing as human nature. It can be studied scientifically the way other phenomena are studied. That it’s good to understand human nature because then we can discount, when necessary, illusions that are quirks of our own makeup. That we can understand what it is that gives humans fulfillment and satisfaction and pleasure, what are the resources that we have to work with in improving a political system.

On the limits of reason

COWEN: Here’s one difference between us perhaps, and we discussed this earlier in the green room. I think of you as believing more strongly in the powers of human reason than I do.

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On things under- and overrated

COWEN: In the middle of all of these dialogues, we have a section called “Underrated, Overrated.” I’m going to name some things, some people, and ask you if you think they’re overrated or underrated. Feel free to pass on any one of them. Let’s start with rap music.

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www.stevepinker.com

On the future of peace

COWEN: Let’s turn to the topic of world peace. The book Better Angels of Our Nature will be available afterwards. Let me ask you a general question. Let’s say it were possible by spending $10,000 and devoting a few months of your life to it that any person on earth could blow up a significant part of a major city.

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On the Fermi Paradox and existential threats

COWEN: Let me try another angle on potential pessimism and see if you can talk me down out of that tree. I’m sure you’ve thought about the Fermi paradox. There are more and more potentially habitable planets out there, and yet no one is showing up to visit us or sending us signals or constructing glamorous advertisements up there in the stars by manipulating matter.

On TV shows

COWEN: What’s your favorite TV show?

Most academics I think secretly watch TV as a guilty pleasure and then deny it. I’m the other way around. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, and I feel like I ought to watch more.

On CRISPR

COWEN: Let’s take bioengineering technologies, gene editing, CRISPR, and the like. Imagine a much more advanced version than what stands right before us. Imagine that parents could to some extent influence or design the children they would have, above and beyond eliminating a few particular diseases.

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Q&A

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, Mr. Pinker — thank you for speaking today. You mentioned the preservation of uncommon words and dialects that evolved as a result of geographic isolation, such as Appalachia and remote islands.

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Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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