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Steven Pinker, and is Enlightenment enough?

Why a new Age of Reason won't save us

Andrew Potter

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Steven Pinker


Viking 576 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780525427575

“Man is a rational animal—so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.” So goes the characteristically dry opening to Bertrand Russell’s 1943 essay An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish.

He presses the point: “On the contrary, I have seen the world plunging continually further into madness. I have seen great nations, formerly leaders of civilization, led astray by preachers of bombastic nonsense. I have seen cruelty, persecution, and superstition increasing by leaps and bounds, until we have almost reached the point where praise of rationality is held to mark a man as an old fogey regrettably surviving from a bygone age.”

Russell was writing all this at the depths of the Second World War, when the spectre of a world bent under the yoke of Nazism had finally convinced the old pacifist that some wars might actually be worth fighting. Yet instead of issuing a sharp call for a global return to sanity, the philosopher chose to comfort himself with the knowledge that wallowing in ignorance and irrationality is nothing new for the human race. “The follies of our times are easier to bear when they are seen against the background of past follies,” he wrote, follies he spends the rest of the essay documenting at considerable length. He focuses mostly on the endless varieties of religious belief, but ladles plenty of derision as well on superstitions of the common man, incoherent views of racists and sexists, delusions of governments, and mind-numbing platitudes of politics.

There’s lots of rubbish to go around, is the point, and don’t expect that to change. The best each of us can do is follow a few rules to try to avoid falling into unreason, and Russell ends the essay by ticking them off: Try to make observations yourself instead of trusting others; read widely (what today we’d call getting out of your filter bubble); apply the principle of charity to your opponent’s arguments; beware of believing opinions that flatter you; don’t give in to fear.

Melanie Lambrick

Seventy-five years later, Russell’s vision of his world eerily resembles our own, and his advice is rather on point. We live in a time of a backlash against experts and intellectuals and an embrace of charlatans and demagogues, and it has brought forth justifiable lamentations over the death of reason. But there is also a difference, which is that unlike Russell and his contemporaries we don’t quite have the Age of Reason cure to fall back on. The past few decades have seen a wholesale dismantling of the Enlightenment narrative, with reason itself becoming a target of questioning.

The classic Enlightenment narrative goes something like this: For most of human existence, ignorance had the upper hand as we remained mired in one form of barbarism or another. Life may not have been solitary (we’re a highly social species), but almost everywhere it was poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Sometime around the end of the 17th century, science began to fight free of the clerics’ grip. Into politics and morals came the ideals of liberty, tolerance, constitutionalism, the separation of church and state—all premised on the idea that reason was the ultimate source of legitimacy and authority. Along with this came economic growth, the flowering of knowledge and science, the rejection of faith and dogmatism, all powered by the maxim, “Dare to Know!”

But the Enlightenment train went off the rails almost as soon as it pulled out of the station. The French Revolution descended into the Terror, not despite its ideals, but seemingly because of them. And we’ve been inclined to look askance at reason ever since—its virtues limited, its promise unmet. In the latter half of the 20th century, things only got worse for the rational faculty. Shocked by the bureaucratization of mass killing by the Nazis and the escalating alliance between science and arms development that culminated in the atomic bomb, the self-described progressive left went all-in on irrationalism. The counterculture embraced all forms of flakiness from points east and west, while academics rejected positivism in favour of the obscurantism of what is known as “continental thought.” Far from helping light the way out of the darkness of barbarism, reason came to be seen as just another way of exercising power, with logic nothing more than a disguised form of oppression.

Today the rejection of reason is found predominantly on the right. From Ronald Reagan’s cheery fabulism (his routine confusion of things that had really happened with roles he had played in films) to the George W. Bush-era derision directed at the “reality-based community” to the post-truth/fake-news mantra of Trumpism, the mark of modern conservatism is that belief in truth, facts, and evidence is for commies. In short, in an age of unprecedented access to knowledge we are besieged on all fronts by maelstroms of irrationality.

But, after spending much of the last century intellectually friendless, the Enlightenment is starting to get its mojo back. The past few years have seen the release of a clutch of books either defending the original Enlightenment or calling for a return to its animating virtues as a way of solving the problems of the current time. These include The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (2013), The Enlightenment: History of an Idea by Vincenzo Ferrone (2015), and philosopher Joseph Heath’s 2015 book Enlightenment 2.0, which proposed a pre-Trumpian path for a return to sanity in politics.

