Managing a human society requires many grand balancing acts: individual with collective action, laws and internal discipline. When we think about justice, morality and rationality, everyone thinks of themselves as “just, moral and rational” — no one considers themselves unjust, immoral and irrational. So how do we define those words, and who gets to define them? And where do religion and science enter into the conversation on those topics?
Professor Steven Pinker, PhD is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, specializing in visual cognition and psycholinguistics, at Harvard University. He has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Today, and Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. Pinker is also the author of The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now (2018), which uses social science data to show a general improvement of the human condition over recent history. His next book, coming this fall, is called Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, and Why It Matters.
[I’m excited] to be sitting here with one of my intellectual heroes, professor Steven Pinker, who is at Harvard University. He is the author of many books, including The Better Angels of our Nature, Enlightenment Now, and coming out in the fall, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, and Why It Matters. He’s also been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Today, and Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers.
So Professor Pinker, thank you for spending some time with us here this afternoon.
Steven Pinker: Thanks for joining me, thanks for having me.
Geoff Mitelman: So I want to start with a line that you’ve brought up that I think of many times, which is that, “In our world, we should follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” And we’re thinking right now, as we’re recording this on April 21st, and the trial of Derek Chauvin just ended yesterday, where there was a guilty verdict, and a lot of lines that a lot of rabbis are using are from Deuteronomy, of saying “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” And one way in which that’s interpreted is that we’re never going to necessarily achieve justice. The goal is to pursue justice, that it’s always an iterative element, that it’s something that we can be moving towards. So I’d love for you to share a little bit on how we think about these movements towards justice and a better world as a long-term trend, and to be able to not fall into the headlines here every day.
Steven Pinker: Well, yes. So certainly I think we’d all agree that justice was done yesterday in a particularly egregious crime. I take a somewhat skeptical, or at least a reflective, view of justice, because looking at the history of wars and genocides and pogroms and atrocities, they were all carried out in the nature of “justice.” Looking at the motivation of humans to engage in aggressive acts, there are just pure self-interested, exploitative examples of aggression – you take some land you want, you displace the people. You shoot someone in a liquor store so they can’t identify you in court – just purely self-interested aggression and violence.
But if you were to add up all of the victims of violence over the course of history (no one has, obviously, been able to do that), I suspect a greater number would have been have been killed for moralistic reasons than for material or exploitative reasons. All of the major genocides – the perpetrators thought that they were meting out justice, that they were harming wrongdoers who deserved to be harmed, that they were avenging intolerable insults and humiliation. There’s nothing in it for Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot personally. They were ideologues, and if you were to interview them, they would all say that they’re carrying out justice. So I have nothing against justice, I’m in favor of justice. I certainly think that if someone murdered someone in cold blood, they must be punished. But we should think carefully about what we mean by “justice.”
Justice is basically a kind of institutionalized revenge. It has a function – namely, you change the incentive structure so that people will factor in the cost and the likelihood of punishment before they commit some exploitative or aggressive act. The reason we have a regime of justice is that people will think twice about killing and robbing and raping and so on, if they can anticipate that they will be, as we say, brought to justice, but justice is – I don’t think it should be viewed mystically, I think it should be viewed pragmatically. And I think we have to kind of have a conception, and also a meta-conception, of justice. When we think we’re acting in the name of justice, are we really, and how certain are we, and is it being used as a pretext to make an aggression?
Geoff Mitelman: It’s almost like the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness, or also rationality and rationalization, that when it’s framed, you’re saying, “Within my own worldview, I am being rational and I’m being righteous.” But from a bigger perspective, is that actually accurate? And who defines those kinds of questions?
Steven Pinker: Precisely. And it’s the kind of view, I think, this is what I like to think of as the contribution of – not so much academic psychology, but a psychological mindset that is taking into account human nature, with all of its flaws and all of its better angels, so that we can act more wisely, realizing that each one of us is a flawed product of evolution. We have our own cognitive and moral biases. We should develop institutions and norms that marginalize those biases, but we’re all victims of them. And indeed, self-justification, rationalization, are serious contributors to harm that we ought to take into account.
