26 February 2008

The apologist as hero

Steven Pinker has become a bit of a hero for those not entirely seduced by the mediocratic project. He is perhaps the only prominent academic prepared to trumpet the idea that ability is at least partly inherited. This idea has, apparently, become highly controversial, a fact which a visiting Martian might find rather bizarre. When the Financial Times reviewed The Blank Slate, it treated* Pinker as some kind of firebrand radical, referring to his "dangerous work", and that it "would be best if it didn't get into the hands of those who would use it to terrifying ends".

While it's nice that it's still possible — in the US, that is — to receive a university salary while saying things that are at odds with the il-liberal** consensus, perhaps one shouldn't get too carried away. Pinker is effectively writing as an apologist from an ideological context in which denial of the blank slate is supposed to invoke the horrors of Nazism. (Curiously, assertion of it is not supposed to invoke the horrors of Stalinism or Maoism.)

To be acceptable as an academic, and sell his books, he needs to caveat his remarks and do a certain amount of soft-pedalling. Here, for example, from The Blank Slate:
The politics of economic inequality ultimately hinge on a tradeoff between economic freedom and economic equality. Though scientists cannot dictate how these desiderata should be weighted, they can help assess the morally relevant costs and thereby enable us to make a more informed decision. (p.304)
To say that 'we' can be helped to assess the morally relevant costs for other people, as Pinker here seems to be suggesting, effectively means subscribing to a theory that politics should be about deciding what is best for others. A shame that Pinker doesn't try to analyse this theory, rather than simply assuming it.
... if people's sense of well-being comes from an assessment of their social status, and social status is relative, then extreme inequality can make people on the lower rungs feel defeated even if they are better off than most of humanity ... The medical researcher Richard Wilkinson, who documented these patterns, argues that low status triggers an ancient stress reaction ... Wilkinson argues that reducing economic inequality would make millions of lives happier, safer, and longer. (ibid)
An example of pseudo-rationality: in this case, an incomplete analysis that looks cogent but is actually biased. What it leaves out is (a) that we can only reduce ex post (= after the event) inequality by changing the rules of the game, and (b) that this is certain to have its own associated costs, which are left out of the equation. The need to compete for status is no less likely to be an important human drive than the need for status itself. If you make it harder for people to win, that may also generate stress. While there is plenty of research purporting to show the stressful effects of inequality, I doubt there is much (if any) looking into the stressful effects of intervention, restrictions, red tape, or deselection on ideological grounds (the flip-side of affirmative action).

* * * * *

Pinker, like Noam Chomsky, has some interesting things to say about the relationship between mental activity and social convention — another highly politicised topic. The review of Pinker's latest book, The Stuff of Thought, generated some revealing comments. English professor John Carey claimed that Pinker
has no truck with the idea that the language we speak makes it impossible to think certain thoughts, a belief put about by, among others, Nietzsche (“the prison house of language”) and Wittgenstein (“the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”).
Whether Nietzsche should be identified with the Wittgensteinian view of language is doubtful. Scepticism about the limits of language is not the same as a dogmatic assertion that certain problems are beyond the bounds of analysis.
Pinker hoped he had killed this idea off in his previous book The Language Instinct, and is disappointed to find it still around. But its survival is no surprise. We like to feel we are the victims of a disadvantage.
Now as an explanation of why the constrained-by-language theory has proved popular, this seems unconvincing. More plausibly, the theory has appealed for the same reason that the blank-slate theory did: it generates a reductionist model of the individual. A model of the individual as a somewhat irrational robot, deceived about its own mental capabilities, is in turn appealing to many because it seems to legitimate interference by governments and 'experts'.

Journalist Bryan Appleyard interviewed Pinker in the same issue of the Sunday Times as Carey's review. Commenting on the blank-slate orthodoxy, he noted that
Curiously, it was a man now known primarily for his extreme left-wing views who first began to undermine this orthodoxy ... the linguist Noam Chomsky ... For some reason, Chomsky was not, in general, anathematised by students and the left.
"Curious" — that someone overtly left wing should receive less criticism for the same theory than someone politically neutral? Interestingly, Appleyard quotes Pinker taking an apparently contradictory view on the question of whether we are constrained by our mental apparatus.
he admits there may be one final problem, a problem often referred to as “the hard problem” by philosophers. “There may be problems that lie outside the space of thinkable thoughts, and the hard problem of consciousness may be one of them. I very much like the argument of Colin McGinn [a British philosopher] that there may be an academic discipline of problems the human brain is incapable of solving. It could be called philosophy.”
Again, a distinction needs to be drawn between awareness of the possible limitations of analysis, and the assertion that those analyses are doomed to failure. Mediocratic philosophy is characterised by a certain defeatism which was first observed in the later Wittgenstein: a demand that philosophical problems should go away, and leave us alone. Richard Rorty was another academic philosopher in the same line as Wittgenstein and McGinn, arguing that a "post-philosophical culture"
would contain nobody called ‘Philosopher’ who could explain why certain areas of culture enjoyed a special relation to reality.
As I wrote in the book: real analysis cannot be helpful to mediocracy given that it is predicated on deception. This, presumably, is part of the reason why we see a desire for capitulation in mediocratic philosophy, and why certain philosophers compete in their eagerness to announce that the quest for philosophical knowledge is doomed to failure.

* see second section
** see last Q&A