Learning about human progress is not an exercise in optimism, cheeriness, or looking on the bright side: it´s a matter of accuracy, of understanding the world as it really is (Steven Pinker, Skeptical Inquirer).
Finally, of course, there comes the Age of the One, when the cow is on only a single leg. This is our unfortunate time, the age of the mixture of castes, when nobody knows his own true nature. And the worst of it is that people won´t read the scriptures, and when they do they don´t understand them. This is the age of deterioration. And if – from the traditional perspective – you want to have any proof of the deterioration, just look at everything that we call progress: it is an exteriorization of life; the machines are taking over. And everything that we in the West consider to be evidence of progress, is, in terms of this ancient tradition, evidence of decline. So the world is getting worse (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light).
The skeptical movement is a modern social movement which is building on the enlightenment philosophy. The enlightenment philosophers were emphasizing, that the reason shall function objective and effective, and they rejected, or criticized, everything that were obscure and subjective: superstition, tradition, myths, religion, feelings. Opinions, conventions, institutions, manners and customs, none of this were able to justify anything. Only the reason was able to do this. When the reason functioned objective and effective you had a clear and certain knowledge. And clear and certain knowledge you had in the natural sciences.
The enlightenment´s counterpart to tradition and its prejudices therefore became the knowledge of natural science. Herewith arised the so-called progressive optimism, which meant that scientific knowledge not only would create material progress, but enlightenment would also make mankind better. Individualism, the thought about the individual person as a rational, and therewith independently, autonomous being, is connected with the thought about the individual human being´s rights. The enlightenment philosophers were advocates for what we today understand by human rights.
Descartes, and the philosophical rationalists, were emphasizing, that the reason was the way to insight in the unknown, in the eternal truths and the universe´s connections, in universal scales about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Aristotle meant, that what differentiates Man from the rest of the animals, is reason. He defined Man as a rational animal.
Up through the Western history of philosophy philosophers have argued, that reason was the most crucial thing in Man. Our thinking about state and society are based on the idea about, that Man is an enlightened and rational being. The democracy is standing or falling with, that the individual is able to understand and decide on political problems.
So, the concept of the use of reason is not an invention of the enlightenment philosophers, but is a central concept of philosophy as such, for example in Plato´s works and in the Upanishads.
The problem with the enlightenment philosophy is the beginning of reductionism, or scientism. The enlightenment philosophers´ conception of reason corresponds to what Habermas calls the instrumental reason, or the technical reason. It is controlling, it is about achieving something, acquiring something and becoming something, and about finding means for these goal, a quite central thought in the ideology of evolutionism. And that way it must necessarily function in connection with material and technical questions and problems. The problems arise when this attitude come to characterize human relationships, where values should to be crucial. Then it becomes will to power. So Habermas will agree with the enligthenment philosophers in, that an instrumental reason very likely can create material progress, but disagree in, that it can make mankind better. To suppose this has led to, that the systems have colonized the lifeworld.
The skeptical movement has, like the enlightenment philosophers, the goal of investigating claims made on fringe topics and determining whether they are supported by empirical research. The movement involves the application of critical-thinking skills, the area within philosophy called logic. Logic originally meant "the word" or "what is spoken", but coming to mean "thought" or "reason", is a subject concerned with the most general laws of truth, and is now generally held to consist of the systematic study of the form of valid inference.
The movement is also characterized by, that only a very few of the members actually are philosophers, and therefore we also see a tendency towards reductionism. A reductionism is a philosophical view point, which reduces philosophy (or religion) to a single branch of science. In that way it avoids the difficult task of philosophical argumentation by insinuating that the view point is supported by science.
Historically, logic has been studied in philosophy (since ancient times) and mathematics (since the mid-19th century), and recently logic has been studied in computer science, linguistics, psychology, and other fields. Traditionally logic included the classification of arguments, the systematic exposition of the 'logical form' common to all valid arguments, the study of inference, including fallacies, and the study of semantics, including paradoxes.
The skeptical movement is obsessed with putting fallacy labels on just about any view point which the movement doesn´t like, and the lack of philosophical training results in a paradox. The movement has committed itself to logical reasoning, but again and again the members exposes how little they are able to apply logic to their own claims. As an example of the self-contradictory aspect is Dawkins´ book The God Delusion where he states that religion simply is evil! When it is banished from the face of the earth, we can live in peace! It is a theme that goes from beginning to end. The God that Dawkins does not believe in is (and I quote from page 31): “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
And religious people are all under one characterized as deranged, deluded, deceived and deceiving; their intellectual capacity having been warped through being hijacked by an infectious, malignant God-virus. In short: religious people are idiots.
