I’m going to beat this dead horse a little longer. This essay sums up how I interpret Pinker and others with a similar view. In itself, that is another matter and doesn’t really go to the point of this series and how we can evaluate differing narratives. In a round-about-way however, it touches on many of the same areas. I’m not interested however in his main point of noting the differences between Pinker and Lakoff, except, again, in a round-about-way. In other words, I’m not interested in who is right, Pinker or Lakoff. I don’t care. What I am going to do is just pull out some quotes and speak to how those are relevant to the present series and the last several posts/comments dealing with Pinker.
“There are still obstacles. Lakoff, on the one hand, points to powerful anti-Enlightenment forces, in part based on fundamentalist religion, leading a sort of anti-democratic counter-revolution. On the other hand, the original Enlightenment itself partly developed, he claims, a faulty understanding of reason that still seriously affects both science and progressive political and religious thought and practice. Lakoff therefore has to battle simultaneously on several fronts, against religious transgressions into the worlds of science and politics, against conservative politics, and against bad science and bad philosophy. In this article, I will examine his debate with Steven Pinker who combines what Lakoff considers to be disastrous political views with misguided Old Enlightenment philosophy and defective science…Making morality and politics scientific
One of the claims of the Enlightenment was its promise to overcome the perpetual religious, moral and political conflicts and wars that were grounded, so it was said, in the arbitrary claims of religion and tradition. Politics and ethics should be built on grounds that are available, in principle, to any reasonable person, independent of history and culture. They should be genuinely rational. Scientific knowledge and a scientific worldview should replace religious ones based on authority and arbitrary dogmas.”
Notice the writer himself and his summing up of what Lakoff and Pinker are speaking of assumes they take the Enlightenment as something not only good but truthful and something that should speak to every area of life, not simply to rudimentary science or science as method. Just in case anyone cares, this is how people talk about the Enlightenment or Christianity all the time. No one ever feels the need to break it down to the specific propositions or assertions of each. Why? Well, I guess because they assume people are somewhat familiar with the basic understandings of each one and the differences between the two.
“Both Lakoff and Pinker claim, although in different ways, that they are placing moral and political discussions on a more scientific basis. Yet, for Pinker, Lakoff is a prime example of both bad science and a misuse of science. In 2006, Pinker published, originally in The New Republic, a scathing critique of Lakoff’s book Whose Freedom?, concluding that “There is much to admire in Lakoff’s work in linguistics, but … his thinking about politics … is a train wreck.”
Notice here that even when we have two promoters of the Enlightenment, two scholars who believe it to be good and believe it to represent a way to view the world that is truer than other (especially religious) ways of viewing the world, must still interpret what they think the “facts” and the “science” mean and they, shocker, can still come to different conclusions. How did that happen? I thought if we all just “restricted” what we could claim to be true to those things that could be shown empirically/scientifically we would have a basis for consensus? I guess not. It would appear that both can restrict themselves in that way and still see the other person’s views in certain areas (politics), as a “train wreck.” But hey, look at the bright side, they both still believe the world is round. That’s something.
“Science as salvation
The idea of science as a replacement for religion, traditional worldviews, and moralities has been around for a long time. At the heart of the set of stories modernity tells about itself, we find the notion of science as savior. The economist Robert Nelson describes “the idea of elevating science to the status of religion” as “the ‘modern project’ of the past three hundred years in the Western world”. Humanity has grown up, matured and taken control of its own destiny. Science and science-based technology, economics, and politics are the primary tools for creating a mature kind of humanity and for building the future, a world of prosperity, democracy, justice and freedom. In this salvation history, “the Enlightenment” is the watershed, the salvific “event” that replaced religion and tradition with science.”
Again, we see people employing the term “Enlightenment” to comprehensively sum up a varied set of perspectives and philosophical ideas that move in one direction and not another, that determine other views to be false or true, accurate, inaccurate, good, bad, etc. Right people, I wasn’t the first to do it. If anyone wants to pick up a random historical or philosophical journal—they will find example after example of people using the term this way both by promoters and detractors of the Enlightenment. Go figure. No one accuses them of making a category error either—or that they should check their dictionaries.
