I’ve often been a defender of Steve Pinker, and it’s because I agree with most of what he says and because I think he’s been unfairly maligned—perhaps the most unfairly maligned public intellectual in the U.S.. But today I’m going to praise and criticize his views, largely praising his views on identity politics but criticizing his views on free will. Both are laid out in an absorbing new interview by Pelle Axelsson on the site IntellectInterviews. (I’m pretty sure Steve would hate the title below!). Click on the screenshot to read it.
There’s a lot of material in this interview: stuff about the evolution of language, the effects of social media, climate change and denialiam, Pinker’s own reading habits, and, as I said, identity politics and free will. I’ll deal only with the last two.
Identity politics (“IP”). I think this is Steve’s most explicit critique of identity politics to date. Here’s what he says:
What are your thoughts on identity politics?
– It’s a regrettable development. Even though it is essential to combat racism, homophobia and sexism, we ought to do so under the principle of fairness, rights and equity. That means each individual should be treated according to his or her merits and not according to the color of their skin, their chromosomes or their sexual orientation. This is different from identity politics, as it is commonly understood, namely that there is a perpetual zero-sum contest for power among racial and sexual cartels. On that view, the source of injustice is not that people have been treated with bigotry or unfairness, but that one group has monopolized power at the expense of others. To rectify that we have to upend the hierarchy and wrest power away from the faction of straight, white males and hand it to factions of gays, racial minorities and women.
– This vision of social change is hard to justify. Modern societies aren’t divided into monolithic armies of a single sex or skin color, and it’s people who suffer or prosper, not categories. Yes, group-based bigotry and exploitation exist, but at the same time there are poor white males who are horribly disadvantaged, women of color born into privilege, and every other combination. To shame or disempower an entire category of people violates the principle of fairness and can have repercussions, such as the election of President You-Know-Who. So identity politics, with its notion of group-based power reassignment, is not the appropriate response to the undeniable existence of racism, sexism and homophobia; the principle of equal rights is.
– Another regrettable form of identity politics is the notion that we should evaluate ideas based on the demographic traits of who advocates them — that an idea should be sidelined if it comes from a white male and taken seriously if it comes from a person with some other combination of gender and skin color. I appreciate where this concern comes from. I’ve often seen brilliant women ignored, interrupted, talked over and mansplained, and have heard of many more. This and other injustices must be called out and eliminated. But that’s different from considering the ideas themselves based on who talks about them. The existence of anthropogenic climate change, for example, is true regardless of who discovered it. It’s insulting to women and people of color to evaluate their opinions based on their census traits, as if they all thought alike, or their arguments could not stand on their merits.
I pretty much agree with this (and the claim that identity politics played a role in Trump’s election), although the source of IP is a combination of bigotry and power. After all, if whites didn’t have power in this country, there wouldn’t have been slavery or Jim Crow laws, for it was whites who made those laws and had the power, via politic and police, to enforce them.
I also agree that our goal is to give everyone equal rights, though I’m not sure whether Steve thinks that attaining that goal requires some form of time-limited race- or gender-based affirmative action. (I myself favor a limited form of affirmative action, but one that takes not just race and gender into account, but things like poverty, general background, degree of “privilege” in one’s upbringing, age, and so on.) I agree more strongly with the notion that the validity of an idea depends not on its source but its content, which means that the views and prescriptions of “minoritized” people, who should have a voice and to whom we should listen, aren’t automatically correct—even on issues of oppression. Nor are the views of straight people, white people, men, or older people to be dismissed on grounds of sex, sexua preference, race, or age.
Free will. In the first sentence of his response below, Steve clearly takes the position of a determinist, but then tries to identify what free will can mean, opposing it—to my mind, somewhat misleadingly—with autonomic reflexes, and confusing freedom with predictability:
How do you view free will?
– Like most scientists and modern philosphers [sic], I don’t think that every time we make a decision a miracle happens. It’s all brain physiology. But “free will” does refer to a distinct neurobiological phenomenon. When people refer to “free will,” they are singling out a neurophysiological process that is distinct from the one that gives rise to reflexive or impulsive responses. The brain contains complex circuitry, mostly concentrated in prefrontal cortex, which takes in information from many sources, including memory, current goals, understanding of the social situation and internal models of what would happen in hypothetical futures. These include anticipations of reward and punishment, praise and blame, respect and shame. Also, the output of those circuits is not completely predictable; it can be deflected by chaotic or random elements in the brain. The decision process that we call “free will” is not completely predictable, and it is unfathomably complex, but that does not mean that it takes place outside of information processing by neural networks.
