Three years ago, philosopher Thomas Nagel published a book called Mind and Cosmos, for which he was immediately pilloried by mainstream intellectuals, and which The Guardian called the most despised science book of 2012. Psychologist Steven Pinker was among the intellectual coterie to criticize the work, taking to Twitter to lament "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker." Nagel made several controversial claims in his 2012 book, including the claim that if natural selection cannot account for curious features of the universe such as consciousness, moral values, and the human capacity for rational inquiry, then there must be some other mechanism that allows for these capacities, some hidden laws or forces that move in the direction for an improved moral and cognitive capacity. He dubs his perspective natural teleology.
Natural teleology (NT), the view that nature unfolds in a certain direction, is not widely accepted explicitly, but it is possible to discern a tendency toward this conviction among mainstream intellectuals. Most often, the view held by these intellectuals is that that the current time in which we live is the best of all periods and that our planet will be even more hospitable to conscious beings like ourselves in the future, thanks to our increased rational and moral capacities. NT is exemplified in any number of major works, including The Expanding Circle (1981), The Moral Landscape (2010), The Rational Optimist (2010), The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), and The Moral Arc (2015). Rather than believe God's invisible hand is guiding the universe, proponents of NT think that when we crunch the numbers, we find that human beings are becoming more intelligent and more moral all the time.
Immediately, there arise questions of value and of fact regarding the NT worldview, as well as certain logical questions about what implications to draw. Regarding the latter, suppose it is the case that intellectual capacity, as measured by IQ or the equivalent, is increasing. (As far as we know, this is correct, and is a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect.) Does it follow that our faculty for abstract reasoning will make the world any more livable? And since abstract reasoning is different than concrete reasoning (think of the difference between reasoning about an immediate situation as opposed to a hypothetical situation), it is conceivable that our intelligence will make us overconfident about the intuitions we already have about the world.
The intellectuals who profess NT presume themselves to have already won on questions of fact. Pinker's work The Better Angels of Our Nature, endorsed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO and philanthropist Bill Gates, was perhaps the most instrumental in making NT as a worldview palatable. The book establishes—through a series of quite impressive charts and graphs, and a litany of data—that, slice it any way you like, violence just looks to be declining. The trend seems to hold across millennia, centuries, and even down to the decade. Yet not long after the 2010 publication of his work, Pinker was accused of manipulating the data. Some of the contrary evidence has come out but has not been seriously addressed.
Take this graph of Pinker's, for example, which purports to show the per capita decline in violence over the second half of the 20th century. The long-term trend is apparent: large spikes in the 40s and 50s followed by ever smaller spikes down to our current century. Erik Kain in Forbes, however, found that the data set looks considerably different when we exclude the bloody early 40s, that is, minus the five armed conflicts that occurred the first decade of the second half of the 20th century. Now, what had previously looked like a signal of significant decline in violence looks an awful lot like noise. Kain goes on to show that Pinker's focus on per capita deaths attributed to war and armed conflict ignores the fact that the number of armed conflicts in the world has actually been increasing, even if the number of deaths per capita has been decreasing. We can return to questions of logic, asking whether something equivalent to the Flynn Effect exists for morality (whether we now have an increased moral capacity), and if so, if it follows that this capacity has actually led to an overall decline in violence and harm to other people in the real world. This has yet to be borne out. What is true is that the number of deaths per capita has decreased. However, if we assume, with anthropologist Brian Ferguson, that war and violence are fundamentally means by which elites (and in our world, state powers), gain control over material and social resources, there cannot be any other conclusion than that war and violence from pervasive political and economic powers have increased as scientific and technological innovations have provided more efficient means to control resources. That elites have not been able to kill larger numbers of people in the process because populations have grown so large, or because it's not necessary in order to gain access to world resources, is sort of a happy accident.
Turning to questions of value: Even if we all agreed with the data and assumed that these proponents of NT have relied upon appropriate metrics, it would still remain an open question as to whether we ought to accept the status quo that has brought about such great and wonderful changes in science, technology, and moral respect, or if we should actively push against it. The NT intellectuals are equivocal on this point. On the one hand, they have to acknowledge that several of the changes to our intellectual and moral culture have been brought about by pressing against prevailing norms with rational inquiry and social democracy. These independent thinkers, nonviolent resistors, women suffragists, African American civil rights protesters, and others, some of whom we call heroes, are all responsible for bringing about the rights we enjoy today. This much has to be granted by the NT intellectuals.
