Saturday, March 10, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Andrew Sullivan Take on Steven Pinker

Apparently, Steven Pinker missed his calling. Our postmodern Pangloss, who is railing against our failure to see how much progress we’ve made, should have been a rock star. He could have been the fifth Beatle—or the sixth if you think that Murray the K was the fifth-- offering up his message in poetic form:

I've got to admit it's getting better (Better)
A little better all the time (It can't get no worse)
I have to admit it's getting better 

Or else, the message, if you wish, might also have come from Bobby Mcferrin: “Don’t worry. Be happy.” All of a sudden Pinker sounds a lot less professorial.

Pinker's rock star persona seems to be a way to con us into embracing atheism. Considering the track record of those who wanted to create atheist cultures a prophet of atheism does well to hide his game.

Among those who have rejected Pinker’s wide-eyed optimism, we count Nassim Nicholas Taleb, to my mind a far more interesting thinker. We know that Taleb has already challenged Pinker’s use of statistics, and that Taleb has some credentials in that world. He would prefer that we not be blinded by a blizzard of charts and graphs, but look to the big picture.

As it happens, Taleb has also just come out with a new book, Skin in the Game. His thesis, if I may, is that we should not to trust anyone who does not have something valuable at risk when he proposes new policies.

Obviously, Taleb was seriously torqued to see that America’s great bankers were bailed out of their follies in 2008. They made fortunes when the market was going their way and were protected against loss by the government when their wagers went south. You might say that these bankers have every reason to be optimistic. They have no skin in the game. They have no risk. They need not worry. They can just embrace their happiness.

Interviewed by The New Statesman Taleb explained himself:

In Taleb’s universe, the fieriest circle of hell is reserved for bankers and neoconservatives. “The best thing that could happen to society is the bankruptcy of Goldman Sachs,” he tells me. “Banking is rent-seeking of industrial proportions.” Taleb, who became rich as a derivatives trader, is not a foe of capitalism but of “cronyism”. “If you’re taking risks, God bless you. This is why I accept inequality. I’ve seen people go from trader to cab driver and back again.”

As it happens, Taleb is no fan of Steven Pinker. His famed black swan theory proposed that we cannot prepare for every danger and that black swan events, like 9/11 occur when we have prepared for everything but. So, Taleb cares about managing risk. It seems like a fair and reasonable point of view, far more sober and sensible than the Panglossian optimism of Steven Pinker:

“We’ve survived 200,000 years as humans,” says Taleb. “Don’t you think there’s a reason why we survived? We’re good at risk management. And what’s our risk management? Paranoia. Optimism is not a good thing.” Is the paradox, I ask, that human pessimism offers grounds for optimism? “Exactly,” Taleb replies. “Provided psychologists don’t fuck with it.” 

One suspects that he was referring to psychologist Pinker. The more we refuse to see risk and potential dangers the more likely we are to be blindsided by them. Evidently, Taleb believes that naïve optimism paves the road to destruction.

And then there is Andrew Sullivan. Yesterday, Sullivan offered his thoughts on a Pinker lecture in New York Magazine. One appreciates that Sullivan, like your humble blogger, has chosen not to wade through over 500 pages of Pinker’s turgid prose. So, he attended a Pinker lecture and came away from it, of two minds. He saw Pinker’s point and he accepts that by many measures human beings have made considerable progress. Yet, he also understands that life is about trade-offs. There is no such thing as a market that goes straight up forever. Clearly, he is correct.

In his words:

I sat there for an hour slowly being buried in a fast-accumulating snowdrift of irrefutable statistics showing human progress: the decline of violence and war, the rise and rise of democracy, the astonishing gains against poverty of the last couple of decades, the rise of tolerance and erosion of cruelty, lengthening lifespans, revolutions in health, huge increases in safety, and on and on. It was one emphatic graph after another that bludgeoned my current depression into a kind of forced rational cheeriness. There were no real trade-offs here; our gloom is largely self-imposed; and is entirely a function of our media and news diets.

As John Gray wrote, Pinker was providing therapy for our gloomy and depressed time. Strange that so many people are living in scientifically produced “rational cheeriness”—thanks to Prozac—while at the same time being miserable and pessimistic.

For all of the charts and graphs and the measures of human progress, things are perhaps not going as well as Pinker thinks. Sullivan points out that we are suffering from what I will call social anomie. We are disconnected and dislocated, lacking social moorings, feeling lost and alone.

But Pinker seems immune to the idea of paradox, irony, or unintended consequences. He doesn’t have a way of explaining why, for example, there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies. His response to the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s species at the hands of humans is to propose that better environmental technology will somehow solve it — just as pharmaceuticals will solve unhappiness. His general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.

Here Sullivan is connecting social anomie with a point that Taleb makes: being blindly optimistic  about our ability to solve problems leaves us vulnerable to the problem that we did not even suspect. As mentioned, the more we are blind to future calamities, the more we are confident that we can solve everything, the more likely we are to suffer a cataclysmic black swan event.

