Andrew Sullivan interviews Steve Pinker

October 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s 72-minute “Dishcast” conversation with Steve Pinker, who’s doing a lot of events related to his latest book on rationality. The video was advertised in an email to Sullivan’s subscribers, so it hasn’t yet gotten many views. Here are the YouTube notes:

Pinker’s new book is Rationality. It’s like taking a Harvard course on the tricks our minds play on us. We had a blast — and I pressed him on several points.

. . . If you’d [like to] watch the whole episode in living color — and see the most famous hair in academia — we videotaped the remote convo in the Dishcast studio. It even has the view from Pinker’s window in the background.

I don’t have the book yet, so I don’t know what Steve’s definition of “rationality” is, nor is it discussed very much in the video, so I’ll give the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “rationality” and “reason” that seem to comport with this discussion:



I would amend the “reason” definition to add “and apprehension of truth” to “The power of the mind to think and form valid judgements by a process of logic.”

This is an excellent discussion between two smart people, one of whom (Sullivan) has a strong belief in the irrational tenets of religion (he admits they’re irrational), while Pinker is an atheistic rationalist. About 25 minutes in, this leads to a discussion that is conducted with such civility that you can almost miss it: “Can religion be rational?” Otherwise, the tenor and content of the discussion is at a very high level, and Sullivan does a terrific job of bringing out Steve’s ideas while challenging some of them.

Notice the big picture of Darwin behind Sullivan.

Some of the issues and questions covered:

Are we the only animals who are rational?

What might have been the selection pressures that gave rise to the evolution of rationality?

If we’re rational, why do so many people believe in paranormal phenomena, superstitions, and so on? Why do so many people reject vaccination when it seems the rational thing to do?

Re the above: how can rationality result in religious belief?

Since there are mathematical realists who believe that the structure of mathematics is “out there” somewhere, and that mathematical truths are in existence but waiting to be discovered, Sullivan wants to know if you can apply that same logic to God. (Pinker’s answer is “no”, but is very politely delivered.)

What does Pinker see as the most pervasive and problematic forms of irrationality in modern society? (#1: The “my side” bias.)

Can rational beliefs or action on the part of individual be irrational for their society?

Sullivan, speaking as a gay man, asks Pinker how to approach raising questions that could harm his community (i.e., the idea that homosexuality is produced by the behavior of one’s mother). Pinker raises two possibilities using the example of his own background, which is Jewish. (Pinker, by the way, mentions that his next book will involve the use of euphemisms, “genteel hypocrisy,” tact and taboo in producing a better society.)

A Kendi-inspired question: Is it rational to call people racists when they have no racist beliefs or intentions, but commit an act that some people see as racist (or, as Kendi might say, are not actively antiracist)? In other words, does intent matter?

Is it rational to ignore or oppose nuclear energy when it may be an important cure for global warming?

Why do iconic events like 9/11 or the murder of George Floyd lead to some irrational reactions?

How does Pinker maintain his composure in the face of continual attacks from the Left?

Have a listen!

17 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan interviews Steve Pinker

  1. “(I would amend the “reason” definition to add “and apprehension of truth” to “The power of the mind to think and form valid judgements by a process of logic.””

    Precisely so

    1. Pertinent observation. The quality of his writings do not appear to suffer though. He is, like Heather Hastie said of our host, ‘not normal’.

    1. I don’t have access to the article. But I gather that a newly-begotten Ph.D. in “Literacy and Cultural Studies” qualifies one to competently comment on the efficacy of any intellectual concept and to lecture other academics – with extensive research experiences and who are well- and widely-read – for daring to hold forth on matters beyond the scope of their formal academic specialities and qualifications.

      1. I had hoped that Carnegie-Mellon could avoid such ‘departments’.

        I do have access, and glance at their headlines, but seldom read. In my more pessimistic moods, I re-name it the

        Chronicle of Chronic Kindergarten for 22 year olds (and ambitious airhead administrators of such institutions) , or

        Chronicle of Lower Education for Deanlike Objects who’ve actually learned to read.

    2. That article is quite negative about Pinker, but does not rebut anything that Pinker contends. Just aspersions, non sequiturs and deflections.
      I’m not really surprised: the products of xyz- ‘studies’ rarely produce something with a moducum of rigour.

  2. It is very interesting that Sullivan can find fault with his own reasoning that led to his approval of the Iraq invasion. I think Pinker pointed that out right away. Not often that a person can do that, at least not publicly. We love the – I told you so but admitting failure … not so much

  3. Shortly before the midpoint of the discussion, when they dance lightly with religion, Sully gets a bit Edward Feser.

  4. I like that they agree that attitudes toward nuclear energy are ridiculous. Increasing reliance on nuclear energy would go a long way toward solving our climate change problems. As it is, any discussion of it is virtually off-limits. Sure, it gets mentioned a lot but not by politicians who are not bold enough to sell it to voters.

  5. Maybe the biggest fallacy is not the “my side” fallacy but the fallacy of thinking that the “my side” fallacy is made by everyone but our own side.

    I catch myself doing it all the time, although I couldn’t say what “side” I am on for most issues.

    People get very defensive when you ask them if the make the “my side” fallacy. They say they are on the side of reason and rationality. But then nearly everyone thinks that.

  6. My myside bias is that Pinker is always right.
    Sullivan is obviously bright, and it’s a nice conversation, but I just elide the religious topics.

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