Monday, March 12, 2018

Critical comment on Pinker's "Enlightenment Now"

In this final post on Pinker’s new book, “Enlightenment Now” I want to note several reviews that offer reservations about the book (and offer a few responses), passing over reviews that are largely laudatory (such as Winterer’s in the Washington Post and Bakewell's in the NYTimes Book review.

From David Brooks in an Op-Ed piece:
Pinker doesn’t spend much time on the decline of social trust, the breakdown of family life, the polarization of national life, the spread of tribal mentalities, the rise of narcissism, the decline of social capital, the rising alienation from institutions or the decline of citizenship and neighborliness….today’s situation reminds us of the weakness of the sort of Cartesian rationalism Pinker champions and represents. Conscious reason can get you only so far when tribal emotions have been aroused, when existential fears rain down, when narcissistic impulses have been given free rein, when spiritual longings have nowhere healthy to go, when social trust has been devastated, when all the unconscious networks that make up 99 percent of our thinking are aflame and disordered….Pinker’s rationalism is not the total cure.
From Douthat's Op-Ed NYTimes piece:
I’m most interested in the bright line that Pinker draws between the empirical spirit of science and the unreasoning obscurantism he suggests otherwise prevails.
I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the most personally empirical, least inclined to meekly submit to authority, and most determined to reason independently and keep trying things until they worked.
That’s because those worlds’ inhabitants were a self-selected population who had either experienced something transformative or suffered something debilitating and been told by the official consensus, “We have no answers for you yet.” And so they ventured out in search of answers in an intensely experimental spirit — trying to see what people or prayers or situations recreated the initial religious experience, trying to discern what remedy or diet or program might actually make them feel, not just alive, but well.
From Szalai in “Books of The Times”:
There’s a noble kernel to Pinker’s project. He wants to discourage the kind of fatalism that leads people to think the only way forward is to tear everything down. But he seems surprisingly blind to how he fuels such fatalism by playing to the worst stereotype of the enlightened cosmopolitan: disdainful and condescending — sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.
...has little patience for individual tragedy; it’s the aggregate that excites him. Even if manufacturing jobs have gone to China, “and the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class,” he still sees this as cause for celebration: “As citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the trade-off is worth it.”
But life isn’t lived in the aggregate, and it’s crude utilitarian sentiments like this — a jarring blend of chipper triumphalism and unfeeling sang froid — that makes “Enlightenment Now” such a profoundly maddening book.
Part of the problem is that Pinker succumbs to a version of the magical thinking he otherwise rails against. For all his intermittent disclaimers about how past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, he keeps slipping into messianic anticipation. “Though I am skittish about any notion of historical inevitability, cosmic forces or mystical arcs of justice,” he writes, “some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force.”
A common thread in the reservations stated by reviewers is that reason, and some sort of social order based on rational humanism, is not enough, is not the cure. It doesn’t seem to offer the rich emotional social bondings of religion and tribalism that make groups of people cohere.  This is more a tactical and strategic point than a challenge to rationality and a scientific world view, which can frequently provide a solid reason that irrationality seems to be so useful,  why the effectiveness of apparently irrational cults noted by Douthat can have a very rational basis. Almost any belief shared as evidence of tribal loyalty energizes our evolved empathetic social cognition. There is a rational basis for believing the world is flat if that belief is required as evidence of tribal loyalty. Or, the rationalist might explain the social cohesion whose loss is lamented by Brooks  as an evolved and sometimes useful mass placebo effect, with religion or tribal loyalty promoting unity because people believe it will.  Social cohesion, the "Us" that is the collective form of our individual "I's" is no less an illusion than our experience of having an individual "I."  Our rational cognitive neuroscientific minds inform us that both illusions are useful ones, made possible by the evolved circuitry of distinctive areas of our social brains.

The reviewers seem not to note what I think is Pinker’s effective response in Chapter 23 of his book:
Though the moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming, some might wonder whether it is any match for religion, nationalism, and romantic heroism in the campaign for people’s hearts. Will the Enlightenment ultimately fail because it cannot speak to primal human needs? Should humanists hold revival meetings at which preachers thump Spinoza’s Ethics on the pulpit and ecstatic congregants roll back their eyes and babble in Esperanto? Should they stage rallies in which young men in colored shirts salute giant posters of John Stuart Mill? I think not; recall that a vulnerability is not the same as a need. The citizens of Denmark, New Zealand, and other happy parts of the world get by perfectly well without these paroxysms. The bounty of a cosmopolitan secular democracy is there for everyone to see.

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