Geoff Mitelman: I think there’s an element, too – what I like, at least in the Deuteronomy text, but it comes up also in American language, of the “pursuit.” It’s the “pursuit” of happiness, the “pursuit” of justice, to create a “more perfect” union. It’s not an end goal. And I think one of the wonderful things about science is that it’s iterative. It’s not a collection of facts. It’s a process. It’s a self-correcting way of saying, “This is a way to be able to think about this, and if I was right, here are ways to be able to not be in my own narrow solipsistic worldview.” Or, I might even say, objective ways to be able to think about these questions. So it’s not “I’m right, you’re wrong.”
Steven Pinker: Completely. I could not agree more. And it is a major misunderstanding of science that it’s a kind of a priesthood, that it ought to be an oracle for truth, hence a lot of the premature dismissals of public health advice during the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Well first, you said that we shouldn’t wear masks, now you said we should wear masks. First it was surfaces, then it’s enclosed spaces. Why should we trust science?”
Well, the correct attitude is: we start out ignorant about everything – all of us. No one has – no one is an oracle. No one has a pipeline to the truth. No one has the truth vouchsafed by a deity. We mortals have no choice but to try to prove possible explanations, and then test them and let the world tell us whether they’re right or wrong. And for scientists to change their minds, that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. As in the saying falsely attributed to – I think it’s John Maynard Keynes – “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” Now, he never said it. But it’s a great quote. And it is that kind of epistemic humility that is one of the great virtues of science.
Geoff Mitelman: Well that’s – I’d love to play that out a little bit, because you talk about the interplay of science and morality, and there are some people who say they should separate, they’re totally different worlds. But I think that there are pieces where the process of science and scientific thinking can link to questions of a more perfect union, a more just world, a better world, in this kind of way. How do you see the interplay of science and morality in ways that we can actually appreciate?
Steven Pinker: Well, the most obvious one is that science gives us an understanding of cause and effect, when it’s done right. And the goal of morality, presumably, is to enhance the happiness, flourishing, health, life, of people. How do you do that? Well, you try to change the world to make people happier and healthier and longer-lived, and science tells you how to do that. So that’s the most obvious connection. Should you give a substance to a sick child? Well, it’s the moral thing to do, if the substance will make the child better, and not if it will make the child worse. So science clearly is relevant to morality in that sense.
Also, as I mentioned before, I do think that the science that I affiliate with, psychology, has a role in morality, in identifying our moral weaknesses, failings, blind spots, illusions, biases – the better for us to overcome them. And I see that in the audience is David [DeSteno], who is an experimental moral and social psychologist who’s done some beautiful experiments on the moral hypocrite, way in which we fool ourselves into thinking that we are acting morally, even when we’re acting selfishly. These are good things for us to know, because we can then, rather than trusting our own intuitions (which is very dangerous, because those intuitions can lead us to do terribly immoral things, all the more so when we think we’re acting morally – when we burn people at the stake, when we torture heretics, when we perpetrate revenge and pogroms and genocides), to step back and think, are we being fooled by our moral intuitions? If we find homosexuality viscerally repugnant, is that a problem with our own physical repugnance, rather than a problem with homosexuality? It’s only that kind of reflection on our own emotions that allows us to make that kind of moral progress.
And this has been realized in a number of moral traditions, and particularly the deliberations around the American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. The Founders and Framers were intense amateur psychologists. They realized people, leaders, will delude themselves about their own wisdom and virtue and righteousness. They will disguise their thirst for power as doing what’s best for the country. How do we set up a bunch of rules – checks and balances – so they don’t get carried away to the harm of everyone?
And there was no such thing as a science of psychology then, but there was an awful lot of psychological speculation, as there was during the Enlightenment by many of the philosophers who we would perfectly well consider psychologists – David Hume and Adam Smith and Spinoza and all the rest.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, and there’s a lot that actually in the rabbinic tradition also, and I think almost any legal tradition where there’s a conversation where ultimately there has to be a decision. Ultimately, there needs to be, “This is what the rule is going to be,” but we want to be able to be transparent about, “Here’s what our thinking is, here’s what’s our evidence is, here’s the minority opinions, so that if we later find new evidence, we can overturn that.” Which happens in terms of science, it happens in terms of the American legal system, and it happens in terms of the Jewish legal system, too, thinking through, “Wait a second, it’s not just an oracle from up on high, but what’s the process by which we’re coming to these kinds of decisions?”
