Steven Pinker : Rationality What it is Why it seems scarce Why it matters (Allen Lane, 2021)
Steven Pinker makes an idol of human rationality but he does not acknowledge the given rationality of the universe. He rejects the existence of God and he ignores the rational basis of Judaism and of Christianity.
1) Rationality of belief in God
‘What are the accounts of miracles in the Scriptures, after all, but fake news about paranormal phenomena?’ (p287) Pinker offers us one of his absolutes. There is not even any discussion or evaluation of Christian claims. This is arrogant cancellation as if to say ‘Your beliefs are obnoxious to me therefore they are wrong’. He thinks that ‘The people who are open to evidence are resistant to weird beliefs. They reject conspiracy theories, witchcraft, astrology, telepathy, omens and the Loch Ness Monster, together with a personal God, creationism, a young earth, a vaccine autism link, and a denial of anthropogenic climate change’. (311) This is shallow stuff. Pinker ignores the rational nature of Judaism and of Christianity. The Old Testament is witness to the rational apprehension of God. Deuteronomy 18 : 9 – 16 reads, ‘When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God. The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him’. Here is simplicity, coherence and rationality. God is distinct from and above the alternative practices of humans left to their own imagination. There is also a moral separation. The superstitions which Pinker mentions lumped together with ‘a personal God’ are harmful to humanity. Living with understandable direction is not harmful to humanity. Jewish contributions to science and letters over the centuries and in the world to this day constitute physical, quantifiable evidence of this. The birth of science in the context of knowledge of God brought to Europe through Christianity provides a complementary example. It did not appear among the tribes of Africa, Asia or America. Copernicus and Galileo were Christians who believed in God and were so motivated to make their discoveries. Even The Enlightenment which Pinker treasures so much is a child of Christianity. Pinker’s thought is blinkered reductionism. He says ‘The human mind is adapted to understanding remote spheres of existence through a mythology mindset’ and that ‘we descended from people who could not or did not sign onto the Enlightenment ideal of universal realism.’ (301) Pinker regrets that ‘the mythology mindset still occupies swathes of territory’. (301) ‘The obvious example is religion’. (301) ‘More than two billion people believe that if one doesn’t accept Jesus as one’s saviour one will be damned to eternal torment in hell’. (301) Pinker cannot prove that this is not true. He finds it objectionable. But Jesus was more circumspect about human destiny. His teaching is much more subtle, more nuanced, arced towards favour for the humble of mind, the suffering, the unfortunate and the poorest in the human condition. It is a corrective to human megalomania and its products, inhumanity, cruelty and genocide. That there might be a final reckoning for human tyranny might be regarded as a good thing, a constraint against the likes of Kim Jung Un and Xi Jinping. Justice on earth depends only on history. The wronged are not compensated. To live in the light of eternal justice offers a blessed hope for many who have suffered much in their human life.
Pinker adopts the same poor methodology as that of Richard Dawkins in his prejudiced evaluation of Christianity. Dawkins ‘does not apply scientific method to the study of faith because he does not regard faith as worthy of such a method. The result is that he articulates the atheist scientific position articulately but he does not treat the faith position fairly for what it is. An example of this is that he quoted the Christian extremists and fundamentalists who send him e-mails telling him he will burn in Hell. He pays no respect to Johan Sebastian Bach, for example, nor gives any explanation as to why he was inspired to write such beautiful music. His is an extreme argument which is knowledgeable on the science and unbalanced on the faith. Bach was a Lutheran Christian, a husband, father and grand-father. He wrote probably the most sublime Christian music the world has known. Was this founded on a lie? Was Bach a deluded fool whose sense of God and of what Jesus accomplished and of spiritual eternity was wholly mistaken and wrong? I do not think that Richard Dawkins has a right to deny Bach the reasons he gave for writing and composing as he did. He cannot separate Bach’s music from Bach’s faith because they formed a unity in his life and mind’. (Robert Anderson, Answering Richard Dawkins) Bach was also an intellectual. His music has mathematical precision, pattern and form which is rational and comprehensible. Pinker excludes God from his understanding of rationality.
