Pinker's book is like an interminable series of liberal op-eds: its tone is knowing, didactic and 'expert', but its content is shallow, contradictory and fraudulent; it tells us nothing useful, and happens also to be extremely dangerous. Or a liberal dinner party where nobody shuts up for 8 hours. There is an awful flattening, a total disregard for historicity or thickness in culture.
Pinker has 'read' so much material - the book is a magpie's nest of references to writers of science and culture - but really seems to have 'understood' remarkably little. I don't mean this as a catty put-down. I am genuinely struck by the lack of insight, given the evident intellectual capacity and range of reading.
Pinker commits the fundamental error of many 'scientists' as soon as they engage with ethical questions, in that he rushes straight to Utilitarianism, and sees the whole ethical question of the individual, state and society as an arithmetic sum of happiness, or absence of suffering. With this one move, the framework for the whole book is cast. Utilitarianism, for all its denials, reduces morality to algorithmic calculations and prostration before the 'rationality' which adjudicates their inputs. I saw via Twitter a page linked to by Geoffrey Miller which voluminously 'defends' Utilitarianism, each paragraph adding a clunky epicycle to try to wrench the system to conform with our moral intuitions, a ridiculous Kantian masked ball.
Pinker includes some not-very-interesting examples of Utilitarianism going 'awry' in order to knock them down. But here is a very simple one, which illustrates just how haywire the utilitarian calculus can get. Human DNA, evolved through millions of years, is the most precious thing we have. A fundamental aspect of its selective adaptation has been high infant mortality, and from a 'rational' perspective, one thing we should not do is mess with the selective mechanism. We may say that with modern medicine we can deal with any unforeseen consequences of virtually eliminating infant mortality, but what if we couldn't? From a species point of view, to reduce quantities of grief suffered by the phenotypes of a particular, small epoch in human history, it is totally irrational and crazily irresponsible to interfere with the adaptive process in this way. Of course, Pinker will object that utilitarianism 'obviously' needs to prioritise phenotypes alive now, but, seriously, where does this come from? Ah yes, 'inviolability of the individual human being' was in his back pocket all the time. Who put it there? Christian moral heritage would be a good bet.
If Pinker had managed to get his head inside what existentialists actually wrote about, if he had tried to understand a perspective that puts the experience of 'being' before language, before 'reason', he would understand how absurd his 'rationalism' and 'scientism' is. Existentialists have the concept of the 'augenblick', the 'blinking of an eye', which is the moment in which a human being catches a glimpse of existential truth. And, like glancing at the sun, it is not a look that can be sustained. It is unbearable to focus on it. The gaze jumps back to the everyday. We all know that the child dying of hunger outside our front door is no different from one in a far-away continent, and we know that we cannot not help the one on our doorstep, and that it makes no sense not to help the other equally. But our moral sense is immanent to our being, it has its own dynamics of affect and evasion. A couple who abort a foetus are making an intervention as close as it is possible to come to murdering their child, for their lifestyle convenience. I am not making a judgement about abortion here. But this is almost the most serious moral intervention anyone can make, and many people decide to do it, again for their convenience. Why on earth would they not evade other moral compunctions less close to them? Evasion of the tyrannical aspect of 'rational' extrapolations of our moral choices is fundamental to what a human being is. Which is why Pinker's trite and offensive dismissals of religion are so absurd. Christianity formulated a narrative whereby an individual could attempt to be more or less good within the parameters of the life they found themselves in, passing over to the divine the obligation of 'understanding' and taking responsibility for the world. This is the reason for its success, it addressed something very real, profound and irreconcilable, about human existence, and Nietzsche, who Pinker so laughably tries to dismiss, saw clearly the tragedy befalling the West as this transcendent understanding lost it's epistemic anchoring.
To close the loop here, Pinker and the utilitarians give great weight to 'individual liberty' in their 'rational calculus'. If in our strongest hearts we would do the nearest thing as murder our children for our 'convenience', what could any 'rational moral order' look like that still gave space for our freedom of action? And we see, suddenly, clearly, as we always knew, that 'individual liberty' will not last long once some serious people get control of the utilitarian calculating machine.
Pinker, in his irredeemable scientism, thinks of moral intuitions as just primitive tribal instincts, 'not suited' to the age of modern universalism. Our moral sense is a complex, learned understanding, and one knows, and respects, good moral judgement when one sees it. Powerful instinctive drives are part of this, but fundamentally it is something negotiated through interaction with things we care about and with other people in the world we find ourselves in. But it is in no way reducible to a 'rational' explanation, no more than any learned skill is. Our moral sense is profound, inscrutable, and, yes, really, sacral. 'Reasoning' plays a part in forming judgement, but the complexity and irreconcilability of the issues at stake offers no route to our rationality to unpick it. But Pinker mocks us, "we need norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits".