On the other hand, the NT intellectuals would prefer a moratorium on some of these moral issues. Glancing at Pinker's Twitter feed, for example, there is a link that reads, "Stop obsessing about inequality. It's actually decreasing around the world." And this is in spite of the fact that if you read the article Pinker retweets, its author Marian Tupy, a senior policy analyst for the Cato Institute, actually acknowledges that in America, "the income gap between the top 1 percent and the rest has grown." Yet he, and one assumes Pinker also, would prefer you look at the bigger picture, as though a decrease in income inequality worldwide should be enough to comfort a poor American living in a country with widening inequality. Standing with Pinker is the author Michael Shermer, who has just written The Moral Arc (which he regards as a kind of sequel to Pinker's book), and who has written of what he calls the pervasive myths of income inequality. Shermer assures us in a recent article that the "American Dream of Income Equality Still Lives." The data show otherwise.
The new tool of the mainstream intellectuals is data-mining that reinforces the way things already are while privileging the many ways in which people have worked to make things the way they are. This is a natural teleology that views Nature's arc as bent toward truth and justice, without a god overseeing any of it. The belief in NT functions to justify the status quo, and is no less silly (or perhaps more so) than the argument of 18th century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who believed that our world is, in spite of all apparent evil, the best of all possible worlds. Not even Thomas Nagel, whose natural teleology intellectuals like Pinker and Shermer inadvertently ape, believes that the direction of the universe tends toward goodness. Nagel wrote in Mind and Cosmos that since "the emergence of value is the emergence of both good and evil, it is not a candidate for a purely benign teleological explanation: a tendency toward the good. In fact, no teleological principle tending toward the production of a single outcome seems suitable." Perhaps it would have been better if mainstream intellectuals spent less time excoriating Nagel and more time minding that they not make similar mistakes, or worse.
Billie Pritchett is a writer and English lecturer with interests in moral and political philosophy, philosophy of social science, and phenomenology. He maintains his own blog called si hoc legere scis… and is on Twitter via @b_pritchett.
Cezary Baraniecki says
Great article Billie.
I’ve read some Harris, Pinker and Haidt and would agree with your assessment. It’s odd that in espousing the wonders of science and progress, they settle with the status quo.
I was bothered by the ease at which significant problems get swept aside by murky statistics and unconvincing scientific tests while others simply don’t get mentioned. The example you post, of violence going down, show just the kind of thing someone free of the threat of violence would like to read. Another I can think of from memory is Haidt’s book on morality which ends with an optimistic view of the status of our morality. Implicit in this is that the optimism is reserved for those fortunate few free of problems which still affect many. Also implicit is that we need not concern ourselves with the real political will required to address those problems as the flow of time seems to be addressing them at our behest.
Well stated. The other thing these new optimists ignore is the extent to which we have permanently decimated the biosphere. Scientists are now pretty confident that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction on this planet, due almost entirely to human behavior since the industrial revolution. War seems on the decline if you fudge the numbers a bit? That’s nice, but what about the potential for conflicts in the very near future because of dwindling resources that are already unfairly distributed and the continued exponential increase of the human population? Then there’s the fact that the world’s economic system is built on profit and 3% annual growth forever, while the people in charge of it have most politicians in their back pockets.
History can be quite cyclical, which shows that Pinker et al haven’t really learned from it if they think the progress made in the last 50 years is here to stay or predestined to occur by some natural law. Institutionalized slavery largely ended in the West with the fall of the Roman Empire, only to be reintroduced with the rise of capitalism and democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in a much cruder and more barbaric form. Germany witnessed a great cultural, scientific and intellectual flowering during the 19th century, only to bequeath Hitler to the world a generation later.
I also want to say that Christians more than anyone ought not to be duped by such shallow optimism, seeing as the Devil is the god of this world, as Paul says, and that we are all tainted by original sin. Whatever paradise existed before the fall no longer does and will not come again until after the final judgment. So a Christian optimist with respect to this world is a contradiction in terms.