Furthermore: the “rational arguments” in the book is simply a bunch of pseudoscientific speculation, poor reasoning, diversionary ploys, seductive reasoning errors, techniques of persuasion and avoidance. Dawkins is obviously trying to do philosophy, but manages only to demonstrate his lack of competence herein. The reviewer of Prospect magazine was shocked at this “incurious, dogmatic, rambling, and self-contradictory” book. The title of the review? “Dawkins the dogmatist.”
Psychologists like to put diagnoses on people, and it seems like psychologists in the skeptical movement are using logic as a means of diagnosing people with fallacies. In my previous article on skeptical inquirer I wrote about the professor in psychology, and associate with CSI, James E. Alcock, and his article called The God Engine, where he writes:
A number of automatic processes and cognitive biases combine to make supernatural belief the automatic default.
So, belief in the supernatural is a cognitive bias according to the professor. The paradox is that his own are stuffed with fallacies. He seems to be unable to examine whether his own statements are logically sound.
The topic for this article, Steven Pinker (also a psychologist), is continuing with this fallacy-as-diagnosis tendency. Pinker´s target is not religion, but people who are not progressivists. These people are then diagnosed with the label: “Suffering from Progressophobia.” It sounds like something from Orwell´s 1984, or Aldous Huxley´s Brave New World.
Pinker´s article in skeptical Inquirer is precisely called Progressophobia – Why Things are Better Than You Think They Are, and the description goes:
Intellectuals dislike the very idea of progress. Our own mental bugs also distort out understanding of the world, blinding us to improvements in the human condition underway globally – and to the ideas that have made them possible.
The article is adapted from his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), where he instead of philosophy argumentation (the book can of course only be characterized as philosophy), uses statistics to argue that health, prosperity, safety, peace, and happiness are on the rise, both in the West and worldwide. It attributes these positive outcomes to Enlightenment values such as reason, science, and humanism. The book concludes with three chapters defending what Pinker sees as Enlightenment values: reason, science, and humanism. Pinker argues that these values are under threat from modern trends such as religious fundamentalism, political correctness, and postmodernism.
Pinker, like Alcock, and a number of other members of the skeptical movement, ends in a central fallacy themselves, namely the That´s a Fallacy bias. This is the manoeuvre of falsely accusing someone of committing a fallacy. It is a form of rhetoric which can be particular pernicious. If you were putting forward a case and someone confidently declares that what you have just said involves a number of fallacies, then you may be tempted to back down, giving your attacker the benefit of the doubt. But the onus should be on those who accuse others of fallacious reasoning to spell out precisely why they believe this to be a fair charge, otherwise the charge is at best vague. The situation is made more complicated because of the ambiguity of the word “fallacy”; it can mean invalid reasoning, and unreliable pattern of argument, or, in some contexts it may simply be shorthand for “I disagree with your last statement”. This latter use, like the increasingly common use of “begging the question” to mean “suggest the question”, should be avoided as it muddles the important distinction between a statement being thought false and a form of argument being fallacious. The best defence against a claim that you have used a fallacy is to request an explanation of the charge from anyone who makes it.
One of the fallacies Pinker diagnoses non-progressivists (pessimists, traditionalists) with is the so-called availability bias. The availability bias is a cognitive bias involving making quick judgments based on the speed with which memories are aroused and become available to the conscious mind. The main factors influencing the speed with which memories present themselves are recent frequency of similar experiences or messages, or the salient, dramatic, or personal nature of experiences.
In our culture, the mass media plays an important role in affecting what comes to mind quickly when we think of the frequency, importance, or causes of things. But Pinker claims that the news are accentuated by cognitive biases when showing bad news all the time. “If it bleeds, it leads” This is not directly an accusation of fake news, but it is getting close to.
