Can Reason Save Us?

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.

Comments (3)


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.

 
 

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

 
 

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