Spencer Schar: An Overview of “Rationality” by Stephen Pinker

Spencer Schar is an entrepreneur and avid reader whose favourite authors include Stephen Pinker. This article will take a closer look at Stephen Pinker’s book Rationality, delving into the concept of rationality from a philosophic perspective.

In the current era, public confidence in science is constantly being undermined by a never-ending barrage of conspiracy theories. Stephen Pinker calls for a return to public discourse and rational thought in his 2021 book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, and Why It Matters.

Stephen Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, is also the author of Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He suggests that humankind will always need to “push back against our irrationality”, highlighting that, when combined with an awareness of our own biases, science, education, democracy, and journalism can all help people to embrace a more rational approach to everyday issues.

In its broadest terms, rationality is the concept of being guided by reason. A person is regarded as acting rationally if they have good reason to do the things they do, holding beliefs that are based on strong evidence. Irrationality, on the other hand, tends to have a negative connotation and is associated with thoughts and actions that are illogical and less useful than other more rational alternatives.

The academic literature provides an overview of the various types of rationality. The most significant distinction is between practical and theoretical rationality. While practical rationality relates primarily to actions, theoretical rationality involves the rationality of beliefs, examining whether those beliefs are founded on strong evidence. In some instances, practical and theoretical rationality can conflict. Other different types of rationality include ideal rationality, bounded reality, and collective or social rationality, which pertains to collectives and their group decisions or beliefs.

Rationality is integral to solving all kinds of problems and helping people reach their goals efficiently. Rationality is relevant to many disciplines, including ethics, psychology, and logic studies.

Rationality is a commonly discussed topic in philosophy, particularly in realms that pertain to understanding and evaluating human thoughts and actions. Traditionally, philosophers characterized rationality as the quality of thinking “well” or “properly”, i.e. thinking appropriately. On the whole, philosophers saw rational thinking as good and irrational thinking as bad. Nevertheless, in recent years, philosophers have started to question this basic premise.

According to Steven Pinker, “rationality is always in pursuit of a goal”. That goal may be rational to the individual but irrational to society, a scenario Pinker describes as “a tragedy of the rationality commons”, using the example of shepherds grazing their sheep on town commons. This benefits each shepherd on an individual basis, but when everyone does it, commons get denuded and everyone is worse off. In society, if everyone is successful in gaining prestige within their political clique by demonizing rival sects and glorifying their own sacred beliefs, this may work to everyone’s advantage on an individual level. However, on a societal level, in terms of interest in truth and best policies, it would not be advantageous.

Stephen Pinker puts forward the idea that people are born with primitive intuitions which serve them well in traditional societies but become obsolete in scientifically sophisticated echelons. A common example of primitive intuition is the notion that all living things have an “essence” that gives them powers and enables them to function, while disease stems from external contaminants that pollute them. This belief rationalizes all manner of “quack” therapies, such as purging, cupping, and bloodletting. Stephen Pinker puts forward the idea that these primitive intuitions are unlearned when people buy into the consensus of the scientific establishment. Nevertheless, in the current climate, many people do not trust the scientific establishment, instead falling back on those intuitions.

Born September 9th 1954 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Steven Arthur Pinker is a Canadian-American popular science author, cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist, and public intellectual. Pinker specializes in visual cognition and developmental linguistics, with his experimental topics including regularity and irregularity in language, mental imagery, the neural basis of grammar and words, shape recognition, visual attention, and childhood language development. He has written two technical books that put forward a general theory of language acquisition, applying these theories to children learning verbs.

For the week ending 2nd October 2021, Steven Pinker’s book Rationality debuted in ninth place in The New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described Pinker’s work as “rigorous yet steadily accessible and entertaining”, while Andrew Anthony of The Guardian reflected that Pinker was not a “dry and humourless slave to rational thought”, pointing out that what people find funny is “often nothing more than clever inversions of logic”.

In addition to being named among Prospect Magazine’s Top 10 World Thinkers in 2013, Steven Pinker also ranked among Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, as well as being named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2004.

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