Dear Professor Pinker,
Yesterday, after a job interview in Eindhoven, I used some coupons in a bookshop on the route to the station. I bought one book of an optimist (yours, see below), one book of a pessimist (a Dutch translation of l’homme révolté, by Albert Camus, 1951), and one book about science (On Physics and Philosophy, by Bernard d’Espagnat, 2006).
Not feeling myself fit enough to delve in quantum physics (again, and possibly again to little avail), and having sort of a conatus to uplift myself somewhat, I decided to read your book first.
It is possible that I have overestimated the uplifting power of your book somewhat.
With kind regard,
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (Random House, 2018; Penguin Books, 2019)
Pinker’s book has a comfortable and clear structure. The three chapters of Part One describe what Pinker takes to be the message of the Enlightenment. Part Two takes up what Pinker considers to be the main promise of the Enlightenment, progress. After bashing progressofobics in its first chapter, Pinker argues in consecutive chapters that progressofobics have a mistaken view on the facts of the matter concerning fifteen domains and topics. The seventeenth chapter of Part Two asks whether progress will continue in the future, and comes up with an affirmative answer. Part Three consists of three chapters describing what Pinker takes to be the essence of reason, science and humanism respectively, hailing all three under the provision that they are properly executed.
This structure gives great comfort to the reader who can’t spare the time to read the book from cover to cover. The reader can comfortably assume that Pinker’s argument in Part Two will be repetitive:
- Readers, there are those who believe that there is no progress in society or, indeed, that society is going down the drain.
- These guys are mistaken, both generally and specifically.
- The general mistake of these guys is that they concentrate too much on bad news.
- Specifically, and for instance, these guys deplore the alleged increase of economic inequality. But specifically, and in this instance too, these guys are wrong. For one, there is no objective measurable increase in economic equality. For second, even if economic inequality would increase, this does not imply there is an increase in poverty. Indeed, poverty has decreased in the last century.
- Whenever these guys hold that matters are turning for the worse, the facts of the matter prove that matters have turned for the better, huh.
It may well be that the fifteen chapters in which Pinker rehearses this refrain contain interesting facts. However, Pinker is a cognitive scientist – or sort of a cognitive scientist – and will not have had time and expertise to gather all the relevant empirical facts by himself. More importantly, Pinker cannot have had the time and the expertise to verify the facts cited by him and to validate these facts relative to the topic of his argument. True, he might have cited the ‘right’ sources, but the reader has no guarantee that he has done so. Hence, the reader cannot leave the decision about whether there is progress, to Pinker. That is not to say that a reader with an optimistic nature cannot find solace in the overall message of Pinker’s song. Indeed, it would be nice if future research would uncover how many readers of Pinker’s book have done so to invigorate their optimism. Readers who are inclined to skepticism or pessimism might suppress the urge to read these chapters, if only because they believe to have heard similar tunes while reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010) or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, a brief history of human mankind (2011), or one of the earlier books by Pinker himself. It is a good thing that pessimists like John Gray do not have a monopoly on writing New York Times’ bestsellers. It remains an illusion that pessimists and optimists are actually engaged in a dialogue in which anyone allows himself or the other to be persuaded by the view of the opposition.
Philosophically inclined readers can skip Part Two. Indeed, reading Part One robs them of any reason to plow thru Pinker’s eulogies in Part Three. Pinker’s patient has deceased in chapter two of Part One.
Before discussing the chapter in which Pinker demolishes the argument he wants to make in this book, a few words about chapter one and chapter three.
Chapter one is readable and indeed stimulating as a quick account of the Enlightenment, or at least of the brighter aspects of it. It has also the positive feature of being short. In spite of the fact that the chapter appears to have been written during an attack of hyperventilation, Pinker finds breath to stress that in retrospect most of the heroes of the Enlightenment where bigots, racists, slaveholders, anti-Semites and murderers. To this list may be added that there where typically white males of leisure with symptoms that in retrospect would render them DSM-suitable cases of treatment.
Chapter three is too annoying to be readable with comfort. It is nice that Pinker allows critics of the Enlightenment equal time (chapter three is about as long as chapter one), but he doesn’t seem to be really interested in what they might have to say. This apathy spills over to the first chapter of Part Two where Pinker pursues the megalomaniac fashion of giving ‘A reply to my critics’ without disguising that he isn’t really interested in what his critics have to say (nor even whether they intended to criticize him).
