Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Blank Slate: Steven Pinker Stuck in the Seventies

Steven Pinker became a celebrity when he published How the Mind Works, a book that explains the human mind using evolutionary biology (which explains why we evolved the emotional biases and intellectual capabilities that we have) and cognitive science (which uses computer models to explain human thought). It is an excellent book that is about 95% science and is only about 5% physicalist dogma claiming that there is nothing to the human mind except what these sciences can explain.

Once you are a celebrity, publishers are eager to bring out anything you write. Pinker continued to write some books that explain his scientific work to the public, such as The Language Instinct. But he was also able to publish works that are more dogma than science.

The most dogmatic is The Blank Slate. This diffuse, disorganized book devotes some time to Pinker's valuable scientific work, but it devotes much more time to Pinker's amateurish attempts at philosophy and to political opinions that he formed in the 1970s and has not rethought since.

Beating Dead Horses

Pinker begins the book by saying that colleagues always told him that he was beating a dead horse when he told them that he was working on a book about the theory that the mind is a blank slate that our experience writes upon, a theory that goes back to the seventeenth-century writings of John Locke. No, Pinker says, it is still central to the intellectual debate today.

But the first example he discusses at length to show that the blank slate is still central is behaviorist psychology-the theory, most famously expounded by B.F. Skinner, that our behavior is entirely the result of conditioning and not of human nature. Skinner believed that we could condition people to produce a utopian society, and he replied to criticism that he would reduce human freedom by saying we are already the products of conditioning, so we are "beyond freedom and dignity."

This is an unfortunate way for Pinker to make his point that the blank slate is central to today's intellectual debates, because the influence of behaviorist psychology peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, and virtually no one believes in it today. Today, the most common theory among the public is that our psychology depends on brain chemistry-which is why we try to restore the normal chemical balance in the brain by giving Ritalin to school children and Prozac to adults. How can Pinker possibly use behaviorism to show that the blank slate is important today?

Pinker also argues for the relevance of this book by providing a long series of quotations from anthropologists who are cultural relativists, claiming that every culture is equally valid because there is no human nature, just a blank slate. Yet the quotations range from the 1930s through the 1970s. The influence of this sort of thinking has declined dramatically in the face of evolutionary psychology, which shows that there is an evolved human nature. How can Pinker use a series of quotations that ends in the 1970s to show that the blank slate is important today?

Radical Marxists and Feminists

The reason becomes clear later in the book, when Pinker begins to talk about his own personal introduction to these issues: Pinker is still fighting against the ideas that were popular when he was a graduate student in the 1970s.

At that time, politics in the academy was dominated by Marxists, who believed there is no human nature and our behavior is the result of economic factors, and by radical feminists, who believed there is no human nature and that differences between men and women are purely the result of social stereotypes. Pinker compares these thinkers to modernist urban planners, such as Le Corbusier, who created utopian designs for cities that failed because they ignored human nature. In later chapters of the book, he adds deconstructionists to the crew he attacks.

Yet the influence of these schools of thought among academics peaked in the 1970s. The influence of Marxism has waned dramatically since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989, and the influence of the most extreme radical feminists has waned dramatically since feminism entered the mainstream. The influence of modernist planning in the style of Le Corbusier peaked in the 1960s, and today modernist planning has been eclipsed by New Urbanism, with its neo-traditional urban design. As one sign of this change, over 96,000 units of public housing in the modernist style were torn down under the federal government's HOPE VI program and replaced with neo-traditional urban neighborhoods.

Pinker is quite right to say that these schools of thought are dehumanizing. He is particularly good in later chapters of the book, where he adds deconstructionism to the enemies' list and refutes it using his own theories about language rather than just attacking his opponents rhetorically. But throughout, he is beating horses that are either dead or dying: deconstructionism was still on the rise in the 1970s, but its influence peaked in the 1980s and has been declining since.

He complains about scientists who wanted to make their work serve "hard-left ideology," some calling themselves the "radical science movement," and his leading example is the first lecture he attended as an graduate student at Harvard in 1976. It was true in the 1970s, but how many scientists are there today who say they are part of the "radical science movement"?

1970s Environmentalists

Environmentalists were also very influential when Pinker was a graduate student, and in The Blank Slate, he parrots conventional conservative arguments against environmentalism, focusing on environmental issues that were current in the 1970s and ignoring those that are most important today.

