Steve Pinker clarifies issues about his interview

January 10, 2020 • 11:00 am

In my post yesterday about Steve Pinker’s new interview, I made a few critical remarks about his views on identity politics, though by and large I agreed with him. I was more critical about his views on free will.

As usual, because he’s a friend, I alerted him in advance to the post, and asked him about his views about affirmative action (his interview didn’t say anything about that, but one might get the idea he opposed it), as well as about free will. I didn’t get a response from him until after my post went up, and in that response he gave me permission to post the views he set out in his email (of course I always ask in advance). I overlooked that permission and so didn’t say anything. Now that I see it, I’m posting our exchange for the record. Steve does favor affirmative action, but defends a compatibilist view of free will. (I’ve answered his email, but that’s irrelevant for this addendum.)

Anyway, our public exchange:


From: Jerry Coyne
Sent: Thursday, January 09, 2020 8:01 AM
To: Pinker, Steven

Hi Steve [irrelevant material redacted about getting together for drinks]:

. . . . Also, I’m going to put up a short post about your “Thoughts of an Intellectual” interview today (I bet you hate that title!), and I agree with you about identity politics and will say so. I wanted to ask, though, since you aver that people shouldn’t be treated as groups, whether that means you don’t favor affirmative action. If you have an answer, let me know if it’s off the record or not. This is a touchy topic and I could understand if you don’t want to publicly qualify or criticize affirmative action.

And I will go after your free will views a bit, since you claim that “randomness or thermal noise” could affect the workings of the brain and thus our decisions. We’ve discussed this before, but this would only affect decisions in a physically indeterminate way if those phenomena were due to quantum mechanical randomness. Otherwise, as you sort of admit, decisions aren’t “miracles”. But neither is randomness or Brownian motion, insofar as they adhere to classical mechanics, something that are sensibly a part of free will. As you know, predictability does not mean volition, and lack of predictability does not mean free will, at least in the classical libertarian sense. But we’ve talked about this before. I just remembered that I never sent you a follow-up email about this, but never mind.


Steve’s response:

From: Pinker, Steven
Thu 1/9/2020 10:32 AM

Thanks for posting about the interview. I’m in favor, on the record, of some degree of affirmative action — no policy is absolute, and this is a case in which a compelling social interest, namely inclusion of under-represented minorities in prominent institutions, legitimately trades off against the principle of treating every person as an individual.

Yes, the effects of Brownian motion are strictly deterministic, assuming infinite precision in measurement (or the absence of nonlinearties), so it depends on whether our Laplacian demon himself is subject to physical constraints such as thermal noise in his sensory or measuring apparatus; if so, then nonlinear dynamics could introduce non-determinism in practice. And yes, “determinism” in the mathematical sense of perfect predictability (which is the sense in which noise is relevant) is separate from “determinism” as the opposite of “free will,” conceived of as something that defies the laws of physics, although the latter notion is so obscure that it’s hard to argue against. I simply equate the common-sense conception of free will with a complex neurobiological process, which may not be deterministic in the  strict mathematical sense (again, depending on the existence of quantum effects in the brain, or on finite precision in measurement plus nonlinear dynamics).



The rest will be hashed out next week in Cambridge over libations.

35 thoughts on “Steve Pinker clarifies issues about his interview

  1. The non linearity suggestion is interesting. I haven’t yet figured out if a particle undergoing Brownian motion inside a fixed maze will exhibit net non-random motion.

    Technical comment : email addresses – maybe not necessary to put up like that, especially in parsable form – the robots can get them.

      1. I didn’t say anything except that “nonlinearity” was interesting, in the context of the notion of free will and all that.

      2. I also don’t see why thermal noise affecting Laplace’s demon has anything to do with determinism, within the framework of classical mechanics. Even if the demon cannot know the exact state of a system because of thermal noise, that system is still following deterministic laws and any outcome is determined by the initial conditions.

        1. If you take initial conditions down far enough, you hit quantum uncertainty, so you never “know” the initial conditions well enough to make deterministic predictions over the history of the universe. However the philosophical debate over whether indeterminacy is ontological or merely epistemological is resolved, the end result is functionally a non-deterministic system.

          1. Of course, but Pinker seemed to be specifically talking about a hypothetical classical framework. I agree that there is no real classical realm, and everything really is QM-indeterminate..

      3. Pinker seems to be referring to chaos, where processes due to exponential growth and/or phase space folding becomes non-predictable in practice, as Lorentz found out [ ]:

        “In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[10][11] This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos. The theory was summarized by Edward Lorenz as:[12]

        Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

        This allows the common-sense (but not religious) sense of making hard to predict “decisions” that Pinker refer to, I think. The experience is likely post-rationalization of behavior – but philosophers seem to like to call it “compatibilist” for reasons of their own?

        1. They’re interesting things. I recall, years ago, a long thread discussing them on one of the Compuserve SciTech fora, including a Dutch lass who sited her website with the UK ISP Demon, and named it Maxwellian.Demon.CO.UK . Both Marijke and Demon are long gone. I discovered another friend has died yesterday. Fairly dropping like flies these days.