'Equal rights and equal treatment', rather than being as Pinker would have it the 'rational' summit and end point of all values, is a siren song that has, for understandable reasons, played throughout history within in-groups. It has had its moments of success (the Roman Republic, Magna Carta) and defeat (Imperial Rome, Divine Right) which stem from the inherent instability generated by egalitarian claims. Powerful in-groups have expanded and contracted their scope of inclusion as the times demand or allow, often with striking cultural consequences. Much of the egalitarian and inclusive rhetoric of the American Declaration of Independence stemmed from the need of elite colonists to mobilise an otherwise uncommitted or conservative agrarian working class.
Their is nothing inevitable, or uni-directional, about this, as the example of ancient Rome shows. In 1936 the Spanish Republic collapsed into civil war and fascism, echoed by toppling of democracies throughout the Latin world as the century progressed. This was not a result of backsliding, a primitive fascination with authoritarianism, as Pinker would characterise it, but because the dynamics of egalitarian politics do not stop just when someone like Pinker wants them too. It is just comic to read him fulminate against BLM and other identity-driven activists as deludedly believing in an "absence of progress". The train does not stop when you decide Steven, unfortunately.
Just spend some time listening to left wing activists in the US or the UK. There is no sense there that things are 'pretty much ok' - they are caught up in a rhetoric of almost revolutionary change, quite ready to expropriate plenty of the property of elite interests. Don't expect it to be pretty or 'rational' if they get their head. Pinker's naive, deluded optimism about political struggle over rights and interests is extraordinary.
Contrary to Pinker's a-historicity, it is essential to keep in view the actual historical path taken by societies as they 'expand the circle of sympathy'. World wars that involve conscription and devastation are precisely the 'levelling events' that Pinker cites from Walter Scheidel, as the necessary precursors for the welfare states of western Europe/CanAusNZ. There may be no other path. Travel to Brasil. It is quite possible that the kind of social provision taken for granted in Europe may never materialise there. (And it is only technological optimism that gives any hope of it at all). Forging an alternative, revolutionary path, we now know, so erodes the social and cultural capital of the society, so transforms the honey of trust into the gall of resentment, that whatever emerges, if that is the path taken, will certainly not be a Pinkerian liberal nirvana.
'Personal liberty' also calls like a siren song to every human ego, but there is nothing 'rational' in its manifestation.
The sexual revolution, we must remember, was achieved through a remarkable concomitance of circumstances, and it is not obvious that it would have occurred in their absence: the contraceptive pill, antibiotics, the mass youth-moving-away-from-home of conscription then universities, elites un-nerved by wars, threats of communism, the emergence of popular culture. And the first beneficiaries were straight white males. In asserting their rights to sexual freedom, enough of them lined up with the counter-culture (motivated also, let's not forget, by a desire not to be conscripted) and smashed the edifice of 'traditional values' and opened a doorway for generalised freedom of sexual expression.
One could argue that with technology, the social atomisation of the modern economy and the growth of mass media, this development might have happened anyway sooner or later, but it is not obvious, and there are societies that retained their traditional values late into modernity, until they were bowled over, relatively recently, by overwhelming American cultural production.
And again, contrary to Pinker's fatuous know-all rendition, limitations on sexual expression stem from social efforts to limit pregnancy to stable family units, in the face of the strongest of licentious urges. These 'oppressive' mores were a herculean social effort to secure stability, flourishing and meaning against sexual urges of Dionysian strength. Contraceptive technology may have made these mores somewhat redundant, but to mock them the way Pinker does is as disrespectful to the efforts of those that delivered us this culture as it is childishly stupid.
Pinker comes across as a mouse sat on top of the elephant of science, frantically waving a flag that says 'Forward!'. Science will not be stopping for anybody, any time soon Steven, so calm down. And to say that is to see also the Dr Strangelove act that Pinker also embodies. There is no, and there will be no, 'rational' voice anywhere with power to make science 'stop', should we ever decide that was the best thing. Whatever anyone may think, there is no choice about it, it will go on.
We may get some choices, to do less of this or more of that, and it is quite startling to read Pinker avowing scientific maximalism. He wants more nuclear power, more GM crops, planes in the stratosphere to lower CO2. His motto is that 'science will be the answer for all the problems caused by science', and I wonder if he has problems controlling his right arm when he utters it in the war room.
