Saturday, February 24, 2018

John Gray Takes Steven Pinker to Task

I cannot imagine a better reviewer for Steven Pinker's latest treatise on the Enlightenment than cantankerous British philosopher John Gray. When it comes to reading Pinker’s 576 page tome, better him than me.

Gray is well suited to the task because he is not, to say the least, a wild-eyed optimist. We count on him to provide a counterweight to Pinker’s imitation of Dr. Pangloss. Where Pinker looks at glass that is half full and declares it to be full, Gray sees the emptiness within. He holds a tragic view of human existence, one that correlates reasonably well with Freud’s, but not with mine.

Such is life.

Yet, Gray is a philosopher. Pinker is a psychologist. And Gray has a far better grasp of intellectual history than Pinker. Thus, you expect that he will do more than throw shade at the naïve young Pinker. And, Gray is not intimidated because the world’s richest dupe, Bill Gates, said that Pinker’s book is the best book he has ever read.

Gray concludes his review thusly:

Judged as a contribution to thought, Enlightenment Now is embarrassingly feeble. With its primitive scientism and manga-style history of ideas, the book is a parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest. A more intellectually inquiring author would have conveyed something of the Enlightenment’s richness and diversity. Yet even if Pinker was capable of providing it, intellectual inquiry is not what his anxious flock demands. Only an anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt.

Given this overriding emotional imperative, presenting them with the actual, conflict-ridden, often illiberal Enlightenment would be – by definition, one might say – unreasonable. Judged as a therapeutic manual for rattled rationalists, Enlightenment Now is a highly topical and much-needed book. In the end, after all, reason is only the slave of the passions.

Liberals are drooling over Pinker because his book provides them with much needed therapy. The liberal order, the hope for liberal democracy has been losing ground lately. Now, Pinker has come along to soothe those hurt feelings, to calm those dashed hopes, with an assurance that liberals are on the right side of history.

So says Gray in his opening paragraph:

To think of this book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. The purpose of Pinker’s laborious work is to reassure liberals that they are on “the right side of history”.

This tells us that Pinker is trafficking in born-again Hegelianism… the kind of philosophy that sees history unfolding according to a predetermined plan, and reaching a predetermined goal, no matter what you or I do or say. If you think that history is going to bail out your theoretical errors, you are seriously mistaken.

Pinker might have noticed that true Hegelians, like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, do not believe in freedom. They do not believe in free market capitalism. They hold it to be a monstrosity concocted to oppress the masses and to delay the arrival of the Worker’s Paradise. And yet, Gray points out that Pinker loves capitalism and free enterprise, grand accomplishments of what he sees as the Enlightenment.

One understands that Francis Fukuyama has already explained that the endpoint of the Hegelian World Spirit’s movement is a liberal democracy. And one understands that Hegel himself saw the apotheosis of the World Spirit in the conquering armies of Napoleon. Both Hegel and Fukuyama thought that Napoleon was bringing the liberal democracy promoted by the French Revolution. 

And yet, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror were not promoting liberal democracy. They were certainly not promoting free enterprise. The latter was a product of the British, i.e. Scottish Enlightenment, through David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume, the most important British Enlightenment thinker is, Gray tells us, ignored by Pinker. Doubtless Hume’s empirical bent was inconsistent with Pinker’s Hegelian idealism.

The true logical outcome of the Hegelian dialectic is a police state, where the power of the state imposes correct thinking on the masses. Its not a marketplace of ideas, but One Mind, thinking the same thoughts and believing the same beliefs.

Worse yet, for a Pinker, who rejects religion and faith, without really understanding either, is that free enterprise bases its concept of freedom on the free will that has been central to Western religion since the book of Genesis. Pinker’s belief in free enterprise shows that he does not understand the difference between the Franco-German Enlightenment and its British cousin.

The difference should be clear to everyone, especially since I related it in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. In a world where people possess true freedom they are not trapped within a grand historical narrative.  They are not worrying their souls about whether they are onthe right side of history. They are involved in a game where the outcome is uncertain. They participate in the market as players making moves in a game. To imagine that it will all work itself out no matter what you do is naïve.

Gray taxes Pinker with simpleminded thinking, as in this explanation of the Pinker argument about reason and faith:

Early on in this monumental apologia for a currently fashionable version of Enlightenment thinking, he writes: “To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” Well, it’s good to have that settled once and for all. There is no need to trouble yourself with the arguments of historians, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, who treat religion as a highly complex phenomenon, serving a variety of human needs. All you need do is consult a dictionary, and you will find that religion is – by definition – irrational.

If I may, as I have often remarked, the great Thomas Aquinas showed over the course of thousands of pages that faith can indeed be rational. As for the question of supernatural entities, I will  introduce a point once argued by Jacques Lacan, with an assist from Alexander Meiklejohn. Namely, how do you know that ideas exist? You have never seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelled an idea. You will accept that the orbit of the planets, as rendered in a formula by Kepler, obeys a law, thus an idea. If so, the idea certainly existed before Kepler wrote it down as a scientific law. If it existed, where was it? And, what mind was thinking it? 

You might happily dismiss religious faith, but if you undertake a project or implement a new policy, you do not know whether or not it will work. You will proceed on the basis of a faith that it will… even if there are no scientific facts about the outcome.

Gray is too kind to mention it, but Pinker has ignored a basic insight offered by David Hume—namely, that science is about what "is" while ethics is about “should.” This means that you cannot use science to articulate ethical principles. Those who do, Gray notes, are not practicing science, but are indulging in scientism.

For Pinker, 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”.

Leaving the physics to the side, this suggests that life is a zero-sum game, that one person’s economic progress must come at the expense of someone else… and thus, that we must redistribute wealth rather than to grow it. Again, without saying anything about Newton, making his laws of thermodynamics into moral principles causes problems.

