Review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

It’s not every day that I check my office mailbox and, amid the junk brochures, find 500 pages on the biggest questions facing civilization—all of them, basically—by possibly the single person on earth most qualified to tackle those questions.  That’s what happened when, on a trip back to Austin from my sabbatical, I found a review copy of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

I met with Steve while he was writing this book, and fielded his probing questions about the relationships among the concepts of information, entropy, randomness, Kolmogorov complexity, and coarse graining, in a way that might have affected a few paragraphs in Chapter 2.  I’m proud to be thanked in the preface—well, as “Scott Aronson.”  I have a lot of praise for the book, but let’s start with this: the omission of the second “a” from my surname was the worst factual error that I found.

If you’ve read anything else by Pinker, then you more-or-less know what to expect: an intellectual buffet that’s pure joy to devour, even if many of the dishes are ones you’ve tasted before.  For me, the writing alone is worth the admission price: Pinker is, among many other distinctions, the English language’s master of the comma-separated list.  I can see why Bill Gates recently called Enlightenment Now his “new favorite book of all time“—displacing his previous favorite, Pinker’s earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  If you’ve read Better Angels, to which Enlightenment Now functions as a sort of sequel, then you know even more specifically what to expect: a saturation bombing of line graphs showing you how, despite the headlines, the world has been getting better in almost every imaginable way—graphs so thorough that they’ll eventually drag the most dedicated pessimist, kicking and screaming, into sharing Pinker’s sunny disposition, at least temporarily (but more about that later).

The other book to which Enlightenment Now bears comparison is David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity.  The book opens with one of Deutsch’s maxims—“Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge”—and Deutsch’s influence can be seen throughout Pinker’s new work, as when Pinker repeats the Deutschian mantra that “problems are solvable.”  Certainly Deutsch and Pinker have a huge amount in common: classical liberalism, admiration for the Enlightenment as perhaps the best thing that ever happened to the human species, and barely-perturbable optimism.

Pinker’s stated aim is to make an updated case for the Enlightenment—and specifically, for the historically unprecedented “ratchet of progress” that humankind has been on for the last few hundred years—using the language and concepts of the 21st century.  Some of his chapter titles give a sense of the scope of the undertaking:

  • Life
  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Inequality
  • The Environment
  • Peace
  • Safety
  • Terrorism
  • Equal Rights
  • Knowledge
  • Happiness
  • Reason
  • Science

When I read these chapter titles aloud to my wife, she laughed, as if to say: how could anyone have the audacity to write a book on just one of these enormities, let alone all of them?  But you can almost hear the gears turning in Pinker’s head as he decided to do it: well, someone ought to take stock in a single volume of where the human race is and where it’s going.  And if, with the rise of thuggish autocrats all over the world, the principles of modernity laid down by Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Mill are under attack, then someone ought to rise to those principles’ unironic defense.  And if no one else will do it, it might as well be me!  If that’s how Pinker thought, then I agree: it might as well have been him.

I also think Pinker is correct that Enlightenment values are not so anodyne that they don’t need a defense.  Indeed, nothing demonstrates the case for Pinker’s book, the non-obviousness of his thesis, more clearly than the vitriolic reviews the book has been getting in literary venues.  Take this, for example, from John Gray in The New Statesman: “Steven Pinker’s embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for rattled liberals.”

Pinker is an ardent enthusiast for free-market capitalism, which he believes produced most of the advance in living standards over the past few centuries. Unlike [Herbert Spencer, the founder of Social Darwinism], he seems ready to accept that some provision should be made for those who have been left behind. Why he makes this concession is unclear. Nothing is said about human kindness, or fairness, in his formula. Indeed, the logic of his dictum points the other way.

Many early-20th-century Enlightenment thinkers supported eugenic policies because they believed “improving the quality of the population” – weeding out human beings they deemed unproductive or undesirable – would accelerate the course of human evolution…

Exponents of scientism in the past have used it to promote Fabian socialism, Marxism-Leninism, Nazism and more interventionist varieties of liberalism. In doing so, they were invoking the authority of science to legitimise the values of their time and place. Deploying his cod-scientific formula to bolster market liberalism, Pinker does the same.

You see, when Pinker says he supports Enlightenment norms of reason and humanism, he really means to say that he supports unbridled capitalism and possibly even eugenics.  As I read this sort of critique, the hair stands on my neck, because the basic technique of hostile mistranslation is so familiar to me.  It’s the technique that once took a comment in which I pled for shy nerdy males and feminist women to try to understand each other’s suffering, as both navigate a mating market unlike anything in previous human experience—and somehow managed to come away with the take-home message, “so this entitled techbro wants to return to a past when society would just grant him a female sex slave.”

I’ve noticed that everything Pinker writes bears the scars of the hostile mistranslation tactic.  Scarcely does he say anything before he turns around and says, “and here’s what I’m not saying”—and then proceeds to ward off five different misreadings so wild they wouldn’t have occurred to me, but then if you read Leon Wieseltier or John Gray or his other critics, there the misreadings are, trotted out triumphantly; it doesn’t even matter how much time Pinker spent trying to prevent them.


OK, but what of the truth or falsehood of Pinker’s central claims?

I share Pinker’s sense that the Enlightenment may be the best thing that ever happened in our species’ sorry history.  I agree with his facts, and with his interpretations of the facts.  We rarely pause to consider just how astounding it is—how astounding it would be to anyone who lived before modernity—that child mortality, hunger, and disease have plunged as far as they have, and we show colossal ingratitude toward the scientists and inventors and reformers who made it possible.  (Pinker lists the following medical researchers and public health crusaders as having saved more than 100 million lives each: Karl Landsteiner, Abel Wolman, Linn Enslow, William Foege, Maurice Hilleman, John Enders.  How many of them had you heard of?  I’d heard of none.)  This is, just as Pinker says, “the greatest story seldom told.”

Beyond the facts, I almost always share Pinker’s moral intuitions and policy preferences.  He’s right that, whether we’re discussing nuclear power, terrorism, or GMOs, going on gut feelings like disgust and anger, or on vivid and memorable incidents, is a terrible way to run a civilization.  Instead we constantly need to count: how many would be helped by this course of action, how many would be harmed?  As Pinker points out, that doesn’t mean we need to become thoroughgoing utilitarians, and start fretting about whether the microscopic proto-suffering of a bacterium, multiplied by the 1031 bacteria that there are, outweighs every human concern.  It just means that we should heed the utilitarian impulse to quantify way more than is normally done—at the least, in every case where we’ve already implicitly accepted the underlying values, but might be off by orders of magnitude in guessing what they imply about our choices.

The one aspect of Pinker’s worldview that I don’t share—and it’s a central one—is his optimism.  My philosophical temperament, you might say, is closer to that of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, the brilliant novelist and philosopher (and Pinker’s wife), who titled a lecture given shortly after Trump’s election “Plato’s Despair.”

Somehow, I look at the world from more-or-less the same vantage point as Pinker, yet am terrified rather than hopeful.  I’m depressed that Enlightenment values have made it so far, and yet there’s an excellent chance (it seems to me) that it will be for naught, as civilization slides back into authoritarianism, and climate change and deforestation and ocean acidification make the one known planet fit for human habitation increasingly unlivable.

I’m even depressed that Pinker’s book has gotten such hostile reviews.  I’m depressed, more broadly, that for centuries, the Enlightenment has been met by its beneficiaries with such colossal incomprehension and ingratitude.  Save 300 million people from smallpox, and you can expect in return a lecture about your naïve and arrogant scientistic reductionism.  Or, electronically connect billions of people to each other and to the world’s knowledge, in a way beyond the imaginings of science fiction half a century ago, and people will use the new medium to rail against the gross, basement-dwelling nerdbros who made it possible, then upvote and Like each other for their moral courage in doing so.

I’m depressed by the questions: how can a human race that reacts in that way to the gifts of modernity possibly be trusted to use those gifts responsibly?  Does it even “deserve” the gifts?

As I read Pinker, I sometimes imagined a book published in 1923 about the astonishing improvements in the condition of Europe’s Jews following their emancipation.  Such a book might argue: look, obviously past results don’t guarantee future returns; all this progress could be wiped out by some freak future event.  But for that to happen, an insane number of things would need to go wrong simultaneously: not just one European country but pretty much all of them would need to be taken over by antisemitic lunatics who were somehow also hyper-competent, and who wouldn’t just harass a few Jews here and there until the lunatics lost power, but would systematically hunt down and exterminate all of them with an efficiency the world had never before seen.  Also, for some reason the Jews would need to be unable to escape to Palestine or the US or anywhere else.  So the sane, sober prediction is that things will just continue to improve, of course with occasional hiccups (but problems are solvable).

Or I thought back to just a few years ago, to the wise people who explained that, sure, for the United States to fall under the control of a racist megalomaniac like Trump would be a catastrophe beyond imagining.  Were such a comic-book absurdity realized, there’d be no point even discussing “how to get democracy back on track”; it would already have suffered its extinction-level event.  But the good news is that it will never happen, because the voters won’t allow it: a white nationalist authoritarian could never even get nominated, and if he did, he’d lose in a landslide.  What did Pat Buchanan get, less than 1% of the vote?

I don’t believe in a traditional God, but if I did, the God who I’d believe in is one who’s constantly tipping the scales of fate toward horribleness—a God who regularly causes catastrophes to happen, even when all the rational signs point toward their not happening—basically, the God who I blogged about here.  The one positive thing to be said about my God is that, unlike the just and merciful kind, I find that mine rarely lets me down.

Pinker is not blind.  Again and again, he acknowledges the depths of human evil and idiocy, the forces that even now look to many of us like they’re leaping up at Pinker’s exponential improvement curves with bared fangs.  It’s just that each time, he recommends putting an optimistic spin on the situation, because what’s the alternative?  Just to get all, like, depressed?  That would be unproductive!  As Deutsch says, problems will always arise, but problems are solvable, so let’s focus on what it would take to solve them, and on the hopeful signs that they’re already being solved.

With climate change, Pinker gives an eloquent account of the enormity of the crisis, echoing the mainstream scientific consensus in almost every particular.  But he cautions that, if we tell people this is plausibly the end of civilization, they’ll just get fatalistic and paralyzed, so it’s better to talk about solutions.  He recommends an aggressive program of carbon pricing, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, research into new technologies, and possibly geoengineering, guided by strong international cooperation—all things I’d recommend as well.  OK, but what are the indications that anything even close to what’s needed will get done?  The right time to get started, it seems to me, was over 40 years ago.  Since then, the political forces that now control the world’s largest economy have spiralled into ever more vitriolic denial, the more urgent the crisis has gotten and the more irrefutable the evidence.  Pinker writes:

“We cannot be complacently optimistic about climate change, but we can be conditionally optimistic.  We have some practicable ways to prevent the harms and we have the means to learn more.  Problems are solvable.  That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far…” (p. 154-155)

I have no doubt that conditional optimism is a useful stance to adopt, in this case as in many others.  The trouble, for me, is the gap between the usefulness of a view and its probable truth—a gap that Pinker would be quick to remind me about in other contexts.  Even if a placebo works for those who believe in it, how do you make yourself believe in what you understand to be a placebo?  Even if all it would take, for the inmates to escape a prison, is simultaneous optimism that they’ll succeed if they work together—still, how can an individual inmate be optimistic, if he sees that the others aren’t, and rationally concludes that dying in prison is his probable fate?  For me, the very thought of the earth gone desolate—its remaining land barely habitable, its oceans a sewer, its radio beacons to other worlds fallen silent—all for want of ability to coordinate a game-theoretic equilibrium, just depresses me even more.

Likewise with thermonuclear war: Pinker knows, of course, that even if there were “only” an 0.5% chance of one per year, multiplied across the decades of the nuclear era that’s enormously, catastrophically too high, and there have already been too many close calls.  But look on the bright side: the US and Russia have already reduced their arsenals dramatically from their Cold War highs.  There’d be every reason for optimism about continued progress, if we weren’t in this freak branch of the wavefunction where the US and Russia (not to mention North Korea and other nuclear states) were now controlled by authoritarian strongmen.

With Trump—for how could anyone avoid him in a book like this?—Pinker spends several pages reviewing the damage he’s inflicted on democratic norms, the international order, the environment, and the ideal of truth itself:

“Trump’s barefaced assertion of canards that can instantly be debunked … shows that he sees public discourse not as a means of finding common ground based on objective reality but as a weapon with which to project dominance and humiliate rivals” (p. 336).

Pinker then writes a sentence that made me smile ruefully: “Not even a congenital optimist can see a pony in this Christmas stocking” (p. 337).  Again, though, Pinker looks at poll data suggesting that Trump and the world’s other resurgent quasi-fascists are not the wave of the future, but the desperate rearguard actions of a dwindling and aging minority that feels itself increasingly marginalized by the modern world (and accurately so).  The trouble is, Nazism could also be seen as “just” a desperate, failed attempt to turn back the ratchet of cosmopolitanism and moral progress, by people who viscerally understood that time and history were against them.  Yet even though Nazism ultimately lost (which was far from inevitable, I think), the damage it inflicted on its way out was enough, you might say, to vindicate the shrillest pessimist of the 1930s.

Then there’s the matter of takeover by superintelligent AI.  I’ve now spent years hanging around communities where it’s widely accepted that “AI value alignment” is the most pressing problem facing humanity.  I strongly disagree with this view—but on reflection, not because I don’t think AI could be a threat; only because I think other, more prosaic things are much more imminent threats!  I feel the urge to invent a new, 21st-century Yiddish-style proverb: “oy, that we should only survive so long to see the AI-bots become our worst problem!”

Pinker’s view is different: he’s dismissive of the fear (even putting it in the context of the Y2K bug, and people marching around sidewalks with sandwich boards that say “REPENT”), and thinks the AI-risk folks are simply making elementary mistakes about the nature of intelligence.  Pinker’s arguments are as follows: first, intelligence is not some magic, all-purpose pixie dust, which humans have more of than animals, and which a hypothetical future AI would have more of than humans.  Instead, the brain is a bundle of special-purpose modules that evolved for particular reasons, so “the concept [of artificial general intelligence] is barely coherent” (p. 298).  Second, it’s only humans’ specific history that causes them to think immediately about conquering and taking over, as goals to which superintelligence would be applied.  An AI could have different motivations entirely—and it will, if its programmers have any sense.  Third, any AI would be constrained by the resource limits of the physical world.  For example, just because an AI hatched a brilliant plan to recursively improve itself, doesn’t mean it could execute that plan without (say) building a new microchip fab, acquiring the necessary raw materials, and procuring the cooperation of humans.  Fourth, it’s absurd to imagine a superintelligence converting the universe into paperclips because of some simple programming flaw or overliteral interpretation of human commands, since understanding nuances is what intelligence is all about:

“The ability to choose an action that best satisfies conflicting goals is not an add-on to intelligence that engineers might slap themselves in the forehead for forgetting to install; it is intelligence.  So is the ability to interpret the intentions of a language user in context” (p. 300).

I’ll leave it to those who’ve spent more time thinking about these issues to examine these arguments in detail (in the comments of this post, if they like).  But let me indicate briefly why I don’t think they fare too well under scrutiny.

For one thing, notice that the fourth argument is in fundamental tension with the first and second.  If intelligence is not an all-purpose elixir but a bundle of special-purpose tools, and if those tools can be wholly uncoupled from motivation, then why couldn’t we easily get vast intelligence expended toward goals that looked insane from our perspective?  Have humans never been known to put great intelligence in the service of ends that strike many of us as base, evil, simpleminded, or bizarre?  Consider the phrase often applied to men: “thinking with their dicks.”  Is there any sub-Einsteinian upper bound on the intelligence of the men who’ve been guilty of that?

Second, while it seems clear that there are many special-purpose mental modules—the hunting instincts of a cat, the mating calls of a bird, the pincer-grasping or language-acquisition skills of a human—it seems equally clear that there is some such thing as “general problem-solving ability,” which Newton had more of than Roofus McDoofus, and which even Roofus has more of than a chicken.  But whatever we take that ability to consist of, and whether we measure it by a scalar or a vector, it’s hard to imagine that Newton was anywhere near whatever limits on it are imposed by physics.  His brain was subject to all sorts of archaic evolutionary constraints, from the width of the birth canal to the amount of food available in the ancestral environment, and possibly also to diminishing returns on intelligence in humans’ social environment (Newton did, after all, die a virgin).  But if so, then given the impact that Newton, and others near the ceiling of known human problem-solving ability, managed to achieve even with their biology-constrained brains, how could we possibly see the prospect of removing those constraints as just a narrow technological matter, like building a faster calculator or a more precise clock?

Third, the argument about intelligence being constrained by physical limits would seem to work equally well for a mammoth or cheetah scoping out the early hominids.  The mammoth might say: yes, these funny new hairless apes are smarter than me, but intelligence is just one factor among many, and often not the decisive one.  I’m much bigger and stronger, and the cheetah is faster.  (If the mammoth did say that, it would be an unusually smart mammoth as well, but never mind.)  Of course we know what happened: from wild animals’ perspective, the arrival of humans really was a catastrophic singularity, comparable to the Chicxulub asteroid (and far from over), albeit one that took between 104 and 106 years depending on when we start the clock.  Over the short term, the optimistic mammoths would be right: pure, disembodied intelligence can’t just magically transform itself into spears and poisoned arrows that render you extinct.  Over the long term, the most paranoid mammoth on the tundra couldn’t imagine the half of what the new “superintelligence” would do.

Finally, any argument that relies on human programmers choosing not to build an AI with destructive potential, has to contend with the fact that humans did invent, among other things, nuclear weapons—and moreover, for what seemed like morally impeccable reasons at the time.  And a dangerous AI would be a lot harder to keep from proliferating, since it would consist of copyable code.  And it would only take one.  You could, of course, imagine building a good AI to neutralize the bad AIs, but by that point there’s not much daylight left between you and the AI-risk people.


As you’ve probably gathered, I’m a worrywart by temperament (and, I like to think, experience), and I’ve now spent a good deal of space on my disagreements with Pinker that flow from that.  But the funny part is, even though I consistently see clouds where he sees sunshine, we’re otherwise looking at much the same scene, and our shared view also makes us want the same things for the world.  I find myself in overwhelming, nontrivial agreement with Pinker about the value of science, reason, humanism, and Enlightenment; about who and what deserves credit for the stunning progress humans have made; about which tendencies of civilization to nurture and which to recoil in horror from; about how to think and write about any of those questions; and about a huge number of more specific issues.

So my advice is this: buy Pinker’s book and read it.  Then work for a future where the book’s optimism is justified.

210 Responses to “Review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now”

  1. Passerby Says:

    Pinker’s book is a good antidote for those who wallow in gloom and doom. My main problem with it is simply that it talks about global and average improvements. In Pinker’s view, then, even another civil war in the US which leaves a million dead would be a relatively small blip on the overall state of progress over the last two hundred years. For the citizens of the US of course it would be an absolute catastrophe. It’s all great that children in India and Africa are now starving less than they ever did, but none of that stops the US from going down a deep hole in the next few decades. Pinker’s book makes me optimistic about the state of humanity at large, but it doesn’t make me as optimistic about my city, my state and my country.

  2. William Hird Says:

    Hi Scott, nice to be able to think positively about so many things in the world, but what about the national debt, how many trillions are we in the hole? Every human being on the planet is a debtor slave to the international banking system. Who is going to pay back the interest on this money and when? And what are we getting for all the money that is being borrowed? Nice “safe” schools, nice roads with no potholes, real healthcare system , lots of money for STEM research?

  3. JimV Says:

    Whew! Great review – makes me feel better about humanity just to know one of us could write that review.

    However, the rarity of that kind of thinking, and the tendency of sociopaths to rise to the top of hierarchies of power, has mostly convinced me that humanity will not solve the problems it has created, is doomed, and will deserve what happens to it.

    That said, I’ll do my best to follow your example and contribute to those problems as little as I can. E.g., no car, no children (overpopulation may be the primary factor in a lot of our problems), continuing to vote for Democrats (not that this has done much good, just better than the alternative), donating to charities as much or more than my monthly rent, and no Facebook.

    What the heck, maybe I’ll join one of these marches that are springing up. Maybe we can turn this thing around.

  4. Russ Abbott Says:

    Wonderful piece!

  5. Dmitry Kornienko Says:

    I apologize for the comment not on the subject (and for my awful English), but what do you think about this news?
    Journalists have already called this a breakthrough for AI. And this is… alarming.
    https://www.quantumlah.org/about/highlight.php?id=291

  6. Scott Says:

    Dmitry #5: As usual, you need to click through to the actual paper to learn what’s going on. It looks like a nice paper: it’s a generalization of the well-known HHL algorithm to dense matrices. But all the caveats discussed in my essay Quantum Machine Learning Algorithms: Read the Fine Print still presumably apply. Those caveats—most importantly, the need to find “end-to-end” applications, with classical input and classical output, for which the quantum speedup persists—would need to be addressed before we could even start talking about what the implications for AI might be.

  7. mjgeddes Says:

    I always remember what the Australian stock market guru Rene Rivkin once said in a TV interview: ‘Optimists and Pessimists are both wrong’. Optimism and Pessimism are states of mind, whereas reality is entirely neutral with respect to either. (Ironic side-note: Sadly, Rivkin, in a bout of severe pessimism, killed himself in 2005).

    An optimistic view might be tenable when one zooms right out and just looks at the really big-picture: time over the long-run or ‘on the average’. But this big-picture abstract view isn’t much comfort to the concrete individual lives of those suffering heinous depredations in here and now.

    As regards super-intelligence, I don’t mean to boast but I genuinely believe there’s not a man (or woman!) alive with my raw aptitude and power-house intuition for the topic 😀 Using Haskell (a functional programming language ), I believe I can code a super-intelligence in my life-time.

    Unfortunately, the AI research community is mostly still stuck on a probabilistic approach , which, whilst great for *some* cognitive tasks such as perception, cannot solve common-sense reasoning, natural language processing or world-modeling. These things I believe require a logic-based approach (fuzzy temporal logic) that supersedes probability theory. Why so few can see this is beyond me. Listen to Gary Marcus, that’s all I can say!

  8. Dmitry Kornienko Says:

    Scott #6: Thanks for the answer.
    If you allow … I think something like a simple FAQ would save you time and help the average people (like me) better understand, what to expect from quantum computers. Or you could point to a trustworthy compilation FAQ.
    Thank you.

  9. Matthias Görgens Says:

    Scott, scary thing is that the Nazis were quite the opposite of hyper-competent. (They had someone who was good at popular rallies.)

    Alas, they managed to get control of the generally competent German state..

  10. Neil Says:

    It is a matter of horizon. Pinker is taking a long run view. A very long run view.

  11. Dmitry Kornienko Says:

    Do you think these articles should not be paid attention, because (most likely), even the acceleration of some algorithms does not guarantee that the AI ​​will rise to a new level and, especially, the advent of singularity?
    Well, otherwise the expectation of creating a full-fledged quantum computer is like waiting for the end of mankind …

    Yes, I am more from the camp of pessimists, who are slopes to constant depression and fear of the future. I live on the front line and could argue with Pinker about the growth of humanism in the world. Perhaps for a Western man the world has really improved, but the world is not limited to the US and the EU.

  12. pku31 Says:

    @JimV3: Most of those seem good, but if you’re above average IQ you’re probably better off having kids, to prevent dysgenics.

  13. Nick Maley Says:

    I’m not defending Gray’s misreadings of Pinker, and I share your admiration of the book. That said, your own pessimistic thought experiments illustrate Gray’s core point perfectly. That is: science and the Enlightenment has given us the capacity to turn the world into a Hell just as easily (or easier) as make it a paradise. Which direction we ultimately go is about moral and political decisions. Gray’s point is these questions are not settled by science, or any kind of Utilitarian calculus. And further: that the track record of Enlightenment ideas applied to moral and political questions is woeful. Applied to politics, Enlightenment ideas have given us the idea of the perfectibility of society via reason, and through that, the ‘Utopias’ of Nazism and Communism. The ghastly efficiency of the Nazis was not some kind of historical accident, as you seem to suggest. It was the result of a technologically and organisationally sophisticated nation applying its skills to mass murder.

  14. Scott Says:

    Nick Maley #13: There’s one key idea that wasn’t in my review, but that’s in both Gray’s review and your comment, and that I completely disagree with. It’s this:

      the track record of Enlightenment ideas applied to moral and political questions is woeful. Applied to politics, Enlightenment ideas have given us the idea of the perfectibility of society via reason, and through that, the ‘Utopias’ of Nazism and Communism. The ghastly efficiency of the Nazis … was the result of a technologically and organisationally sophisticated nation applying its skills to mass murder.

    So, must we count everyone who’s tried to usurp the prestige of science for their own ends as part of the Enlightenment project? Or everyone who’s exploited modern technological skills to advance their ends?

    If so, then it’s not just Nazism and Communism that we’re talking about. Homeopathy, Christian Science, Scientology, and New-Age healing based on quantum vibrations would all be part of the Enlightenment. Televangelists would be great Enlightenment figures, since they skillfully exploit modern broadcasting technology to reach far larger audiences than was possible otherwise. Trump would be too, because of his use of Twitter and data harvested from Facebook.

    But these strike me as absurd conclusions. Of course almost every cult and regressive ideology will claim for itself the backing of science: why wouldn’t it? And of course technology has magnified the power of evil and irrational actors, along with good actors. If “the Enlightenment” encompasses every movement that falsely claims the support of science, or skillfully uses the outputs of science, then it encompasses pretty much anything you’ve ever heard of, so means nothing.

    In this analysis, Nazism and Communism differ from Scientology and quantum energy crystals mostly just in having done orders of magnitude more damage. All these things bear roughly the same relationship to the original ideals of the Enlightenment.

    The Enlightenment, it seems to me, can coherently be criticized for having put so many machine guns into the hands of toddlers … even though the only alternative might have been no technological civilization at all. But what’s never made any sense to me is this impulse to look at the toddlers riddling everyone with bullets, and hold them up as important Enlightenment thinkers because of their use of modern weapons.

  15. Scott Says:

    pku31 #12: Indeed there’s a paradox at the heart of the natalist versus anti-natalist debate—-if you’re both smart enough and socially conscientious enough to have seriously entertained the thought that you shouldn’t have kids for the sake of the world, that’s one of the best signs that maybe you should have kids for the sake of the world. 🙂

  16. Richard Gaylord Says:

    scott:

    very nice. but two corrections: (1) it is a mistake to call Pinker a ‘classical liberal’. the modern expression of classical liberalism is libertarianism which is fundamentally opposed to all government intervention in the voluntary interactions of individuals (and at most, limits the role government intervention to ensuring negative liberty). This applies to the ‘crisis’ of climate change where Pinker is a government interventionist. (2) there is no proof that Newton died a virgin. and finally, regarding your statement that “for some reason the Jews would need to be unable to escape”, the reason is quite clear; it was the indifference towards, and antipathy for, jews (a fundamental aspect of Christian religious doctrine, historically).

  17. gentzen Says:

    Interviewers (by Albert Einstein from ‘Mein Weltbild’, translation by Sonja Bargmann from ‘Ideas and Opinions’)

    To be called to account publicly for everything one has said, even in jest, in an excess of high spirits or in momentary anger, may possibly be awkward, yet up to a point it is reasonable and natural. But to be called to account publicly for what others have said in one’s name, when one cannot defend oneself, is indeed a sad predicament. “But to whom does such a thing happen?” you will ask. Well, everyone who is of sufficient interest to the public to be pursued by interviewers. You smile incredulously, but I have had plenty of direct experience and will tell you about it.
    Imagine the following situation. One morning a reporter comes to you and asks you in a friendly way to tell him something about your friend N. At first you no doubt feel something approaching indignation at such a proposal. But you soon discover that there is no escape. If you refuse to say anything, the man writes: “I asked one of N’s supposedly best friends about him. But he prudently avoided my questions. This in itself enables the reader to draw the inevitable conclusions.” There is, therefore, no escape, and you give the following information: “Mr. N is a cheerful, straightforward man, much liked by all his friends. He can find a bright side to any situation. His enterprise and industry know no bounds; his job takes up his entire energies. He is devoted to his family and lays everything he possesses at his wife’s feet. …”
    Now for the reporter’s version: “Mr. N takes nothing very seriously and has a gift for making himself liked, particularly as he carefully cultivates a hearty and ingratiating manner. He is so completely a slave to his job that he has no time for the considerations of any non-personal subject or for any extracurricular mental activity. He spoils his wife unbelievably and is utterly under her thumb. …”
    A real reporter would make it much more spicy, but I expect this will be enough for you and your friend N. He reads the above, and some more like it, in the paper next morning, and his rage against you knows no bounds, however cheerful and benevolent his natural disposition may be. The injury done to him gives you untold pain, especially as you are really fond of him.
    What’s your next step, my friend? If you know, tell me quickly so that I may adopt your method with all speed.

  18. Scott Says:

    gentzen #17: I’ve always enjoyed that Einstein passage, but what is it apropos of?

  19. New top story on Hacker News: Review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now – Tech + Hckr News Says:

    […] Review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now 5 by onuralp | 0 comments on Hacker News. […]

  20. soijosrgfjosidj Says:

    Nassim Taleb accuses Pinker of being a charlatan. Taleb’s original criticism is that Pinker allegedly misuses statistics, because of how he doesn’t address the “fact” that wars are allegedly “black swan” events, and hence cannot be analyzed using some types of statistics. Most of the criticism appears to be aimed at Pinker’s previous book, Better Angels. Taleb has since accused Pinker of not responding properly to his criticism, and is now calling Pinker a charlatan.

    I find Taleb’s more mathematical papers quite challenging to read.

  21. Scott Says:

    Richard #16: I don’t care so much about definitions, so if someone insists to me that “classical liberalism” can only mean “absolute libertarianism,” my first instinct is to say: “fine, then just tell me what term I should use for the broader Enlightenment values shared by me and Deutsch and Pinker among many others.”

    On the other hand, in a modern context, I’ve usually seen “classical liberalism” used to mean, basically: “belief in equal rights and science and human moral progress and the Enlightenment, intense opposition to theocratic conservatives and Trump-style autocrats, but also definitely not militant SJW-style leftism.” So why should I cede a useful word to mean the same thing as libertarianism, when we already have a perfectly good word for the latter—namely, “libertarianism”? Just like I don’t cede to the SJWs that the word “racism” can only mean “prejudice + power,” so that members of oppressed races can never be racist by definition, even if (let’s say) they commit a murder out of racial animus.

