sponsored links
TED2012

Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: The long reach of reason

February 19, 2012

Here's a TED first: an animated Socratic dialog! In a time when irrationality seems to rule both politics and culture, has reasoned thinking finally lost its power? Watch as psychologist Steven Pinker is gradually, brilliantly persuaded by philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein that reason is actually the key driver of human moral progress, even if its effect sometimes takes generations to unfold. The dialog was recorded live at TED, and animated, in incredible, often hilarious, detail by Cognitive.

Steven Pinker - Psychologist
Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts -- the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others. In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
["Rebecca Newberger Goldstein"]
00:13
["Steven Pinker"]
00:16
["The Long Reach of Reason"]
00:18
Cabbie: Twenty-two dollars.
Steven Pinker: Okay.
00:23
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Reason
appears to have fallen on hard times:
00:29
Popular culture plumbs new depths of dumbth
00:33
and political discourse has become a race
00:37
to the bottom.
00:39
We're living in an era of scientific creationism,
00:42
9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines,
00:47
and a resurgence of religious fundamentalism.
00:51
People who think too well
00:54
are often accused of elitism,
00:56
and even in the academy,
00:58
there are attacks on logocentrism,
01:00
the crime of letting logic dominate our thinking.
01:03
SP: But is this necessarily a bad thing?
01:08
Perhaps reason is overrated.
01:10
Many pundits have argued that a good heart
01:13
and steadfast moral clarity
01:15
are superior to triangulations
of overeducated policy wonks,
01:17
like the best and brightest and that dragged us
01:21
into the quagmire of Vietnam.
01:24
And wasn't it reason that gave us the means
01:25
to despoil the planet
01:27
and threaten our species with
weapons of mass destruction?
01:29
In this way of thinking,
it's character and conscience,
01:32
not cold-hearted calculation, that will save us.
01:35
Besides, a human being is not a brain on a stick.
01:38
My fellow psychologists have shown that we're led
01:42
by our bodies and our emotions
01:45
and use our puny powers of reason
01:47
merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact.
01:49
RNG: How could a reasoned
argument logically entail
01:52
the ineffectiveness of reasoned arguments?
01:55
Look, you're trying to persuade
us of reason's impotence.
01:59
You're not threatening us or bribing us,
02:03
suggesting that we resolve the issue
02:05
with a show of hands or a beauty contest.
02:07
By the very act of trying to
reason us into your position,
02:10
you're conceding reason's potency.
02:14
Reason isn't up for grabs here. It can't be.
02:17
You show up for that debate
02:20
and you've already lost it.
02:21
SP: But can reason lead us in directions
02:24
that are good or decent or moral?
02:27
After all, you pointed out that reason
02:29
is just a means to an end,
02:32
and the end depends on the reasoner's passions.
02:34
Reason can lay out a road
map to peace and harmony
02:36
if the reasoner wants peace and harmony,
02:39
but it can also lay out a road
map to conflict and strife
02:40
if the reasoner delights in conflict and strife.
02:43
Can reason force the reasoner to want
02:46
less cruelty and waste?
02:48
RNG: All on its own, the answer is no,
02:51
but it doesn't take much to switch it to yes.
02:54
You need two conditions:
02:57
The first is that reasoners all care
02:59
about their own well-being.
03:02
That's one of the passions that has to be present
03:03
in order for reason to go to work,
03:06
and it's obviously present in all of us.
03:08
We all care passionately
03:10
about our own well-being.
03:13
The second condition is that reasoners
03:15
are members of a community of reasoners
03:17
who can affect one another's well-being,
03:19
can exchange messages,
03:21
and comprehend each other's reasoning.
03:23
And that's certainly true of our gregarious
03:26
and loquatious species,
03:29
well endowed with the instinct for language.
03:31
SP: Well, that sounds good in theory,
03:34
but has it worked that way in practice?
03:36
In particular, can it explain
03:38
a momentous historical development
03:40
that I spoke about five years ago here at TED?
03:42
Namely, we seem to be getting more humane.
03:45
Centuries ago, our ancestors would burn cats alive
03:47
as a form of popular entertainment.
03:51
Knights waged constant war on each other
03:53
by trying to kill as many of each
other's peasants as possible.
03:55
Governments executed people for frivolous reasons,
03:58
like stealing a cabbage
04:01
or criticizing the royal garden.
04:02
The executions were designed to be as prolonged
04:04
and as painful as possible, like crucifixion,
04:07
disembowelment, breaking on the wheel.
04:09
Respectable people kept slaves.
04:12
For all our flaws, we have abandoned
04:14
these barbaric practices.
04:16
RNG: So, do you think it's
human nature that's changed?
04:17
SP: Not exactly. I think we still harbor instincts
04:20
that can erupt in violence,
04:23
like greed, tribalism, revenge, dominance, sadism.
04:24
But we also have instincts that can steer us away,
04:29
like self-control, empathy, a sense of fairness,
04:32
what Abraham Lincoln called
04:35
the better angels of our nature.
04:36
RNG: So if human nature didn't change,
04:38
what invigorated those better angels?
04:40
SP: Well, among other things,
04:42
our circle of empathy expanded.
04:44
Years ago, our ancestors would feel the pain
04:46
only of their family and people in their village.
04:48
But with the expansion of literacy and travel,
04:51
people started to sympathize
04:53
with wider and wider circles,
04:55