For Pinker there are two kinds of belief: Reality and Mythology. (29) He quotes Bertrand Russell. ‘It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it is true.’ (300) He concedes, ‘For most of human history and prehistory there were no grounds for supposing that propositions about remote worlds were true. But beliefs about them could be empowering or inspirational, and that made them desirable enough.’ (300) and triumphantly asserts ‘We children of the Enlightenment embrace the radical creed of universal realism: we hold that all of our beliefs should fall within the reality mindset’. (301) Paradoxically Pinker introduces the acronym WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic (301) as the apotheosis of human social evolution. But he considers that ‘the quest to provide the ultimate reasons for reason is a fool’s errand.’ (38) This though is the Logos in Christianity as instanced in the St John’s Gospel. It is also the question of philosophy, of theology and of 20th and 21st century science. In Pinker’s world there are ‘Foundational principles such as that the universe has no goals related to human concerns’. (306) For him ‘Belief in God is an idea that falls outside the sphere of testable reality’. (302) He says ‘Since The Enlightenment the tides in the modern west have eroded the mythology zone.’ (303) Human rationality did not begin with The Enlightenment. Far from eroding the mythology zone the modern west indulges in fantasy, fiction, fake news, exaggeration and irrationality on a grander scale than ever. Pinker does not even countenance the data that say that over 80% of all human beings believe in God at the present time. He cannot accept that this ‘belief’ is based on rational apprehension. It is experiential. People have a relationship with God. It may be faulty or inadequate, incomplete and imperfect but it is there as a conscious reality in people’s lives. It is true that Aristotle’s First Cause is the logical progression of a case and is not in itself a proof. So too Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God follow from the position of faith rather than precede it. We might concede that the mere thinking of God necessitates God’s existence as Descartes affirmed is no final proof. But that does not mean that all talk of a personal God is to be considered mythology. From where did this immense arrogance come to Pinker’s mind? Pinker is an empiricist who relies on data which is based on observation and experimentation. The social psychology itself may be said to belong to Pinker's broad definition of mythology rather than to the history of human rationality. It invents vocabulary to describe behaviour. This vocabulary talks to itself and becomes more abstruse and incomprehensible to the non-initiated. It is a priestly caste. It is so obviously limited to its subject matter, time limited earth bound human behaviour.
2) What is rationality?
For Steven Pinker ‘Rationality..is.. ‘the ability to use knowledge to attain goals’ and for him ‘Knowledge is ‘justified true belief’. (36) This is not knowledge for its own sake and it is not knowledge of what might be true and so its excludes the possibility of God from the outset. Pinker’s is utilitarian and purposeful rationality. If knowledge is only belief what difference is it to any or other belief? The justified aspect comes from the general corpus of accrued western human knowledge and from collective academic social experimentation. It is a posteriori not a priori deduction, after the fact and not before the fact, empirical in nature. Is Christian belief justified on Pinker’s terms. The answer is ‘No’. However Pinker does not offer any fair or credible account of Christianity (or indeed of theism). Christianity can be accorded justified true belief status a posteriori on the basis of the legal status testimonies of Christians as to the reality of their relationship with Jesus Christ and on the basis of incalculable good works over nearly two millennia in most countries of the world. These include building schools and hospitals, educating many, inculcating personal moral lifestyles and building communities. Christianity is as much entitled to present this data as Pinker and his fellow academics are to present their experiment conclusions as being true belief. Christianity can also be accorded justified true belief status a priori in the person of Jesus. He exemplifies the highest morality of which humans are capable. Self-sacrificing to death itself. Jesus is not an idea of goodness; he is an incarnation of goodness. He is not a philosophy; he is a person. People follow one of their own. Notwithstanding the fact that not all associated with Christianity throughout the past two millennia have faithfully reflected his own example, and that many bad deeds have been done in his name, Christianity has been a restraining influence in the human community. The greatest genocides have occurred and continue to occur in societies which have rejected Christianity. Rationality reflects on what is already given. Merely thinking about things does not make them happen. The academic pursuit is dependent on the actions of others. Pinker makes a god of rationality in spite of his acceptance that humans are more inclined to irrationality.