    Another thing: it’s always seemed to me that strong action on climate change could be defended on the strictest libertarian grounds. One would simply say: property rights include the right not to have other people cause your property to be flooded, or subject to intense droughts and heatwaves, insofar as those things are influenced even probabilistically by human actions (as science tells us they are). Of course, when someone drives a car, the property damage they cause to you is infinitesimal—but summed over all the people on earth whose property is now infinitesimally likelier to be damaged, it’s more than enough to justify a carbon tax, again purely on property rights grounds rather than redistributive ones.

    If libertarians won’t accept this, I see two explanations. Either they don’t take their own principles to their logical conclusion, or they simply don’t accept the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change and its likely catastrophic effects. In the latter case, though, the disagreement has nothing to do with differing philosophical views about the role of government. It’s just back to the factual question, of whether you do or don’t accept that human emissions are rapidly and dangerously changing the world’s climate.

  22. gentzen Says:

    Scott #18: I quoted that passage from Einstein, because it gives such a nice illustration of “hostile mistranslation” and how impotent you are to do anything against it. (Having something written down instead of a mere oral interview helps at least a bit.) Even remaining silent won’t help you. I was reminded of this when you pointed out how Pinker tried as hard as he could to prevent such hostile mistranslation:

    As I read this sort of critique, the hair stands on my neck, because the basic technique of hostile mistranslation is so familiar to me. …

    I’ve noticed that everything Pinker writes bears the scars of the hostile mistranslation tactic. Scarcely does he say anything before he turns around and says, “and here’s what I’m not saying”—and then proceeds to ward off five different misreadings so wild they wouldn’t have occurred to me, but then if you read Leon Wieseltier or John Gray or his other critics, there the misreadings are, trotted out triumphantly; it doesn’t even matter how much time Pinker spent trying to prevent them.

  23. Enlightened George Says:

    [sarcasm] Yeah, enlightenment NOW (except it happened centuries ago) we’re getting better! Everything is getting fine! Except when it comes to the massive systemic destruction of nature, global warming, and co, but don’t worry!! We’ll definitely find some solution don’t worry I know this guy who’s a genius who works on this fusion energy thing he’s going to solve all of our problems and we’ll then finally reach peak enlightenment! [/sarcasm]

  24. Scott Says:

    gentzen #22: OK, thanks!

  25. Egan Says:

    The smbc comics published today seems strangely relevant : https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/excelsior

  26. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Egan, #25,

    You beat me to linking that. I was going to say that the SMBC seems to I think underscore where some of the objections to Pinker are coming from. Some people may feel that the boundless optimism results in not enough attention to the still ongoing suffering.

  27. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Enlightened George #23,

    Yes there are problems. But even many environmental problems are better. The cap and trade system for sulfur has close to completely solved the problem of acid rain. We’ve almost dealt with the hole in the ozone layer and lead as issues also. And if problems like global warming are going to be solved, it will be solved precisely because of the people who are the heirs to the enlightenment- the people who are blocking us from solving these problems are often exactly the people who also don’t share enlightenment values.

  28. Eliezer Yudkowsky Says:

    Pinker’s reasoning on AI was so horrifically bad (as reasoning qua reasoning, not to mention as elementary scholarship; angry and dismissive and failing to consider the opposite or try steeling the imagined argument, as well as ignorant of the Bostrom book that even outsiders who’ve heard of the field have heard is the basic literature), that I’m disinclined to believe anything Pinker says about topics I don’t already know about, lest that just be Gell-Mann Amnesia on my own part. I frankly worry he’s gotten old and run out his supply of precision.

    My agreeing with Pinker on elementary points of humanism and being on the same side as him against the anti-Enlightenment does not imply an extension of epistemic credit or forgiveness for invalid argument steps. My side *is* the side that thinks arguments have local validity and statements have local truth regardless of who is on what “side”, and I can no longer trust Pinker to be on that side if he thinks that it’s okay to launch dumb arguments against conclusions that he conceives to support his political foes.

    And if Pinker has abandoned that side, then I can’t extend him epistemic credit without checking every little thing he claims, and that’s too much work to put into reading a book–especially one whose “side” I’m already on.

  29. Bob Strauss Says:

    Stanley Kubrick (who had originally developed the project) had it right in “A.I.”–50 years from now, we’ll be living in decaying coastal cities half-submerged in water while it begins to dawn on sentient robots that the remaining humans on earth aren’t treating them too well.

    Seriously, I think the thing about optimists and pessimists is that they’re both very selective of the evidence. But I wonder if it takes more objective evidence to turn an optimistic into a pessimist than to turn a pessimist into an optimist. Have any studies been done about that?

  30. Tuesday Says:

    Pinker fascinates me; he’s one of those thinkers who I disagree with fundamentally on a number of issues, but whom I can respect anyways. From your description, Enlightenment Now! sounds well-written, lucidly argued, exhaustively researched… and totally wrong.

    In the Pinker-Taleb beef I have to side with Taleb (extremistan re-pre-sent!); wars may have killed far fewer people (in percentage terms, of course) in the past few decades than ever before, but the latent potential exists for a war of civilization-ending destructiveness. For a random civvie in the United States, at the very least, it’s quite probable that the chance of dying in a war (within, say, the next ten years) is greater now than it was a hundred years ago. (Admittedly, it’s smaller now than in, say, 1963. This is not exactly a great comfort.) A nuclear-armed world is one of very few but potentially extremely destructive great-power conflicts.

    This fragility, which is both created and masked by “progress”, generalizes beyond war. I can’t help but shake the feeling that the increasing integration and centralization of the world – in terms of trade, in terms of information technology, etc. – is merely the set-up to the biggest bust yet. The Bronze Age collapse was made possible, maybe even inevitable, by the fact that a Bronze Age economy is highly dependent on trade (unlike an Iron Age economy, because bronze = copper + tin, and copper and tin are not usually found near each other). Knock out one strut, and whole thing falls down.

    We’re not only dependent on trade (how many products are made entirely within one continent, let alone one country, anymore?), we’re dependent on multinational information and financial networks which seem pretty vulnerable to e.g. cyber-warfare, among other things.

    Not to mention climate change and nukes, of course. A fun time will be had by all.

    PS. For all you climate change alarmists (btw “alarmist” is not meant as an insult – despite my generally conservative attitude I am a climate alarmist myself) I have a question: are you really living your beliefs? Have you made, or are you making, preparations for the worst? If not, why not?

  31. Neel Krishnaswami Says:

    So, must we count everyone who’s tried to usurp the prestige of science for their own ends as part of the Enlightenment project? Or everyone who’s exploited modern technological skills to advance their ends?

    Obviously, yes. If you take the king’s shilling, you’re off to the king’s wars.

    Modern science and engineering has relied upon funding from ruling elites for pretty much its whole history, and these people have often funded our work either by unsavory means or for unsavory ends.

    The construction of the US railway network is one of the great feats of engineering, and many vast fortunes were made during its construction. The US government subsidized its construction in large part to make genocide against Native Americans easier and more convenient. (The 19th century Sioux word for railroad translates literally as “bad medicine-wagon”.)

    Even more starkly, Werner Heisenberg is one of the greatest physicists who ever lived. The number of physicists who saw more deeply into how the world works can be counted on one hand, with fingers left over. If he’s not part of the Enlightenment project, no one is. It is also completely true that he tried to build an atomic bomb for Adolf Hitler, and only failed because he made some arithmetic errors.

    We can’t separate science as an institution from the ends to which it has been put, because the people who paid science’s bills are not toddlers. The British Empire didn’t invent concentration camps as an absent-minded slip-up. The US didn’t fight the Indian Wars as an innocent squabble. The Nazis didn’t murder the Jews by accident. The Soviets didn’t perpetrate the Holodomor by mistake. These atrocities happened on purpose, because people planned them and enacted them on purpose, and they paid a lot of money for the scientific and engineering techniques to make them easier and more convenient.

    After the bomb, Oppenheimer famously remarked that “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

    These days, we computer scientists have come to know sin, as well: our discipline has facilitated the construction of a vast apparatus of surveillance and propaganda run for the benefit of plutocrats and autocrats. UN human rights investigators think that Facebook has been a key tool in the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar; even the coolest utilitarian might rebel at the thought of calculating how many Stanford Biohubs that Mark Zuckerberg would need to fund to cancel that out.

    It is totally fair for people to ask whether our subject has been a net force for good, or not. It is to our discredit that the answer to that question is not obvious.

    Note that the point is not that science is bad (obviously I don’t believe this, or I wouldn’t be a scientist), but that defining the Enlightenment project as modernity minus everything bad is a self-defeating idea. If we assume that our work as scientists is by default immaculate and without sin, then we have preemptively surrendered our ability to make judgments. This leaves us unable to deal with the moral consequences (and indeed, political, because technology alters power relations) of our work. Scientific knowledge will not automatically have good effects, not unless someone uses it to act towards the good. Scientists must think about how our work will affect society, because we can expect no one else to have the ability or the will.

    This is, of course, by no means an original point — Nobel, Russell, Einstein, Wiener, and numerous others have been banging this drum for over a century now. But I particularly recommend Phil Rogaway’s The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work, since as a cryptographer he is very close in discipline to us.

  32. Marcus Says:

    It seems this Enlightenment optimism only stands up if you cherry pick the members of the Enlightenment club. And at least a few of your statements about “science” depend on a particular definition of them legitimate. We can include the destructive forces of science in your club, e.g. chemical weapons, easily and legitimately, even if controversially, on utilitarian grounds (thought experiments left to the reader). And so again it comes down to rah rah out Enlightenment club is awesome and somehow gets credit for all the good stuff and never mind all this horror and exinstential danger, that’s not our club, that’s the baddies. I know it’s hard for true believers to get it, but this is precisely what terms like scientism and technocracy refer to.

  33. Marcus Says:

    Sorry, typos, hard to type on a phone 🙂

  34. ThomasK Says:

    because I think other, more prosaic things are much more imminent threats! I feel the urge to invent a new, 21st-century Yiddish-style proverb: “oy, that we should only survive so long to see the AI-bots become our worst problem!”

    Consider 2 scenarios of the future:

    1. thermonuclear war breaks out, 80% of humanity dies, those that survive lived mostly on the country-side, large areas of the world become uninhabitable because of radiation or other problems, humanity loses a lot of its know-how and technology

    2. all live on earth (including microbes) is wiped out or permanently crippled to never evolve beyond it’s current state, all humans die and there will never be an intelligent species on Earth or within 1000 lightyears of it ever again

    If you think 2 is worse, then you should worry about AI.

  35. Richard Gaylord Says:

    scott comment #21. “why should I cede a useful word to mean the same thing as libertarianism, when we already have a perfectly good word for the latter—namely, “libertarianism”? “. this is very funny because it’s EXACTLY what libertarians say about the term liberalism which was used as a self-description by libertarians long before the ‘left’ expropriated the term (the left is very good at doing that – e.g. calling themselves ‘progressives’ as if anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a ‘regressive’. as for the climate crisis, you are conflating the diagnosis with the cure. an example of doing this is also seen when dealing with ‘redistribution of wealth’, the foundational principle of liberalism. libertarians have no problem with the voluntary redistribution of wealth (aka charity) and most of us (not those in the Ayn Rand cult) strongly encourage people to donate money and help to those in need. what we object to is the legal ‘theft’ (taking without permission) of our income by the government (aka taxation) for ANY purpose. as for the damage caused by climate change, we have to think about public goods vs private goods, the justification of pre-emptive action, and of course, the tragedy of the commons (some libertarians support open borders on public territory while others oppose immigration on the grounds that all property should be private). you need to be careful in attributing any particular belief to ALL libertarians – e.g. some oppose the right to have an abortion and some support it. the ONE principle that ALL libertarians do share is the principle of voluntaryism (the non-aggression principle) and an abhorrence of the State as the greatest transgressor and aggressor in history.

  36. FeepingCreature Says:

    Actually, doesn’t it seem like the Nazis are in a sense a counterexample to the notion that general AI will be friendly? Substitute “bureaucracy” for “general reasoning” and “Hitler” for “goal function”…

    A system which interpreted the general xenophobia and antisemitism of the population as an imperative to kill every Jew in Europe – and pursued that goal with frightful efficiency and little resistance – could arise even in such a human-influenced system as democracy. If our own tools of governance can go so desperately wrong, how can we have any confidence about a far more autonomous and less-understood tool like general artificial intelligence?

  37. Tuesday Says:

    Scott, #14: In this analysis, Nazism and Communism differ from Scientology and quantum energy crystals mostly just in having done orders of magnitude more damage. All these things bear roughly the same relationship to the original ideals of the Enlightenment.

    Boy oh boy if the phrase “No true Scotsman” ever applied to anything…

    The rational analysis and construction of human societies and institutions was a key component of the (political) Enlightenment. If you want to include the US Constitution (and democratic government in general) on the Enlightenment ledger, then Communism at the very least goes on it as well; you can’t just exclude it because it didn’t work!

    (Nazism is a little different, a weird mashup of Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment ideas)

    The pushers of “quantum energy crystals” only use the language of the Enlightenment-slash-science; they employ none of the methods. On the other hand, Communist theorists applied the actual methods with perfect sincerity. If you read a book like The Revolution Betrayed, you find pages and pages of clear, concise, well-reasoned arguments… written by one of the great murderous megalomaniacs of a century filled with murderous megalomaniacs.

    An interesting exercise in examining the pitfalls of “enlightened” analysis is to read the following PhD thesis (ideally, skip the intro and go straight to the thesis, on page 4):

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/58800629/Underdevelopment-in-Cambodia-by-Khieu-Samphan

    Then, if you don’t already know who he is, look up the author.

  38. Scott Says:

    Egan #25: Thanks! Amusing that Zach and I published different takes on the same topic on the same day (we didn’t coordinate, I swear).

  39. Scott Says:

    Eliezer #28: I also got the strong impression, when reading the AI section, of someone who started out with the concluding line—namely, that apocalyptic fear of AI is just as silly as apocalyptic fear of the Y2K bug—and then looked around for general principles that would buttress that conclusion. Because it’s Pinker, he offers arguments that are worthy of response, but I think it’s well below Pinker’s usual level (and even the level in the rest of the book) not to address those responses himself before the reader even thinks of them.

    The thing is, if I banned any author who I ever caught deploying weak arguments as soldiers for a predetermined conclusion, I think my bookshelf would be completely emptied! I’ve taken too much from Pinker’s collected works that I think is true and important for me to throw out the whole meal over one piece of gristle—though I do understand that for you, this particular piece of gristle causes rather more choking than it does for me.

  40. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    # 30 Tuesday,

    “PS. For all you climate change alarmists (btw “alarmist” is not meant as an insult – despite my generally conservative attitude I am a climate alarmist myself) I have a question: are you really living your beliefs? Have you made, or are you making, preparations for the worst? If not, why not?”

    So, I haven’t done much in the way of preparation, but that’s due to the fact that I’m still of the opinion that we’ll manage to deal with it mostly. However, I have made, and encourage others to make, basic lifestyle differences to reduce carbon production as well giving to charities that are producing systemic changes. This means in terms of lifestyle not owning a car, generally eating a vegetarian diet. There are specific charities which are particularly good if one is trying to deal with this situation: In terms of carbon reduction per a dollar spent, by many metrics Cool Earth is the best option https://www.coolearth.org/ . If one wants to offset carbon production, then simply giving 5 or 10 dollars per a plane ride offsets each of those. If one is trying to reduce one’s delta carbon to zero or negative, one can do so for about $100 yearly (yes really, it really is that low!). If one is trying to systematically change the energy production, then two of the best seem to be Everybody Solar https://www.everybodysolar.org/ which helps get solar panels for non-profits like homeless shelters and science museums and the Solar Electric Light Fund https://www.self.org/ which gets solar panels in the developing world. For wind power, the best option seems to be the New England Wind Fund https://www.massenergy.org/the-wind-fund .

    In general, it seems that people don’t realize how ridiculously small the amount that only small amounts of money can do here.

  41. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    “In general, it seems that people don’t realize how ridiculously small the amount that only small amounts of money can do here.”

    Er, that should be “ridiculously large the amount that only small amounts of money can do” quite a different meaning!

  42. Tuesday Says:

    Joshua Zelinsky, #40: First, I should probably clarify something which I failed to mention in my original combative-sounding question, which is that I was reacting to Enlightened George #23. I suppose you probably guessed that, but I wanted to state it explicitly.

    Although your response is reasonable, I don’t think it really addresses things. When reacting to a possible catastrophe, there are two things one can do (by no means mutually exclusive): (a) try to help avoid it, (b) reduce your own exposure to it. You’ve given a good list of (a), but said (b) is not on your agenda, because you don’t think the catastrophe will really come to pass.

    But clearly you think there is some chance of things going real bad; otherwise you would not have done the research on reducing your own carbon footprint. What is the worst plausible scenario in your opinion, and what chance does it have of occurring? Does this estimate justify (a) but not (b)?

    PS. I honestly can’t tell if I’m coming across as flippant or aggressive here; but I don’t mean to be. The questions above are meant seriously, not rhetorically.

  43. Jon K. Says:

    #7, mjgeddes

    Your first paragraph about optimism/pessimism not reflecting reality, but rather states of mind, reminded me of some Buddhist meditations. 🙂

    Regarding your thoughts about the AI community focusing too much on probabilistic approaches to learning, I think you may be right. Gradient descent doesn’t seem to work too well (or at all?) on training data that has ground truths that are exact functions of there input, where every input bit matters a lot.

    Any thoughts on supervised learning methods for learning a parity function, or a greatest common factor function, or an easy hash function, or any other simple function where tweaking an input just a little may lead to a drastically different output (i.e. where taking the partial derivative of the model weights and doing gradient descent on them doesn’t seem to really get you closer to finding the desired logic function)?

    Have you heard Pedro Domingos’ talk on a “master algorithm”?

    What are your thoughts on making models that can learn both correlated/probabilistic/continuous models and causal/logic/discrete models using functional programming languages? Have you heard of miniKanren? I once heard a talk from William Byrd on it, and it seemed like something that was trying to address this search of the discrete logic space.

  44. Scott Says:

    Neel #31: I notice that, while you deny my conclusion (namely, that a “commitment to Enlightenment values” means something a hell of a lot more than exploiting technology for your own narrow ends, or coating bad arguments with a patina of scientific verbiage), you don’t even try to address my argument for the conclusion. Namely, that if we weaken the entrance requirements that far, we should have to admit not merely the Nazis and Communists (and the difficult Jekyll-and-Hyde cases like Heisenberg), but every random pseudoscientist and charlatan on the face of the planet, to the point where we’re no longer making any distinction at all.

    So the only way I can make sense of your position, is as saying that it’s not possible to make distinctions like that between science and pseudoscience, or between actual Enlightenment norms and the Potemkin facade of them.

    To which I can only reply: sure it’s possible! In the case of quantum computing, I think I do it on this blog like every week. Of course there’s no cut-and-dried procedure for sorting wheat from chaff, and any attempt will make some mistakes—but as long as we have intellectual tools in place to identify and correct our mistakes, it’s both possible and incumbent on us to get started. That, you could say, is one of the main lessons of the Enlightenment.

  45. dhaus Says:

    Regarding climate change — the problem is even most ardent liberals don’t act like it’s catastrophic crisis. If they truly believed it was (and it most certainly is), then they should be willing to make lots of painful compromises to mitigate its effects.

    For example, would they be willing to exchange funding Trump’s border wall in return for massive solar energy investment? How about cutting back on family based immigration in return for stringent environmental regulation? How about massive investments in nuclear power?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if even many climate scientists weren’t willing to make such compromises let alone liberals at large or the general public.

  46. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Tuesday #42,

    No, your point doesn’t seem flippant or aggressive to me. To answer your question, most of the plausible situations seem like they are going to do much more damage to the developing world, precisely because they have less resources to cope with things. I’m reasonably confident at this point that the damage to countries like the US will be largely economic for at least the next 30 or 40 years, and so personal preparation isn’t really necessary at this point, beyond things like not owning land in Florida (which has a uniquely bad geology for rising sea levels) or in general low-lying areas (and my own income is small enough that I don’t have a choice on that). Scott at least seems to consider more pessimistic scenarios even more likely, and I’d be curious at least what steps he has taken.

  47. Scott Says:

    dhaus #45: The trouble is that, in the current “just-short-of-civil-war” political climate of the US, “painful compromises” buy you nothing, since supposed agreements between Democrats and Republicans, or even between the remaining relatively-sane Republicans and the Trump/Taliban Republicans, can just be flagrantly ignored. What did Susan Collins get in return for voting for the tax bill? Mitch McConnell simply lied and shafted her.

    If anything, the situation now seems like the opposite, and more similar to that prevailing in a war: a victory on issue X might help you win on unrelated issue Y, by weakening the enemy’s morale and by forcing them to spend resources trying to recapture what they lost.

  48. Sid Says:

    Since you compared Pinker’s book to David Deutsch’s, I think worth placing these books in the right genre, which will allow us to criticize them in the right manner. David Albert, in his NYT review of Deutsch’s book, The Beginning of Infinity, says it perfectly.

    It hardly seems worth saying (to begin with) that the chutzpah of this guy is almost beyond belief, and that any book with these sorts of ambitions is necessarily, in some overall sense, a failure, or a fraud, or a joke, or madness. But Deutsch (who is famous, among other reasons, for his pioneering contributions to the field of quantum computation) is so smart, and so strange, and so creative, and so inexhaustibly curious, and so vividly intellectually alive, that it is a distinct privilege, notwithstanding everything, to spend time in his head. He writes as if what he is giving us amounts to a tight, grand, cumulative system of ideas — something of almost mathematical rigor — but the reader will do much better to approach this book with the assurance that nothing like that actually turns out to be the case. I like to think of it as more akin to great, wide, learned, meandering conversation — something that belongs to the genre of, say, Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” — never dull, often startling and fantastic and beautiful, often at odds with itself, sometimes distasteful, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, sometimes (even, maybe, secondarily) true.

    I think something very much along these lines also true of Pinker’s book.

  49. noxsl Says:

    Regarding the AI thing. While I think it’s important to know the Bostrom / MIRI side of the debate, I don’t think they should have a monopoly on what’s considered good “dangers of AI” discussion and not. I think for example Sam Harris made a good ted talk about the general worry, which does not include technical discussion. The dangers and promises of /ANY/ intelligence with broader and better ability than humans is important, whether aliens or machines.

    Second thing is, I’m not an expert on this, but I’m really curious if the Bostrom side of things is the /only/ way for superintelligence to emerge. As far as I can tell, deep learning algos don’t even work with probabilities on the outputs in a way that would lead to an infinite loop like in the fantasia example MIRI gives, but rather thresholds of probabilities where if say it’s over 90% then it “activates” whatever it should be doing (say 90% chance of a bird in the image). I can see it for reinforcement learning and unsupervised learning where the computer has to pick its own outputs, but even then, you would have a very faulty algorithm (or bad cameras) if like in the fantasia example, it kept filling up the bucket even when it is clear that it is full.

    In addition to that, when people who work in the industry say they have no idea how to make a superintelligence, and that it’s such a far cry away from the machine learning algorithms of today, how serious should we take them?
    I feel like because of my aformentioned paragraph about the difference between machine learning probabilities and the Bostrom superintelligence hypothesis, there is _no_ possible bridge from one to the other, either theoretically or practically technically speaking, and as such creating technical solutions is nigh impossible. The idea of a utility function, how to define it, how to implement it, is a big mystery. The technical solutions will have to accompany actual technical breakthroughs along with a “sam harris style” general conscious awareness on the part of the engineers making them.

  50. SilasLock Says:

    Scott, I haven’t read Pinker’s book yet, but I’ll have to give it a look after seeing your review! I’m curious as to what you think about his section on poverty; Nathan J. Robinson wrote a piece responding to some of what Pinker wrote in the book

    https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/02/why-equality-is-indispensable

    and if he’s accurately characterizing Pinker’s position, then for the most part I’d agree with his critique. Inequality represents a pretty gross misallocation of resources, and has a lot of negative consequences in its own right. Making poverty-elimination into our objective function rather than welfare-maximization (which is negatively affected by inequality) is a mistake IMO, and from Nathan’s article that’s what I got the impression Pinker is arguing for.

    As someone who’s read Pinker’s book and enjoyed it, do you think Nathan’s mischaracterizing Pinker’s arguments? If not, who would you agree with more and what’s your own take on the matter?

    I bring this up because while there are a lot of stupid left-wing takes on Pinker’s book that brutally mischaracterize what he says and/or make very silly arguments against him in general (you cited John Grey, a good example of the genre), there are also a lot of really good critiques out there that I haven’t seen anyone engage with, and I think Nathan’s piece represents such a critique.

    (I know this is a uniquely hairy topic to discuss, given that inequality vs. poverty elimination debates are often used to signal affiliation with Blue and Red/Grey-esque tribes, and that Nathan’s recent spat with Scott Alexander (which made me very upset because I respect both men a great deal and I’d feel happier if they were on good terms with one another) makes him divisive to bring up, and I don’t want to create a firework’s show or anything with this question.)

  51. Scott Says:

    Marcus #32 and Tuesday #37: I really, honestly don’t get the complaint over “cherry-picking” history’s good guys to be the exemplars of Enlightenment values.

    See, it’s like this. Your side—by which I’ll mean, the side that unironically uses words like “scientism”—complains that our side mustn’t simplistically celebrate scientists as the heroes of civilization, since some scientists, like Heisenberg or Mengele, participated in great evil, while others, like Trotsky, were once renowned by many intellectuals for their “scientific rigor,” but it’s now clear that they were just spouting dogmatic ideologies, clothed in pseudoscientific phrases, to justify thuggish police states.

    So then our side responds: yes, you’re absolutely right. We completely agree with you. (And never mind the fact that most of the intellectuals who swooned for the likes of Trotsky or Heidegger seemed, some might say, a lot more “like you” than “like us”!)

    So that’s why, as our noble ideal, we talk about something much broader than just scientific progress, namely “Enlightenment values”—by which we mean, at the very least, science in the service of the flourishing of all humankind, and the actual willingness to learn from the world and be corrected by it, rather than trying force-fit the world into a preconceived model.

    So then your side replies: “hey, no fair! that’s cherry-picking! The no-true-Scotsman fallacy! You can’t just celebrate those scientists who upheld noble and humanistic ideals, without also celebrating the scientists who didn’t!”

    To which our side can only respond, quizzically: “Why can’t you take ‘yes’ for an answer? And what could we possibly do at this point that would satisfy you?”

    Here’s my offer: name any historical figure who I know something about, and I’ll tell you in what ways I think he or she worked for and/or against “Enlightenment norms and values” as I understand them. And I’ll be open to being corrected by anyone who knows more about the figure than I do.

    Will I be “cherry-picking”? Of course I’ll be, since what’s the alternative? But I’m willing to tell you exactly which cherries I pick and why, so that you can decide for yourself whether to buy my cherry basket.

  52. Jelmer Renema Says:

    Re: Scott 44 & OP: I think most reasonable people would agree that if the Enlightenment had merely provided the Nazis with machine guns, that one could not meaningfully assign blame to the Enlightenment for the uses that those guns were put to. The problem is that the Enlightenment did much more: it provided a significant chunk of the Nazi ideology as well.

    The overlap is mainly in three points. First, in the notion of progress as such. It is hard to see this looking back, but for most of human history, it was not just the case that technological progress occurred extremely slowly, but moreover, there was no *concept* of progress: people believed that society was static.

    The Nazis, in contrast, very much had a notion of progress, and were doing terrible things in the name of that notion. You are mistaken when you say the Nazis thought of themselves as people who were fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable. In fact, they saw themselves as the wave of the future, and this was a significant reason why the ideology has such appeal to many. Since this is such a terrifying aspect of their ideology, it has been played down significantly, emphasizing – to give a small example – Hitler’s love of figurative painting over his typographic directive to stop using traditional German Fractur letters and use modern fonts instead. Look into the connections between the Futurists, Gabriele d’Annunzio and the early Italian fascists – the parallels with today’s Silicon Valley Elon Musk-worshipping techno-monarchist crowd are utterly terrifying.

    The second Enlightenment idea that was absolutely central to nazi ideology was the notion of classification: the idea that nature could be put into boxes, which could be described, classified and categorized, and that this categorization could also meaningfully be applied to people. Again, it is hard to see how one cannot have that idea since we live in a society where the notion that everyone is categorized (e.g. by nationality) is commonplace, but for most of human history, ethnic, racial and cultural distinctions were very much in the background compared to local, occupation- and class-based distinctions. It was the Enlightenment, with its unfortunate love for measuring skull shapes, that changed all that.

    Again, here it’s important to note that the Nazis weren’t merely using the tools of the Enlightenment, the Nazis goals were inherently Enlightenment-centric: they weren’t just using the Enlightenment tools of classification and rationalized policy-making to put this population group on rations of so-and-so many calories and this population group on rations of so-and-so many, the whole point of nazi ideology was that there *were* categories of people, that these categories *mattered*, and that action should be taken to enforce these categories. I think your point about the enlightenment merely providing tools decisively breaks down here.

    Finally, there is the issue of Social Darwinism, which is probably the central contribution of enlightenment thought to Nazi ideology. It is a mistake to treat the nazi use of Social Darwinism as an opportunistic seizing of scientific terminology by anti-science troglodytes: they genuinely believed they were doing the moral, scientifically correct thing, and most of the world agreed with them on the basic principle, including the reasonable, polite, liberal, scientific establishment of the Anglo-Saxon world.

    Eugenics was not a fringe belief in the ’20s and ’30s, it was commonly accepted. The notion that Social Darwinism was a malicious misuse of Darwin’s ideas is simply untenable: his son and grandson, who would presumably have a personal interest in keeping their father’s name clear of such pseudoscience, were members of the Eugenics Society. Leading evolutionary biologists were among its leading proponents. People who saw themselves as being at the center of rational thought considered it a scientifically proven idea.

    And that is what makes the Nazis so terrifying: that they were *not* hidebound reactionaries, but that they were acting in the name of progress as it was understood at the time, by reasonable, educated people. More so than other obviously evil groups (the Confederates, the Boers) they represent a terrible haunted-house mirror version of what can happen to us if we uncritically embrace progress.

    And that is also the reason why there is so much vitriol against people like Pinker: if we believe that there are atrocities which were committed not in spite of, but because of the enlightenment, then it is wrong to uncritically praise it, even if it was only one of the contributing factors, and even if we only increase the probability of a repeat event by epsilon.