And while none of us (non DNA-Utilitarians at least) can regret the palliative and empowering blessings of science and technology, a thing which is extraordinarily striking when one reads journals or literature from pre-technological times, is how they are not suffused with the misery and trauma which one would expect based on the 'suffering calculus' which Pinker spins out in charts on nearly every page. The works of Shakespeare are a good place to see this, but perhaps the starkest example of all is the diary of Samuel Pepys. He witnessed first hand the civil war, the plague and the Great Fire of London, the Dutch burning of the fleet on the Medway, any one of them a huge calamity, and yet his diary is suffused with quotidian thoughts and pleasures. A steeliness, even a transcendence, in the face of grief and loss has been elemental for human beings throughout our existence. 'Enlightenment thinking' likes to cast us as much more feeble than we are, precisely so as to big up the palliative achievements of science and to soften up our assent for the next reckless intellectual 'great leap forward'.
Speaking of Shakespeare, it is worth picking up another passage of Pinker's book, where he seems gleefully to quote the sociologist Robert Scott that in the Middle Ages "the belief that an external force controlled daily life contributed to a kind of collective paranoia", and characterises people as submerged in ignorance and superstition. Shakespeare is pre-modern in Pinker's terms, and yet does he come across as craven, ignorant, hunched over with lack of understanding? Quite the contrary, we can read him today as exceptionally insightful across many aspects of 'understanding' the world. The breathtaking condescension and arrogance of Pinker's 'scientism' is that ever better materialist insights will lead us to a better understanding of the important things in the world, when in fact the evidence suggests quite the opposite, and that obsession with materialist progress, and the shiny things it has produced, blinds us to many things that pre-moderns understood better than us.
Pinker's awful flattening and absurdly naive optimism, is, unfortunately, not merely ridiculous, but also peculiarly dangerous.
Perhaps the easiest way to visualise the absurdity, and danger, of Pinker's book is to realise that it is a backwards looking litany of the successes of science and modernity, that fails to mention, or just dismissively brushes aside, all the failures, disasters and blind alleys that were suffered as part of the process of earning these successes.
Pinker's danger is his persistent, aggressive optimism: "the theory that all evils are due to insufficient knowledge...each particular evil is a problem that can be solved." The simple, and fundamental argument against this 'Enlightenment thinking' is to invert the implied engineering metaphor to a biological or evolutionary one. Instead of being proud of our 'progress', as though it is some great tower we are building, we need to be in awe of its evolution. And evolution always comes at great cost. The terrible prices we have paid for modernity, its wars and political turmoils, the evisceration of cultures and habitats, is not a price now paid - it is a price we will continue paying, at who knows what tariff. It is upsetting, and frightening, to see Pinker talk of the optimism of Kant, writing in 1784, when Pinker knows full well what was to follow. How can he at all have optimism now that similar calamities might not unfold? Yes, human society will probably survive them, and go on with its technological progress, but to be confident for one minute that there might not be hideous dislocations on the way just seems preposterous.
What are the interventions that Pinker will not sanction? What confidence can we have against his recklessness? He nods at this criticism at one point, and talks of the need to 'respect' human institutions, and to merely seek 'rational' improvements to them. The perniciousness lies in the purported reasonableness. Institutions that have developed organically out of complex histories, that balance many competing forces and needs, that sit within particular cultures, cannot easily or confidently be 'rationally' improved. We can theorise adaptations, try them out, see what the consequences are. One thing we can be sure of though, is that if we decide to test them against a certain 'rational' value system of universal morality, which did not inform their organic past, they will fail to pass most tests, and it won't be long before the rationalists tire of their 'respect'.
To believe that the 'in-group' can be expanded ever outwards is untested, and seems on the face of it crazily impractical. We can understand the motivation, the appeal of the siren song, the blind, idealistic ecumenicism that is at the heart of the Christian gospel. But to say it is 'rational', outside the musings of Kant, is absurd, and certainly it cannot be said to be prudent. Western European nation states have carved a certain kind of social ecumenicism, through their own collective sonderweg. To boldly extrapolate this further without a levelling event to usher it in, seems a fantastical and dangerous project. As the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk was recently quoted as saying in the New Yorker: "There’s this family metaphor spreading everywhere: the idea that all of humanity is our family. That idea helped destroy the Roman Empire. Now we’re in danger of letting that metaphor get out of control all over again."
Pinker needs to have a day-long conversation with Jordan Peterson, then go away alone on a two-week retreat, come back and write a recantation.
Please use Twitter thread for any comments