Steven Pinker meets Socrates | Mark shiffman


What is it, why it seems rare, why it matters
by steven pinker
viking, 340 pages, $ 32

PINK : Socrates! We don’t see you here often at Harvard Yard. *

SOCRATES: No, indeed, Pinker, because I don’t mean to sound unreasonable in stepping into the compound of those like you who are highly regarded for higher knowledge, when I know very well how ignorant I am. But it is precisely this question – about what is reasonable – that drew me here. It looks like you’ve written a book explaining what rationality is and what makes it good for us, which is undoubtedly a great service to those like me who seek wisdom, and I was hoping I could ask you about some points.

PINK : I am flattered, Socrates.

SOCRATES: On the contrary, it was you who flattered me in your book, by praising a conversation I had long ago with a certain Euthyphron.

PINK : Yes, Socrates, I thought you brilliantly showed how inconsistent it is to try to entrust morality to a higher power, because in order to judge whether the so-called commandments of a god are reasonable, one must ultimately turn to reason. rather than ordering.

SOCRATES: Thanks, Pinker, though I’m afraid I don’t deserve the credit you give me. As I recall, the discussion was just about the righteous, the noble, and the good and their opposites. What you mean by “morality” is one of those things that I don’t know. Maybe you can explain that to me later. But as for rationality, what do you say it is?

PINK : Rationality is generally understood to mean “the ability to use knowledge to achieve goals”.

SOCRATES: Is reason then only the means to an end, or can it tell you what the end must be?

PINK : Evolution has incorporated goals into our tastes, desires, drives, emotions, and feelings. We deploy reason to achieve these goals and prioritize them when they cannot all be achieved at the same time. And the cooperation of the world when we apply reason to it is a strong indication that rationality is really reaching objective truth.

SOCRATES: Are we, then, justified in believing something to be true if it reliably allows us to get more of what we want?

PINK : It is a good indicator. But rationality also requires that we distinguish what is true from what we want to be true. It requires thinking, open-mindedness, and mastery of cognitive tools like formal logic and mathematical probability. You can see in the hunter-gatherer tribes that evolution hardwired our brains to gauge the kind of probabilities their life entailed. Today’s conditions force us to develop different tools to master new challenges. We live in an age with unprecedented reasoning resources; we just need to use them consistently and efficiently.

SOCRATES: I have to say, Pinker, that I was impressed with the way you explained all of these logical and mathematical tools so that even a man like me without any expertise could understand them. Your explanations on neural networks and deep learning systems; statistical theory of decision; game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma; the distinction between the non-random model and the non-random process, which you call “one of the greatest gifts of rationality that education can confer” – I thought that a man who understood such wonderful things must be truly blessed and live in a blessed time, and I admired the charming and civic way of presenting these wares for the benefit of all. But tell me Pinker: what do you expect from this perk?

PINK : Well, Socrates, the conscious application of reason improves our lives and makes the world a better place. And the power of rationality to guide moral progress is part of its power to guide material progress and wise choices in our lives. Citizens should be educated to have some mastery of the intellectual tools of sound reasoning, because we are better off as individuals and as a society when we understand and apply them. This is what the Enlightenment is.

SOCRATES: Yes, but progress towards what? Do you think that something can be useful without adequate knowledge of the good?

PINK : Look around you, Socrates! Reason and science have provided people with an abundance of things: improved lifespan, nutrition, health, safety, and knowing how to save for retirement. Our biggest problem today is not finding solutions, but convincing people to accept them.

SOCRATES: It seems, however, that I have heard somewhere of progress defined as “improved means to an unimproved end”.

PINK : But we improved the ending. Unlike your little polite community, our larger, more anonymous modern democracies use binding laws and contracts to be more impartial and benefit more people. And, to answer your previous question, Socrates, it is precisely this impartiality – when combined with our self-interested sociality – that is at the heart of morality. Our intellectual heroes, like Erasmus and Locke and Bentham, have made arguments which have widened the circle of our application of this impartial consideration for the welfare of others. The community of rationality is identified by these norms, but they should be the mores of all of society. Yet despite the heroic and largely successful efforts of our champions of reason to disenchant the world, others continue to resort to mythical narratives in religion, history and politics. People who are open to evidence are resistant to such strange beliefs, such as a personal God and creationism, and trust government and science more, and have more liberal political positions that go in the general direction than the world does. his whole was. tendency. The COVID-19 pandemic has reversed these trends, but almost certainly temporarily. The arc of knowledge is long, and it leans towards rationality.

SOCRATES: It’s an inspiring story, Pinker, and you tell it like a true believer. But do you see a way to extend the power of this rationality over the recalcitrant remnant?

PINK : Like I said we, the children of the Enlightenment, believe that all our beliefs should be subjected to the tools that grant their guaranteed degrees of credibility, and we have a technocratic state that should, in theory, put those beliefs into practice. In fact, Socrates, perhaps the most important practical application of research on cognitive biases and fallacies to date is what is called libertarian paternalism. Through regulation, experts would design the environment of our choices to make it harder to do tempting but irrational and harmful things. They would leave us free to break free from these fetters, but research shows few people would make the effort, so we would have more effective results without infringing on democratic principles.

SOCRATES: It has all the appearance of the union of wisdom and rule as I have only painted it in speech, although instead of relying on virtue and loyalty it seems you are relying on lazy compliance with an administrative state. Well, Pinker, I wish you the best, even though what it really is, maybe only a god knows.

* This is a slightly edited transcript of a meeting I recently witnessed and recorded on my iPhone pretending to check my inbox. To my surprise, I have since found out that Pinker’s remarks here also appeared, in exactly or almost the same terms, in his new book.

Mark Shiffman is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities at the University of Villanova.

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