Thursday, September 26, 2013

Steven Pinker Likes You. He Really Likes You.

by Finbarr Curtis

I want to be Steven Pinker’s friend. As a humanist, then, I was relieved when he told me in a much discussed New Republic essay that science was not my enemy. This is good because I did not think science was my enemy.  Just in case there was any confusion, Pinker assures us that he is a big fan of the humanities. Or, at least, he likes what the humanities once were and might be again if humanists could be more like their Englightenment predecessors. As Pinker explains,

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

Not to brag, but I have read some of all of these thinkers at some point or another. For this, I can thank my humanistic education. But what puzzles Pinker is why people like me can read such good books and ask such bad questions. He sees an achievement gap between science, which has advanced by leaps and bounds, and the humanities, which have regressed from the Enlightenment to what he calls “postmodernism.”

The fix, then, would be to pick up where the Enlightenment left off. But let’s think for a moment about Pinker’s longing to travel back in time to school our early modern theorists in some freshman science. Take our friend Thomas Hobbes, who Pinker likely has in mind when he bestows the title of evolutionary psychologist on pre-Darwinian thinkers:

They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms." 

For Pinker, Hobbes’s proto-scientific attempt to describe the state of nature could have gone so much further if he had more empirical data. If he only knew what scientists know today about evolutionary psychology Hobbes could have come up with the political and legal theory that could solve the problems that plague us all. This knowledge would have helped to settle disputes between other heavyweights like Locke and Rousseau, both of whom had their own speculative visions of the state of nature.

Here is where humanists, or at least the kinds of humanists that vex Pinker, are likely to see things differently. From many of us, the states of nature described in Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau tell us less about the early life of the human species and a lot more about the early modern nation states in which these thinkers lived. In this approach, Hobbes's theories about the state of nature can be best understood as the imaginative projections of a guy living in a seventeenth-century England embroiled in civil war.

So when Pinker assures us that Hobbes’s problem could be fixed with more accurate information, many humanists aren’t so sure. Pinker’s confidence comes from his certainty that the lack of empirical data has been filled in and we are good to go. But while there is undoubtedly a greater quantity of knowledge out there, what if Hobbes time and ours are not entirely different? What if, like Hobbes or Locke or Rousseau, we also have incomplete information and are likely to imagine the human condition in ways that respond to particular problems that we face in our lives?

Pinker would, of course, agree that we don’t know everything. But he is quite confident that we know enough. As he explains,

[T]he world is intelligible. The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.”

Okay, but what if we were to add another concession that went something like “It’s really complicated and we’re not sure.” And if we’re not sure, theorizing about humans is tricky because it means thinking and acting under conditions of uncertainty.  So what Pinker decries as humanist fear of science might be better described as his frustration with those who have gotten out of the business of making grand claims about human nature and instead have stuck to more modest claims about the particular social worlds in which people live. While this sounds simple, humanists have tended to make it pretty complicated. Figuring out how our ideas reflect the worlds in which we live means that we have to spend a lot of time thinking about the worlds in which we live. This informs social theories about things like colonialism, or race, or gender, or property. And when humanists and social scientists think about this stuff they develop a technical language that’s going to sound a lot like mumbo jumbo if one thinks that all a guy like Hobbes was doing was making straightforward factual claims that we can now fix.

What I’m describing here is the kind of thinking that Pinker decries as postmodernism, which is a "disaster":

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.

Let’s take that last phrase, “suffocating political correctness.” Suffocating to whom, exactly? And what do we mean by political correctness? Importantly, Pinker is not talking about some extreme collection of over-the-top isms chronicled in the National Review sometime in the 90s. No, he’s talking about what pervasively characterizes the humanities to the point that no one can breathe.

To take a more concrete example, it’s possible that Pinker’s crusade against political correctness informed his recent defense of Colin McGinn, the University of Miami philosopher who lost his job in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. According to Pinker, his bro McGinn was persecuted for “apparently nothing more serious than exchanging sexual banter with a graduate student.” What’s interesting is how Pinker describes the intellectual effects of the University of Miami’s actions:

Even if the University had a clear policy that regulated communications between professor and student, the punishment is ludicrously disproportionate to the alleged offense. As well as harming the reputation and intellectual quality of the University of Miami, such an action would put a chill on communication between faculty and graduate students and on the openness and informality on which scholarship depends.

As it turned out, Pinker later admitted that McGinn’s behavior might have been more serious than he realized because he did not have all of the facts.  As a good scientist, Pinker is willing to stand corrected in the wake of new empirical data.  Good for him.  But his initial confident assertions that there was nothing serious about "sexual banter" might be the sort of ethical transgression that humanists want to avoid with their suffocating political correctness.  It also gives humanists pause to wonder whether Pinker's confidence in the intelligibility of human nature is informed by the same sort of intellectual bravado that informed his belief in the intelligibility of the McGinn affair.  Humanists might be pardoned for their suspicions that grand theories of human nature are often haunted by mundane matters of sex and power involving people in particular social situations, and that it makes sense to know more about these social contexts before jumping to any conclusions.

So what this means is that what humanists think are difficult questions requiring hard work and nuanced thought Pinker sees as nothing more than suffocating restrictions on free inquiry.  And this is where it gets hard to be Pinker’s friend.  But the good news is that if a humanist like me is prone to "dogmatic relativism," then who am I to judge?

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