Steven Pinker – The Stuff of Thought

October 26, 2007

Steven Pinker, a renowned cognitive neuroscientist, a research psychologist, and is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His research on cognition and language won the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences and two prizes from the American Psychological Association. He has also received several honorary doctorates and many awards for graduate and undergraduate teaching, general achievement, and his critically acclaimed books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate. He is also a Humanist Laureate of CFI’s International Academy of Humanism. His newest book is The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Pinker explores what our use of language can tell us about human nature. He discusses our use of metaphors, and what concepts may be innate, how the “language of thought” may be hard-wired in our brains. He also explains how to avoid the pitfalls of such hard-wiring, using the methods of science as the model.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 26, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe. This is the one hundredth episode of Point of Inquiry, and we’re especially gratified over the past couple of years to have had so many of the world’s leading thinkers on the show to talk with us about questions at the intersection of science and religion, science and central beliefs. 

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Back on the show with us this week is Steven Pinker. He’s a renowned cognitive neuroscientist, a research psychologist, and Johnstone, professor of psychology at Harvard University. His research on cognition and language won the Troll and award from the National Academy of Sciences and two prizes from the American Psychological Association. He’s also received several honorary doctorates and many awards for graduate and undergraduate teaching, for general achievement, and for his critically acclaimed books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. He is a humanist laureate of CFD International Academy of Humanism, and he’s on the show today to talk with me about his new book, The Stuff of Thought Language as a Window into Human Nature. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Professor Steven Pinker. Thank you. Professor Pinker, a very ambitious book, this book. And not only do you try to explore as a cognitive scientists things like why jokes are funny, why there are cusswords and profanity or even this big chore of using language to explain human nature. You’ve also taken it upon yourself to rewrite the very Declaration of Independence without any metaphore whatsoever, right? 

That’s right. As an illustration of the ubiquity of metaphore in ordinary speech, it’s almost hard to find a sentence that doesn’t have an implicit metaphore in it. The Declaration of Independence, for example, talks about the course of human events where a course is a word that we use for a race course or the course of a river to the choir means to make clear. Independence means not hanging from as independent pendulum. And it suggests that deep down we are we think, in concrete ways. 

We, of course, can peel off all of the concrete labels and use the remaining schallert to think about much more abstract things like political independence. But it might offer a clue as to how a mind, which presumably was adapted to listen about the physical and social world. In the course of evolution, can it be stretched to deal with the much airier subject matter of philosophy and mathematics and science and politics and so on? 

Namely, we bleach out the content of thoughts that ordinarily apply to moving things around in the world and co-opt them to talk about the economy rising and falling instead of just a balloon rising and falling or forcing someone to be nice as well as forcing the jam door closed. 

I want to talk more about metaphore in a bit and maybe George Lakoff. Are you kind of take him to task. But it should be said that this book, The Stuff of Thought, serves as the follow up to actually two other trilogies. You’ve been writing one trilogy on human nature, which includes How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. This book is the third in both of those trilogies. You’re arguing that language itself are use of verbs, metaphors you were just talking about, even though kind of categories of thought that we have tells us about who we are as a species helps explain our human nature. 

That’s right. It rounds out a trilogy on human nature, in a trilogy on language. In this case, using language is a window into human nature. We use language to share our knowledge, to negotiate our social relationships, to learn out our emotional state. And so I suggest that language is a very informative window into the contents of our thought, into the strong emotions that were were subject to into the relationships that we care about. Do you see this throughout language in many different ways, that, for example, our use of nouns and verbs and prepositions and tenses reveal something about our concepts of matter and causation and space and time, that our use of swearwords reveals something about the strong negative emotions that we experience, that our use of innuendo and euphemism and verbal fig leaf reveal something about the social relationships that we care about when we address a listener. 