The context of Pinker’s arguments is the American academic and political scene in the era of wokeness and critical race theory. His is a very limiting epistemology compared with that of Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ by which Kant means a critique ‘of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience’. Rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz have speculated about the nature of time, space, causality and God, thinking that pure reason was entitled to find satisfactory answers to these objects. The ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ opens a third way for metaphysics, half way between rationalism that claims to know everything, and empiricism that defies reason to be able to find anything out of the experience. What for Kant was metaphysical is for Pinker mythological and for him this means being untrue. He thinks that ‘Rationality is uncool. To describe someone with a slang word for the cerebral, like nerd, wonk, geek, or brainiac is to imply they are terminally challenged in hipness’. (35) He says, ‘reason is valid because it works’. (41) ‘The cooperativeness of the world when we apply reason to it is a strong indication that rationality really does get at objective truths’. Is it not the case that the universe is rational and that we merely discover its prior rationality? Pinker is critical of the undermining of western rational inheritance. ‘The cultural anthropologists or literary scholars who avow that the truths of science are merely the narratives of one culture will still have their child’s infection treated with antibiotics prescribed by a physician rather than a healing song performed by a shaman’ (42). This is Pinker’s empirical ad hominem approach.
3) Examples of Irrationality
Pinker makes a strong case for human default irrationality. He writes, ‘How then can we understand this thing called rationality which would appear to be our birth right yet is so frequently and flagrantly flouted?’ (6) He quotes cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who ‘rejected the idea that “inside every incoherent person there is a coherent one trying to get out”’. (27) ‘Kahnemann has observed that humans are never so irrational as when protecting their pet ideas.’ For Pinker bias in human thinking is a strong influence on opinion and action. It supersedes rational thought. He continues, ‘In their article “the Nobel Disease: When intelligence fails to Protect against Irrationality”, Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues list the flaky beliefs of a dozen science laureates including eugenics, megavitamins, telepathy, homeopathy, astrology, herbalism, synchronicity, race pseudoscience, cold fusion, crank autism treatments and denying that AIDS is caused by HIV’. (90) Sir David Smith once Principal of Edinburgh University and an eminent biologist and authority on symbiosis used to refer to ‘Gaia’, the mythological personification of the earth as if she actually existed.
Pinker evidences the irrationality of the media news cycle. He suggests that ‘good things may consist of nothing happening’ (126). Good news is sacrificed for bad news. A billion and a quarter people escaping poverty has gone unnoticed because it happened gradually, 137,000 each year for the last 25 years. (126) Also, many people think that crime is rising when it is actually falling. (126) He suggests that news of catastrophes and failures breeds cynicism. (126) Calamity-peddling journalists encourage criminalities (126) and they should put lurid events in context. (127) He asks us to think of all the foods that are held to be good for us that used to be bad for us. (144) Human irrationality is seen in the everyday risks that people take such as speeding while driving and texting while crossing the road. (199) What about anti-vaxxers? Some governments such as Austria are making some or all of their population take vaccinations compulsorily. Vladimir Putin is provoking war with Ukraine seeking to re-establish the Russian Empire. How can a rational species be so irrational? (228) Pinker says that the most humbling discovery about predicting human behaviour is how unpredictable it is. (280) 'Perhaps this is why humanity appears to be losing its mind' (283) as is seen in acceptance of fake news with particular respect to the Donald Trump Phenomenon. (284) ‘To understand popular delusions and the madness of crowds… cognitive faculties work well but go awry’, he concludes. (288)
Other examples of irrationality are the prevalence of Covid conspiracy theories (283) such as that it is a deliberate Chinese weapon, a Democratic hoax to stop Donald Trump being re-elected, a subterfuge by Bill Gates to implant trackable microchips, a plot by a global elite to control the world’s economy, a symptom of 5G, and a means for Anthony Fauci to become mega-rich through sale of vaccines. (283/4) Different groups of people believe one or more of these conspiracy theories. People smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and take drugs even although they know that these things are harmful to them. There is an irrational self-destructive streak in human nature. There is a collective death-wish syndrome which appears from time to time as wars begin and many die, some attracted by the glorious prospect of being remembered. Some are sacrificial and gain heroic status. They have acted irrationally but in the interests of others, ‘It is a far far better thing I do now than I have ever done’. Humans can rationalise anything.
Then there are founding national myths such as twins Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who were held to have been orphaned and suckled by a wolf. Maori origin myths suggest that in the beginning Ranginui (the sky) and Papatūānuku (the earth) were joined together, and their children were born between them in darkness. The children decided to separate their parents, to allow light to come into the world. After this, the children became gods of various parts of the natural world. Most film and television entertainment is based on fiction. People know what they are watching is not true. They rationalise this on the basis of gaining relief from their immediate life contexts. Escapism. The computer gaming industry is based on gigantic electronically created myths. Science fiction proliferates. ‘Once we appreciate that humans can hold beliefs they don’t treat as factually true we can make sense of the rationality paradox – how a rational mind can embrace so much claptrap’. (304) On Classic FM Radio just before Christmas 2021 listeners were asked to telephone in to share with other listeners what foods and drinks they were leaving out for Santa on Christmas Eve. There were many and varied replies. These were not children. Why indulge and promote this make-believe? Because it is light hearted fun. It is the re-creation of childhood. It is temporary abrogation of responsibilities and burdens. It is both irrational and rational.