Sullivan has no sympathy for Pinker’s contempt for religion. He knows, as Pinker should know, that religion binds people together in community. The Latin word religio means: to bind together. And, Sullivan adds that we have created a social order that has very little to do with the way our early forebears lived. Ought we to be aware of the dangers therein? Of course, we should.

He has contempt for religion — which is odd for an evolutionary psychologist, since his field includes the study of genetic, evolutionary roots for religious belief. And, equally odd for an evolutionary psychologist, he sees absolutely no problem that humans in the last 500 years (and most intensely in the last century) have created a world utterly different than the one humans lived in for close to 99 percent of our time on the planet. We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities.

This brings to mind the simple fact that a century ago, human beings, drunk with the progress given by the Industrial Revolution, were predicting a bright and luminous future. Sound familiar?

Yet, just over the horizon was the defining calamity of the twentieth century, World War I. When it began it was greeted by gales of good feeling across Europe. Why did Europeans feel happy to be going to war? I suspect that they understood that a mass military mobilization would impose a social organization on the social dislocations produced by the Industrial Revolution.

And, Sullivan continues, Pinker is simple-minded in his optimism:

Pinker, for example, has no way to understand our current collective rage — why aren’t we all ecstatic about such huge and continuing “progress”? — unless he blames our gloom and grief and discontent on … bad media. It’s all the journalists’ and intellectuals’ fault for persuading people they’re sad when, in fact, they’re super-happy! And he has a faltering grasp of politics, the cycle of regimes, the vicissitudes of history, the decadence of democracies, or the appeal of tyrants. His view of history is so relentlessly Whiggish it’s almost a self-parody. His understanding of the Enlightenment, as David Bell notes, surgically removes its most popular representative, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw from the very beginning the paradoxes of liberty and reason, and, for that matter, Edmond Burke, who instantly realized the terrifying emptiness of modernity, and the furies it might unleash upon us.

Quite correct… blaming it all on the media seems simple-minded and useless.

Sullivan sees the black swans massing over the horizon:

But it is perfectly possible that this strange diversion in human history — a few centuries at most, compared with 200 millennia — is a massive error that will at some point be mercilessly corrected; that our planet, on present trends, will become close to uninhabitable for most of its creatures thanks to the reason and materialism Pinker celebrates; that our technology will render us unnecessary for the tasks our species has always defined itself by; and that our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event, as it did in 1914. We have, after all, imperfectly controlled weapons of mass destruction, and humans have never invented a weapon we haven’t used (including nukes, of course). It is also true that humans have never lived before without a faith or cult or set of practices designed to reconcile us to death and suffering.


ted said...

I just recently blogged about this myself. In that I remarked: We are probably better in some ways, but not as great as we'd like to believe. Perhaps that's partly due to the fact we have lost some of the depth that would have given us better standards to see that.

Pinker also doesn't acknowledge that many of the Western Enlightenment ideas came through the Scholasticism via Catholicism. And I agree, Taleb is much deeper thinker (and quite more amusing and enjoyable to read). Pinker is a lightweight, who also doesn't have any skin in the game around his ideas.

Sam L. said...

Has Pinker heard that Capetown will run out of water by the end of this year, and that all white-owned properties in South Africa will be confiscated? Did he figure that in?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Atheists like Pinker are contemptuously duty-bound to exempt us from the human condition. This decadence and hubris is their folly. We are Roman farmers with a power grid. God always gets the last laugh. I couldn’t agree with Taleb more about neoconservatives and “investment” bankers.

Ares Olympus said...

On use of rosy statistics, I saw Bjorn Lomborg shared this today, shows deaths from climate change are at an all time low and a steady down trend. So this surely would be the sort of graph Pinker would love. And maybe it proves its better to spend resources on mitigation than pretending we can reverse climate change. But Taleb might be on my side and say while lives lost have been decreasing, financial costs have been growing, and GDP increases by rebuilding on exponential debt growth isn't a long term solution. "Something people don’t get: more skepticism about climate models should lead to more “green” ecological conservationist policies not more lax pro-pollution ones. Why? Simply, uncertainty about the models increases fragility (and thickens the left tail), no matter what the benefits can be in the right tail."

Shaun F said...

Pinker's problem is the problem of all secular humanist atheists - they worship the created instead of the Creator. And their pride blinds them between the difference between right and wrong.

Ares Olympus said...

Shaun F, how does that work? It sounds more like a complaint against futurists and materialists in general.

And it is quite confusing - materialist ought to see the world's diversity of life and resources as something to be conserved and protected rather than consumed and discarded, and that gives one potential sense of right vs wrong. Wrong is that which diminishes future potential for present comfort.

But looking to religion isn't clearly an answer to right and wrong, at least religion can degenerate as easily on false hope. Like if the religious accept we can trash this world because it isn't real, and God's chosen are going to spend eternity elsewhere, and there's no reason to try to slow down environmental destruction, and every reason to accelerate it, since it means the end days will just come that much faster. And in this sense the technical singularity itself is exactly such a religion, just proposing disembodied ascended spirits will be our future into the technological matrix.