Rationality is Steven Pinker’s latest book. It’s also one that will leave the reader nonplussed or just thinking “is this all there is”? It contains a relatively brief but accurate introduction to elementary logic and statistics. Bayesian analysis is explained successfully; but I suspect that explanation will be fully grasped only by those who already understand it.
He explains why doctors often get medical data and tests wrong, but doesn’t touch on the problems the profession had with the COVID outbreak. This failure to apply his explanations of rational thinking to current problems permeates the book.
Pinker’s attempts to counteract bias are stained with his own biases which are sprinkled throughout the volume. They are what you might expect from a left leaning Harvard professor – forgive the redundancy. He uses former President Trump and his ideas as totems for irrational thinking without ever explaining why they are irrational. He takes the position on faith, this in a book that rejects arguments from faith. He also argues against ad hominem attacks while peppering Trump with them. The “correct” view about climate change is similarly accepted with no attempt at analysis.
He thinks the Wikipedia is a self correcting source of relatively unbiased knowledge. He also believes (he’s against belief as opposed to rational analysis) the UN is an effective organization that is helping to make the world a better place. He also declaims that Simon and Schuster’s rejection of Senator Josh Hawley’s recent book was good for rational public discourse.
He’s for rational analysis in all things. Give me a rational analysis as to why Beethoven is a better composer than Sibelius. It’s undeniably true. But why? There are many other areas of human activity which don’t lend themselves to a rational solution. Take love and marriage. Arranged marriages would likely have better outcomes than the prevailing method of pairing. Few in the Western world are willing to submit to it. Pinker himself is twice divorced and is currently on wife #3.
He argues that capital punishment is cruel and unusual and thus will soon be declared unconstitutional. He gives the arguments against it, but fails to give the rational explanation for it. Said argument is deterrence. Not that execution will deter others from murder, but that it will deter the convicted murderer. As long as he’s alive he might kill another person – eg, a prison guard, another prisoner, or escape and kill a civilian. Keeping a convicted murderer confined to a supermax prison for the rest of his life is just as cruel and unusual as executing him. Then there is the rational idea of appropriate justice. Some crimes are so heinous that execution is the only commensurate punishment.
At the end of the book Pinker argues that truth is independent of its source. That Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and often took hypocritical positions in no way lessens the foundational wisdom of the Declaration of Independence. Accordingly, Pinker’s inability to adhere to his arguments is not an argument against them. What he is responsible for is the dry writing style and his failure to place human emotions in their proper place. While human emotions often lead us astray, they also are responsible for much of what is best in life. Love, honor, art, beauty, loyalty, and a host of others are essential for a well lived life.
Professor Pinker is an astute observer of the human condition. Much of what he has said and written prior to Rationality deserves serious attention. This volume is not up to his usual standard.
As a philosopher of education and former professor of critical thinking, I contend that far too much attention has been paid to “formal logic,” or the essentially mathematical relationship between the premises and conclusions of arguments, than to “material logic,” or what the premises and conclusions of arguments actually claim. Most developments in logic, from the “symbolic logic” of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, to the algebraic theories of George Boole, the “axioms” of Giuseppe Peano, and leaving aside the nearly unreadable works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, G.E. Moore and many others, have focused on the validity of an argument to the detriment of the soundness of what is being asserted. The application of formal logic to ethics and aesthetics displays its limitations compared to material logic, which examines the clarity of the language used in an argument, the evidence presented for whatever is being claimed, and what means are used to test that evidence. My own reading of “Rationality” leads me to borrow and amplify a line from Robert Browning in assessing the book’s limitations: Pinker’s “reach considerably exceeds his grasp.”