But is belief in God the same? Atheists think so. The Judaeo-Christian tradition however is based on rational apprehension of our Creator. It is very different from religious expressions in Africa to this day, in South America in times past and in the commonwealth of incipient spiritualism or animism which pervades many peoples and cultures. Haiti is a clear continuing empirical example, as is North Korea. In a more subtle moment Pinker describes humanity as follows: ‘We are intuitive dualists sensing that minds can exist apart from bodies’. (304) ‘There are dreams, trances out of body experiences death...telepathy, clairvoyance, souls, ghosts, reincarnation, and messages from the great beyond’.(304). He offers percentage figures for beliefs found in American society accrued between 2000 and 2010. Possession by the devil 42%, extrasensory perception 41%, ghosts and spirits 32%, astrology 25%, witches 21%. communicating with the dead 29%, reincarnation 24%, spiritual energy in mountains, trees and crystals 26%, evil eye, curses, spells 16%, consultation with fortune tellers or psychics 15%. Pinker does not offer facts and figures for world wide Christianity however.
Pinker adds some more subtle language to his argument… ‘we are also intuitive essentialists sensing that living things contain invisible substances that give them their form and powers (304) and we are intuitive teleologists with belief in purpose’. (305) Pinker lumps together ‘creationism, astrology, synchronicity and the mystical belief that everything happens for a reason’ (305) giving only a haphazard account of our existence. He writes as if he has discovered something. It is obvious that rationality is only one facet of human consciousness. The existential sense is paramount in human experience from cradle to grave. Making sense of life is a necessary part of survival. Many and varied are the results of human imagination in occult practices, fable and fiction, poetry, literature, film and internet. None of these could be classed as rational. His talk of ‘forms and powers’ borders on the metaphysical but he does not credit Plato or anyone else for describing them. Neither does he locate our sense of purpose within the Judaeo-Christian tradition from where it originated. Survival was the basic intention of our long ago ancestors. Purpose came with relationship to our Maker and the understanding of beginning, continuation and end. This is not found in Hinduism nor Buddhism and it was not part of ancient Greek philosophy either. Societies which ignore this dimension prove to be totalitarian and genocidal, China, Russia, Cambodia and Nazi Germany for example. China eradicates and rewrites communist history. America was founded on the inclusion of divine purpose in human affairs. Pinker does no credit to himself in not acknowledging this amid the destructive extremities of critical race theory today.
Pinker offers glib wishful thinking. ‘If we could put something in the drinking water that would make everyone more open and reflective, the irrationality crisis would vanish’. (311) Thus speaks the philosopher king. How can supposed social psychologists speak so tritely? Pinker has an inflated arrogance. He says ‘Many doctors are more folk healers than experts in randomised clinical trials'. (305) Western medicine as we know it is scientifically based. It is true that data based diagnosis is becoming popular and that a credible case can be made for using the masses of information about conditions which are available on the internet as an additional source of information above the knowledge of one general practitioner. Self diagnosis is increasing on this basis and local doctors are being informed by patients what their symptoms mean rather than the other way around. Artificial intelligence will be used more and more and robotic diagnoses will come into practice. But the physical healing touch will never become redundant. It is of the essence of recovery and wholeness.
For Pinker, ‘The arc of knowledge is a long one, and it bends toward rationality’ (307) and he advises that ‘Active Open Mindedness beliefs should be based on good grounds’. (308) Never at any point does Pinker take seriously the good grounds for respecting Judaism and Christianity. His neglect is instructive. He takes neither time nor space to fairly account for the good that Jews and Christians have brought to the world, including The Enlightenment of which he is so fond. Lots of people throughout the world in different contexts believe in a personal God. For him, ‘Human reason has its fallacies, biases, and indulgence in mythology.’ (317) For Pinker, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Jesus, belongs in this category of deficiency.