He attacks environmentalists for what he calls their "Malthusian" predictions that there are limits on resources, criticizing the Club of Rome Report named The Limits of Growth, which focused national attention on the issue when it was published in 1972. To refute this report, he mentions the famous wager between Paul Ehrlich, an early environmentalist, and Julian Simon, a fellow at the free market Cato Institute, about whether the price of natural resources would rise in real terms between 1980 and 1990; they bet about the price of five strategic metals, and Ehrlich lost all five bets, because (Pinker says) "Malthusian prophesies ignore the effect of technological change in increasing the resources that support a comfortable life." Pinker mentions in passing that The Limits of Growth said that uncontrolled growth would ultimately cause both resource shortages and more pollution than the earth could absorb-but he goes on to ignore pollution and only discuss resources.

Yet elementary economics tells us that the free market gives businesses an incentive to increase the supply of a resource when shortages drive its price up, but that the market has no mechanism that gives businesses an incentive to reduce pollution. Environmentalists are clearly right to say that government must control pollution. In 1990, the United States set up a cap-and-trade program to reduce the emissions that caused acid rain, and it worked: acid rain is no longer killing our forests and lakes, as it was in the 1980s. By the time Pinker wrote The Blank Slate, environmentalists considered global warming to be the greatest environmental threat and were calling for cap-and-trade to control it also. In fact, California passed a law using cap-and-trade to control greenhouse gas emissions just four years after this book was published.

When it comes to global warming and other problems caused by pollution, Pinker is clearly wrong to attack environmentalists and claim that new technology in itself will solve the problems. Yes, we do need to develop new clean energy technologies to control global warming, but the market does not provide the incentive needed to shift to clean energy quickly enough. It will remain cheaper for quite a while to keep existing dirty power plants than to replace them with clean energy, so we need the government to provide incentives to shift to clean energy in time to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The entire world realizes this, with the exception of the Trump administration, which is why the world adopted the Paris agreement in 2016 and governments worldwide pledged to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

This is elementary economic theory-the market does not account for what economists call "externalities"-but Pinker simply ignores it and keeps repeating the claim that technology alone will solve our problems.

Pinker attacks environmentalists of the 1970s, such as Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome, and he ignores what environmentalists are saying today. The resource shortages and economic disruption of the 1970s led many environmentalists to be overly pessimistic during that decade and to think that environmental crisis was inevitable. Today, as we face the problem of global warming, most environmentalists are guardedly optimistic: we can avoid the worst effects of climate change if world governments can agree to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to transition to clean energy, as they did in the Paris Agreement, and then can move quickly enough to limit emissions. Yet the Paris agreement would never have been signed if we listened to the right-wing slogan that we do not need to control pollution because technology will solve all our problems.

Since global warming is the biggest environmental issue that the world faces today and was the biggest at the time he wrote, we would expect Pinker to look at what environmentalists say about this issue, rather than focusing on what Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome were saying during the 1970s. With the overwhelming majority all climate scientists agreeing that human-caused global warming is a significant threat, we would expect Pinker to look at scientific evidence and economic realities that exist today, but instead he restates the political prejudices that he formed in the 1970s.

Materialist Moral Philosophy

Though his philosophy is amateurish, Pinker does know more about the subject than most evolutionary psychologists, and he does a better job of justifying morality than the usual account of how altruism evolves. He understands how altruism evolved, but he also understands that he would be committing the naturalistic fallacy if he tried to justify morality on the basis of how it evolved.

Instead, he justifies morality by reproducing a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin says he does not believe in morality and Hobbes shoves him so he falls in the mud. Pinker comments:

The brain may be a physical system made of ordinary matter, but that matter is organized in such a way as ... to feel pleasure and pain. And that in turn sets the stage for the emergence of morality. ... since one is better off not shoving and not getting shoved than shoving and getting shoved, it pays to insist on a moral code, even if the price is adhering to itself oneself."

Pinker is saying that morality is a matter of expediency: we want to have pleasure and avoid pain, and we invent morality because it helps us get what we want, sacrificing some pleasures to avoid greater pains. This is similar to the social contract theory of philosophers beginning with Hobbes. It is also similar to the evolutionary psychologists' theory of reciprocal altruism, but it presented in a way that justifies morality rather than explaining how it evolved. Yet there are obvious problems with this theory.

If morality is just a matter of expediency, then it makes sense to cheat. If I go along with my society's morality just because it helps me to get pleasure and avoid pain, then I will also cheat if it helps me to get pleasure and avoid pain. In most cases, I will not cheat, because being detected would hurt my reputation and make my life less pleasant, but if I am sure that my cheating will never be detected (or if I think the benefits of cheating outweigh the risk of being detected) then I will cheat.