If it’s all brain physiology, then it’s all naturalism and materialism, and therefore decisions obey the laws of physics and we couldn’t have decided otherwise. In other words, “a miracle happens” is a somewhat obscure way of characterizing “libertarian free will”. In other words, I think the first sentence is an admission that we couldn’t have chosen otherwise when we make a decision or commit an act. That’s an important admission because it’s a deterministic view of behavior, which, to me at least, has enormous consequences in how we reward and punish others, and in how we view other people.
In the next question, below, he says that there are factors that could have made us behave otherwise in a situation, but I think that he’s wrong in general (see below).
I’m not sure about the absolute distinctness of a reflexive instinct from a “reasoned” one. Insofar as determinism is concerned, they’re both determined and not controllable by “will”. The former may not involve the brain at all, but it’s all neurons and the laws of physics—as is a “decision” based on taking into account the workings of an evolved and adapted brain. Yes, the latter are far more complex, but both reflexes and decisions obey the laws of physics, i.e., you could not have behaved other that how you did. In terms of what most people think of as “free will,” which is “I could have decided otherwise” free will, predictability is irrelevant. I suppose Steve is offering a form of compatibilism here: if your brain works through its hardware and software and comes up with a decision, that is “free will”, while if you jerk your leg when your knee is tapped, that is not free will. That’s Dan Dennett’s view of free will: a decision that passes through a brain’s processing, if that brain is sufficiently complex, is what he calls a decision made by free will.
But “reflexive” vs. “processed output” behaviors are relevant for things like praise, blame or punishment. If you kick someone because you’re mad at them, that’s a different matter from kicking them because they happen to walk by when a doctor is testing your reflexes. As I’ve always said, in cases like these you’re “responsible” in both situations because you are the actor who did the kicking, but what society does about it is—and should be—very different. Likewise with crime and punishment. There are reasons to sequester lawbreakers and miscreants, namely to deter others, to reform people who habitually do bad things, and to keep bad people from further injuring society. That view of crime and punishment doesn’t contain anything about whether someone committed a crime of their own “free will”, because even in the case of a premeditated murder the criminal had no “choice”. In fact, there is no way to construe “free will” in a way that will always be useful in a court of law. What we need to figure out are what are the deterministic factors that caused a problematic act, and then the best way to mitigate them.
And what about intermediate situations? If you jump out of the way of a speeding car, is that reflex or Pinker’s “free will”? There is brain processing involved, but also reflex and hormones.
Dragging “predictability” into the issue doesn’t add anything as far as I can see. Find out if someone did an harmful act, and then you can determine how to proceed in the best interests of both society and the malefactor. In many cases, treatment rather than punishment should be prescribed, or even a change in the law, as with the increasing legalization of marijuana.
Now, about predictability. Here’s the next exchange:
If we knew every bit of information existing in the brain, we could still not predict the next choice?
– Theoretically, maybe. Perhaps some Laplacian demon that knew the entire connectome of the brain, and the position and velocity of every ion and every neurotransmitter molecule, could deduce the trillions of neural firings that would take place in the ensuing moments. Though perhaps not — it’s conceivable that there are quantum effects in the brain, or thermal noise or Brownian motion in the molecules in the brain that fall below the threshold of any physically realizable measurement device. In that case, even Laplace’s demon may not be able to predict with certainty wat [sic] we will do.
– At the same time, we all can predict human behavior statistically. Clearly, the fact that society, not to mention everyday social life, functions more or less coherently means that behavior must be in large part predictable, so that our laws, norms, threats and promises can be effective. Otherwise we would be solitary hermits who just happen to share the same space, randomly bumping off each other, rather than families and institutions and societies. That doesn’t require us to predict each other’s behavior down to the last sentence and action.
First of all, predictability has nothing to do with most people’s concept of free will, which involves volition: you make a decision but could have made another decision. But, as Steve says, a decision is not a “miracle.” And yes, we know enough about people to be able to roughly predict whether or not they’ll do something. But I defy you to predict what I’ll have for dinner on Friday! That will be determined on Friday, but this lack of predictability doesn’t mean my decision about victuals is freely made.
Further, the only factor that can make you “decide otherwise” is not volition, but the unpredictability of quantum mechanics. Factors like “thermal noise” or “chaotic or random elements in the brain”, while making decision hard or impossible to predict, are still deterministic, and thus should not be limped with quantum-mechanical factors . But none of these so-called random factors have anything to do with whether or not we have free will unjder most people’s construal of that term. Random factors are not part of volition, be they based on quantum mechanics or Brownian motion. With the exception of quantum-mechanical indeterminacy, a deterministic view of human choice and behavior is independent of predictability.