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TED 2012: Steven Pinker Debates Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

This week, David Lavin is in Long Beach, at the annual TED conference, where he gave a special workshop for TED Fellows. We'll also be highlighting the Lavin speakers who are presenting at TED 2012.

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker made his 4th appearance at TED this year, engaging in a Socratic dialogue with the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Pinker and Newberger Goldstein, who are married, discussed reason, human nature, and empathy—pitting science against philosophy in the struggle to attain a higher understanding of ourselves. Pinker's recent The Better Angels of Our Nature, a look at why violence is on the decline, was called “a supremely important book” by The New York TImes. Newberger Goldstein's latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, about faith and reason, was hailed as “brainy, compassionate, divinely witty” by The Washington Post.

Here are their opening statements, as captured on the TED Blog:

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Reason appears to have fallen on hard times. Popular culture plumbs new depths of dumb; political discourse has become a race to the bottom. We live in an era of scientific creationism, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines and an insurgence of religious fundamentalism. People who think too well are often accused of elitism. Even in the academy there are attacks on logocentrism, the crime of letting logic dominate our thinking.

Steven Pinker: Is this necessarily a bad thing? Maybe reason is over-rated? Maybe it’s dominated by overeducated policy wonks, like the best and brightest who dragged us into the quagmire of Vietnam. They threatened our way of living with weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps compassion and conscience, not a whole-hearted calculation, will save us. My fellow psychologists have shown we live by our bodies and emotions; they use a teeny power of reason to rationalize feelings after the fact. Wasn’t it no less a thinker than your fellow philosopher, David Hume, who famously wrote: “reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions?” Perhaps  if irrationality is inevitable, we should lie back and enjoy it?