If morality is just a matter of expediency, then I will not help the poor and powerless unless it also helps me. The powerless generally cannot retaliate for any damage I do to them and cannot repay me adequately for any benefits I give them. I will help them only if I think it will make my own life better by giving me a reputation for charity, which will make people admire me and will make my own life more pleasant.

If morality is just a matter of expediency, then it does not apply to people outside of my society. I go along with my society's morality because my life will be more pleasant if everyone I encounter accepts this morality, but if my society discovers some new part of the world where primitive people live, then I will decide what to do with those people by asking myself whether my own life will be more pleasant if my group treats them morally or if my group enslaves or exterminates them.

If morality is just a matter of expediency, then it certainly does not apply to animals. Animals cannot join in the social contract by accepting society's morality, so there is no benefit to me in treating animals kindly. I will treat them in the way that is most expedient for me, and if treating animals cruelly saves me a bit of money when I buy food, that is what I will do. Why should I do anything for animals, when animals will not do anything for me in return?

Notice that all of these examples talk about what I "will" do, rather than about what I "ought" to do. Pinker understands the naturalistic fallacy, so he should agree with me that, if ethics is based on expediency, it is logically impossible to get from "is" to "ought." It "is" true that I desire to have pleasure and to avoid pain and that I am more likely to satisfy this desire if my society has a moral code, but it is impossible to get from those "is" statements to the statements that I ought to obey the moral code.

Epicurus, the earliest materialist philosopher whose writing survives, was the first to advocate Pinker's idea that morality is just a matter of expediency. Like Pinker, he believed that only matter exists, that we try to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and that we invent morality as a matter of expediency, to avoid being harmed by others.

Despite all of his scientific knowledge, Pinker is not able to do a better job of justifying morality than Epicurus did over two millennia ago. No materialist can. They can only appeal to expediency, because they live in a world of "is statements" where there cannot be any justification for "ought statements."

Physicalism and Freedom

Pinker blames the blank slate for the totalitarian ideologies of Marxism and radical feminism: if there is no human nature, then we can manipulate people in any way that is needed to reach our utopian goals. He doesn't mention that John Locke, his earliest example of the blank slate, inspired the liberal ideals of the American Revolution-that Jefferson had a bust of and Locke in his study and based the argument of the Declaration of Independence on Locke's ideas.

As usual, Pinker's argument is out of date. Utopians used to claim that there was no limit to their ability to manipulate people because there was no human nature, but the technology being developed today gives us more power over nature. Even if there is a human nature, utopian totalitarians can potentially use drugs and genetic engineering to change human nature.

Totalitarians potentially have much more power than they had in the past. In the past, they ignored human nature, so their utopias ultimately failed, as Pinker says. Today, they are on the edge of being able to manipulate human nature to make humanity fit into their utopias.

In the days of B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists, educators talked about conditioning children, but today, educators are more likely to get drug prescriptions for children: instead of trying to condition children who are disruptive, they say the children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and give them prescriptions for Ritalin. Some children can benefit from psychiatric drugs, but the fact that we in the United States prescribe psychiatric drugs more than twice as often as the Netherlands and more than three times as often as Germany shows that we are over-using drugs to control children who do not fit in.

Utopian totalitarians will welcome new drugs that control behavior more effectively and will also want to use genetic engineering to change human nature. How can we justify resistance to these new forms of totalitarianism?

The usual justification is that controlling people in these ways would violate their freedom, but Pinker says explicitly that we have no freedom, and our behavior is determined.

He spends a chapter of The Blank Slate talking about the conflict between determinism and free will. He says that his physicalism is deterministic, but we should not worry about determinism because it does not undermine personal responsibility. We make people responsible for their actions, for example, by punishing criminals, and people take these consequences into account when they plan their actions. The possibility of punishment is one of the factors that determines their behavior, so they are held responsible for their behavior even though it is determined.

But he does not notice a deeper implication of his view: if we are nothing more than computers whose behavior is determined, rather than humans who have freedom, then we can no longer say that utopians who control our behavior are violating our freedom.

It is odd that Pinker believes in determinism, which is based on classical physics, rather than seeing that modern physics allows for randomness as well as determinism. We have seen that Daniel Dennett uses twentieth-century physics to argue that freedom is worthless, because it can only be random behavior, which is no better than determined behavior. By contrast, Pinker sticks with the old debate between freedom and determinism, based on the nineteenth-century physics. This is one more example of how amateurish his philosophy is.

