Steven Pinker & Rebecca Goldstein Debate the Value of Reason in an Animated Socratic Dialogue

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Steven Pinker: “Dear Human­ists, Sci­ence is Not Your Ene­my”

What is the Good Life? Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, Niet­zsche, & Kant’s Ideas in 4 Ani­mat­ed Videos

How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions on Ethics Nar­rat­ed by Har­ry Shear­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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