Posts Tagged ‘Reason’

Steven Pinker: rational optimist

May 6, 2019

Steven Pinker is one of my intellectual heroes. Probably the closest to my own thinking. His new book is among the finest I’ve ever read.

In 2012 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedSome thought this premise was nuts. Now he’s doubled down with Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Those four are indeed touchstones of the Enlightenment, a revolution in human thought beginning in the 1700s, immensely improving our quality of life. You might think this needs no defense. But howling fools today dance around bonfires of Enlightenment ideals. And as Pinker points out, intellectuals often actually hate the idea of progress (especially those calling themselves “progressive”). He explains how his optimistic message rankles both ends of the political spectrum.*

Some lefties say the Enlightenment gave us slavery, colonialism, imperialism, eugenics, and so forth; its misguided hyper-rationalism led straight to Auschwitz. Pinker says this has it backwards. All sorts of modes for exploitation and repression long predated the Enlightenment; its humanism led us to overcome them. Nazism was the antithesis of Enlightenment values.

There’s also cultural pessimism, “our sick society” a favorite phrase; a rat race of “consumerism” (which, Pinker trenchantly says, “often means consumption by the other guy”).

Meantime, the right sees the Enlightenment as vaunting individualism, unmooring people from past certainties, time-tested values, and close-knit communities. The result is supposedly a fragmented, dissolute culture, with epidemics of anomie, depression, and suicide. We were better off with reverence for thrones and altars.

But Pinker counters all this by documenting increased well-being and happiness levels for the great mass of humanity. He has no time for Nietzschean philosophy extolling the “great man” who stomps on peons. The Enlightenment also puts individuals above the tribe, race, nation, or faith; it’s average ordinary people (after all, that’s most of us) whose flourishing should be the focus. That’s humanism.

Militating against optimism and perceptions of progress are some human cognitive biases. A pessimistic cynic might seem more morally serious than a naive “Pollyanna” wearing “rose colored glasses.”

In fact, evolution hard-wired us to look on the dark side, attuned to threats. If that might be a lion lurking, best assume the worst and run. The optimist could get eaten (and wouldn’t pass on his genes). Modern life plays to this, inundating us with bad news — which tends to be more newsworthy than good news. A plane crash makes headlines; 100,000 daily safe landings are ignored. The news is full of crime too. And another cognitive bias is the “availability heuristic” — something seems prevalent if examples readily come to mind. So most people always believe crime is increasing, when in fact it’s dramatically fallen over decades. Similarly, pessimism’s putative moral seriousness makes them always say world poverty is rising. Again, it’s actually been plunging.

Enlightenment Now clobbers the reader with facts about these and other positive trends. I tried in my own book, The Case for Rational OptimismPinker’s is better. He does, in it, call mine “beautifully written” (thank you), and I’ll return the compliment. Pinker takes the writing craft seriously, working to make his points as cogently as possible, a pleasure to read. Enhanced by a droll wit. (He quotes Dorothy Parker, supposedly challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”)

The book is chock full of thought-provoking insightful analyses and good sense. But here’s the big picture. “The good old days” look good only thanks to amnesia. I’ve mentioned falling crime; it’s not just recent, but a huge fall over the centuries. In fact every kind of violence, including war, has plummeted. We are much safer, better fed, and healthier than our forbears, hence live much longer. We suffer less pain, work less hard and enjoy more leisure; and earn far more to enjoy it with. Globally, incomes are way up and poverty, as noted, is on the run. There is more democracy, freedom, and human rights, less oppression and discrimination. All these improvements — unsurprisingly — translate into more people feeling more happiness and fulfillment.

But are the benefits going disproportionately to the rich? Pinker calls inequality the left’s “theory of everything.” His clear-eyed perspective on this topic alone is worth the price of the book. Upper incomes have indeed skyrocketed, but it’s a basic fallacy that that’s achieved by picking the pockets of the poor. Steve Jobs got rich by providing products millions are thrilled to buy, improving their lives. An economic environment that doesn’t create such opportunities would keep everyone poor. And globally, the gap between the rich and the rest is actually narrowing, especially inasmuch as most people (including those lowest on America’s income scale) now enjoy amenities of life that used to be the exclusive province of the wealthiest (if available at all; many were not).