    Now where does this all leave us? One way out would be the reactionary solution of simply rejecting all rational progress, of saying that since the Enlightenment fed into Nazism, therefore the Enlightenment is irredeemably tainted and must be rejected. That seems to me a ridiculous notion, in the face of the overwhelming success of the Enlightenment project as a whole. However, that does not mean that we should be uncritical. When people to your left criticize the Enlightenment, they do it not because they are against its gains, but because they feel that is is a deeply flawed project that has produced both the best things humanity has done while also fueling the worst things humanity has done.

  53. Alex Mennen Says:

    Scott, have you and Eliezer had a debate on AI timelines? You seem to be roughly on the same page regarding everything about AI risk except for AI progress timelines, which you seem to have wildly different views on, and which is a very important thing to get right (given certain assumptions that you and Eliezer seem to share).

  54. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    “The overlap is mainly in three points. First, in the notion of progress as such. It is hard to see this looking back, but for most of human history, it was not just the case that technological progress occurred extremely slowly, but moreover, there was no *concept* of progress: people believed that society was static.”

    Not really. It is true that some aspects certainly didn’t see progress as as much of a thing. One classic example of this is how many ancient civilizations had myths about how different inventions came from deities or the like because they had trouble with the idea that people came up with them on their own. But the idea of progress as progress more generally does seem to show up, although often phrased in highly nationalist fashions (e.g. progress for Christians meant the removal of polytheism and other religions around the globe).

  55. Scott Says:

    Alex #53: We certainly discussed such things when Eliezer visited me at MIT 4-5 years ago, but I don’t recall any published exchange we’ve had about it. Sure, it could be interesting, although I don’t know how much of the origin of our differing priors is actually articulable in words.

  56. Sandro Says:

    The Amazon reviews are equally vicious on Pinker’s book. I read an interesting review from a philosopher who raised some legitimate issues with Pinker’s apparent treatment of historical figures philosophy and the ethics they espoused. I think Pinker probably overreached here in retroactively trying to classify some thinkers in his Enlightenment camp, and either the message got lost in translation, or Pinker legitimately doesn’t understand some of these philosophies.

    Still, this person claims it sullies the remainder of the book, but I can’t see how that would be the case. I’ll have to read it for myself!

  57. Paul B Says:

    I also notice you were acknowledged in Robin Hanson’s The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life . You seem to get around.

  58. Jelmer Renema Says:

    Joshua #54: you are right, it is more subtle than that. People did recognize long-term changes (e.g. in technology), and responded to them, (e.g. the church trying to ban steel crossbows).

    The point is more that there wasn’t a culture of progress. We live in a society where progress is one of the central ideas, where it is seen as desirable in and of itself, and where it is a central, explicit goal of society, both through scientific research and through politics (all out political debates boil down to ‘what will move humanity forward?’). That wasn’t the case in the past.

  59. dhaus Says:

    Scott #47: I think Collins didn’t get anything because she gave away her vote in exchange for vague promises. A stable compromise would involve, in my opinion, merging things both parties want in a single legislation rather than just relying on promises.

    For example Trump proposed putting solar panels on his wall. The idea itself of course is nonsensical but the principle behind it was something worth grabbing onto. If for example, Schumer had counter-proposed investments in solar power in exchange for wall funding (both as part of the same bill), it could have genuinely moved things forward. Yes Trump would get his stupid wall, but it would be mostly a symbolic victory in exchange for a real chance at saving the planet.

  60. Edan Maor Says:

    Great review! Haven’t read the book yet but have read lots of reviews 🙂

    About the AI section – it sounds like he did the standard wrong thing, as you say – he first decided “AI risk? That’s ridiculous”. Probably for the same reason most people decide this – in most contexts, “this technology will kill us” is a refrain for the “other side”, the anti-enlightenment side, so you need to slap it down. He then gave reasons why this can’t possibly be right, without bothering to engage with anyone who *actually works on this*. This is the one thing most wrong-headed anti-AI-safety people have in common – they simply don’t engage with Bostrom/Yudkowsky or anyone else who is actually leading the charge on this issue. It’s common, but unfortunate.

    __

    (Rant following): The one thing I’m really sad and pessimistic about is very small, in the grand scheme of things – the “tau vs pi” debate (I’m on the Tau side, obviously). I know it’s not a big deal, I know it doesn’t *really* matter all that much, especially when compared to things like AI-safety, which I worry about far more than Scott. But even though I’m an optimist by temperament, it’s such a perfect example of the pessimistic view – a situation where I believe there is a very clear mistake (the original definition of PI), it’s quite obvious that this is a historical blunder and not a well-thought-out thing, and yet, I can’t get anyone to take me seriously. The people who should be *most* inclined to listen will usually treat this dismissively – they clearly make up their mind that anyone saying something like “PI is wrong” is being silly, and nothing will persuade them otherwise.

    If something so clear-cut (to my mind) is so hard to get people to agree with, what chance do we have for anything most serious?

    And indeed, the only reason people take my worrying about AI safety at all seriously nowadays is because of the amazing work of Yudkowsky/Bostrom, which by sheer force-of-will they managed to make intellectually acceptable, and (so far at least) only just. It’s just such an uphill battle to get anyone to agree on anything of any import – it just immediately turns into either “I agree with you” or “I disagree with you”, almost instinctively, and from there no argument in the world can change anyone’s mind.

  61. Dmitry Kornienko Says:

    So, what can be done with the world in 20 years:
    1. Trump will definitely not be president.
    2. The norms of the Enlightenment will no longer be trampled upon.
    3. The problem with Global Warming will be radically resolved.
    4. It is possible that humanity will be turned into paper clips. Or coprocessors for quantum computers.

    It seems to me to worry about the cultural degradation of mankind in conditions when humanity is approaching its end … Well, it’s like going by car to a rock and thinking about problems in personal life.

  62. Doug K Says:

    We have to go all the way back to Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss, to find an optimist as cheery as Dr. Pinker. I do admire that, and agree that optimism is necessary to tackle what is coming. But it’s terribly easy to confute his arguments.

    The scientists and rationality he admires refute him thus,

    http://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu/sites/sw/files/Warning_article_with_supp_11-13-17.pdf

    A review in The Nation observes justly,
    “Almost entirely absent from the 576 pages of Enlightenment Now are the social movements that for centuries fought for equal rights, an end to slavery, improved working conditions, a minimum wage, the right to organize, basic social protections, a cleaner environment, and a host of other progressive causes.”
    Failing to account for these and assigning all credit for their achievements to rationality, is a crippling omission.

    – the Deutschian mantra that “problems are solvable.”
    Agreed but only within a bounded rationality. We are both problem-solving scientists, and East African plains apes lashed on by primitive emotions, fear and greed. There’s no solving politics.

  63. Neel Krishnaswami Says:

    So the only way I can make sense of your position, is as saying that it’s not possible to make distinctions like that between science and pseudoscience, or between actual Enlightenment norms and the Potemkin facade of them.

    No, my point is that it is normal for actual, genuine geniuses of the Enlightenment to also be monsters and villains. Correctly seeing how the world works makes you more powerful, but it doesn’t make you more ethical. And because of its ability to supply power, science has been lavishly supported by ruling elites for two hundred years now.

    This is why Heisenberg is not a weird abnormality. It is normal for leading scientists to be deeply connected to the highest levels of power, and it is normal for them — for us! — to believe that using science to ensure the success and perpetuation of the elite is the same thing as using science to ensure human flourishing. Sometimes this is right (when Fritz Haber invented the Haber process) and sometimes it is not (when Fritz Haber invented phosgene and mustard gas), but in both cases Haber thought he was doing the right thing.[1]

    Concretely, let’s look at the heroes of modernity you list: Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Mill. But out of this list, only Spinoza and Kant can be said to have lived ethical lives in the ordinary, everyday sense of the word.

    Locke invested in slave-trading firms and was a advocate both of slavery and the expropriation and genocide of native Americans. (That’s why he invented the idea of land ownership arising from labor mixing — to supply an ideological justification for running hunter-gatherer tribes off their land.) Jefferson was also a slaver. Hamilton was personally corrupt, and favored an oligarchic state run by and for wealthy elites. Mill spent the bulk of his career working for and defending the British East India company.

    Now, Mill’s arguments for universal education, women’s rights, and economic democracy are still correct. But it is also entirely reasonable to wonder if his support for colonialism might have something to do with the fact that it paid his salary. And it is also entirely reasonable, when a scientist or industrialist says he or she is doing good, to wonder “good for whom?”

    [1] It must be noted that his wife Clara Haber, also a chemist, was not so deluded. She seems to have been so horrified by her husband’s enthusiasm for chemical warfare that she committed suicide.

  64. Michael Says:

    @Jelmer Renema#52- It’s interesting that you describe the Nazis as a haunted-house mirror of what happens if we embrace progress. Because there’s another terrible example of what happens if we uncritically embrace progress that people to the Left try to ignore- Communism. The Communists were as much a product of the Enlightenment as the Nazis- the same notion of progress, the same notion of putting human beings into categories. They had the same goals as today’s leftists- gender and racial equality, a classless society. Many of them had the same contempt for rural dwellers that many of today’s left-wingers share. And much of the Left views people who supported Communism- the Hollywood Ten, Paul Robeson, etc.- as heroes. But most of the same people who direct such vitriol at people like Pinker object to vitriol being directed at the Left. Now, I agree that to abandon human progress because of Communism like the reactionaries want would be ridiculous, just like abandoning human progress because of Nazism, but that doesn’t mean giving the Left a free pass either.

  65. 4thpl Says:

    Scott #13: Pas de vrais philosophes?

  66. mjgeddes Says:

    #43

    Pedro Domingos ‘The Master Algorithm’ book is entertaining and informative, but I just don’t think it’s really an accurate over-view of ML. He divides ML into ‘5 tribes’ each with it’s own ‘master algorithm’, but whilst this makes for a good story, I can’t really see that it reflects the reality. You have a diverse range of different areas in ML, each with a diverse range of techniques. To be trying to single out ‘master algorithms’ is way too simplistic. ‘Inverse Deduction’ as a master algorithm for Symbolic Logic? Ah no, I think not. When was the last time you heard a ML researcher talking about ‘Inverse Deduction’?

    I’d roughly separate AGI research into 3 main areas: Learning, Optimization and Machine Psychology/NLP.

    Learning – Statistical inference, neural networks and network science

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Zarzuelazen/Books/Reality_Theory:_Machine_Learning

    Optimization – Mathematical optimization, dynamical systems and Evolutionary Computation

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Zarzuelazen/Books/Reality_Theory:_Optimization

    Machine Psychology/NLP – Linguistics, Ontology engineering and World Models

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Zarzuelazen/Books/Reality_Theory:_Machine_Psychology%26NLP

    Learning is the most advanced area of AI (machine learning is mostly about this). We know less about Optimization (although reinforcement learning does deal with this on a basic level). And Machine Psychology/NLP is still at an early poorly developed stage.

    My strong intuition is that each of the 3 levels has its own optimal form of inference, and probability theory is really only a good fit for the 1st level (Learning). Here’s what I think the optimal form of inference is for each level:

    Learning – Probability Theory
    Optimization – Information Theory
    Psychology/NLP – Fuzzy Temporal Logic

  67. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Jelmer Renem #54,

    Yes, that’s fair. But it makes very little sense to associate that somehow with the Nazis. The idea of progress-through-eliminating-the-hated-other is very old and there are many other ancient examples, e.g. carthago delenda est.

  68. Tim Makarios Says:

    “I don’t believe in a traditional God …”. When reading the older blog post you linked to, a couple of sentences:

    Again and again, what we observe is that the forces of good have every possible advantage, from money to knowledge to overwhelming numerical superiority. Yet somehow good still fumbles.

    made me wonder if you’d been unconsciously putting your faith in traditional gods like Plutus, Athena, and the more modern Goddess of Democracy. That’s why I quoted as much as I did of Amos chapter 5 in my comment; a God who allows an improbable series of catastrophes — in order to demonstrate the impotence of other gods people are putting their faith in — is consistent with what was written about the Creator-God of your ancestors.

    You may be wondering why a supposedly good, omnipotent God would allow evil and suffering at all. Yes, that is a puzzle. Perhaps we can’t understand the answer to the puzzle, but God can provide us with a kind of zero-knowledge proof that there is a good answer: in the fulfillment of other prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures (see in particular Isaiah 9:5 (verse 6 in Christian tradition) and Isaiah 52:13–53:12), God allows Himself to be subjected to evil and suffering, which He surely wouldn’t do if He was merely “tipping the scales of fate toward horribleness” for His own pleasure.

  69. Scott Says:

    Neel #63:

      No, my point is that it is normal for actual, genuine geniuses of the Enlightenment to also be monsters and villains.

    If that’s your concern, then I completely agree that it’s possible—even, obviously possible—for the same individual to have advanced Enlightenment ideals with the left hand while hindering them with the right, or (a fairly common case) defended them brilliantly in writings while shitting on them in their personal life. Hashing out particular such cases has been a sometime sport in this comment section.

    I reject, with prejudice, your contention that Heisenberg was somehow morally representative of all scientists everywhere. There’s a reason why so many of his former colleagues refused to shake his hand after the war. And he was arguably the only truly great physicist who worked for the Nazis, whereas on the other side, you had … well, it’d be easier to list who you didn’t have!

    I’ll give you Locke and Jefferson as having been morally profoundly compromised even by the standards of their own time, but I think I’ll hold the line on Hamilton and Mill, at least given what I know about them.

    (In the case of Hamilton, the question, one might argue, is: how does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore, and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar? The answer, it seems to me, is that the ten-dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter… 😀 )

  70. Scott Says:

    I can’t resist mentioning that, over at SneerClub, they’ve now had their sneering crosshairs drawn over this review for a full day—and yet still none of them has managed to make it past a couple of lines near the beginning, even to evince any sneering curiosity about the depth of my disagreement with Pinker over optimism, or otherwise to notice any part of the substance of what Pinker thinks or I think. They’re not just intellectually dishonest; they’re lazy too.

  71. Scott Says:

    Jelmer #52: I need to run, and might write more later, but for now let me say—I’m grateful to you for engaging the real issues here at length. But I still think you totally misdiagnose the problem.

    Who are the intellectuals who the Nazis drew on, and who I would recognize as important figures of the Enlightenment? I know that they drew on Nietzsche and Heidegger, and others of what I’d broadly call the romantic counter-Enlightenment—crucially, what I’d still call a “counter-Enlightenment” for like 50 reasons, even if I knew nothing about its association with Nazism. I also know that the Nazis called themselves the Third Reich, looking backward to the two glorious Reichs before them, and that they wished to recreate a mythical past filled with glorious warrior-heroes and Volk tied to their land. So, not exactly “Enlightenment ideals.” To me, these overwhelmingly obvious points still seem like they override the admittedly interesting factoid that Hitler disliked the Fraktur font.

  72. Douglas Knight Says:

    Joshua 40, if Cool Earth really is so effective, then publicize it, but it doesn’t have much room for funding. It isn’t a scalable option for carbon offsets.

  73. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott 47,
    Collins disagrees with that description. Anyhow, there are lots of other venues than the US Congress. The German Green Party replaced nuclear power with coal. They are chopping down forests in Florida to burn in Germany. That is potentially carbon neutral, but probably fake. Washington state, basically just Democrats, has failed to negotiate a carbon tax, both in the legislature and by ballot initiative. I don’t know much about the legislative efforts, but the ballot initiative was killed by the left specifically because it was designed to appeal to Republicans. (But it also failed to actually appeal to Republicans.)

  74. Joshua Cook Says:

    Its amazing to read through so many thought through comments like this. Its a pleasure whenever I do get around to reading your blog. There is a lot of discussion on here about AI and human nature. There doesn’t seem to be enough respect that we simply don’t understand intelligence AND we don’t know how much of human nature is related to intelligence in a non trivial or non specific way.

    For instance, there has been some research on curiosity neural nets, which essentially shows that making neural networks pursue novel, misunderstood stimulus can help train them faster and learn more independently. Curiosity seemed like a very human thing, but we find it is useful more generally.

    Similarly, its been experimentally shown that optimizing Markov decision processes often converge faster when the discount factor starts smaller then is slowly increased to the final value. Thus the tendency to learn short term solutions then slowly branch out to longer solutions seems to be more general as well.

    When we look at Neural Turing machines, which provide a theoretically infinite working space to neural networks, we help our neural networks with hints like temporal ordering and similarity. These heuristics give real practical improvements to the learning of the machines, but also bias them to problems with memory that people have.

    Intelligence is weird and complicated. It has many problems, like the curse of dimensionality and over fitting. In overcoming some of these problems, we have slowly introduced many “problems” we have seen in human intelligence. We don’t understand which human cognitive problems are fundamental and will almost certainly be in AIs as well, and which problems are from the specific way we adapted.

    For instance, humans have very limited working memory despite our huge brains. Why is that? One could argue that it might simply have been unnecessary and its a flaw of human biology. But what if having limited, general working space is necessary for developing general abstract algorithms. Maybe AIs will need to have memory problems as well in order to learn proper memory management. We don’t know!

    AI is very uncertain, an optimist may think that most human traits are fundamental. A pessimist might counter that both AI probably won’t be human like, and they may only be human like in the most horrific ways. We don’t really know. And further, we don’t really understand what we are missing to make a truly intelligent AI, so we don’t know when we are on the verge of creating them.

    But its hard to really say for sure what the dangers are. Its hard for me to criticize statements like “understanding nuances is what intelligence is all about” (in relation to interpreting optimization functions) from one asserting the opposite. Though I don’t think we should have much confidence either way at this point.

    Now, how does science and enlightenment values relate to machine learning… yeah that is a really tricky question that I don’t think the field of AI is ready to answer. Perhaps the two shouldn’t get too chummy yet, just like quantum physics and general relativity. Sure they might inform each other, but they can’t be combined quite yet.

  75. Chinese Student Says:

    Joshua Zelinsky #27,

    Good day.

    This is a reply to your comment #27.

    I wrote this same response months ago to Mr. Scott in the comments below https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=3488 and I think it applies perfectly to you.

    “`

    Here’s my response: It’s extremely troubling to see that you allege with force that the Enlightenment is compatible with notions of moral duty towards the environment, and that modern capitalism merely tries to ignore this alleged Enlightenment doctrine. Something should be said of the profound disjunction between this thought-structure of domination, on the one hand, and morality and values, on the other. The disjunction was effected early on in the Enlightenment, when the so-called mechanical philosophers, such as Boyle and Newton, began to emerge. These philosophers, whose doctrine came to constitute a largely undisputed paradigm of the Enlightenment, argued that matter is “brute,” “inert,” and even “stupid.” [See: A. Bilgrami, “Gandhi, Newton, and the Enlightenment,” in I. A. Karawan, et al., eds., Values and Violence (New York: Springer, 2008), 15-29.] In this doctrine, all spiritual agencies in the *anima mundi* were banished from the universe, rendering matter spiritually meaningless, but still relevant in an anthropocentric, materialistic sense. If matter exists in a “brute” and “inert” form, then the only reason for its existence must be that of its subservience to man. Robert Boyle, a leading mechanical philosopher, represented his movement well when he elaborated the view “that man was created to possess and to rule over nature.” [Jacob, Radical Enlightenment, 6, as well as pp. xi, 3-4, 64-67 and passim.] Thus, if nature is “brute” and “inert,” then one can deal with it without any moral restraint, which is _precisely what has happened since the early nineteenth century_, if not long before. But since, as I have argued, the universalist-extensionist propensity is structurally tied to a domination-based thought-structure, the view of “brute” matter was also the basis on which modern colonialism was conducted and justified. [For the European encounter with the Indian conflation of value and matter, see the insightful analysis of Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, 18-19. See also J. Hart, Empires and Colonies (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 44-47, 79-82, 211-14.] This is not all, however. The more important point in the isolation of matter as “brute” and “inert” is the resultant crucial phenomenon of separating fact from value, which is yet another major and essential factor in the modern project (a factor that, as Charles Taylor once observed, “outrageously fix[es] the rules of discourse in the interests of one outlook, forcing rival views into incoherence”). [Taylor, “Justice After Virtue,” in J. Horton and S. Mendus, eds., After MacIntyre (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), 20.] If matter, in itself, is devoid of value, then we can treat it as an object. We can study it, and subject it to the entire range of our analytical apparatus, without it making any moral demands on us. [Bilgrami, “Gandhi, Newton,” 25 and passim.] More importantly, however, and as some social scientists have argued, the separation which denudes intellectual/scientific enquiry of value “is ethically untenable,” for it “disengages the observer from the social responsibility that should accompany his accounts, and it results in the status quo being presented as somehow natural and real, rather than as constructed and partisan.” [Pressler and Dasilva, Sociology, 102-03.] This ethical dimension, indeed moral accountability, can hardly be overemphasized.

    It’s a tragedy, indeed, if you on the one hand embrace the Enlightnment and be one of the (in your own words) “defenders of the Enlightenment,” and on the other hand warn about global warming and the necessity of taking all precautions to diminish its ever expanding impacts, while at the same time thinking that there are no contradictions between the two.

    “`

    Hope you reconsider your ideals to not be on the “wrong side of history”.

  76. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @Joshua 67: now I feel we are getting to the central point! Yes, there was plenty of eliminating-the-other, but it was not framed in the language of progress as we would understand it. To my mind, an appeal to progress requires (a) and appeal to rationalism and (b) and appeal to universality.

    By rationalism I mean that there is some claim to a larger and more importantly objective good that is being satisfied by an action. By universality I mean that that objective good benefits more people than just a narrow in-group. Progress with a capital P, after all, is always the progress of Humanity (modulo some out-groups).

    The Romans fail on both accounts. Roman violence was both parochial and particularistic. The Romans were entirely happy to acknowledge that they lived in a dog-eat-dog world where their enemies would be within their rights to do to them what they did to others. The story of the Gaulish conquest of Rome as told in Livy (vae victis and all that) is typical in this respect.

    In fact, Roman culture is almost obsessed with the idea that Rome would one undergo the same fate as the cities it conquered – witness for example the famous case of Scipio Africanus weeping after having destroyed Carthage, saying this would one day be the fate of Rome. Can you imagine Stalin doing the same thing? [1]

    This is the crucial point: the Romans by their actions did not believe that they were moving history to some knowable end state, they believed they were part of a great churning where they were lucky to be on top today, but should be mindful of the fact that that would not last.

    There was also no aspect of universality. Romans did not fight wars to make the world a better place, they fought wars to avenge specific wrongs – a lost battle, an insult to an ally, a decapitated ambassador or – later on – simply the failure to recognize Rome’s greatness. I know of no Roman source – for example – which claims that the interests of the broader Mediterranean community would be served by the destruction of Carthage.

    As far as I know, Rome also never claimed that it was running its empire to further some objective, rational good. The closest I know is the passage in Virgil which talks about the Romans’ divine mission to ‘save the meek and humble the haughty’, but even that is a divine mission, not a imperative of reason.

    The big difference between (say) the destruction of Carthage and the Holodomor – though of course both enormous tragedies – is that one was done in the name of group interests, and one was done in the name of the rational progress of Humanity. And that is precisely the essential difference.

    [1] Yes, I know the nazis inherited this obsession with their own demise. That is a subject for another post.

  77. DarMM Says:

    Great another nerd bro article shaming mammoths.

  78. In our time – Wells Baum Says:

    […] It doesn’t matter what the books reveal about our worst tendencies. People want to experience chaos on their own. In short, men fall casualty to “thinking with their dicks.” […]

  79. DarMM Says:

    On a more serious note, Scott I was wondering if you saw this:
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1606.08403

    Or more so do you know what is known about the computational abilities of the hidden variables in such theories that have them.

  80. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    # 72, Douglas Knight

    Yes, I agree that Cool Earth is not indefinitely scalable given what they do. Actually estimating when they’ll start to hit severe diminishing marginal returns seems tough, but at least right now, they are far away from it that publicizing it and encouraging donations is justified. But yes, donating to them by itself is not going to solve our carbon problem at all.

  81. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @Michael 64: I agree with most of what you say: you’ll get no argument from me on the point that the communists are a much more clear-cut example of people committing crimes in the name of the Enlightenment. The reason for that is that while the Nazis are this weird mix of pre-modern and modern, of conservative and radical, the communists (at least the generation of Lenin et al) are pretty much straightforward rationalist Jacobin reformers turned up to eleven. The reason I did not discuss them was merely that I wanted to keep the debate on Scott’s terms, and he happened to mention the Nazis, so I ran with that.

    I do completely disagree with you on the claim that the left has been giving them a free pass on this. In fact, quite the opposite: I would say every serious post-war thinker, including many in the soviet bloc, has taken as their starting point the observation that communism was a disaster. Their disagreements centered on how to proceed from that observation.

    This is true from the far-left, where the Trotskists’ appeal was basically ‘all the fun of Stalinism but without the Gulags’, to the center, where pluralism, human rights etc, became the secular religion, at least in Europe.

    That – incidentally – is another reason why books like Pinker’s create so much annoyance: the feeling that he’s seventy years late to the party. It’s as if someone reinvented quantum mechanics today, insisted on using completely different terminology, and then went on to flaunt their re-invention of Born’s Rule. The question of how to create progress without occasionally sliding into death camps has been central to progressive, rationalist thought for decades, and simple cheerleader-ism is too much of a zeroth-order answer to be interesting, in my opinion.

  82. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    #76 Jelmer Renema, “now I feel we are getting to the central point! Yes, there was plenty of eliminating-the-other, but it was not framed in the language of progress as we would understand it. To my mind, an appeal to progress requires (a) and appeal to rationalism and (b) and appeal to universality.

    By rationalism I mean that there is some claim to a larger and more importantly objective good that is being satisfied by an action. By universality I mean that that objective good benefits more people than just a narrow in-group. Progress with a capital P, after all, is always the progress of Humanity (modulo some out-groups).”

    So, this still feels substantially different than the Nazis, in that they explicitly weren’t about universality and rationality. The example you gave instead in this context was instead Communist atrocities. My comment was specifically in the original context where the Nazis were brought up. In the context of Communists, I’m generally in agreement with you that a) they were largely influenced by ideas about universality and progress and b) that those aspects really are post-Enlightenment. It does seem to me to be very hard to separate that sort of thing from the Enlightenment (and in this regard I think I’m implicitly disagreeing a bit with Scott here). Moreover, it is worth noting that the desire for rationality or the idea that simple order with top-down control is more rational (and hence desirable) is a failure mode which has existed for a very long time, and while some examples of it pre-date the Enlightenment, many examples and its popularity as an idea clearly post-date it. The most relevant book here is “Seeing Like a State” which goes through all sorts of examples where state actors out of a desire to make things understandable and rational from the perspective of the State caused serious and substantial harm; one doesn’t need examples like genocide to get to that point. For example, simply trying to run forests “rationally” with straight little rows of the same type of tree everywhere caused massive damage.

  83. Alex L Says:

    Joshua Cook #74

    humans have very limited working memory despite our huge brains. Why is that? One could argue that it might simply have been unnecessary and its a flaw of human biology. But what if having limited, general working space is necessary for developing general abstract algorithms. Maybe AIs will need to have memory problems as well in order to learn proper memory management. We don’t know!

    John von Neumann’s eidetic memory would seem to disprove this hypothesis. From the link:

    As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how A Tale of Two Cities started. Whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes.

  84. Nacho Says:

    For his “better angels” book, the most appropriate punishment for Pinker should be to put him count loudly from 1 to 500.000, forwards and backwards.

    500.000 is the number of dead in the war in Syria. A “small”, geographically constrained war in the middle east happening the past few years.

  85. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Chinese Student # 75,

    “Here’s my response: It’s extremely troubling to see that you allege with force that the Enlightenment is compatible with notions of moral duty towards the environment, and that modern capitalism merely tries to ignore this alleged Enlightenment doctrine.”

    So, first of all, let’s not that at no point in any comments here have I asserted there’s a moral duty to the environment. Most of the discussion here about global warming has been explicitly about how damaging the environment is bad for people. One doesn’t need to think about some sort of abstract moral duty to the environment in order to be considered about environmental problems.

    Now, as to the rest of your comment, neither Scott nor I need to subscribe to every single argument made by anyone associated with the Enlightenment, and Pinker at least explicitly considers animal welfare as a positive. But the fact is that matter doesn’t have some special spiritual or mystical aspect, and there’s nothing special there about matter that makes up animals either. The matter that makes up Joshua Zelinsky doesn’t have any spirit or soul or anything like that.

    I’m having trouble understanding all of your other points, and it appears that possibly important parts of your argument are contained in the various sources you reference in passing. But I’d like to pick out one aspect in particular where I follow what you are saying then I’m going to just strongly disagree:

    “If matter, in itself, is devoid of value, then we can treat it as an object. We can study it, and subject it to the entire range of our analytical apparatus, without it making any moral demands on us. ”

    You appear to be acting like this is a bad thing. But there’s nothing wrong here; the book next to me doesn’t have moral worth to it, in any way shape or form. Moreover, this entire style of argument seems to be extremely close to the argument made by some religious individuals where one should believe in God because without God there’s no moral force. They both have the same fundamental problem, thinking that what we want to be true has any impact on the nature of the universe whatsoever. This appears to be essentially the same issue as https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2012-07-15 .

    There’s also a more general point you are implicitly making which is worth stating explicitly and then addressing. Essentially, the idea that somehow Western/post-Enlightenment views had unique problems regarding colonization or related issues. Colonization has existed well before anything like that. Colonization and conquest has been a near constant for almost all major human civilizations. The primary reasons that Western colonialism stands out is simply that a) it was the most recent (and hopefully final) wave of major colonialism and b) that it occurred on a larger scale than others. But the idea that there’s anything unique about that is simply wrong.

    Finally, regarding your last paragraph:

    “Hope you reconsider your ideals to not be on the “wrong side of history”.”

    Since no one in this thread has used this phrase, I’m not sure what argument you are making or where this quote came from, or what precisely your point is.

  86. Carl Wolfson Says:

    For someone who claims a pessimistic cast of mind, your review here truly brightened my day. Bravo!

    You also sold a copy of “Quantum Computing Since Democritus.” I have the math background set out in the preface, but haven’t used it for a while (I’m 30 years to the day older than you).