  2. If discriminating against people based on their race is acceptable when it serves “a compelling social interest”, what is the overriding principle being advanced? Is it that “under-represented minorities” should have their numbers increased until they’re no longer under-represented? (I think it’s always important to ask “underrepresented in relation to what?” The answer seems to be “in relation to their proportion in the wider population”.) If that’s the case, then why not just establish a quota and be done with it?

    In other words, if the true principle we want to uphold – the one that’s important enough to justify racial discrimination – is that we want equal representation, why not seek to accomplish it directly rather than going about it via a round-about mechanism with a poor track record of efficacy?

    1. Because the Supreme Court said quotas are against the law, but you can manipulate racial and ethnic balances if it promotes “diversity”, hence the diversity industry, doing for college admissions what Enron did for accounting standards.

    2. what is the overriding principle being advanced?

      Justice. If I steal from you, and partially because of that your children are poorer, have less opportunities, etc., then even if I die it is just to think about how the living could or should help your children out of the hole I unfairly put them in. Your children have been done a wrong. It is justice to put things right. This is not to blame society for the theft, but only to say that, something like an insurance policy, if your family “paid in” to society as a whole, then they should reasonably expect to get “paid out” when some negative event covered by the social contract happens to them.

      And guess what? When that ‘societal insurance company’ enslaved some of it’s members for over a hundred years, those members have a VERY good case for the claim that they put in, and that this is a negative event that should be covered.

      IMO part of the difficulty and part of why reasonable people can disagree on what good, positive affirmative action should look like is because the difference between ‘reasonable recompense’ and ‘favoritism’ is a matter of degree, not a qualitative or white line distinction. That makes the problem hard. Nevertheless, IMO it’s better to try and find the right balance – and probably make some mistakes – than give up altogether merely because the problem is hard. Where would we be if we banned impperfect solutions to social problems merely because they were imperfect?

      1. If I steal from you, and partially because of that your children are poorer, have less opportunities, etc., then even if I die it is just to think about how the living could or should help your children out of the hole I unfairly put them in

        But isn’t it interesting that I did not steal from anyone, we are talking about a cultural institution which was abolished 155 years ago (over 5 generations). Was slavery stealing? Did American slaves have standards of living hire or lower than comparable wage workers? That is a historical question, and historians like Eugene Genovese examined it in Roll, Jordan, Roll, but it turns out be much more complex than social activists would like.

        But let’s go with this thought anyways, somebody stole from someone else over five generations ago, and five generations later, what moral duty is owed?

        The first thing is that affirmative action is not tied to being a descendant of American slaves. You might be a Nigerian immigrant who’s family sold Blacks to the Portuguese 7 generations ago, slaves that made their way across the Atlantic to America, yet you would benefit from affirmative action, while the descendant of white immigrant who came to America, almost immediately got drafted, and died fighting for the Union Army gets nothing. Its a very strange compensation system.

        Further, its not clear that you can assume causation from a social institution that ended 150 years ago. If you look at the changes in opportunities for women 155 years ago (and many would argue that the legal status of women through much of the 19th century was worse than a male slave), we find today that women are a majority of college graduates. The Japanese-Americans, despite confiscation of their property and their being placed in concentration camps in the 1940’s, don’t seem to need a hand up.

        I’m not sure the reparative justice argument holds up analytically, although I agree it is stirring rhetoric. Further, even if true, the fact that it is not actually tied in any way to the historic victims of slavery or even Jim Crow makes it a poor defense of “diversity” as it currently exists.

    1. I believe the purpose of AA is to redress historic wrongs which reverberate still today. It isn’t about “bringing us together”, whatever that means. Irrespective of the merits of any particular affirmative action policy, I think phrasing it that way poisons the well.

      1. Perhaps in theory, but in practice nobody involved in its implementation seems to care about historic wrongs. Certainly university and corporate administrators who try to depress Asian numbers and boost Hispanic numbers don’t justify it in relation to any historic wrong.

        It seems that they just try to make sure non-white ethnic groups and women are not underrepresented in relation to the general population, on the assumption that everyone is equally interested and capable.

        1. Yeah well, I suppose it is human nature to try to game any system of spoils but the fact remains that there are historical wrongs committed against groups of people and the effects of those wrongs are still felt today. Addressing that is the motive behind AA, irrespective of how it is carried out. IOW; those are separate arguments. The hard part for any AA policy is deciding when it no longer serve its purpose (or rather when it is no longer needed). Some people who oppose AA do so because they feel that that time has passed while some, like me, think it has not yet come to be.

          1. If you want to look at the real reason people defend affirmative action as a policy, it is a combination of two forces.

            You only have to look at the Tuskegee Experiment, in which the U.S. government studied the effects of tertiary syphilis by failing to treat Black sharecropper, who got to experience the horrible process of dying from syphilis while their doctors pretended to treat them for it:


            This sort of thing would be less likely to happen if you had Black individuals incorporated in the political decision-making class. I think a lot of liberals want to see Blacks included in the decision-making class because they want to protect Blacks and other ethnic minorities from being screwed over like you see in Tuskegee.