Either way, physicalists like Pinker or Dennett do not believe in freedom, so they do not believe in the most important reason to resist totalitarian use of drugs and genetic engineering. Our minds are just evolved computers, so why shouldn't redesign and improve them, just as we constantly redesign and improve the computers on our desktop?

A dualist or new-physics materialist can believe that evolution took advantage of some unknown property of matter to create freedom-the ability to make deliberate decisions-and can believe that freedom is so valuable that we should not allow utopian social planners to control us. But physicalists do not believe in freedom. Though Pinker himself seems to be a decent person who would resist totalitarianism, he is promoting a theory that implies there is nothing wrong with totalitarian control of human behavior.

In The Blank Slate, he argues at length for genetic engineering of food, and some of arguments would also support genetic engineering of people. It seems that he overlooks human genetic engineering because it is unthinkable in our society-but if our society accepted Pinker's physicalism, human genetic engineering would be thinkable, there would be no coherent argument against it, and we would be heading straight for Brave New World.

Pinker doesn't realize what today's real problem is. The theory of the blank slate promoted totalitarianism in the past, when human nature was an obstacle to utopian schemes. But today, we are developing the ability to control human nature, and Pinker's physicalism removes the best reason to stop totalitarians from changing human nature to fit it into their utopian schemes.

In the future, as we gain more and more power to control human nature, Marx's dialectical materialism will not be as great a threat to freedom as Pinker's physicalist materialism.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Cherry-Picked Data in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now says that progress occurs because people continually solve problems, but Pinker himself gets in the way of progress by cherry-picking the data to deny that problems exist.

The two exceptions are nuclear war and global warming, which could both have such disastrous consequences that he suggests solutions to them. But on other issues, Enlightenment Now minimizes or denies one problem after another.

Pinker refers to one study that says we are not going through the sixth mass extinction in the history of the Earth, as if it were more important than the many studies that say we are experiencing this mass extinction.

Pinker repeats a standard conservative talking point by saying that poverty is not a big problem in America because most of the poor have color televisions, cell phones, and appliances. But he does not mention the standard liberal response: the price of these consumer goods has gone down, but the price of housing, education, and medical care has gone up.  People who are saddled with massive student debt or who cannot afford to go to college at all would undoubtedly prefer black-and-white televisions and free or very-low-tuition public colleges, which is what we had in the 1960s.

Pinker says that increasing inequality is not a problem, citing international comparisons showing that equality is not correlated with happiness, but this defense of inequality contradicts his defense of economic growth. To defend inequality, he says that people need enough to live full and satisfying lives, and it doesn’t hurt them if others are extremely wealthy.  But to defend economic growth, he says that international comparisons show that higher income continues to increase happiness regardless of how wealthy a nation is. 

Which one is it? If people just need enough to live full and satisfying lives to be happy, then growth beyond that point does not make people happier.  If growth beyond that point makes people happier, then reducing inequality by redistributing income from the top 10% to the lower 90% would make the great majority of people happier at the expense of a small minority. Pinker has obviously never thought this through: he cherry-picks the data that defends the status quo, inequality and economic growth, without realizing that he is contradicting himself.

Graph from Enlightenment Now, page 249

But Pinker's strangest abuse of data is what he says about work hours. He has a graph that shows very clearly that work time has been going down in Europe but that it has gone up since 1970 in the United State and is now about the same as it was in 1950 - something that anyone who studies work hours knows. He writes a lot about the benefits of shorter work hours, and one paragraph looks briefly at the historic benefits of shorter work hours in the United States and then says that shorter work hours, longer life expectancy and other factors mean that “the fraction of a person’s life that is taken up by work has fallen by a quarter just since 1960” (p. 251). How can he say this about shorter work hours in a paragraph about the United States, when his own graph just two pages earlier shows that work hours are rising in the United States?  It is enough to make one look at the footnote, which refers to a study and says, “Data for the UK.”

It seems that Pinker pulled in the graph and did not think much about it, because noticing that work hours in the United States have been going up for the last fifty years would contradict his preconceptions about progress. When he wrote the paragraph about the benefits of shorter work hours in the United States, which comes two pages later, rather than looking at his own graph and seeing that work hours in the United States are not falling, he looked for a reference that would confirm his idea about progress, could not find one for the United States, and cherry-picked one about the UK instead, pulling it into the book even though it is totally out of place in this paragraph about the United States.

