Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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Can reading a book make you more rational? Can it help us understand why there is so much irrationality in the world? Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now (Bill Gates’ "new favorite book of all time”) answers all the questions here.
Today humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding - and also appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that developed vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?
Pinker rejects the cynical cliché that humans are simply irrational - cavemen out of time saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. After all, we discovered the laws of nature, lengthened and enriched our lives, and set out the benchmarks for rationality itself. We actually think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning we’ve discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our education, and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book - until now.
Rationality also explores its opposite: how the rational pursuit of self-interest, sectarian solidarity, and uplifting mythology can add up to crippling irrationality in a society. Collective rationality depends on norms that are explicitly designed to promote objectivity and truth.
Rationality matters. It leads to better choices in our lives and in the public sphere and is the ultimate driver of social justice and moral progress. Brimming with Pinker’s customary insight and humor, Rationality will enlighten, inspire, and empower.
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|Listening Length||11 hours and 19 minutes|
|Audible.com Release Date||September 28, 2021|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #1,875 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#2 in Media Studies (Audible Books & Originals)
#7 in Philosophy & Science
#21 in Communication & Media Studies
Top reviews from the United States
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All three books point out that the principle of fallibism is part of rationality. Fallibilism is the understanding that individuals are often wrong, and thus the pursuit of truth is a process, never finished.
Galef does a better job of incorporating fallibilism in her book. She has acquired the wisdom that rationality is more than just a toolkit. It is a "mindset," in which you constantly worry about being wrong. In a sort of Zen koan, she sees one of the biggest impediments to rationality as the belief that you are rational. She models having a concern for being wrong, often interrupting her own analysis to express doubts and caveats.
In contrast, Pinker speaks in the voice of a professor, giving the Sermon From On High to impart knowledge to novices. The impression this gives is that once you have been initiated into the ways of the rational you need no longer fear your own fallibility. It is not the impression that Pinker would want to leave if he thought about it more carefully.
Where both Galef and Pinker fall short, in my opinion, is that they place too much emphasis on truth-seeking as an individual effort, while only briefly nodding to the social/institutional process by which knowledge is filtered. Rauch, to his credit, focuses on the latter. But I was disappointed that Rauch's diagnosis of the problems with existing institutions puts too much emphasis on our failure to honor journalism, academia, and social science, and not enough emphasis on the decay of those institutions and what needs to be done about it.
Pinker's book is well worth your time to read. But I would first reach for Galef and Rauch.
Pinker provides synopses of probability theory, logic, causal inference, game theory… all the hallmarks of a rational view of the world. He explains why these approaches can seem artificial and how the mind can refine its natural dispositions to think in a rational manner.
All this is praiseworthy. I found myself agreeing with Pinker one hundred percent of the time. It’s just that all of this is covered in a thousand other books. Why did Pinker feel a need to publish from what seems like a very introductory class at Harvard?
Even the examples are tired. From the marshmallow test to word families suggested by the term vegetable there isn’t a new concept in the text.
I recommend it for young readers or those who are first dipping their toes into the basics of a rational view of the world. The rest of us can escape the collective boredom of being explained the rational choice when faced with the prisoner’s dilemma once again.
Pinker goes on to talk about reason, but he never properly defines it. Reason is the faculty for integrating sensory material into concepts. Nor does he show how to create valid concepts. Pinker fails to discuss free will which is a serious omission because the use of the rational faculty is volitional. He then moves into morality; his moral theory consists of the Golden Rule, “do unto others…” This idea does not work at all. There is no conceptual content to the rule. It implies that anything goes so long as you and the other person agree on wants. Since people differ, the Golden Rule would mean that morality is subjective. Two people could agree, for example, on: “Rob and be prepared to be robbed.” etc. A moral theory needs to have universal principles. Rand has shown that reason objectively must be the highest virtue because it is our main means of survival. It is through reason that we decide what other people to value and refrain from violating the rights of others.
Next Pinker goes into formal logic. He says “rational argumentation consists of laying out, together with conditional statements that everyone agrees make one proposition follow another…” This statement defies logic. Public agreement is not a method of science nor of establishing truth. Truth depends on established facts and objective deductions and inductions. The number of people agreeing with something does not prove anything.
Pinker has is a good section on why people legitimately violate some alledeged axioms of economic of decision theory. I did not find the game theory chapter that useful. Why spend so much time on paper-scissors-rock and other games? These games including Prisoner’s Dilemma are not relevant to anything most people do in the real world. The correlation/regression chapter was very good. Correlation is not necessarily causation and experiments are helpful but not omnipotent. Events can have more than one cause.
Pinker ends by exposing many types of human irrationality—all useful examples. It would be great if people were more rational—but that is a matter of philosophy, a subject on which Rand is much better. Pinker quotes M. L. King’s critique of Jefferson owning slaves. But King (and Pinker) fail to note that slavery (“might makes right”) had been a political axiom in the world for 9000 years and that the Declaration of Independence, based on John Locke’s philosophy, ultimately brought an end to it in civil war- a great moral achievement
Top reviews from other countries
Much of the earlier pages is mathematical in concept and spells out probability thinking in a comparatively digestible way. But even in these simpler earlier chapters, you have to take it slowly and go back and forth over the arguments or it is too easy to gloss over something really important.
Later, the chapters get less mathematical and frankly, a bit more offering opinions about irrational thinking than hard reason. As the arguments get further from logic and maths into bias, prejudice, taboos so it begins to relate less to learning from a professor and more on thinking that can be challenged.
However, the book is so densely written in places that I am sure I have missed some essential thinking, hence the decision to read again, still, I hope with an open mind. That is a condition that the author feels is essential to all rational thinking, and I heartily agree. Too much of the current discourse about identity, politics, diversity, morality and religion is based on tribal gut feeling, not nearly enough on listening to other arguments, comparing and contrasting, weighing up evidence. This book is an essentail antidote to that, but I fear will be lost on those who think differently before they read it.
The largest portion of this book consists of a fairly advanced manual in critical thinking. It’s not the kind of book that can be read at speed. Each chapter could form the basis for a taught module in logic, probability, game theory and so on. Much of it will be familiar to those who have read similar books. Most of us by now are, or should be, familiar with biases and fallacies such as confirmation bias (selecting evidence which confirms our beliefs), ad hominem attacks (criticising the person, not the argument), the principle that correlation does not imply causation (an increase in margarine sales may correlate with an increase in teenage pregnancies, but it’s unlikely that one is the cause of the other), and so on. But there’s a great number of more advanced ideas I hadn’t heard of including hyperbolic discounting, heretical counterfactuals, instrumental variable regression and much more. Getting to grips with this material requires considerable effort.
One of the most shocking revelations was how ignorance of Bayesian reasoning can lead to unnecessary medical treatment. If you get a positive test result for a disease that has a 10/1000 prevalence in the population and the false positive rate is, say, 9%, what’s your chance of actually having the disease? Many people, including many doctors, ignore the base rate (the actual prevalence of the disease) and conclude it’s a 91% chance, whereas in fact it’s closer to 9% because of all the false positives that will result from testing 1000 people. If you want to check out this claim (and I had to scratch my head a bit!) Pinker does the maths on page 169.
Rationality and intelligence do not necessarily go together. Highly intelligent people can be just as vulnerable as everyone else to fallacies and biases such as motivated reasoning and my-side bias. But we’re not hopelessly irrational. Often, our irrationalities have rational motivations such as the desire to win an argument rather than to get at the truth. But human progress depends on rationality and we should all try to get better at it. Pinker’s book is one of many that can help.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 9, 2021