            The other aspect is that there is a persistent Black-White (and Black-Asian) scoring gap on standardized testing, such that if you went to purely meritocratic admissions, Black and Hispanic enrollment would drop to less than 1 percent or so at elite colleges (you can look at enrollment in California after the abolished affirmative action, and before the UC schools found loop-holes around the law). The concern is that if you go merit-only, you won’t have enough Black and Hispanic elites who then filter into the political decision-making class.

            I think the problems with affirmative action is not intentions, and not in the goals, but it is in the attendant corruption and duplicity that comes from the dishonest need for justifications of affirmative action, which have resulted in the relativizing of merit and standards leading to a significant decline in the quality of higher education.

    2. It shows compassion towards people who are disadvantaged due to unfair treatment done to their (comparatively recent) ancestors. It shows an understanding that life and history aren’t fair, and that one of the values of a decent society (though not the only one) should be to mitigate the effects of such ‘historical unluckiness’ rather than simply shrugging our shoulders at it.

      From my perspective, it’s the opposition to it – the ‘why-should-I-care-why-your-mother-was-poor, I-didn’t-do-it-so-I-shouldn’t-have-to-contribute-to-fixing-it’ attitude – that does not bring us together as one people.

      1. All disadvantaged people deserve compassion. In their oresent situation.
        Identifying who is disadvantaged because of the past injustice is not possible, some people belonging to all identity are disadvantaged, and some people belonging to all identity groups are advantaged. Separating people into groups is bit helpful. Showing compassion for all disadvantaged people is.

    3. brings us together as one people.

      Has that ever been anything other than a political soundbite? On either side of the Atlantic?

  3. Brains do memory stuff, at all levels, dreaming, being awake or dead, mental problems, animal abilities, etc. When examined that also decently explains consciousness, free will, and all the other stuff that we make up …

  4. I’m not entirely sure what Pinker means when he says he “equates” free will with a particular set of neurobiological processes, so it’s hard for me to tell if he’s taking a compatibilist perspective or not. From what I have observed, some compatibilists insist that free will, while not ‘free’ in the most ultimate sense, is still qualitatively different from other neurobiological processes in some important way; while others will acknowledge that it is mostly a semantic difference but say that even so, there are important moral differences in how we should treat any behavior labeled ‘free will’ (this may seem unfair if you believe that free will is not actually free, however, upon envisioning someone stabbing another person, shrugging, and going “Wasn’t my fault”, and society in turn saying “Yeah, wasn’t your fault”, I think an intuition does arise that it’s important to speak to actions that would fall under ‘volitional’ in a way we wouldn’t for actions that are ‘non volitional’. Perhaps that isn’t ultimately fair, and yet, a world of people shrugging off misdeeds as “Couldn’t have done otherwise” wouldn’t work either. Even if this is only a way of motivating people to try and influence their future selves, it still only applies to volitional actions, which makes them perhaps ethically distinct, even if they are not free.)

    At any rate, without knowing what he thinks on either of those topics, hard to say if he is a compatibilist or simply acknowledging he understands what people are generally talking about when they reference ‘free will’.

    1. “some compatibilists insist that free will … is still qualitatively different from other neurobiological processes in some important way”

      I wonder who says that. Are you thinking of people like Roger Penrose that claim that consciousness requires quantum effects that may take place in cells’ microtubules?

      1. I meant qualitatively different in terms of psychology / processing, not the underlying physics. Compatibilists – at least in my interpretation – tend to say that will is not ultimately free, yet still wall off some notion of ‘free will’ and label it both distinct and important in terms of ethics, morality, etc. I think the justification used for walling off this notion varies – some compatibilists lean more towards saying there is something unique about the process in terms of psychology, some come closer to saying it’s more a semantic difference but for the sake of ethics we should act as if it isn’t – at least in my observation of such conversations.

  5. And I will go after your free will views a bit, since you claim that “randomness or thermal noise” could affect the workings of the brain and thus our decisions.

    Granting Pinker this, it’s still the case that he’s really only defending the “free” part of free will, not the “will” part. There’s really no rational sense in which we an call randomness or thermal noise a mechanism of human choice. But, sounds like PCC already pointed this out to him, so I guess I’m rehashing old territory.

    I simply equate the common-sense conception of free will with a complex neurobiological process, which may not be deterministic in the strict mathematical sense

    Prof. Pinker’s argument would seem to entail that a complex robot brain that sometimes uses a random number generator as input into it’s decision algorithms has the common-sense conception of free will. That’s a complex process that may not be deterministic in the strict mathematical sense.

    I disagree on two fronts. First, I disagree that such a thing has free will in any meaningful sense. And second, I disagree that this matches a vernacular “common sense” notion of free will. As much as this may chagrin serious philosophers and scientists trying to defend a compatibilist notion of it, the common sense notion of free will is dualism (at least IMO).

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