It was on this date, September 18, 1954, that American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author Steven Pinker was born in Montreal, Quebec. In his popular books, he has argued that language is an “instinct” or biological adaptation shaped by natural selection. He is the author of six books for a general audience, including The Language Instinct (1994), The Blank Slate (2002) and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Pinker received the American Humanist Association’s 2006 Humanist of the Year award for his contributions to public understanding of human evolution and the 2010 George Miller Prize from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.
Pinker has said, “I was never religious in the theological sense… I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew.” In How the Mind Works (1997), Pinker says,
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.’