Can I get you to explain? Samir Notion’s, you talk about in the book about how the language of thought itself, not the languages people speak day to day, but the the more basic language of thought itself has inherent. Categories, you mentioned some of these things like temporality, causality, space. These are the building blocks of thought itself. And you’re saying that not only a reborn with them, but we can glimpse at them and understand about our nature through dissecting language. 

Indeed, for example, that the concept of causation that determines our use of verbs is the same concept of causation that we use in ascribing moral responsibility. But just as we use a verb to talk about direct hands on billiard ball style causation, where someone intends something to happen, acts on it and causes it to change. That’s the kind of concept we appeal to in finding someone guilty of a murder as opposed to mere manslaughter or negligence. And when a An in the world doesn’t neatly fit into one of the categories of thought that we see in language, our intuitions are accordingly fuzzy. We don’t know what to do when, say, one person shoots another. The wound is fatal, but then the doctors, because of malpractise, leave the man to die. Did the guy who pulled the trigger commit murder or not? We don’t know what to do with intellectual property, which we tend to think of an analogy with physical objects. So while if I bake a loaf of bread, if one person eats it, another person can’t. But if I perform a song and when it’s recorded, if one person downloads, it doesn’t prevent another person from enjoying it. And we have trouble when we have to deal often with fuzzy or evolutionarily novel problems applying our habitual ways of thinking. 

I want to talk more about these innate categories. Can’t had a notion, these categories of thought. And he said that these categories saved us from being completely skeptical of everything, like a strict humor and skepticism. You say that these categories actually exist in our noggins, but more than that, they are reliable guides to how reality really is. But Cotton didn’t have an explanation based on evolution for where these categories came from. You’re saying these categories that were born with hardwired in our brains, they evolved. They even have adaptive purposes. 

That’s right. Which isn’t to say that the evolution can explain how. Right. Our ideas can be true or accurate in the general case, because I think that requires a social with institutional superstructure of science, which allows us to pool our knowledge and to weed out our own self-deception. But I think the seeds are there to be the tools, if I can switch the metaphor, were provided by evolution, but that we have to deploy them in a very special way in order to get at something we’d be willing to defend as true or accurate. 

Speaking of truth, what is true? The correspondence theory of truth. The philosophers call it where you started talking about metaphore. If these categories of thought this fixed Satur concepts, if they’re evolved and they are accurate descriptions of the world, however, you figure out that they’re accurate, whether it’s, you know, these social institutions that help us test them, whatever are they metaphors all the way down, or are they actually pointing to a real world, these concepts that we’re hardwired with? 

I think the ones that were hard wired with by themselves, that we could pick out lawful aspects of the world and allow us to develop mental models of the world that are accurate in some ways. We know whether there’s a rock in our hand or not or whether there’s a quest in front of us or not. And so at that coarse level are clearly accurate because the survival of our ancestors depended on it. But when it comes to more generalizable laws, life, gravitation, the process of natural selection, process of plate tectonics and so on, our old folk science is clearly nowhere near adequate to the task. And we have to develop and refine our intuitions collectively through debate and science in order to put them into alignment with reality. 

Right. There are a lot of innate concepts that we might be born with seem hardwired even. You know, there’s some suggestion that the God concept, there might be a God module in the brain or, you know, innately Aristotelian concepts that we all seem to kind of have naturally. But we learn from the new physics that the post Galilean in view of inertia is the opposite of the way people naturally think that it is indeed. 

That’s right. And in fact, when he sees in language the influence of the folk intuitions of physics that underlay the impetus, the theory of the Middle Ages and which Newton of kind and perform Galileo overturned, it’s very unnatural to think of objects as. Queuing to move along the straight line until unless some force impinges on on them. On the contrary, we tend to think that objects are naturally rested unless some force tells them to motion. In order to learn physics and to do physics, you’ve got to debug and encapsulate your native intuitions about how how the world works. And even when you do use metaphors, you allude to metaphors earlier, which, of course, are ubiquitous throughout science. The process of evolution being a kind of selection analogous to what animal breeders do. Even in those cases, you have to know which aspects of the analogy to take seriously and which ones to ignore. In order for your knowledge to qualify as as science, in the case of the analogy of artificial selection and natural selection, for example, one has to ignore the role of the actual human doing the selecting in artificial breeding in order to truly understand what natural selection consists of. So in both cases, there’s variation. In both cases there’s differential reproduction. In one case, there really is a guy selecting some of the pigeons. In other cases, just whichever pigeons have the most baby pigeons. So in all of these cases, one has to apply analogy selectively rather than willy nilly. 

