Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Stuff of Thought, by Steven Pinker

“Go me to the bathroom before you go to bed.” “The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during a storm scene in a play.” “To take a simple case, one can throw a cat into the room but one cannot throw the room with a cat …”
These three delightful lines are just a tiny sample of the chuckles that await anyone who opens Stuff of Thought. Pinker loves jokes, and he keeps them coming. As a linguist, he has a warehouseful.
It was Steve Pinker’s book The Language Instinct that first got me interested in linguistics, and though my memory of that book has faded a bit over the years, I think this book is even more delightful. Pinker loves words (especially verbs), and funny phrases, and he shares this enthusiasm with his readers, making even the most complex linguistic theories and concepts accessible – at least most of the time. (He did lose me a few times.)
Pinker draws examples from arenas in which words matter – “There is nothing ‘mere’ about semantics!” (page 2). By my estimate, his examples are drawn from the following fields (in order of decreasing frequency):
everyday life (including jokes)
Conspicuous by its absence is theology, another field of study in which words matter a great deal and people have killed and died over their meaning. There’s a reason for this. Pinker is concerned with “the relation of words to reality” (page 3), and God is just not real to him. He is hardly mentioned except in the chapter on cursing. God not being real, statements about Him can have little importance.
What is real to Pinker is science. This becomes increasingly obvious as the book progresses. Pinker’s – ‘faith in science’ is too weak a phrase – worship of science first rears its head in the otherwise excellent chapter on metaphor. Pinker writes, “Most practitioners before the modern scientific era, and most purveyors of pseudoscience today, rambunctiously mix their metaphors … Loose and overlapping analogies are also a mark of bad science writing and teaching” (255 – 256). True, but this is also true of bad philosophy and theology, and even, in a different sense, of bad poetry and literature.
Pinker tips his hand when he writes at the top of page 257 that “[the existence of] Legitimate scientific analogies … raise the question of why metaphors should be so useful in the sphere of knowledge where we feel we have the surest grip on the truth.” Later in the same paragraph, he approvingly quotes Richard Boyd: “use of metaphor is one of many devices available to the scientific community to accomplish the task of accommodation of language to the casual structure of the world.” In other words, to accurately describe reality. As if the scientific community were the only people who make a serious effort to do this.
Another consequence of Pinker’s worship of science makes itself felt in the chapter on indirectness and politeness, where Pinker interrupts himself every few paragraphs to speculate on how or why this or that social use of language could have evolved. This becomes quite tedious after a while.
In the last few pages of his book, Pinker addresses the fear of determinism … the fear that the type of thoughts we can think are limited, even prescribed, by language itself. He disagrees with this view – language does not only block us from reality, he says, it can also allow us access to it. I agree with him, because I believe that God designed language as a way for human beings to apprehend truth. Pinker believes it because Science will save the day:
“Even with our infirmities, we have managed to achieve the freedom of a liberal democracy, the wealth of a technological economy, and the truths of modern science. … In higher education, people can be disabused of their fallacies in statistics or evolution … Or they can unlearn their faulty folk economics … In science and engineering, people can dream up analogies to understand their subjects … In the governance of institutions, openness and accountability can be reinforced … This underscores the importance of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it. The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world.” (435 – 439)
Ironically, Pinker has just spent the previous four or so chapters making a convincing case for our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. Through examining our language, he has shown that the way people think about the physical world does not match Newtonian physics, let alone the more recent kinds. The way people think about truth does not match formal logic. And social factors make people say and think things they wouldn’t if truth were their only concern. And furthermore, all these ways of thinking about the world are astonishingly, even delightfully, persistent. Pinker clearly enjoys these discussions of the way the human mind works, and after reading them, one expects him to say, “This is apparently the way people were designed to think. Instead of fighting it, we should accept this as the nature of humanity and see what we can learn from it about man and God.” That is what G.K. Chesterton would say. But Pinker backs off from this and simply asserts that, though it will be hard, we can change these faulty ways of thinking with good scientific education. Good luck, Mr. Pinker. People have been trying that project for about 250 years now, and it has been failing. But I still enjoyed your book.

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