Billie Pritchett says
Definitely climate change is another big threat, alongside state violence, poverty, and the decline of democracy. And regarding climate change, I wrote a book review which was very much focused on the upcoming disaster: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2015/05/04/saying-goodbye-to-spaceship-earth-a-review-of-sabine-hohlers-spaceship-earth-in-the-environmental-age-1960-1990/. After reading up on the subject, the future seems more bleak than I ever thought.
Lynda OReilly says
I’m with you, Billie. I’m confounded by Pinker’s ‘Better Angels’ and it’s advocates. Are they wearing the rose-tinted glasses of wealth or what? Warfare has gotten more efficient and doesn’t need to involve death any longer. Slick, sophisticated violence has gone underground and the masses are economically and intellectually crippled for profit. Interesting to watch what humans will do to each other quite naturally it seems. Being one of the masses however I’m torn between interest and horror — and disappointment in my species.
PEL keeps a bit of hope burning in me.
Daniel David says
Pinker’s elitism is always difficult for me to stomach, particularly because he’s always trying to pass it off as philanthropy. I doubt his soothsaying over inequality was sincere, considering the prissy arguments he’s made for strict meritocratic entrance exams in Ivy League schools.
Billie, I’m curious to know whether you’ve read any of Kevin Kelly’s stuff, specifically What Technology Wants. He holds very similar ideas to those intellectuals you mentioned regarding teleology, technocracy and Progress , but he subsumes what for them are natural explanations and trends nearly intact into his Christian faith, which he apparently finds compatible. For him, we have a moral mandate to advance technologically, which in turn makes us more moral by increasing our options, control and experience. The lack of conflict is interesting to me. What would seem to be two opposed worldviews end up meshing puzzlingly well. It’s even more stark if you compare Kelly to someone like, say, Ivan Illich. Is the New Religion BYOG?
Billie Pritchett says
I’m not familiar with the book you mentioned, but I will check it out.
I disagree quite a bit with your characterization of Pinker, and maybe Harris. (I do think Nagel went off the rails.) I haven’t read the others, so I can’t comment on that.
Pinker says explicitly that he is making the case that these changes have happened, not that they will continue. He then attempts to figure out why these changes have happened, and he does not go for a Teleological explanation but rather a set of possible contingent causal explanations. According to Pinker, whatever has caused the decline in violence could stop happening, or could stop causing violence to decline. This is very different from Nagel’s way of looking at things.
For example, Pinker proposes that “The Leviathan” has reduced violence. How exactly is this teleological? Did I miss the part of Pinker’s book where he said that it is the purpose of humanity, or the trajectory of the universe, to move in the direction of morality? Or am I confused about “Teleology?”
Also, if Pinker is empirically wrong about the trend, how does that relate to Teleology? Would a Teleology-free universe be a trend-free universe?
Billie Pritchett says
Thank you for your comments.
Pinker thinks that a number of exogenous forces have come together to make the world a less violent place, but these forces boil down to increased state control and a deterrent logic among existing states. So the story goes, planet Earth in pre-state societies was nasty, brutish, and short but with the increase of state power and nation-states fearing retaliation from powerful neighbors over time, all that came to an end.
I’d like to push a little on the claim that the “changes have happened, not that they will continue,” and that what Pinker has offered up is “a set of possible contingent causal explanations.” The trouble with explanations is that they have to lend themselves to counterfactuals, otherwise they’re nothing more than histories or descriptions. So if we’re to take Pinker seriously that the rise of state power and the logic of deterrence caused a decrease in violence–if those factors were crucially the causes for the decline–it would follow that the closer we move in the direction of a concentration of state power or a world state and the existing states have less incentive to attack one another, we would have even less violence. Pinker sees this as a world we are ever more moving toward and is happy about this.