I mentioned George Lakoff earlier. He’s the person most known for emphasizing the importance of metaphor. He basically says that everything’s a metaphor, that it’s metaphors all the way down. And you can take them to task in your book, calling them messiah of metaphor. You suggest that he’s confused. So let me ask you, in what sense is everything? Just a metaphor is all for just metaphorical. How irreducible is that? You seem to agree with Lakoff on on a lot of things. You say that metaphors aren’t just window dressing. They’re basic to language. They’re basic to thought. Then metaphors really help us do the heavy lifting in our thinking, in our cognition. 

Yes. And in all fairness, Lakoff wouldn’t say that everything is metaphorical because words that refer to physical sensations and emotions and bodily feelings would not be metaphorical and those would ultimately be the source of our metaphors. Yeah, I think that Lakoff is a brilliant linguist who has shed much light on language in mind by his discovery, really that most of language contains metaphors and that the metaphors fall into families coalescing around an image that itself is unstated. For example, we have lots of figures of speech that refer to argument as a kind of war, like defending your position or attacking his theory. But no one ever actually says. Argument is a war. It’s an underlying implicit metaphor that organizes a bunch of concrete metaphors. I think he pushes it too far in saying that just by choosing the metaphor, you can force the person’s mind in a particular direction, which he has applied to politics, to advising the Democratic Party, for example, to lead brand taxes as membership fees, as a way of changing people’s underlying conception of what taxes are. And I think he doesn’t sufficiently ask the question of whether the presence of a metaphore in language reveals or implies that that that the person actually thinks through to the underlying image. I think he neglects the possibility of dead metaphors where the metaphor may have been alive in the mind of a first wordsmith who coined a figure of speech but might be used uncomprehendingly ever since. We certainly see this with utterly dead metaphors. Like to kick the bucket. To guy where no one really knows what the terms of the analogy are. They go back to the way that animals were slaughtered hundreds of years ago. But we’ve lost all connection to Buchardt as the frame in which an animal was strapped before being slaughtered. If it can’t happen, would kick the bucket. It can happen for an awful lot of other metaphors. And therefore, just discovering a metaphor doesn’t automatically prove that that’s the way people beaten about the phenomenon. 

What’s your take on proposals like Matt Nesbitt’s and Chris Mooneys, where they kind of take some of the arguments of Lakoff and apply it to the way that we frame science education? The way that we should advance science education, they say, is by properly framing it, by using metaphors that are more palatable to the non science booster public, especially avoiding things like equating science with Athie ism as some of the new atheists might do. You seem skeptical of these political uses of metaphor and framing? 

Yes, I think that metaphor is an essential tool of framing and persuasion and rhetoric and always has been. But it’s a mistake to think that simply by implanting a metaphor in someone’s mind, they automatically think that way. People can evaluate metaphors. People can entertain. Metaphore as if the onus is on scientists to show that a particular metaphore is apt in the sense of picking out aspects of the world that are real generalizations. So I think it’s simplistic to say that if you simply offer a metaphor, people will swallow it. It is good to use metaphors because that is indeed how we communicate. But one still has to defend one’s metaphor against rival ones. And that means digging beneath the metaphor to expose the concepts it’s made of. And to prove that those concepts really do correspond to reality. So to take a concrete example from the wake of the recent rebranding taxes as membership fees as a bit of a joke is that the analogy really doesn’t go through with membership fee at an organization. You can always choose not to pay your fees and then the organization will withdraw its services. But with taxes, if you choose not to pay them, then men with guns will throw you in jail. So the metaphor is skin deep. And the fact that people can penetrate the skin of a metaphor and think it through means that they’re not slaves to the metaphors that are used in political or scientific discourse. 