As for Newton’s third law of thermodynamics—“for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”—if you should be tempted to make it into a moral principle, you will find yourself with something like the law of the talion: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And you will note that this principle of retaliatory justice has largely been superseded by the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Again, disregarding the physics, the law of the talion produces social disharmony, an unending cycle of violence.

As I have suggested, and as Gray argues, Pinker is presenting a polemic. This does not involve the scientific method where facts can prove or disprove a hypothesis. Pinker has produced a fictional world where the Enlightenment is responsible for all the good that has happened in the world, and where those who reject the Enlightenment have produced all the evil. It is both childishly naïve and Hegelian:

To be sure, for Pinker there are no bad Enlightenment ideas. One of the features of the comic-book history of the Enlightenment he presents is that it is innocent of all evil. Accordingly, when despots such as Lenin repeatedly asserted that they engaged in mass killing in order to realise an Enlightenment project – in Lenin’s case, a more far-reaching version of the Jacobin project of re-educating society by the methodical use of terror – they must have been deluded or lying. 

And also,

Pinker stipulates that the Enlightenment, by definition, is intrinsically liberal. Modern tyrannies must therefore be products of counter-Enlightenment ideologies – Romanticism, nationalism and the like. Enabling liberals to avoid asking difficult questions about why their values are in retreat, this is a popular view. Assessed in terms of historical evidence, it is also a myth.

For Pinker, all the horrors that have befallen the human species since the advent of the Enlightenment flow from the pen of one Friedrich Nietzsche. Better to blame it on Nietzsche than accepting that the German Enlightenment produced both Communism and Naziism.

In his words:

If one wanted to single out a thinker who represented the opposite of humanism (indeed of pretty much every argument in this book) one couldn’t do better than the German philologist Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche 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.

Gray takes Pinker to school on his straw man version of Nietzsche:

A lifelong admirer of Voltaire, Nietzsche was a critic of the Enlightenment because he belonged in it. Far from being an enemy of humanism, he promoted humanism in the most radical form. In future, humankind would fashion its values and shape its destiny by its own unfettered will. True, he conferred this privilege only on a select few.

He recognised no principle of human equality. But where does concern with equality come from? Not from science, which can be used to promote many values. As Nietzsche never tired of pointing out, the ideal of equality is an inheritance from Judaism and Christianity. His hatred of equality is one reason he was such a vehement atheist.

Truth be told, Nietzsche was an Enlightenment thinker. He was also an enemy of Judaism and Christianity. And he was “a vehement atheist.” From Pinker’s perspective, he has everything that anyone would want. Except perhaps the proper quantity of empathy. But, to be fair, Paul Bloom has argued that empathy is not necessarily morally benevolent. It can make you into a sadistic sociopath.

Nietzsche rejected the civilizing values bestowed by religion and wanted human beings to reconstruct their value system based on a liberated will. An aspect of human being, welling up from within the organism, the will should set forth new rules that everyone will be obliged to live with. As happens with all forms of Platonist thinking, a select few will be the arbiters of these rules.

Gray sees the Pinker book as a pep talk for wavering liberals:

Enlightenment Now is a rationalist sermon delivered to a congregation of wavering souls. To think of the book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. Much of its more than 500 pages consists of figures aiming to show the progress that has been made under the aegis of Enlightenment ideals. Of course, these figures settle nothing. Like Pinker’s celebrated assertion that the world is becoming ever more peaceful – the statistical basis of which has been demolished by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – everything depends on what is included in them and how they are interpreted.

Gray concludes on a sober note, one that echoes views presented on this blog:

If an Enlightenment project survives, what reason is there for thinking it will be embodied in liberal democracy? What if the Enlightenment’s future is not in the liberal West, now almost ungovernable as a result of the culture wars in which it is mired, but Xi Jinping’s China, where an altogether tougher breed of rationalist is in charge? It is a prospect that Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham and other exponents of enlightened despotism would have heartily welcomed.


Redacted said...

Small correction...

Newton's Laws are laws of motion. Newton didn't formulate thermodynamical laws, although I'm sure he regrets not having done so. The Thermodynamics Laws are the offspring of what could be viewed today as a modern intersectional family of supernerds, including, but not limited to depending on whom you're speaking to, Carnot, Boltzmann, Thomson (Kelvin), Maxwell, and Gibbs.

Oh, and I almost forgot... Ares Olympus, who knows how to fix the weather. ;-D

Ares Olympus said...

Indeed, a very comprehensive slam. I hope Pinker reads and reconsiders the limits of his "reason" and the "ideology of scientism" is a threat that can't be exaggerated.

Gray: Exponents of scientism in the past have used it to promote Fabian socialism, Marxism-Leninism, Nazism and more interventionist varieties of liberalism. In doing so, they were invoking the authority of science to legitimise the values of their time and place. Deploying his cod-scientific formula to bolster market liberalism, Pinker does the same. Scientism is one of the Enlightenment’s bad ideas. But bad ideas do not evolve into better ones. They keep on recurring, often in cruder and sillier forms than in the past. Pinker’s formula for human progress is a contemporary example.

I also just came across this essay this weekend, arguing that we all have a "religious mind" that doesn't go away when deny religion and if we're not aware of this we can be possessed by it, and that traditional religions have defenses that help keep us more grounded from our flights of fancy.

Anonymous said...

G.K. Chesterton: "When man loses faith in God, he won't believe in Nothing. He'll believe in Anything."

I'm a hopeful agnostic. -- Rich Lara

Anonymous said...

"therapeutic manual for rattled rationalists" - this would be an excellent blurb for Pinker's book. If they are still doing the hatchet job of the year award, John Gray would be a worthy candidate.