Steven Pinker’s explanation of how we make decisions does not explain how we make decisions

“I believe that decisions are made by neurophysiological processes in the brain,” says Steven Pinker.

No. Processes don’t make decisions. People make decisions. And they make decisions for reasons. And our capacity to reason and engage in deliberate action hinges on a more fundamental capacity to grasp objective truth. Part of Pinker’s problem is that he makes no distinction between the neurophysiological properties of beliefs and the content of beliefs (see Plantinga’s EAAN). Objectively true beliefs are not true because of brain activity. They are true objectively. Our capacities to apprehend reality (form true beliefs) and to reason from true beliefs to arrive at good decisions are capacities that we wield as human beings.* These capacities cannot be explained as epiphenomena of neurophysiological processes alone.

To understand why this view is right and Steven Pinker’s is wrong, simply watch the video to see how he accounts for his beliefs. What does he do? He provides reasons. They are bad reasons, but they are reasons nonetheless. What he does not do is provide a detailed description of how specific neurophysiological processes occurring in his brain caused his specific belief to manifest. In other words, he does not provide the sort of account that he implies he can provide when he says that neurophysiological processes cause our decisions. And the reason he does not do so is that he is utterly and completely incapable of doing so. No one ever could do so, even in principle.

Note that the view that human beings are unities of mind and body (more or less the Christian view) is perfectly at home with the idea that there are neurophysiological processes that correlate to our reasoning. Pinker’s position is that these processes, and nothing else, cause the reasoning. But he cannot tell you how.

* Of course, just because we have the capacity to form true beliefs does not mean we always do so. And even when we do form true beliefs, we do not always reason from them to arrive at good decisions despite our capacity to do so.

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