Onto the pile then we can add the ambitious new book from Steven Pinker entitled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Even before it was published in February, Bill Gates had declared it his “new favourite book of all time.” (As it happens, Gates’s previous favourite book of all time was another of Pinker’s books, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which documented the decline in violence in the world over the long and short term, so it is safe to say the billionaire is a fan.)

Pinker’s agenda in Enlightenment Now is to give reason a pep talk. His strategy is to show how the Enlightenment virtues of reason, science, and humanism have contributed to human progress, using pretty much the same approach he used in Better Angels, namely, with lots and lots and lots of statistics. In a long middle section covering 15 chapters and occupying over two thirds of the book, Pinker argues that life is getting better along a multitude of dimensions. Pick a metric, any metric: health and wealth, peace and safety, democracy and human rights, education and quality of life—all the lines on the graph are pointing in the right direction. Pinker even takes on terrorism (really not that big of a deal), the environment (much improved, thank you very much), and artificial intelligence (fears of the robot takeover are overblown), while managing to argue that the two things he’s actually worried about—climate change and nuclear bombs—are manageable problems, given the proper application of reason.

In all of this, Pinker’s book is a complete success, and his material is a stout corrective to the rampant declinism of our time, though it should not be that surprising to anyone paying attention. We are living longer, healthier lives than our parents and our grandparents, and our children will almost certainly live longer and healthier lives than us. The world is getting richer, with tens of millions more people getting pulled out of poverty with each passing year. But even some of the more familiar statistics have the power to shock, like the simple graphs showing the decline over time in the cost of artificial light. In 1800 in England you’d have to work for six hours to pay for an hour’s light from a tallow candle; by 1950 you’d need to work for eight seconds for an hour of light from an incandescent bulb, and in 1994 the same hour of light from a compact fluorescent would cost you a half-second of toil.

The steady parade of charts and graphs and figures can be a bit daunting, so the book is best read slowly, in chunks. Each of these chapters is essentially an entire academic subdiscipline whose literature Pinker has seemingly mastered. And because the level of analysis tends to cruise along at 30,000 feet, looking down at long-term trends, any particular objection or purported counter-example to the argument starts to feel weak or even churlish. We should certainly accept his general claim that industrialized humans are not the rapacious despoilers of pristine nature portrayed in Hollywood villaindom or the writings of David Suzuki, but what about the studies showing the stunning declines in the populations of some large mammals, or the weird disappearance of insects, or whatever is going on with the bees? There’s no real discussion of this, because the big picture is that things are getting better, and problems are solvable. What’s the takeaway? Not that Pinker is cherry picking his data, but rather that the canvas of progress is painted with a very broad brush using a very thick pigment.

Many of the examples that Pinker gives are seriously impressive, and every reasonably sympathetic reader will do well to pocket a handful of anecdotes to haul out at the next dinner party. On his blog post about the book, Bill Gates listed five facts that especially impressed him. These include a 37-fold decline since 1900 in the chance of getting killed by lightning (thanks largely to urbanization and better weather forecasting); a huge drop in time spent doing laundry (11.5 hours per week in 1920 compared to 90 minutes in 2014); and the steady rise in global IQ scores, thanks to improved nutrition and a healthier environment. But if proof of the merits of the Enlightenment is what you are looking for, linger for a while on the chart showing the change in Gross World Product since Jesus was a boy. It is effectively a flat line until 1800 when it starts to curve sharply upward, with the curve turning into a near vertical line by the beginning of the 20th century. If this isn’t progress, nothing is.

So why does reason need a pep talk? Because for all of this, people remain largely unpersuaded by the ideals of the Enlightenment. And it looks as if the workings of reason itself may be part of the problem.

As Pinker concedes, our relationship with reason is a Swiss cheese of a paradox. One way of noting the paradox is this: all the expertise, brainpower, evidence, and logic we bring to bear on a problem offers no guarantee that we’ll get anywhere close to the truth. It turns out we are extremely good at deploying logic, gathering evidence, and making arguments to justify our pre-existing instincts and intuitions, which means it is just as likely as not that the instruments of reason will become tools of rationalization, self-deception, and special pleading.

At the heart of this lies what might be the most troubling paradox of all, namely, that it is often in our private interest to endorse beliefs that have no basis in the operation of either reason or the senses. Borrowing an idea from the legal scholar Dan Kahan, Pinker argues that we find ourselves trapped in an enormous collective-action problem that he calls “the tragedy of the belief commons.” Like all collective-action problems, this posits a scenario where behaviour that is rational for each individual becomes collectively self-defeating—think of the problem with rushing toward the exits during a fire alarm, or repeatedly changing lanes in heavy traffic.