It is enough to cast doubt on the entire book.  The book is very wide ranging, and it presents enough data about all the different subjects it covers to make Pinker look like an expert on everything, but when we see these examples of cherry-picked data, we have to wonder about how impartial Pinker is and about how honest the data is throughout the book.

Pinker says there is progress because we are always solving problems; if so, this book is an obstacle to progress because it is in denial about many of our problems. Extinction and poverty in America are not such big problems as people think. Rising inequality is not a problem at all. The fact that Americans’ work hours have gone up for the last fifty years is not a problem - because Pinker does not even notice that it is a fact.

Pinker also seems to know relatively little about the Enlightenment authors that he professes to admire. He does quote directly from Kant’s essays (without mentioning his philosophy, which is actually critical of reason), but all of the rest of his chapter about the Enlightenment is based on recent books about the Enlightenment, and Pinker shows no sign of having studied the authors themselves. He includes Rousseau in a list of Enlightenment authors on page 10 and in a list of anti-Enlightenment Romantic authors on page 30, presumably relying on two different secondary sources without thinking about which period Rousseau actually belongs to. He includes Hume in a list of authors who believed in “deliberate application of reason” (p. 11), but the first thing you learn when you start to study Hume is that he was an empiricist who criticized Enlightenment rationalism.

Pinker sprinkles this book with gratuitous insults directed at “literary intellectuals,” but literary intellectuals at least study the old authors whom they comment on. Some of us even take the ideas in old books seriously and believe they help us to think about what is a good society and what is a good life.

Apart from cherry-picking the data, in the section of the book about progress, Pinker refuses to look beyond the data and think about the good life.

Instead, in this section, he adopts the view that philosophers sometimes call “preference utilitarianism” - the idea that everyone’s preferences are equally valid, so a society is good if it satisfies as many of those personal preferences as possible. He gives this view a progressive veneer by referring to Amartya Sen’s book Development as Freedom (p. 248), but it is also the view underlying all market economics: consumers choose freely what they want to buy, and for this to lead to the optimum result, consumers’ preferences must all be valid.

Sen is talking about the developing nations, where people are badly in need of food and housing, so they do not have much room for choice.  But in the wealthier nations (and in the world as it becomes wealthier), most people already have the basics, so it is more problematic for them do decide what to do with their increasing wealth and  the shorter work hours that Europeans have and Americans would have if we dealt with our long work hours rather than ignoring them.

Of course, people should make this choice for themselves, but they should also think about what is the best choice to make.  It does not help when Pinker, as an expert on progress, tell them that all choices are valid, any more than it would help people to choose a good diet if an expert on nutrition told them that all choices of food are valid.

In classical times, there were four major schools of philosophy with different visions of the good life - the Platonists, the peripatetics, the stoics, and the Epicureans - and the small number of male aristocrats who were privileged enough to choose their own way of life looked to philosophies to help them make an informed decision.  If any philosopher told them that all choices are equally valid, they would not have been interested, since it would not have helped them to decide how to use their freedom.

Progress gives us more and more freedom, which we can use badly or well.  In a conceivable future, many people might choose to use their greatly increased amount of leisure time watching a high-tech virtual reality version of television, where the action movies are more thrilling and the porno movies are more erotic than they could possibly be in two-dimensional television.  Or, conceivably, there might a drug that has the same effect as heroin but with no harmful side effects, so many people might spend all their leisure time in an intensely pleasurable stupor.

Would Pinker say that these consumer choices are as valid as any others? If he lived in this future, would he write that even the poor are better off than ever before because most of them have virtual-reality televisions, which are even better than color televisions, and have all the heroin they want, which is even better than whiskey?

Progress means movement toward some goal. We cannot say we are progressing without thinking about the goal we are moving toward.

When Pinker defends progress by relying entirely on data and refusing to think about the good life, he is like a man driving down the road who is convinced he is making great progress because his car has elaborate instrumentation that shows its engine is working better every day - but who has never thought about where he intends to go.  

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Defining Normal Down

A children's television program in Denmark has adults with a variety of different types of bodies strip, including overweight and obese bodies, strip naked in front of a group of children, telling the audience, "I hope you will understand that normal bodies look like this." The avowed goal is to show children that "people are different and have different bodies."

When they say "normal bodies look like this," they are playing with the ambiguous meaning of the word "normal." The word has a normative sense, meaning healthy or acceptable, and it has a descriptive sense, meaning common or usual. 

Often the two meanings are close. For example, 98.6 is the normal temperature, meaning the temperature that is healthy, and it is also the temperature that almost all people have.

