Saturday, March 24, 2018

Steven Pinker Steps in it Again

Steven the PowerPoint Messiah

Look at a handful of the online photos of Harvard’s Steven Pinker, watch any of his lectures, and you will be struck by the feeling that this is a man suffering from mania. A gleam of self-confidence, a twinkle of avid flippancy emanates from this face.

In fact sometimes one can judge a book by its cover.

Pinker has done important work in cognitive linguistics. Yes, he’s clearly a very smart man. Unfortunately, like not a few others who’ve done serious work in science (think Richard Dawkins) Pinker imagines this automatically makes him a sage in political matters too.

The results, as with Dawkins, are embarrassing. Though cases like Pinker’s and Dawkins’ do make for interesting lessons on the vanity of the scientific mind (or at least some scientific minds) they mostly serve to make one depressed. It would be better, one feels, if intelligent people didn’t make fools of themselves in the public arena.

A handful of years back, Pinker published his tome The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argued, in a nutshell, that modernity had made humanity less violent, and suggested that we needed just continue on the modern, secular path and we’d eventually eradicate human evil. He managed to make this argument with a straight face (he’s a man of great straightness of face) just a few years after the end of the most horrific and systematically murderous century in human history. Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism--these were, as serious political philosophers recognize, all deeply modern projects, possible only after the triumph of our secular "Enlightenment". It’s a conundrum many modern thinkers wrestle with, one that puts in question all our claims to civilizational progress.

Not Professor Pinker. No, he has read a few things and has all kinds of (suspect) data to buttress his case. Thus Better Angels.

Now Pinker is at the podium once more, again outside his field of expertise, again showing the world that one can be a major tenured researcher at Harvard and at the same time lack even an inch of philosophical depth.

I spent a few hours with Pinker’s book, but couldn’t finish it. It is typing rather than writing; typing rather than thinking; typing rather than history. Ultimately it represents a monomaniacal hubris, a mere keyboard mania, curls and graphs flying in all directions.

All to prove a rather banal and circular thesis. Something along the lines of: Reason as I, Steven Pinker, understand and define it, will save the world.

As Peter Harrison wrote in his well deserved review of the book:

For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don't be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers--just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction. If challenged at any point, do not mount a counter-argument that appeals to actual history, but choose one of the following labels for your critic: religious reactionary, delusional romantic, relativist, postmodernist, paid up member of the Foucault fan club.

What's obvious is that Pinker doesn’t take his go-to Enlightenment philosophers seriously enough to actually read them. His summary of the ethical thought of the figures he cites is so shoddy as to make one suspect he didn’t even bother to check, say, the relevant articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That encyclopedia is online, Steven.

The trend among prominent scientists not to take philosophy seriously (Pinker, Dawkins again, the late Stephen Hawking) is ultimately dangerous. Science discovers much about the universe, of course, but philosophy is needed to think the relevance of those discoveries for human being. Scientists like Pinker don’t care to think that relevance at any depth, any philosophical depth, because in fact they aren’t interested in human being. They’re not interested because, in a gesture of amazing naiveté, they assume they already know what human being is. They assume that the meaning of the human is somehow evident, or obvious.

Philosophy is prior to whatever science does. Philosophers of science understand this. Glib practitioners of scientism do not.

I’m not going to bother further with Pinker’s silliness. It’s true I used to be more interested in following intellectual zombies, if only to keep tabs on them. But recently, well, there are so many actual thinkers at work, and we have too much to benefit from them to give over precious reading time to books like Enlightenment Now.

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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