Steven Pinker is an atheist; in How the Mind Works he is not shy about stating, without fanfare or argument, that the explanations of religion are "palpably not true." Why, then would this book be high on my list of recommended reading for the spiritual seeker? Am I trying to argue people out of their faith, with Pinker as my secret weapon?
Steven Pinker demonstrates the best attitude towards finding the truth. He's not afraid to ask the hard questions, and not afraid to accept the hard answers, and (most astounding of all) not afraid to admit what he doesn't know. He's not afraid of giving opposing views a hearing, nor is he afraid to ruthlessly critiquing them, while still avoiding being outright snarky. He is, simply, not afraid. He has a marvelous equipoise that makes you remember that science is a noble manifestation of Reason, with a capital R, and not just an excuse for the geek-and-wonk crowd to bully you with their assertions. And his inquiries have gotten him in trouble -- in fact he wrote an entire book, The Blank Slate, to explain why so many people -- both the religious conservatives and the liberal intelligentsia -- will fight tooth and nail against the notion of human nature.
Maybe it's just a result of his extremely clear, friendly, and witty style, that he seems so fearless. But frankly, I could have used a little more of that in youth. In my teens, everyone who talked about spirituality used the language of fear. Back then it seemed my only possible choice was to exchange the fear of eternal damnation (courtesy of traditional Christianity) for the fear of existential nothingness (thanks a lot, rational intellect). I latched onto mysticism because it seemed like the only way out of perpetual anxiety. Why guess, when you could know? Sometimes I think my philosophy might have gone down a different path, had I just known a few more people who had the guts to face the Unknown without ducking for cover or shitting their pants. Rather than working out my salvation with fear and trembling, I might have spent a lot more time just really paying attention.
That fearlessness only counts, though, if someone is fearlessly asking the right questions. I don't have much use for people who are fearless because they don't have a thought in their head, or who choose to stay in their philosophic bunkers and not go outside into the Doubt. And that's the biggest reason Pinker should appeal to spiritual seekers -- he doesn't shy away from the question of Consciousness. Most other cognitive scientists, after happily explaining why you're just one big ball of algorithms, will just wave their hands indignantly at consciousness. They pretend it doesn't exist, that it's an illusion, or that it doesn't matter, or that it's a question to ask another day, maybe in another hundred years or so. But Pinker, bless him, recognizes that consciousness is THE question, the one we most care about. If there is one thing we know with more certainty than anything else, it's that we are Aware . . . and what the hell is that about?
And, even more interestingly, Pinker is willing for now to let consciousness defy the computational theory of mind. No algorithm or neural network can satisfactorily explain how you come to have the experience of red, with all its redness. Pinker even suggests that it might be truly unfathomable for the human mind, because the human mind never needed to evolve the capacity to understand such things. Our ability to solve problems and predict the future was mighty handy for our ancestors on the African savannah -- but the nature of consciousness might be outside of our ability to comprehend it, because our ancestors never needed to in order to survive. This also feels intuitively true -- if there is any possible way to understand consciousness, it's going to be an entirely different sort of understanding than we're used to.
Pinker has lots of useful insights to share about every other kind of thought and feeling that occupies your philosophic contemplation. But the biggie, the best, the pearl of great price, is this: keep your eye on consciousness, because THAT'S what science can't touch, and that's where all the action is. If God is ever to be found to be "palpably" real, it's going to be there.