“As scientists, they [Lakoff/Pinker] produce a form of public philosophy or secular political theology, but they fail to recognize much of what actually determines their thinking. It is easy to see that much of the force of their arguments, rather than coming from their research, comes instead from taken for granted, even naturalized, cultural, moral, and ontological assumptions. The result is that the actual justification for their moral and political positions to a large extent is left out of the debate. This makes the discussion distorted and often extremely polemic. The fierce tone between Lakoff and Pinker is just one example. But because they cannot see or admit this, their discussions proceed as if their own assumptions are self-evident, while the assumptions of their adversaries are illicit ideological distortions.”
This comes from the deceptive notion they are both just objective observers of the “facts” and “evidence” and just following the clear and obvious correspondence between things. The other person must be wrong or illogical because he should be able to “see” I am right if he would only follow my logic or reasoning and “see” the evidence the way I do. What they fail to do is get behind their own presuppositions and commitment to a narrative, even if the same one. They still “see” things differently and it has nothing to do with the other being ignorant or unaware of the other person’s evidence or facts. This also goes to my point that the only difference in Pinker’s strategy as opposed to mine is that he just presupposes the Enlightenment understanding to be true and argues from there, begging-the-question. It is why I begin elsewhere and offer the outcomes as possible hints or signs (not proof) that could lead one into further reflection and investigation regarding the ideas, the narrative that gave rise to those outcomes.
“Another complication is that Lakoff’s theoretical work in cognitive science, his special area of research, has not reached general acceptance in the cognitive science community. On the contrary, it is highly controversial and represents a minority view. Many would say that much of what Lakoff describes as functioning metaphors are dead metaphors that function non-metaphorically.”
What? But don’t we all agree the earth is round? Don’t we all agree the sun is hot? What is going on? I thought if we could all only agree on such “consensus” areas that peace would break out everywhere and the world would be nothing but rainbows and butterflies. I am so disillusioned now. Oh wait. You mean at the level of theory and philosophy of science, the fact we can agree the sun is hot becomes entirely irrelevant and we still have varied interpretive opinions—even in science? Yes, exactly.
“So it might seem strange to criticize him, as Lakoff does, for proposing a disembodied view of reason. Lakoff is critical of Pinker’s modular view of the mind. It implies, he says, “that language is just a matter of abstract symbols, having nothing to do with what the symbols mean, how they are used to communicate, how the brain processes thought and language, or any aspect of human experience—cultural or personal.” It is also this view of language and thinking as “algorithmic symbol manipulation”, Lakoff thinks, that makes it possible for Pinker to defend the idea of a universal disembodied reason as a normative ideal and to criticize Lakoff for relativism. Pinker can agree with Lakoff that “‘universal disembodied reason’ is not a good theory of how individual people instinctively think”, but it is still “a normative ideal that we should collectively strive for in grounding our beliefs and decisions”. Otherwise we end up in relativism. Lakoff, on the other hand, thinks this is impossible. Our minds simply do not work like that. But one may still ask, is not his own claim to a “higher rationality” similar to Pinker’s attempt?”
This is just an aside. The interesting thing here is that whether it is Pinker’s “universal disembodied reason” or Lakoff’s “higher rationality,” both are attempts to ground morality objectively. In other words, they are an attempt to replace God. Both are trying to get around the logic of what their naturalism/materialism reduces ethics to, which is that it makes them subjectively no more right or wrong than anyone’ else’s subjective assertion of what is ethical. Everything is flattened. There is no higher or lower. Every act, every choice is matter-in-motion and nothing else. Differences are settled, ultimately, by power—not by an appeal to something greater, like a universal reason or a higher rationality. Thus, getting rid of God doesn’t get rid of this issue. Pinker and Lakoff realize this and want morality grounded somehow. Neither wants to live with the logic of their naturalism as far as what it means for ethics and morality.
“Empirical studies of morality have recently become a growth industry. However, these studies have not led to any new consensus. We see rather replications in new forms of earlier debates in moral philosophy and theology. The very different positions of Pinker and Lakoff are examples of this. The empirical studies they cite do not, by themselves, help resolve their differences because their claims about the nature of morality are embedded in philosophical, political, and moral differences. For example, they agree that morality is based on moral sentiments, that people are bad at calculating probability, and that human reason is flexible. However, they draw very different conclusions from these shared viewpoints.”
What? Again, I thought we all agreed the earth was round? I thought we all held to a correspondence theory of truth? How is this happening!