But the ambiguity becomes dangerous when destructive or self-destructive behavior becomes common - for example, when it becomes common for people to be obese. If we teach children that different people have different bodies and obese bodies are just another type of normal body, then when those children grow up, they are less likely to make the effort needed to avoid obesity. 

This is a familiar habit of the modern left. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it "Defining Deviancy Down." As the amount of deviant or destructive behavior in a community increases, behavior that would have been considered deviant in the past is redefined as normal. 

We can see how destructive this misuse of the word normal is, if we imagine people applying it to other issues in the past. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, they would have reasoned that slavery is common, which means it is normal, with means it is acceptable. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they would have reasoned that subordination of women is common, which means it is normal, which means it is acceptable. It is no stranger than reasoning at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when obesity is a major public health problem, that obesity is common, which means it is normal, which means it is acceptable.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Free Will by Sam Harris

In this book, Sam Harris argues that the idea of free will is not only unsound; it is also contrary to our experience. For example, he says that, in the morning, he sometimes drinks coffee and sometimes tea, and when he makes the decision, it is just based on how he feels at the moment, which is caused by his genetic inheritance and life history, so it is not really a free choice.

Here and throughout the book, he fails to distinguish free will from volition (which is just will, without the freedom), so he fails to see that his examples involve volition. We can make this distinction by giving examples.

A dog following a trail sniffs in one place for a time and then decides which direction to go in.  This is volition without free choice; once the dog figures out which way the trail goes, it necessarily wills to go in that direction, rather than making a free choice of which direction to go in.  Volition evolved to let animals gather more information before acting, which lets them act more effectively: the delay lets the dog spend enough time to figure out which direction the trail goes, so it is more likely to find the prey it is tracking.  Likewise, Harris’ delay lets him figure out whether he is really in the mood for coffee of for tea before deciding which to do, and the decision is determined by his mood rather than being free.

By contrast, free will involves making a deliberate decision based on reasoning about evidence in the world or about our own experience. For example, when I was in my twenties, I read some books about nutrition, so I decided to eat whole grain bread and pasta rather than the refined grains I grew up on. I have generally followed that decision ever since, though I occasionally give in to my impulses and have some particularly delicious looking bit of bread made with white flower. When I made that decision, I was not being controlled by my mood: I decided that I should eat whole grains based on the scientific evidence that they are healthier.

Sometimes we make this sort of decision by reflecting on our own experience. For example, I might spend an hour reading comments on Twitter and realize that it is a waste of time and that I shouldn’t do it in the future - but occasionally, I might give in to temptation and binge on Twitter comments again.

After we have made this sort of decision, we can sometimes limit our volition based on it. For example, Harris gives in to his mood when he decides whether to have coffee or tea for breakfast, but if he were in the mood to have a few shots of whiskey for breakfast, he probably would resist that impulse. But sometimes we cannot limit our volition based on our decisions: for example, I occasionally have white bread.

Some people are chronically unable to limit their volition based on their decisions. For example, an alcoholic may realize that his drinking is destroying him, based both on scientific evidence and on his own experience, but he may not be able to stop drinking.

In cases like this, people traditionally said that the person was not free, that he was a slave to his impulses, unable to do what he himself had decided that he should do. The old-fashioned way of putting it was that he was a slave to his passions; the word "passion" was originally the opposite of "action," and it implied that the passions were not your own actions but things that happen to you and that you accept passively.  

Of course, Harris cannot make this sort of distinction. He would say that both this man's moods and his deliberate decisions were caused by his genetic inheritance and his past experiences and environment. Though he claims that our experience does not support the idea of free will, his examples don’t include any experience more complex than his decision to have coffee or tea on the morning, which depends on the impulse of the moment. He cannot deal with the experience we have all had of conflicts between our deliberate decisions and our impulses: we make deliberate decisions about what we should do and are tempted to give into the impulses of the moment rather than abiding by our own deliberate decisions.

The underlying problem is that Harris believes uncritically and unthinkingly in what philosophers call “physicalism,” the belief that the laws of physics that we currently know can explain everything.

Sometimes, he seems to go backward to the deterministic physics of the nineteenth century. For example, he says we cannot blame criminals for their crimes because “…if I were to trade places with one of these people atom for atom, I would be him: there is no extra part of me that could decide…to resist the impulse to victimize other people” (p.4).  Usually, he recognizes that some physical events are random, as twentieth-century physics showed, but he says that, if we act based on some random physical event, then we are not acting freely any more than if we act on based on determined physical events.