Steven Pinker: Very much. Indeed, the values like free speech are implemented in recognition of the fact that everyone thinks they’re right. Everyone can be right – because they contradict each other. Given that, you know, I’m not infallible and neither are you, how do we set up a system where truth and virtue and morality can emerge, despite each one of us falsely thinking that we have it, but at least at a more sophisticated level knowing that we don’t.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, you know, one of the things that came up, and I remember – I think it was in Better Angels of Our Nature, but it may have been in Enlightenment Now, but you talk about the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, which is a prayer that’s that said in Judaism on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And it lists all the different ills in which we may die in a given year, of “Who by fire, who by water” – it became, obviously, a Leonard Cohen song, “Who by stoning…” and you talk about that actually, 1,500 years ago, a thousand years ago, when that prayer was written, all of those things were sort of random elements. We had no idea what was going – how is fire going to spread? COVID and plagues, how are plagues going to spread? But it’s the small, often overlooked and anonymous people who have been able to advance and say “Wait a second, if there’s a fire, now that’s actually newsworthy.” COVID became newsworthy. It would not have been newsworthy 1,500 years ago. So what’s the element in which human agency plays into these kinds of questions, and collective agency, of being able to create a better world here?
Steven Pinker: Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because it is, I think, an under-appreciated moral principle. And I mean, it goes back to your first question: what’s the relationship with science and morality? As you know it, and as that prayer makes clear, for millennia, early death and destruction were considered to be fate at best, divine punishment at worst, and there’s just nothing that anyone could do about them. With the advent of science, we think of these as preventable harms. So we have people who have invented vaccines, and sanitation, and antibiotics, and auto safety, and fire safety, and occupational safety. And the inventor of the airbag is not one of our saints. It’s not one of our moral heroes, but probably some people in this room are alive today because of that.
And likewise for other advances in public health and science, which have the enormous moral benefit of preventing children from dying, preventing adults from dying, preventing people from being disfigured and paralyzed. Our moral system tends not to reward them or, at least not anymore.
At least when I was a child, there was a genre of books for children of the heroic biography of the pioneering scientist, of Pasteur and Lister and Madame Curie. I sense they’ve fallen by the wayside, but they really – when you think about what really, ultimately counts, in terms of morality, namely, people live rather than they die, choose life, that they are healthy rather than sick, that they’re educated – a lot of that, of what we all enjoy – the fact that our children almost certainly aren’t going to die, unlike most of human history, where a third to a fifth of children died. Our life expectancy is 80 rather than 30 or 35. We really do have not just the scientists themselves, but the greater mindset that we can understand the world, we can apply our knowledge to improve the human condition. This is morally invaluable.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. And I think what’s challenging with a lot of these pieces – and I’m thinking of COVID, even now, at a year-plus of the lockdowns and all these different elements, that success is defined by the things that didn’t happen: how many people did not die. And we don’t know what that number is. And I think that’s really hard, to be able to say “a lot of our success is defined by the things that didn’t happen.” And those are not the front page stories in The New York Times: “X number of people did not die because of COVID.” And understandably, we think about those who did, and mourn those, and what could we do to prevent future deaths and all of those elements, but thinking about what it could have been – that’s a different framing there.
Steven Pinker: Absolutely. And again, returning to the question that we initiated this session with, why we should follow the trend lines and not the headlines, you don’t see a headline about things that don’t happen, about a country that is not at war. But if the international relations were the way they were 30 or 40 years ago, perhaps they would have been at war, cities that are not attacked by terrorists, and indeed, the toll of COVID, which is horrific. It’s past 4 million. That’s an awful lot of deaths in a year. But the Spanish flu was, depending on the estimates, more like 50 or 60 million, in a world with a fraction of the population. The fact that vaccines were implemented less than a year after the outbreak of the pandemic is something for which we should be just unspeakably grateful for. And these are – make no mistake – these are moral advances. It means the difference between people living and dying.
Geoff Mitelman: So your upcoming book is about rationality, and also a little bit of irrationality. I think some of the reason that the death was so high [from COVID] – what were elements of irrationality, whether that’s political and systemic elements. How do we draw a distinction between rationality and and rationalization, or rationality and irrationality? Because everyone, as you said, everyone thinks of themselves as “I am a smart, rational, reasonable human being.” There’s nobody who’s going to say, “Let me tell you that stupid thing that I’m going to propose here.” How do we distinguish rationality from irrationality, and how do we create more rationality in this world?
