Pinker came off as someone who has never thought deeply about reason, science, humanism, progress, morality, or any other coordinate of existence. He had only the lamest responses to Prager's most mild challenges.
Indeed, Prager was polite and respectful with Pinker -- almost to the point of fawning -- I suspect because he is one of the few prominent liberals who is vocal in his opposition to the left. Evidently there is a lot of mindless conservative-bashing in the book, but Prager got him to acknowledge that liberalism shares much more in common with conservatism than with leftism.
I wonder if being a Beloved Professor rots one's brain? The adulation allows one to cut corners and substitute verbal wizardry for solidly anchored thought. I wonder if any amazon reviewers have noticed this? Let's check.
Hmm. Bill Gates says it is his "favorite book of all time." Kiss of death right there. Uh oh. More extravagant praise from the likes of Nicholas Kristof, Richard Dawkins, and David Brooks. Maybe I'm bigoted, but I would never even consider reading a book endorsed by these four, since it would indicate to me that the work is tainted by Deep Fallacy and Ineradicable Error.
Perhaps I should emphasize that I am in 100% agreement with Pinker that Things Are Getting Better, especially in all the measurable ways that things are getting better, such as longer lifespans, increased wealth, and less violence. The (or one) question is why -- not just proximally but ultimately.
For example, he will say because of the Enlightenment. Yes, but why did the Enlightenment only happen in Christian civilization? And I doubt he means the French Enlightenment, but I can't say for certain. His argument essentially reduces to "the stuff I like happened because of stuff I like."
He also seems to think that humanism and Christianity are antipodal, when in reality, genuine humanism is rooted in Christianity, whereas radically secular versions end in Nazism, Communism, or some other ideology that necessarily elevates man to godhood. If God is Necessary Being -- that which cannot not be -- then we can no more eliminate him than we can matter, or energy, or light. Rather, we can only deny and displace him.
Which is precisely what Pinker does. For example, he believes it is possible to ground morality in logic. Yes, I suppose that's possible, so long as you furnish logic with the correct premises! But logic alone obviously cannot provide those premises.
Remarkably, Pinker didn't seem to comprehend this when Prager pointed it out. For example, Pinker argued that it is logical not to murder children. But why should we be logical? What if I want to murder children? Who says logic is better than desire? Not Nietzsche, for one.
I'm sure Pinker's argument suffices in the academic lounge or on MSNBC. But logic has never stopped anyone from acting on a desire to commit evil. In fact, logic can obviously assist one in doing so. It is totally neutral. A Nazi might have asked, "what is the most logical way to liquidate the maximum number of Jews with the minimum expense?" Just because something is logical, it hardly means it is good, let alone true. Rather, a logical argument is only sound or unsound.
Speaking of disappointment, I recently read a book called Simply Gödel, and it wasn't especially helpful to the cause. However, it does at least agree with Bob that logic ultimately "consists of empty tautologies" -- of "rules or conventions for deducing sentences from one another, determining whether sentences are consistent with one another, and so on..."
Imagine a guy as bright as Pinker making a tautological argument. But there it is. It means he is saying "nothing," or conveying no information at all. In other words, if I excitedly tell you that 1 = 1, I haven't actually said anything of interest. More to the point, "lacking intuition, we would have no knowledge of existing things at all, only opinions" (Tieszen). And Gödel doesn't mean merely subjective intuition, but rather, something more analogous to the Intellect in Schuon's sense:
Just the opposite is true: intuition is required for objectivity. Without intuition of the objects or states of affairs that our thoughts are about, we would have only empty thoughts. Truth requires agreement between what is merely thought and facts that are intuited. Intuition fills in what is merely thought.
Merely thought. This should humble mere thinkers, but it rarely does.
Similarly, mere logic can prove all kinds of things, but that doesn't mean these things are true: "Formal provability is a purely 'syntactic' notion, which means it does not involve truth" (ibid.) It may or may not be true, but as we all know, semantics cannot be reduced to syntax. You can say something that is perfectly grammatical and yet be completely full of it.
Gödel once remarked that "Either mathematics is too big for the human mind, or the human mind is more than a machine."
Well, mathematics is not too big for the human mind, so we are more than machines. QED. For "computers are just concrete syntax manipulators" incapable of standing outside or above their syntax. Which also means that "formal or computational exactness does not always yield certainty. To think otherwise is an illusion."
Mere thought, mere fact, mere logic, mere clarity, mere exactitude. None of these are goods (or truths) in and of themselves. Rather, they potentially cut both ways.
Gödel made a comment that applies perfectly to the Pinkers of the world: "ninety percent of contemporary philosophers see their principal task to be that of beating religion out of men's heads, and in that way have the same effect as the bad churches."