This is what I meant by a kind of natural teleology. On Pinker’s view, nature really is unfolding in a certain direction. Sure, the mechanism isn’t God or physical, biological, or chemical law, or natural selection, but something akin to a social law that takes advantage of the right sort of trigger: provided the concentration of state power increases, violence will decrease. I don’t think that much is demonstrated. Alternatively, suppose that the concentration of state power is not even, all things being equal, usually an effective trigger for the decline of violence. Then Pinker would have no explanation for how at least per capita violence has declined, and would instead have only been the observer of a trend. But Pinker thinks he’s discovered the mechanism for that decline in violence, and if it really is the mechanism, it has to have explanatory power, not only accounting for what has occurred but what will occur. And Pinker clearly does believe in the power of the state as the primary tool for the decline in violence.
Seth B. says
I think you are a bit too pessimistic. While there is certainly no reason to be sure that human progress will continue indefinitely, there is reason to believe that we are on something like the right track. In China alone over 500 Million people have been lifted out of poverty by economic growth in the course of a generation (since the market reforms of 1978).
Malthus, writing in 1798, famously argued that because the resources of earth are finite and the human desire to reproduce endless, disaster was imminent. Scarce resources, split too many ways, would leave the world universally destitute. The only other options were war, famine, or draconian population controls to reduce the denominator of the resources-per-person ratio.
The population of the earth has increased more than 7-fold since Malthus’ time. Why has his prediction not come to pass? Why have average lifetimes, education levels, and incomes exploded while infant mortality and poverty plummeted?
The answer is threefold. Technological growth, capital accumulation, and good institutions. Technological growth allows individuals to get more output from a given level of resources. Capital accumulation is the result of people making the decision to delay gratification today in order to get a better outcome in the future. Good institutions make sure individuals are incentivized to use these tools in constructive and callaborative ways rather than destructive ones.
The key insight of the economic growth literature is that societies will get better over time so long as they are set up in a way to facilitate it. Alternatively they will stagnate or decline. There is indeed no natural law that legislates that society must be set up in a `good’ way, but the true progress – economic, medical, technological, etc. – of the last two or three centuries indicates that we have at least an OK system. From this data it is reasonable to predict these trends to continue into at least the proximate future.
I’d also like to know what you mean by the sentence “The new tool of the mainstream intellectuals is data-mining that reinforces the way things already are while privileging the many ways in which people have worked to make things the way they are..” Data mining is a mathematical technique. Implemented correctly it doesn’t privilege anything other than the truth.
Billie Pritchett says
I’m a little put off by the character attribution; certainly my friends and family don’t consider me pessimistic.
Be that as it may, to your comment, I’d like to say there is nothing in principle wrong with technology or money and resources as tools, and good institutions are, tautologically, a good thing. But they have virtually nothing to do with what I was writing about. The fact is a lot of intellectuals these days argue that given X (be X rationality and science, the state, or what have you), the world is getting better, and when anyone presses them on some point regarding something that might need to be addressed through significant social change, they downplay it. How does it, for example, really constitute an answer to Americans when they complain about growing poverty and income inequality and the cost of living that global poverty and income inequality are falling? Telling Americans that their case is a statistical anomaly with regard the other larger patterns is not only unhelpful, it’s as though the suggestion is just wait till the tides rise for everybody and then it’ll rise for you. But none of these trends is fate, and more than that, they’re the result of human agency.
I didn’t disparage data-mining. That’s why the sentence you quoted from is followed by the clause: “The new tool is data-mining *that*…” And I agree with your proviso that if “[i]mplemented correctly” it privileges the truth.
Seth B. says
Sorry for any implied insult!
It seems that you are making two slightly different (though related) claims:
1) Human progress is not a teleological necessity
No argument here.
2) Positive aspects of our global system do not legitimize negative aspects of the system
I am only partially on board with this claim. Certainly, just because there are some things that are going well, it doesn’t mean that we can’t fix what’s broken. I can count off the top of my head 10 policies that I think it would be great for the US to implement.
That being said, the clear and monumental successes of the two big governmental systems (Liberal Democracy + Capitalism in the West and some of the east; State Capitalism in much of the rest of the east) does put the burden of evidence on those who seek radical change. Very many of the Utopian experiments have failed – some disastrously.
The successes of these systems doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems or that we shouldn’t address them. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. That’s why the facts are important — they show that something we’re doing is working. We should seek to tweak, not overthrow.
