Saturday, October 28, 2006

Steven Pinker: less faith, more reason

In his thoughtful

Prof Steven Pinker begins with some nice words about the Report on General Education: in fact, they are somewhat nicer words than what your humble correspondent would write, even in the decent context of the university newspapers. ;-)

However, Pinker's main points are the following two:

  • university must also teach the inherent value of science
  • university must be based on reason and not faith.

Concerning the first point, Pinker quotes a comment from the report that science and technology can be used both for good things as well as bad things. Fair enough, no doubt about it. But what is not written so clearly, Pinker argues, is that architecture and opera, among other examples, can also be used both in positive and negative ways.

Architecture creates both museums and gas chambers while opera has both uplifted audiences and inspired the Nazis. ;-)

Pinker offers this observation because he feels that the balance between science and technology on one side and superstition and ignorance on the other side is presented as a moral trade-off by the report which is entirely wrong. Everything that people create can have both positive and negative consequences; nevertheless there are other reasons why sciences, social sciences, and arts still have a positive value despite the ambiguous sign of their creative potential. Pinker explains that the person who can't appreciate the intrinsic cultural value of pure science - of the knowledge how the world works - cannot be counted as an educated person.

Pinker also argues that universities are all about reason and not faith - which is just a milder word for religion: there are many other institutions in the society whose goal is to approach the reality via religion. Note that this is clearly a topic that would divide the anti-hard-left coalition in the Academia. Some of our right-wing colleagues have, on the contrary, promoted the idea of religion in the curriculum and they even argued that the reason should be removed from the education of religion. I understand where they're coming from but I probably agree with Pinker.

Pinker also argues that religion is not the main force behind various conflicts in the world. Well, it depends how we define "main", "religion", and where you look. ;-)

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