Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s 72-minute “Dishcast” conversation with Steve Pinker, who’s doing a lot of events related to his latest book on rationality. The video was advertised in an email to Sullivan’s subscribers, so it hasn’t yet gotten many views. Here are the YouTube notes:
Pinker’s new book is Rationality. It’s like taking a Harvard course on the tricks our minds play on us. We had a blast — and I pressed him on several points.
. . . If you’d [like to] watch the whole episode in living color — and see the most famous hair in academia — we videotaped the remote convo in the Dishcast studio. It even has the view from Pinker’s window in the background.
I don’t have the book yet, so I don’t know what Steve’s definition of “rationality” is, nor is it discussed very much in the video, so I’ll give the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “rationality” and “reason” that seem to comport with this discussion:
I would amend the “reason” definition to add “and apprehension of truth” to “The power of the mind to think and form valid judgements by a process of logic.”
This is an excellent discussion between two smart people, one of whom (Sullivan) has a strong belief in the irrational tenets of religion (he admits they’re irrational), while Pinker is an atheistic rationalist. About 25 minutes in, this leads to a discussion that is conducted with such civility that you can almost miss it: “Can religion be rational?” Otherwise, the tenor and content of the discussion is at a very high level, and Sullivan does a terrific job of bringing out Steve’s ideas while challenging some of them.
Notice the big picture of Darwin behind Sullivan.
Some of the issues and questions covered:
Are we the only animals who are rational?
What might have been the selection pressures that gave rise to the evolution of rationality?
If we’re rational, why do so many people believe in paranormal phenomena, superstitions, and so on? Why do so many people reject vaccination when it seems the rational thing to do?
Re the above: how can rationality result in religious belief?
Since there are mathematical realists who believe that the structure of mathematics is “out there” somewhere, and that mathematical truths are in existence but waiting to be discovered, Sullivan wants to know if you can apply that same logic to God. (Pinker’s answer is “no”, but is very politely delivered.)
What does Pinker see as the most pervasive and problematic forms of irrationality in modern society? (#1: The “my side” bias.)
Can rational beliefs or action on the part of individual be irrational for their society?
Sullivan, speaking as a gay man, asks Pinker how to approach raising questions that could harm his community (i.e., the idea that homosexuality is produced by the behavior of one’s mother). Pinker raises two possibilities using the example of his own background, which is Jewish. (Pinker, by the way, mentions that his next book will involve the use of euphemisms, “genteel hypocrisy,” tact and taboo in producing a better society.)
A Kendi-inspired question: Is it rational to call people racists when they have no racist beliefs or intentions, but commit an act that some people see as racist (or, as Kendi might say, are not actively antiracist)? In other words, does intent matter?
Is it rational to ignore or oppose nuclear energy when it may be an important cure for global warming?
Why do iconic events like 9/11 or the murder of George Floyd lead to some irrational reactions?
How does Pinker maintain his composure in the face of continual attacks from the Left?
Have a listen!