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Life Arts    H4'ed 3/5/18

Steven Pinker Is Not a Deep Thinker (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 5, 2018: I would describe myself today as a theistic humanist, as distinct from an atheistic humanist (also known as a secular humanist). But the Canadian Steven Pinker (born in 1954) in psychology at Harvard University is an atheistic humanist. Indeed, he is a secular Jew.

In his new 550-page book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018), a follow up to his 800-page earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), Pinker aligns himself with what he interprets as Enlightenment Humanism. The Enlightenment in Western culture is also known as the Age of Reason. In addition to invoking the Enlightenment and Reason and Humanism in the title of his new book, he also invokes Science and Progress. Scattered throughout his new book are 75 figures illustrating certain trends that he discusses in his text. These 75 figures illustrate a dizzying array of stuff that he sees as supporting his thesis about progress.

In general, I do not necessarily disagree with his thesis about progress. But I wonder about the strong sense of urgency he expresses in his main title Enlightenment Now. His strong sense of urgency engenders in him a strong sense of impatience with the various people who evidently do not subscribe to his thesis about progress. Yes, when you advance a controversial thesis, you are supposed to stand by it and further advance it to the best of your ability. But where does his sense of urgency come from?

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Let me suggest an analogy between Pinker's sense of urgency and Pope Francis' sense of urgency in his prophetic pronouncements. In my OEN article "The Pope's Service to American Liberals and Progressives" (dated February 28, 2018), I liken the pope to the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos. I note that Amos was not discussing God's justice in a supposed afterlife, but in this life. Similarly, the pope is not calling for God's justice in a supposed afterlife, but for God's justice in this life. Whatever else may be said about Pinker, he is obviously discussing this life. We have a saying that you can take a boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. In Pinker's case, we might say that the boy can take himself out of the practice of the Jewish religion, but he can't take the Jewish prophet out of himself, eh?

Whew! As a would-be critic of his new book, do I need to challenge the spirit of the Enlightenment as Pinker interprets it, the spirit Enlightenment Reason as he interprets it, the spirit of Enlightenment Science as he interprets it, the spirit of Enlightenment Humanism as he interprets it, and the spirit of Enlightenment Progress as he interprets it? But I am not going to allow him to frame my debate with him. Consequently, I am not going to directly contest any of his interpretations of these various matters connected with the Enlightenment.

Or as a would-be critic, should I simply object to specific excesses in certain statements he makes? Excesses, there are. But I will leave it others to take him to task for those.

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Similarly, as a would-be critic of his new book, do I need to object to all of his specific criticisms of right-wing and left-wing ideologues? But I can often join with him in his criticisms of right-wing and left-wing ideologues and say, "A plague on both your houses." Consequently, I will leave it to others to take him to task for his specific criticisms of right-wing and/or left-wing ideological claims.

To his credit, Pinker does see President Donald J. Trump as worrisome -- and so do I.

Now, because Pinker criticizes both right-wing and left-wing ideologues, he may strike many young people as a deep thinker -- which he is not. Therefore, I want to call attention to two deep thinkers, both of whom were Jesuit priests, which may make them anathema to Pinker: The Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) and the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and polymath Walter J. Ong (1912-2003). However, even though neither of them is tainted by Marxist ideology, as certain academics today are, neither of them argues in detail against both right-wing and left-wing ideologues, as Pinker does.

However, I do not expect the right-wing or the left-wing ideologues themselves to be persuaded by his criticisms. Even though both right-wing ideologues and left-wing ideologues tend to be vociferous in advocating their respective arguments, they tend to be impervious to counter-arguments. I interpret their imperviousness to counter-arguments to mean that they are stuck in their respective affective orientations. Perhaps Pinker is also stuck in his own affective orientation -- and perhaps I am also stuck in my own affective orientation.

In general, deep affective changes in a person tend to call forth certain cognitive changes. Conversely, cognitive positions tend to be manifestations and expressions of deep affective orientations. Consequently, specific modifications in one's cognitive positions may call forth certain affective adjustments, but probably not deep affective changes.

Now, despite Pinker's spirited defense of modern science, I am reasonably certain that Pinker has not studied Lonergan's philosophical masterpiece Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, 5th ed. (University of Toronto Press, 1992; orig. ed., 1957), in which he works out what he refers to as a generalized empirical method (from the Greek word hodos, meaning way, as in a way of proceeding).

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Similarly, I am reasonably certain that Pinker has not studied the American Jesuit William Rehg's book Cogent Science in Context: The Science Wars, Argumentation Theory, and Habermas (MIT Press, 2009).

Also see my 5,000-word review essay "Rehg admirably takes the science wars to a new level" in the print and online journal On the Horizon, volume 18, number 4 (2010): pages 337-345.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 
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