the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race,
04:57
and perhaps eventually, all of humanity.
05:00
RNG: Can hard-headed scientists
05:03
really give so much credit to soft-hearted empathy?
05:05
SP: They can and do.
05:08
Neurophysiologists have found neurons in the brain
05:10
that respond to other people's actions
05:12
the same way they respond to our own.
05:14
Empathy emerges early in life,
05:16
perhaps before the age of one.
05:18
Books on empathy have become bestsellers,
05:20
like "The Empathic Civilization"
05:21
and "The Age of Empathy."
05:23
RNG: I'm all for empathy. I mean, who isn't?
05:25
But all on its own, it's a feeble instrument
05:28
for making moral progress.
05:32
For one thing, it's innately biased
05:34
toward blood relations, babies
05:36
and warm, fuzzy animals.
05:38
As far as empathy is concerned,
05:40
ugly outsiders can go to hell.
05:42
And even our best attempts to work up sympathy
05:46
for those who are unconnected with us
05:49
fall miserably short, a sad truth about human nature
05:51
that was pointed out by Adam Smith.
05:55
Adam Smith: Let us suppose that the great empire
05:58
of China was suddenly swallowed
up by an earthquake,
06:00
and let us consider how a
man of humanity in Europe
06:02
would react on receiving intelligence
06:05
of this dreadful calamity.
06:07
He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly
06:09
his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people.
06:11
He would make many melancholy reflections
06:14
upon the precariousness of human life,
06:15
and when all these humane sentiments
06:18
had been once fairly expressed,
06:20
he would pursue his business or his pleasure
06:21
with the same ease and tranquility
06:24
as if no such accident had happened.
06:26
If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow,
06:28
he would not sleep tonight,
06:30
but provided he never saw them,
06:32
he would snore with the most profound security
06:34
over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.
06:36
SP: But if empathy wasn't enough
to make us more humane,
06:39
what else was there?
06:42
RNG: Well, you didn't mention what might be
06:44
one of our most effective better angels: reason.
06:46
Reason has muscle.
06:50
It's reason that provides the push to widen
06:53
that circle of empathy.
06:56
Every one of the humanitarian developments
06:58
that you mentioned originated with thinkers
07:01
who gave reasons for why some practice
07:04
was indefensible.
07:07
They demonstrated that the way people treated
07:09
some particular group of others
07:11
was logically inconsistent
07:13
with the way they insisted
on being treated themselves.
07:15
SP: Are you saying that reason
07:17
can actually change people's minds?
07:19
Don't people just stick with whatever conviction
07:21
serves their interests
07:23
or conforms to the culture that they grew up in?
07:25
RNG: Here's a fascinating fact about us:
07:28
Contradictions bother us,
07:31
at least when we're forced to confront them,
07:33
which is just another way of saying
07:35
that we are susceptible to reason.
07:37
And if you look at the history of moral progress,
07:40
you can trace a direct pathway
from reasoned arguments
07:42
to changes in the way that we actually feel.
07:46
Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument
07:49
as to why some practice was indefensible,
07:53
irrational, inconsistent with values already held.
07:56
Their essay would go viral,
08:01
get translated into many languages,
08:03
get debated at pubs and coffee houses and salons,
08:06
and at dinner parties,
08:09
and influence leaders, legislators,
08:11
popular opinion.
08:15
Eventually their conclusions get absorbed
08:16
into the common sense of decency,
08:20
erasing the tracks of the original argument
08:22
that had gotten us there.
08:25
Few of us today feel any need to put forth
08:26
a rigorous philosophical argument
08:29
as to why slavery is wrong
08:31
or public hangings or beating children.
08:34
By now, these things just feel wrong.
08:37
But just those arguments had to be made,
08:40
and they were, in centuries past.
08:43
SP: Are you saying that people needed
08:46
a step-by-step argument to grasp
08:47
why something might be a wee bit wrong
08:49
with burning heretics at the stake?
08:51
RNG: Oh, they did. Here's the French theologian
08:53
Sebastian Castellio making the case.
08:56
Sebastian Castellio: Calvin says that he's certain,
08:59
and other sects say that they are.
09:01
Who shall be judge?
09:03
If the matter is certain, to whom is it so? To Calvin?
09:04
But then, why does he write so
many books about manifest truth?
09:06
In view of the uncertainty, we must define heretics
09:09
simply as one with whom we disagree.
09:12
And if then we are going to kill heretics,
09:14
the logical outcome will be a war of extermination,
09:16
since each is sure of himself.
09:18
SP: Or with hideous punishments
09:20
like breaking on the wheel?
09:21
RNG: The prohibition in our constitution
09:23
of cruel and unusual punishments
09:26
was a response to a pamphlet circulated in 1764
09:28
by the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria.
09:31
Cesare Beccaria: As punishments
become more cruel,
09:35
the minds of men, which like fluids
09:37
always adjust to the level of the objects
09:39
that surround them, become hardened,
09:41
and after a hundred years of cruel punishments,
09:43
breaking on the wheel causes no more fear
09:46
than imprisonment previously did.
09:48
For a punishment to achieve its objective,
09:50
it is only necessary that the harm that it inflicts
09:52
outweighs the benefit that derives from the crime,
09:55
and into this calculation ought to be factored
09:58
the certainty of punishment
10:00
and the loss of the good
10:02
that the commission of the crime will produce.
10:03
Everything beyond this is superfluous,
10:06
