SEP 14, 2021 12:00 AM PDT

This is your brain on doom: Steven Pinker's New Book on Rational and Irrational Societies


Long ago, Plato argued that each of us does what we think is best for us. The problem, of course, is that we might very well be wrong. In fact, Plato thought we are typically not rational enough to grasp what really is best for us. The results of this failure, he held, can be catastrophic. Just consider what Athens’ democracy did to Plato’s beloved teacher, Socrates. Charged, convicted, and executed for corrupting the youth and (what amounts to) atheism, Socrates’s activities made people uncomfortable enough to warrant killing him. One could argue that it was the collective irrationality of Athenian citizens that led to Socrates’s unjust demise.

Since Plato’s time, events around the globe suggest the struggle between rationality and irrationality continues. For example, despite remarkable scientific achievements, many societies resist what seem to be practically self-evident truths anyone can uncover with a modicum of critical thinking skills. In his new book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, Harvard cognitive psychologist and linguist, Steven Pinker, focuses on ways a society can become corrupted, or less rational. But he does more than mount a critique. Pinker offers some solutions. For example, public discourse should proceed in a way vaguely reminiscent of what we now call the Socratic method: Claims are subjected to careful examination, and, as Pinker asserts in a New York Times interview, “the person with the strongest position prevails.”

While Plato was a committed rationalist who argued for the view that knowledge is tied to an otherworldly realm of immaterial Forms, Pinker’s view of rationality is firmly rooted in empiricism. What typified Socratic dialectic was conceptual analysis and argumentation, while Pinker situates such inquiry in the context of our existing body of scientific knowledge. This is no small point, since both Socrates and Pinker are concerned with the requirements for a good life. In Socrates’s view, a proper understanding of ethical concepts such as friendship, courage, justice, and virtue, will generate the sort of character capable of the good life. In Pinker’s view, the tools for such a life, both at the individual and societal level, are more extensive.

Moreover, Pinker disconnects values from both rationality and irrationality. “Ultimately,” he asserts, “our values are neither rational nor irrational.” Instead, they’re somewhere in the domain of consensus. “If everyone agrees that fairness is a value,” he says in the Times interview, “[and] education and health and happiness and long life are values, then you could prosecute moral arguments by saying that a particular position is inconsistent with other values that the arguer may hold.” That said, to the extent that consistency is an important component of a given set of beliefs, logic is at work, and so guides the development of values.

What both Plato and Pinker have in common, however, is the view that wrong beliefs can lead to the sort of irrationality that generates deep unhappiness, both at the individual and societal levels. Conspiracy thinking, for example, resists the demands of consistency, accuracy, and truth — all of which are important to a well-functioning society. In Pinker’s view, however, all is not doomed. Indeed, to believe it is, he thinks, is to be irrational. Pointing to statistics, Pinker says random events group together, so it’s not surprising that crises cluster. That, in other words, is the rational explanation, which does not support the inference to doom.

So, why is a cognitive psychologist and linguist (once again) nosing around in the philosopher’s domain? Well, for one thing, the distinction between disciplines is arbitrary — useful, to be sure, but not somehow in the nature of things. Someone with a generally curious mind is likely going to roam across multiple disciplines, particularly where there is an obvious overlap, as in the case of Pinker’s research interests in psycholinguistics and social relations. For another, Pinker’s general education course at Harvard, “Rationality,” covers a cross-section of topics that overlap with philosophy. So, it’s fair to say that the fact Pinker’s status as a scientist does not prevent him from paying close attention to important issues of, for example, methodology. Consider, by analogy, the physicist who doesn’t just use math, but also thinks about the role math plays in the science itself. In his course, Pinker shows students the powerful concepts and intellectual tools that drive any scientific endeavor forward. In his book he expands the scope of the domain to include everyone in a society. Finally, philosophy, as the “mother discipline” that birthed thinkers, like David Hume, whose “science of mind” deeply influenced the discipline that became psychology, tends to be interesting to those wanting to think about the role of reason in society.


Sources: M.I.T. Internet Archives, New York Times, Penguin Random House,, Steven Pinker’s Spring 2020 Course, “Rationality”

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I am a philosophy professor and writer with a broad range of research interests.
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