The tragedy of the belief commons arises because there are times when it is rational for each of us as individuals to hold certain beliefs not because of how the world is but because of who we are or want to be. We are not just a social species; we are a tribal one as well, with our group identities giving purpose and meaning to our lives. But being a member of a group involves believing certain things that non-members by definition don’t, and if holding that belief boils down to a contest between reality and our sense of self or the esteem of our peers, well, so much the worse for reality.

We are all familiar with this sort of “expressive rationality”—hold up your hand if you ever pretended to like a band because the cool kids all did—but it becomes perverse when the price of admission to a given club or tribe is the embrace of unfounded ideas. And yet, just as organized crime families require new recruits to commit atrocities in order to prove their commitment, many tribes insist that their members affirm outright nonsense as a sign of their loyalty. So, just as belief in the resurrection is a baseline requirement for being a proper Christian, denying anthropogenic climate change is the price of entry into contemporary conservatism.

The Pinker-Kahan contention is that what is rational for individuals to believe, given their desire to have identities of a certain kind, a) isn’t always based on pure reason, and b) isn’t always good for society as a whole. What this amounts to is something like this: Humans are relentlessly driven to organize themselves into tribes, us versus them, in-group versus out-group. So much so that we have trouble seeing how much all this tribalism works against our common interest. Telling people they need to just “think harder” isn’t going to work, any more than you can get out of a traffic jam quicker by driving more sensibly. This is because it isn’t just that self-interest sometimes drives us to bypass reason, it is that our entire social environment right now is actually set up to actively encourage this.

Anyone who has been in a casino knows it is nothing like the casinos portrayed in the movies. There are no high, vaulted ceilings and bright chandeliers. There is no piano tinkling gently in the background while men in tuxedos throw dice as women in gowns lean over their shoulders sipping cocktails. In a real casino, the ceilings are low, and, famously, there are no windows or clocks or any other ways of helping you distinguish night from day, dusk from dawn. The gambling infrastructure is more than the roulette wheels or the blackjack dealers; it is the decor, which is loud and overwhelming, like a carnival midway built into the sides of a rabbit warren. The first thing you see when you arrive are slot machines, and they are also the last things you see when you leave. Slot machines are the functional equivalents to the pleasure levers laboratory rats are induced to push in experiments on addiction.

A casino, then, is a big machine designed to do one thing, which is to separate you from your money in the most efficient way possible. It does this using every trick humans have learned about how to take advantage of our deficient rational faculties. Experienced casino-goers know this, so they take steps to mitigate the damage before they enter the casino. They don’t accept the free drinks, they bring only as much money as they are willing to lose, and they quit while they are ahead. It’s difficult and exhausting, but it can be done. Most people, though, don’t do it, which is why casinos are extremely profitable.

We started to figure out just how defective our reasoning apparatus is 40 or 50 years ago, thanks to some groundbreaking experiments in social psychology. Probably the most influential has been the work of the Israeli researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose “prospect theory” explored the shortcuts, rules of thumb, and blind spots of our minds, the “heuristics and biases” that infect all our judgments and the decision-making that goes on inside our skulls. Their work spawned an enormous academic literature, and a few decades later it was taken up by popular writers including Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely, David Brooks, and Daniel Gilbert…the list goes on, and gets longer with every book season. (Perhaps out of a desire to finally cash in on his own work, Daniel Kahneman produced an excellent primer in 2011 called Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

What emerged out of this research is what is sometimes referred to as “dual process theory,” and it describes how we are equipped with two distinct modes or systems of reasoning. System 1 is fast, automatic, and opaque, and it represents what we usually call our “gut instinct.” It is evolutionarily ancient, well adapted for survival in small groups of hominids. Overlaid on this massive System 1 structure is the slow, serial, and explicit System 2, and it is what we generally mean when we talk about “reason.” Where System 1 relies on associative reasoning and emotional resonances in order to offer rough-and-ready judgments, System 2 allows us to entertain hypotheticals and engage in abstract, precise reasoning. It is also what allows us to escape our tribal instincts and see how large-scale cooperation is in our long-term and collective interest. If System 1 represents our barbaric past, System 2 is the hope of civilization.

