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Many historians, and a lot of people even casually familiar with the horrors of the 20th century, find Pinker’s ethos of human progress a bit eyebrow-raising. But what stands out about Rationality is the outsider confidence that enables Pinker to make this argument at all — his disciplinary drift, you could call it, from the sciences into the humanities. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard and, earlier in his career, did groundbreaking work in cognitive psychology and linguistics. But his recent work roams far beyond these realms, traversing complex historical and philosophical terrain. He freely bucks the conventions of these scholarly fields — inspiring the same cringe among scholars of the Enlightenment that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Wars tweets do among film critics.
Rationality builds on two earlier books in which Pinker makes forceful claims for human progress: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Both have drawn sharp criticism from historians, philosophers, and literary scholars, many of whom take issue with Pinker’s characterization of the Enlightenment as an age of unalloyed reason and science. Just last month saw the publication of an anthology edited by the historian Philip Dwyer, The Darker Angels of Our Nature: Refuting the Pinker Theory of History and Violence. Dwyer sees Pinker as a dilettante, “utterly unaware of the massive historiography” of Enlightenment studies that precedes him. Particularly irksome for historians has been Pinker’s insistence that Enlightenment thought constitutes a coherent philosophy, rather than a diverse and often contradictory set of writings and ideas. From this perspective, Pinker’s work in history and sociology amounts to “entering someone’s house with muddy boots and … arrogantly sticking his feet on the table.”
By Pinker’s account, all three books make up a cohesive argument. If Better Angels and Enlightenment Now explain the “what” of his Whiggish historical thesis, Rationality explains the “how.” For Pinker: “Human progress is an empirical fact … a phenomenon that needs to be explained. The explanation is rationality.” By this logic, historical progress happens because individual people learn to sidestep logical fallacies, wishful thinking, and the allure of mysticism. To his credit, Pinker does not define rationality in essentialist terms but as a set of tools that enable people to achieve their goals. Goal-oriented rationality contributes to building societies where, as he puts it, people are “healthier, richer, longer-lived, better fed, better educated, and safer.”
To the degree that Rationality delves into topics like Bayesian reasoning or decision theory, it offers a useful primer on how our minds work (and where they tend to mislead us). One truly brilliant chapter titled “Logic and Critical Thinking” shows off exactly how Pinker became such an intellectual force in the field of psychology. But the book also wants to make a claim about historical causality, in which rationality itself drives human progress. Here, the argument falls into many of the same oversimplifications that frustrate Dwyer and other critics.
The limits of Pinker’s approach are particularly striking in his discussion of the abolition of American slavery. He notes the inherent logic of the abolitionist cause, and argues that activists like Frederick Douglass appealed to slavers’ good sense to achieve their aims (citing the “rigorous moral argumentation” of Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”). But Pinker has less to say about the episode in which a teenage Douglass, after years of abuse, fought back physically against a sadistic overseer, Edward Covey. Nor does he mention that Douglass’s 20 years of enslavement ended not by way of a rational plea to his oppressors but through a risky flight to the North.
In the final chapter, titled “Why Rationality Matters,” Pinker strolls through history, shoring up his story about human progress by pulling from a variety of primary sources that range from Erasmus to Martin Luther King Jr. Notably absent from this narrative, however, are secondary commentaries from historians. Instead, Pinker’s bibliography leans heavily toward psychology — curious given the historically causal role he assigns to rationality.
Pinker wants the liberal arts to fit inside a STEM-shaped box, and he is happy to resize them with a chainsaw if need be.
The book’s treatment of moral questions offers similarly simplistic answers; it turns out that ethics is easy. “In fact, it is not hard to ground morality in reason,” Pinker proclaims in a short section titled “Morality.” All it takes is that one “prefer good things to happen to ourselves over bad things,” and also realize “that we are social animals who live with other people.” Simple. “Impartiality” is the key, Pinker writes — “the interchangeability of perspectives” one finds in the golden rule, Kant’s categorical imperative, and John Rawls’s theory of justice. However, it does not take much rational thought to see that the interests of self and of other people could come into conflict, that one could very easily be partial to “good things happen[ing] to ourselves” without worrying very much about being a social animal. One is left wondering what rationality actually contributes to the general moral rule that you should treat others as you would yourself.