and therefore tyrannical.
10:07
SP: But surely antiwar movements depended
10:09
on mass demonstrations
10:12
and catchy tunes by folk singers
10:13
and wrenching photographs
of the human costs of war.
10:15
RNG: No doubt, but modern anti-war movements
10:18
reach back to a long chain of thinkers
10:21
who had argued as to why we ought to mobilize
10:24
our emotions against war,
10:27
such as the father of modernity, Erasmus.
10:29
Erasmus: The advantages derived from peace
10:32
diffuse themselves far and wide,
10:34
and reach great numbers,
10:36
while in war, if anything turns out happily,
10:38
the advantage redounds only to a few,
10:40
and those unworthy of reaping it.
10:42
One man's safety is owing
to the destruction of another.
10:44
One man's prize is derived
from the plunder of another.
10:47
The cause of rejoicings made by one side
10:49
is to the other a cause of mourning.
10:52
Whatever is unfortunate in war,
10:54
is severely so indeed,
10:55
and whatever, on the contrary,
10:57
is called good fortune,
10:58
is a savage and a cruel good fortune,
11:00
an ungenerous happiness deriving
its existence from another's woe.
11:02
SP: But everyone knows that the movement
11:05
to abolish slavery depended on faith and emotion.
11:07
It was a movement spearheaded by the Quakers,
11:10
and it only became popular when
Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel
11:13
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" became a bestseller.
11:16
RNG: But the ball got rolling a century before.
11:18
John Locke bucked the tide of millennia
11:21
that had regarded the practice as perfectly natural.
11:24
He argued that it was inconsistent
11:28
with the principles of rational government.
11:30
John Locke: Freedom of men under government
11:32
is to have a standing rule to live by
11:34
common to everyone of that society
11:36
and made by the legislative power erected in it,
11:38
a liberty to follow my own will in all things
11:41
where that rule prescribes not,
11:43
not to be subject to the inconstant,
11:45
uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man,
11:47
as freedom of nature is to
be under no other restraint
11:50
but the law of nature.
11:53
SP: Those words sound familiar.
11:55
Where have I read them before? Ah, yes.
11:57
Mary Astell: If absolute sovereignty
be not necessary
11:59
in a state, how comes it to be so in a family?
12:02
Or if in a family, why not in a state?
12:05
Since no reason can be alleged for the one
12:08
that will not hold more strongly for the other,
12:10
if all men are born free,
12:12
how is it that all women are born slaves,
12:13
as they must be if being subjected
12:16
to the inconstant, uncertain,
12:18
unknown, arbitrary will of men
12:20
be the perfect condition of slavery?
12:23
RNG: That sort of co-option
12:25
is all in the job description of reason.
12:27
One movement for the expansion of rights
12:30
inspires another because the logic is the same,
12:32
and once that's hammered home,
12:36
it becomes increasingly uncomfortable
12:38
to ignore the inconsistency.
12:40
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement
12:43
inspired the movements for women's rights,
12:45
children's rights, gay rights and even animal rights.
12:47
But fully two centuries before,
12:51
the Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham
12:53
had exposed the indefensibility
12:56
of customary practices such as
12:58
the cruelty to animals.
13:01
Jeremy Bentham: The question
is not, can they reason,
13:03
nor can they talk, but can they suffer?
13:05
RNG: And the persecution of homosexuals.
13:09
JB: As to any primary mischief,
13:11
it's evident that it produces no pain in anyone.
13:13
On the contrary, it produces pleasure.
13:17
The partners are both willing.
13:19
If either of them be unwilling,
13:20
the act is an offense,
13:22
totally different in its nature of effects.
13:23
It's a personal injury. It's a kind of rape.
13:25
As to the any danger exclusive of pain,
13:28
the danger, if any, much consist
13:30
in the tendency of the example.
13:32
But what is the tendency of this example?
13:34
To dispose others to engage in the same practices.
13:37
But this practice produces not pain of any kind
13:39
to anyone.
13:42
SP: Still, in every case, it took at least a century
13:44
for the arguments of these great thinkers
13:46
to trickle down and infiltrate
the population as a whole.
13:48
It kind of makes you wonder about our own time.
13:51
Are there practices that we engage in
13:54
where the arguments against
them are there for all to see
13:56
but nonetheless we persist in them?
13:59
RNG: When our great grandchildren look back at us,
14:01
will they be as appalled by some of our practices
14:04
as we are by our slave-owning, heretic-burning,
14:07
wife-beating, gay-bashing ancestors?
14:11
SP: I'm sure everyone here
could think of an example.
14:14
RNG: I opt for the mistreatment of animals
14:17
in factory farms.
14:19
SP: The imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders
14:20
and the toleration of rape in our nation's prisons.
14:23
RNG: Scrimping on donations to life-saving charities
14:25
in the developing world.
14:28
SP: The possession of nuclear weapons.
14:30
RNG: The appeal to religion to justify
14:32
the otherwise unjustifiable,
14:34
such as the ban on contraception.
14:36
SP: What about religious faith in general?
14:39
RNG: Eh, I'm not holding my breath.
14:40
SP: Still, I have become convinced
14:43
that reason is a better angel
14:45
that deserves the greatest credit
14:46
for the moral progress our species has enjoyed
14:48
and that holds out the greatest hope
14:51
for continuing moral progress in the future.
14:53
RNG: And if, our friends,
14:55
you detect a flaw in this argument,
14:57
just remember you'll be depending on reason
15:00
to point it out.
15:03
Thank you.
SP: Thank you.
15:05
(Applause)
15:07

