Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Meliorism

One of the most frustrating scientific writers for me has been Steven Pinker. I concur with him in that he is a proponent of the scientific method and is critical of intellectuals as a group, particularly the anti-scientific ones in the humanities, but he then goes on to make uninformed pronouncements, like a reigning king to his court, with congratulatory pats on the back from his friend, Bill Gates. His latest book, Enlightenment Now, argues that we are following a trend that started with the Enlightenment, in which the world has gradually become a better place, and that doomsayers are too pessimistic, given the empirical data showing continuous improvements in the human condition. It is difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of Pinker's views from reviews, which are inconsistent, but his main argument, insofar as I can make one out, seems inadequate. In any case, I'm not going to read this book, because I see no evidence that I would find it either informative or persuasive. Therefore, as I have done with fiction that I dislike, I will discuss Pinker at arm's length, mostly as a launching point to clarify my own perspective, which doesn't seem to match Pinker's or most of his critics'.

It is undeniable that many statistics seem to support Pinker's main thesis: people live longer, technology has made life easier, food is relatively plentiful, educational levels are higher, etc. There is a lot of truth to meliorism, the idea that the human condition can be improved by our efforts. This term may not exactly match Pinker's view, but it seems to approximate it. George Eliot used the word "meliorist" to describe herself. She was neither an optimist nor a pessimist, which is a suitable position for a realist. In the mid-nineteenth century, intellectuals were tossing around various versions of positivism, including that of Auguste Comte, and meliorism became her chosen point of view. However, Pinker seems to have concocted a rather brash argument, and there are three main caveats that I offer here: first, happiness can't be quantified outside a specific cultural context; second, the concept of "better," when applied to the human condition, is not necessarily meaningful within a Darwinian framework; and third, so-called improvements could abruptly evaporate at any time due to unfavorable circumstances.

From time to time I have wondered how people would react if you transported them from the past to the present. Those from the near past, say, 1800, might be able to absorb some of the advantages now available, but they would still have to make adjustments, which could be stressful, in much the same way that it is for immigrants currently arriving in the U.S. from less-developed countries. In their case, they would probably agree that they had made progress, but they would probably still feel somewhat uncomfortable in their new environment and not see themselves as fully integrated with American society. It is not uncommon for immigrants to return home when they have the opportunity. Those from the distant past, say, fifteen thousand years ago, would be bewildered, and might not be able to adapt at all. In their case, one can't make facile judgments about their happiness. If they were happy wandering through the forest, hunting prey, picking nuts and berries and living in temporary shelters, they would be objectively happy, and if they were unhappy living in an apartment in a city, working in a factory and obtaining their food from the local Kroger, they would be objectively unhappy. If they didn't care whether they lived to be eighty instead of forty, they might not see any benefit to increased longevity. I don't think that Pinker recognizes that happiness is relative, which means that it cannot be viewed independently from the values within individual cultures. He seems to engage in a form of cultural imperialism when he says that those who live in the developed world now are happier than those who lived in earlier times.

This criticism relates to the second criticism, in which evolution is understood not as a directed process but as a random process with no teleological aim. Though Pinker seems to avoid teleological language, the concept may lurk in his ideas. From a Darwinian point of view, life on earth is usually perfect, because the life forms that exist during any time period are the ones best adapted to the existing environment as long as it is relatively stable. Once you state that there is a process in place leading to a specific outcome, you open the door to religious interpretations, such as the presence of an "invisible hand" which guides humans toward future perfection. Given what we know of evolution, ideas like that are absurd. In a strict Darwinian sense, the main thing that has happened since the beginning of the Enlightenment is increased reproductive success among humans, which has caused the world population to grow from about one billion in 1800 to about 7.6 billion today. While this does ostensibly appear beneficial to humans, it has been accompanied by planet-wide environmental changes which are precipitating climate change and mass extinctions of other species, and I'm not sure just how wonderful population growth has been. Pinker also ignores what I call radical Darwinism, in which moral behavior, rather than indicating an advancement of modern humans over earlier ones, is itself an arbitrary evolutionary adaptation which could disappear just as fast as it arose. It seems plausible that, like many thinkers in the humanities, Pinker has unwittingly absorbed a somewhat theological position, in which morality is seen to exist outside nature, as if placed there by God. That is hardly a position that can be supported by empirical data.

My third criticism is that Pinker doesn't know where this all leads. Apparently, he isn't familiar with the phrase "Past performance is no guarantee of future results," which applies not only to investments but to almost everything other than laws of nature. Even with many signs pointing in a positive direction for mankind, there are multiple events that could change the apparent trajectory, and although Pinker may address some of them in his book, the fact is that no one, including Pinker, is sufficiently omniscient to avert all possible future disasters. I find him ignorant and arrogant in his assertion that existential risk is a "useless category," and there are certainly many academics who would agree with me.

Besides the above, I am disappointed with Pinker in that, like other psychologists I've critiqued on this blog, he seems not to apply recent research on cognitive limitations to himself or his peers. The evidence is now incontrovertible that we don't think clearly, are poor at processing large amounts of information, don't individually know much and often engage in impulsive, irrational behavior, which we can't escape because of our biological provenance. In particular, psychologists act as if they are immune to confirmation bias. Like Daniel Kahneman, Pinker seems to think that, although most people are subject to various cognitive dysfunctions, the smartest people somehow escape them, or at least are able to work around them. Beyond the fact that they are deluding themselves, they are lending support to the existence of an elite, competent class which includes them. Enlightenment Now is music to the ears of people like Bill Gates, who love the idea that they are improving the future of mankind through their philanthropic work. But are they? Although everyone would agree that Bill Gates is a pretty smart guy, how smart is he? As a distant observer, I see no evidence that Gates has any particular talent beyond coding and building a software monopoly. If he had never been born, we would still have PC's, the differences being that Microsoft probably wouldn't exist and there would probably be no operating system called Windows. Gates's main skill seems to have been to recognize a business opportunity and capitalize on it. To be sure, that was a difficult and complex task, but it seems likely that Gates is significantly less competent in other areas. The same goes for Steven Pinker outside the field of cognitive psychology. Thus, when Gates and Pinker team up, one ought to be wary of their self-congratulatory tone, which, finally, is little more than self-approving hype. I have no objection to the modest, balanced meliorism suggested by George Eliot, which accords well with my understanding of eusociality, but I become skeptical when others use similar ideas to inflate their stature.

4 comments:

  1. Be(lieve) in the verified good (and the verified better, meliorism, with George Eliot) in the world. Finite Terrian Paradise needs systemic, prepared protectivity. Let us stop global toxigangsterisms, official and paraofficial, with peace and justice. One mirable Terra-Family-Ship, one finite Time, one ecosociable Peace.

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  2. I think we agree – though I can do without most "isms."

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  3. I reject the faint praise given Pinker&Gates..... both are dangerous if not deadly perpetrators in the global exploitation "economy" both are incompetent invaders into the complex healthcare industry.... in short ...Gates & Pinker are "toxigangsters" tipi

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  4. Your point is well taken. It is fairly clear that their actions and statements have been primarily in their best interests. Actually, that is normal. The reason why I limit my criticism of them is that you have to consider the alternatives. Gates is a highly successful tech guy and Pinker is a highly successful cognitive science guy. In my view, the future is AI, which, for me, has the potential to remove personal interests from national and international decision-making. Gates, at least, has some competence in that area, and, in the long run, that kind of knowledge is going to be far more useful than the idiotic political nonsense that we still have to put up with. Even if Gates gets richer or more famous in the process, it will probably still be worth it.

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