Saturday, March 22, 2014

Steven Pinker & Rebecca Goldstein: The long reach of reason


  1. Have these thinkers, who champion moral reason and progress, ever heard of the Holocaust?

  2. At 2:30, Goldstein makes a false statement which underpins her argument and hence Pinker's signing on to it:

    "You need two conditions: The first is that reasoners all care about their own well-being. That's one of the passions that has to be present in order for reason to go to work, and it's obviously present in all of us. We all care passionately about our own well-being. The second condition is that reasoners are members of a community of reasoners who can affect one another's well-being, can exchange messages, and comprehend each other's reasoning. And that's certainly true of our gregarious and loquatious [sic.] species, well endowed with the instinct for language."

    She falsely limits "self interest" to material things. Given the right inputs, logic can lead a person to conclude that it serves his TRUE self interest to strap on an explosive vest and head for a crowd.

    She partially mitigates this when she later cites our discomfort with logical inconsistency as motivating us to expand our moral horizons.

    GIGO. And Goldstein disparages any religious impulse inconsistent with her logic.

    A more interesting approach seems to be that of Joshua Greene in "Moral Tribes." I just started in on it, but based on reviews he seems to be addressing the tension between our basic wiring which seems to be tribal, and which is reinforced by us vs them, and our ability to feel higher, moral affinities.

    I bought the book because it seems to me that our Mesorah recognizes that tension and provides means to make constructive use of it. I'm curious to see how Greene develops his thesis.

  3. Hmm, kind of tries to put religion on the ropes.

    1. neither of them has a high opinion of religion. Pinker lost his faith by 12 and Rebecca was a Beis Yaakov girl who went off the derech after identifying with Spinoza.

      Nonetheless the ideas expressed here are important. Especially the observations that the idea that slavery was bad led to the idea that wifebeating was bad which led to the idea that cruelty to children was bad etc. In other words the tolerant attitude we have today - its good and bad points - is part of a slippery slope of empathy to the rejection and pain of others.

    2. Some animals seem capable of logic, making our ability to reason a distinction of degree rather than kind. But within Judaism, both rationalists and mystics understand there to be higher faculties than logic. If this be so, the implication is that to be truly human includes the animal faculties but is supposed to transcend them.

      Doing so is, while simple and accessible to all, not necessarily easy (it is my experience that most expositors of the Tanya greatly underestimate the power and scope of the נפש הבהמית – considering logic to be a faculty of the נפש אלוקית, for example.)

      And the Torah gives us bounds to our compassion and empathy; for example, setting limits – both lower and upper – on what we give others.

      Neither actually believes in any higher means than reason, so "convincing" Pinker was guaranteed. His initial statement was merely setting up a straw man. The whole set piece is petitio principii; both of them are smart enough to know it so the whole thing is disgustingly dishonest.

      Both seem like proof of the wisdom of William F. Buckley's famous quip: "I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University."

  4. So is empathy good or bad? It leads to care for others, but sometimes more than the Torah advocates such as animal rights and slavery, and often against what the Torah says leading to the dictum: Religion makes good people do bad things.

  5. I think the Pinker-Goldstein dialogue is an example of a false dichotomy, where NEITHER of the two choices are valid.

    Emoyion is obviously prone to all sorts of manipulations.

    However, the "reason" that Goldstein advocates for is hardly better, since it is in itself based on emotion, thus invalidating it.

    At about 3:00 she proposes two safeguards, which Yoel quoted earlier. Neither of them offer a satisfactory. First she assumes that a passion for personal wellbeing will bring good reasoning skills.

    That's pure rubbish - as evidenced by the poor choices MOST people make concerning health/lifestyle/finances. This his been extensively documented in the literature.

    Additionaly, קנאה תאוה וכבוד can and often do drive people to see their wellbeing as dependent on another persons downfall. Yitzi's example of the hatred that drove the Holocaust could be included here, as can Yoel's example of the terrorists motivation to blow himself up.

    Additionally, many times such reasoning is quite rational - as in the the case of conflict based on scarce resources - which is often the cause of wars.

    In #2 Goldstein assumes that a community of "reasoners" will somehow self-correct. The dialogue is obviously staged, otherwise even a high school student could notice the fallacy behind this - once #1 is dissected:

    The self-correcting "group" would need to be made up of either A) "insiders - who share much of the same biases mentioned in the rebuttal of #1, or B) "outsiders", whose self-interest conflicts (or is perceived to conflict) with the "insiders" groups, and is therefore discredited in the reasoning process.