As a result of this fuzziness, Rationality swings haphazardly between detached instrumentalism (rationality helps us reach our goals) and a simplistic moralism (rationality will make people choose good things). Pinker does not seem to consider very carefully that people’s goals, rationally attained, could be morally bad. As with the passages devoted to history, this short diversion into ethics shows little serious attention to the ways rationality might actually matter.
Rationality offers a primer on the crisis of the humanities itself, elevating the “hard” sciences above the “soft” humanities. Pinker wants the liberal arts to fit inside a STEM-shaped box, and he is happy to resize them with a chainsaw if need be. For Pinker, concepts like narrative and rhetoric wither before objectivity and reason. He emphasizes figures and facts without considering the framing that allows us to interpret them, or the significance of arguments that would challenge them. “Fashionable academic movements like postmodernism and critical theory,” he complains, “hold that reason, truth, and objectivity are social constructions that justify the privilege of dominant groups.” But Pinker does not seriously engage with any of the vast literature on postmodernism and critical theory, apparently assuming that his expertise in psychology and linguistics provides sufficient standing to insert himself into any and every academic conversation.
The difference between Pinker’s and Seth’s approaches to interdisciplinarity seeps into the very structure of their books. Seth begins by providing a short history of philosophy of mind. He discusses dyed-in-the-wool materialists, such as Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, as well a host of philosophers who take up the mind’s more amorphous qualities. He pays special attention to the stickiest wicket of them all where philosophy of mind is concerned, the famous “hard problem of consciousness,” as articulated by David Chalmers — essentially how the experience of mind, or what it is like to be conscious, relates to the physicality of the body. Crucially, Seth leaves the question open. While staying true to his scientific roots and assuming an attitude of “agnostic physicalism,” he does not presume to know more than philosophers who have spent their lives on problems of mind.
It is true that Being You claims to offer a “new science of consciousness,” but from its first chapter, Seth’s argument frames this new-ness against an ongoing history, a story still being told. He also contributes meaningfully to this story, describing consciousness primarily as an awareness of self. Whereas much of current philosophical discourse associates consciousness with qualia or “raw feels,” Seth argues that emotions themselves are a form of self-awareness. He see emotions as reactions to changes in the body — sadness a reaction to tears, fear a reaction to a quickened pulse. Narrative, then, provides Seth both a rhetorical structure for his argument as well as a necessary metaphor for his philosophy of mind, where it illustrates the perceptive illusions the mind tells itself about its surroundings.
Pinker, meanwhile, does not get around to the big human problem he means to take on — why rationality matters — until his last two chapters. He divides human beliefs into two neat categories: the “reality” and the “mythology” mind-sets. The reality mind-set “consists of the physical objects around [us], the other people [we] deal with face to face … and the rules and norms that regulate [our] lives.” Pinker credits people with having “mostly accurate beliefs” within this realm, where they consider truth and falsehood as they apply to physical things and experiences. The mythology mind-set, meanwhile, includes “the world beyond immediate experience: the distant past, the unknowable future, faraway peoples and places, remote corridors of power, the microscopic, the cosmic, the counter-factual, the metaphysical.” Here, irrational social narratives hold sway.
The reason why rationality matters, for Pinker, is that the reality mind-set is not a default setting. Rationality lifts us above the fog of myth into the pure air of the real. “Submitting all of one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence is an unnatural skill,” he writes, “like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated.” Totally apart from the coherence of this argument, its structure is curious: Pinker relegates the “why” of it all to the very end of his book, practically an afterthought.
The myth vs. realty dichotomy is astoundingly simplistic and ultimately false. Whatever Pinker might claim, to treat seriously the stories we tell ourselves is not to indulge in “irrationality,” nor is it to suggest that, like the anti-vaxxer, one should not “believe science.” Public intellectuals like Pinker need to engage deeply with the cultures they address, the academic standards of the fields from which they borrow, and the rhetorical moves of their own narratives. Facts without framing make rationality itself just another poorly told story.