“Dreamt becomes dreamed.”
“But dreamt is prettier.”
“It is prettier, and that’s one of the reasons that irregular verbs do stay in the language.”
Excerpts from a fascinating conversation:
- COWEN: Noam Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar, which is somehow built into the structures of the human mind: in its early years there seemed to be a promise of some very definite accounting of what that structure would be.... Could it be the case that Chomsky’s hypothesis was simply wrong?
PINKER: It’s not easy to pin down what the hypothesis is, partly because Chomsky himself revises his theory every decade or so, on a principle of Mao’s Continuous Revolution. Just never let people settle into any kind of comfortable consensus.
- COWEN: What evolutionary purpose does a sense of self serve in human beings?
PINKER: We know from neuroscience that there is no aspect of consciousness that does not have some physical correlate. There’s no ESP. There’s no life after death. There’s no mysterious action at a distance. It’s all information-processing and neurons. Why it should feel like something to me to be that network of neurons, I don’t think we have a satisfying answer to.
...I think there are some cases where human intuition hits a wall and this is one of them. The nature of time. What could have been before the Big Bang, if that was the beginning of everything. How can the universe either be finite or infinite? There’s no reason to think that every aspect of reality will be intuitive.
- COWEN: Here’s one difference between us perhaps, and we discussed this earlier in the green room. I think of you as believing more strongly in the powers of human reason than I do.
PINKER: What are we doing here if you don’t believe in reason? Why don’t we have an arm wrestle or a beauty contest?
COWEN: After dinner.
- COWEN: In the middle of all of these dialogues, we have a section called “Underrated, Overrated.” I’m going to name some things, some people, and ask you if you think they’re overrated or underrated. Feel free to pass on any one of them. Let’s start with rap music.
PINKER: I never got rap music. I don’t want to say it’s overrated. It may be that I’m overrated, or at least I overrate myself. I was probably born too soon.
- COWEN: Behavioral economics.
PINKER: I’m for it.
COWEN: What’s it missing?
PINKER: I’m completely out of my depth here, but I do think it is too quick to dismiss classical economics. Is this maybe another false dichotomy?
...We do know even that people who are experienced in market transactions, for example, don’t fall for the kinds of fallacies that behavioral economists are so fond of pointing out. You really can’t turn a person into a money pump, even though in the lab I can set up a demo that shows people can be intransitive in their preferences.
You actually put a person in a situation where there’s real money at stake, and all of a sudden they’re not so irrational.
- COWEN: The passive voice in writing.
PINKER: Underrated.... You open up any style manual and one of the first bits of advice is don’t use the passive. That’s too crude. Academics overuse the passive, or maybe I should say the passive voice is overused by academics....
If I’m saying, “Look at that mime in the park. He’s being pelted with zucchini,” then since I’ve already called your attention to the mime, now I want to add information about him. If he happens to be the brunt of an action then the passive voice is the way to begin the next sentence with him, as opposed to saying “some people are throwing zucchini at him,” where he gets put at the focus of the sentence, which is the best place to introduce new information.
- COWEN: Let’s turn to the topic of world peace. The book Better Angels of Our Nature will be available afterwards. Let me ask you a general question. Let’s say it were possible by spending $10,000 and devoting a few months of your life to it that any person on earth could blow up a significant part of a major city. They could buy something, some kind of explosive. It would cost them $10,000. How long would it take before someone actually did this?
PINKER: Anywhere on earth?
COWEN: Anywhere on earth. Seven billion people on earth. Any one of them that can come up with the $10K and have a desire to do it, which is not most people of course. How long would it take before this would happen?
PINKER: Oh, I have no idea....
The amount of violence that we see is not limited by costs of technology. It’s limited by the number of people who think that it would be a good idea to blow a lot of stuff up for no reason other than attracting publicity.
- COWEN: Last question before we get to Q&A. What is a book we might be surprised to find on your shelves that you’ve read, or will read, or want to read?
PINKER: I have a big stack of bicycling magazines, and I am obsessed about the difference in weight in grams between various kinds of derailleurs and water bottle cages.