    At about 11:30 she seems to finally propose her "holy grail", based on Locke: People should not be subject to the "inconsistent, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of other people. Only "rule of nature" should be the ultimate decisor, as based on legislature - which I'm assuming is based on majority rule.

    And what happens if majority rule is in itself based on emotion? The solution Goldstein proposes hardly solves the problem of irrational emotion.

    So what's her solution? Another arbitarary

  6. The ONLY true solution, is - as Yoel mentions - "he Torah gives us bounds to our compassion and empathy; for example, setting limits – both lower and upper – on what we give others".

    The Chovos Halvovos states that the FIRST (of seven) reasons) why Torah is necessary and reason (as in שכל) is insufficient is SPECIFICALLY for this purpose: To MEDIATE between reason and emotion (as in תאוה).

    This from שער עבודת אלקים פ"ג:
    כי האדם מחובר מנפש וגוף. ובמידותיו מה שיביאהו להתמסר להנאות ולשקוע בתאוות הבהמיות, ולנתק קשר השכל מעליו. ויש בו מידות שיביאוהו למאוס בעולם ולהניח ישובו מפני התהפכות ענייניו בו והתמדת הפגעים והיגונות עליו, ולנטות אל עולם השכל העליון. ושתי העצות אינם משובחות. מפני שהאחת מביאה להפסדת סדר העולם, והשנית מביאה להפסדת עניני האדם בעולם הזה ובבא. ומחמלת הבורא יתעלה ועוצם טובתו על האדם, שחננו מה שיתקן בו ענייניו ויכונו בו דרכיו בשני העולמים בסדר אמצעי בין השכל והתאווה, והיא התורה הנאמנה, השומרת הצדק הגלוי והנסתר, שנותנת לאדם חלק מתאוותיו בעולם הזה, ושומרת לו גמולו באחריתו. כמו שאמר הכתוב (משלי כב) הט אזנך ושמע דברי חכמים וגו'. כי נעים כי תשמרם בבטנך וגו' להיות בה' מבטחך הודעתיך וגו'. הלא כתבתי לך שלישים במועצות ודעת, להודיעך קשט אמרי אמת להשיב אמרים אמת לשלחיך:

    Yoel won't find any valid solution in reading Joshua Greene's "Moral Tribes". The best Greene can do for such dilemmas is choose one subjective yardstick over another. Judging from the book's reviews, Greene goes for a utilitarian solution.

    We listen to Torah in mediating these dilemmas because of our unwavering belief that this is G-d's word, as based on the fact that MILLIONS of people witnessed מעמד הר סיני and אין אדם מוריש שקר לבניו.

    What's my main point? We have two non-believing, quite intelligent Jews searching in the dark, for answers to unanswerable questions.

  7. In my humble opinion the dialogue suffers from many other inexcusable errors, but I'm not sure it's worth spending too much time on.

    Here are just a few vignettes:

    At about 1:45 Pinker makes the false claim that psychologists have "shown" that we're lead by our bodies & emotions - the old pre-destination argument. Curiously, Goldstein doesn't rebut it directly (she only throws a "curve-ball" by claiming that he can't use reasoning to disprove reasoning).

    The good professor should google "positive neuroplasticity" and he'll come across the work of Schwartz et al., Baxter, Porto et al, on how PET scans and fMRI scans have PROVEN that cognitive therapy corrects PHYSICAL abnormality in the brain. This isn't theory - but clear fact.

    At 7:30 Goldstein proposes that contradictions bother us and can therefore drive reason. She should interview some patients suffering from EgodystonicMI - where thoughts and behaviors (e.g., dreams, impulses, compulsions, desires, etc.) are in conflict, or dissonant, with the needs and goals of the ego, or, further, in conflict with a person's ideal self-image.

    Furthermore, while she says at 7:30 that contradictions bother us IF WE'RE FORCED TO CONFRONT THEM, she conveniently forgets that Locke's endorsement of only legislating "natural law", guarantees that we will NOT be forced to confront many of our errors in reasoning. Adam Smith at 6:30 talks about ignoring calamaties of an "out-group". Will she legislate empathy?

    Additionally, her admission that contradictions bother us ONLY IF IF WE'RE FORCED TO CONFRONT THEM actually STRENGTHENS the reason for harsh punishment in the context of criminal justice and child-raring, and would seem to argue in favor of corporal punishment of children, at least when they transgress "natural law".

    Like Yoel said: GIGO - garbage in garbage out. Can you imagine that over 250,000 people actually listened to this? Maybe they were sorry afterwards, or listened in order to rebut it, as I did. :)


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