Steve Pinker’s next book

November 13, 2015 • 1:15 pm

It’s impossible not to like Steve Pinker, for he’s simply a nice guy; and one must also admire his diligence, for he’s able to turn out book after book in quick order, and books that are packed with intellectual depth. I don’t know how he does it, and I’m extremely jealous! In this short interview, Pinker tells us what he’s working on, something I found out by simply asking him about six months ago. He’s not secretive about his projects.

It is in fact a book on the benefits of scientism, and is based on a New Republic article that you can find here. I think that upcoming book will be very good. Pinker also recommends a book by David Deutsch I haven’t read, and you can see which one by watching the three-minute interview. If anyone has read Deutsch’s book, weigh in below.

h/t: Jiten


31 thoughts on “Steve Pinker’s next book

  1. I’ve read Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity and I recommend it as highly as I do Pinker’s work. I’m working my way through it a second time. Two takeaways from my first reading: good explanations are hard to vary. Poor explanations are easy to vary. and “Problems are inevitable. Problems are soluble.” It’s a very optimistic book.

    1. I just read that wiki article, and if it is representative I don’t know what Deutsch is on about. His claim is easy to debunk.

      Theories are all over the scale of his “explanatory power”, yet they are the correct ones. The standard model of cosmology or the standard model of particles are extremely easy to vary, yet they are the correct ones. That is opposed to quantum mechanics and general relativity that can’t be varied (except for the cosmological constant), yet they are the correct ones.

      I defer to Sean Carroll’s “The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood” to note that correct theories are arrived at. The reason such theories are the correct ones is because of the process, not because of a single measure.* I.e. theories are competed against each other, and if we are lucky – and it happens – there is only one standing at the end.

      *And it seems Deutsch merely handwaving claims that there is a measure, I can’t see that he has quantified and tested one.

      [Disclaimer: I read Deutsch’s “The Fabric of Reality”, loved it, and had a several years history of step by step understanding that all of his philosophical theories are as much bunk as other’s. If I look overly hasty it is because I may have learned how to deal with this type of fanciful thinking.]

      1. My understanding was that explanatory power (no need to reify it with capitals) was just a comparative measure of competing hypotheses; that, all other things being equal, the hypothesis with the greater explanatory power was to be preferred over another. (Unless or until it was falsified by testing its predictions.)

        (That’s my recollection from The Fabric of Reality; I haven’t read The Beginning of Infinity yet.)

        /@ / Girne (Kyrenia), Cyprus

    1. Brilliant. I saw this years ago. Worth a watch. David effectively summarizes all of philosophy of science into a few propositions.

      1. Thanksh for the link! I enjoyed reading The Fabric of Reality, though to be honest parts of it read like science fiction. Audacious theories, and hard to say how testable they are, but certainly beautiful in their own way. This is how the universe would work if it was dreamed up in the mind of a mathematician.
        I’m looking forward to reading his new one.

        1. On the recommendation of regular contributor Ant, I bought The Fabric of Reality. I found the first few chapters interesting, but thought that it then became increasingly bizarre. For a book about reality, it showed little awareness of the vastness of speculation space. Deutsch’s “many worlds” version of quantum mechanics appears to be the inverse of Richard Feynman’s “many paths”. For an exposition of the latter, and as an antidote to Deutsch, I recommend QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. By going into the guts of how the theory actually works, is is vastly more satisfying.

  2. Been meaning to read that Deutsch book. I really enjoyed The Fabric Of Reality, so I really should get to The Beginning of Infinity.

  3. Beginning of Infinity is a brilliant, mind expanding book. It’s hard to exaggerate. Everyone should read it. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. I’m 15 minutes in to listening to Deutsch’s book. My first impression is that it is elegant and approachable: he just went from images of the cosmos to empiricism seamlessly. I’ll have more to say at the end of the day, when I’ll be several hours in.

  5. This is amazing. I just made a comment in the previous thread that I thought ‘scientism’ was a good thing, and a bad thing. And over a couple hours the Pinkah writes a whole book on just that! Wow! He is fast!

  6. Beginning of Infinity is a masterpiece. In the book Deutsch talks about why the Enlightenment (1700 France mostly) was a necessary requirement (but not sufficient) for progress. His elegance on the topic led me to reading many books on the Enlightenment. (It’s obvious why Pinker sites that book in reference to his new book). Holts chapter on Deutsch seemed to mock him. Beginning of Infinity also will state that if our understanding of quantum physics is paradoxical that means we have a misunderstanding in our model. Our understanding of reality is an emergent property from our models (math). There is a somewhat odd chapter in the book on how there is no correct solution for representative elected governments. I know why he has the chapter but you need to read the book as a whole to understand.

    As for Pinker, two of his books, Better Angels and Blank Slate changed who I was to who I am.

    Also, I did not realize it at the time, but Deutsch created the first quantum computer (or at least was one of the original creators).

    1. @Gary: I relate to your words on Steve Pinker. There is no one I admire and respect more – both for the impact he’s had on my thinking and for his example in the world.

      I like Jerry’s word ‘diligence’ to describe his productivity and commitment.

  7. Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity is one of the best books I have ever read. I highly recommend it. I think he is wrong about free will and psychology, but that is a small matter. The book is fantastic.

  8. This is cool – I’ve been slowly working my way through as many physics books as I can find over the last six or seven years and the two most consistently interesting, headspinning, deeply-deep books I’ve read in that time were Fabric Of Reality and Beginning Of Infinity. David Deutsch has become my favourite science writer alongside Dawkins(and retired professor Ceiling Cat of course) and my favourite physics writer full stop.

