The Gospel According to Pinker
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Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard University
World + People, Dreams and Visions

The Gospel According to Pinker

An Interview with Steven Pinker
Tomasz Stawiszyński
Reading
time 19 minutes

Steven Pinker reveals a terrible mystery to Tomasz Stawiszyński: we are living in the best of all possible worlds. As for our challenges, we are dealing very well with them. There is progress everywhere: less poverty, less starvation, less misery. The optimists are right and the pessimists should despair, because their apocalyptic visions aren’t coming true.

“We are facing a nuclear Armageddon,” said Noam Chomsky. “The Middle Ages are coming back,” declared Anthony Giddens. “A fight for liberal democracy awaits us – and so far we’re losing,” warned Carlo Strenger. “Man is and always will be an irrational being,” stated Tanya Luhrmann.

In other words, all my previous interviews for “Przekrój” were not so optimistic.

Meanwhile, Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now – which adorns the windows of every bookshop within a few miles of his alma mater, Harvard – is simply overflowing with optimism.

People’s lives are better now than ever before. Science is making progress. Reason reaches the deepest nooks and crannies of reality. What once seemed possible only for advanced magicians is now possible thanks to technology. True, there is still some dark irrational residue here and there, epitomized, for example, by populist political parties. But we have a dependable antidote for that: reason, science and humanism. These Enlightenment values will surely make our lives more peaceful, healthy, safe and happy.

All we have to do is understand that there’s nothing better than a world based on those stable foundations (and follow Pinker into the bright future).

But right now it is only I who follows Pinker to his office at Harvard’s Department of Psychology. I imagine – based on the interviews I’ve watched on YouTube – that in a moment I’ll be meeting someone who is exactly like his books: perfectly organized, communicative, neat and self-assured.

My hypothesis turns out to be based on solid premises – Pinker fulfils each condition 100%. He’s on time, no mess in his study at all; he answers every question without hesitation, with soothing certainty in his voice.

I wonder whether it’s all really based on rational analysis (as Pinker claims) or if he’s just an irrational optimist? For a long time, I’ve had my own answer to that.


Tomasz Stawiszyński: How does it feel to be the world’s greatest optimist?

Steven Pinker: I don’t consider myself optimistic, I consider myself realistic. Most of the data on progress that I cite in my books are just objective facts, but people don’t know about them. It’s not that they haven’t taken the right attitude,

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