Rational judgments should be made on the basis of a consideration of all the relevant evidence, but many judgments we consider rational are made based on the ease with which they come to us. For example, a person might decide not to take a cruise to Alaska that she was about to book when she heard about the cruise ship Costa Concordia striking a reef hear the Tuscan island of Giglio, killing more than 20 passengers. The safety of a cruise to Alaska has not diminished because of what happened off the coast of Italy, but the news report and videos immediately bring to the mind the horror of dying on a captized cruise ship. The decision not to take the planned cruise has been biased by the news of the Costa Concordia. Likewise, many people refuse to fly on a commercial airliner because someone they love died in an airplane crash, yet these same people will drive thousands of miles every year rather than fly, even though they are more likely to be killed in an automobile crash than in an airliner crash.
So, the availability bias is fully valid bias, but Pinker is misusing it, by labeling all people who are not progressivists with this fallacy. He therefore ends in a long line of self-contradictions, where he himself are committing fallacies, as for example generalization, representative bias, prejudice, ad hominem move, attribution, selective thinking, confirmation bias, etc.
Another problem with the book is the use of statistics. Two thirds of the book, which is a kind of sequel to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature, consists of chapter after chapter of evidence that life has been getting progressively better for most people. “How can we soundly appraise the state of the world?” he asks. “The answer is to count.” The litany of facts is awesome, covering health, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, democracy and on and on, though one wonders if there is any possible tipping point within this deluge where a doubter might suddenly be convinced. But Nicholas Guilhot of Princeton, said that the book was selling a narrative, and "As is often the case when statistics are summoned at the service of a preconceived notion, the data provided is highly selective, contradictory, or irrelevant."
There are many statistical functions that may be used to compare values. Unfortunately, there are more ways to use them wrong than to use them right. There are especially 4 ways to abuse statistics:
1) Bad data collection
2) Bad application of statistical functions
3) Forming the wrong conclusion
4) Sneaky tricks to mislead the unwary
This could actually be called “The Statistics fallacy”. Read more about the Statistics Fallacy.
This could actually be called “The Statistics fallacy”. Read more about the Statistics Fallacy.
So, in a curious way, some of the book’s core claims actually undercut the very Enlightenment cause Pinker is committed to championing.
John Gray in the New Statesman wrote, "To think of this book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. The purpose of Pinker’s laborious work is to reassure liberals that they are on “the right side of history”".
The Guardian and The Financial Times dismissed Pinker's contention that the left is partly to blame for anti-reason rhetoric and also objected to Pinker's criticism of groups such as postmodernists, de-growth environmentalists, and social justice warriors.
Pinker is inspired by historian Arthur Herman´s The Idea of Decline in Western history. Herman traces the roots of declinism and shows how major thinkers, past and present, have contributed to its development as a coherent ideology of cultural pessimism. From Nazism to the Sixties counterculture, from Britain's Fabian socialists to America's multiculturalists, and from Dracula and Freud to Robert Bly and Madonna, this work examines the idea of decline in Western history and sets out to explain how the conviction of civilization's inevitable end has become a fixed part of the modern Western imagination. Through a series of biographical portraits spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, the author traces the roots of declinism and aims to show how major thinkers of the past and present, including Nietzsche, DuBois, Sartre, and Foucault, have contributed to its development as a coherent ideology of cultural pessimism.
His flashiest claim is that fascism, Nazism, Third World communism, black power and radical environmentalism have roots in the same wrongheaded cultural pessimism. Series of biographical sketches of contributors to the great ocean of Western self-hatred: Rousseau to Marx, Nietzsche to Spengler, Freud to Marcuse, DuBois to Fanon and many more. He did not join the ranks of the so-called declinists after examining the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Henry Adams, Brooks Adams, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee, who expressed pessimism about the fate of the West, and remains cautiously optimistic about the future of the Western civilization.
Though there is some truth in this, it is a wrong picture of Western thought, since many of the thinkers, which both Herman and Pinker mention, only can be characterized as progressivists. As I have shown in my Ebook Evolutionism – The Red Thread in The Matrix Conspiracy, the central thought in a Western context is evolutionism, and therefore progressivism. Many of the “negative” thinkers Pinker mentions, are for example supporters of the humanist self-production thesis. Kirkus Reviews precisely noted that though Pinker is progressive, "the academically orthodox will find him an apostate".
