Can Reason Save Us?

Sunday, June 13, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 21, 2018

What Is It

To an optimist, things are constantly getting better: disease and extreme poverty are down; life expectancy, literacy, and equality are up; and it’s all thanks to the glory of human reason. But a pessimist would point to the continuing presence of injustice, oppression, and war, and the dangers of global warming and nuclear annihilation. So who's right? Are we really living in an age of progress? And can reason really save us? Josh and Ken try to reason with renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

This program was recorded live at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, CA.



Josh Landy  
Is reason our only guide to the true and the good?

Ken Taylor  
Or can reasonable people disagree on what is true and good?

Josh Landy  
Is it a mistake to fetishize reason?

Comments (10)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, October 17, 2018 -- 11:57 AM

Professor Pinker is one of my

Professor Pinker is one of my favorite public intellectuals and has been for several years. The notion about reason saving us is romantic---not in a nonsensical way, mind you, but in a pie-in-the-sky atomically optimistic one. Matt Ridley also qualifies as prototypical of the school. These, among other men and women, have abiding confidence in our ability to forestall much of the discord and darkness facing our world, both nationally and globally. Reason, of itself, is not the saving grace of humankind. It may be pivotal, but it is not all-encompassing. Alison Gopnik's earlier Atlantic Magazine critique of Pinker's Enlightenment book was a bit acerbic (to me). But, even so, her observation(s) regarding contempt were not far-fetched.

We can certainly reason with one another well enough. We can reach accords; agreements; contracts; pacts; treaties; and all manner of bilateral schmoozes, designed to help us live with one another,plotting our next chess move(s), carrying on mutually(?) beneficial trade while not bombing each other into the dirt. Trade wars are au courant and are preferable to bullets and bombs. All of this attempts to mask the contempt we hold for all who believe differently than we do. The cold war of the fifties and sixties never really ended---it merely became more focused: get what you can from whom you can get it and give what will further promote your primacy, sustainability and growth. Everyone wins some; everyone loses some. And all remain contemptuous of one another.

So, in this sense, Gopnik had it right. We are just plain nasty---in such a civilized way. And we have had many years to up our game. Artificial altruism is the ultimate expression of insincerity.Reason, by itself, will never get it done...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, October 19, 2018 -- 12:32 PM

Just an aside concerning the

Just an aside concerning the primacy, sustainability and growth mentioned in my 10/17/2018 comments: This morning, I heard some information on the BBC regarding the growth of China's economy. Seems it has been growing at a rate of 6.5%, which is by any standard, pretty rapid. However, there was a caveat with this: the 'mountain of debt' incurred by local government in China is likely (if not definitely) going to slow that rapid growth, so that leaps and bounds will be replaced with something more like the torpidity of a mollusk. Not knowing the dynamics of all this, it still seems that the Chinese government has banked on rapid growth and development to somehow cancel out the effects of mountainous debt. 'Sorta' like the kind(s) of chicanery that brought down the economic house of cards in 2008. Seems also as though, as with physics, economics has some immutable laws, which once violated, lead to inexorable consequences. Those who try to circumvent those pay the price, ahora o mas tarde...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, November 12, 2018 -- 12:30 PM

One final comment, and I'll

One final comment, and I'll let this topic rest. Hume had some interesting things to say about reason in his Treatise of Human Nature. He said essentially that reason embodied the notion that people could either agree or disagree on some matters (ie. their opinions), and likewise agree or disagree on matters-of-fact. This shows a propensity for humans to discount truth when being on the winning side of argument is more to their self-interest. Whether we believe him or not, his faith in experience and history as bellwethers of human nature seems sound, given what we see of ourselves everyday.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 24, 2021 -- 2:54 PM

Tried to get to Pinker's book

Tried to get to Pinker's book, mentioned in the 2018 edition of this post. Did not hear the show. Thinking about the question again,I frame a different answer. Reason is but one facet of our cognitive ability. If we are to save ourselves, it will take much more than our power to reason with one another. In order to place ourselves on the same page, we need a collective will, and the realization that anything less cannot permit us to connect the dots; ACT outside the box; jump out of the system. Individual governments' interests and preferences can only serve those interests and preferences. Foucault's obsession with the intractability of power is not obsession at all when historical evidence is examined and weighed. Calmly and without prejudice. Reason simply cannot carry the day. Lesser public intellectuals have reached this epiphany. Because answers to such questions are rarely uncomplicated. The questions, themselves, simple at first blush, are found to be confounding. This is not territory for the timid. Nor for those seeking shortcuts. Or magic bullets...
I will try to read Pinker's book. If only to decide for myself whether HIS reasoning was sound. Folks on your blog have, fairly, tried to keep me honest. When possible, I have tried to do the same for some of them. Reason, and distance save us from one another. But we are mostly unable to make a difference that MAKES a difference. People in power, worldwide, have that ability. But, they must see a compelling need to set aside differences. And then, want to. Reason? The least of our problems...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, April 25, 2021 -- 2:16 PM