But is all our progress ruining the planet? Well, there is an unavoidable trade-off, and no free lunch. We could never have risen from the stone age without exploiting environmental resources. Pinker makes a good case that the benefits are well worth the cost. And it’s proven that we can have economic growth while actually improving the environment; prosperity gives us both the means and the desire. This applies to climate change (though we’re impeded not just by denialists and the fossil fuel industry, but also hostility among greens toward nuclear power and geo-engineering).

Progress does create losers as well as winners, and some resentments (especially ethnic). Pinker acknowledges the threat from anti-Enlightenment populist politics, of both right and left. Too many issues get viewed through a distorting lens of political tribalism. In particular Pinker details how Trump endangers what’s been achieved (quite a list). But he thinks those achievements happened for strong reasons which will not disappear. Indeed, what will disappear is older people hostile to Enlightenment humanism. Rising generations are increasingly on board with it.

So what does make progress happen? Not some mystical force. Rather, it’s using our brains to solve problems. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and science gives us the needed knowledge. Pinker defends the concept of reason. It’s not a matter of “believing” in it; we just use it. Any argument to the contrary defeats itself, because it is an argument — and what is any argument if not an exercise of reason? Of course humans aren’t always rational. But we’re capable of rationality, and its greater use underlies all our advancements.

He also defends science too, against the sneering so unfortunately prevalent among humanities scholars. They condemn so-called “scientism” that holds science should dictate everything, including morality. Nobody believes that. But Pinker insists science does give us the understanding of reality that enables us to approach such issues rationally. In contrast, religion-based moralizing rests on underlying assumptions about reality that are fundamentally false.

One of modernity’s advancements is more widespread education — which creates a virtuous circle. Giving more of us more problem-solving ability. People have literally, on average, grown smarter. Pinker explains what education does: you’re less superstitious, less in thrall to leaders, more understanding of differences among people, and able to resolve conflicts peacefully. Studies confirm, he says, “that educated people really are more enlightened.” Less racist and authoritarian. More imaginative and independent, but more community minded too. And more likely to trust other people — a crucial ingredient in creating the social capital that makes us work together.

This is why education is the main focus of my own philanthropic efforts.**

* I’ve experienced this myself; in one talk to a group of Jewish seniors, I hardly spoke ten words before the cynical brickbats started flying.

** Through the Frank S. Robinson Enlightenment Fund (Steven Pinker, honorary chairman).


The Earth Moves

November 6, 2014

UnknownEarly peoples might be forgiven had they viewed the stars as just a kind of wallpaper, without significance. Yet we always sensed something important out there, and struggled to understand it.

Unknown-2It was not stupid to think the heavens revolved around a stationary Earth. A few early theorizers saying otherwise were considered crackpots, and for sound reasons. If the Earth moved, why wasn’t everything on it jostled? And wouldn’t something thrown straight up fall at a distance? But the killer argument was parallax. If the Earth travelled, the stars should appear at different perspectives at different times. Yet they didn’t! Nobody realized how vastly distant the stars are, making the parallax effect infinitesimal.

While the heavens appeared to revolve in unison, a few stars didn’t follow the program, instead moving in seemingly crazy patterns. They were called “planets” (Greek for “wanderers”). This anomaly really bugged the ancients.

images-1Eventually the Second Century astronomer Ptolemy came up with a model with the stars moving on fixed spheres, but the planets using some complicated extra circles (“epicycles”) to account for their oddball movements. It was actually brilliant. But unfortunately, as astronomical observations got ever better, the scheme had to be continually rejiggered, growing ever more convoluted.



Copernicus thought of trying a radically different construct. If the Earth were a planet, circling the Sun, a lot of the complications went away. But he was reluctant to publish (he first held the book in his hands the day he died in 1543), partly because the calculations still wouldn’t work out. That was because Copernicus still assumed circular orbits.

images-3Then Johann Kepler took up the challenge. Kepler was obsessed by “the harmony of the spheres” — that in God’s perfect Heaven, everything went round in perfect circles. With access to Tyche Brahe’s immense store of accurate astronomical observations, for a decade Kepler bashed away at it, trying to somehow make the circles work. And then something truly amazing happened. Kepler realized he was wrong. He went back to it — and teased out the truth. The planets travel not in circles, but ellipses; their speeds vary with their closeness to the Sun; but for equal time intervals, they sweep out equal areas of their ellipses. (See picture.)

It was beautiful; it finally perfectly explained the movements; and it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck to think that Kepler, despite craving a different  answer, could transcend his own preconceptions and figure it out.

Unknown-1Meanwhile, Galileo’s telescope proved Copernicus right about the Earth circling the Sun. The Church — having in 1600 burned the philosopher Giordano Bruno alive for saying so — browbeat Galileo into publicly denying it. “And yet it moves,” he supposedly grunted under his breath. And the Church was unable to suppress his book, Sidereus Nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”) which persuaded intelligent people who was right.

But we were not done yet. Why did the planets move as Kepler showed? What made them move at all?

Aristotle had theorized that anything moving had to be somehow pushed. But why a thrown object kept moving was a vexing puzzle for two millennia. Eventually, Galileo and Descartes developed the idea of inertia — anything moving keeps on moving unless something stops it (commonly, friction). And that movement would be in a straight line, unless something deflects the path. But why then didn’t the planets fly off in straight lines? What was deflecting them?

images-4It was a 23-year-old Isaac Newton who, in 1666, finally put it all together. What reconciled the theories of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo was yet another new idea — gravity. Of course we’d always known apples fall downward; but had never guessed this force was universal, acting even on planets. Newton worked out that gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with the square of the distance between objects; and, voila, that this explained Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

And so, at last, those little creatures who’d gazed with puzzlement at the cosmic wallpaper punched their way through to understand it. Again my neck hairs stand up.

Unknown-3Of course, even today, we still don’t know everything. Not even, in fact, why gravity does follow Newton’s law. Einstein got us closer, with the idea of mass bending space; you’ve seen the illustrations, with bowling bowls on mattresses. But that seems to me more metaphor than explanation; and physicists continue struggling to integrate gravity with the other fundamental forces to produce a “theory of everything.”

Yet the story I’ve told is the story of humanity growing up: our evolution from a mentality shaped by myth and superstition, steeped in mystery, to one of dispelling mystery by application of reason to observed reality. images-5I’ve read about it in Richard Tarnas’s eloquent book, The Passion of the Western Mind. And he points out that the new modern mindset was not just limited to science. Just as the old cosmology, tethered to religious dogmas, was replaced by a new rationalist view, so too everything in civilization, previously grounded in tradition-bound ideas of divine sanction — absolute monarchical power, aristocratic privilege, arbitrary laws, exploitive economics, etc. — could likewise be supplanted by new and better systems founded upon rationalist concepts of independent human dignity. And so it is coming to pass.

Reason Versus Emotion ?

September 13, 2012

Michael Riley was a British naval radar officer in the First Gulf War. He saw a blip that scared him, headed toward a U.S. battleship. Yet the radar profile seemed to match U.S. fighter planes he’d seen repeatedly. For forty seconds, he tracked it, trying to spot a difference, but couldn’t. He had to decide. “Shoot it down,” he ordered.

Riley was right: it was a missile.

Investigators reviewed the tapes, struggling to figure out Riley’s unexplained intuition. Eventually, they found the subtle clue in the timing of the blip’s first appearance on the radar screen.

Had Riley acted rationally?

I’ve mentioned how my wife twits me for supposedly believing in reason, when humans so often seem irrational. And a whole spate of books has shown, from a scientific standpoint, all the ways in which we make bad, irrational decisions and choices, because of specific quirks in how our minds work. (I recently read one, Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.)