  87. Amitabh Lath Says:

    Pinker’s graphs and tables cannot change one’s outlook like say, deep inelastic scattering changed people’s mind about quarks or type 1 a supernovae

  88. Amitabh Lath Says:

    Pinker’s graphs and tables cannot change one’s outlook like say, deep inelastic scattering changed people’s mind about quarks or type 1 a supernovae did about dark energy. You are either an optimist or pessimist by nature and who you are will determine your response.

    After the shock of in Nov ’16 while most of my colleagues were still gloomy, I found myself thinking “this is exactly what’s needed to get the left to unite and get the young voting and get the Nader voters to smell the coffee…” There was no factual basis for my optimism, it’s just my outlook.

    I have heard that mammals get a bit crazy if they are confined to an area that takes a day or less to traverse. Humans have been so confined since the jet age started. Maybe we’re just going crazy because there isn’t anywhere to go?

  89. Michael Vassar Says:

    There’s a set of values which I’m sure Pinker is genuinely in favor of, and there’s a separate question of whether his work, in this book and in general, is in line with or opposed to those values. As far as I can tell, it is opposed to them, but that’s difficult to see when one isn’t looking at a domain which one has expertise in, like AI in Eliezer’s case.

  90. Douglas Knight Says:

    Joshua,
    Scalability is really important for carbon offsets. You shouldn’t use the language of carbon offsets for Cool Earth.

    We can estimate the scalability of Cool Earth. If the typical user makes 10 flights/year, donating $100/year, then 10k users fill their current budget of $1e6/year. That budget over about 20 years has, they claim, saved 1/2000 of the Amazonian rainforest. If they scale up the operation by a factor of 20 and keep running for another 20 years, that would save 1% of the rainforest. They can probably scale to that 200k users, but 1% is macroscopic. They would be running out of rainforest! They’ll probably hit diminishing effectiveness at that point, and certainly after another order of magnitude.

  91. mjgeddes Says:

    Joshua #74

    Well, the comments section of this blog is a good example of a form of optimization based on evolution – namely ‘collective intelligence’ or ‘swarm intelligence’. The collective comments swarm in , and under the direction of Scott, we already constitute a ‘proto-super-intelligence’!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swarm_intelligence

    In a real sense, there’s types of intelligence; as a metaphor I’d take the 3 races from ‘Star-craft’ – Terrans, Zerg and Protoss.

    Terran intelligence is like a machine learning and statistical inference – based on correlating large amounts of independent ‘units’ (big data) to learn and adapt via pattern recognition and Bayesian updating.

    Zerg intelligence is like optimization – a collective evolutionary ‘swarm’ relentlessly bending the environment towards specific goals via data compression, entropy and information.

    Protoss intelligence is like knowledge representation and NLP- high-quality symbolic conceptual models based on logic that work in a top-down integrated fashion.

    So the comment section on this blog manifests ‘Zerg’ intelligence – you can see the conceptual ‘swarm’ piling in.

  92. Jim Birch Says:

    I haven’t read Pinker (and should) but, unlike most of your correspondents, I agree with his basic idea about the ongoing improvement of the world, albeit statistically. Memory is short, but history is available. What we fear most of the future is actual repetition of the past.

    The past is always attractive because it is drained of fear, said Thomas Carlyle. It is easy to imagine a rosy past but supposing time were flipped and the succession of days reversed and we were inexorably moving towards our history, with your children and grandchildren to fight in the world wars. Their children to enter a world of 40% child mortality. Further on, to pass beyond the time when “an Englishman might expect to die in his bed” and starvation becoming a normal population control.

    Given a choice, I’ll choose for modern uncertainties. Even beg for it.

  93. PR Says:

    My problem with the book begins at the end of Chapter 1, where Pinker first frames his problem as a clash between Western Enlightenment values and the backwardness of the Islamic State.

    He completely ignores the historical roots of the Islamic State– over a century of bombing and butchery of the Middle East by the US and other “Enlightened” countries. This history gets one quick sentence in Chapter 23 (“clumsy” US policy), and then it’s on to explaining that the problem is (directly quoting) “the precepts of Islamic doctrine.”

    This is straightforward white supremacy and racism. It’s the Bush-Cheney doctrine that, while nobody likes war, we need to bring democracy to the savages. It’s the same racism Harvard professors have spouted for centuries to justify Western colonization.

    No reasonable person can argue that vaccines are wonderful, but Pinker uses this for a racist bait and switch.

    The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan killed over a million people. The US is currently bombing 7 countries. Obama dropped 22,000 bombs in his last year in office (a bomb every 20 minutes). No other country or group caused this kind of death and terror over the past couple decades. But in Pinker’s narrative the Enlightened US isn’t the problem– it’s those backwards, religious people on the receiving end of the bombs.

  94. Scott Says:

    PR #92: But Pinker, unless I’m badly mistaken, strongly opposed George W. Bush’s Middle East wars. He writes in Enlightenment Now:

      The most damaging effect of terrorism is countries’ overreaction to it, the case in point being the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11 (p. 197).

    And:

      [F]alse alarms to catastrophic risks can themselves be catastrophic … The 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified by the uncertain but catastrophic possibility that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and planning to use them against the United States. (p. 291)

    Regardless of anyone’s position on those wars, I disagree in the strongest imaginable terms that it’s “white supremacy and racism” to hold Islamic fundamentalist ideology to account for backwardness and suffering in the Middle East, in addition to various evils committed by the West. And not only for the boring reasons: that Islam is a religion rather than a race, and that in any case most Middle Easterners are “white” by most definitions of the term.

    Rather, for the deeper reason that it strikes me as much worse bigotry to infantilize people from other cultures, to see them as just the passive victims of your own culture’s poor choices, or even as pawns in your culture’s internal battles, rather than as agents of their own destiny, able to make good or bad choices and to suffer from self-inflicted wounds just as well as you can. It also, of course, homogenizes the other cultures, papers over their own internal disagreements. And it does zero favors to the unbelievably brave men and women living in Islamic theocracies who’ve been agitating for a long-overdue Muslim Enlightenment—for free speech and women’s rights and gay rights and full democracy and all the rest—and who’ve often suffered imprisonment or torture or death for their trouble. Those people deserve the West’s unequivocal support, and they haven’t been getting it.

    I see no contradiction in detesting George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Trump, while also detesting Saddam Hussein and ISIS and al Qaeda (perish the thought) even more—and for the same fundamental reason in every case, namely their regressive, authoritarian, anti-rational, and anti-Enlightenment tendencies.

  95. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    #84, Nacho

    Pinker explicitly acknowledges in Better Angels that there are still ongoing, terrible wars, and that new, worse wars may arise that will change the trends. He also explicitly acknowledges this in the context that modern weapons are more deadly and efficient. I fail to see how the presence of a horrific war changes that.

    I’m curious; if we had a galactic civilization with a population in the hundreds of trillions, and a single planet had a war of the size of that in Syria and there was literally peace everywhere else would you see this as a sign of progress? If not, why not? And if so, does this not mean that you agree with Pinker that percentages matter?

  96. Scott Says:

    Nacho #84:

      For his “better angels” book, the most appropriate punishment for Pinker should be to put him count loudly from 1 to 500.000, forwards and backwards.

      500.000 is the number of dead in the war in Syria. A “small”, geographically constrained war in the middle east happening the past few years.

    If he did that, would you also agree to count to 300 million for each person saved from smallpox? 🙂

    Coincidentally, counting up to large numbers is what I’m working on with Lily (my 5-year-old) right now. She can get to 100 with no assistance, though strangely she still struggles getting up to 200. She says she wants to count to a million, to which my reply was “no you don’t. You might think you do, but trust me…”

    I remember that Jewish youth organizations would sometimes do things like collecting 6 million bottlecaps in order to underscore the enormity of the Holocaust. To me, that always seemed a little beside the point: I understand what 6 million means. Instead of trying to prove our moral seriousness via exhaustive enumeration, let’s work to understand deeply the atrocities of human civilization and the bad ideas that led to them, and then try to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again.

  97. Jayarava Says:

    Thanks. I appreciate this long and thoughtful review. I think we’re just beginning to see the problems inherent in so-called “free market capitalism” as it only started up again around 1971. But the 2008 global financial crisis was certainly a harbinger of the havoc it will eventually cause. Private sector debt has built up to record levels; to insane levels. That debt will eventually be disastrous. It’s so hug now, that getting it down to manageable levels presents a very difficult problem. And at present few have noticed it, and no govt is trying to solve it.

    Although, yes, FMC has raised standards and lowered inequality in the third-world, it does so in order to create new consumers not for any humanitarian concern. We want those new consumers also to get into debt. And FMC stopped making things better in the West around the 1980s. Here we face declining wages, declining working conditions, along with increasing insecurity, increased stress, and longer hours.

    And I submit that Trump (and similar politicians) are a symptom of the masses feeling insecure. FMC is all about capital winning at the expense of labour. At some point labour starts electing people like trump.

    The only bright spot on my horizon, is the US kids campaigning for gun control. But nothing like that is likely to happen in Europe or the UK. We’re dead in the water.

  98. PR Says:

    I disagree in the strongest imaginable terms that it’s “white supremacy and racism” to hold Islamic fundamentalist ideology to account for backwardness and suffering in the Middle East, in addition to various evils committed by the West.

    We don’t disagree on the sentence you’ve written. The problem is that Pinker’s Chapter 23 is about “contemporary Islam,” the religion as a whole and its purported backwardness. This is bigoted.

    When I look at the most significant crimes of the past 20 years– US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian-led bombings of Syria– I see an *anti-correlation* between scientific understanding and criminality– the more highly educated, secular people are bombing the religious people. The same anti-correlation persists through American intervention in South/Central America, Soviet Atrocities in Eastern Europe, Vietnam, Nazi-ism, slavery, and colonialism more generally.

    So if the motive is to reduce suffering during the coming decades, I see no usefulness in framing the problem as Western Enlightened people vs backwards religious people. In fact, treating historically oppressed peoples as backwards seems obviously dangerous to me.

  99. PR Says:

    typo: anti-correlation –> correlation in my previous post… the meaning should be clear.

  100. Scott Says:

    Jayarava #96:

      Although, yes, [free market capitalism] has raised standards and lowered inequality in the third-world, it does so in order to create new consumers not for any humanitarian concern.

    I think it’s a mistake to think of “capitalism” like an agent pursuing some global end, whether good or bad. What I think is true is that many corporations, investors, etc. have done things in the Third World neither out of humanitarian concern nor out of long-term diabolical scheming, but simply to enrich themselves right now. And as everyone knows, that relentless pursuit of profit has sometimes led to environmental and humanitarian catastrophes. What’s less well known, but what Pinker amply documents, is that it’s also been the most wildly successful poverty-reduction program in the history of humankind.

    Now, if you agree about the latter (and you seem to, from your comment), then the obvious response about the impure motives of capitalists is “who friggin cares?” To my way of thinking, and to Pinker’s, “win-wins” are what we should be looking for, at least assuming that our goal is to lift up the poor, rather than to test the virtue of the rich.

    Of course, “lifting up the poor” does encompass dealing with any actual problems faced by the poor, and crippling debt is certainly one of them.

  101. John Merryman Says:

    On consciousness and fate, my view of theism is that a spiritual absolute would necessarily be an essence from which we rise, not an ideal of knowledge and wisdom from which we fell. That consciousness is nascent to biology and processing information is the talent humanity developed.
    More the new born, than the old and wise, but organized religion is more about social order, than spiritual insight.
    Since this awareness emerges in this physical reality, the only alternative to ups and downs would be a flatline. Consequently the price we pay to feel in the first place is that a considerable amount is pain.
    As for humans hunting down all the megaflora, keep in mind the one branch of humanity that mostly survived, originated from sub Saharan Africa, the one place where significant megaflora also survived.

  102. Buster Says:

    Scott #69: So you don’t consider Pascual Jordan to have been a truly great physicist?

  103. John Merryman Says:

    As for the ups and downs of Capitalism, when society was small, economics was reciprocal, as it was more efficient to share value than hoard it personally, yet as communities grew, accounting became necessary and this evolved into money.
    As such, money is the underlaying social contract, rather than a commodity to be mined from the community, as we tend to experience it on the personal level.
    It functions best as a medium of value, rather than a store of value. For instance, in the body, blood is the medium and fat is the store, or for cars, roads are the medium and parking lots are the store. Its functionality is in its fungibility. We own money like we own the section of road we are driving on.
    Yet because we individually experience it as quantified hope and security, we naturally try to save and store it. The problem is that when it is pulled from circulation, even to stick in a mattress, more has to be added, until eventually there would become too much and it would start to lose value, whereupon the stored would be dumped and the system breaks down.
    So banks promise us with interest and threaten us with inflation to keep it with them and in circulation.
    The problem with that is there is a thin line between productive investment and ponzi schemes, not to mention government debt being a major percentage of investment, leading to massive public overspending and resulting collapses. So fairly mindless growth is the result.
    Given we mostly save for the same basic reasons, from raising children and housing to healthcare and retirement, if we invested in them as community assets, rather than trying to save for them individually, then value would be stored more organically in the community and environment, rather than the banking system, economics would go back to being more reciprocal and society less atomized.
    Not likely, but the current system can only grow so far.

  104. Scott Says:

    Buster #101: Fair point; I guess he’s in the next rung below Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Planck, Schrödinger?

    In any case, the point still stands about anti-Nazis having outnumbered Nazis by a large margin among physicists, mathematicians, and the like. At the least, I think we can more than hold our own against humanities intellectuals by that particular metric. 🙂

  105. Prussian Says:

    It’d be easier to be sympathetic to Pinker when he’s maltreated intellectually, if the man didn’t do the same. For example, his treatment of Nietzsche is sophomorphic – nowhere does he mention that Nietzsche loathed antisemitism and despised the kind of sentimental, junkerish romantic Nationalism that would find expression in two world wars.

    Similarly, his treatment of even those one can rightly dislike is pathetic. He dismisses Steve Bannon as a “fascist” – and offers no evidence that this is true, or even that he has any idea what fascism is. He should spend a few weeks reading Roger Griffin and get up to speed on’t.

    I applaud his attempts to restore the Enlightenment. I have no patience – no patience at all – for him when he tries to identify the Enlightenment with the shopworn, tawdry cliches of American “liberalism”. For example, there is not a hint, not the merest suggestion that someone could have found the Clinton’s morally unacceptable for, e.g., the rocketing of Khartoum, the devastation of Libya, or the enabling of the Rwandan genocide.

    It gets worse. Pinker castigates populist movements like Brexit and Trump as enemies of the Enlightenment. Fair enough. But then he makes excuses for the most violently reactionary movements on earth. For example, he praises the Muslim rule of the Indian subcontinent as “liberal” and the Emperor Akbar as a typical example. In point of fact, Akbar was a heretic by Islamic standards, and the Muslim rule of the subcontinent saw the murder of eighty million Hindus. Pinker just hasn’t done his research.

    (Bonus question: can you imagine Pinker making similar excuses for the British rule in India?)

    These lacunae matter. The biggest thing that movements like Trumpism have going for them is to say: “Oh, sure, these humanists talk a big game about tolerance and inclusion – when it comes to opposing us. The instant there’s a real threat out there, they’ll be the first to sell you down the river. So, if you want to keep your neck on your shoulders, better join with us.” They are not entirely wrong.

  106. Enric Says:

    [[ “I’m even depressed that Pinker’s book has gotten such hostile reviews. I’m depressed, more broadly, that for centuries, the Enlightenment has been met by its beneficiaries with such colossal incomprehension and ingratitude. Save 300 million people from smallpox, and you can expect in return a lecture about your naïve and arrogant scientistic reductionism. Or, electronically connect billions of people to each other and to the world’s knowledge, in a way beyond the imaginings of science fiction half a century ago, and people will use the new medium to rail against the gross, basement-dwelling nerdbros who made it possible, then upvote and Like each other for their moral courage in doing so.” ]]

    This, honestly… is why I wasn’t able to finish the book, and probably never will. Pinker’s ideas are so convincing, and yet so unlikely to become mainstream knowledge, that with every chapter I read I realized it was just one more thing I’m now going to have to spend the rest of my life hearing ignorant and dishonest people lie about. Which wouldn’t be so bad, if the ideas themselves weren’t so important and fundamental to our civilization.

    Which is to say that Pinker’s book is unpleasant to read not because it’s bad, but because it’s too *good*. The world isn’t ready for it, which means neither am I. I’d compare it to a person in the 14th century reading (and getting) something like Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture. “Ok, I know now that witches and devils and relic-healing aren’t real… so now what do I do?” I already went through this once, with The Better Angels of Our Nature. Not gonna do it again. Some things just aren’t worth knowing.

    This probably doesn’t speak well of my level of intellectual curiosity.

  107. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Douglas Knight #89,

    “Scalability is really important for carbon offsets. You shouldn’t use the language of carbon offsets for Cool Earth.

    We can estimate the scalability of Cool Earth. If the typical user makes 10 flights/year, donating $100/year, then 10k users fill their current budget of $1e6/year. That budget over about 20 years has, they claim, saved 1/2000 of the Amazonian rainforest. If they scale up the operation by a factor of 20 and keep running for another 20 years, that would save 1% of the rainforest. They can probably scale to that 200k users, but 1% is macroscopic. They would be running out of rainforest! They’ll probably hit diminishing effectiveness at that point, and certainly after another order of magnitude.”

    I’m not sure what your argument is here precisely. I agree that in general, Cool Earth will hit diminishing marginal returns. I’m confused however as to why the lack of scalability is a strike against recommending them for carbon offsets *now*. Right now, they are the most effective way of offsetting carbon. When that changes or gets close to changing, I’ll recommend and donate to something else that scales better. Since we’re not anywhere near that point, what is your objection to using them for carbon offsets now?

  108. Scott Says:

    SilasLock #50: Thanks so much for the pointer to that Nathan Robinson piece, which I finally had a chance to read. I really appreciated that the piece is intellectually serious, as so many of the replies to Pinker weren’t, and that it argues against Pinker’s actual position rather than a right-wing bogeyman, as so many of the replies didn’t.

    I’d say that I agree with Robinson in part, and the part in which I agree is enough to justify a great deal of wealth redistribution—up to and including a Universal Basic Income, which I’ve increasingly come to feel would be better than the horrendously complicated and hole-filled patchwork of social programs that we now have in the US.

    But I also feel like Robinson himself has an enormous blind spot, which is captured by the following revealing sentence of his:

      “You don’t measure against what is or what has been, you measure against what could be.”

    The trouble is, we don’t know “what could be” without detailed models and (more importantly) real-world experience. It’s not enough to say, as the Bolsheviks did: “hey, if we just took these farms and factories away from rich people, and put them under the control of the masses, the overall gain in utility would be enormous! The current arrangement is terrible compared to what could be!” Instead, you need to show that you can design an actual system that would achieve what you said without degenerating into totalitarianism—i.e., that would prevent whomever you appointed as the agents of “the masses” from simply seizing control for themselves, as happened again and again and again when this was tried.

    Another problem is that, while Robinson might be right that inequality itself (rather than merely poverty) is an important cause of human unhappiness, it’s far from obvious philosophically which causes of human unhappiness should and shouldn’t be the concern of governments. Like, presumably we don’t want to cripple Michael Phelps, even if it’s true that the schadenfreude we’d thereby provide to other, slower swimmers, who resent Phelps’ success, would genuinely outweigh the suffering that we caused to Phelps himself.

    More broadly, Robinson misses that once we open this Pandora’s box, where (as he puts it) “equality has to become a value in all spheres,” there are dozens of other dimensions of human inequality besides wealth and political power—and many of the others are probably more important determinants of human happiness than those two are. Some people are taller and stronger and more attractive than others. Some are more sexually successful—like, orders of magnitude more. Some are luckier in escaping bereavement and other tragedies. Some are more respected and admired, or more able to share their views in important magazines. Not all of these disparities are just. Sometimes they can be so unjust that the sheer injustice of them consumes much of people’s mental real estate, as evidenced by their being the subject of much of the world’s fiction.

    If you want to observe something interesting, go into any online forum frequented by SJWs, and helpfully suggest that they start worrying about fixing some of these other important inequalities. Then, assuming that the resulting thermonuclear rage-blast hasn’t brought down the entire Internet, come back here and tell us what happened. 🙂

  109. Martin Sustrik Says:

    > The trouble, for me, is the gap between the usefulness of a view and its probable truth.

    I haven’t yet read the book yet, but is the question of truth even relevant here? There are many true facts. Some of them are cheering, some of them are depressing. AFAIU, Pinker recommends diet consisting of cheerful facts because otherwise people will “just get fatalistic and paralyzed”.

    The interesting question is whether the assertion is true: Will people really get paralyzed? The opposite certainly doesn’t ring true: We had relatively calm period since 1989 and it only made people complacent. Maybe a bit of true existential dread will shake them out of their complacency? I read that yesterday there was largest civil protest in US since Vietnam war. Hm.

  110. John Merryman Says:

    It seems part of the problem of progress is the degree to which nature is profoundly circular.
    For example, Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” overlooks the fact that what might be ‘fittest” in the short term, or for the individual, is often destructive in the long term, or by large numbers. More isn’t always better.
    Consider Gould’s punctuated equilibrium; what gets overlooked is the equilibrium stage is more a building out process, where every nook and cranny is consumed by ever more specialization. So that when the dislocation occurs, there is little tolerance to absorb it by the more complex entities, for whom specialization was the “fitness” selected.
    Which isn’t to argue against a positive attitude, but simply to recognize reality is a profoundly bottom up dynamic, no matter how much we try to frame it with top down descriptive frames.
    Good and bad are not some cosmic duel between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken. Our thought process evolved by sorting through all the competing interests, not because there is some promised land at the end of the rainbow.

  111. Jelmer Renema Says:

    Scott 107: Come on, now you are just selling your opponents short. Do you really think the left has not given serious thought to the question of what inequalities are the most urgent ones to address? The reasons why the left is focused on financial equality is that we believe (and not without evidence) that:

    a) Financial equality correlates highly with positive outcomes on many other fronts (e.g. mental health and suicide, life expectancy, social cohesion, social mobility, etc). Incidentally, for Western countries, this effect dominates over the gains from absolute income increase, meaning that even the rich benefit. Since political movements only have so many things they can campaign for at once, it makes sense to focus on this one powerful lever that seems to move everything else.

    b) even in those cases where this correlation is not perfect, financial equality is a good way of mitigating the effects of inequalities which cannot be addressed directly because doing so would be unacceptably invasive. Height is a good example of this: I (of course!) believe it would be good if height did not correlate with societal success (as it unfortunately does). Now, I can do two things: I can go around lobbing off bits of people’s scalps until they are all the same height, or I can institute a progressive income tax, and thereby mitigate the unfair advantage tall people have. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s better than the alternative.

    Also, are you really saying the internet left is not concerned with fairness as regards to who gets to appear in the media and share their views?

  112. Jelmer Renema Says:

    Jim Birch #91: I don’t think anyone disputes Pinker’s statistical evidence, the question is about the meaning of that evidence, particularly the political conclusions drawn from it.

  113. John Merryman Says:

    Jelmar,

    A large part of the environmental problem is that we have come to reduce all value to monetary terms, so simply cutting more people into the flow of cash being squeezed out of every possible source won’t help us in the longer term.

    One way to frame the issue would be to equate the financial system to the body’s circulation system, with money as the blood flowing through it. Much as the government equates to the feedback, regulation and executive function of the nervous system.
    Such that a financial system that lost sight of its larger social function of effectively circulating value throughout society and sought to hold onto as much of it as possible, would be similar to the heart and arteries becoming clogged with fat, resulting in poor circulation to the extremities and high blood pressure to compensate(quantitive easing).
    Similar to monarchy having lost sight of its larger function of maintaining social order and focus, resulting in government becoming a public utility.
    Which isn’t to say banking should become a government function. Like the nervous system and the circulation system serve different functions, so to do government and finance.
    Since people view money as quantified hope and governments thrive on the hope they provide, history shows the motivation to inflate by government run financial systems is overwhelming. Yet privately run financial systems evidently have their own flaws.
    It might take a few centuries to sort out, but as I pointed out above, we need to learn to store more value in the community and environment and less in banks.

  114. someone Says:

    The “Better Angels” book was criticized in some reviews for its highly dubious approach to scientific evidence. Later articles also report that Pinker acts with complete astonishment when these criticisms are raised.

  115. Scott Says:

    someone #113: Sources? Because otherwise your comment is kind of a useless drive-by smearing.

  116. differentsomeone Says:

    Scott #114:
    Taleb’s critique of Pinker’s misuse of statistics is here: http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/longpeace.pdf

    As far as I know, Pinker has acknowledged the existence of that article but has not responded to its points.

    (I will remind readers that the nicest, most well-meaning person can be completely devoid of intellectual honesty, and vice versa.)

  117. Sniffnoy Says:

    Whew, joining in a bit late here… good comments by Scott btw pointing out the package-deal error some people have been making, as well as the problems with the leftist ideal of equality. 🙂

    So, several comments I want to make here, on several subjects:

    1. I wonder if some of the focus on “the Enlightenment” is a bit misplaced. I think there’s this thing that a number of people are trying to get at, and so they talk about “the Enlightenment” or “classical liberalism” or what have you, and then people pop up and say, ah, but that’s not what the Enlightenment actually was (e.g. Mill, who might be the best old-book example of this thing, was post-Enlightenment), or that’s not what classical liberalism actually was (Adam Smith had a labor theory of value!). And I say, so what? Yes, this makes the references to “the Enlightenment” or “classical liberalism” or what have you a bit misleading for those who don’t know what you’re actually trying to gesture at. But I think it’s important to discuss the actual idea being gestured at — whether that’s truly the old thing we’re claiming it is or whether actually it’s something new — rather than the terms used to gesture at it, or other ideas that happen to have shared the same name. (Personally, I’m happy to just call this thing “liberalism”, but I recognize that that is also confusing, for the obvious reasons. 😛 )

    And so yeah maybe you can tie Communism to the actual Enlightenment that actually happened. But you can’t really sensibly posit it as an example of the liberalism I’m talking about.

    Now of course if I left it at that, that would be quite the No-True-Scotsman. So, let me highlight a few of the principles of the liberalism that I’m talking about that seem to have been missed so far, and that distinguish it pretty readily from Communism. Obviously this is in no way meant to be exhaustive, but if anyone wants to question me further, I can pin it down further.

    A. Free inquiry and free argument. Not sure much needs to be said about that one.

    B. A belief that tribalism — and with that word I’m trying to gesture at a whole complex of behaviors, not just the human tendency to gather into tribes and sort themselves into ingroup and outgroup but all the particular behaviors that go along with it and things that lead up to it; the policing of everyone for ingroup shibboleths, the shutting down of inquiry and argument, the inevitable turn from whatever your group’s original purpose was to pure ingroup policing and mocking of nerds and weirdos — is really bad, and really dangerous. As in, it’s something that needs to be actively protected against, because it happens so easily and so insidiously because, as Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, every cause wants to be a cult. You can talk loudly about how you’re against tribalism, how you’re going to be objective about things — none of that matters. To quote Yudkowsky again, it’s like putting a sign saying “Cold” on a refrigerator that isn’t plugged in. Talking about liberalism and free inquiry how you’re opposed to tribalism will, well, it’ll have a nonzero effect, but it’s a pretty paltry protection. But implementing actual liberal mechanisms to enforce free inquiry and such may be able to help you stave off the collapse into tribalism.

    …I seem to have gotten a bit off-topic there. Anyway, yeah, leftists are quite happy to try to exploit tribalism, thinking they can achieve their goals that way, rather than saying, no, tribalism ultimately corrupts, ultimately perverts your goals, you go down that route you’re going to find that you’re no longer advancing your original goal and instead are doing standard tribal things (except you likely won’t notice and will think you still are advancing your original goal… like I said, it’s insidious), we have to take measures against it to the greatest extent possible.

    I mean, to be honest, I don’t know a lot about historical Communism, but it seems to have been very much with the anthem-singing and the flag-waving, right? That these anthems and flags were not national anthems or flags is not particularly relevant. The danger is the same.

    C. A rejection of the idea of a zero-sum world, where one person’s gain is counted as everyone else’s loss, where every deal has a winning side and a losing side. Sometimes leftists out-and-out endorse this, sometimes they only seem to think this zero-sum property holds between classes. But it’s liberals who say that, duh, if both sides weren’t made better off by a deal it wouldn’t occur! (I mean, modulo information asymmetries, which can be a serious problem, but the leftists would go a bit further than just saying “deals can have a winner and a loser under conditions that commonly hold”, you know?) Fortunately nobody who endorses such things actually acts like they believe in a zero-sum world, or realizes just what the full implications of that would be…

    D. The idea that, fundamentally, things can be decoupled from their origins; that the genetic fallacy is, in fact, a fallacy. This is… really not how leftists seem to think.

    So, yeah. I hope that clarifies a bit what sorts of things I’m talking about.

    (I also think it’s important to focus on the generative principles rather than the fruits, but it seems as best I can tell like people here agree on that bit, so. 😛 )

    2. As for Pinker’s book — I notice nobody’s talked much about the, like, argument in it. With the one exception being the AI threat chapter with its rather dubious arguments. Is the book just basically argument by “look at the data” or is there like, actual, structured argument from fundamentals here? It would be a bit disappointing if it were just the former but that’s the impression I’m getting.

    Like one thing you notice is, a lot of people these days arguing against free speech don’t actually know the arguments for it. These are just no longer in the popular consciousness! Popularizing these basic liberal arguments (like, say, Sarah Constantin attempts to do here 🙂 ) would, regardless of its unoriginality, really be a good thing.

    3. Scott, count me in as one more person who finds the leftist ideal of “equality” frankly horrifying. (Here’s a better ideal for you: Stronger. Faster. Smarter. To the stars. 🙂 )

    This is of course not to say that equality (in the sense that the leftists mean it) is bad and that inequality is good, but rather to say that equality (again, in their sense) is neutral and not to be optimized for; that there is no “correct” level of it, that the correctness of a result is determined by other factors. (If you are for it and can’t step outside your usual way of thinking, this may look like being against it. (It doesn’t help that leftists seem to not recognize the idea of neutrality more generally…))

    It’s annoying, though, you know, because we liberals like to talk about “equality” as an ideal too… it’s just that, well, we mean something different by it, and people don’t seem to realize there’s a distinction! (And there is some real overlap between the two notions, making it more confusing.) Honestly, I’d say we should just give up on the word and let the leftists have it; the thing we want (or that I want, anyway, maybe I shouldn’t try to speak for anyone else 😛 ) is less like equality and more like (a sort of) orthogonality, really. Except of course “equality” is a cheer-word don’t you know so that would presumably be disastrous politically…

    But really though, people should talk about orthogonality as a liberal principle more, and not just in the narrow sense above. It’s a good one and it doesn’t get enough attention. Hell, here’s a claim I’ll make: If you start from a general principle of orthogonality, you can rederive a hell of a lot of liberalism just from that alone. Not all of it. But a lot.

