Older pieces

Apr 08 2018

Why Pure Reason Won’t End American Tribalism

[Published in Wired on April 9, 2018]


If you haven’t encountered any reviews of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s new bestseller Enlightenment Now—which would be amazing, given how many there have been—don’t worry. I can summarize them in two paragraphs.

The positive ones say Pinker argues convincingly that we should be deeply grateful for the Enlightenment and should put our stock in its legacy. A handful of European thinkers who were born a few centuries ago set our species firmly on the path of progress with their compelling commitment to science, reason, and humanism (where humanism means “maximizing human flourishing”). Things have indeed, as Pinker documents in great detail, gotten better in pretty much every way—materially, morally, politically—since then. And if we stay true to Enlightenment values, they’ll keep getting better.

The negative reviews say things like this: Pinker attributes too much of our past progress to Enlightenment thought (giving short shrift, for example, to the role of Christian thinkers and activists in ending slavery); his faith in science and reason is naive, given how often they’ve been misused; his assumption that scientifically powered progress will bring happiness betrays a misunderstanding of our deepest needs; his apparent belief that secular humanism can fill the spiritual void left by rationalism’s erosion of religion only underscores that misunderstanding; and so on. In short: In one sense or another, Pinker overdoes this whole enlightenment thing.

My own problem with the book is the sense in which Pinker underdoes the enlightenment thing. In describing the path that will lead humankind to a bright future, he ignores the importance of enlightenment in the Eastern sense of the term. If the power of science and reason aren’t paired with a more contemplative kind of insight, I think the whole Enlightenment project, and maybe even the whole human experiment, could fail.

If you fear I’m heading in a deeply spiritual or excruciatingly mushy direction—toward a sermon on the oneness of all beings or the need for loving kindness—I have good news: I’ve delivered such sermons, but this isn’t one of them. Eastern enlightenment has multiple meanings and dimensions, and some of those involve more logical rigor than you might think. In the end, an Eastern view of the mind can mesh well with modern cognitive science—a fact that Pinker could have usefully pondered before writing this book.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality

[Published in the Atlantic in November 2013.]


Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them BY JOSHUA GREENE (PENGUIN)

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil BY PAUL BLOOM (CROWN)

in 1999, Joshua Greene—then a philosophy graduate student at Princeton, now a psychology professor at Harvard—had a very fertile idea. He took a pretty well-known philosophical thought experiment and infused it with technology in a way that turned it into a very well-known philosophical thought experiment—easily the best-known, most-pondered such mental exercise of our time. In the process, he raised doubts, in inescapably vivid form, about the rationality of human moral judgment.

The thought experiment—called the trolley problem—has over the past few years gotten enough attention to be approaching “needs no introduction” status. But it’s not quite there, so: An out-of-control trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless you pull a lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person. Would you—should you—pull the lever?

Now rewind the tape and suppose that you could avert the five deaths not by pulling a lever, but by pushing a very large man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body would slow the train to a halt just in time to save everyone—except, of course, him. Would you do that? And, if you say yes the first time and no the second (as many people do), what’s your rationale? Isn’t it a one-for-five swap either way?

Greene’s inspiration was to do brain scans of people while they thought about the trolley problem. The results suggested that people who refused to save five lives by pushing an innocent bystander to his death were swayed by emotional parts of their brains, whereas people who chose the more utilitarian solution—keep as many people alive as possible—showed more activity in parts of the brain associated with logical thought.