Steven Pinker is the hot new thing — but in the name of what?
How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice,
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress’d,
When vengeance listens to the fool’s request.
— Dr. Johnson
It is a strange experience to immerse yourself in the writings of secular rationalists like Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. For unlike the profound atheists of the past — David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Santayana — they have a dangerously naïve faith in the power of human reason. The impression they give is that life would certainly be a lot better for everyone if only we all spent a sufficient amount of time reading books in the library. Progress follows from rationality quite niftily. If your car breaks down, there’s a mechanic who can fix it, and so too, if only men and women would follow the way of reason and our Enlightenment heritage, we could count on amelioration like death and taxes.
Thus, like a blind man who can face the sun yet feel no pain, the indefatigably optimistic Steven Pinker calls for enlightenment now. Long a “leading public intellectual,” he has become the envy of American televangelists, for he is quite successful, this psychology professor who always has good news for sale. He provides a formula — “entro, evo, info” — which he thinks “define[s] the narrative of human progress, the tragedy we were born into, and our means of eking out a better existence.” “For him,” writes John Gray in his trenchant review of Pinker’s latest book, “science is more than a bunch of methods that are useful in conjecturing how the world works: it provides the basis of ethics and politics.”
The second law of thermodynamics doesn’t simply identify a universal regularity in the natural world, “it defines the fate of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.”
… “Entro” denotes entropy, the process of increasing disorder that is identified in the second law of thermodynamics. “Evo” refers to the evolution of living organisms, which absorb energy and thereby resist entropy. “Info” is information, which when collected and processed in the nervous systems of these organisms enables them to wage their war against entropy.
“Refuges of beneficial order.” This is the key phrase, for Pinker wants everyone to believe that reason and science (“info”), by enabling us “to fight back the tide of entropy” (“entro”), afford unceasing progress (“evo”), characterized in our era by capitalism, liberal democracy, and humanism: a Dostoevskian crystal palace if ever there was one. Thus in book after book Pinker argues that human life is getting better in all aspects. That civilizations are organic, rising and falling in endless cycles of progression and regression — Pinker has little appreciation for this, just as he shows little awareness of the value, unprecedented in history, that Christianity assigned to the individual. For a scholar, Pinker appears to be rather ignorant of how much his beloved humanism owes to Christian thought and practice, even though, like liberal democracy and capitalism, of which he also makes a great deal, the tree of humanism would be unthinkable without its Christian soil. It as if for Pinker humanism did not even exist before the eighteenth century.
As if a caricature from the pen of Swift or Voltaire, Pinker effectively stands outside of history with his absolutist judgments, relying on bad scholarship to work up a perpetually sunny rationalist fairy tale. Critical of intellectuals who treat the Enlightenment “with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt,” he does not realize that all this was present in the Enlightenment itself from the beginning. His interpretation of the period is essentially English — indeed Philistine — overlooking the irrationalist or counter-Enlightenment thought (Vico, Hamann, Herder, Burke, Rousseau, Hume, de Maistre, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Chateaubriand, Comte, and scores of others) as well as the strong illiberal element the movement contained from the beginning. Having made the Enlightenment path seem as reliably rosy as the endings of Lifetime movies, the bluestocking’s philosopher faces an obstacle in the form of “the megadeath movements of the 20th century.” And so, to preserve his gospel he turns to Nietzsche. It was he, according to Pinker, who
helped to inspire the romantic militarism that led to the First World War and the fascism that led to the Second. The connections between Nietzsche’s ideas and the megadeath movements of the 20th century are obvious enough; a glorification of violence and power, an eagerness to raze the institutions of liberal democracy, a contempt for most of humanity, and a stone-hearted indifference to human life.