    4. [Preemptive edit: I wrote this section before actually reading Robinson’s article; Scott’s reply led me to think that Robinson was making a particular (common) basic error. On actually reading Robinson’s article, he is not in fact making that mistake, and is in fact thinking about things the correct way here. Still, because this is a common error and I want to warn against it, I’m leaving this section in. I’ll reply to what Robinson actually said in part 5 down below. 😛 ]

    As for the question of what one measures against, as for this bit that Scott quotes:

    You don’t measure against what is or what has been, you measure against what could be.

    I’d like to say a bit more about that, expanding on what Scott said.

    This question of what one measures against is actually meaningless. It’s only meaningful if you’ve already made a basic error. That basic error is this: Thinking that the relevant question is, “Is this, independently of other things, good or bad?”

    This is a mistake a lot of people make — they look at something, they measure it and find it bad in some absolute sense, and say, ah, well, this has to go. And then people get into arguments saying, but wait, you’re measuring against the wrong thing! And they go and move the baseline up and down and suddenly the thing is above zero and must stay and suddenly it’s below zero and must go and on and on and none of this is relevant!

    The relevant question is not whether something is good or bad in some absolute sense, it’s how it compares to the actual alternatives. You could say “one measures against the actual alternatives” — and taken by itself that’s a true statement… but the “measuring against” here isn’t in the same sense as in what’s previous. It’s not to get a sense of whether something is “good” or “bad” independent of other things. That’s meaningless! If you’re doing things right, you never evaluate good and bad, only better and worse.

    And what you absolutely don’t do, that is consistently a bad idea, is to say “this is bad and must go!” — without doing anything to actually develop a better alternative to be put into place. Now there are some cases where this works out, because the “natural” or “default” state of things is better. But I think the thing to appreciate is that Enlightenment principles, where implemented, have created a world that is so much better than any natural or default state that if you just say “it’s bad!” (which, I don’t doubt that is by comparison to many things that would be even better) without having a viable alternative and a route to achieve it, and attempt to just make it go away, the default alternative you’ll get will be a serious downgrade.

    5. OK so what mistakes is Robinson actually making? Uh, well, it turns out that Scott already wrote a pretty good comment addressing this point in #107. 😛 But, I wanted to state explicitly that Robinson ignores the detrimental effects on incentives of enforcing equality-in-the-leftist-sense, that’s what distinguishes his feudalism example from the real capitalist world he wants to tear down, blah, blah, blah, you know this already. But wow does Robinson completely ignore this. No mention of it anywhere in his article, no attempt to head this argument off. He just completely ignores the question of whether the things he insists are possible, are in fact possible, or whether in fact they would have prevented all the gains he admits are a good thing and could continue to do so in the future. (But that’s maybe a fair question for him to ignore in the context of his article because, well, see below.)

    But, I do want to point out that this bit from Robinson is correct, and makes me leery of Pinker’s book (for reasons similar to in section 2 above):

    So it’s not enough to do what Pinker spends countless tiresome chapters doing in Enlightenment Now, and providing chart after chart showing that people are better off now than they used to be. You would also have to provide a persuasive explanation for why it’s impossible not to have democratic workplaces and universal prosperity. You can’t just show that something is “better than it was,” you have to show that it’s “as good as it could have been,” otherwise all of the objections stand. (Most arguments for sweatshops take the form “but it’s better than being a peasant farmer,” assuming that a world in which people toil in neither factories nor cane fields is inconceivable.)

    Like, yes, you do have to explicitly argue that leftism would not work out, you can’t just leave that assumed, geez Pinker! Robinson was just writing a short article, you wrote a whole book, there’s no excuse there! Of course, Robinson believes leftism would work, Scott and I believe it wouldn’t, but either way Pinker you do have to explicitly make that argument!

    This bit, though, is nonsensical:

    By paying attention to “what could have been,” rather than what is or has been, we can see why the argument that “My wealth doesn’t cause your poverty” is false.

    That is not how causality works, Nathan Robinson! I will skip going into detail on this point unless people want me to expand on it, but seriously, that is not how causality works.

    His article also very much fails to distinguish between the question of what people morally should do, and what should be enforced by law. These are quite separate questions and he conflates them.

  118. jmb Says:

    Prussian: Excellent comment! And four stars for “sentimental, junkerish romantic Nationalism that would find expression in two world wars”.

  119. PJ Johnson Says:

    @Scott #107:

    I agree mostly with your take on Robinson’s piece, but I see a bit of internal tension in your statements as well.

    You say a major blind spot of Robinson’s is characterized by the following (along with your response):
    [ Robinson: “You don’t measure against what is or what has been, you measure against what could be.”
    Aaronson: The trouble is, we don’t know “what could be” without detailed models and (more importantly) real-world experience.]

    Robinson’s semi-response to this is:
    [Robinson: But what he (Pinker) does appear to believe is that we live in nearly the best possible world we could have made by now. We can see this in the way he discusses historical injustices: “One can imagine an alternative history of the Industrial Revolution,” he says, in which “modern sensibilities applied earlier and the factories operated without children and with better working conditions” but we should still celebrate the good parts of the Industrial Revolution. Note the way this description implies that the Industrial Revolution’s cruelties were pretty much unavoidable: perhaps they could have been avoided, but it would have taken “modern sensibilities,” which by definition they didn’t have. The problem here is that over the centuries, there have been people with these sensibilities, who have spent their lives trying to make the world less cruel, and trying to get people to be outraged by injustice. And those people have always been opposed by those, like Pinker, who suggest the dominant attitude should be one of gratitude and caution. The best counterargument to “Enlightenment Now” is Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which scathingly criticizes the white moderates who insisted they believed in progress but always insisted that it needed to be incremental.]

    You also say:
    [Aaronson: I’d say that I agree with Robinson in part, and the part in which I agree is enough to justify a great deal of wealth redistribution—up to and including a Universal Basic Income…]
    This combined with your general stances on the climate, nuclear weapons, and AI suggest to me that you have views on actions that are imperative to take that would seem extreme to the current political center in America (which, you have to remember is against almost any action on the climate and prefers welfare mostly for themselves in old age).

    I hope you can understand that from the perspective of someone who also sees this sort of action that is outside the comfort zone of everyday Americans as necessary, Pinker’s shorthanded form (not his book itself, but the vast majority of those exposed will get only the summary) can be easily twisted into a call to inaction. After all, the society we are in right now that was built on these enlightenment principles should be totally fine to continue progress into the future! The problem with defending enlightenment principles on results, instead of (or at least not accompanied with) a strong statement that these principles are not self-sustaining and we need to continue progress towards reaching them better and better in the future in specific ways, is that anyone can claim to be defending enlightenment values and anyone can believe they are.

    Do you think the people who most loudly praised the founding fathers (as you mention Jefferson and Hamilton) in the early 20th century supported women’s suffrage or child labor reforms or de-segregation at significantly higher rates? Robinson mention’s the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Do you think that the “white moderate” generally thought of himself as against enlightenment ideals or rather simply demonstrating proper care and caution?

    Now I don’t think there is a reverse relationship by any means, this is just to say that backpatting ourselves on the success of “enlightenment ideals” can easily comfort exactly the people who need to be and are closest to being agitated into action right now to address the serious problems our society faces.

    Maybe I haven’t managed to say too much meaningful, but as someone who agrees very strongly both with this article and Robinson’s, I thought I’d try to bridge the gap. I suppose whereas you see pessimism as crippling, Robinson sees rose-tinted glasses fostering complacency. I think both of you are right.

  120. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Sniffnoy, #116,

    Your points about how some set of liberal values are opposed to a variety of different forms of leftism is well taken. It is worth it I think to note that whatever we call this (Enlightenment values, classical liberalism, whatever) is in the same way opposed to many other ideological positions. Trumpism also seems to be very tribal, and a many part of the attitude towards tariffs is connected to the same lack of understanding that trade can be genuinely non-zero sum.

  121. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Scott #114,

    I don’t have a source to back up someone’s point, but at least my own reaction was that Pinker’s section on the Flynn effect in Better Angels was woefully insufficient. In particular, he gave very little attention to the ideas that better
    nutrition and reduced parasite load are largely responsble, even though my impression from the literature
    is that the consensus is that those are likely major contributing effects. This was particularly distressing
    given that Pinker’s own area of expertise is so close to that. In general, I found the sections where he outlined that things had gotten less violent much more compelling than the sections where he outlined what he thought the causes were. I haven’t yet had time to read Enlightenment so I’ll be interested to see if it has the same issue.

  122. Scott Says:

    differentsomeone #115: OK, thanks! I read that letter by Cirillo and Taleb. Note that they aren’t responding directly to Pinker, but to the use of Pinker’s work by someone else (Michael Spagat). And they’re also just summarizing what they themselves said in a longer paper. So we don’t have all the key claims and counterclaims in front of us.

    Having said that, on the narrow question I think Cirillo and Taleb are right: there’s no known statistical method that can look at the distribution of past wars, and tell us much of anything about an enormity like “the probability of World War III in the 21st century”—except maybe the crudest base rates, which tell us little more than that such a war is neither practically impossible nor practically certain. For godsakes, we can’t even predict changes in murder rates very well (e.g., hardly anyone foresaw the Great American Crime Drop of the 1990s), and those are much more subject to the Law of Large Numbers.

    On the other hand, I read Better Angels years ago, and I don’t remember Pinker ever claiming that we can have any confidence about these matters (did he?). I remember him doing a detailed analysis of past wars, trying to glean whatever fragmentary clues he can, raising the possibility that the 20th century just had an extraordinary run of bad luck with the unholy trinity of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao at key positions of power at crucial times, and more generally just putting his usual optimistic spin on everything—which is his right, I think, as the congenital optimist he is. I’ve already made it clear that I don’t share Pinker’s optimism, and that that’s my central point of disagreement. But I don’t remember anything in Better Angels that struck me as intellectual dishonesty or a flagrant misunderstanding of statistics, and I’m usually pretty sensitive to such things.

    So, while in some sense I share Taleb’s pessimism, I’m left with the impression that he’s responding, not to what Pinker actually says, but to what he fears someone who ignored Pinker’s caveats would take away from him.

  123. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    I have not read the book, but given what you say it is about and John Gray’s critique, I can imagine it is the n-th rendition of what I call the “if only” argument. It goes something like this : “if only human beings were good, there wouldn’t be any murders”, “if only human beings could fly, we wouldn’t need planes to get around”, “if only I was a billionaire, I wouldn’t need to go to the office this morning to make a living”.

    Everybody is entitled to their opinion obviously, including Pinker, Bill Gates and you. But what John Gray speaks about is very real. The notion of trusting the “best and brightest” among us -leave aside the notion that defining “best and brightest” is a also very subjective- to make polices that affect society at large has been tried over and over again producing always the same catastrophic results: abuses of power of such magnitude that they make the abuses of the Spanish Inquisition look like child’s play.

    To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn’t invest in scientific education and in making people think more rationally. We should. Societies benefit enormously from having an educated population. What I am saying is that at the same time, we should NOT give automatic deference -let alone political power- to the most educated and bright among us. They are people after all and they have their own petty interests like the rest of us. If given ultimate political power, they would pursue said interests like anyone else. We Christians call this feature of humans “original sin”, other philosophies and religions call it differently. However, it takes a lot of naivete to pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s what the Founding Fathers recognized early on (federalist paper #10 elaborates beautifully on this) and designed a system that made it difficult to grab political power.

    If you don’t believe me, just read the minutes of the meetings of faculty government institutions (faculty senates and similar) at America’s most prestigious universities to understand what boggles their minds.

  124. Eli Says:

    #75,

    If matter, in itself, is devoid of value, then we can treat it as an object. We can study it, and subject it to the entire range of our analytical apparatus, without it making any moral demands on us. [Bilgrami, “Gandhi, Newton,” 25 and passim.] More importantly, however, and as some social scientists have argued, the separation which denudes intellectual/scientific enquiry of value “is ethically untenable,” for it “disengages the observer from the social responsibility that should accompany his accounts, and it results in the status quo being presented as somehow natural and real, rather than as constructed and partisan.” [Pressler and Dasilva, Sociology, 102-03.] This ethical dimension, indeed moral accountability, can hardly be overemphasized.

    I think we’ve all heard of the claimed collapse of the fact-value dichotomy in favor of even metaphysical naturalism and the scientific method necessarily entailing a moral commitment to domination over nature.

    The amazing thing, to me at least, is that we never hear anyone collapsing them the other way around, to require that value commitments be held accountable to factual ones.

    Yes, I can already hear you screeching at me about Hume and is-ought, but, well, you’re the one saying that Enlightenment epistemology is actually a form of domineering social values, so you crossed that line first. Why shouldn’t I cross it in the other direction?

    Well, I reason, because then you wouldn’t get to set yourself up as morally and politically dominant over me, the Literary Culture (paging CP Snow) over the Scientific Culture. But where do you get the authority to assimilate total dictation of right and wrong into your particular domains of endeavor (politics and literature), leaving no democratic voice for mine (investigation of the world-as-it-really-is)? After all, we are working within the theory that philosophy is clandestinely about power and authority, right?

    More broadly, Robinson misses that once we open this Pandora’s box, where (as he puts it) “equality has to become a value in all spheres,” there are dozens of other dimensions of human inequality besides wealth and political power—and many of the others are probably more important determinants of human happiness than those two are. Some people are taller and stronger and more attractive than others. Some are more sexually successful—like, orders of magnitude more. Some are luckier in escaping bereavement and other tragedies. Some are more respected and admired, or more able to share their views in important magazines. Not all of these disparities are just. Sometimes they can be so unjust that the sheer injustice of them consumes much of people’s mental real estate, as evidenced by their being the subject of much of the world’s fiction.

    If you want to observe something interesting, go into any online forum frequented by SJWs, and helpfully suggest that they start worrying about fixing some of these other important inequalities. Then, assuming that the resulting thermonuclear rage-blast hasn’t brought down the entire Internet, come back here and tell us what happened. 🙂

    Scott, you should know better than this. I don’t particularly believe in the Hegelian- or Marxian-dialectical view of history usually assumed in the background of much radical-leftist ideology (stretching from Marxism to today’s identitarian social-justice movements), but you should bother to actually engage with the difference between “inequality” (difference of outcomes), oppression (I come along and worsen your outcomes because fuck you), and exploitation (I get my good outcomes by taking them away from you).

    The latter two involve power, wielded and exercised selfishly by one person over another. That’s what people are objecting to.

    Would truly eliminating oppression and exploitation perhaps involve, say, heavy genetic engineering to actually augment away certain innate biological disadvantages (such as being 1.4 meters tall instead of 2 meters, or having an IQ of 105 instead of 140)? Well, let’s ask in 300 years or so, but I’d bet a small chunk of cash the answer might end up being, “Well yeah, why not?”.

    Can we be confident right now that Pinker’s particular points about economic gaps are, well, kinda ahistoric and incoherent? Yeah, I think so: the only way society achieved the nice things like labor unions and eight-hour workdays was by a centuries-long hard-left organizing effort, and the planting of mortal fear into the hearts of the ruling classes. Telling people who live or die by the dictates of faraway investors that humanity as a whole is ultimately reducing absolute extreme poverty by X% per year is just plain paternalistic: “This statistic with little direct relation to your life definitely justifies my controlling your daily life, rather than you controlling it as an equal among equals.” Democracy in society broadly ultimately requires democracy in the workplace, not to mention in the government, and the strongest way to argue against democracy in the workplace is simply to argue against democracy tout court, at which point you’re passing firmly outside what Pinker, Scott, myself, or anyone else would normally call “Enlightenment values” today.

  125. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott 121,

    hardly anyone foresaw the Great American Crime Drop of the 1990s

    There’s nothing American about it. It happened in almost every Western country.* Each one roughly doubled its homicide rate around 1970 and then fell back at a variety of times. America is unique only in having the Crack Epidemic interrupt its decline from its 1980 peak. (Italy has a similar double peak. I don’t know that story.)

    Since crack was obviously exogenous (eg, hit cities one by one), it would have been pretty reasonable to predict that America would follow Canada. If all the other countries had peaked in 1980, then I would say that would have been the correct prediction and the only reason people failed to make it is that they don’t believe in the existence of Canada and France. However, a lot of countries peaked in 1990, so standing in 1995, it would be hard to observe that Sweden was recovering.

    (I have no idea what caused this rise and fall. I’m just saying that trailing America was predictable.)

    * I am interested in the missing data from West Germany. It may well be different because its baby boom was much later.

  126. Douglas Knight Says:

    Joshua,
    What is the point of carbon offsets? What is the morality of them? Why is someone responsible for his own carbon? Moreover, why does someone using them now get to pay an infra-marginal cost, while someone later must pay a truly marginal cost?

  127. Scott Says:

    PJ Johnson #118: You’re always on dangerous ground when you try to advance an argument based not on truth but on consequences. E.g., “even if Pinker is right that all these measures of human wellbeing have been improving, he still shouldn’t say it so loudly, since the message could give aid and comfort to the forces of reaction and complacency, rather than those who want to improve things further still.”

    In this case, though, I’m not even sure that the argument from consequences works on its own terms. After all, in the US in my lifetime, possibly the central real-world effect that the hard left has had, has been to help the right—from Ralph Nader causing the election of George W. Bush in 2000, to (more recently) the SJWs’ antics providing endless outrage-fodder for Fox News and Breitbart, and thereby helping to propel Trump to his ghastly authoritarian takeover.

    Centrists, and conservatives, need to see the case for a modern welfare state, decisive action on global warming, international cooperation, and other progressive policies made by someone who they’ll actually listen to. And if they read Enlightenment Now, that’s exactly what they’ll get. Indeed, while reading Enlightenment Now, I sometimes smiled at the thought of some right-wing, Wall-Street-Journal-reading executive picking the book up, expecting confirmation for everything he or she already believes—only to be shocked by robust defenses of every progressive policy I mentioned.

    Indeed, one point that Pinker makes repeatedly is that the countries with the most generous social safety nets, like the Scandinavian countries, also tend to score near the top on “economic freedom,” making a mockery of the common view that the two things are opposed. He also points out that an Ayn-Rand-style libertarian utopia has never existed, anywhere on earth—and that, as countries have advanced in the Enlightenment values he celebrates in his book, they’ve almost without exception also increased the size of their governments. Can you imagine G.O.P. McMoneybags III reading that through his monocle, without spitting out his brandy? 😉

  128. fred Says:

    A true objective optimist (not confused by the illusion of “free will”) would actually see the rise of AI as the natural continuation and refinement of the same forces that created human intelligence, life, planetary systems, celestial bodies, stable molecules, stable atoms, etc.

    Not only the universe is “computable”, but the underlying laws of physics are such that the universe will always evolve to form “computations”, which are the emergence of macro entities/objects/concepts that are persistent/robust/quasi-causally independent from the chaos/randomness of the underlying micro world.
    Whenever multiple neighboring branches of the multiverse all sustain a process that has the same macro state for all of them, that’s a computation.

  129. James Cross Says:

    I haven’t read the book (yet) but did read the first few pages on Amazon.

    I am not sure how any of the discussion here addresses the question posed by the student: “Why should I live?”

    Even if Enlightenment values, rationality, and science allow humans to flourish and will increasingly continue to do so, the question relates to the lost sense of meaning to life that materialism has given us. Life may become increasingly wonderful and pain free yet it will still end in our dissolution and the eventual obliteration of all people and all things we hold dear.

    Does Pinker ever get back to that question?

  130. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Douglas Knight #125:

    > What is the point of carbon offsets? What is the morality of them? Why is someone responsible for his own carbon?

    I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that people have responsibility for offsetting the damage they cause. I’m not sure why one would think otherwise. That’s generally how most moral things go: If I break something, I should pay to fix what I broke. But more to the point, one doesn’t need to assert that there’s some absolute moral obligation here. My primary concern is pragmatic: It is a clearly positive thing for money at this point to go to Cool Earth and carbon offsets in general, especially if it helps us keep carbon levels at least manageable enough until we’ve actually managed to switch over to a genuinely low carbon producing economy.

    > Moreover, why does someone using them now get to pay an infra-marginal cost, while someone later must pay a truly marginal cost?

    Again, this appears to be a question more about morals than about pragmatics, and I’m really interested in the pragmatic result. But this also isn’t an unreasonable idea either from a moral standpoint: as any good becomes more scarce, the price of the good goes up. If there’s a limited number of cheap copies of a good (in this case functional carbon sinks), then the natural thing is that the first few cost less and as more are bought, the price goes up.

    I’m confused about what your objection here is to Cool Earth here. How is an efficient reduction of carbon *now* not something we should be trying?

  131. Scott Says:

    James #128: Yes, he does get back to trying to answer that unanswerable. I’m sure readers will differ wildly in how satisfied they are with his attempt, but I felt like he took about as hard a swing as anyone batting today for Team Secular Humanism. E.g., I found myself pausing to reflect on the following passage (p. 434-435), even though the thoughts were all very familiar ones:

      A ‘spirituality’ that sees cosmic meaning in the whims of fortune is not wise but foolish. The first step toward wisdom is the realization that the laws of the universe don’t care about you. The next is the realization that this does not imply that life is meaningless, because people care about you, and vice versa. You care about yourself, and you have a responsibility to respect the laws of the universe that keep you alive, so you don’t squander your existence. Your loved ones care about you, and you have a responsibility not to orphan your children, widow your spouse, and shatter your parents. And anyone with a humanistic sensibility cares about you, not in the sense of feeling your pain—human empathy is too feeble to spread itself across billions of strangers—but in the sense of realizing that your existence is cosmically no less important than theirs, and that we all have a responsibility to use the laws of the universe to enhance the conditions in which we all can flourish.
  132. James Cross Says:

    Scott #129

    Not a bad answer. I think I will buy the book.

    But this does, even in Pinker’s statement, begin to touch a spiritual note.

    This spiritual unease with materialism is at the root of so much of the Anti-Enlightenment forces.

  133. mjgeddes Says:

    #131

    Well, I think the arts are good way to recover a spiritual ethos in an enlightenment framework. The arts are in some sense the ‘output’ of consciousness – they communicate emotion and direct experience.

    Art forms are a ‘virtual reality’ that alter perception by directing attention in such a manner as to create a ‘Gestalt’ – an integrated sense scene that suggests a goal-directed evolution – a narrative. This could almost be a definition of consciousness!

    You can see this clearly when you consider the various art movements – Surrealism, Impressionism, Cubism etc. Various ‘Gestalts’ or lenses through which to view reality.

    Romanticism arose as a sort of reaction to the hard-rationalism of the enlightenment. Look at these 3 paintings on the wikipedia page:

    Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, 1818

    Eugène Delacroix, ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, 1827, taking its Orientalist subject from a play by Lord Byron

    Philipp Otto Runge, ‘The Morning’, 1808

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism

    Previous religious and spiritual yearnings have been channeled into the arts! But this is entirely compatible with enlightenment ideals.

  134. Douglas Knight Says:

    Joshua,
    I’m not objecting to using the most efficient means of reducing carbon. I’m objecting to you describing a tiny infra-marginal opportunity as “carbon offsets.”

    You say that marginal cost curves are moral. I strongly disagree. Marginal cost curves are factual, not moral. I am making a similarly factual claim that using up limited infra-marginal resources does not have the naive marginal effect.

    The effect of donating to Cool Earth depends on the counterfactual in which you do not donate. If it will not be fully funded, then your donation is highly valuable. But if it will, then your donation has little value. Most charities will not be fully funded in a particular year and their opportunity slips away after that year, so the counterfactual is a big difference. But since Cool Earth is trying to preserve a small finite resource, what matters is its lifetime funding, not its funding this year. Better to donate sooner than later, but the marginal effect is small.

    If you are mainly concerned with the pragmatic question of whether the phrase “carbon offsets” is a good way of manipulating people, you are opposed to Enlightenment values.

  135. Eli Says:

    James Cross #128,

    Even if Enlightenment values, rationality, and science allow humans to flourish and will increasingly continue to do so, the question relates to the lost sense of meaning to life that materialism has given us. Life may become increasingly wonderful and pain free yet it will still end in our dissolution and the eventual obliteration of all people and all things we hold dear.

    WHAT lost sense of meaning to life? As you call it, the “spiritual unease with materialism … at the root of so much of the anti-Enlightenment forces” really needs to actually justify its so-called angst without pointing to a big God-shaped hole in their worldview, at least to argue for why the rest of us, born well after 1789 overthrew throne-and-altar, the haskalah brought Jews out of ghettoes, and the 1930s-1940s provided final evidence against any cosmic benevolence whatso-fucking-ever, should bother carving such a throne-and-altar shaped hole into our worldviews in the first place.

  136. SilasLock Says:

    Scott #107: I think you’re correct that Robinson typically focuses too much on the principles involved in socialism (equality of wealth, economic self-determination, less hierarchical social structures, etc.) and too little on the engineering aspects (what mechanisms would best uphold these values, how should they be designed, etc.). It’s a blind spot I’ve noticed in his work, though to be charitable I’d prefer to say that he simply has a preference for discussing the “values” aspect of socialism, not that he thinks mechanisms are unimportant.

    However, I don’t think our lack of knowledge about the efficacy of alternative social arrangements to capitalism supports Pinker’s argument. You wrote:

    The trouble is, we don’t know “what could be” without detailed models and (more importantly) real-world experience. It’s not enough to say, as the Bolsheviks did: “hey, if we just took these farms and factories away from rich people, and put them under the control of the masses, the overall gain in utility would be enormous! The current arrangement is terrible compared to what could be!” Instead, you need to show that you can design an actual system that would achieve what you said without degenerating into totalitarianism—i.e., that would prevent whomever you appointed as the agents of “the masses” from simply seizing control for themselves, as happened again and again and again when this was tried.

    And I agree! But this means that we should be desperately researching what alternative arrangements *are* better than the status quo, rather than accepting what is.

    For example, while we both agree that a universal basic income would be better than the U.S.’s current welfare system, it’s untried and untested. Many people are justifiably afraid that it would provide unacceptably strong incentives to avoid work. The correct response isn’t to say “fair enough, I suppose we shouldn’t have a UBI; we don’t want to end up like other countries that attempted large-scale changes in their social arrangements without understanding their consequences (e.g. the USSR, Venezuela).” The correct response is “let’s run some experimental trials to determine whether a UBI would work! We should acquire evidence to determine if a UBI is fundamentally broken, if it’s a promising policy that just needs to be refined, or if it can already be safely implemented in the U.S. without negative consequences.”

    To the extent that socialists don’t make the same empirically-oriented arguments for their preferred society, I’d say they’re making a mistake. But it doesn’t justify Pinker’s satisfaction with poverty-elimination-via-capitalism, it just means that socialists need to start coming up with radical policies and testing them.

    Additionally, we already know that some such less-radical arrangements do work. Consider the very vanilla policy of raising the top marginal tax rate by 1%, and funneling the resulting revenue into the Earned Income Tax Credit. This wouldn’t be anything like a socialist revolution–it doesn’t involve any real changes to our institutions–but I think anyone on the center-left would see it as an improvement on the status quo, even if one might not consider it the most optimal use of public money.

    Also:

    If you want to observe something interesting, go into any online forum frequented by SJWs, and helpfully suggest that they start worrying about fixing some of these other important inequalities. Then, assuming that the resulting thermonuclear rage-blast hasn’t brought down the entire Internet, come back here and tell us what happened.

    I, uh, think this is a really bad idea. =P I hang out with a lot of far-left people in real life, and I think most of them would respond by saying the following:

    “Those other kinds of inequality are also important! I’d much prefer to live in a society where height, sexual unattractiveness, etc. cause less stress, are not stigmatized, or don’t impact your well-being to such an extent. If it seems as if we focus on economic equality overmuch, it’s because creating economic equality requires much more political coordination than reducing the impacts of the tractable forms of inequality in other spheres.”

    But if I went onto a forum and posed this question, rather than talking to people I know personally, I’m pretty sure it would be seen as an attack on one’s political priorities, kind of similar to going to SSC and saying “if you guys claim to be interested in understanding other people’s viewpoints, why is there so little ethnic diversity amongst the commentariat? Shouldn’t you be doing more to encourage dialogue with non-white men?” Legitimate criticism or not, I feel like that’s not going to actually promote a productive dialogue.

    Centrists, and conservatives, need to see the case for a modern welfare state, decisive action on global warming, international cooperation, and other progressive policies made by someone who they’ll actually listen to. And if they read Enlightenment Now, that’s exactly what they’ll get. Indeed, while reading Enlightenment Now, I sometimes smiled at the thought of some right-wing, Wall-Street-Journal-reading executive picking the book up, expecting confirmation for everything he or she already believes—only to be shocked by robust defenses of every progressive policy I mentioned.

    This made me smile too! Do you know if Pinker’s work is viewed in a positive light among right-wing circles? I was under the impression his appeal was limited to a niche group on the center-left (people who are pro-science, like progressive policy, believe in what you would refer to as Enlightenment values), but I would be overjoyed if he’s viewed favorably outside that circle!

  137. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    James #128 / Scott #130

    I, and many, on the other hand believe in a benevolent personal God of infinite wisdom who cares deeply about each one of us individually even when we don’t understand why certain things happen, particularly when evil things happen to bad people.

    That is perfectly compatible with recognizing that He designed the universe to work according to rational laws that can be written down in mathematical form and that He gave us reason and intellectual abilities to reverse engineer said laws to then go and apply our talents to subdue the Earth as indicated in Genesis 1:28.

    The problem with Pinker and the like, as Gray correctly points out, is that they promote scientism – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientism -, not science and that’s why they lose many like me, even when I generally agree that having people educated to think rationally and analytically is a good thing for society.

    One of the most demonized figures in the current political landscape is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Mercer_(businessman) . He is a mathematical genius in his own right. What kind of conservative leaning (or even centrist, non liberal) youth would love to join liberal academia when even somebody as superbly qualified as him on scientific merits alone is lynched daily?

    The notion that religious people cannot be good scientists pushed forward by the current generation of academics is, in my opinion, one of the reasons science is stuck and doesn’t advance. When you exclude half of the thinking population from the scientific enterprise on non scientific grounds, it is obvious that what you get is group-think.