4) Contemporary Issues
Steven Pinker writes, ‘human progress is an empirical fact’. (324) But in a depressingly pessimistic analysis he says, ‘Progress is shorthand for a set of pushback and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe’. (325) Is the universe unforgiving? Is it not conducive to life itself or else we would not be here? Contrast Pinker's negativity with the words of Genesis 1 : 31, ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’. St John’s Gospel 1 : 1- 3 affirms this. ‘In the beginning was the Word (the personified rational principle, the Logos), and the personified rational principle was with God, and the personified rational principle was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made’. St Paul, speaking to Athenian philosophers said, ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else... God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17 : 24 – 25, 27 -28). The universe is not unforgiving. The universe is personal and it is rational.
Pinker instances ‘The psychologist David Myers (who) has said that the essence of monotheistic belief is: (1) There is a God and (2) it’s not me (and it’s also not you). The secular equivalent is: (1) There is objective truth and (2) I don’t know it (and neither do you). For Pinker, the same epistemic humility applies to the rationality that leads to truth. Perfect rationality and objective truth are aspirations that no mortal can ever claim to have attained’. (40) ‘But the conviction that they are out there licenses us to develop rules we can all abide by that allow us to approach the truth collectively in ways that are impossible for any of us individually’. (40) Pinker roots this abstraction in very culturally specific time-limited examples. ‘The rules are designed to side line the biases that get in the way of rationality: ...the bigotries, prejudices, phobias, and isms that infect the members of a race, class, gender, sexuality or civilisation’. (40)
Pinker maintains that ‘We would not credit someone with being rational if they acted on beliefs that were known to be false’. (36) For him, ‘Rationality also requires reflectiveness, open-mindedness, and mastery of cognitive tools like formal logic and mathematical probability (324). But Pinker is a social psychologist, a student of human behaviour. Even so his is an intellectual elitism and he is at odds with contemporary wokeism. ‘Fashionable academic movements like postmodernism and critical theory (not to be confused with critical thinking) hold that reason, truth and objectivity are social constructions that justify the privilege of dominant groups….implying that Western philosophy and science are provincial, old-fashioned, naive to the diversity of ways of knowing found across periods and cultures.’ (35,36) ‘Rationality rejecters can say ‘I don’t have to justify my beliefs to you. Your demands for arguments and evidence show that you are part of the problem’. (43) ‘Instead of feeling any need to persuade, people who are certain they are correct can impose their beliefs by force.’ (43) ‘Modern universities...have been...finding ways to suppress opinions,, including disinviting and drowning out speakers, removing controversial teachers...revoking offers of jobs and support, expunging contentious articles from archives, and classifying differences of opinion as punishable harassment and discrimination.’ (43) ‘If you have to silence people who disagree with you, does that mean that you have no good arguments for why they’re mistaken? (43) ‘Universities have turned themselves into laughingstocks for their assaults on common sense’, he suggests. (313/4) Pinker has insight, ‘the recent cliché that we’re living in a “post truth era” cannot be true. If it were true then it would not be true, because it would be asserting something true about an era in which we are living.’ (39,40) How could it be rational to condemn the mere thinking of thoughts – an activity that cannot, by itself, impinge on the welfare of people in the world?’ (65)
For Pinker applications of rationality are wisdom and morality. For him ‘impartiality (is) the main ingredient of morality.’ (69) Is this so? What is the basis of the impartiality? From where did the underlying criteria arise? He then uses the Golden Rule which he suggests has appeared in many different cultures. His expression is that ‘helping not hurting (means) everybody wins’ (69) and ‘this is a rational argument.’ (69) It is axiomatic for humans that ‘you can’t always get what you want.’ (46) He writes about ‘proximate and ultimate goals’ (46/7) as if this was a new discovery. His use of the image of Odyssean self control – being lashed to the mast to avoid being seduced is only a reflection of the positive Christian principle of goodness and obedience in following Jesus Christ for the sake of eternal life to follow. Pinker agrees that humans can also choose ignorance over knowledge in an apparent defeat of rationality. Not wanting to know the sex of an unborn child for example or not taking advantage of genetic testing to discover latent health issues. Hearsay evidence is dismissed by courts. ‘An essential part of rationality is dealing with randomness in our lives and uncertainty in our knowledge'. (111)
Pinker uses social comment as illustrations. 'Human rationality is a hybrid system'. (108) ‘Because our propositional reasoning frees us from similarity and stereotypes, it enables the highest achievements of humanity, such as science, morality and law. (108/9) Our morality and law however were handed down to us from Moses and the Ten Commandments and from Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. It is the words of Isaiah that adorn the United Nations building in New York. ‘Outside our immediate experience, we learn about the world through the media’, writes Pinker. ‘The availability bias is a major driver of world events, often in irrational directions’. (120) ‘Terrorism brews up a different chemistry of fear – highly publicised but low casualty killings can lead to epochal societal reactions’. (122) He is more interested in testing actual evidence.
