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BOOK REVIEW: Stephen Pinker’s ‘Rationality’. Objective truths and strawmen

Steven Pinker is a professor of Psychology at Harvard but is perhaps best known for his attacks on religious belief. He is part of a small self-styled intellectual elite who call themselves ‘the Brights’.  Best known among them are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. It is hardly surprising that Pinker’s sense of intellectual superiority leads him to write with disdain, though also a notable defensiveness, about ideas that challenge his own.

His latest book, Rationality, published in 2021, picks up on the theme of his 2018 book, Enlightenment Now. He revisits his thesis that human rationality and invention continues to improve our lives in multiple ways, making our world safer, healthier, more comfortable, more prosperous and, most importantly, in his thinking, more enlightened. Despite anomalous regressive interludes such as ‘the shocking outcome’ of the 2016 US presidential election, humanity continues its advance along the path of progress, sanity and rationality. One wonders how he is dealing with the currently barbaric Ukrainian invasion in the light of his theory.

A very meaningful dimension of progress for Pinker is casting aside the superstitions, the irrational fears, beliefs and cults of previous ages which for him includes all religious belief.  Pinker believes in ‘objective truth’ and in humanity’s power to approach it in all areas of thought as our civilization advances. Like all scientists, he finds the natural world is governed by laws. There is for him, as an atheist, no question of a lawmaker behind those laws.

For him, complex, mutually supporting systems form themselves through the serendipity of the evolutionary process. He never engages with serious, reasoned arguments from faith but dismisses them peremptorily using the strawman tactic he denounces as one of the tools of misinformation throughout his book. The strawman is a rhetorical ruse that recasts your opponent’s position in a way that makes it harder to defend.  For him, science has already answered the claims of  ‘astrology, omens, creationism, the Lough Ness monster together with belief in a personal God’. Continuing the rhetorical conceit of conflation and misrepresentation, he claims the world’s ‘ two billion Christians’ hold that ‘everyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as saviour is damned to eternal torments in Hell’. The great interest point in this book is that Pinker doesn’t see how the fallacies and flawed reasoning he models with such compelling clarity don’t apply to his own thinking.

While he defends free speech, open debate and strongly criticises the cancel culture of universities and other institutions, he nevertheless holds that Science can offer demonstrably ‘right’ answers and that ‘our information diet should be regulated’ accordingly. Being ‘right’ confers ‘the right to enforce laws of truth’.  Pinker would give that power to the technocratic state with its reliance on experts whose conclusions only ever pass internal and peer scrutiny, not democratic judgment  Pinker’s narrow, clinical, reductionist and ultimately ideological focus cannot see the parallels between the ruinous totalitarian regimes of history who made the same arguments to replace democracy with an elite technocracy.  Essentially he is saying the masses need to be rescued from their ignorance. Only the Brights, with their internal system of processes for testing truth, can determine what is right and what is best for us all.

It is chilling that dominant, esteemed voices in public discourse like Pinker can still believe there is a kind of master race in our midst, one defined by intellect rather than religion or race, capable of freeing itself from the brain ‘bugs’ that ‘come with being social and emotional animals’. It is not that he claims ‘objective truth’ isn’t available to all in theory but it must fall into line with the fact checked, peer reviewed, road tested claims of the selected experts and the tech state who act as their enforcers.

We can see how this thinking plays out in Pinker’s condemnation of media outlets that questioned the safety and efficacy of covid vaccines.  Of course there was much questionable science and even daft conspiracy theories about the vaccines circulating across social media in particular. Pinker does not address the question of how you sift arguments that will in time be vindicated from those that won’t.  One ‘conspiracy theory’ that Brights like Pinker asked social media to suppress was the claim that the covid virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, not a wet market. The claim has subsequently been supported by leading scientists and is closer to a settled than an open question with WHO, the technocrats whose expertise is so obviously ideologically infiltrated. The reason this claim was so swiftly branded a conspiracy was without doubt because Donald Trump was the first to make it. So much for the theory that those who claim to be guided by ideology free logic and ‘disinterested’ truth are immune to the ‘bugs’ of our common ‘social and emotional’ lives.

Following this example, given that it was in a low vaccinated country, South Africa, where the omicron strain of the virus emerged, is there not a logical argument to be made that this less threatening, though more transmissible, mutation appears, at this point, to have subdued the pandemic and that its evolution might not have been possible in places where there was a universal vaccine mandate ? That is not to say that the vaccine programme did not save lives but surely the scientific mindset that Pinker upholds should be open to scrutiny and review even after the jury is apparently in?