Steven Pinker: Well, the rationality always has to be defined relative to a goal. This was a point made by David Hume several centuries ago. And one of the problems with what we tend to call irrationality is that it’s all too rational in terms of attaining a goal that is dubious or disputable, such as the power and influence and prestige and esteem of a person, particularly a political leader. For all the people who say that “You said that Trump was irrational and then not very smart,” his defenders had a point where they said “Well, he got to be president, didn’t he? That’s not so easy.”
Now, the problem is that is being president, at least in the eyes of many of us, was not a particularly desirable outcome, but you can’t deny his rationality in attaining it. So part of it is: how do we justify our goals? And that, of course, goes from pure rationality to moral valuation – which goals are worthy? And it also relates to another part of the answer to the question of “How can a species that in so many ways is hyper-rational, such that we develop vaccines for COVID in less than a year” – and our species is pretty amazing, pretty awesome in many ways. On the other hand, you’ve got you know, QAnon and you’ve got, you know, the antivaxxers, and you’ve got the contrails and the 9/11 truthers and the Bigfoot believers.
Part of the answer is that what can be rational for an individual isn’t necessarily irrational for the society, the group, the collective. There’s a kind of Tragedy of the Commons, to take the term from game theory, that just as when every shepherd raises his sheep on the town commons, it makes sense for every individual shepherd to do it, [but] if too many do it they all suffer, because the Commons is grazed faster than it can regrow. Likewise, if everyone pursues the goal rationally of maximizing the prestige, the esteem, of their own political tribe, then the democracy as a whole can suffer if we don’t collectively arrive at the policies that will do the most good.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, and I think so much of religion, and ethics in society as a whole is this tension between the individual and the collective, and where do we bring our own self interest, because we need to protect our own interests here. And how can that be related to a larger community here? I think there’s a reason that every single religion has as its base the Golden Rule in some capacity, to be able to think about “who am I?” and “how do I relate to other people?” And yet that’s also – there’s a reason that saying, “Well, what we should do is just love your neighbor as yourself,” and that’s not enough to be able to build a society. You need to have edge cases and thinking through of “Okay, what is actually going to be the accurate assessment here, and who’s going to be able to decide?” But this tension of individual rationality and collective rationality, I think, can often be in tension.
Steven Pinker: Precisely. And, in fact, at the end of one of my chapters, I say that rationality is a kind of moral virtue as well as an intellectual one, precisely because, to be rational, you have to surrender to laws and norms and rules that may disadvantage you, but that are in pursuit of a disinterested or objective truth. It may not be in your own interest, it may portray you as not as capable and competent and moral and responsible as you’d like to present yourself, but it’s too damn bad if you’re looking at what is best for the collective.
And just as in a science, which I do consider, at least when it works well, to be kind of our paragon of rationality – I mean, you know, we can discover the COVID vaccines. Science works not by the brilliance and virtue and wisdom of any scientist – God help us if it did. But we have peer review, so that no scientist gets to impose his or her pet theory on the whole field, no matter how prestigious and influential, how many, you know, laurels that they’re wearing – you’ve still got to get your papers past the peer reviewers. Now, you know, peer review is an imperfect system, but it’s better than just a system based, say, on prestige, which would be a one-way route to folly.
And so likewise in a democracy, the reason that we don’t have a benevolent autocrat is that no matter what a great guy he is, he’s bound to be deluded by his own rationalizations – self-deception. And so we have a system of checks and balances, that the leader can’t just do whatever or he or she wants. And I think it’s parallel to what we have in science, and in scholarship and academia, in journalism – the fact that we have a free press, so that one newspaper can criticize another, that there are fact checkers, there are editors, there are corrections, so you never depend on the virtue or wisdom of a single individual.
Geoff Mitelman: Although I think one of the challenges that we’re seeing in journalism, in religion, in politics, is a lack of faith in institutions. I think that’s been a challenge as well, because, people are leaving – it’s actually predominantly mainline Protestants, it’s mostly mainline white Protestants (it’s not Black churches, and it’s not in the Jewish community), but it’s a lot of people who are leaving religious institutions. But also I think the political discourse is becoming more pulled apart from the poles, rather than coming together as a center.
So how do we find more faith in institutions, particularly as our – I think our, at least, American society – is becoming more and more polarized on the left and the right?
Steven Pinker: Yeah, I agree that it’s one of the questions of our era. And there’s a tendency, instead of seeing institutions as necessary bulwarks against the excesses of human nature, there’s a tendency, instead, to think all problems are the fault of evil people. And we’ve got – our side has to squash down the evil people on the other side, as opposed to having an arena, a system of rules, a set of, you know, referees and umpires, that allow us, knowing that we’re going to disagree with each other, to collectively arrive at some kind of semblance of the truth.