But he doesn’t consider the possibility that matter has some other property, which physics has not yet discovered, that lets us make deliberate decisions freely.

In the nineteenth century, physicists believed that the phenomena they observed were determined.  In the twentieth century, physicists believed that the phenomena the observed were either determined or random. It is possible that some day, physicists will discover that matter can also behave in some other way that lets us make deliberate decisions.

Physicalism is an occupational hazard of cognitive scientists and of neuroscientists like Harris, because they create models of the mind or study the brain using today’s physics, so they have an intellectual vested interest in believing that today’s physics can explain everything. But physicalism is a completely irrational position, because we know that contemporary physics is not complete. Today’s physicists have not developed a theory that reconciles relativity and quantum mechanics. They do not understand dark energy, which makes the expansion of the universe accelerate. They do not understand dark matter, which makes up most of the matter in the universe. Physicist recognize what they don’t know, but cognitive scientists and neuroscientists don’t.

At one point, Harris claims that his argument doesn’t depend on materialism: “even if the human mind were made of soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. The unconscious operation of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does” (p. 12).

He is just showing how out of touch with our actual experience. Just as we can observe that our decision about drinking coffee or tea in the morning is based on our mood, we can observe the operation of our mind making deliberate decisions, which is conscious and which is the basis of our freedom.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Steven Pinker, Progress and "Climate Alarmism"


Steven Pinker recently tweeted against what he calls "climate alarmism" and in favor of two books by opponents of effective climate action who have been thoroughly debunked by climate scientists. This sort of science denial seems odd coming from someone who claims to be a supporter of enlightenment and reason, but it is actually consistent with what he has said in the past and with what he is saying now about history being the story of progress. 
In his book The Blank Slate, he parrots conventional conservative arguments against environmentalism, focusing on environmental issues that were current in the 1970s, when he was a graduate student and formed his political opinions, and ignoring those that are most important today. He attacks environmentalists for what he calls their “Malthusian” predictions that there are limits on resources, criticizing the Club of Rome Report named The Limits of Growth, which focused national attention on the issue when it was published in 1972. To refute this report, he mentions the famous wager between Paul Ehrlich, an early environmentalist, and Julian Simon, a fellow at the free market Cato Institute, about whether the price of natural resources would rise in real terms between 1980 and 1990; they bet about the price of five strategic metals, and Ehrlich lost all five bets, because (Pinker says) “Malthusian prophesies ignore the effect of technological change in increasing the resources that support a comfortable life.” (Blank Slate, p.237)  Pinker mentions in passing that The Limits of Growth said that uncontrolled growth would ultimately cause both resource shortages and more pollution than the earth could absorb - but he goes on to ignore pollution and only discuss resources.
Yet elementary economics tells us that the free market gives businesses an incentive to increase the supply of a resource when shortages drive its price up, but that the market has no mechanism that gives businesses an incentive to reduce pollution. Environmentalists are clearly right to say that government must control pollution. In 1990, the United States set up a cap-and-trade program to reduce the emissions that caused acid rain, and it worked: acid rain is no longer killing our forests and lakes, as it was in the 1980s. By the time Pinker wrote The Blank Slate, environmentalists considered global warming to be the greatest environmental threat and were calling for cap-and-trade to control it also. In fact, California passed a law using cap-and-trade to control greenhouse gas emissions just four years after this book was published.
When it comes to global warming and other problems caused by pollution, Pinker is clearly wrong to attack environmentalists and claim that new technology in itself will solve the problems. Yes, we do need to develop new clean energy technologies to control global warming, but the market does not provide the incentive needed to shift to clean energy quickly enough. It will remain cheaper for quite a while to keep existing dirty power plants than to replace them with clean energy, so we need the government to provide incentives to shift to clean energy in time to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The entire world realizes this, with the exception of the Trump administration, which is why the world adopted the Paris agreement in 2016 and governments worldwide pledged to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
More recently, Pinker has finally joined the entire world and realized that it is necessary to control global warming, but he obviously is still reluctant to admit how big a problem it is and to support putting a price on carbon, the most effective way to deal with it. Instead, he supports writers who say that nothing is needed but more technological breakthroughs, consistent with his belief that the world is inevitably getting better, as he argues in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature
He is right to argue in this book that people have become more humane over the long course of history, but he doesn't seem to understand the cause - and he doesn't understand the difference between that long course of history and our situation today. 
Over the course of history, technology improved, so people became more prosperous and could afford to be more humane. They didn't have to be like the Vikings or the Mongol Horde, who had no way to improve their own situation apart from invading, pillaging, and killing others. Military technology also improved, but before the twentieth century, it did not improve enough to cause mass destruction. Technology that improved production had destructive side-effects, but before the twentieth century, they were just local - polluted air or water that just killed people nearby. In both cases, the costs of improved technology were clearly outweighed by the benefit of increased production. 
Today, we have gone further. We have reached the point where we have weapons of mass destruction such as hydrogen bombs, poison gas, and bioweeapons that can wipe out entire populations. Everyone agrees they should be controlled, and we have done a good job of controlling gas and germ warfare, but we are not doing a very good job of controlling nuclear weapons, as rogue states like North Korea and Iran develop nuclear bombs. If we project current trends, we have to expect that there will ultimately - perhaps in a few centuries - be widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons that will probably be used in wars between small nations, with radiation spreading around the world. And if we project historic trends, we can also expect new military technologies to eventually be developed that are even more destructive than any we have today. 
Likewise, we have reached the point where the side effects of technologies that increases production have side effects that can effect the whole planet rather than just being local, for example by destroying the ozone layer or causing global warming. We have done a good job of protecting the ozone layer, but we are not doing as good a job of controlling global warming. It seems inevitable that we will have more than 1.5 degrees of warming, though we still have some chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees, avoiding its worst effects and avoiding feedback loops that would make warming much worse, such as melting of the worlds permafrost, which would release more carbon than is already in the atmosphere - and release it in the form of methane, which causes much more warming than carbon dioxide. 
Pinker's optimistic faith that progress is inevitable makes him reluctant to deal with global warming - and so makes it less likely that we will avoid its worst effects. 
We have reached a point where there is a very obvious answer to the question of whether or not the world will continue to become better - and the answer is that it depends on what decisions we humans make. Our technology has become so powerful that it can cause immense good or immense destruction. If we limit destructive technologies, we can eliminate the poverty that has stultified most people since the beginning of history and have a world with unprecedented prosperity and peace. If we fail to limit destructive technology, we can have nuclear war or environmental breakdown that causes billions of deaths and leaves a miserable world for those who remain alive. This is the permanent situation of the human race in the future: whether or not we do deal with global warming and nuclear weapons successfully, we will continue to develop new technologies that are even more powerful than those we have today and that can bring even greater benefits or even greater destruction. 
The irony is that people like Steven Pinker, who hesitate to control destructive technologies because they think history is the story of progress, make it more likely that future generations will look back on history as the story of misery and destruction. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Which Country Is the Model?