Modern Age Journal said while Pinker's book is graphic and full of data, it verges onto utopianism. Not surprisingly Pinker is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind, all favorites of the Californian Ideology, the last, and tragic development of evolutionism. On 29 January Bill Gates tweeted praise for Enlightenment, calling it "my new favorite book". Gates stated he agreed overall with the techno-optimism of the book, but cautioned that Pinker is too "quick to dismiss" the idea that artificial superintelligence could someday lead to human extinction.
Yes, artificial intelligence can lead to human extinction, and so can many other problems of the world. Pinker is bagatellizing such problems. With the industrial modernization Man has cultivated a mind, which can solve almost any technological problem; that, which the philosopher Habermas calls the instrumental reason, and the kind of reason the Enlightenment philosophers advocated. But apparently human problems have never been solved. On the contrary mankind are about to be drowned in its problems: problems concerning communication, the relationship with others, heaven and hell. The whole of the human existence has become one extremely complex problem. And apparently it has been like that through the whole of history. Despite the knowledge of Man, despite his millenniums of evolution, Man has never been free from such problems.
The solutions to such problems require a communicative reason, a reason, which understands the human community. But as Habermas says, then we are not using such a reason, on the contrary we are using the instrumental reason on human problems, where it only should be used on technical problems. We seek to solve human problems technically, where they should be solved in a philosophical way. The systems (the market, the economy, the bureaucracy) have colonized the lifeworld.
In this way we today have a peculiar situation. We have solved almost all technical problems, a number of countries have democracy with large political freedom, but at the same time the human problems still flourish, and the attempt to solve them technically, seems to have brought about a condition of total confusion, of fragmentation, decay of values, consumerism. A condition, which is spreading globally.
We live in an age, where we are on the way into crises, which are of a size, that never before have been seen in the history of mankind. Mechanization, automation and introduction of new technology have created new forms of work, but also a massive unemployment. On the background of modernization the increase of population is fastly rising, and this growth is in the long term quite untenable, and will unavoidably involve increased problems of distribution between the richest and the poorest areas. In addition to this, we are getting closer to that moment, where there not will be food enough to the population of the earth – regardless which discoveries and inventions, that might see the light of the day.
The industrialization has also had global consequences. The ”side effects” of industrialization in the form of emptying of ressources, possible climatic changes and pollution of earth, water and air, is now so massive, that it is obvious, that the now known forms of industry and industrial agriculture not will be able to continue unchanged, not to talk about spreading to the whole world. The enourmous growth in productive power has also been accompanied by a perhaps even larger growth in destructive power. The spread of weapon of mass destruction makes possible the extinction of all human life, and perhaps all life on the planet. We must expect, that the mutual economical dependency the nations between will be larger and larger, and that public mixing and clash of cultures will heighten. Terrorism has in this connection seen the light of the day.
And humans´ existential experience of this condition, are characterized by unreality, alienation, meaninglessness, a thorough boredom and ennui. All this are especially caused by the elimination of the meaning which were to be found in the original wisdom traditions. Boredom has become connected with drug abuse, alcohol abuse, smoking, anorexia, promiscuity, vandalism, depression, agression, hostility, violence, suicide, risk behaviour etc. etc.
And the meaninglessness, and the decay of values, can lead people to begin to take extreme ideologies up to consideration again, perhaps even in the name of democracy. It is a fact that we have begun to bring about democracy through war, without investigating the question about the historical limited mind, not in the others, or in ourselves. In spite of the fact, that we have introduced outside democracy in a number of countries, then this namely doesn´t make the mind democratic. A democratic mind requires a human being, who both in mind and heart is clear-sighted and peaceful, a human being, who has gone through a philosophical revolution. And before that has happened, any democracy is a process that dissolves itself from the inside, and a ticking bomb.
Herein is lying a gigantic, world political and local political challenge to think again concerning the relationship between Man, society and nature, and not only automatically continue thought-patterns from the liberalist and socialist traditions, which have grown out together with the industrial modernization.
Philosophy as an art of life looks at all this as a philosophical challenge. Only by emphasizing the primary things, the secondary can be understood and solved. The economical and social evils can´t be solved without first understanding, what has caused them. And in order to be able to understand them, and in this way create a radical change, we must first fully understand ourselves, since we are the cause of these evils.
Unfortunately this won´t happen. Our age is on its way into a down-cyclic age of decline which we can´t avoid. This is especially seen in the decline of philosophy, which Pinker´s article and book bears witness of.