An aside: I have mentioned

An aside: I have mentioned Susan Jacoby's work in the past. Having read some of her work, I find correlation with Pinker. The whole idea of reason-as-salvation was short to begin with. Jacoby's books further illustrate this because she understands the forces of history. Pinker does also, which is why he holds validation in my view of why things are as they are. Try harder, friends. Think better. There are no rockets here.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, May 27, 2021 -- 4:29 AM

Something occurred to me

Something occurred to me regarding this post and some relating thereto. Pinker's notion(s) about reason is fine, as far as it can go. But reason and reasoning may be the wrong terms here. The crux of the matter depends on things like agreement and cooperation. All sorts of treaties, pacts and other contract-like accords are drawn, amended and signed on to by adversaries or other aggrieved parties. They reason over and haggle out details until some mutually distasteful accord is reached. Things may go smoothly, for a time. Then one party reneges on or cheats on the agreement, making matters worse, perhaps, than they were before. Reasoning played a role, of course. But there was no trust to begin with. And agreement and cooperation were mere 'window dressing'.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, June 8, 2021 -- 10:54 PM

What caused the late bronze

What caused the late bronze age collapse or the Roman empire? We don’t know. But all of the great placards of progress are shadowed by past human failure to maintain forward motion for too long. We are overdue. The challenges are too significant to provide portage for all. Perhaps that is why some have decided to circle their wagons around what little riches they have based on unsustainable promises.

The best path is the liberal path of reason, equity, and freedom. All three of these are independent, complicated, and amazingly promising. Reason is where we need to focus our efforts.

sminsuk's picture


Sunday, June 13, 2021 -- 3:26 PM

I listened to this episode

I listened to this episode today, June 13, 2021, when it was re-aired. I'm not sure if it was Pinker or one of the hosts who said, "Even in the fever swamp of the right wing, there's no move to resurrect Jim Crow laws". Well, THAT assertion sure didn't age well! So much for that person's argument.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, June 14, 2021 -- 3:47 PM

Yes, to all of the above---my

Yes, to all of the above---my remarks discounted. I watch the pictorials ,leading up to a prospective meeting :Biden and Putin. Seems that all pictures of the Russian look about the same. An arrogant smirk that says you can't beat me. I am invincible. KGB. Do not imagine we will be cooperative with anyone outside our own allies. Why would I believe this? Because our allies are no more than those who need us more than we would ever need them. My position is strong, yours, weak. This is always how it has been, with one or two exceptions. There will be no more exceptions, so long as I am in power. And, i expect to be there for a long time to come. I think this is much of what is in the Russian's mind. He is far more dangerous than any other ruler in the world. He has greater forces at his command. And the knowledge and sophistication to employ them.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, January 23, 2022 -- 1:06 PM

My remarks on this topic in

My remarks on this topic in 2018 were sincere. I truly believed what I wrote---well, most of it. At the time, there were more things around philosophy I did not know. Still are. Only recently have I been introduced to Polanyi's notion of cultural embeddedness and another sociological term, culture (or, cultural) centeredness. They seem related(to me), but that is not the immediate issue. I do think that if Polanyi was right, our ability to reason is but a peripheral capacity---useful, certainly, but hamstrung (i.e., crippled) by our cultural heritage, if not, in fact by our genetic one. The embeddedness piece says something like: if you always do what you have always done, you'll always get what you have always got. This is where reason takes a port side broadside. We tend to do what ancestors did. And, that residual, reptillian portion of our vastly advanced brain lurks, ever suspicious, in the background. Embeddedness is relentless. Our genes aren't saying much. Yet. Embeddedness implores us not to change...

And, therefore, in spite of this, I still think Pinker is right in his interpretation of the facts and figures. But there are deeper, darker realities afoot here. The embeddedness and centeredness issues remain.
Reason does not equal trust. Is this contextual reality? Perhaps. Might it be a foundation of that stripe of reality? Could just possibly be. Should we be worried? I think so. I'm not trying to sell you a bridge, though there bridges aplenty. I just want you to know what you are dealing with. Think about Nagel's distinction concerning reality.. look it up. I have mentioned it in comments before. Or, you can find it in his book about a view from nowhere.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines