Derb, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest the bioethics council was rude to Pinker in 2003. The discussion was perfectly cordial, as their discussions generally are. But they did in that session and in the conversation that followed over a meal afterward (I was there) politely push back on his notion of how crime and punishment might work without justice and what that meant for Pinker’s larger worldview, and I do think that particularly in exchanges with Michael Sandel (hardly a religious zealot, by the way) in both forums Pinker was fairly embarrassed. That said, while the experience might have contributed to his general attitude about the council, I wouldn’t suggest that his anti-religious bigotry and paranoia are the result of any direct interaction with the group (whether in 2003 or at his second appearance, to talk about human dignity, this past March when he was again received cordially even as he insulted their work). He reached those attitudes all on his own, I’m certain.
As for bizarre, I really do think so. He’s arguing there’s a Catholic conspiracy, led by Jewish professor, to impose a pro-death anti-freedom theology on the country; that this little federal commission whose members include, among others, a former editor of Science magazine, one of the country’s foremost psychiatrists, one of its most prominent cognitive neuroscientists, a path-breaking leukemia researcher, and the dean of American pediatric neurosurgery, is at the forefront of the anti-cure menace; and that this book which gathered up essays on the question of human dignity by writers ranging from post-humanists to communitarians exemplifies the danger. He does so by patching together distortions and lies, and then he ends up offering the most familiar batch of college term paper arguments about dignity to close. That adds up to a pretty bizarre whole, doesn’t it? I’m not suggesting Pinker’s not smart about a host of things, or that his books aren’t worth reading. But I do think this piece amounts to paranoid vitriol.
I certainly do, though, think the concept of human dignity is vague and is used in confusing and contradictory ways. That’s how I started my piece on this last week. I think that’s why the council published these essays, and why they’re very well worth reading.