Whatever philosophical work is done by Pinker is done in chapter two of Part One, titled “Entro, Evo, Info”. To understand the ploy Pinker sets up in this chapter – and his fallacious reasoning while doing so – we have to consider the problem that has haunted naturalism – o, Pinker surely is a naturalist, of intends to be one – in the millennia since science was invented: how can we get from a descriptive stance to a normative stance? This problem, of course, is famous because those who are skeptical about whether there is a solution for this problem, have described the blockade as the “Is”-“Ought”-fallacy or, more bluntly, as the naturalistic fallacy. According to these skeptics it is impossible to derive objective norms or objective values from what from factual statements. Thus, even if we have a firm grasp of the facts, and even if we know these facts to obtain – a skeptic doubts whether we have firm grasp of the facts, and would not endorse any claim to the effect that we know them, but that’s another matter – we cannot construct an argument from facts to values or norms without introducing an additional, allegedly factual statement, that states that the value or norm that is derived, is itself factual, rendering the argument viciously circular.
To avoid us drowning in quasi-technical jargon let us consider an example. We observe an ape. The ape as just eaten one banana. This we have seen. We offer the ape another banana. We witness the ape eating that one too. From these observations we conclude that the ape likes bananas:
VALUEape: BANANAS YUMMIE-YUMMIE
It appears that we have succeeded in deriving a value from facts. That the value we have derived is valuable from the perspective of the ape, and that we might find bananas distasteful, is no showstopper. If we are able to derive the ape’s values from what the apes does, then we might also be able to derive the values of a human individual from what the individual does and – assuming the other problems raised by Hume and Goodman can be solved somehow – we might also be able to derive the values of mankind from what human individuals do. Once we have derived values from facts, we should be able to derive norms from facts too. We could train the ape to behave in a particular way to persuade us to give him a banana. After having trained the ape to behave in this specific way, we might say that the ape behaves according to a norm, e.g.:
NORMape: IF YOU WANT A BANANA, YOU HAVE TO MAKE TWO JUMPS
However, our reasoning in these cases is not logically valid. From the fact that the ape eats a banana doesn’t follow logically that the ape likes bananas. Maybe he was just hungry and would have eaten anything at all. Moreover, if the ape does not eat a fifth banana that is offered, we would not conclude that ‘therefore’ apes like four bananas but do not like five bananas. Nor would we conclude that the ape does not like bananas if, in cases he is offered a banana and an orange, the ape eats the orange. In a scientific setting we appreciate that our reasoning would not be logically valid. Instead of concluding “this ape likes bananas” or “this ape conforms to the norm to get bananas” we construct more complicated settings to describe in what circumstances the ape eats a banana and what the preferences of the ape are. At any time during our observations we might abbreviate our findings by saying that the ape likes bananas, or behaves in a particular way because the ape wants to receive a banana. And, believing that Skinner has been effectively skinned by Chomsky or Dennett, we might say to each other that thus we have shown that apes have values, have beliefs about these values and therefore can behave according to norms that increase the amount of these values. But this does not entail that we have been able to derive values and norms from facts after all, for if we would have done so, the same logical structure would be applicable to stones and other, allegedly non sentient objects. From the fact that stones fall to earth we do not – or do no longer – conclude that stones like to fall to earth or behave according to the norms of nature if they only do so if their fall is not blocked by another object.
In making our inferences to values and norms logically valid, we not just introduce or reintroduce mentalistic terms of the kind believed to be suspect by some empiricists, but we introduce these terms with a flavor that is intrinsically normative. To say that an ape likes bananas, amounts to saying that an ape finds eating bananas good.
This is, at least according to those who object to what they call ‘the naturalistic fallacy’, what we invariably do when we try to reason from facts to values and norms. Somewhere along the route we add a premise like “if an ape eats bananas, then he likes bananas”, and we take these premises as statements of facts. Or, to make the same observation in other terms: we reasons as if values and norms are written into reality. Not by an intelligent designer, of course, but by natural processes themselves. To paraphrase the dictum ‘Dare to understand!’ Pinker ascribes to Kant: “Dare to understand the facts, and the values and norms will follow.”
However, the gap in our reasoning cannot be filled by aphorisms. Some of the heroes of the Enlightenment, including Hume and Kant, appreciated this fact to their despair. They did not allow themselves a quick, transcendental way out. Nor did they accepted Spinoza’s solution of conflating facts and values indistinguishable a viable option. Taking his cue from Mandeville and Smith Hegel tried to forge a concept of goodness while avoiding introducing a good/bad-distinction explicitly. Having robbed both the thesis and the antithesis of normative flavors, the synthesis looked like a ‘good’ thing until Marx showed that the synthesis could also be ‘worse’ then its antithetical predecessors. The prospects of naturalistic normativism have remained bleak ever since.
Still, Pinker is convinced that he can judge whether progress has been made. Assuming that ‘progress’ stands for something valuable and good, he must have succeeded in convincing himself that he has solved the conundrum somehow. Pinker’s solution – or attempt at a solution – is given in chapter two and goes as follows:
- FACT: the second law of thermodynamics (in an isolated system entropy increases or, at least, does not decrease) is infringed upon locally by the crystallization of nature into complex, structured systems.
- FACT: complex, structured systems become ever more complex and structured by natural selection.