sponsored links

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein - Philosopher and writer
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes novels and nonfiction that explore questions of philosophy, morality and being.

Why you should listen

In her latest book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein makes the case for the importance of philosophy -- even as neuroscience tells us more about our brains, and connective technologies teach us more about the world around us. It's written in the form of a Socratic dialog, a form that Goldstein is passionate about teaching and exploring.

Meanwhile, her novels, from The Mind-Body Problem (Contemporary American Fiction) to 2011's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Vintage Contemporaries), use techniques of fiction to untangle philosophical questions, such as: How should we balance heart and mind? What should we have faith in?

In 1996 Goldstein became a MacArthur Fellow, receiving the prize popularly known as the “Genius Award.” She was designated Humanist of the Year 2011 by the American Humanist Association. She's also the author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, a combination memoir and history.

Steven Pinker - Psychologist
Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts -- the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others. In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest.

Why you should listen

Steven Pinker's books have been like bombs tossed into the eternal nature-versus-nurture debate. Pinker asserts that not only are human minds predisposed to certain kinds of learning, such as language, but that from birth our minds -- the patterns in which our brain cells fire -- predispose us each to think and behave differently.

His deep studies of language have led him to insights into the way that humans form thoughts and engage our world. He argues that humans have evolved to share a faculty for language, the same way a spider evolved to spin a web. We aren't born with “blank slates” to be shaped entirely by our parents and environment, he argues in books including The Language Instinct; How the Mind Works; and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Time magazine named Pinker one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004. His book The Stuff of Thought was previewed at TEDGlobal 2005. His 2012 book The Better Angels of Our Nature looks at our notion of violence.

For the BBC, he picks his Desert Island Discs >>

sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.