Because he has an inaccurate conception of the Enlightenment, Pinker is able keep up his optimistic agenda by attributing “the megadeath movements” to a corruption of or departure from the character of the Enlightenment, which, on his delusional reading, was wholly the work of good guys like himself. For Pinker, the representative figure as regards the Enlightenment gone bad is Nietzsche. This cheap trick allows him to ignore a number of possible objections to his unstoppably Whiggish view of history: for example, that mass murder long preceded the Enlightenment, that reason has always been put to violent and destructive ends, that “a stone-hearted indifference to human life” is nothing new under the sun. None of this poses a problem for the Panglossian project. Like the dogmatic Freudians of old with their Oedipus complex, Pinker interprets phenomena in a conveniently selective fashion, an activity that involves a dubious use of statistics, akin to Freud’s own dishonest case histories.
“Intellectuals hate progress,” Pinker tells us. “A loathing of industry has been a sacred value of… literary intellectuals,” he goes on with dismay. Here we see more of his usual shallowness. It does not occur to Pinker that men like Coleridge and Carlyle, Newman and Arnold, Santayana, Eliot and Kirk comprehended a lot more by the idea of progress than material gain, longer life spans, and declines in violence. For these were spiritual men; they were men of the highest culture; their acute eyes and lofty sensibility, could they see our country today, would behold broken families and rising illegitimacy, rampant violence and drug addiction, rising depression and suicide rates (including among the young), men dropping out of the workforce, distrust and enmity between the sexes, perverse gender confusion, massive debt and an unsustainable welfare culture, a loss of civility and basic decency, a loss of historical memory, a lack of high culture, an abandonment of noblesse oblige, profound cynicism about politics and politicians: and, by way of compensating for all this, the aggressive resentment of a politically correct intellectual class that, though worse than useless, nevertheless sets itself up as an authority over the rest of us. With his mad belief that everything is getting better and better in spite of all this, Pinker strikes one as, in the words from Baudelaire’s Journaux Intimes, “one of those happy hides so thick that poison itself could not penetrate him.”
What is more, like the greatest philosophers, serious literary intellectuals (not to be confused with those persons typically found in academia’s English departments, who are so many marketers for Resentment Inc.) know that, far from being ruled by some eminently rational thing called reason, men and women are fundamentally creatures of pride and ambition, prejudice, hope and fear, love and pity, sacrifice, envy, and betrayal. The world, as they conceive of it, is like that represented in Shakespeare’s plays, wherein the sum total of human motivation is of an intricacy that refuses to be cut down to size by any academic’s ambitious dwarfism. Ironically naive about what drives human beings, the Harvard professor suggests the justice of Franz Kafka’s motto: “No more psychology!”
Pinker is forever seeking to make a great name for himself, and a lucrative living, by appealing to popular liberal prejudices. In the course of doing this, he reveals that he himself is not indeed an exemplar of rationality, let alone of intellectual honesty and responsibility. Hence, although learned in linguistics, he claims in his book The Language Instinct that language “is a complex, specialized skill, which… is qualitatively the same in every individual” (italics mine). Quoting the anthropologist Edward Sapir, he writes: “When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.” This would have been news, doubtless, to the author of The Republic and to the sage whose wisdom is gathered in The Analects. Here, of course, Pinker is a good liberal democrat. Not for him the view that any linguistic form is better than another. Is that not rather frighteningly reminiscent of the illiberal view that, in a certain sense, one person is better than another? Why, what would the campus Diversity Officer think! Come now, Madame Defarge; that good fellow Mr. Pinker, as fair-minded as Sampson was strong with his long curly locks — why no, he’d never! About Pinker’s happy leveling absurdist cant Theodore Dalrymple remarks: “I should like to see him try to translate a sentence from his book that I have taken at random, ‘The point that the argument misses is that although natural selection involves incremental steps that enhance functioning, the enhancements do not have to be an existing module,’ into the language of the Glasgow or Detroit slums.”
In 2005, during a debate at Harvard on gender and science, with Lawrence Summers’ controversial remarks about women in science very much in the air, Pinker demonstrated his characteristic disingenuousness, ignobly taking care to appease the touchy and resentful crowd via a doctrinaire reduction of nearly all human history to so much patriarchal oppression, lest, like Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann, he should be deemed an enemy of the people. It can’t be that man simply found himself in a harsh world in which his superior physical strength was an immense advantage. It can’t be that for most of history a severe division of labor was essential between the sexes. Nor was there any mention of the real purpose of patriarchy: providing for and protecting women and children in a time that was in a myriad of ways far more limited than our own. Well, at least Pinker was prudent. After all, those aggressive, broad-shouldered feminists have been known to body slam many a hysterically logical speaker.
Life is hard, man is unhappy, and so, like lies, facile optimism never goes out of fashion. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker’s primary selling point, the source, as it were, of his deluded and deluding gospel, lies in his notion of rationality, which he thinks a sure source of moral progress. And yet, there is no reason to equate reason itself with moral progress. By itself, reason is value neutral, and has no intrinsic connection to “Enlightenment liberal values,” because though related, reason and character are different things. There was a good deal of reason involved in World War Two, which saw more than 50 million casualties. So is there reason at my local charity. But the values present in these contexts, although realized by dint of reason, have no necessary relation to it. The philosophers listed in the first paragraph of this essay were all conservative in their different ways. Their politics had little in common with those of Pinker, Dawkins, Harris, and other simplistic liberal rationalists. Nor is there any intrinsic reason, with respect to the nature of reason, why they must have. As Hume put it in his immortal apothegm, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” There are passions (and principles, and values, and so on) that, in the order of human value, are prior to and supersede reason, because they are inherited from without: they come from the particular culture into which we are born, and while we use reason to justify them, their value, it is vital to understand, is independent of justification. Says William James,
our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.
For we are essentially passionate animals. The loss of a loved one, like the prospect of our own demise, would not matter to us if life did not already have an inherently affective value, which we feel long before we can have any idea of death. By virtue of the kind of beings we are, value is innate, to be called forth in time, like children and lovers, wrinkles and gray hair. Our most significant value judgments correspond to feelings which reflect our natural endowment, as it is shaped by our time and place in history. We may, if we wish, use reason to justify them, but we need not, and quite often will not: being what we are, they are (in effect) already justified, for they lie in persons themselves. And while the feelings that correspond to these deepest values may be universal in nature, the rational ideas (values) they give rise to vary a great deal among persons and their cultures, as may be learned, for example, from the folly of endeavoring to export democracy to the Middle East. Furthermore, such ideas have no intrinsic connection to any political regime whatsoever. Nor is there some Pinkerian realm in which reason and liberal democracy, capitalism, progress, and humanism hang together in some necessary sense.
Pinker’s exceedingly rational approach to human nature prompts this question: Why, then, are our affairs so difficult, so messy, so intractable? If, though, you understand that men and women are fundamentally creatures of passion, rather than rational machines à la Pinker & Co., then such political problems as the failure to deal with illegal immigration and the failure to maintain social order are no mysteries. For you know then that ideas, although conveyed in the form of arguments, have an affective or irrational power over people, whether they are correct or not. It is not “racist” or “xenophobic” for a nation to give primacy to the interests of its own citizens, just as it is not necessarily “racist” for a school to suspend more black students than white students. But since the belief in “a borderless world” has an affective or irrational value, like the belief that there should be “equal discipline” (read: equality of outcome irrespective of individual behavior) with respect to the races in schools, it turns out to be quite difficult for Pinker’s much-vaunted rationalism to provide an effective solution to these problems. It is well to know, moreover, that an objective notion of truth, like disinterested contextual inquiry, is of little interest to most people (including intellectuals); what matters most to them is what they can do with “the truth.”
For reason is a kind of tool, and its being inherently value neutral has serious implications which Pinker does not recognize. The most important of these implications is that reason is no substitute for the moral virtues that every nation requires. These virtues may have varied throughout history, but that there must be some common moral substratum is unquestionable. In Federalist 55, a greater psychologist than Pinker, a man named James Madison, wrote:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government [with its exceptional liberty] presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.
For Madison, if there is not “sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” Averse to religion, Pinker would replace it with reason, which he thinks a sufficient guide to human conduct: as if reason itself comprehended any ideas of moral value, or as if reason were a reliable means for those who begin with different premises and goals to arrive at agreement or compromise.
It is illuminating to compare Pinker to his dreaded Nietzsche. Although he despised Christianity, Nietzsche believed its loss was a terrible thing. Like David Hume and Arthur Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s chief philosophical predecessor, he knew well that, as I have noted, we are essentially passionate animals. (That is why poetry and rhetoric and religion are much more affecting and motivating — and therefore much more effective as regards many things — than mere reason.) Without the Christian system to both shape and constrain man’s aggressive instincts, the future would abound with violent misery and horror, men “destroying and devouring one another” in ways they had never done before. The savage World Wars and communist butcheries of the last century, one feels certain, vindicated Nietzsche’s prediction.
Driven and defined by absence, by the burden of meeting our needs and desires again and again, and having to cope with untold problems, many of them unexpected, we need certain common moral customs in order to live well, and that requires being intolerant of much of what is contrary to them. In this way we can pursue shared ends with likeminded moral agents, like a sports team that practices together each season in order to excel. Otherwise we shall be inadequate, like players who should suddenly throw out half the rules of the game, welcome others who have never even played it onto the field, and then say, in collective madness and folly: “Just what are we doing here? Won’t you pass the ball? What, it’s gone? Ah, silly fellow, you should have listened to me all along!”
Today the lack of a shared moral foundation means that politics must be determined by either reason or force. We sensibly resist the latter, preferring to try to settle disagreements by means of the law and our own opinions. But given the various irreconcilable starting points and incompatible values and interests, agreement itself has become increasingly elusive. For where we once had a common framework based on Christianity, today we view our ends in terms of individual rights. Yet rights, too, are no replacement for shared morality. If put to such a purpose, they can only drive us further apart. In her essay “Human Personality,” which was originally published under the title “The Fallacy of Human Rights,” Simone Weil observes:
If you say to someone who has ears to hear: ‘What you are doing to me is not just’, you touch and waken at its source the spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like ‘I have the right…’ or ‘you have no right to…’ They invoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention. To place the notion of rights at the centre of social conflicts is to inhibit any possible impulse of charity of both sides.
Weil helps us to understand why it is that there is more and more a failure of will both in regard to exercising the law (as in the illegal immigration issue) and to compromising with others (the common plight of married couples). Each is frequently subordinated to individual autonomy, which, owing to the selfish “rights” perspective, has become the essence, as it were, of liberty.
For Steven Pinker, the way of progress lies in the Enlightenment’s “non-negotiable” allegiance to reason. And yet, we naturally use rational methods (argument, debate) to realize interests and to deal with problems which we value in an irrational manner, since, again, our deepest values are ultimately prior to rationality and independent of rational justification. It is because of the very nature of our deepest valuing that our conflicts must often be unsolvable (save, alas, by force), for men and women are by no means disposed to yield to or compromise with others on what they believe is most important in life or when life itself is at stake.
Intellectuals spend their days pondering and constructing arguments, in contexts in which very little is usually at stake, and having an overestimation of their own reasonableness, they tend to overestimate the effectualness of reason in practical affairs. No longer united by a common religious heritage, we now find that emotivist identity politics, with its endless resentments and divisions, is emerging as the new “morality” of the post-metaphysical West. We are thus confronted with a reality in which reason seems fated to be the vehicle for endless incoherence, and worse still, for endless power struggles, conflicts, and wars. We need to try to figure a way out of this impasse. Unflinching perception is needed. Manly resolve, too. Come what may, we should not let Pinker’s rationalist fairy tale divert us from recognizing the truth of our condition. However appealing, blindness aids nothing and only makes matters worse.
Christopher DeGroot — essayist, poet, aphorist, and satirist — is a writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His writing appears regularly in New English Review, where he is a contributing editor, and occasionally in The Iconoclast, its daily blog. You can follow him at @CEGrotius.