William of Ockham (1285 - 1347) was an English Franciscan friar. Ockham’s razor was the philosophical principle which stated that ‘entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’. Arguments with the least conjecture were the best. Pinker does not mention Ockham’s razor but he discusses the ideas of Rev Thomas Bayes (1702 – 1761) concerning probability ‘to find out a method by which we might judge concerning the probability that an event has to happen, in given circumstances, upon supposition that we know nothing concerning it but that, under the same circumstances, it has happened a certain number of times, and failed a certain other number of times’ (Letter to P-S Laplace). Pinker wants rational weighing up of the strength of evidence (149) and considers that ‘Bayes rule is flouted in everyday reasoning’. (149) For Bayes the degree of belief in a hypothesis may be quantified as a probability (150) and for Pinker ‘our credence should be conditional on the evidence’. He quotes Francis Crick ‘Any theory which can account for all the facts is wrong, because some of the facts are wrong’. (158) Pinker follows on, ‘This is why it is reasonable to be sceptical of claims for miracles, astrology, homeopathy, telepathy, and other paranormal phenomena’. (158) For David Hume (1711 – 1776) ‘Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature’. (158) ‘It is a miracle that a dead man should come to life because that has never been observed in any age or country’. (158) For Pinker ‘miracles such as resurrection must be given a low prior probability.’ (158) ‘In Bayesian terms we are interested in the posterior probability that miracles exist, given the testimony’. (159) Carl Sagan wrote ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ (159) Is the evidence supplied by St Paul sufficient? Is near 2000 years of Christianity? It this not extraordinary evidence? Is near 2000 years of coherent, rational, moral and spiritual foundations for human societies not convincing?
5) Social Observations
‘In cognitive science and behavioural economics showing all the ways in which people flout the axioms of rational choice has become something of a sport. ...Part of the fun comes from showing how irrational humans are.’ (196/7) Game theory unveils the strange rationality behind many of the perversities of social and political life (228) Pinker concludes, ‘we are not living in a post truth society..we are living in a myside society.’ (277) ‘Bias has invaded more and more of our deliberations’. (296) Pinker speaks of contemporary America. He lacks the perspective of European learning. He does not know the balancing role of personal or public Christian Faith. ‘Scientific education’s reach is limited (305) (and) highly educated scientific understanding is shallow’. (305) ‘Educated people trust the university based scientific establishment’ (305) Even so, ‘Conspiracy theories..flourish because humans have always been vulnerable to real conspiracies.’ (307) He volunteers, ‘Let’s consider a broad set of policies and norms that might strengthen the cognitive immune systems in ourselves and our culture. (311)
For Pinker ‘Rationality is a public good’ (315 ) ‘Rationality is not just a cognitive virtue but a moral one’. (317) ‘...we all accept the primacy of reason.’ (319) We may ask ‘does this improve our lives and make the world a better place?’ (319) He suggests that impartiality is the core of morality’ (317) and that ‘moral progress is advanced through struggle.’ (328) Addressing slavery Pinker affirms that ‘The Enlightenment hosted a vigorous abolitionist movement.’ (335) He does not mention the Christian William Wilberforce who succeeded in having the abolition of the slave trade passed in British Parliament in 1807 and this led to the abolition of slavery in 1833. For him ‘The power of rationality to guide moral progress is of a piece with its power to guide material progress and wise choices in our lives’. (340) ‘Our ability to eke increments out of a pitiless cosmos and to be good to others despite our flawed nature depends of grasping impartial principles that transcend our parochial experience.’ (340) Pinker knows nothing of the nature of God as revealed in Judaism and Christianity. The cosmos is not pitiless. Psalm 4 : 1 and 8 record specific request and answer to prayer. ‘Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer...In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety’. Jesus’ words are even more powerful. ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you’. (John 15 : 9 -12) These are words of harmony at the basis of creation understanding of which has eluded Steven Pinker. Many today experience the personal God Pinker disavows.
