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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Pinker, Steven (1954 - )

"The problem with the religious solution [for mysteries such as consciousness and moral judgments] was stated by Mencken when he wrote, "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing." For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones. What gave God a mind, free will, knowledge, certainty about right and wrong? How does he infuse them into a universe that seems to run just fine according to physical laws? How does he get ghostly souls to interact with hard matter? And most perplexing of all, if the world unfolds according to a wise and merciful plan, why does it contain so much suffering? As the Yiddish expression says, If God lived on earth, people would break his window."

-- Steven Pinker


Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and popular science writer known for his spirited and wide-ranging defence of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.

Pinker’s academic specializations are visual cognition and language development in children, and he is most famous for popularising the idea that language is an "instinct" or biological adaption shaped by natural selection rather than a by-product of general intelligence. His four books for a general audience – The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules and The Blank Slate – have won numerous awards.

Biography and career
Pinker was born into the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal, but became an atheist at age thirteen (although he has stated that he still identifies with various aspects of Jewish culture). His father, Harry, a trained lawyer, first worked as a travelling salesman, while his mother, Roslyn, was first a home-maker then a guidance counselor and high-school vice-principal. His sister, Susan, a child psychologist by training, is now a journalist and columnist, and his brother, Robert, is a policy analyst with the Canadian government.

He married the clinical psychologist Nancy Etcoff in 1980, but divorced in 1992. In 1995, Pinker married Malaysian-born cognitive psychologist Ilavenil Subbiah, but they also later divorced. His current girlfriend, Rebecca Goldstein, is a professor of philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Pinker has no children.

Pinker received a first class bachelor's degree in experimental psychology from McGill University in 1976, then went on to earn his doctorate in the same discipline at Harvard in 1979. Pinker is currently the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard having previously been the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In January 2005, Pinker defended Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, whose comments about the gender gap in mathematics and science angered much of the faculty.

Language as instinct
Pinker is most famous for his work - popularised in The Language Instinct (1994) - on how children acquire language and for his popularization of Noam Chomsky's work on language as an innate faculty of mind. Pinker has suggested an evolutionary mental module for language, although this idea remains controversial. Pinker goes further than Chomsky, arguing many other human mental faculties are evolved, and is an ally of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in many evolutionary disputes.

Theory of mind
Pinker's books How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate are seminal works of modern evolutionary psychology, which views the mind as a kind of swiss-army knife equipped by evolution with a set of specialized tools (or modules) to deal with problems faced by our Palaeocene ancestors. Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists believe the human mind evolved by natural selection just like other body parts. This view, pioneered as a field by E. O. Wilson, and Leda Cosmides and John Tooby - is pursued under evolutionary psychology and is a rapidly growing research paradigm, especially among cognitive psychologists.

Criticism
Critics allege Pinker's books ignore or dismiss opposing evidence. In "Words and Rules," for example, he describes cognitive scientists as having dropped a competing model "like a hot potato" after his widely cited criticism. If anything, that opposing view, Connectionism, remains as popular as ever and the ongoing dispute does not appear to be heading towards any sort of resolution. Other critics claim that Pinker may be a little too good a writer in being able to combine several weakly based hypotheses into a plausible-sounding "evolutionary psychology" story that in reality may be no more scientific than a Rudyard Kipling "Just So" story. Pinker has also been criticized for his cursory readings and straw man arguments against Constructivism and the Tabula Rasa in The Blank Slate.

Awards and recognition
Pinker was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2004 and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy's 100 top public intellectuals in 2005. He has also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Newcastle, Surrey, Tel Aviv and McGill.

 
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