Academic power couple Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein probably need no introduction to Open Culture readers, but if so, their lengthy and impressive CVs are only a search and click away. The Harvard cognitive psychologist and novelist and philosopher, respectively, are secular humanist heroes of a sort—public intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to defending science and classical logic and reasoning. So, what do two such people talk about when they go out to dinner?
The TED-Ed video above depicts a date night scenario, with dialogue recorded live at TED in 2012 and edited into an “animated Socratic dialogue.” The first scene begins with a defensive Goldstein holding forth on the decline of reason in political discourse and popular culture. “People who think too well are often accused of elitism,” says Goldstein, while she and Pinker’s animated avatars stroll under a Star Trek billboard featuring Spock giving the Vulcan salute, just one of many clever details inserted by animation studio Cognitive.
Pinker narrows the debate to a dilemma—a Spockean dilemma, if you will—between the head and heart. “Perhaps reason is overrated,” he ventures (articulating a position he may not actually hold): “Many pundits have argued that a good heart and steadfast moral clarity are superior to the triangulations of over-educated policy wonks.” The cowboy with a six-shooter and a heart of gold depicted in the animation bests the stereotypical eggheads in every Hollywood production.
The “best and brightest” of the eggheads, after all, says Pinker, “dragged us into the quagmire in Vietnam.” Other quagmires advocated by other policy wonks might come to mind (as might the unreasoning cowboys who made the big decisions.) Reason, says Pinker, gave us environmental despoliation and weapons of mass destruction. He sets up a dichotomy between “character & conscience” on the one side and “cold-hearted calculation” on the other. “My fellow psychologists have shown that we are led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact.”
Goldstein counters, “how could a reasoned argument entail the ineffectiveness of reasoned arguments?” (Visual learners may remember the image of a person blithely sawing off the branch on which they sit.) “By the very act of trying to reason us into your position, you’re conceding reason’s potency.” One might object that stating a scientific theory—such as the theory that sensation and emotion come before reasoning—is not the same as making an Aristotelian argument.
But this is a 15-minute debate, not a philosophical treatise. There will, by nature of the forum and the editing process, be elisions and some slippery uses of terminology. Still, when Goldstein dismisses the critique of “logocentrism” as an allegation of “the crime of letting logic dominate our thinking,” some philosophers may grind their teeth. The problem of logocentrism is not “too much logic” but the underlying influence of Platonic idealism and the so-called “metaphysics of presence” on Western thinking.
Without the critique of logocentrism, argues philosopher Peter Gratton, “there is no 20th-century continental philosophy.” Handwaving away an entire body of thought seems rather hasty. Outside of specific contexts, idealized abstractions like “reason” and “progress” may mean little to nothing at all in the messy reality of human affairs. This is the problem Pinker alludes to in asking whether reason can have moral ends if it is mainly a tool we use to satisfy short-term biological and emotional needs and desires.
By the time the check arrives, Pinker has been persuaded by Goldstein’s argument that in the course of time, maybe a long time, reason is the key driver of moral progress, provided that certain conditions are met: that reasoners care about their well-being and that they belong to a community of other reasoners who hold each other accountable and produce better outcomes than individuals can alone. Drop your assumptions, watch their stimulating animated dinner and see if, by the final course, you are persuaded too.