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April 2022 Issue [Readings]

A Man of All Reasons

From “Steven Pinker Meets Socrates,” which was published in January by First Things. This dialogue incorporates text from Pinker’s book Rationality, which was published last year.

steven pinker: Socrates! We don’t often see you here in Harvard Yard.

socrates: No indeed, Pinker, for I do not wish to seem unreasonable by trespassing on the precincts of those who, like yourself, are highly reputed for superior knowledge, when I know very well how ignorant I am. But it is just this question—about what is reasonable—that has drawn me here. It seems you have written a book explaining what rationality is and what makes it good for us, which no doubt is a great service to those like myself who seek wisdom, and I was hoping I might question you on a few points.

pinker: I’m flattered, Socrates.

socrates: Perhaps you can explain what you think rationality is?

pinker: Rationality is generally taken to mean the ability to use knowledge to attain goals.

socrates: Is reason then only the means to an end, or can it tell you what the end should be?

pinker: Evolution has wired goals into our likes, wants, drives, emotions, and feelings. We deploy reason to attain those goals, and to prioritize them when they can’t all be realized at once. And the cooperativeness of the world when we apply reason to it is a strong indication that rationality really does get at objective truths.

socrates: Are we justified, then, in believing something true if it reliably enables us to get more of what we want?

pinker: That’s a good indicator. But rationality also requires that we distinguish what is true from what we want to be true. That demands reflectiveness, open-mindedness, and mastery of cognitive tools such as formal logic and mathematical probability. We live in an era with unprecedented resources for reasoning; we just need to use them consistently and effectively.

socrates: I must say, Pinker, that I was impressed with the way you explained all these logical and mathematical tools, so that even a man like myself with no expertise whatsoever could understand them. Your explanations of neural networks and deep learning systems, statistical decision theory, game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma—I thought a man who understood such wonderful things must be truly blessed and living in a blessed age, and I admired the charming and public-spirited way you set out these wares for all to benefit. But tell me, Pinker: What do you expect that benefit to be?

pinker: Well, Socrates, the conscious application of reason improves our lives and makes the world a better place. Citizens should be educated to have some command of the intellectual tools of sound reasoning, because we’re best off as individuals and as a society when we understand and apply them. And the power of rationality to guide moral progress is of a piece with its power to guide material progress.

socrates: Yes, but progress toward what? Do you think anything can be useful without adequate knowledge of the good?

pinker: Look around you, Socrates! Reason and science have supplied people with an abundance of goods: improved lifespans, nutrition, health, safety, and knowledge of how to save for retirement. Our biggest problem today is not finding solutions, but persuading people to accept them.

socrates: It seems, though, that I’ve somewhere heard progress defined as “improved means to an unimproved end.”

pinker: But we have improved the end. Unlike your small polis, our larger and anonymous modern democracies use enforceable laws and contracts to be more impartial and spread benefits to more people. And, Socrates, it is precisely this impartiality—when combined with our self-interested sociality—that is the core of morality.

socrates: Well, Pinker, I wish you the best—though what that truly is perhaps only a god knows.

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April 2022

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