Billie Pritchett says
I think you’re right about the dual claims there.
Actually, I don’t think we’re in disagreement about the importance of sound public policy as well as making use of pre-existing institutions to bring about social change. For my own part, I’m pretty conservative regarding social change and wary of unintended consequences. It’s a good idea to have something like a vision of what you’d like to see but that vision needs to be undergirded by more proximate goals. I would characterize a bit differently your claim about burden of proof with respect to state power, however. The burden seems to me to cut both ways, in that (a) existing institutions need to be able to have in principle sound justifications for their existence and (b) ordinary people need to have sound reasons for their resistance or disobedience in view of policies or institutions. This would appear to hold whether or not the final vision is radical, and would have to be taken into account at every step along the way. If you apply this principally to real historical or current cases, some might bear the burden, either way, and some may not.
I prefer the example of the African American Civil Rights Movement. In broad form, King et al. tried to make sure their claims bore the weight of justification, then they tried to petition the government and legislators to get the policies they wanted passed. When that didn’t work, they made use of nonviolent forms of protests–marches, petitioning, sit-ins, and so on. That seems reasonable to me, and a way to go. The final vision there was not only complete racial equality, although that was utopian enough, but complete economic equality. (This really comes across if you read King’s later writings.)
A new complication to the civil rights model, however, is that state power has found ways to subvert nonviolent protests by introducing violence. I don’t mean just the police in riot gear. Police forces will actively plant undercover police officers in crowds to incite violence. Here’s an example from about six years ago, and I’m sure if I kept better documentation, I could find still other examples; http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/may/10/g20-policing-agent-provacateurs?CMP=share_btn_tw.
Seth B. says
I think we’re mostly in agreement. I’d just say that existing institutions do already have a justification of their existence — their role as part of a system that has had success.
To the extent that Pinker is saying “We’re on the best possible path – don’t touch the controls at all”, he is an idiot. To the extent that he says “Inequality isn’t a problem because it’s getting better” , he is an idiot. But I think the sympathetic reading of him is “Inequality isn’t a crisis that rises to the level of necessitating haphazard, fundamental, global revolution”.
Douglas Reveley says
“The answer is threefold. Technological growth, capital accumulation, and good institutions.”
The root of the threefold answer is simpler: an unanticipated, brief (in terms of human history), glut of inexpensive energy in the form of fossil fuels. Without this bonus of energy the first two branches become much less likely. Even our conception of “human ingenuity” has flowered in the midst of this time of energy abundance. No matter how you look at it the advances in technology, medicine, capital accumulation, etc., are rooted in an abundance of energy as well as petrochemical resources (read: modern medicine, modern agriculture). All this Malthus could not have anticipated, but without this temporary abundance his predictions look more likely. If you leave out energy resources when you think about these issues you build your edifice on sand.
Seth B. says
The industrial revolution was indeed fueled by Welsh coal. But it took innovators to realize the potential of these resources, investors to lend them money, and governments to protect them from brigands. The coal had been sitting there for millennia; something else changed that caused it to be harnessed.
If you wanted to point out the really really big picture, there’s the second law of thermodynamics. It didn’t exactly give its discoverer a zest for living…
John Ludders says
Nicholas Humphrey addressed Nagel’s recent work directly in an interview on May 1st. See newest PEL blog post. I realize I’m obnoxiously publicizing but it is actually relevant.
John Ludders says
Also thanks for the article. I happened to read Better Angels last month and this discussion was a very enlightening examination. Much appreciated.
Billie Pritchett says
By the way, I will listen to your audio interview as soon as I have a free moment.
love the post.
i remember b. tversky asking me about pinker’s book.
i told her what i thought about it –
he is wrong, and should write on something that he better pretends to understand.
she would have run, and slid straight out to the courtyard with her jaw on the floor.
i followed, and apologized, and told her how swell it was to meet her.
there is a lot of a certain kind of intellectual weight behind the rising fascism.
seems to want to blame any violence on non-state agents, “freemen”,
the resistance, e.g. State power correlate with peace, ipso facto “you” (singled out as individual only in deviance) caused this violence and so deserve State violence exercised to suppress your power.
life in a cave.