  138. Scott Says:

    SilasLock #135: If what you described in your comment is “leftism,” then count me as a leftist too! I’m also a huge fan of experimenting with many different economic and social arrangements (insofar as one can ethically do so), collecting data about them, and actually changing one’s views in response to what one learns.

    But do you know who’s the biggest fan of that who I know? Scott Alexander of SSC. Other Scott’s single most beloved political idea is the “Archipelago,” where the world would splinter into tens of thousands of little communities, each with its own legal and economic system, and with new communities being founded all the time by people who are dissatisfied with the existing ones. In this framework, the single most important freedom an individual would have, is the freedom to move from one community to another. A flood of data would pour in about the effects of new and exotic forms of government, and the communities would observe and adapt if they wanted to stay competitive and retain their members.

    (Incidentally, from what I can tell, the idea of experimenting with a Universal Basic Income caught on with rationalists and Silicon Valley nerds before it caught on with the mainstream left—though I might be mistaken about that.)

    I don’t have a quote handy, but I get the impression that Pinker is a big fan of experimenting with different policies as well. Certainly, when such experiments have occurred, their results provide a large part of the substance of what he writes about.

    The real world does have 195 countries to choose from, with some (though very far from complete) freedom of moving between them. But 195 is a small number on the scale of what Scott Alexander envisions. And one of the main practical problems, of course, is that the world has run out of land on which to found new countries. A second practical problem is the bonds of family, friends, language, and culture, which create an enormous activation barrier to moving between countries, and which cause most people to put up with staggering amounts of injustice before they’ll move.

    Of course, one of the original ideas of the US was that the different states would be “laboratories of democracy,” with relatively little cultural or geographic barrier to moving between them, but different policies to satisfy different preferences and to provide more data about what works. But the states don’t really function that way in practice. Everyone, both liberal and conservative, is purely a hypocrite about “states’ rights,” supporting them when they like a particular state law more than a federal law and opposing them in the reverse case.

    But is it possible that the gap between leftism and SlateStarCodexism is much smaller than commonly supposed? I.e., that a lot of the gap is just run-of-the-mill anti-nerd (and correspondingly, “anti-normie”) animus, which causes both sides to exaggerate their differences and play down the many points of agreement?

    As for Pinker’s reception on the right, I think knowledgeable conservatives understand full well that he isn’t one of them. But I also think he’s viewed way more positively than your run-of-the-mill academic intellectual—for one thing, because he has a reputation for standing up for what he sees as the evidence (as, for example, in the Larry Summers and James Damore cases) even when it goes against a left-wing orthodoxy and makes him wildly unpopular with his progressive colleagues.

    As I see it, every time you do that, you build up a supply of goodwill with your more thoughtful conservative readers, which you can then “spend down” by getting them to at least listen to you, and consider your arguments, on issues like climate change where they don’t already agree with you. Of course the converse is true as well: by sticking his neck out for gun control, climate action, a strong welfare state, ending the death penalty, etc., Pinker builds up goodwill with his more thoughtful progressive readers, some of whom might then entertain the possibility that he’s not axiomatically wrong about nuclear power, GMOs, or conceivably even James Damore.

  139. Sniffnoy Says:

    Scott: Yeah count me surprised as well at your mention of conservatives reading Pinker expecting to find their views affirmed; he’s clearly a liberal (meant in the American sense here, though of course also true in the sense I used the word above 😛 ). But then, I can’t claim any real familiarity with the conservative-sphere — if he’s built up some credibility among them, great!

    Regarding what SilasLock says and your response, well, firstly, agreed that UBI sounds like a good idea. Also I think you’re right on the history — that UBI was a libertarian/liberal idea well before leftists started picking it up. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a popular idea among the leftists I encounter…

    But, I guess the bigger thing is that this whole idea of actually caring about mechanism, or of going out and trying things empirically, well… it’s all quite liberal, isn’t it? 🙂 I mean, by all means, the more people using these, the better! But the thing is that it just fundamentally doesn’t work properly in a community that doesn’t strongly care about free inquiry, that doesn’t actually allow people to disagree. I mean there’s no guarantee that, if you try to go coming up with better alternatives like SilasLock says, that the result will be something at all socialist, you know?

    Because, like I said, if you do not actively keep tribalism out, it will creep in. And eventually it may reach the point that merely to say, “Uh, isn’t it a little bit worrying that we don’t actually have any proposed mechanism for these things?” will result in you will be called a “concern troll” and effectively booted.

    Btw, SilasLock, I think this is veering a little closer to the error I warned about:

    But it doesn’t justify Pinker’s satisfaction with poverty-elimination-via-capitalism, it just means that socialists need to start coming up with radical policies and testing them.

    In that it’s, like, assuming some absolute standard for whether Pinker should be “satisfied” or not. Meaningless question. If Pinker honestly cannot come up with a better policy, it makes sense for him to promote it. It does seem, going by Robinson’s article, that Pinker’s book fails to explain why leftist policies would not in fact be better. But ultimately “satisfaction” is a psychological matter, not a real factor in the question of what one should do. Because it’s always the case that one should be trying to find better alternatives if possible.

    As to this, Scott:

    But is it possible that the gap between leftism and SlateStarCodexism is much smaller than commonly supposed? I.e., that a lot of the gap is just run-of-the-mill anti-nerd (and correspondingly, “anti-normie”) animus, which causes both sides to exaggerate their differences and play down the many points of agreement?

    I think the answer here is “no”. Yes, sometimes you may get concrete policy agreement — if liberals want UBI to address poverty, and leftists want it to address inequality, both may be able to agree on UBI (of course then we have to get it past everyone else). But the underlying goal is still different. And the whole underlying system of thought is still different. The distance from Scott Alexander to SilasLock may be less than one might guess from the labels. But in general? No.

    (I also think there’s a mistaken presupposition when you speak of “just run-of-the-mill anti-nerd animus” as something, like, extraneous and exogenous. I’ll make a claim here: Leftism naturally tends towards anti-nerd animus. Is this an essential part of it, is it part of their goals? Of course not. But it’s where it ends up.)

  140. Daniel Says:

    I read his book “How the Mind Works” during university years and loved it. But I have two qualms about his new book:

    a) The idea that Enlightenment is the best thing ever happened to the human species is a blatantly Western-centric view, and for that matter, a very wrong one. If the Western countries did not conquer the other parts of the world through not-so-honorable ways (defended under Enlightenment ideas), perhaps the influence of Enlightenment would not be so great.

    b) I have not read the book, but I am very doubtful about the statistics. We did not have as many data collected hundreds of years ago, as compared to now. So if these two sets of data deal with vastly different amount of quantities/data, is it mathematically correct to put them on the same footing?
    How many of his conclusions are actually informed by his cognitive biases (prior information)?

  141. James Cross Says:

    Problem #136

    Yes, I probably should have said Pinker’s answer is not a bad answer for a materialist; however, I know it must be unsatisfying to some one of religious beliefs.

    As I think about it some more, Pinker appears to have spent four hundred pages evading the question before coming back to his answer. Material improvement by itself is not really part of the answer.

    Eli #134

    The lost of meaning is framed at the start of Pinker’s book in the question “why should I live?” This is not an easy question even for atheists and materialism doesn’t provide any answer to it. Those with the angst are the ones who do not believe in the delusions of religion.

  142. chorasimilarity Says:

    One of the last interesting discussions I saw on Twitter, before leaving it, was about the historical Enlightenment vs Pinker’ heavy edited version of it.

    Regardless today politics, many critics of (Pinker version of) Enlightenment point to the effects in the real world of the ideas behind the Scientific Method, and the most relevant source is Descartes, pre-Enlightenment.

    Here are some very controversial quotes from Descartes.

    “Thus it is observable that the buildings which a single architect has planned and executed, are generally more elegant and commodious than those which several have attempted to improve, by making old walls serve for purposes for which they were not originally built. Thus also, those ancient cities which, from being at first only villages, have become, in course of time, large towns, are usually but ill laid out compared with the regularity constructed towns which a professional architect has freely planned on an open plain”

    “In the same way I fancied that those nations which, starting from a semi-barbarous state and advancing to civilization by slow degrees, have had their laws successively determined, and, as it were, forced upon them simply by experience of the hurtfulness of particular crimes and disputes, would by this process come to be possessed of less perfect institutions than those which, from the commencement of their association as communities, have followed the appointments of some wise legislator.”

    “In the same way I thought that the sciences contained in books (such of them at least as are made up of probable reasonings, without demonstrations), composed as they are of the opinions of many different individuals massed together, are farther removed from truth than the simple inferences which a man of good sense using his natural and unprejudiced judgment draws respecting the matters of his experience.”

    [Discussed in https://chorasimilarity.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/on-the-cartesian-disease/ ]

  143. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Douglas Knight # 133,

    “I’m not objecting to using the most efficient means of reducing carbon. I’m objecting to you describing a tiny infra-marginal opportunity as “carbon offsets.””

    I’m confused here by your argument. These are literally carbon offsets. Yes, as they fill up, it will require more expensive offsets. What makes these infra marginal? By nature, they aren’t infra marginal in any standard sense because they haven’t been filled up.

    “You say that marginal cost curves are moral. I strongly disagree. Marginal cost curves are factual, not moral.”

    I’m confused by the claim that I’m the one introducing moral arguments into this, since in the comment I was responding to you wrote

    “What is the point of carbon offsets? What is the morality of them? Why is someone responsible for his own carbon? Moreover, why does someone using them now get to pay an infra-marginal cost, while someone later must pay a truly marginal cost?”

    It looks like you are making a moral argument here; you explicitly brought up morality and moral considerations, not I.

    ” I am making a similarly factual claim that using up limited infra-marginal resources does not have the naive marginal effect.”

    Does your argument purely come down to that I should have added a sentence to the effect of “As Cool Earth gets more funding, the amount of CO2 reduced per a dollar spent will diminish”? That’s a true sentence and one that is immediately obvious to anyone who spends more than 30 seconds thinking about how Cool Earth works; If I recall correctly, they explicitly state this in some of their own material.

    If someone said “You can save about 1 life per 3000 dollars spent on Against Malaria” would you object that that won’t be true in 10 or 20 years given current standards or wouldn’t be true if everyone on the planet who could do so right now donated 3000 dollars?

    “The effect of donating to Cool Earth depends on the counterfactual in which you do not donate. If it will not be fully funded, then your donation is highly valuable. But if it will, then your donation has little value. Most charities will not be fully funded in a particular year and their opportunity slips away after that year, so the counterfactual is a big difference. But since Cool Earth is trying to preserve a small finite resource, what matters is its lifetime funding, not its funding this year. Better to donate sooner than later, but the marginal effect is small.”

    Cool Earth is nowhere near being fully funded; this seems to run afoul of the exact same problem that many forms of Kantian ethics run into; I’m reminded of the hypothetical where the planet will explode if every single person on the planet donates to charity, and one argues from a Kantian standpoint that therefore no one should donate.

    “If you are mainly concerned with the pragmatic question of whether the phrase “carbon offsets” is a good way of manipulating people, you are opposed to Enlightenment values.”

    Huh? Nowhere have I asserted anything like that at all. The fact is that we need to deal with carbon now, and carbon offsets are one part of any strategy at this point that is going to have a serious chance at not having catastrophic global warming.

    Frankly though, if we want to start thinking about the motives of the other person in the conversation, it has occurred to me that your response is in part due to people being uncomfortable with the entire idea of offsets in general. It feels to many people as insufficiently pure behavior; I’ve seen one person compare it to murdering someone and then donating enough money to save two lives. But this is a primarily emotional reaction which doesn’t really work: releasing CO2 isn’t an intrinsic evil like murder, the problem is essentially purely due to the consequences of too much CO2. So, in that context, I’m going to ask two questions: First, if someone said “It would take around 4000 dollars to offset a regular person’s carbon budget if we don’t use any finite carbon sinks” (which is a rough estimate for how much would be required in that context), would you object to that? Second, if someone asked “What I can do to have the biggest direct impact on reducing CO2” and someone answered “Donate to Cool Earth” would you object?

  144. Neel Krishnaswami Says:

    Scott #137 wrote:

    Incidentally, from what I can tell, the idea of experimenting with a Universal Basic Income caught on with rationalists and Silicon Valley nerds before it caught on with the mainstream left—though I might be mistaken about that.

    You are indeed mistaken about that.

    It’s been a popular (albeit controversial) idea in socialist and social democratic circles for literally centuries. Thomas Paine (the very man who wrote Common Sense) and Condorcet (yes, the voting method guy) were some of the earliest proponents, as (a few decades later) was J.S. Mill. It continued to be a popular idea on the soft left throughout the 19th century (Bertrand Russell was a fan) and in the first half of the 20th century popular movements like the Social Credit movement and Technocracy had this a major plank of their platform. In the last 30 years or so, the rational choice Marxist (no, really) sociologist Erik Olin Wright has probably been the most prominent advocate of it.

    Its popularity among left-wing types is obvious: UBI would reduce the coercive power employers would have over their employees, functioning as a basically inexhaustible strike fund. It’s been very controversial on the left for a long time, for basically the same reasons as it is controversial everywhere else. Namely: a cash payment is no substitute for meaningful work, but people suffer from weakness of the will and are very likely not to seek meaningful work if they can slack off without consequence.

    It entered the mental universe of libertarianism in the 1960s when Milton Friedman decided to argue for UBI as a substitute for the welfare state in his book Capitalism and Freedom. Basically, his idea was giving people money instead of regulating the economy directly would be more efficient. Indeed, the Earned Income Tax Credit was passed in 1975, in part due to his advocacy of negative income taxes, and to this day it remains one of the most important anti-poverty measures in the US.

    UBI re-entered the modern right-wing think-tank-iverse when Charles Murray (yes, the Bell Curve dude) wrote a book in 2006 advocating replacing the welfare state with a small UBI and using the savings to cut taxes for the rich. The idea of justifying tax cuts with a superficially left-wing idea appealed to wealthy Silicon Valley types for obvious reasons, and since the mainstream left has a natural (and honestly, well-justified) suspicion of anything that racists and zillionaires advocate, the old traditional anti-UBI arguments gained salience (much to Erik Olin Wright’s dismay).

  145. sf Says:

    In the old days, Keynes at least had the govt spreading the wealth to push public optimism back up. Now, instead, they want you to pay for books, news, or economics articles to make you more optimistic. And you call this progress?

    More seriously, I thought the Gray review made many good points, (eg on Hume) as does Pinker (said having not read this one yet). The world is complicated enough that there’s room for both views to be developed.

    Dani Rodrik’s new book, “Straight Talk on Trade” starts out recalling his criticism from the 90’s, of economists for overselling globalization, saying that they knew its drawbacks but refused to air them. The reason, for him, was a bit like why biologists hesitate to discuss weaknesses in the modern synthesis of Darwinian evolution (eg Central dogma of molecular biology, genotype-phenotype correspondence etc); it feeds the anti-scientific critics. But this backfired on economists, with a permanent loss of credibility, when the discrepancy became all too evident.

    I tried finding out if Pinker has said much about h-indices or impact-factors, since many people here probably agree that these are not a good way to measure scientific quality. Basically we believe them insofar as they confirm what we already thought. I found an interesting blog post which only related to Pinker indirectly:
    http://backreaction.blogspot.fr/2017/03/academia-is-fucked-up-so-why-isnt.html
    For the sort of stats that Pinker throws around I wonder if, as evolutionary goals, they can be regarded as either ‘proximate’ or ‘ultimate’? I’m not completely comfortable with either. Measuring or counting life spans etc certainly reflects something desirable, but what is really desired is only found in the direct experience of it, not the numbers. Averages are good for equilibrium systems, which in the scientific context usually means things that are not living. The real question is how the system as a whole is faring, but I don’t think we have any good measures of it yet, and scant understanding. Its a bit like the problem of understanding ‘the observer’ in a framework where observations are everything, but the observer hardly seems to exist.

    Final remark on the inequality debate: insofar as people’s offspring will be competing for jobs, mates and so on, with their better born rivals, and insofar as the perpetuation of their lineage (if it’s the goal) depends on succeeding at it, the argument that people are better off than they used to be doesn’t help much. Seeing how rough it can be these days for an average 20 yr old from a non-privileged background to survive in the current economy, it’s not at all reassuring to know they are that much more comfortable than their ancestors.

  146. Scott Says:

    Neel #144: No, I didn’t claim that Silicon Valley nerds invented UBI; I know the idea has a much longer history. All I meant was that I saw people discussing UBI as “something that should be tried now” in rationalist forums 5-10 years ago, and then I saw it being discussed in more mainstream forums.

    To be honest, it’s hard for me to maintain my respect for anyone who supported UBI previously, or would have supported it, but then dropped their support because “Silicon Valley billionaires” now also support the idea. Any more than, on the other side, I have the slightest respect for the Republicans who loved health insurance exchanges back when they were a Heritage Foundation / Mitt Romney idea, only to denounce them as the end of the Republic as soon as they were renamed Obamacare.

  147. John Sidles Says:

    In regard to enlightened versus unenlightened healthcare systems, Scott’s comment #146 perfectly accords with Stephen Hawking’s oft-stated assessment.

  148. jonathan Says:

    I have to agree with Eliezer. I read the excerpt on AI when Pinker posted it on twitter, and I found it absolutely terrible. It would still have been lazy and poorly reasoned five years ago, but given the publication of Bostrom’s Superintelligence, and the attention it has received, it is simply inexcusable to attack such a strawman in 2018.

    I had a reasonably high opinion of Pinker before this, though I did think he was more broad than deep, and feared he leaned too much on witty prose to cover this deficit. This example makes me much more skeptical of his writing in general.

    And every time I see an optimist making terrible arguments for why there is no reason to worry about X, this prompts me to become more worried. The pathetic quality of the “don’t worry, everything will be fine!” arguments I’ve seen recently, even from first-rate thinkers, makes me fear that perhaps the apocalypse really is nigh this time.

  149. roystgnr Says:

    Consider the phrase often applied to men: “thinking with their dicks.” Is there any sub-Einsteinian upper bound on the intelligence of the men who’ve been guilty of that?

    “What I admire in your father is that, for his whole life, he stayed with only one woman. This is a project in which I grossly failed, twice.” – Albert Einstein, private letter

    So that’s a no.

  150. Sniffnoy Says:

    Neel #144:

    It’s been a popular (albeit controversial) idea in socialist and social democratic circles for literally centuries. Thomas Paine (the very man who wrote Common Sense) and Condorcet (yes, the voting method guy) were some of the earliest proponents, as (a few decades later) was J.S. Mill. It continued to be a popular idea on the soft left throughout the 19th century (Bertrand Russell was a fan) and in the first half of the 20th century popular movements like the Social Credit movement and Technocracy had this a major plank of their platform. In the last 30 years or so, the rational choice Marxist (no, really) sociologist Erik Olin Wright has probably been the most prominent advocate of it.

    Condorcet? Mill? Russell? Those sound like liberals to me, not leftists. 🙂 Still, huh, I guess the idea does have a deeper history among leftists than I’d realized. Thanks!

  151. Greg Says:

    This is a great perspective. I wish Pinker had engaged more deeply with the x-risks literature though.

  152. Michael Says:

    @Sniffoy- what makes you say that leftism naturally tends towards anti-nerd animus? Many scientists were communists, for example. Leftism in the United States has only been anti-nerd for the past 25 years or so.

  153. someone Says:

    someone Says:
    Comment #114
    The “Better Angels” book was criticized in some reviews for its highly dubious approach to scientific evidence. Later articles also report that Pinker acts with complete astonishment when these criticisms are raised.

    Scott Says:
    Comment #115
    someone #113: Sources? Because otherwise your comment is kind of a useless drive-by smearing.
    ———————-

    Scott #115: If Jennifer Szalai and Elizabeth Kolbert don’t like his book it doesn’t mean they are smearing him. If I note their opinion I’m just the messenger.

    Jennifer Szalai, NY Times
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/books/review-enlightenment-now-steven-pinker.html

    which links to
    Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker
    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/03/peace-in-our-time-elizabeth-kolbert

  154. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    “Condorcet? Mill? Russell? Those sound like liberals to me, not leftists.”

    Russell had complicated political views which changed over time, but one could reasonably describe him as a leftist. There’s an entire Wikipedia article about what he actually believed at different points https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertrand_Russell%27s_political_views .

    Mill and Condorcet both seem to be too early for it to be easy to reasonably distinguish between liberal v. leftist in the way one is attempting to do. Ideological boundaries can be very blurry, and trying to fit them in to this framework seems tough. That said, I’d agree that modern “liberals” in the sense you used earlier probably care much more about Mill and what he had to say than modern leftists (in the sense being used by you in your earlier comments). Condorcet seems a little harder- as far as I can tell, most people who don’t do social choice theory or something close to that don’t think about any of Condorcet’s ideas at all.

  155. David Walker Says:

    John Gray’s type of thinking – where you just compare things without talking directly about causes – certainly does make it easy to put forward powerful theses. Like so:

    “Many early-20th-century writers supported eugenic policies because they believed ‘improving the quality of the population’ – weeding out human beings they deemed unproductive or undesirable – would accelerate the course of human evolution …

    “Exponents of writing in the past have used it to promote Fabian socialism, Marxism-Leninism, Nazism and more interventionist varieties of liberalism. In doing so, they were invoking the authority of the written word to legitimise the values of their time and place. Deploying his own writing to bolster his philosophical beliefs, John Gray does the same.”

    Hey, I’m convinced! No more writing for me! It’s all face-to- face conversations and chalk diagrams from here.

  156. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Here is a very good explanation of what differentiates science from scientism, Pinker’s worldview:

    https://www.aaas.org/page/what-scientism

    Those of us who love science and who believe that something is lost in society when science loses public support, should be able to differentiate between scientism and science, if only for the reason provided by Ian Hutchinson echoed in the above article:

    “The health of science is in fact jeopardized by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response from other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association.”

    I am a big fan of Carl Sagan and I owe, in part, my making a living on a scientific/technical field to watching Cosmos and other documentaries he made. Even as a kid, I couldn’t fail to notice that when he said “the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” somehow that contradicted what I was hearing at church. My love for natural science -particularly physics- was stronger than my doubts but I can definitely see how youngsters who put their religion at the center of their lives -like my current self- could be put off by statements of that kind and decide that science is not for them.

  157. Scott Says:

    Gatekeepers #156: I’ve seen other religious people complain about Sagan’s line “the cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.” But why not simply treat the line as Sagan’s definition of the word “cosmos”? I.e., at least in that line, it seems to me that Sagan is not expressing any opinion about the existence of a god or gods. He’s simply saying that if they did exist, then they too would be part of “the cosmos,” by which he means “all of existence.”

  158. Adam R Says:

    Scott, the reason this kind of book is so irritating to John Gray is similar to why pop accounts of quantum computing are often irritating to you. While Pinker’s work on linguistics and evolutionary psychology is deeply engaged with the literature, including with complex, unsolved technical problems, when it comes to political theory he (as well as some other scientists like Dawkins) just wade in with very general, very simplistic assertions. It is as if they have read is a book of undergraduate exam notes on historical thinkers, but barely engaged at all with modern political theory.

    (In fairness, Gray has no real right to complain because he himself has forsaken scholarship for popular books consisting of repetitive and increasingly gnomic pronouncements.)

  159. Scott Says:

    Adam #158: In a decade of criticizing shoddy QC popularizations, I don’t think I ever once objected to anything on the ground of being “simplistic,” or the author lacking the appropriate qualifications to discuss the subject. I’ve objected to things on the ground of being wrong, or grossly misleading.

    Pinker is writing about one of the most enormous topics in existence—as I put it, “where the human race is and where it’s going.” It’s not clear what it would even mean to be an “expert” on that topic. We all are, or no one is. That said, he does cite a huge amount of statistical data, and one could attack his data. He offers philosophical arguments, and one could give counterarguments.

    Many of the reviewers did neither of those. They did a third thing, which was to treat the book as a historical work on the Enlightenment, and then attack it for violating various historians’ precepts (you can’t treat the Enlightenment as a single movement; you can’t project modern categories onto the past; you can’t describe anything as “good” or “bad,” except of course for racism, sexism, and colonialism, which are bad). To me, though, this misses the point: Enlightenment Now is not a work of history; it’s a vision for the future. So if you want to change my views, then counterpose Pinker’s vision with your own, truer vision, or else show where his facts are wrong. But the moment you unironically use a word like “simplistic” or “scientism,” I’ve already made up my mind to take Pinker’s side. 🙂

  160. Shozab Says:

    Scott, if you had to make a list of your favourite books, which ones would you include?
    And yes, you can put in quantum computing since Democritus! 🙂

  161. Adam R Says:

    @ Scott

    Fair enough, and thanks for replying. I certainly wasn’t suggesting that Pinker lacks *qualifications* to talk about political theory.

    Perhaps a better example than quantum computing would have been Pinker’s own field of linguistics. I know from his books that it’s a source of annoyance to him (as to all linguists), that to a first approximation 100% of highly-educated people think they’re experts on English grammar and that its “rules” are known, set in stone and relatively simple; rather than linguistics being a rich scientific field that is both rapidly advancing and also still unable to explain vast areas of the phenomenon it studies.

    For an academic philosopher like Gray who does political theory, Pinker’s assertions about the Enlightenment, political progress and the relations between facts and values sound similar. But as I said, he’s not really one to talk anymore. His recent books, like Pinker’s, are big overarching meta-theories written for popular audiences and are not really taken seriously by philosophers either.

  162. Adam R Says:

    One other thing – when you write:

    “You see, when Pinker says he supports Enlightenment norms of reason and humanism, he *really* means to say that he supports unbridled capitalism and possibly even eugenics”

    …you are doing to Gray what you claim he is doing to Pinker (and what has been done to you). He’s clearly not accusing Pinker of possibly supporting eugenics. He’s saying “the logic of his dictum” leads naturally to brutal social Darwinism, but that Pinker himself “seems ready to accept that some provision should be made for those who have been left behind,” with the implication that he believes in some social safety net, without having an actual argument for it.

    That may be an incorrect interpretation of Pinker’s views. But it’s not the interpretation that you characterised it as – you mistranslated it.

  163. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Scott #157

    Because taking Cosmos as a whole, it seems obvious to me that Sagan uses “Cosmos” as equivalent to “the natural word”. Thus, if “the natural world” is all there is, those of us who believe in the super-natural are like “really?”.

    Among all the atheist/science popularizers that that I have read or listened to over the years, it’s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenie_Scott that seems to be “getting it” best the notion that mixing scientism and science is bad for science in the long run. Here is one of her best expositions on the topic https://youtu.be/mEnFJTgr9x4?t=537

  164. (3/28/18) Links: Paris Commune Edition – Torch and Toast Says:

    […] Scott Aaronson reviews Steven Pinker […]

  165. Neel Krishnaswami Says:

    Scott at #146: I find your reading of the history unpersuasive. There’s a big overlap between libertarians and rationalists [1], and it’s been a major topic of discussion among them for a very long time (at least since I got on the Internet in the early 90s). It’s unsurprising that a bunch of libertarians who want to talk with people who aren’t will bring this up, especially since it got a big retransmission from Charles Murray right before the community was forming.

    Anyway, leftists who are in favor of UBI but find Silicon Valley’s flirtation with it suspicious are making a fairly banal point. The most prominent experimenter — Y Combinator’s Sam Altman — is a man who wrote passionate articles about the dangers the election of Trump would pose to democracy, but declined to dissociate himself from Peter Thiel even slightly. Revealed preference thus puts a fairly low upper bound on how much Altman actually opposes racism and authoritarianism.

    So why should they trust him or work with him? This question gains force from the fact that UBI does not have simple policy effects. It is very sensitive to details of the whole welfare system’s structure, as that determines how much it ends up functioning as a transfer to people selling demand-inelastic goods, like housing. So collaborating with someone who has demonstrated he will sell out for a low price is at best going to be a giant waste of time, and at worst risks turning the policy into an exercise in corruption.

    This isn’t “anti-nerd animus”. Somewhere in the low millions, money becomes a motive with a universal adapter. Once an IPO is in the mix, nerd values (and often, basic ethics) are out the window. Yeah, it stings when nerds get dinged for selfishness and greed, but it’s neither undeserved nor surprising, since basically every subculture does badly when it meets money. We aren’t special in this regard.

    [1] This is why I’ve had little interest in engaging with the rationalist community — it has inherited the habitual blind spots of libertarianism with respect to racism, democracy and the moral status of the market. The story of prominent libertarians writing apologetics for racism or dictators is well-worn by this point, but honestly I really got tired of hearing about Arrow’s theorem without also hearing about Holmstrom’s theorem, and about the efficient markets theorem without ever hearing about Negishi weights.

    It’s actually worth expanding on the last point somewhat. Takashi Negishi is an economist who worked out in 1960 what social welfare function that market equilibria optimize. It turns out that it sums up individual utilities, weighted by the inverse of the marginal utility of income. If, as usual, you assume a utility function logarithmic in income, then people are valued by the market linearly in proportion to their net wealth. So under the utility function the market optimizes, the lives of the ten richest people in the world are worth roughly as much as the lives of the 80 million poorest people in the world.

    Under even modest utilitarian assumptions, this is indefensible. But I’ve never seen a self-described rationalist engage seriously with the implications. As a result, I see exhortations about counting as mostly a declaration of community membership.

  166. Scott Says:

    Adam #162: My thinking is that, once you accuse someone of advocating ideas that predictably lead to eugenics, you might as well just call them a eugenicist outright (and an ax murderer and a child molester to boot), for all that further dialogue is possible. And the charge is absurd on its face. Pinker explicitly writes:

      The most decisive repudiation of eugenics invokes classical liberal and libertarian principles: government is not an omnipotent ruler over human existence but an institution with circumscribed powers, and perfecting the genetic makeup of the human species is not among them. (p. 400)

    Whatever else you think of that argument, it’s manifestly consistent with Pinker’s other commitments, in this book and elsewhere. It’s not something tacked on arbitrarily.

    Look, there have been negative reviews about which Pinker would have to say: “this person clearly disagrees with me and didn’t like my book, but at least they can repeat back my views in a form where I recognize them.” Gray’s is not such a review.

