Steven Pinker’s Quest to Save Humanity’s Mind

Pinker uses his own irrational methods to promote the rationality he approves of.
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Richard Hanania is a political scientist and author not nearly as famous as Steven Pinker, whose ambition as a public intellectual has taken him well beyond the banalities of his initial field of study: human cognition and language. Even before the official end of America’s “forever wars,” Pinker wrote a book full of statistics explaining why we now live in a time of exceptional peace and prosperity, for which humanity from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe must be grateful — though not quite as grateful as, say, Americans, Germans or Japanese, who appear to live considerably more comfortably.

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Pinker’s intellectual stardom as a global guru and Panglossian interpreter of human history explains why Hanania has assumed the task of interviewing Pinker, rather than the other way around. Steven Pinker, after all, was already famous enough for the late Jeffrey Epstein to reach out to him to cultivate a friendship. In Pinker’s convoluted defense of his relationship with someone he “could never stand,” he explains how he coincidentally “often ended up at the same place with him.” But, as Bill Gates recently observed of Epstein, “he’s dead, so…” End of story. Time to get back to saving the world.

Hanania makes clear in his introduction to the interview his deep admiration for Pinker, the thinker, whose books changed Hanania’s life for the better. He specifically credits Pinker with making “the authoritative case for human moral progress,” which “shaped how I’ve understood international relations perhaps more than the work of any specialist in the field.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Authoritative case:

An argument made by a famous intellectual who espouses unfounded ideas you happen to agree with

Contextual Note

Pinker knows a lot about theories of reasoning, especially in relation to science and statistics and clearly believes in rationality as a moral concept, something most philosophers avoid. Why then does his reasoning in the interview often veer so far away from rational thought? For example, Pinker defines as his starting point what he considers the fundamental question: “Why does it appear that humanity is losing its mind?” That is an interesting but wildly non-scientific proposition, especially coming from someone who insists on the virtue of always remaining in the realm of pure reasoning,

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Pinker appears to accept the premise that humanity may be losing its mind. He and Hanania immediately cite QAnon and a conspiracy theory about jet contrails as examples that support the thesis. If Pinker had treated the question as both a hyperbole and a provocative joke, his gambit might work. But, defying rationality, he seems to propose it without a trace of irony. 

The point of using hyperbole in a rational discussion is to open the field of inquiry as wide as possible. In the hands of an authentic philosopher in the Socratic tradition, it would lead to an effort to define terms. But Pinker does neither.

The answer he gives to his own rhetorical question narrows rather than widens the field of inquiry. Instead of reflecting on the meaning of a world gone, as the hyperbole suggests, he focuses exclusively on an examination of thought processes and the construction of discourse. Most people would agree that there are plenty of good reasons today to think that humanity has lost its mind. But contrary to Pinker’s belief,  that derailing of civilization has far less to do with the accuracy of humanity’s methods of reasoning than the way humanity’s carefully reasoned institutions act in the world.

For most rational debaters, the question of whether civilization has lost its mind would begin by analyzing the forces at play that have affected humanity’s recent history, not by critiquing the way some people think. These forces may include economic, ideological, environmental, cultural and cross-cultural forces, to name only those. But Pinker is only interested in what he takes to be the logical processes of science. 

Pinker makes another statement that he himself fails to acknowledge is a metaphor. He insists that “all of our beliefs should be put in the reality zone.” He appears to sincerely believe in this metaphorical invention, which he makes no effort to define. Where is this zone? In a person’s mind? In humanity’s supposed mind? Or simply in Pinker’s mind? He fails as well to notice that saying “beliefs should be put” is a moral command that requires at least the definition of terms. Pinker seems to be playing confusedly with metaphysics, rhetoric and ethics without realizing where his wanderings are taking him? For someone so convinced of the reality of zones, could all this chaotic reasoning simply be a feature of Pinker’s private twilight zone?

Pinker contrasts what he calls the symbolic and mythological elements of thinking with the rational. His view seems to be that they are opposed and incompatible. That may help us to understand his belief in zones. This comes out clearly when he claims, for example, that “talking someone out of a religious belief is often difficult because it’s everything that makes their lives meaningful.” The idea of “talking someone out” of a belief is logically no different than talking them into another belief, which is what Pinker often does in his books. Like any religious thinker, he wants people to believe what he believes. At the same time, he doesn’t want them to be religious.

Once a Pinker thesis becomes a belief — as it did for Hanania — it makes that person’s life meaningful. When Hanania says that “The Better Angels of Our Nature” shaped his understanding of “ international relations perhaps more than the work of any specialist in the field,” he is tacitly admitting to having acquired a belief or adhered to a new belief system. The Bayesian logic Pinker cites — with such reverence that it takes on the status of his personal Gospel — focuses on probability, not on truth. It aims at statistical accuracy by the practice of updating hypotheses through the accrual of evidence. It marvelously serves the needs of statistics. But, contrary to Pinker’s belief, it never attempts to isolate an imaginary “reality zone.” 

Pinker begins by distinguishing speculative and abstract reasoning from pragmatic reasoning and separating them into zones. He asserts that “people divide, I think, their beliefs into these two zones. What impinges on you and your everyday life, and what is more symbolic, mythological?” The first he calls reality. This implies that everything else is unreal. He then considers the belief some people have in fictional fantasies and hero stories. He accepts the idea that they offer pleasurable ideas to entertain the mind. But, returning to his role as moralist, he asks, “can you keep it in a zone where you don’t literally believe in it?” He then expresses his hope that “there can be a benign sequestering of certain beliefs into a kind of mythology zone where you, if you’re asked, you say you believe it, but you don’t act as if you really believe it.”

Historical Note

Steven Pinker has a curious, highly selective approach to history, even to his own history. The author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature” might someday be tempted to write a sequel with the title, “The Better Devils of My Acquaintance” explaining in further detail his apparently long-standing but — as he tells it — consciously distant relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, who, according to Pinker, “voted me off the island.”

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Pinker’s “Better Angels” fantasized history as a cumulative advance of enlightenment and political organization leading to what he sees as the increasingly benevolent, peaceful civilization we know today, a global consumer society that has made it possible for everyone to dream of fulfilling all their wishes, even if they have to wait a full lifetime for that glorious day to come. The thesis of the new book might use Pinker’s knowledge of Epstein’s case to reflect on the combined effects of egoistical materialism, financialized capitalism, narcissism, cronyism and corrupt oligarchy within a militarized economy tending toward repressive surveillance, with the result of creating the illusion of an advanced, peaceful civilization.

If Pinker really supposes that humanity has lost its mind, this would be a noble project. Just as he traced what he believes is the decline of violence throughout history, he might mobilize similar statistical evidence and Bayesian reasoning to trace the authoritative history of today’s dystopia as reflected in the career of Jeffrey Epstein.  

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

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