I feel like there’s a lot more ground to cover. I know you have to go for a newspaper interview, but I want to talk about, you know, what evidence you might have that these innate concepts are evolved. Maybe we’ll have you back on at some point, explore some of these things more. Let’s finish up with how you and your book. You talk about how these insights into human nature coming from a close examination of language. They can help us get out of Plato’s cave rather than seeing the shadows of reality. We can actually see reality itself, even change reality. You talk about real world implications of what’s in your book for education, the way we run organizations, do politics, all of that. So how can getting a glimpse into our real human nature through our use of language gets demonstrably closer to reality? 

Well, I think they expose our instinctive ways of thinking and relating and therefore, tell us about what are the raw materials that we’re working with. In the case of the human mind. So in the case of understanding the world, what we hope science will do, we can look at the instinctive ways that people think of things like evolutionary change or the laws of physics so that we can identify their flaws and debug students concepts that they bring into the classroom in order to build more defensible ones. We can also take advantage of the mind’s power of analogy by looking for familiar domains that operate by some of the same laws as the things that we’re trying to teach. So in the case of evolution, for example, the metaphor of selection is one that we can offer as a pedagogical technique while being mindful of the ways in which you can be misleading if you don’t prune away all of the misleading associations that people will bring into the classroom. In the case of larger scale organizations, the institutions of science and government and organizations can be mindful of the kinds of social relationships that we see revealed through language, the ways that people often will use euphemism and innuendo in order to protect their relationships, keep them as relationships of reciprocity or of dominance or of communal sharing, and make sure that we aren’t smuggling into our organizations social relationships that work well in the context of friends and family. But they can get in the way of the goals of a larger institution. Just to be concrete, one of the reasons that science advances is that we try to negate the social relationship of dominance or authority that we often wield in everyday life. If if I propose a theory and someone criticizes it, I can’t say while being a scientist you have no right to criticize my theory. I’m a full professor at a fancy Schmetzer University in your mere undergraduate student. You haven’t earned the credentials to challenge me. That would be a very unscientific attitude because in science we choose to subordinate dominance and authority and status to a disinterested pursuit of the truth. Likewise, we choose to subordinate the kind of relationship that we have with our friends and family, such as respecting the other person’s feelings. If someone were to criticize me, I could come back and say, well, I worked very hard on that theory and it’s very hurtful of you to criticize it. That would have to give me laughed out of a scientific conference, even though it would be a perfectly natural reaction among a group of close friends or family members. So knowing our social relations. That we respect in everyday life, like consideration for people’s warm communal feelings, like the wielding of dominance and status and authority, tell us what we’re up against. Tell us what forces in the human mind. We’ve got to minimize or encapsulate in order to make progress towards larger goals. In the case of science being the pursuit of the truth. 

So if if you’re using language to get an accurate inventory of human nature to really describe how the inner workings of the brain operate. Well, doesn’t that overturn some of these basic myths of society? Even the most helpful myths that that we need for education are politics, myths like that. People can be anything they want to be, even that we’re all created equal. Seems to me you’re creating problems by solving some others. 

I argue that you don’t need math like everyone is indistinguishable or everyone is perfectible. People can be educated to a much higher level than what they bring into a classroom, even if not everyone is educable to the same level. We can do a lot better even if we can’t attain perfection. We can reduce violence, maybe not to zero, but certainly much lower levels than we find today. So I think there is room for optimism. It’s not a utopian kind of optimism, but we’re not so close to utopia. That’s a life issue anyway. 

Thank you very much for joining me again on point of inquiry, Steven Pinker. 

My pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Cook’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.