    Fabric Of Reality I read first, quite a while ago, but it spins four or five fundamental scientific ideas into a grand, ridiculously ambitious whole – it’s been a while, but I think they include natural selection, Everettian quantum mechanics, the mathematician Georg Cantor’s insights into infinity and Turing’s universal computer. There’s dizzying idea after dizzying idea on every page – how natural selection creates order ‘across’ the multiverse(hard to explain), virtual reality and the most brilliant section on the physics of time that I’ve read in any book – and I’ve really tried to hunt down books on time in particular.

    The Beginning Of Infinity is possibly even more wide-reaching(it includes an unexpectedly interesting chapter on the failures of proportional representation and the mathematical flaws that prevent the apportionment of seats in the House Of Representatives from ever being truly fair – if anyone else had presented a chapter on that subject I’d’ve dropped the book and run) but less cohesive.

    What I can’t overstate in these two books is the sheer number of ideas from multiple disciplines which are explored – there are more ideas in one of his chapters than other writers manage to fit into a whole book. He does have some recurring ‘heroes’, whose ideas form a kind of motif throughout – Turing, Hugh Everett of the Many Worlds interpretation of QM and, tellingly, Dawkins. He also shares Dawkins’s precision and clarity in writing and his interest in the reach of deep ideas.

    You could say that Deutsch sometimes, even often, strays into quixotic arrogance – I seem to remember a chapter in one of the books by the end of which he claims to have solved the philosophical problem of induction(!) – but I cannot recommend him highly enough. The two books that I keep recommending to people who ask about science writing are both his.

    What’s great about Jerry’s post is that Pinker’s the catalyst – and The Better Angels is another book I’ve been trying to force on people…and failing, since the hardback copy is the size of a breezeblock. You couldn’t go far wrong in choosing Dawkins, Deutsch and Pinker as a desert-island, science-writing triumvirate though.

  9. I read this book in September of 2011 (I looked up my Amazon order). I remember that I enjoyed it, but no longer remember details. I guess that means it’s time to read it again.

  10. I read Deutsch’s second book 3 years ago on a recommendation of my brilliant nephew (a PhD in Math… Harvard and Tulane). After somewhat of a struggle with the content, my nephew later informed me that he thought Deutsch to be somewhat…. well I can’t recall the exact words, but his language seemed to suggest that D. Deutsch was a bit of a wild eyed nut to some of his colleagues. I know of a few family members who view my 29 year old nephew as a wild eyed nut too. As it turns out, my nephew actually meant to recommend Deutsch’s first book… The Fabric of Reality… which I have an e-copy of on my Nook, but have yet to read. My nephew… a PhD in math and he can’t get it right between book 1 and book 2.

  11. Pinker’s essay is good on details of science vs society, but I don’t know if I agree with his description of science. (A minor nit is that it is dated: that life emerged “almost” 4 billion years ago is now in tension with several observations. I.e. habitability before 4.3 billion years ago, several consistent molecular datings of the first split before 4.2 billion, and putative trace fossils in one zircon before 4.1 billion.)

    “And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise.”

    Information is a relative measure. One can make absolute ones, say by using the requirement of unitarity in quantum mechanics, but then they are “physical stuff”. And useful mathematics and science and morals are results of processes among physical (biological) stuff, as everything else is.

    Nature is, and nature is a system that instantiates the physics we have successfully managed to study, most generally with self consistent cosmologies of late. I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t welcome such simple and simplifying, not dogma, but observations.

  12. Pinker’s editorial in the New Republic I think captures a major problem in academia (why can’t science and the humanities get along), but I think he may overstate it in places. And in fact, I think his particular use of language in one place may add to the conflict rather than minimize it (that’s right, me of the perpetual typo, is going to criticize one of my all time favorite word smiths).

    First, let me say that I have no idea why certain people in the humanities would not want to be informed aided by science. There have been numerous excellent scientific articles studying why we (on the whole) prefer certain landscape paintings over others, why certain jazz tempo shifts are more common in more popular songs than in less popular songs, etc. Why anyone in the humanities would want to deny that knowledge is beyond me.

    Now for the critique: Pinker states that, “The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.” Well, yes the fields of history and political science were seduced by post-modernism in the 1970’s, but if you read the peer-reviewed articles of today, not so much so. In fact as long ago as 7-8 years ago I read a fascinating set of articles and rebuttals about the use of evolutionary psychology in historical research.

    I honestly don’t know why some in the humanities do not embrace science, but Pinker may give a clue:

    “History nerds can adduce examples that support either answer, but that does not mean the questions are irresolvable. Political events are buffeted by many forces, so it’s possible that a given force is potent in general but submerged in a particular instance.”

    Those “History nerds” are called historians, and although they sometimes work on understanding very long term trends, a part of their job description is also to suss out the factors that affect a “particular instance.”

  13. For anyone interested, the full interview can be seen here:

    I write some of the episodes for the YouTube channel in question (The Ling Space), where we’re all about the science of language. Being a scientific skeptic, though, I tried to work in the sorts of questions that would appeal to the WEIT crowd.

    Thanks, professor Ceiling Cat, for sharing this with your readers! ^_^

  14. I tried to read Deutsch’s new book but it done my brain. Just to say I applauded his optimism. Given a chance we ain’t see nothing yet. Go David!

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