Show caption Protests in London against the vaccination programme and the government’s approach to the pandemic. Photograph: Mark Thomas/REX/Shutterstock Science and nature books Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters by Steven Pinker review Our powers of reason have undoubtedly made the world a better place. So why are we so in thrall to fake news? Karen Armstrong Thu 7 Oct 2021 07.30 BST Share on Facebook
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‘Rationality ought to be the lodestar of everything we think or do.” This is the opening sentence of Steven Pinker’s call for a return to reason at a time when critical thinking and the grounding of belief in evidence is in short supply. Everyone, he argues, should want to be rational, yet 75% of Americans believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, including psychic healing, extrasensory perception, haunted houses. Even intellectual sophisticates argue that reason, objectivity and truth are merely social constructs that justify the privilege of dominant groups. Why, Pinker demands, is humanity losing its mind? Less than a year after Covid-19 emerged, scientists achieved the magnificent feat of discovering a vaccine, yet at the same time there was an eruption of irrational conspiracy theories: the pandemic was a hoax, a plot by global elites to control the world economy or a bioweapon engineered in a Chinese laboratory.
Reasoning, Pinker explains, is a mechanism in the brain that enables us to argue and evaluate arguments. No human being has ever attained perfect rationality but, convinced that objective truth is a possibility, we have developed rules that enable us to approach it. We can cultivate the rules of reason and make them normative. And, Pinker insists, it works. Reason has enabled human beings to reach the moon, extinguish smallpox and invent computers, so it puts us in touch with objective truths. Reason also tells us that some people are oppressed, and others privileged, and that measures should be taken to rectify such injustice. As a result, we have developed the golden rule, which was not revealed by “God” but is a product of human evolution, developed independently and rationally by all cultures.
But, Pinker points out, we are witnessing a disturbing surge of irrationality. We are living, he explains, in a post-truth era, witnessing dangerous failures in critical thinking and the grounding of truth in evidence. In February 2020, Donald Trump, supported by 40% of the American public, predicted that Covid-19 would disappear “like a miracle”, disdained masks and social distancing (even after he himself was stricken) and persuaded millions of Americans to do the same. Fake news is rampant, as is belief in the devil, ghosts and spirits.
But Pinker reminds us that we have also made great progress. In the early 19th century, he says, life expectancy did not usually exceed 30 years, but thanks to modern medicine, it is now 72.4. For most of human history, 90% of the population lived in extreme poverty, but that figure has been reduced to 9%. War is still with us but has been radically reduced, as have human sacrifice, slavery, despotism, the persecution of heretics and the oppression of women and minorities. Most of this reduction began with a reasoned argument that went viral and completely changed attitudes. Religious persecution, once widespread, has decreased; homosexuality is mostly no longer a crime; and slavery, if not entirely eradicated, is no longer commonplace.
All this, Pinker insists throughout, is entirely due to our powers of reason. But surely it is also due, at least in part, to empathy, a broader, less focused mode of attention than logical analysis and problem-solving.
Pinker carefully dissociates himself from religion, but at the very end of the book, his purely rational insights seem to have yielded to a more empathetic sense of the underlying unity of all things. “The equality of sentient beings, grounded in the logical irrelevance of the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘you’, is an idea that people through the ages rediscover, pass along, and extend to new living things, expanding the circle of sympathy like moral dark energy.” Mystics in all the major religious traditions have also imagined what they regard as a sacred energy that infuses the world in a series of ever-expanding concentric circles – a force that goes beyond the modern, reductive notion of “God”.
At the end of the book, Pinker writes: “Our ability to eke the increments of wellbeing out of a pitiless cosmos and to be good to others, despite our flawed nature, depends on grasping impartial principles that transcend our parochial experience.” His quest for reason has, after all, segued into a recognition that transcendence is no flight from critical thinking, but an inescapable part of our humanity.
• Karen Armstrong’s Religion is published by Vintage. Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters by Steven Pinker is published by Penguin (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.