Plato saw reason and emotion as two horses pulling a chariot, with the charioteer struggling to make them work as a team. But while reasoned thought and emotional response are distinct mental modules that even operate in different brain areas, yet they do work together. For a normal person, they are so intertwined that it’s really a single combined process of mental functioning.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people injured in specific brain localities responsible for emotion. They did become calm and emotionless. But not Spocklike paragons of rationality! In fact, their lives fell apart because they couldn’t make the simplest decisions. Because making any decision or choice entails serving some objective. That objective is supplied by emotion; indeed, it supplies the entire framework for everything we do. Remove emotion and we are not left rational, but adrift without meaning. Damasio’s patients didn’t even care that their lives fell apart.

And emotion is not the opposite of reason. It is a different form of it. When you experience the emotion of anger, it isn’t just something that happens to you; it happens for cause, and normally it’s a perfectly logical response to that cause. Emotion is always prompting us to serve and advance our needs and interests. Oh yes, it’s a crude tool, and frequently misfires. But in the big picture, emotions do an excellent job of steering us. Again, look what happened to Damasio’s patients without emotions.

The Riley and Damasio stories are discussed in Lehrer’s book. He also reports an experiment with fascinating implications:

Test subjects were given four decks of cards to pick from. Each card meant either winning or losing money. Two of the decks were overly loaded with losing cards. It took the average player fifty picks to start avoiding those “bad” decks, and eighty before he could say why. But here’s the stunning thing: after only ten picks, the player’s hand already showed signs of nervousness when reaching toward a “bad” deck.

In other words, a deep intuition figured out the game long before the conscious rational mind did. Michael Riley’s story is similar. Something in his brain spotted the signature of a missile, even though his conscious mind could not see it; and indeed, it was very hard even for the subsequent investigation to see it.

But isn’t this Rationality with a capital R? Wasn’t Riley’s unconscious intuitive mind being supremely rational? Wasn’t this true of the card pickers too? Their minds also reached a correct insight long before conscious thought could.*

This should not really surprise us. We evolved in a very challenging, threatening environment, which often required quick life-or-death decisions. We had to make those decisions as good as possible. Often there would not have been time to think them through with conscious rationality. That’s why we evolved the quick intuitive capabilities shown by Riley and the card pickers.

This also accounts for the thinking “defects” discussed in the books I’ve mentioned. A good example: when weighing potential gains and losses, we tend to overweight the risk of loss; a big cause of bad investment decisions. But it’s obvious why our brains are wired this way. For our caveman ancestors, a “negative outcome” might easily have been death, an excellent reason to be much more loss-averse than gain-hungry.

That particular vestige from our past probably does disserve us today, more often than not. But that’s only one of innumerable mental biases, decisional shortcuts which enable us to smoothly navigate through all the choices facing us continually throughout the day. If we had to analytically think our way through every decision, we couldn’t function. So even if some of those shortcuts sometimes work badly, in the ways the books say, as a package they serve us exceptionally well. And for us to utilize this package of intuitional, emotional mental shortcuts is therefore the height of rationality.

You might suppose that we humans are controlled less by instinct compared to other animals. But in fact, we have a far larger repertoire of instincts. That indeed is the depth of sophistication of our big brains; our range of complex behaviors not even requiring us to stop and think.

This doesn’t mean the prefrontal cortex – where conscious rational thinking occurs – is superfluous. To the contrary, it’s a great boon to have both systems, with the rational thinking module also far more developed than in any other creature. This means we are not slaves to our emotions and intuitions, but can take their benefits while also knowing – a lot of the time – when not to. Our best thinking is when we think about our thinking, to consider the reasons behind it, which enables us to revise it. Thusly using both systems together – reasoned thought and intuitive emotion – gives us much better results than would either alone.

All this is why I see humans as rational even when they’re not.

* Such intuitive decision-making is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.