  167. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, Gatekeepers #137: I don’t think anyone doubts Robert Mercer’s technical abilities. I’m even familiar with some of the foundational work he did on statistical machine learning, before he “went over to the dark side.” The issue is just that it seems to many of us that, like Heisenberg or Pascual Jordan, or others who you’ve often written about yourself in this comments section, Mercer has chosen to put his talents (and his millions) in the service of a great evil. Indeed, the “reclusive evil scheming scientific genius” is a Hollywood stock character notable for just how few referents it’s ever had in reality. But if we had to pick the real person who best fit that character, Mercer is the obvious choice.

    I don’t expect you to agree with me about the “evil” part, since you’re a rightie and a Trumpster. But hopefully you can agree about the “reclusive” part. One could reasonably ask: if Mercer’s goals for the US and the world are so great, then why won’t he articulate and defend them in public, as most politically-engaged billionaires do? Why does he use his money only to manipulate democratic processes in secret?

  168. Douglas Knight Says:

    Joshua,
    If the social cost of carbon is $200/ton and cost of a particular carbon sink is $400/ton, that sink should not be used.

    Your other questions are good questions, which is why I answered them.

  169. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Neel Krishnaswami #165

    “Anyway, leftists who are in favor of UBI but find Silicon Valley’s flirtation with it suspicious are making a fairly banal point. The most prominent experimenter — Y Combinator’s Sam Altman — is a man who wrote passionate articles about the dangers the election of Trump would pose to democracy, but declined to dissociate himself from Peter Thiel even slightly. Revealed preference thus puts a fairly low upper bound on how much Altman actually opposes racism and authoritarianism.”

    This has multiple problems with it. First, it essentially advocates recursive blacklisting, that you should have a low opinion of everyone who doesn’t blacklist the people you want to blacklist, and that it is sufficient to blacklist someone because they didn’t blacklist who you want. I can have an incredibly low opinion of Trump, and still think that someone else cooperating with Trump or even supporting Trump, isn’t a reason to cease all interaction with them. Thiel’s support of Trump has unambiguously lowered my opinion of Thiel at multiple levels, but that doesn’t mean that any involvement with Thiel is somehow bad.

    But even if it were the case, even if one had a compelling argument that Sam Altman has done something bad here, you would have two serious issues: First, Altman is definitely not the only person in Silicon Valley who has supported UBI (and honestly, I’m not even sure if Altman supports it at all). Second, even if Altman were the primary Silicon Valley bigwhig to support UBI, it wouldn’t be a strike against UBI. Heck, if Donald Trump himself supported UBI it wouldn’t be a reason to be suspicious of UBI. Heck, we can we go full Godwin: If Adolf Hitler supported UBI it wouldn’t be a good argument against UBI. A policy is a good idea or bad idea independent of who supports its- who comes up with an idea doesn’t alter whether the idea is true or useful. This may be one of the basic ideas that seems to be in the memeplex that Scott and Pinker are roughly calling the Enlightenment.

  170. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Scott #167,

    “One could reasonably ask: if Mercer’s goals for the US and the world are so great, then why won’t he articulate and defend them in public, as most politically-engaged billionaires do? Why does he use his money only to manipulate democratic processes in secret?”

    This seems unnecessarily unfair to Mercer. Many things he does are completely open and above board. Arguably his support of Breitbart is exactly the sort of open promotion of his ideas. Now, I agree that anyone whose idea set can be roughly approximated by Breitbart is probably a genuinely terrible person, and certainly some of Mercer’s behavior or people working with Mercer has been clearly dishonest, but it remains to be seen how much of Cambridge Analytic’s recent behavior was done with his knowledge/approval. I wouldn’t be shocked if he was involved at every single possible level, but we don’t really have that evidence.

  171. Scott Says:

    Joshua #170: The trouble is that supporting a whole publication, like Breitbart, still leaves Mercer with plausible deniability about whether he endorses any particular claim. I’d love to have the opportunity to confront Mercer with a few dozen brazenly lie-filled Breitbart articles, one after the next, and ask him to either defend or disclaim each one.

  172. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Scott #167

    Obviously, we will have to agree to disagree on whether Mercer is evil. Since the last time I proclaimed my Trump support in this forum, said support has gone up for the simple egoistic reason that my paycheck got fatter starting January as a result of the tax reform law.

    I can definitely agree with the “reclusive” part. As to not willing to openly defend his ideas and have a preference for funding other people who will do so, there are many reasons for preferring that approach starting with the ones outlined by his daughter here https://www.wsj.com/articles/forget-the-media-caricature-heres-what-i-believe-1518652722 (the whole thing is behind a paywall -I happen to be a Wall Street Journal subscriber- but it is an important read if one wants to understand the Mercers and why the don’t like the public light).

    I even have a more personal reason. I don’t have the billions Mercer has but something I have heard consistently from very wealthy people -including some that I happen to know in my somehow closer circle of friends who despite not being billionaires have fortunes that I estimate to be at least in the tens of millions of dollars- is that publicity is a curse when you make it to the top 1% and beyond. Suddenly all sorts of people come to you asking for money. Take Trump for example. Despite his notorious love for the limelight, he regularly gets criticized for his aggressive legal defense strategies. Shouldn’t it be easy to understand that he needs to defend himself aggressively given the likely unwanted attention his style brings to him? He has also the same bodyguard in the White House that he has had for many years. The reality is that being public about certain issues can bring a lot of unwanted attention to people and some, understandably so, prefer to influence public policy using other means.

    As I am sure you are also probably aware of, in my world, it’s George Soros that wins the label of “evil scheming genius”. Not reclusive or scientific, but evil scheming nonetheless. I am pretty sure that some of Mr Soros’ motivations are noble, but he enjoys the same kind of scorn among my people as probably Mercer enjoys among yours :).

  173. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Scott, Joshua:

    With respect to the demonization of Breitbart, I leave you with the following thoughts from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Andreessen :

    https://youtu.be/F63zWfQwqzI?t=417

  174. Sniffnoy Says:

    Josh #154:

    OK, guess I was wrong about Russell!

    Agreed that before a certain point liberalism and leftism are not as distinct as they are now. (Hypothesis: This is because before a certain point the world is dominated by that third corner that I called “traditionalism”, and so everything is judged against it, and so the difference between two oppositions to it don’t register. Now that the world is more liberal, there’s more of a distinction.) Still, Mill seems pretty clearly on the one side despite that.

    Neel #165:

    Two points.

    1. This is going to be very similar to what Josh already said, but in regards to this:

    Anyway, leftists who are in favor of UBI but find Silicon Valley’s flirtation with it suspicious are making a fairly banal point. The most prominent experimenter — Y Combinator’s Sam Altman — is a man who wrote passionate articles about the dangers the election of Trump would pose to democracy, but declined to dissociate himself from Peter Thiel even slightly. Revealed preference thus puts a fairly low upper bound on how much Altman actually opposes racism and authoritarianism.

    A. Why the equation of opposing something with dissociating oneself from those who promote it? Is dissociating from such people real help against their cause? If you want to talk consequences you’d better make sure idea you have some idea what the consequences are. Or are you making some sort of deontological claim?
    B. Thiel’s support of Trump is reprehensible, obviously, but why does that extend to Altman? As Yudkowsky put it, you should always tolerate tolerance. Punishing non-punishers is not something that leads to good places, no matter how reprehensible the person they’re declining to punish.

    2. As to this:

    This is why I’ve had little interest in engaging with the rationalist community — it has inherited the habitual blind spots of libertarianism with respect to racism, democracy and the moral status of the market. The story of prominent libertarians writing apologetics for racism or dictators is well-worn by this point, but honestly I really got tired of hearing about Arrow’s theorem without also hearing about Holmstrom’s theorem, and about the efficient markets theorem without ever hearing about Negishi weights.

    Indeed, I’d never heard of Holmstrom’s theorem before. Thank you for introducing me to it. I agree that deserves to be better-known (though if you intend it to provide some sort of argument for leftism I’m not seeing it?).

    But, if your complaint is that the “rationalist community” at large is ignorant of things like these, that seems… distinctly remediable? Like, you could post an article on the recently-revived LessWrong about it.

    I used to be really annoyed about how people on LessWrong would give circular justifications for the use of utility functions and probability distributions. But then I learned about Savage’s theorem, got his book from out of the library, and did a writeup for the website. I’m… not sure how well I succeeded in my goal, I’ll admit — Eliezer Yudkowsky, for instance, still insist that utility functions shouldn’t need to be bounded, while having given only some truly specious arguments for such — but hey, I put it up on the site and I spread the knowledge, you know? If we’re ignorant, by all means, teach us!

    (And if you’re going to reply that clearly LessWrong just always ignores leftists/SJers, I’ll point that A. there are plenty of counterexamples to that, there are certainly a number of leftists and SJers in the LW-sphere (Ozy, multiheaded), and B. a big part of the reason it appears to be so hostile to leftists/SJers is because your average leftist/SJer coming in and telling us we’re doing everything all wrong is not in fact making real comprehensible arguments but doing things like: Telling us we’re all evil for even discussing certain things; deploying ad hominem and more generally genetic fallacy all over the place; using all sorts of nonshared assumptions while never once recognizing that they might be nonshared and require justification; using reasoning that is purely verbal manipulation of categories as if that were actually a good way to think about the world; good old equivocation and motte-and-bailey; equivocating between uses of a concept with mentions of that concept; and all sorts of similar things that are anything but good comprehensible argument. If you come in with actual mathematical analysis of models of situations, I think it’ll be a different story.)

    (Also, nitpicking, but I’ve never heard of any efficient market theorem… or are you referring to, like, some theorem showing that EMH holds under particular other assumptions, or something?)

    It’s actually worth expanding on the last point somewhat. Takashi Negishi is an economist who worked out in 1960 what social welfare function that market equilibria optimize. It turns out that it sums up individual utilities, weighted by the inverse of the marginal utility of income. If, as usual, you assume a utility function logarithmic in income, then people are valued by the market linearly in proportion to their net wealth. So under the utility function the market optimizes, the lives of the ten richest people in the world are worth roughly as much as the lives of the 80 million poorest people in the world.

    Very interesting. Where can I read more about this?

    Under even modest utilitarian assumptions, this is indefensible.

    Not a utilitarian but I don’t think that follows, actually, despite the appearance. Because once again we have to ask, what alternative are you proposing?

    But I’ve never seen a self-described rationalist engage seriously with the implications. As a result, I see exhortations about counting as mostly a declaration of community membership.

    Um, if they literally don’t know about it, what do you expect? Again, this is a problem you could help remedy! (Also, most of the “exhortations about counting” have little to do with markets so the relevance here is unclear?)

    I mean, look — when I complain about leftists/SJers, it’s based on what I’ve actually seen, you know? When I warn about it, it’s because I see it having a real chilling effect on discussions in places where they’ve become dominant, you know? How real argument gets replaced by repetition of the same mantras. And this is the sort of thing that happens even in, say, math departments, which are supposed to be where the people who are good at thinking hang out. Now maybe there’s some better leftist community out there, full of people who actually know their way around an argument (actually Nathan Robinson is occasionally refreshing in that regard — a leftist who writes actual arguments, holy crap! — even if some of what he’s written suggests that he… may not be writing entirely in good faith), who aren’t horribly confused about how causation works and have at least implicit diagrams in mind when they speak, who know how to model things mathematically, who don’t think that the genetic fallacy is good reasoning, who don’t use crazy idiosyncratic terminology that prevents communication with everyone else (seriously, do you know how long it took me to figure out that when leftists say “system” they actually mean something like “equilibrium” or “attractor”??), etc., etc. But if such a place exists, and you’re here in some sense representing them — well, firstly, by all means do introduce us to them (experience leads me to expect to be disappointed here, but, hey, you never know); but, secondly, who do you think you actually have more in common with, who do you think you would have a better time talking to? The people who also know a thing or two about good thinking, are willing to argue, and just happen to disagree with you politically? Or the people who happen to agree with you on policy for the moment, but who you can’t actually teach or learn from, and who will ultimately end up trying to excommunicate you when inevitably you disagree on something? You may be more of a “rationalist” than you think. 🙂

    Michael #152:

    @Sniffoy- what makes you say that leftism naturally tends towards anti-nerd animus? Many scientists were communists, for example. Leftism in the United States has only been anti-nerd for the past 25 years or so.

    So, if it wasn’t anti-nerd earlier, but is now, how is that evidence against what I said? 😛 (Of course, you’re also making a mistake here by equating “scientist” with “nerd”, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)

    To be clear, when I said “I’ll make a claim”, that’s because I was deliberately going a bit further than the evidence perhaps warrants. 😛 Like, this is not me making a careful argument, this is me making a perhaps out-there claim. But, if you want me to justify the claim: The thing is that I was actually, in a sense, being overly specific; for you see, the statement “X naturally tends towards anti-nerd animus” is actually true in the generic case. It’s like if I said “pineapples fall downward when dropped”. Pineapples do indeed fall downward when dropped, but unless pineapples are what’s being discussed for some reason, it’s a needlessly specific statement. (Helium balloons, of course, do not fall downward when dropped, but that’s why I said “generic”.)

    In fact, the second half of that statement is needlessly specific too. Generic groups naturally tend toward anti-nerd animus, yes; but this is because generic groups naturally tend toward… a particular pattern, and anti-nerd animus is just one element of that. You could call it “tribalism”, perhaps, though that’s not the greatest name, because tribalism in the narrow sense is only part of the phenomenon, and that’s certainly not a name that makes the connection to anti-nerd animus clear.

    The shortest summary, I guess, is that everything becomes corrupted by human social instincts, becoming merely a medium through which these operate. And the thing is of course that everyone still thinks they’re serving the original goal; that’s how it works. But in fact the goals are replaced by mere symbols of the goals, and every principle reinterpreted hypocritically, so that somehow it never seems to constrain or condemn the doings of the high-status members of the group, but only those of the low-status members or the outgroup. I could go on in this vein, but I’m hoping you get the picture. And so animus against nerds — those who refuse to perform the personal politics to get ahead or are bad at doing so, who actually take the principles seriously and try to live by them rather than filtering them through suspiciously convenient “common sense”, who instead of social maneuvering focus on actually doing things — is simply a natural part of that.

    But I said that this is true in the generic case. The thing is, liberalism can do a lot to protect against this, at least for a while. And thankfully we live in a pretty liberal society where this happens slower than it otherwise might. So the relation here between leftism and this phenomenon is that leftist groups keep going and removing the protections against this happening, and then, surprise surprise, they fall right into it.

    …or so I’m claiming, anyway! It’s unclear how seriously you should take a barely-justified story like this. Still, if you’re thinking about tearing down existing protections against this sort of thing, like leftist groups keep doing, I have to strongly advise against such.

  175. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Douglas #168,

    “If the social cost of carbon is $200/ton and cost of a particular carbon sink is $400/ton, that sink should not be used.”

    We’re definitely in agreement there. How is this relevant to Cool Earth?

  176. accountforposting Says:

    Something I’d really like to know:

    How much of the credit for the progress described in Pinker’s latest book should go to the Industrial Revolution? I don’t see why any 18th-century philosophy would be required to build a good steam engine.

  177. Douglas Knight Says:

    account,
    Pinker equivocates between the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the particular things endorsed by that philosophy, like science, and capitalism, and democracy. Usually this isn’t a problem, but to answer your question requires clearing that up.

    Pinker gives a lot of credit to the industrial revolution and specifically condemns people who want to roll it back. But what caused the industrial revolution? The industrial revolution is not just the steam engine. And the steam engine is not just one inspiration; it did not fall out of a tree and bop Watt on the head. What is important is not any individual innovation, but the system that encouraged the accumulation of innovations and their productive deployment. I imagine he would credit that to capitalism. Capitalism occurred spontaneously and slowly grew, having a visible effect on material well-being before the Enlightenment, so the industrial revolution could have occurred without philosophy. But the Enlightenment was the conscious examination of institutions, part of which was the conscious discovery of the value of the capitalism and its promotion. Counterfactuals are difficult, but philosophy probably speeded the adoption of capitalism and thus the industrial revolution. Also, the Enlightenment promoted open sharing of information, which probably speeded the revolution. (This may have started with science, but it was more explicit in the Enlightenment.)

  178. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Gatekeepers #173,

    Yeah, I fundamentally don’t buy the claim being there at multiple levels. First, the claim that there’s something about the “coasts” v the other areas isn’t accurate. I live in Iowa, and I haven’t seen much belief here in many people in anything I’d necessarily label fake news. By the same token, I know at least one person who lives in New York who unfriended me on Facebook after we had an argument when she claimed that Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville was “false flag by the Deep State.” So the idea that the breakdown that is going on here is coasts v. center is wrong.
    One might try to repair the claim by claiming it is a liberal v. conservative thing, but that’s not true either. For example, I would not have the same opinion of National Review that I would of Breitbart, far from it. NR has gone through a lot of effort to be reasonable.

    So, why is NR different from Breitbart? A big part is that “fake news” on the right is a real problem, and it isn’t just some left-wing coastal elites labeling news they don’t like as “fake”- if anything the problem is the reverse. There’s a segment of what passes for conservatism today in the US that really has become essentially unmoored from reality. (Again, definitely not all conservatives, and a few publications like National Review remain bastions of sanity on the right). And this isn’t just a matter of personal opinion or anecdote. We have data. Conservatives were more likely than liberals to share [stories from Russian trolls](https://arxiv.org/abs/1802.04291) and [self-identified conservatives were also substantially more likely than self-identified liberals to share demonstrably false stories](https://www.ft.com/content/611d5c90-0a87-11e8-8eb7-42f857ea9f09). There’s a real problem here, a real pattern here, and it isn’t just coastal elites labeling things.

  179. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Joshua #178

    Several points here. I think that in 2018, it is very difficult to argue that there exists, or that it there ever existed, anything remotely close to “objective journalism”. All news are edited and all outlets have a point of view that is reflected sometimes in subtleties like the choice of words to describe a particular set of facts or simply by omission -ie, lack of reporting. 20 years ago, Matt Druge delivered the following press conference https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4455026/matt-drudge-national-press-club at the National Press Club. When accused of promoting what today we call “fake news”, he gave several counter examples of the traditional media of the time doing the same. As a matter of historical record, it is worth watching in its entirety because Matt Drudge predicted then better than anybody else where the world of journalism was headed.

    As to the issue of “fake news” being more of a problem on the right than on the left, I beg to differ. You provided your own anecdotal evidence I have my own that I have found people of all sides of the political spectrum that believe things that I know to be factually false. Without getting even into political matters, I know very smart people with technical degrees from very prestigious universities -although not in computer science- who believe that Mac OS X is not a Unix-like operating system. This question https://unix.stackexchange.com/questions/1489/is-mac-os-x-unix should convince you that there are many people who profess that false belief. Similarly many Mac users still believe that Macs don’t get viruses – a belief propagated by Apple itself https://www.wired.com/2012/06/mac-viruses/ . When it comes to politically charged topics, at least in the case of anti-vaccine zealots (I am not one of them), it seems the issue is not “left vs right” but rather “being political vs not being political” https://theconversation.com/anti-vaccination-beliefs-dont-follow-the-usual-political-polarization-81001 .

    Now, since we live in a time when all major national news outlets, save for Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, have a liberal bias, which group of people do you think these outlets will point to as being more prone to believe in “fake news”? You got it, the people these outlets despise: those on the right.

    I am not persuaded by https://arxiv.org/abs/1802.04291 . Even assuming that their methodology is sound -ie, that their methods to identify conservatives vs liberals are accurate and that their conclusions generalize outside their dataset- in 2008 there were also push polls and push videos showing the average Obama voter misinformed https://www.politico.com/story/2008/11/zogby-wont-duplicate-obama-poll-015829 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm1KOBMg1Y8 . When Obama was the victor of the election in 2008 and 2012, this misinformation didn’t seem to bother the elite media. A similar argument can be made about the Cambridge Analytica “fake scandal” . The Obama campaign used in 2012 similar methods and that didn’t seem to bother anyone given that Obama won the election. In fact, the Romney 2012 campaign was widely mocked for not being as advanced technologically in the “data game”.

  180. ybsgir Says:

    Resilient pessimist here trudging my way through your signing off advise “read it”.

    The part where he brushes aside Max Weber’s work as “the lie” kinda killed the little part of me that was trying to be nice and suspend discontent but now I’m just left with boredom and mild discontent.

    I’ll grin my way to chapter 9 and hopefully not give up but dang Scott now I see you’ve got a new post giving book recommendations and I feel like I read this post and your next newer one in the wrong order. Silly nature, ordinality? still?

  181. Joe Mahoney Says:

    Scott, great review; I was recently running down my take on the book with some friends and specified pretty much the same kudos and reservations [though sans your gifts for mordant black humor]; the latter being the puzzling facile take on AI, the overall level of optimism, and my related worry that Pinker may be on track to become an instance of Russell’s poor inductivist turkey.
    Viz. Deutsch’s book. While I completely agree w/ Prof. David Albert’s take on “Beginning of Infinity”, referenced by Sid above (including the many positive aspects) and while Pinker is clearly inspired by Deutsch, these are two deeply different books. Where Pinker is laying out, interpreting, and defending an empirical case (w/ cautiously sensible caveats for nearly every claim (most of them evidently ignored by his reviewers)) Deutsch’s grounds for optimism are both wildly speculative yet often asserted w/ jaw-dropping certainty; not least his unironic declarations for the crude Popperian strain of fallibilism. [There’s evidently nothing in the universe that approaches the apodictic like the views of a Popperian critical rationalist.]

  182. Esso Says:

    Does Pinker give any reasons why Enlightenment values have become such a hard sale in certain quarters? This puzzles me, as hygiene, vaccines, better crops etc. seem to be unambiguously good stuff.

    Contamination of science with politics? Or economics in politics?

  183. Joe Mahoney Says:

    [Just curious: why do you use l/r justification? It’s a horrible readability pref, given zero hyphenation and wordspace adjustment.]

  184. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    The problem with gatekeepers # 179,

    “I think that in 2018, it is very difficult to argue that there exists, or that it there ever existed, anything remotely close to “objective journalism”. All news are edited and all outlets have a point of view that is reflected sometimes in subtleties like the choice of words to describe a particular set of facts or simply by omission -ie, lack of reporting. ”

    That’s true but irrelevant in this context. We’re not talking about issues of emphasis or issues of what one chooses to report on. We’re talking about claims which genuinely aren’t connected to reality.

    “As to the issue of “fake news” being more of a problem on the right than on the left, I beg to differ. You provided your own anecdotal evidence I have my own that I have found people of all sides of the political spectrum that believe things that I know to be factually false. ”

    No one is arguing that there aren’t people throughout the political spectrum that post factual false things. You also appear to be missing the point of the anecdote in question: The point wasn’t about people’s politics. The point was that the video you linked to in comment 173 explicitly said without any justification other than their say-so that there was a difference between news for coastal elites and non-coastal news coverage, and that was what the anecdote was responding to.

    “I am not persuaded by https://arxiv.org/abs/1802.04291 . Even assuming that their methodology is sound -ie, that their methods to identify conservatives vs liberals are accurate and that their conclusions generalize outside their dataset- in 2008 there were also push polls and push videos showing the average Obama voter misinformed https://www.politico.com/story/2008/11/zogby-wont-duplicate-obama-poll-015829 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm1KOBMg1Y8 . When Obama was the victor of the election in 2008 and 2012, this misinformation didn’t seem to bother the elite media. A similar argument can be made about the Cambridge Analytica “fake scandal” . The Obama campaign used in 2012 similar methods and that didn’t seem to bother anyone given that Obama won the election. In fact, the Romney 2012 campaign was widely mocked for not being as advanced technologically in the “data game”.”

    So, first of all, your response to that study seems to boil down to “they might have a problem”. If you think the study has a problem, then find a problem with it and point out the problem. Simply saying that there’s also people on the left who believe untrue things isn’t sufficient: No one is claiming that belief in fake news is unique to the right, but rather that it is substantially more common.

    As for the claim about CA- in fact, what they’ve done is substantially different than what Obama did making that comparison pretty questionable at best http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2018/mar/22/meghan-mccain/comparing-facebook-data-use-obama-cambridge-analyt/ https://www.npr.org/2018/03/25/596805347/how-does-cambridge-analytica-flap-compare-with-obama-s-campaign-tactics . Note by the way, that even if this weren’t the case, and even if they were doing the same thing, this still wouldn’t be the sort of issue under discussion, just garden variety political hypocrisy. The issue here is believing genuinely false things about reality.

  185. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Joshua #184

    I don’t think at this point there is a lot of disagreement between us when it comes to the core issue of “fake news” and people believing all sorts of factually false things being a universal phenomenon across the political spectrum and in fact, across any variable you pick that human beings feel passionate about like in the case of the Mac vs Windows fight whether either is immune to certain types of malware. So what I am going to say is more about the nuance of the differences:

    – With respect to Breitbart’s credibility. The video of #173 was about Marc Andressen’s opinion on whether it or outlets like the NY Times or WaPo more accurately reflected the mood of the country in 2016. I largely agree with Andressen’s sentiment. I am an avid reader of Breitbart just as I am an avid reader of the NY Times and the WaPo for the very reason I outlined above: there is no such thing as objective journalism so to get the closest thing there is to an unbiased diagnosis of reality, I read (and watch) all sorts of outlets on a daily basis. People who read exclusively the NY Times, the WaPo and who watched exclusively CNN during the 2016 campaign might have been shocked that Donald Trump won the election. I was positively surprised but not shocked. The polls failed to predict the result given that they didn’t model appropriately the turnout (I remember for example reading one of the technical details of one of the major polls of how likely voters polled were picked among those who had voted in 2012 and 2014; I was eligible to vote on vote occasions and I didn’t vote on any of the two; I was planning on doing the same in the hypothetical match Bush v Clinton; only having Trump on the ballot made me cast a vote in 2016). However, I did know that there were many people who felt like me. Not from reading the NY Times or even watching Fox News, but from reading Breitbart.

    – With respect to the study you cited, what I meant to say is that even if the conclusions of the study are accurate with respect to the Russian trolls’ ability to influence conservative voters more than liberal ones, my point is that the Obama Kool-Aid drinkers of 2008 -remember https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKsoXHYICqU – were also able to influence liberal voters more in 2008 than conservative voters (as shown by the poll I mentioned) and liberals had no problem with that then. All I am saying is that when it was pro-Obama forces influencing low information voters to vote for Obama, nobody on the left had a problem with it. And to be clear, it wasn’t a Russian troll or Putin that made me vote for Trump but rather my being fed up with a “do nothing” monstrosity in Washington DC that required hard chemotherapy to be dealt with of the kind that only Trump offered among all 2016 candidates.

    – On the difference between the Obama and CA usage of Facebook data, I am not persuaded by the politifact -a well known hard left outlet- analysis. Take the following,

    “The Obama campaign created a Facebook app for supporters to donate, learn of voting requirements, and find nearby houses to canvass. The app asked users’ permission to scan their photos, friends lists, and news feeds. Most users complied.”

    So, if you were a Facebook user in 2012 who was not an Obama supporter, but you had a friend who was, your data was included in Obama’s campaign data operation without your consent anyway just because your friend consented.

    The kind of “splitting hairs” discussion in which politifact engaged is the very reason many of us decided that voting for Trump was the only rational choice in 2016.

    The way I see politifact’s analyses is the following: if some conservative makes a claim, and even politifact agrees with said claim, that means that even the most machiavelic forces on the left were unable to spin the claim in a different direction. Unfortunately, very few so called “facts” in politics fit this use case (here is an example http://www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2015/nov/25/cynthia-meyer/cynthia-meyer-says-more-black-babies-are-aborted-n/ ) something that renders politifact’s analyses largely irrelevant except for leftists seeking confirmation for their political beliefs.

  186. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Joshua #184,

    One more thing,

    “The issue here is believing genuinely false things about reality.”

    This sounds very much a https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman fallacious argument to me. The 2008 video made by John Ziegler showed for example Obama voters believing that Republican controlled congress on election day 2008. Those of us who have memories from the devastating effects of the 2008 financial crisis don’t take that false belief lightly since finding somebody to blame for the disaster became the most important political issue of the 2008 election. So if a significant portion of the population voted for Obama in 2008 believing that Republicans controlled congress in 2008 or voted for Obama in 2012 because they came to believe the notion that Romney was this monster that had killed people by way of the company restructuring his private equity funds did leaving people without health insurance, there you have the kind of distortion of reality that I find way more dangerous than anything those Russian trolls did.

  187. adoawix3 Says:

    Re: Pinker’s portrayal of Islam– Imagine a book circa 1920 filled with facts and figures laying out the objectively terrible living conditions, high crime rates, and communist tendencies in Europe’s Jewish ghettos and then blaming this not on Europe but on defects in Jewish religion and culture, a backwardness the author traces back to the fact that the major Enlightenment philosophers were after all Christians, not Jews.

    Visualize the long angry blog post you would write about this book, and then try to imagine why some of us feel the same about Pinker’s portrayal of Islam and find it dangerous.

  188. Scott Says:

    adoawix3 #187: That’s so off-base that I barely know where to start. But how about here: Pinker praises the scientific achievements of the Islamic Golden Age, as well as those within the Islamic world (like Malala) who are fighting today for the values of modernity. So a better analogy would be if Pinker praised those tendencies within Jewish history and culture that were most compatible with modernity (e.g., universal literacy, a culture of argument), criticized the ones that were least compatible (e.g., insularity, reverence for infallible sacred texts), and celebrated those Jews, like Spinoza, who advocated Enlightenment values and modernity, even on pain of being ostracized from their communities.

    Which … he does.

  189. Carl Wolfson Says:

    adoawix3 #187:

    One thing to consider is that many of the countries where Muslims live under such benighted governments are ruled by Muslims and some explicitly under Sharia. The Muslims there are not a persecuted, tiny minority but in charge of the whole show. “The Jews” did not rule in any country during the last two millennia until 1948 when they established the only liberal democracy in the Near East.

  190. Michael Murden Says:

    Another review of the same book you might find interesting. It’s a two part review:
    https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2018/03/20/enlightenment-how-pinkers-tutelary-natures/
    then
    https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/enlightenment-how-omens-of-the-semantic-apocalypse/

  191. Prussian Says:

    jmb – thank you! Incidentally, I think that’s also a pretty good description of Trumpism…

  192. Prussian Says:

    @Scott, 71 – if you want the philosophical background to Nazism – its roots in Hegel and Kant – I cannot recommend “The Ominous Parallels” too highly.

