Steven Pinker has published an interesting op-ed in today’s Harvard Crimson, criticizing the current report of Harvard’s committee on general education. If one could reformulate Pinker’s dogmatic pronouncements as questions to be examined, this would be a good essay. For example,
- What is faith?
- Is Earth truly an undistinguished speck in the cosmos, or is there something special about it?
- How is the paramount value of “reason” affected if the mind and its thoughts are merely products of chemical activity in the brain?
Opinion –Less Faith, More Reason
Published by The Harvard Crimson
On 10/27/2006 4:36:48 AM
By STEVEN PINKER
[T]he picture of humanityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for peopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.
I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university.
My second major reservation [about Harvard’s new Report of the Committee on General Education] concerns the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Reason and FaithÃ¢â‚¬Â requirement.
First, the word Ã¢â‚¬Å“faithÃ¢â‚¬Â in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for Ã¢â‚¬Å“religion.Ã¢â‚¬Â An egregious example is the current administrationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“faith-based initiatives,Ã¢â‚¬Â so-named because it is more palatable than Ã¢â‚¬Å“religion-based initiatives.Ã¢â‚¬Â A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.
Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like Ã¢â‚¬Å“faithÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“reasonÃ¢â‚¬Â are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. FaithÃ¢â‚¬â€believing something without good reasons to do soÃ¢â‚¬â€has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these….