Pinker displays even more of the cognitive biases he forensically analyses in his book when he declares that ‘ the Left is more congenial to science’.  Again using the re-framing, strawman rhetorical technique, he says the arguments against abortion from the right fail beecause they are illogically based on ‘slippery slope’ fearmongering.  Abortion, it  was claimed, leads to infanticide.  Likewise the arguments against same sex marriage fail  because they have not led to calls for ‘inter species’ marriage as forecast. In truth, abortion as practised in many countries is infanticide in all but name. The slippery slope argument from opponents of same sex marriage centered on the normalization of motherless and fatherless families, not the normalization of inter species marriage,a claim which has been vindicated at this stage across the western world. Beyond that, Pinker ‘s native Canada has been the first country to recognise three adults as the legal parents of a child born within their ‘polyamorous family’.

For Pinker, moral questions like scientific and political ones can equally be determined by human rationality. ‘Morality and reason work together’, he says. While that is not untrue, it is not the full truth. it carries a presumptive inference that our reason acting alone, under the sway of its cognitive biases, has the measure of moral questions. Given the Brights’ declared moral stances on a number of moral questions like abortion and eugenics, that is probably the biggest fallacy of all that hides in plain sight in a book that meticulousy deconstructs fallacy afrer fallacy as it compelling demonstrates and deconstructs flawed reasoning and flawed perception across a fasicnating range of subjects.

Pinker sums up the polarised world of opinion in terms that suggest he sees the divide, despite several attempts to be even handed in his political critique, as between right and wrong as much as between right and left.  Left for him means egalitarian, communitarian, cosmopolitan and supportive of individual moralities. Right signifies hierarchical, libertarian, tribal and binding. It should be manifest from history that hierarchies morph into even more centralised and less accountable elites in the declared pursuit of egalitarianism. Under leftist rule, communitarian values like Facebook’s ‘community standards’ are dictated by the elite not the actual communities, some of whom will be ruthlessly suppressed even as others are actively supported. As for the right being more ‘binding’ in its governance, it is hard to imagine anything more determinedly binding than the woke culture of  21st century leftism.

Pinker’s new book runs in the same key as its predecessor using ploys like self serving argument framing, the strawman tactic and conflation. In Enlightenment Now, he couples  ‘prayer and bloodletting’ as examples of quackery despite the obvious fact that rational people pray and it would be hard to find someone irrational enough to practise bloodletting in this day and age. As we have seen, he continues his ploy in ‘Rationality’ by attempting to fuse the idea of religious faith with fables like the Loch Ness monster. He is somewhat sidetracked by the fact that ‘mainstream intellectuals’ as well as ‘bible thumpers’ make the case for faith in the public square. Yet, here again he cites a biologist called Jerry Coyne whose case for faith is built on evasions rather than arguments. Has Pinker never heard of more formidable defenders of faith like Bishop Robert Barron, Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, Trent Horn and from other times and other faith traditions, the likes of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, William Lane Craig and the late Rabbi Jonathan Sachs? Doubtless he has, but he is not going to lead anyone else their way.

or Pinker, ‘the beliefs and desires’ of human beings, however complex and numinous, are formed within the neural pathways of our brains.There is nothing beyond what can be seen and analysed by the tools those same neural networks provide that enable us to observe our innermost workings. It’s a closed circuit that reflects itself like a two way mirror.  Pinker does not consider the verisimilitude of the human mind, our imagination,our creativity, our capacity for empathy, our curiosity about things that play on the edges of our consciousness and open us to what Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whom Pinker likes to quote, calls ‘thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls’. For people of faith this is the point where the Creator encounters us with the grace of faith. Faith is something endowed, gifted, not achieved by our efforts and rituals which no more than predispose us to its reception. Pinker, interestingly, and somewhat incongruously given his declared atheism, uses the word ‘endowed’ in relation to ‘the elementary faculty of reason’ that characterises our species at the end of his book.

Is this book worth the read ? I would say yes unequivocally.  It offers a coherent exposé of logical and illogical thought processes with the use of models both mathematical and anecdotal.  It deconstructs familiar types of fallacious argument that circulate across both mainstream and social media, as well as political and judicial platforms. It explains very well the psychological factors at play in our way of perceiving and reasoning and how we can self-check our biases.  It is this aspect of the book that  lends authority to what are in essence no more than his own personal opinions and beliefs when he starts to apply his fallacy and information theories to the questions of our day.  Pinker writes in a lively and engaging style.  On the other hand, he has all the  rather irritating low self awareness and smugness of the liberal elite, once he steps outside his models and tables.

The most notable feature of the book is the great irony that he himself is a prime example of the misinformation culture he expertly dissects.



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