Reviewed in the United States on November 22, 2021
I am generally a Pinker fan and have read all of his books written for broad audiences. This book was a major disappointment for me. First of all, I agree with nearly everything that he argues in the book. We do need to return to enlightenment ideals of reason, logic and evidence, but we need to do so, in large measure, because of the concerted attack on enlightenment ideals by the French Nietzscheans, et al. whose thought has dominated the academy. We need to think like scientists, he argues, but the ‘social scientists’ and humanists within our universities have taken another tack. The children of the enlightenment, aka the founding fathers, are everywhere in disrepute within the modern academy where it is frequently argued that we should recognize people for what they would like to be rather than what science tells us they are. Pinker addressed one of the principal academic enormities in his book, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature. Who are those deniers? Not the purveyors of ‘common sense’, but rather the members of university faculties, many of whom are still impervious to Pinker’s arguments or the (more scholarly) arguments of Paul Boghossian in his book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. In Rationality, Pinker generally ends up with simplistic, MSNBC binaries such as ‘Science vs. Fantasy, aka faith’. He argues that faith is poppycock and that we should opt for science, when he himself has demonstrated (very nicely) that the social ‘scientists’ within our universities have accepted as a ‘standard model’ something that is palpably unscientific. If you think that this has now been settled, walk into any university department in the humanities and soft social sciences and proclaim that constructivism is bunk and that there is, really, such a thing as ‘human nature’. You are likely to be excoriated.
Putting that issue aside for the moment, the book consists of a long series of demonstrations to the effect that we are often ‘irrational’ (certainly true), and that many areas of investigation within the social sciences (game theory, formal logic, probability theory, cause vs. correlation, and so on) demonstrate more rational opportunities and could serve as a corrective to our irrationality (certainly true). The problem here is that these are often complicated matters that require more exploration/explanation/description than he can allot to them. The result is that the book often reads much more like a densely-argued textbook than a popularization for a broad audience. Even with the welcomed cartoons, Yiddish anecdotes and pop culture references, this is not a pleasant read; it is more of a slog. At the same time, it covers material that is readily-accessible elsewhere. I had to force myself to claw my way to the book’s end, not a common experience with SP’s work.
The central problem, however, is that the book’s conclusions are sometimes annoying and oversimple. If I am asked, should we return to logic, reason and evidence in our scholarship (and, hence, our public discourse) I would say ‘Most certainly’, but that is because we are everywhere assaulted with ideology (in the universities, in journalism, in the media) rather than sweet reason. (He hints at this briefly when he demonstrates the gross disparity between public estimates of, e.g., the prevalence of individuals with a certain ethnicity or sexual orientation vs. the statistical realities.) These institutions are not controlled by the right, but the binary which SP presents us with is the Enlightenment/Rationality/Science vs. the 30,000 lies of Donald Trump. There is not a word concerning the fantasies of, e.g., President Biden’s personal historiography or the mendacity of Hillary Clinton and a simple disclaimer that ‘both sides deceive and fantasize’ does not compensate for the insistent drumbeat re: Trump. One almost suspects that the book was written as a mechanism for attacking DJT and that is annoying. It is annoying because it is ‘unscientific’ and misguided. It turns SP the thinker into SP the advocate, when thought vs. irrational advocacy is the putative subject of the book. SP’s statement that he doesn’t want to believe in anything that requires belief and his support for the neoatheists Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett again take us to a different level of discourse and undercut his posture as the apostle of reason.
One cannot advocate the ideals of the ‘Enlightenment’ in simple, straightforward fashion, because we have been arguing (for the last 50+ years) that there are multiple enlightenments, just as there are multiple romanticisms. It makes a significant difference whether your prototypical enlightenment figure is Voltaire, Bacon/Newton or, as we have heard most recently, Spinoza. The most important thinkers in the English Enlightenment—Bacon, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Burke and Johnson are largely men of faith. Newton considered his theological work to be much more important than his scientific. Hume, of course, is not a person of faith, but he famously argued that faith, by definition, could not be assailed by rational argument. He was personally conservative (in his history of England, e.g.), reverent with regard to faith and struck by the radical impiety of the French philosophes. Imbued with the insights of the British empiricists, English thinkers in the 18thc were sensitive to the fact that something that we might term ‘gut reaction’ was not an irrational, mindless leap but the concentration of a lifetime of individual experiences at a precise moment in time when a decision was necessary. Hume’s views of causality are based on this view, but Hume argues that our individual experiences cannot, by definition, cover all possible cases, and so we must maintain a form of skepticism. That skepticism, however, is the kind that bedevils academics (as he explicitly argues) and is commonly set aside when we leave our bubbled study and are forced to live and act and decide in the external world. That skepticism was also extended to science, for the 18thc, with Lavoisier, came to learn that there was no such thing as phlogiston, even though belief in its existence may have been of some heuristic value in the development of chemistry. Science is, at its heart, fallible and its development is a process. Like dental health, it is a journey, not the solution of a problem.
The science/faith binary is particularly simpleminded today. Eric Metaxas’ recent book, Is Atheism Dead? argues that science has now become the defensor fidei. Pinker, e.g., decries ‘creationism’ but we now know that the universe had a beginning point, some 13.8 billion years ago and the big bang is part of our scientific consensus. The 18thc was taken with the notion of ‘tolerances’: why is it that the earth is so positioned with regard to the sun that we are close enough to keep from freezing but far enough away to keep from being burned to a crisp? Contemporary astrophysicists have calculated the odds of a planet being so positioned with regard to a sun throughout our galaxies and the number has a boatload of zeroes behind it. A second example: SP decries the anthropocentric climate change deniers, lumping them with the benighted right wing conspiracy theorists, but two Columbia scientists—William Ryan and Walter Pitman—argued decisively (decades ago) that glacial melt some 6,000+ years ago resulted in rising seas and the Mediterranean’s plunging through the Bosphorus strait and turning the Black Lake into the Black Sea, where mollusks reside (at very different levels) that can only survive in fresh water and salt water, respectively. There were no Buicks in those old days (and far, far fewer humans).
Bottom line: there is much here of interest with regard to rationality; the (generalized) rallying cry for a return to logic, reason and evidence is much desired. The political asides are distracting and infra dig and not really very scientific (or at least, systematic). All thinking people of the left and right have perceived the ‘carnival barker’ side of Donald Trump, a serial exaggerator with a touch of the huxter. At the same time, from the get-go, all serious commentators called for a distinction between DJT’s personality and his policies, between his tweets and his economy and foreign policy. This would appear to be a classic case in which one examines evidence rather than attending to emotion, rhetoric and ideology. This is not to argue that personality in a president is unimportant. Robert Caro is dedicating his life to exposing LBJ’s.
The academy often attacks the enlightenment for not being perfect. For the record, every significant English writer in the ‘English enlightenment’ condemned colonialism. Burke dedicated his political and literary career to the defense of oppressed people and the strongest and most articulate attacker of slavery was Samuel Johnson. Before we throw out logic, reason and evidence because of hypocrisy among the founding fathers we should look to principles rather than individual practices. This was common knowledge before the humanities abandoned the historical method for politicization and advocacy. SP knows this (and has, elsewhere, exhibited his skill at exposing it).