- FACT: complex structure = information.
- FACT: the information in a complex system turns this system in a goal-directed system, sc. systems that are directed at survival and become better in achieving this goal.
- FACT: the increase of information in systems is progress.
Okay, (e) is not stated explicitly by Pinker, but the explanation for this is that if he would have stated (e) it would be clear that he hasn’t solved the naturalistic conundrum. From (d) we cannot jump to a conclusion about progress because there is no a priori reason to hold that a goal-directed system is better or worse than a system that is not goal-directed. We, humans, believe that we are goal-directed and that stones are not and we might convince ourselves that this entails that we are somehow better than stones. However, this is not just a matter of perspectival taste but because we assume that stone cannot have any perspectival taste, stones couldn’t care less. Our self-appraisal is comparable to FC Ajax Amsterdam claiming victory in a soccer-match over a falling rock in Australia or an earthquake in Indonesia.
Goal-directedness in itself cannot be a marker of progress. If Pinker were to hold this he would overlook the same fact as was overlooked by John Locke in his arduous argument against innate ideas in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689-1704). Throughout his argument Locke assumes that innate ideas have an intrinsic marker, sc. universality. Hence, Locke gives elaborate arguments to the effect that the ideas that are alleged to be innate, are not universal. But, surely, innate ideas need not be universally shared. If organisms are born with innate ideas, then the innate ideas of frogs are not the same as the innate ideas of horses. By analogue, there is little reason to assume that organisms of the same species have the same innate ideas (unless we define ‘species’ as the group of organisms that share innate ideas, etc.). It may well be that Steven Pinker was born with DNA that directed him towards to the goal of survival and reproduction whereas Thieu Kuijs was born with DNA that direct him towards to goal of self-destruction and extinction. If so, in the end both might have succeeded in achieving their respective innate goal while both have failed in achieving the innate goal set by the other. Even if introducing ‘goals’ does not infringe upon naturalism – which it does, of course – it would not enable us to distinguish the good and the bad from the mere ugly.
Now Pinker does give a turn at the screw by relating evolution and the goal-directedness of organism to sympathy. Allegedly, human beings are born with a predilection towards some form of altruism. And altruism is an intrinsically moral feature; and moreover, a feature that is considered to be good. Ignoring the question whether all human beings are born with the affection of sympathy – a question that is rhetorical if not openly cynical – in this line of argument Pinker would have left naturalism behind. There is no conceivable naturalistic argument to the effect that sympathy and whatever behavior it may sprout is beneficial to whatever is good in the survival of the species. At most we could say that human beings and mammals in general are thus poorly equipped by evolution that they have to show sympathy in order to get to the next round of reproduction.
Because it is, albeit under inspection, evident that Pinker has not solved the naturalistic puzzle, we still are in need of an explanation for the fact that Pinker himself doesn’t seem to notice that his book has turned into a dead end in chapter two. Two explanations spring up at this point:
- Pinker makes an additional assumption that seems to be thus evident that he doesn’t see the necessity to make it explicit in bridging the gap between facts and values. If so, this assumption might have been that information is itself intrinsically good. In the version that conflates information with knowledge, this assumption underlies Western thought from Plato onwards. Since hardly anyone would argue that having knowledge or information is a bad thing, it is possible that Pinker has made this slip of the mind.
- Pinker has not been aware of burden that rests on a naturalist who believes in progress to show a way out of the naturalistic conundrum.
The second explanation cannot be ruled out but has to be allotted a high entropy since in other books, e.g. in How the mind works (1997), Pinker showed some awareness of the problem that faces a normative naturalist. True, authors like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have spoiled the intellectual climate to such a degree that other authors might have forgotten too that giving an argument is not the same as stating a dogma. But let us not burden Pinker with the vices of his fellow bestseller-authors and allow for the possibility that in his call for further enlightenment he was aware of the naturalistic fallacy.
So we should settle for the first explanation. Pinker believes that information or knowledge is intrinsically good. As a corollary, reason and science are intrinsically good, too. Once we allowed ourselves some logical liberties in jumping the naturalistic gap between facts and norms, we could easily convince ourselves that the facts of nature combined with what is intrinsically good about reason and science leads to the values and norms of humanism. Thus, we have gone full circle at least.
Alas, information is either not intrinsically good or bad, or it is very bad.
From a naturalistic perspective, information is a conjunction between facts. This conjunction can be described exhaustively by scientific theory without introducing mentalist terms or terms that are associated with values and norms.
From a societal perspective, information – or what is dubbed ‘information’ in metaphorical memes and sloppy slang – is the Mother of all Evil. Most of this sort of information is costly, superfluous, redundant, not relevant, escapist, propagandist, misleading, fake, wicked, vile, perverse, or outright criminal, and – though this should have been a contradiction in terms – typically incomplete and incorrect.