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What Leads Us, the Head or the Heart? Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Steven Pinker Ted Talk

Plato’s main aim was less to teach than to show how you don’t know what you really think you know. The brilliant and provocative Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has a conversation with sociologist Steven Pinker which asks what’s the most reliable guide for how we will evolve:

Is character and conscience what will lead the way or a good heart and steadfast moral clarity?

In a provocative and compelling TedTalk on a philosophical debate as relevant and contemporary as ever, with bonus whiteboard illustrations. Pinker asks,

“After all, Hume pointed out that reason is just a means to an end, and the end depends on the reasoner’s passions. Reason can layout a road map to peace and harmony if the reasoner wants peace and harmony, but it can also lay out a road map to conflict and strife if the reasoner delights in conflict and strife. Can reason force the reasoner to want less cruelty and waste?”

To which Goldstein responds,

“All on its own, the answer is no. But it doesn’t take much to switch it to yes. You need two conditions. The first is that reasoners all care about their own well-being. That’s one of the passions that has to be present in order for reason to go to work. And it’s obviously present in all of us. We call care passionately about our own well-being. The second condition is that reasoners are members of a community of reasoners that care about others’ well-being, who can exchange messages and comprehend each others’ reasoning and that’s certainly true of our gregarious and loquacious species, well-endowed with the power of language.”

The fundamental factor for why we’ve evolved from our violent histories, according to Pinker, is that our circle of empathy expanded. There is still much work to be done, but it’s worth a little optimism to know we’re trending toward growth.

Goldstein points out that “empathy isn’t really strong enough” to advance the human race, and this widening circle of empathy only expanded because of the muscle of reason. Yes, there’s a cool cartoon muscle for that. Then she makes an excellent point.

“Contradictions bother us. Time and again a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held. Their essay would go viral, get translated into many languages, get debated at pubs, coffeehouses, salons, and at dinner parties. And influence, legislators, leaders, popular opinion, eventually their conclusions get absorbed into a common sense of decency.”

A lively discourse on things most of us don’t think we really have time for anymore–at least not those of us between say the ages of 21-79 who aren’t having philosophical discussions of the nature of life, or contemplating death, those of us with day jobs and children to raise. Rebecca Goldstein’s latest book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, addresses these very notions.

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