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What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters
by steven pinker
viking, 340 pages, $32

PINKER: Socrates! We don’t often see you here in Harvard Yard.*

SOCRATES: No indeed, Pinker, for I do not wish to seem unreasonable by trespassing on the precincts of those who, like yourself, are highly reputed for superior knowledge, when I know very well how ignorant I am. But it is just this question—about what is reasonable—that has drawn me here. It seems you have written a book explaining what rationality is and what makes it good for us, which no doubt is a great service to those like myself who seek wisdom, and I was hoping I might question you on a few points.

PINKER: I’m flattered, Socrates.

SOCRATES: On the contrary, it’s you who have flattered me in your book, by extolling a conversation I had long ago with a certain Euthyphro.

PINKER: Yes, Socrates, I thought you brilliantly showed how incoherent it is to try to vest morality in a higher power, since to judge whether the alleged commands of a god are reasonable, we ultimately must look to reason rather than to the fact of the commanding.

SOCRATES: Thank you, Pinker—though I fear I may not deserve the credit you give me. By my recollection the discussion was simply about the just, noble, and good and their opposites. What you mean by “morality” is one of those things of which I am ignorant. Perhaps you can explain that to me later. But as for rationality, what do you say that it is?

PINKER: Rationality is generally taken to mean “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals.”

SOCRATES: Is reason then only the means to an end, or can it tell you what the end should be?

PINKER: Evolution has wired goals into our likes, wants, drives, emotions, and feelings. We deploy reason to attain those goals, and to prioritize them when they can’t all be realized at once. And the cooperativeness of the world when we apply reason to it is a strong indication that rationality really does get at objective truth.

SOCRATES: Are we justified, then, in believing something true if it reliably enables us to get more of what we want? 

PINKER: That’s a good indicator. But rationality also requires that we distinguish what is true from what we want to be true. That demands reflectiveness, open-mindedness, and mastery of cognitive tools like formal logic and mathematical probability. You can see in hunter-gatherer tribes that evolution hardwired our brains for assessing the kind of probabilities that their lives involved. Today’s conditions require us to develop different tools to master new challenges. We live in an era with unprecedented resources for reasoning; we just need to use them consistently and effectively.

SOCRATES: I must say, Pinker, that I was impressed with the way you explained all these logical and mathematical tools, so that even a man like myself with no expertise whatsoever could understand them. Your explanations of neural networks and deep learning systems; statistical decision theory; game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma; the distinction between nonrandom pattern and nonrandom process, which you call “one of the greatest gifts of rationality that education can confer”—I thought a man who understood such wonderful things must be truly blessed and living in a blessed age, and I admired the charming and public-spirited way you set out these wares for all to benefit. But tell me Pinker: What do you expect that benefit to be?

PINKER: Well, Socrates, the conscious application of reason improves our lives and makes the world a better place. And the power of rationality to guide moral progress is of a piece with its power to guide material progress and wise choices in our lives. Citizens should be educated to have some command of the intellectual tools of sound reasoning, because we’re best off as individuals and as a society when we understand and apply them. That’s what the Enlightenment is all about.

SOCRATES: Yes, but progress toward what? Do you think anything can be useful without adequate knowledge of the good?

PINKER: Look around you, Socrates! Reason and science have supplied people with an abundance of goods: improved lifespans, nutrition, health, safety, and knowledge of how to save for retirement. Our biggest problem today is not finding solutions, but convincing people to accept them.

SOCRATES: It seems, though, that I’ve somewhere heard progress defined as “improved means to an unimproved end.”

PINKER: But we have improved the end. Unlike your small polis-community, our larger and more anonymous modern democracies use enforceable laws and contracts to be more impartial and spread benefits to more people. And, to answer your earlier question, Socrates, it is precisely this impartiality—when combined with our self-interested sociality—that is the core of morality. Our intellectual heroes, like Erasmus and Locke and Bentham, advanced arguments that expanded the circle of our application of this impartial regard for the welfare of others. The Rationality Community identifies itself by these norms, but they should be the mores of the whole society. Yet despite the heroic and largely successful efforts of our champions of reason to disenchant the world, others continue to resort to mythic narratives in religion, history, and politics. The people who are open to evidence are resistant to these weird beliefs, like a personal God and creationism, and are more trusting in government and science, and hold more liberal political positions that are in the general direction that the world as a whole has been trending. The COVID-19 pandemic set these trends back, but almost certainly temporarily. The arc of knowledge is a long one, and it bends toward rationality.

SOCRATES: That’s an inspiring tale, Pinker, and you tell it like a true believer. But do you see any way to extend the power of this rationality over the recalcitrant remainder?

PINKER: Like I said, we children of the Enlightenment hold that all our beliefs should be subjected to the tools that assign their warranted degrees of credence, and we have a technocratic state that should, in theory, put these beliefs into practice. In fact, Socrates, maybe the most important practical application of research on cognitive biases and fallacies so far is what is called libertarian paternalism. Working through regulation, experts would engineer the environment of our choices to make it more difficult to do tempting but irrational and harmful things. They would leave us free to release ourselves from these fetters, but research shows that few people would make the effort, so we would produce more effective outcomes without impinging on democratic principles.

SOCRATES: This has all the appearance of the union of wisdom and rule such as I only painted in speech, though instead of relying on virtue and loyalty it seems you are counting on lazy compliance with an administrative state. Well, Pinker, I wish you the best—though what that truly is perhaps only a god knows.

* This is a lightly edited transcript of an encounter I recently witnessed, and which I recorded on my iPhone while pretending to check my inbox. To my surprise, I have since discovered that Pinker’s remarks here also appeared, in exactly or very nearly the same words, in his new book.

Mark Shiffman is associate professor in the Department of Humanities at Villanova University.

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Photo by Bhaawest via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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