  193. Scott Says:

    Prussian #192: I’ve actually read part of that book. It opens with a moving account of the Holocaust, but then quickly devolves into a particularly doctrinnaire Ayn Randian polemic. Yes, I can absolutely see Hegel as a progenitor of the obscurantist, anti-Enlightenment, power-worshipping strain of German thought that would be eagerly picked up by the Nazis. But Kant, seriously? Author of “Perpetual Peace” and leading humanist Enlightenment figure, however many errors he made? I’m curious: what exactly is the argument there, other than that Rand for some weird reason considered Kant the embodiment of evil, and Peikoff, her disciple, somehow needs to connect anything Rand hated to Nazism?

  194. Prussian Says:

    “I’m curious: what exactly is the argument there..”

    Well, since you ask, the point is that Kant is the one who began the process of discrediting reason – his nutcase distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal world.

    Kant argues that when I look at this computer, I’m not, like, seeing the real computer, but only the computer as filtered through my eyes. It’s hard to exaggerate how insane this is – it’s arguing that any mode of perception is insufficient, because it is a mode of perception.

    Once you discredit or “limit” reason, that’s when the ball starts rolling down the tracks towards Auschwitz. Because if you yourself aren’t fit to judge reality, it’s really easy to conclude that truth lies with the group (or in practice, with the group’s loudmouth self-appointed spokesmen and – women). That’s Hegel’s wonderful innovation. Okay, so what group has the supreme insight into reality? Some said “the race” and became fascists, other said “class” and became commies. Thanks, Kant.

    Seriously, let’s say you say “Throwing Jews into gas chambers is bad!” and I respond “Yeah, well my transcendental categorical imperative says it’s exactly the right thing to do”. How would you even begin to argue against that? With reason, facts, and logic – things of the ‘phenomenal’ world?

    That’s why all of Kant’s bastard offspring end up sucking up to the worst tyrants in the world. Witness Foucault kissing up to the Ayatollah Khomeni.

    Tl;dr the sleep of reason produces monsters and Kant’s the guy who poured elephant grade tranquilizer into reason’s soup.

  195. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Prussian #194

    Without getting into your debate with Scott, I only want to say that I agree 100% with this,

    “Okay, so what group has the supreme insight into reality? Some said “the race” and became fascists, other said “class” and became commies. ”

    I never understood the “fake distinction” some -particularly in American academia- want to make between nazism and communism given that I always saw both ideologies as believing that “group insights” -as you call them- trumping individual dignity and rights.

    My opposition to statism has always been driven by my belief that the notion that “group insights” trump the individual is intrinsically evil. I always found the belief that some form of tribalism (like communism) is better than others (nazism) extremely naive. My own belief that the best government is small and focused on areas like national defense and administration of justice comes also from that realization. Again, James Madison had similar insights in Federalist Paper #10.

  196. Scott Says:

    Prussian #194: Aw, c’mon. Those strike me as standards of argument by which anyone, via a game of intellectual Telephone, could connect anything that they disliked or considered irrational to (as the kids say) “literally Hitler.” Indeed, Whittaker Chambers, not exactly a bleeding-heart liberal, famously remarked of Rand’s own masterwork:

      From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber—go!”

    This is surely unfair, but is it more unfair than what Peikoff does to Kant? Like, I’m no one’s idea of an SJW, but for what it’s worth, I read Atlas too, and the pure, unrelenting vituperation against everyone Rand hated (the freeloaders, the moochers, the “limp” and “petulant” and “shapeless”) screamed at me for a thousand pages, and gave me the queasy feeling that I wasn’t sure whether Rand wanted a large part of humanity to go on living, but was grateful that the question was never put to the test.

    More to the point: I haven’t studied Kant enough to express a strong view about the “noumenal vs. phenomenal” business. Like, there’s one sense in which it’s clearly true that “I only see the computer as filtered through my eyes”; there’s another sense in which even my flawed eyes clearly do give me data about a real computer that exists in external reality; both senses seem reasonably obvious to a narrow, scientistic philistine like me 🙂 ; and I’d probably have to plow through hundreds of dense pages before I could form any considered opinion about whether Kant said anything about any of this that struck me as either wrong or surprising.

    OK, but suppose we fully grant the premise that everything Kant had to say about the matter was pernicious garbage. Even then, he “kant” possibly have been the first influential philosopher to have defended absurd theses about epistemology or metaphysics! Yet somehow science and technology, and the general arc of human moral progress (e.g., the abolition of slavery), soldiered on despite “someone being wrong in a philosophy book.” I think those processes are more robust than Rand and Peikoff give them credit for.

    And if any philosophers are to be blamed for Nazism, then at the least I’d like them to be philosophers who clearly, explicitly took up the cause of violence and hatred—like Nietzsche, or Heidegger. With such great choices available, why reach for anyone guilty of less? 🙂

  197. adoawix3 Says:

    Three quotes from Pinker’s Chapter 23 I find problematic:

    Correlation is not causation, but if you combine the fact that much of Islamic doctrine is antihumanistic with the fact that many Muslims believe that Islamic doctrine is inerrant—and throw in the fact that the Muslims who carry out illiberal policies and violent acts say they are doing it because they are following those doctrines—then it becomes a stretch to say that the inhumane practices have nothing to do with religious devotion and that the real cause is oil, colonialism, Islamophobia, Orientalism, or Zionism.

    A Pentagon study from 2004 (source) concluded the it is primarily not religion but American policy that drives violence: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies”: specifically “American direct intervention in the Muslim world” — through the US’s “one sided support in favor of Israel”; support for Islamic tyrannies in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and, most of all, “the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

    All of the wars raging in 2016 took place in Muslim-majority countries or involved Islamist groups, and those groups were responsible for the vast majority of terrorist attacks.”

    In Syria, most deaths are caused by the Russian-backed Assad government (source). In Yemen, most deaths are caused by the US-backed Saudi bombing campaign. The ongoing civil wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were of course all triggered by US-backed invasions. Western/Christian-backed state actors are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.

    Still other [problems] were exacerbated by clumsy Western interventions in the Middle East

    Note “clumsy,” not criminal.

  198. Prussian Says:

    @adoawix,

    A Pentagon study from 2004 (source) concluded the it is primarily not religion but American policy that drives violence: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies”:

    Showcasing neatly the joke about “military intelligence”. Yes, this clearly explains why 80% of the victims of jihad-terror are other Muslims, killed over doctrinal differences, why there have been 5 Islamic genocides in my lifetime alone, why there are attacks on Hindus, Jews, Sikhs & Yazidi in Europe… You know what? Just click my name. I wrote about 40,000 words refuting this. First post on the page.

    @Scott,

    I read Atlas too, and the pure, unrelenting vituperation against everyone Rand hated (the freeloaders, the moochers, the “limp” and “petulant” and “shapeless”)

    yes, I read your post on Atlas Shrugged and had a little fun here:

    https://www.skepticink.com/prussian/2015/04/15/whos-afraid-of-the-big-bad-rand/

    Just to focus on this business of the limp, shapeless losers – if you read any history of the Nazi party whatsoever, that’s a pretty good description of them. In fact, one of Atlas villains has a rise that’s suspiciously similar to that of Hitler- he’s such a nonentity that people kept supporting him, thinking he’s so incompetent, he’d be easy to control. Until one day…

    The point is that the Nazis were such rabble that there is no way they could have taken over the most civilised nation in Europe had intellectuals not paved the way. Which brings me back to Kant.

    Here’s where I’d disagree with this being a “game of telephone”. The phenomenal/noumenal thing, with its corollary on mystical insight (‘categorical imperative’) isn’t something incidental to Kant’s philosophy, it is literally the big thing right at the centre. And it is precisely because Kant was such a major figure that he was able to do such major damage.

    Yet somehow science and technology, and the general arc of human moral progress (e.g., the abolition of slavery), soldiered on despite “someone being wrong in a philosophy book.” I think those processes are more robust than Rand and Peikoff give them credit for.

    Well, they did – and they didn’t. Yes, these ideas have (had?) a huge head of steam, and did soldier on, but Kant’s intellectual progeny were working away, undermining the foundations until – well, until the twentieth century. Then they break into hideous life. Here’s Orwell, writing during that time:

    Human types supposedly extinct for centuries, the dancing dervish, the robber chieftain, the Grand Inquisitor, have suddenly reappeared, not as inmates of lunatic asylums, but as the masters of the world.

    Bear in mind that within both of our lifetimes, Communism succeeded in enslaving a third of the planet. My parents survived Hitler and Stalin both. Hideous reversals are possible.

    I think where we disagree is your optimism. You think that these things are process that will continue regardless. I think they are human achievements rooted in human thought. If those thoughts go away, the process stops or worse.

    You might think Rand’s extreme in her emphasis on intellectuals and philosophers. After all, she wrote the following:

    If given supreme power over the country, I would pardon all the people and even most of the leaders, but I would hang every intellectual in the country and the professors three feet higher than the rest, to be left up as long as public hygiene allows.

    Except she didn’t. That line comes from the diaries of Viktor Klemperer, a German Jew writing in Dresden in 1943. Brainless thugs can never succeed in turning over a civilised order, unless intellectuals have opened the way for them.

    Got to get to work, just respond to the phenomenal/noumenal thing shortly.

  199. Prussian Says:

    Just before I get back to the noumenal/phenomenal, thing let me underline the reason why it’s so literally deadly.

    There’s no such thing as absolute unreason – even the most irrational people still behave rationally for most all of the day (they know what a door is for etc.). The way unreason works, the way irrationalism works is saying that reason is “limited”. That there’s something “beyond” it, “above” it. No matter what vague words are used to describe that something more – divine revelations, dialectical materialism, categorical imperative – what it boils down to are feelings.

    Now you might go, “Oh, I feel what’s right – I feel it’s wrong to be cruel…” Fine. Here’s the problem: fanatics who do terrible things really, truly do feel justified. People who are utterly repulsed by homosexuality to the point they want to do violence, people revolted by mixed-race couples, people who go into a murderous frenzy over blasphemy – they truly feel they are doing right.

    Don’t assume you’d be immune to this stuff, either. One reason I chose my pseudonym was to mess with racialists; one of the few things I’m genuinely proud of is my article arguing against racialism. What I did discover, however, is that some of the stuff put out by groups like This Is Europa is profoundly, emotionally compelling. The same way the Islamic call to prayer is compelling. It is only reason that I – or anyone -has as a defense to that.

    To put it yet another way, that you may find more compelling, I’ve heard it argued that the term “post-truth” was original coined as a compliment by post modernist intellectuals and philosophers. Regardless of whether the exact word was used, the idea certainly goes back to there (Foucault and “regimes of truth” etc.) But in practice, in reality, post-truth means Trump. When you decide there is no objective reality, only competing narratives, you are inviting the biggest loudmouth to define the narrative.

    Now to the subject of the phenomenal/noumenal thing:

    Like, there’s one sense in which it’s clearly true that “I only see the computer as filtered through my eyes”; there’s another sense in which even my flawed eyes clearly do give me data about a real computer that exists in external reality; both senses seem reasonably obvious to a narrow, scientistic philistine like me 🙂

    I don’t recommend you plow through Kant – he has some of the worst German I have ever read, and I doubt it gets any better in translation. Let me phrase what’s wrong with it like this: my background is in biology. If I use a microscope to look at a cell, by Kant’s standards, I am not looking at the real cell, but only at a magnified image of the cell. Literally all perception of reality is discredited precisely for being perception. This line would apply just as well to an alien, or even to God Almighty, since He would have to have perception to perceive anything. It’s completely nuts.

    Yes, our senses have limits; that’s the same thing as saying that they exist. They have an objective nature and behave as such. They still give us objective knowledge of the world, we just need to learn to understand it. A straw that looks bent in a glass of water really, truly does look bent; the light rays are, in fact, doing that. It is just up to us to integrate our sense data and make sense of the world.

    @theproblemwithgatekeepers I agree with you, only go a lot further: there is no such thing as group perception. Only individuals, and individuals alone perceive anything. Even when a committee or a research group still only has individuals doing individual work and perceiving things individually. The concept of “group perception” in practice means that the “representative” of the group get’s to tell you what to think, in the same way that divine authority means, in practice, that the priest gets to tell you what to think.

  200. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Gatekeepers #185

    “I don’t think at this point there is a lot of disagreement between us when it comes to the core issue of “fake news” and people believing all sorts of factually false things being a universal phenomenon across the political spectrum”

    Well almost. We’re in agreement that it is universal. Where we are apparently in disagreement in part, and this is important, is how common it is in different groups. Something can be a common problem and still be more of a problem in one than the other. Multiple studies back up that the central problem is much more severe on the right now then it is on the left. That’s not to say that has always been the case: During much of the Cold War, a large part of the left believed all sorts of nonsense essentially fed to it by Soviet propaganda. And there are clear warning signs that fake news on the left is growing (which some of the better center-left publications have been trying to point out https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/liberal-fever-swamps/530736/ https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/viva-la-resistance-content/515532/ )

    “With respect to Breitbart’s credibility. The video of #173 was about Marc Andressen’s opinion on whether it or outlets like the NY Times or WaPo more accurately reflected the mood of the country ”

    I didn’t interpret him as talking about mood by itself, but if it really is about a distinction in mood among different parts of the country, that’s plausible. I’m generally very confused about things like large-scale American “mood” or the like, and don’t have strong priors in any direction there.

    “So, if you were a Facebook user in 2012 who was not an Obama supporter, but you had a friend who was, your data was included in Obama’s campaign data operation without your consent anyway just because your friend consented.”

    Yes, but everyone already knows that friends have access to your data. You might argue that the moral difference here is small.

    “The kind of “splitting hairs” discussion in which politifact engaged is the very reason many of us decided that voting for Trump was the only rational choice in 2016.”

    So, this is where I think we start really disagreeing: Splitting hairs matter. Whether things are the same or not matters. You can argue about how much any one of them matters, but arguing that there’s no difference is a problem. Moreover, voting for Trump due to something like this essentially is saying “This fact-checker has what may arguably be a bias in how they evaluate things so instead I’m going to vote for someone who has no relationship to the truth at all.”

    (You’ve made a few other parts of your comment which I’m not directly responding to other than to note general, approximate agreement.)

  201. Tim Makarios Says:

    adoawix3 #197:

    Western/Christian-backed state actors are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.

    They might call themselves “Christian”, but people who support killing civilians — or even militants — are disobeying Christ himself, who said “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.”

  202. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Prussian #199,

    “Only individuals, and individuals alone perceive anything. Even when a committee or a research group still only has individuals doing individual work and perceiving things individually. The concept of “group perception” in practice means that the “representative” of the group get’s to tell you what to think, in the same way that divine authority means, in practice, that the priest gets to tell you what to think.”

    Again, no disagreement here. I agree. I have also seen committees in which the opinion of the “committee” is essentially the opinion of the loudest -not literally “loudest” but the most assertive- voice in the committee with the rest of the committee members just saying yessir. On the last point though, not all Christian denominations abide by the Roman Catholic understanding of priests being above the rest of believers. One of theological innovations introduced by Martin Luther in modern times -Luther claimed that this was always the case in early Christianity- is the concept known as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_priesthood which today is held with different degrees by the overwhelming majority of Protestant denominations. This “equalization of all believers” is thought to have been one of the triggers of the scientific revolution that took place in central and northern Europe and the Age of Enlightenment that followed. For the record, I am a Protestant Christian myself.

  203. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Joshua #200

    Again, I am addressing the few areas where I see nuance of disagreement because I think that we are largely in agreement,

    “Multiple studies back up that the central problem is much more severe on the right NOW then it is on the left.”

    The emphasis on “NOW” is mine. The way I interpret this is that those studies have a spin made to make the losers of the 2016 election feel good with themselves. The way I see things is different. The United States, unlike the European countries that I know, is a very fluid and dynamic society. Nothing here seems permanent and that include political allegiances of a significant portion of American voters. I believe this to be true even as I acknowledge that we live in increasingly polarizing times. For example, there were counties with a total of 7.5 million voters that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then for Trump in 2016 https://ballotpedia.org/Pivot_Counties:_The_counties_that_voted_Obama-Obama-Trump_from_2008-2016 . This speaks of a healthy dynamism in which the studies you mention -just as the right sought solace in the aforementioned poll of 2008 that showed Obama voters as “uninformed”- only serve to insult the voters who, for their own reasons, decided to vote for Obama in 2008/2012 and then for Trump in 2016.

    People are not “robots”. The effect of the Russian trolls was irrelevant when it came to make people like me vote in 2016 for Trump -I insist I would not have voted for Bush or any other of the clowns who ran against Trump for the Republican nomination- even though I had not voted in 2012 and 2014. Speaking of, this is the poll I was referring to https://www.scribd.com/document/330170543/9amET-NBCWSJ-release . People in my demographic group were not captured by a poll like this that looked at people who had voted in 2012 and 2014 and young people with a high interest in the election.

    This takes me to your final point,

    “Splitting hairs matter.”

    Actually, when it comes to politics -and I would say also areas like religion or picking our spouses- I believe it doesn’t. Most people choose their politics not making painstakingly detailed analyses of policy proposals but on impressions. That’s true even among our intellectual elite. The term “Obamagasm” was coined to describe the irrational pleasant experience many Obama supporters felt about anything Obama uttered, no matter how absurd the utterance was. Obamagasms were as common among the low educated Obama voters as among the highly educated Obama voters. I for one don’t believe that the result of the 2008 election would have been different had most Obama voters known that it was the Democrats who controlled congress on election in 2008. I don’t believe either that Romney stood a chance against Obama in 2012 because he -Romney- just wasn’t likable enough even among people who agreed with him on policy matters. Nor do I believe that in a Trump v Clinton election and given the dynamics of what was going on in the middle of the country -that Breitbart conveyed better than the NY Times- Hillary Clinton would have won the election without the influence of the Russian trolls. Remove uber-blue California from the popular vote count and Trump got an overwhelming win among those voters too (even including very blue states like Washington, Oregon and those in New England).

    In short. There is a reason why academia is also known as “the ivory tower”. The real world is not an academic exercise. It is messy and chaotic and there are many reasons why people vote the way they do that cannot be measured via studies that assume voters are robots.

  204. Scott Says:

    Prussian #198/199: Thanks; your comments provide much food for thought! I appreciate, in particular, how you based your arguments not on Randian ideology but on history, your experiences, and other starting points that I and other readers here can more easily work with.

    I might or might not have something more intelligent to say later, but for now, two quick things:

    (1) When I called the processes of the Enlightenment “more robust than Rand and Peikoff give them credit for,” I didn’t mean they were robust to everything. What do you take me for, some sort of Deutschian/Pinkerian optimist? 🙂 We’ve learned, in particular, that the processes are highly vulnerable to thugs, autocrats, conspiracy theories (what’s now called “fake news”), violence and the threat of it, and even the use of shame to silence debate. I’m just skeptical that they’re so paper-thin as to blow over because some philosopher distinguishes a “noumenal” from a “phenomenal” world. 🙂 This probably means that I see a more limited role than Rand does for the more technical parts of philosophy in shaping the course of human civilization: so be it.

    (2) In your linked essay, you write:

      Notice that this condemnation [of Rand] is always absolute. It’s never “Well, she had a few good ideas, but…” Or “I can see where she was coming from, but…”. It is always absolute, utter condemnation.

    No doubt this is true of many of her critics, but I think my own criticism of her is a pretty clear counterexample! (E.g., I said that her model of the evil of collectivism seems to apply pretty well both to the former Soviet Union and to the average American high school…)

    In any case, whatever else one says about it, I don’t think a woman who wore a gold dollar-sign brooch, wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and gave a talk in 1961 called “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” was trying to live her life so as to minimize the anger of her critics, beyond whatever was absolutely necessary for getting across her points. 🙂

  205. Steve Silverman Says:

    “oy, that we should only survive so long to see the AI-bots become our worst problem!”
    Great adage Scott.

    Where you are depressed by the impending environmental state, being over 80 I’m depressed that I may miss the most spectacular consequences.

  206. Prussian Says:

    @Scott, thank you, that’s awfully sweet. Allow me to return the compliment – it is incredibly refreshing to have an honest, respectful exchange about important ideas. Almost as though we weren’t on the internet…

    Just to pick up some things,

    I’m just skeptical that they’re so paper-thin as to blow over because some philosopher distinguishes a “noumenal” from a “phenomenal” world.

    Okay, but is that really so hard to believe? After all, things written down in books like the Bible and Koran change our world forever. Francis Bacon putting down the nutty idea of the scientific method ended with us walking on the moon and seeing the inside of cells and the structure of the universe. Locke droning on about tolerance changed how we interacted forever. Is it so hard to imagine that one writer & his disciples could do the reverse, spread the Unlightenment?

    The key point is “and his disciples”. If Kant had been some crank, no one would ever have bothered with him. It is precisely because he was so highly regarded, that his work spread and inspired more and more people to undo and reverse the great work of the Enlightenment; because no one was able to call out and refute the basic intellectual trap at the center of his system. Even today, you see his influence everywhere, and enmeshed in every brand of unreason. In my ill spent you, I messed around with Crowleyanism and Crowley makes explicitly Kantian arguments as to why mysticism is real. And mysticism isn’t just hippy crystal gazers; probably the most influential mystic in Europe was Julius Evola, still a fascist guru to this day.

    Another example of the amount of damage one writer can do would be Rousseau. The great tragedy and the undoing of the French Revolution was his influence, the one philosophe derided by all the others as trying to undo their work (which he was). The French revolution had so much going for it – it was right on women’s rights, right on the evils of feudalism and superstition, right on abolishing slavery, and it all came undone, because people like Robespierre took their marching orders from Rousseau’s demented “social contract”. What a waste.

    The two essays of Rand’s I’d recommend to everyone are Philosophy: Who Needs It and Philosophical Detection. Those make, better than anything I’ve ever seen, the case for philosophy as such. Not for Rand’s philosophy, but just that philosophy is of life and death importance.

    I appreciate, in particular, how you based your arguments not on Randian ideology but on history, your experiences, and other starting points that I and other readers here can more easily work with

    Again, glad that I’ve been so successful at that. Rand famously said she wasn’t a “Randian”. Objectivism always emphasizes life on this earth; one of the most powerful sections of Atlas is the parable of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, how it showed how “From each according to ability, to each according to their needs” would work in practice. What it’d mean for me and you and people we know.

    No doubt this is true of many of her critics, but I think my own criticism of her is a pretty clear counterexample! (E.g., I said that her model of the evil of collectivism seems to apply pretty well both to the former Soviet Union and to the average American high school…)

    Fair enough 🙂 I was mainly responding in that essay to the reaction to a previous one. I’ve been tussling with neo-fascists and racialists since long before they were even called the AltRight, since when they were a bunch of obscure French intellectuals called the nouvelle droite (see links below). Anyway, I knocked out two thousand words warning about the danger of how intellectually seductive it can be, and had a fifteen word aside that it’s thanks to my education by Rand that I resisted it – and people went bananas.

    In any case, whatever else one says about it, I don’t think a woman who wore a gold dollar-sign brooch, wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and gave a talk in 1961 called “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” was trying to live her life so as to minimize the anger of her critics, beyond whatever was absolutely necessary for getting across her points. 🙂

    She never backed down and never compromised a point that she thought was worth saying. It is one of the things we love about her 🙂

    Anyway, the post that spawned this exchange:
    https://www.skepticink.com/prussian/2015/04/11/the-perils-of-p-z/
    And me droning on about the nouvelle droite:

    https://www.skepticink.com/prussian/2012/10/18/are-american-atheists-crybabies/

  207. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Joshua,

    I just came back home from watching the movie https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chappaquiddick_(film) . Politics aside, I liked it very much. As you can see in the Wikipedia page, it has received high marks from critics.

    The real life events that the movie dramatizes are pertinent to this,

    “Most people choose their politics not making painstakingly detailed analyses of policy proposals but on impressions. That’s true even among our intellectual elite. ”

    Leaving aside the fact that very likely a regular Joe involved in the same facts as Ted Kennedy was would have not been let go as easily and would -at the very minimum- have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the Massachusetts voters kept him in power for 47 years in spite of the incident.

    This notion that voters are rational actors that make voting choices according to well defined rational criteria is a fantasy. Thus, studies like the ones you mentioned or the poll on Obama voters that John Ziegler commissioned in 2008 are absolutely meaningless when it comes to predicting how people would have voted had they been more informed on certain issues. Human subjectivity cannot be captured by polls or quantitative studies. In fact, I contend that we, humans, make our most important personal decisions based on subjective factors, not objective factors that can be quantitatively assessed.

  208. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Prussian #206:

    Fine.

    Don’t try beyond that.

    Two reasons: (i) People want to “save your own ass” first, in their “practically given” life “as is,” and if the need be, also prefer to outsource all their troubles to the third world (praising and uplifting some of the latter ones being a part and parcel of the said business), and (ii) Ms. Rand didn’t think a lot about the idea of that metaphysical existent which is the individual “soul,” though, that is what the accumulated wisdom of mankind would have tried to get across to her, but she wasn’t, apparently, listening. Yes, she had had the intellectual powers such that she could have easily enlightened us about this topic too, using her unique gifts. May be. May be, that would have been so.

    But the fact of the matter is: she didn’t.

    Happens. People are capable of resisting the incoming flow of the past wisdom, if from certain “other” quarters. There. Full stop.

    In a way, what I want to say is that you are arguing to none, and realize that. (Else, you could’ve had a personal communication with the people who really spoke back to you, too, wouldn’t you?)

    Anyway, I don’t want to pursue this far more. The exercise is, I realize, point-less. [That is, for me.]

    Best to you (but can’t believe that in your youth, you worried about biology, and not about mathematics, let alone about physics, or, engineering!).

    Alright. Full stop.

    Best,

    –Ajit

  209. Prussian Says:

    @Ajit,

    I’m sorry, but – I’ve read that post 3 times, and I have no idea, none whatsoever, what you are talking about. I mean:

    In a way, what I want to say is that you are arguing to none, and realize that. (Else, you could’ve had a personal communication with the people who really spoke back to you, too, wouldn’t you?)

    I can read this, re-read it, write it down and put it on the ceiling and stare at it and I still have no idea what you’re trying to say.

    @gatekeeper, yeah, there’s a very interesting discussion on the role that protestant dissenters played in the development of America. You can find it in Lee Harris’ The Suicide of Reason another book I cannot recommend too highly.

  210. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Dear Prussian # 208:

    Well I wrote that comment too late in the night, and in part for that reason, also too hurriedly. Sorry it didn’t come out right.

    Well, I had rapidly browsed through your comments here on this thread, and the way you pointed out how Kant, by just “limiting” reason, so effectively comes to put that proverbial wedge into the wall (of reason). I found your expression neat!

    But then I also thought: An argument like that requires an audience that has already had some prior preparations on matters of this nature. There is a certain skill involved in separating the logic of a philosophic point or an argument, and taking it all the way down to its logical completion. Most people don’t have that kind of a preparation. Not just in relation to Kant, but also in relation to most any other philosopher. Now, when you speak to an audience that hasn’t developed this particular skill, your argument effectively ceases to be an argument to them; it de-facto becomes more or less just a string of words.

    After going through a (relatively easier to understand) philosopher like Ayn Rand (and also a few others), it’s easy to begin to think that you can now talk to a philosophic layman and still get your points across to them. No, an eventual agreement is not under the scanner here. The point is: whether you are at all able to get the points across, or not.

    And, in my observation, no matter how much you simplify, unless there is an adequate preparation on the listener’s part, getting the point across is not going to happen.

    So, effectively, the result is the same as if you were arguing with no one. Not because of your fault or even theirs, but simply because of the reason that for certain deepest or most abstract matters, especially those involving epistemology, people typically haven’t ever pursued thoughts of that nature ever in their life before, that’s why.

    A good epistemologist may not always be a good programmer, and a good programmer may not be always a good mathematician or a good physicist, even if they all deal with high-level abstractions very skillfully all the time—but only of that particular kind.

    In my experience, smart people can usually get points related to metaphysics and morality, even if they don’t have much prior philosophic preparation. But not epistemology, even if they are smart. And, criticizing Kant (i.e., actually, just exposing his philosophy), unlike others, depends heavily on epistemological ideas.

    So, that’s what I had in my mind when I said: you are arguing with none–not when the audience is like what Scott typically has on this blog.

    They might be smart. But most of their clock-cycles are spent on their own specialty, on research or professional work, and only then, if any cycles are still left, they might get spent on various other topics, including philosophy.

    I have found that even smart, attentive, and friendly people honestly trying to engage with an epistemological topic are not able to “get” it. For instance, consider Ayn Rand’s idea that concept formation is a process of measurement-omission.

    “Ah, a measurement!,” silently they might be thinking. “Like, taking a scale, and reading out a length, right? Or… Wait a minute! This guy is talking here about something that’s really deep, right? So, it must involve some connection or the other to that thermometer effect: how the act of measurement changes the thing being measured itself. Yes! It must be that. OK. … Hmm… Now what does this guy say? What does he mean when he asks me to “omit” the measurement? What’s the point of taking a measurement if I am going to omit it? What is then at all left? Does he know what he is talking about?”

    If that’s the train of thought (or a “movie” in Scott “Dilbert Comics” Adam’s words) running at the back of their mind, how could you get your point across? What if they are going to confuse the notion of the set with the notion of concept for at least the first month after you begin talking about concept-formation with them?

    Metaphysics, and to the extent they at all are concerned, morality, is easier to discuss. Not epistemology.

    The reason why Kant remains so respected is that to really get to understand him is to “get” his epistemology. And, people haven’t been doing much epistemological thinking beforehand, to be able to get Kant for what he is, qua philosopher.

    And then, there is another, related issue. I have found people appreciate, even admire, the name “Kant” simply by reading something about how simple a professor he was in his daily life, how much attention to detail he provided even in minor issues like how many friends should there be at a dinner table, etc. They feel good about him.

    So, as soon as you say something like “Kant didn’t destroy Reason by directly attacking it; he did merely by making it superfluous,” they are going to think: “Oh, but Kant does seem to happily embrace Reason, not just Religion like all those Mystics, and then, obviously, just to get these two happily sitting together at the nice dinner-table, he requests Reason to share a bit of a space. What’s wrong with that? And couldn’t you count on Reason to be gentlemanly enough to be able to graciously do that?”

    It would be an unrealistically long trek from there to showing why Rand might have regarded him as her philosophic enemy # 1.

    Ok. Thanks for asking me to clarify, even if, in my response, as usual, I ended up writing at least 4–5 times more than what would be proper (and at least 8–10 times more than what I had initially intended to! (And I am being honest here!!))

    OK, bye for now, really…

    Best,

    –Ajit

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