And of course, institutions always need to be reformed. They can become corrupt, they can become dysfunctional. But it should be more, I think, part of our education, just to remind ourselves as to why we have these institutions – why it’s better to have a police force and a court system than to have mob rule and the code of vendetta and blood feuds, why it’s better to have trial by jury than a lynch mob, why it’s better to have a democracy than totalitarianism. And I think our journalistic and educational system are so focused on the flaws of our institutions (which they should be), that I think that generations have grown up oblivious to why we have those institutions, and what the alternative is. The fact that we have public health agencies that make sure that we don’t have cholera pathogens coming out of our taps – the miracle of flushing a toilet and knowing that what goes down the drain isn’t going to come back up your faucet. The miracle of vaccinations, which people are oblivious to – we’re forgetting what smallpox did to people, both in terms of disfigurement and death. We are amnesic to important parts of history that laid out the justification for our institutions. And in forgetting that, we’re apt to just look at which villain to blame.
Geoff Mitelman: I think what’s also been challenging, at least over the last year, is the loss of face-to-face and in-person social interactions. I think that there’s also an emotional need that gets met in communities and institutions. And I’d love for you to tease out a little bit of the interplay between emotion and reason. Because we sometimes think of reason as this sort of a disembodied brain, and this is the Mr. Spock kind of element here. But I think that there’s a deep emotional need that we have, as human beings, as part of a larger social group. Where does the role of emotion come into this in your work?
Steven Pinker: Well, emotion is, as I mentioned earlier, the reason is always in pursuit of a goal. If someone were just to spit out the digits of pi indefinitely, or to prove a bunch of theorems that no one cared about, we wouldn’t really call them rational. Rationality generally means attaining something, using knowledge and logic to attain some goal. And it’s often the emotions that provide us with those goals, whether it’s fear of danger, or love of friends and family, or the motivational component that is what gives us goals that we pursue. So I think that emotion can be separated from cognition – I don’t think that we should smush them together – but the reason that we evolved cognition is to implement goals like safety and comfort and happiness and love and esteem that are provided to us by emotions.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, I’m wondering, as you’ve talked a lot about about the long- term trends, and I know that you’ve done some research about the interplay of politics and religion and science. Do you see the interplay of science and religion as changing now from what it was – and we can think about it, you know, 20 years ago, 100 years, 500 years [ago]? Have you seen the difference of the interplay of science and religion, at least in American society, over the time that we can think about? And you can think about whatever time horizon you’d like to be able to explore. I’m just curious as to how you see the trajectory.
Steven Pinker: Yeah, there are several trajectories. There’s certainly, as part of the general alienation from institutions that you mentioned, there has been a falloff from organized religion – as you mentioned in particular, Mainline Protestant sects. There are the rise of the “nones,” by which I don’t mean the women in habits.
Somewhat countering that, there’s the fact that religious people have more babies, and that is true of every religious denomination. And the more conservative the denomination, the more babies they have. And so in terms of the number of believers and skeptics, atheists, humanists, freethinkers and so on, it may be kind of a wash. Or maybe there are going to be a larger number of bodies who are religious, simply because they have more babies, and atheists and humanists tend not to. Certainly, a lot of literal religious beliefs are falling by the wayside. And even one of the biggest outbursts of irrationality that many of us have seen in the public sphere, and that is the, you know, the 30,000 lies told by our ex-president – none of them involve the paranormal, none of them involve miracles, none of them involve divine omens or retribution.
Now, on the other hand, there is a widespread – it’s not as if the people who’ve been falling away from Mainline Protestant churches have become atheists. Most people are a little fuzzy when it comes to their theological beliefs, and they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” or “Maybe there’s a higher power, and you know, what do I really care? What does it mean when, you know, when I want to put food on the table, with gas in the car, and keep the kids clothed and fed.” So if you ask them in a poll, “Are you an atheist?” They’ll say no, but they won’t have particularly well-formed theological commitments.