He goes on, ‘Poverty is the natural state of humanity.’ (326) Is this true? Have not some ancient societies been rich? The Israelites were promised a land flowing with milk and honey, that is, a fertile and fruitful land (Exodus 3 : 8). The city of Venice has been rich for many hundreds of years. Africa has always been luxuriant in fruit and vegetable foodstuffs. America is a very rich country in which such poverty that exists is relative to that of people living subsistence lives in Africa. There have been many poor people in the world but often not due to an insufficiency of resources but rather due to inequality of distribution. Jesus himself said ‘The poor you will always have with you’. (Matthew 26 : 10) Most societies are unequal in power, wealth and opportunity. But these are the consequence of human choices, of selfish rulers and of inhumane political ideas and systems. Discoveries of benefits to the human condition were and continue to be largely inspired in the minds of inventors, gifted with light bulb moments from outside their own consciousness at the time. So too the genius of music and art are adornments for the happiness of living. Humans did not make the earth as it is. We would not have existed if our planet did not provide the means of survival and growth. There are nearly 8 billion of us now.
Pinker goes on ‘what needs an explanation is wealth….The great material enrichment of human began with the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century... It as literally powered by the capture of energy from coal, oil, wind and falling water and later from the sun, the earth and nuclear fission’. (326) Financial insurances and good government are essential for these to maintain prosperity, he thinks. (327) But previous societies became rich by conquest, theft, exploitation and slavery. For thousands of years trading was the route to wealth. Now it is the sun which is providing wealth and health for many. Pinker has no sense of providence, none at all of divine providence. He is ungracious and appears ungrateful.
Pinker strains at gnats and swallows camels. Loftily he quotes Martin Luther King who thought that the moral arc was bending towards justice. (328) He contrasts this with an obscure incident at the time of the Reformation in Geneva during which John Calvin was partially instrumental in having the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus burnt at the stake in 1553. He mentions Sebastian Castellio’s question ‘Who made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects that he alone should kill?’ (330) I do not condone Calvin’s treatment of Servetus. It was not Jesus Christ like. Calvin himself had had to flee France for his own life’s sake. Martin Luther was protected from lynching and murder. These were violent times. But the cruelties of the ancient Assyrians were much worse. The Romans too ruled by violent sadistic terror. North American first nation tribes offered unspeakable tortures to their defeated tribal enemies and to some of the whites they captured later. Incas practised human sacrifice on a industrial scale. Today the prison in which Ghislaine Maxwell is being held in New York is rat infested and the food is described as atrocious. Contemporary American prison solitary confinement punishment is inhumane in the extreme. Mao Zedong was responsible for the strategic starving and killing of as many as 80 million Chinese as part of his method of establishing the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping’s similar treatment of Uighurs today is small fry in comparison. The bestialities of Islamic jihadis throughout large tracts of Africa today is testament to continuing inhumanity. There is no guarantee that the twenty-first century will be morally better than the twentieth in terms of human to human carnage even though according to Pinker’s reckoning were 21.9 battles deaths per 100,000 in 1950 and only to 0.7 in 2019. (327) Hopefully he is right that democracy reduces the chance of war (327) but power is growing exponentially in China and Russia and neither are democracies. What chances a nuclear holocaust?
For Pinker ‘Progress also requires equality, benevolence and rights’. (328) But he deals nowhere with personal morality, with sexual morality. He is an American liberal in these matters. He makes no connection between lifestyles and poverty, lack of progress, family and societal dissolution and national decline yet these are all present in America and in the west generally. Who would have thought we would have heard about the depravities of the parents of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and of Star Hobson? What of the perennial mass murders in American schools, shopping malls and businesses?
Pinker may think himself a rational human but something more than rationality is required to change human beings who are not as rational as he considers himself to be. Augustine thought that will precedes intellect. Act first, think later, is a maxim of the human condition. Speaking before engaging the brain is another. Thinking rationally about everything would mean that very little of human activity would ever come into being. It is the adventurous, risk taking, irrational people who have pushed humanity forward. Some people have already signed up to travel to Mars on a one way ticket. So too Jesus who stepped out of the comfort zone of Judaism and opened up the life of our Maker to all humanity for all time. But he did this through exposure, persecution, torture and cruel death. Calvary is not rational. Jesus lived beyond Pinker’s confines of rationality. Pinker elevates human rationality to godlike status, making it an idol to be worshipped. Rationality is reflection upon what already exists. What already exists is given to us. Pinker’s paean to rationality excludes God at every turn. And yet all that we are today has been born of God as seen in Jesus Christ.