We actually need both systems, and each serves us well in its proper domain. But the problem is, the “proper domain” for System 1 was the African savannah, where its biases and snap judgments were reliably correlated with predictable features of the environment. System 1 finds itself increasingly maladapted to the modern world—our entire built environment—which is starting to have the character of one of those giant casinos.

Ever have the sense that at every moment, someone, some institution or business, or some algorithm, is doing its best to disable your rational faculty in order to trick System 1 into handing over your attention, your identity, or your money? You would not be wrong in feeling that way. Supermarkets are designed to mimic certain aspects of a casino—especially in the layout that carefully channels you through the sections in which the owners want you to spend the most time, while the gum and chocolate bars at the checkout are the grocery equivalent of slot machines. Stores like Costco go one step further, deliberately refusing to put signs in the aisles, in order to force customers to wander around shopping more or less at random. Ikea’s confusing, maze-like layout appears stolen straight from the casino manual of design.

Things are even worse online, where this dynamic affects the very foundations of how we acquire and organize information, how we process the world around us, and how we conduct our politics. Sure, go on over to Amazon, which works on the same trick-driven principles, but with algorithms shaping your path through the maze in real time. Entertainment? Netflix, with its random algorithm-created categories like “Animal cartoons promoting friendship” or “Period pieces about royalty based on real life,” turns the process of choosing something to watch into a way of playing the slots. Mobile gaming is a casino, as, increasingly, is the console market. Fox News is a casino, as is most cable-news programming. Google search and Facebook news, Tinder and Bumble, Twitter and Instagram? Casinos all, with their easy thrills and the lure of their endless scroll.

Our entire cultural infrastructure is steadily evolving to take advantage of the weaknesses in our brains. Specifically, it is evolving to take advantage of the bottlenecks of System 2-type reasoning and to exploit the biases and shortcuts evolution has hardwired into System 1. Our attention is valuable, not just to capitalists but to marketers, politicians, and propagandists of all sorts, and the techniques for grabbing our attention are undergoing a fierce evolutionary process. Reason is being elbowed off the playing field, and the result is that the gains of civilization—the fruits of the Enlightenment—are at risk of being reversed. We are rushing headlong back into barbarism, and it isn’t clear we have the wherewithal to stop it.

That is the core argument of Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0. Heath borrows heavily from the S1/S2 literature, but his key contribution is the recognition that human rationality is heavily scaffolded. When we try to reason with our bare brains, it is hard to get anything serious done: 2 + 2 is simple, but how about 17 x 23? Better get out a pencil and paper. Most of us have no problem accepting that we can’t do basic multiplication in our heads, or that we need a calendar to keep track of our appointments, but as Heath argues, we don’t scale the insight and apply it to our most sophisticated institutions and enterprises. The fact is, the vast majority of the “reasoning” that happens in our society is not even done in people’s heads, it is done by the scaffolding around us. Our civilization is built into our environment, our practices and institutions and technologies, and we are in the process of changing that environment in ways that serve System 1’s casino-friendly biases.

The upshot is that even as we have more access to expertise and information than ever before, we find it more difficult to behave rationally, because our environment is becoming increasingly hostile to reason; it is also constantly changing and adding to our cognitive load. We’re hamsters on a wheel, and this is the ultimate source of the paradoxes of reason that Pinker observes.

As satisfying as it is to hear about how much progress there has been, then, reason needs more than a pep talk. In order to reclaim reason we also need something substantially more robust than the little maxims for better thinking that Bertrand Russell offered long ago.

Behaving more rationally, or committing to Enlightenment virtues, is not something any of us can do on our own. That is because reason isn’t something we have, it is something we do—it is an achievement, not an endowment. And that achievement is necessarily collective, environmental, and institutional. To truly reclaim the virtues of the Enlightenment, we would have to make a common decision to have a culture of a certain sort, to take collective action to reinforce the institutions of rationality that have served us so well for so long, but which are now threatened. It isn’t just that we’ve turned so much of our decision-making over to malevolent algorithms, though that’s a huge problem: Who thinks that it is a good idea to have MPs tweeting during question period in the House of Commons? Why can’t we protect even this limited political space?

This would be the sort of collective action that free societies typically only take when they face an existential threat from without. And the problem is, the barbarians aren’t at the gates, they’re in our heads. These are the barbarians we have spent centuries fighting off, and we are now using the greatest tools of reason at our disposal to set them free.

Andrew Potter wrote The Authenticity Hoax and, with Joseph Heath, The Rebel Sell.