And there is, as best I can tell – and I’m interested in long-term social trends, especially those that I’d like to classify as driven by Enlightenment thinking. To my dismay, there’s not much evidence that beliefs in paranormal and spiritual phenomena have declined over the last 40 years. If anything, they seem pretty flat. There’s been some decline in astrology, but all the rest are going strong. So we aren’t literally seeing what Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world.” People are still enchanted, they still believe in woo-woo and New Age magic, and spiritualism and synchronicity, and all kinds of weird things that most scientists would say don’t exist.
So there’s that, as some gleeful conservative defenders of religion have pointed out, that – I don’t think there’s a causal connection, but there’s certainly a correlation – with the decline of organized religion, there does seem to be an increase in the quantity of quasi-religious passions when it comes to politics. People demonizing the other political party as evil as opposed to just disagreeing with them, purging heretics and apostates, excommunication. We call it “cancel culture,” but it is the same psychological impulses that went into excommunication and shunning. Now again, I don’t think that there’s kind of a fixed amount of primitive religious belief – that if you’re not a Methodist, then you become woke – but they do tend to correlate in time.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. And that’s, I think – I’ve seen this in the liberal Jewish community and also in the white Evangelical Christian community, that there’s a very significant overlap – of, you know, one group is a Liberal Democratic party, and I mean this with a capital L, versus a conservative religious party. And there are elements of a religious nature, of ritual and oracles and who’s in and who’s out. And I think that’s something that we need to be thinking about. I think one of the wonderful things about America is there is a diverse group of what people can be, religious or non-religious. And they need to be entering into the public square, and being able to say, “We want to want to try to able to solve these societal problems, and how do we actually think about this in a way where we can move forward, as opposed to attacking and counter-attacking?”
Steven Pinker: Precisely. I agree. And I think that the religious impulses, which are with us as part of our inheritance, ought to be channeled by benevolent institutions into socially productive goals. You know, if we’re passionate about reducing poverty and disease and illiteracy, and some of that passion comes from the same motives that underlie religious fervor, well, that would be a successful institution. And I see the kind of benevolent developments of the more liberal humanistic religions, including Judaism, to be providing people with the symbolism, with the community institutions, with the rituals, with the moral reflection, that can be channeled into goals that we can all justify and agree on. That is, kind of shed the Iron Age tribal code of vendetta, jettison the magic, the woo-woo, the belief in prayer as a way of treating disease, the belief in divine retribution, all of that stuff, but preserve some of the institutional and normative structures that represent religion at its best.
Geoff Mitelman: And that’s a wonderful way to end here, because there’s a line that I love that I think I’ve quoted here, from actually the rabbi who officiated my parents’ wedding, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who said that “Judaism’s goal is to ethicize the ritual and ritualize the ethical.” Because there’s so many different things that we mean to do, right – “I want to do this, I want to be able to give charity, there are ways that I want to be able to do this, but I’m pulled in so many different directions,” that ritualizing this ensures that we’re actually taking the steps that we need to be able to take. And when we’re doing any kind of ritual, to be able to include some sort of ethical component to that, so that it’s not an empty ritual and just saying a bunch of magical words, but being able to help make our world a little bit better.
Steven Pinker: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. There appear to be beneficial aspects to religious affiliation, although they don’t tend to depend on theological beliefs. That is, if you’ve got a – even though people who belong to the churches and synagogues tend to be happier and more productive and less drug-addicted and so on, that’s also true of their atheist spouse, if they’re dragged into the flock by a believer and they themselves think that it’s a bunch of mumbo jumbo, they still get the benefits, suggesting that the benefits are really social, community based, emotional rather than believing in deities and spirits.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, and that leads nicely, because one of our speakers – and he’s on here, we’ve mentioned – Professor David DeSteno, who has been a good friend of mine and of Sinai and Synapses, we will be talking to him in a couple of weeks about his new book that’s coming out called “How God Works,” thinking about the different ways in which ritual can help make our world a little bit better. We’ve got a bunch of terrific guests – Kate Stockly, who is an author coming out with a new book, called Spirit Tech. But if you want to follow you, you are on Twitter at @SApinker, if I am correct on that. And you can find him on on his website and to be able to find his upcoming book Rationality. You can find me, I’m on Twitter at @RabbiMitelman, or you can find us on Twitter at @SinaiSynapses. You can find us each week – we’re usually on Tuesdays at 2 PM Eastern. But we want to thank all of you for joining us for this conversation. And Professor Pinker, thank you for taking the time here this afternoon to talk with us.
Steven Pinker: Thank you, Geoff and thanks to all of you for sitting in and listening.