Liberals often cite the Scandinavian countries as model Social Democratic nations, because they have prosperous capitalist economies and use taxes and other policies to reduce inequality and make sure everyone gets a share of the prosperity.

I cite the Netherlands as the model. It not only has a prosperous capitalist economy and Social Democratic policies that spread the prosperity widely.  It also has the shortest work hours of any nation in the world.

People in the Netherlands have the right to choose part-time work. About half of all workers are part time. The average Dutch employee works only 80% as many hours as the average American employee. Though they produce about as much per hour of work as Americans, they choose to use their prosperity to have more free time as well as to produce more.

Clearly, they are better off than Americans, even though they consume less. People choose to work part-time only if they think they would be happier working part-time than full-time and having more free time rather than more income.


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Is the Green New Deal Sustainable?

It seems like an odd question. The Green New Deal is a proposal to invest in clean energy to provide economic stimulus and good jobs, and the shift to clean energy is obviously needed to make the economy sustainable.

But I would say that the underlying assumption that the government should stimulate the economy to provide jobs is not sustainable. It has been the basic assumption of American politics since the end of World War II, but it is obviously not sustainable to stimulate the economy and promote economic growth forever.

As I have said many times, progressives ignore the underlying question of why we need economic growth to provide jobs.

New technology makes workers produce more, doing away with jobs. During the twentieth century, the amount that a worker produces in an hour increased roughly tenfold--which means that, in 2000, we would have had about 90% unemployment if we produced as much per capita as we did in 1900.

After World War II, we adopted the policy of dealing with this techological unemployment by stimulating the economy, so people would consume more and more and would keep up with the economy's capacity to produce more and more. But this is not sustainable.

Instead, we should be creating jobs by shortening work hours. If people could choose their work hours based on how much money they want to earn and spend, they we could match the amount the amount the economy produces to the amount that people want to consume - rejecting the unsustainable policy that we must make consumption keep up with productivity to avoid unemployment.