Rationality, by Steven Pinker

Martin Cohen takes issue with a polemic that seems to skate over some of the deeper dimensions of logic and scientific method

November 1, 2021
man silhouetted against kaleidoscope screen
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This is a polemic in favour of “the disenchantment of the world”. The phrase is Max Weber’s, and Steven Pinker happily recalls it in his new book, since he thinks disenchantment would be a great thing. He explains that his aim is to reduce the social space for “the land of mythology”, as opposed to “the land of reality”.

Ironically, however, when Weber used that phrase in 1917, it was accompanied by a warning that the “fate of our times” was characterised by “rationalisation and intellectualisation” – because Weber was actually bemoaning the loss of human purpose and meaning. But you will only find those five words cited here because Weber, perhaps the key theoretician of rationality, is passed over for a much shallower survey of informal logic. This predictably starts with Aristotle, trots through logic and critical thinking, and ends up with decision and game theory. In the process, the book becomes a recipe for intellectualism of exactly the kind Weber warned against.

Instead of the complexities of real life, most of Rationality is devoted to a Philosophy 101 programme for thinking more logically – until rather abruptly, after 283 pages, it pivots to the question of “What’s wrong with people?” Off come the gloves as Pinker weighs in on highly partisan issues of coronavirus policy, dismissing the concerns of not only hoi polloi but also some prominent specialists about entirely novel medical and social strategies. Away with “Covid quackery", the “pandemic of poppycock” and all those “cockamamie conspiracy theories”! Hooray for masks and “95% effective” vaccines, for these are the visible tokens of Pinkerationality (if I might offer a new term) – strategies reducing the death toll “to a fraction of those of historic pandemics”. As for “climate denial”, astrology, religion generally? They are all mad.

Now I can agree with some of the cheap rhetoric. I don’t think the Twin Towers were really blown up in a controlled explosion, or that extraterrestrials have visited 70 million Americans – but none of this moves the debate about rationality along. Pinker says “that humans steer their reasoning toward conclusions that work to the advantage of themselves or their sects” – but forgets that even false beliefs may also serve this purpose. (Believing that God cares about us might be a false belief, but it can still provide reassurance.) He also suggests that people confuse agreeing with a view and believing that it has been logically demonstrated. Yet many subscribers to odd views believe them without really considering them proven. The fact that theories are esoteric or opposed to received wisdom can be part of their appeal.

Pinker argues that propositional reasoning enables “the highest achievements of human rationality”, even while he accepts that words have no precise meanings. He explains that claims such as “all swans are white” are empirical truths – go out and check the colour of all swans – without reflecting on claims such as “snow is white”. (Literally, snow is not white. But culturally, we define it as such.) The point is that empirical truths – even things such as the length of the metre – incorporate human judgements.

No, contra Pinker, being scientific and logical is not what rationality is really about. Logic has nothing to say on the truth of premises, and so being logical cannot on its own ensure the correctness of our beliefs. As for establishing the facts of any matter, scientists themselves always insist that everything they say is up for challenge and re-examination. Yet eventually we stop asking and just start believing. Weber calls such decisions “cultural” judgements. Pinker seems to have lost sight of this preliminary layer that science and logic can only hope to build upon.

Martin Cohen is a visiting lecturer at Pau University in France and the editor of The Philosopher. His new book, Rethinking Thinking: Problem Solving from Sun Tzu to Google, will be published in the spring.

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters
Allen Lane, 432pp, £25.00
Published 28 September 2021
ISBN 9780525561996

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