“We can thus see how both Lakoff and Pinker assume certain stories about USA and its founding, and these in turn are inserted into wider narratives about the development of humanity (group selection and empathy contra self-interest and competition), science (the source of their own authority), Enlightenment (Old and New), and so on. It can be described, in Lakoff’s terms, as the way they frame their analysis. And this framing, which is mostly implicit and not argued for, is more important for understanding them than the results from cognitive science they report. It is the implicit narratives (tending to converge to two large, partly overlapping, meta-narratives) much more than their detailed arguments that give force to their broader views about morality and politics.”
It’s all about the narrative folks. And, we see again, that Pinker simply assumes his framing (Enlightenment) rather than argues for it. It is self-evident to him.
“Sociologist Christian Smith contends that American sociology is primarily “animated, energized, and made significant by one of two historical narrative traditions”. This describes well the difference between Lakoff and Pinker. On one side we have “the inspiring drama” of “Liberal Progress” and on the other “the more sobering satire” of “Ubiquitous Egoism”. Both, however, are derived from the Enlightenment master narrative, which in turn was, so Smith claims, a secular renarration of the Christian narrative. The division reflects “the optimistic and pessimistic themes that Christianity’s theological anthropology united but the Enlightenment split apart.’”
Does anyone doubt that although Pinker and Lakoff differ over the results of their research, that both would agree the Enlightenment gave us a new and better, truer, more accurate way to view the world? And if we were to ask, “In that sense, can we say the Enlightenment is the more truthful narrative than Christianity?” does anyone out there believe that all of a sudden they would both shuffle their feet, look down, and say, “Ah shucks, I don’t know if we can say that.” Seriously? Come on.
“Both Pinker and Lakoff assume that the modern world has left the age of religion and reached the age of Science. They presuppose what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as a “subtraction story”. It was the overcoming of religious dogma and religious moral ideas that paved the way for science and modern liberal democratic society and therefore for the creation of a new type of society of freedom and prosperity. The Enlightenment is the turning point. Religion can continue to exist as private beliefs, but when it becomes embodied in individual and social life it becomes dangerous, although Lakoff likes to see a domesticated good religion as an ally. Religion must then, by political, legal, and intellectual means, be kept inside strict limits. We see clearly how the idea of Science functions for both Pinker and Lakoff exactly as John Gray says: as providing hope and silencing heretics.”
“The problem is, so Lakoff’s story goes, that even many progressives are imprisoned or blinded by bad philosophy and outdated science. This is precisely what makes someone like Pinker dangerous: he is not only a highly influential promoter of Old Enlightenment philosophy, outdated cognitive science, and older evolutionary psychology that minimizes the extent to which humans are hard wired for sympathy and cooperation, but also someone who uses these perspectives for attacking progressive views. So the stakes are high. But there is salvation. Lakoff himself has provided the decisive weapon to win this war between good and evil. Pinker provides us with a very different set of stories, although the primary metastory of the Enlightenment, the progress of science, and the place in the story given to his own type of science are parallel to Lakoff’s.”
Again, look at the use of the term “Enlightenment.” It stands a placeholder that not only sums up a moment in history but speaks to what it envisioned, what perspectives, and what philosophies were then brought forth out of it and began to impact culture. In that sense, I’m sure both Pinker and Lakoff would say it is a “true” narrative or gives us “truth.” Or put it negatively if you wish. Whatever it does, however its “truth” value is asserted, it reveals (we are told) that other perspectives/narratives are false or give us false views of the world. Such views, like those of the Christian narrative, cannot be trusted to give us truth about ourselves and the world or an accurate picture or account of existence.
“But they live on as potent ideological instruments in the struggle for the future. Lakoff and Pinker reveal no awareness whatsoever about existing research in these fields and they seem to live in secular enclaves in which such assumptions are never questioned. The historian John Sommerville writes: ‘Secularism hasn’t had to explain itself for several generations and has become as muddled as religion was when it was simply dominant.’”
Exactly right, Pinker never tells us why the Enlightenment is true (or true as in what derives from it being true, philosophical naturalism, materialism, secular reason, etc.) he just assumes it and goes from there. Maybe he does somewhere, but I’ve never seen him make a case for the Enlightenment perspective or deal with the current critiques of the Enlightenment both by secular and religious scholars.
All this goes back to my original point: Pinker is making a very similar argument to mine; he just begins by saying (to paraphrase): “These outcomes are good, and we should not be surprised to find these good outcomes coming from this true narrative…” That is really it, at bottom. The form is different (and question-begging) but the same logic of connection is there. He links the two and in that linking his assumption the narrative is true, better, more accurate, (again, use any honest term you wish) is as implicit as it is obvious.