Rationality: a critical review

It would be a bold reader who took issue with the sheer reasonableness of this significant book or who found fault with its lucidity and logic. Pinker has the highest possible reputation as a Harvard Professor of Psychology and experimental cognitive scientist, areas of exploration much given to the use of terms unfamiliar to those outside the disciplines. But the author avoids producing sentences that would defeat the ordinary reader and, where he has to use technical terms, he is careful always to explain what they mean. Contrary to expectation there are many good jokes in the book, each illustrative of a human foible or failing in rationality. Comic strip cartoons are also used to pithily bring home a point. This is a book full of humour.

A deadly serious exposé of our decision making

Rationality book coverNevertheless, it would be a mistake to give the impression that this is a lightweight approach to the subject. Not only is Pinker deadly serious in his intent but he is demanding in his expectations of the reader – certainly for any who are mathematically challenged or who prefer not to be asked to follow a rigorous argument. That argument involves a prolonged (seemingly exhaustive to the general reader) exposé of how irrational so many of our strategic and policy-making decisions are, as well as our mundane everyday ones.

everyone makes fundamental errors in logic

The point of this, however, is to demonstrate that our endemic misuse of statistics, probability, language and logic could readily be contained and corrected by many means: ‘Rationality should be the fourth R, together with reading, writing and arithmetic’ (314). Pinker argues that it needs to be so if we are to make global progress in human well-being and take proper advantage of the very tools our rationality has provided us with. For, says Pinker, we are a rational species capable of reviewing and refining our own tools of reasoning with our own rational processes. Moreover, for those who doubt that reason is the way forward, the reminder is given that entering any form of debate about the priority of reason in human affairs is itself a concession that we all use reason in some form or other to secure what we each feel to be a preferred course of action.

The epigraph to the book is a wonderful quotation from Hamlet:

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d.1

It’s a great reminder of who we are, and of human potential. Yet, in a way, this is the first curiosity of the book’s worldview. As is so often the case with Shakespeare, he gives us an understanding of character rooted in Christian presuppositions – a worldview Pinker certainly does not share. This only becomes apparent much later on, but his high, humane and compassionate stance towards others (and the animal kingdom) is not based on the concept that reason is a God-given facility or that the nature of the universe is anything other than an undirected ‘pitiless cosmos’ (340).

A major goal of the book is ‘to explain…the normative tools of reason’ (7) and this takes up seven of the eleven chapters. Demonstrations of how everyone (from the less educated through to distinguished academics) makes fundamental errors in logic, in probability, in statistics and in critical thinking, make for eye-opening reading as well as humorous anecdotes.

A refreshing critique of ‘post-truth’ thinking

For those of us alarmed by the present growth of ideas such as ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’ and analyses that tell us we live in a post-truth era, Pinker’s critique of such stances will be refreshing. Equally, he is a great defender of the necessity of freedom of speech if humanity is not only to thrive but to get through the all too obvious host of problems that currently beset the world. And ‘Modern universities’, he says, ‘have been at the forefront of finding ways to suppress opinions’ (43) pointing out that if you have to silence people who disagree with you, it suggests you have no good arguments as to why they are mistaken. He returns to this theme at the end of the book where he says that a major reason why universities have lost the respect they once had is their ‘suffocating left-wing monoculture’ which punishes both students and professors who question any of the dogmas held on ‘gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation’ (313). He does not mention Professors Nigel Biggar and Kathleen Stock or Jordan Peterson, but in the UK those are names that spring to mind immediately. After all, to disallow reasoned debate in a university – of all places – is completely extraordinary when ‘reason is the only way we can know anything about anything’ (42).

everything we do is affected by our ability, or otherwise, to reason correctly

At this point some might want to part company with the author as we feel that humans do know things via other means than reason, even if the word ‘know’ is used differently to describe those other means. But if we allow Pinker to continue to make his case within the definitions by which he has restricted himself, there is much for all of us to learn. He accepts that logic is difficult even for logicians and that both ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ fallacies are commonplace but expects his reader to see that the ability to expose errors of these kinds is critically important. Then, most usefully, he conducts a masterclass giving examples of 15 or so widely used ‘informal fallacies’ that would be of significant use to anyone arguing a case, mounting a defence, responding to a critique. In my experience, whether, in the heat of the moment, your adversary will actually listen to what you say may be another matter. This is especially so today, not just because of the way opinions are polarising but because in ‘modern intellectual life’ such fallacies ‘are becoming the coin of the realm’, whereas in the past ‘high school debate coaches would teach their students how to spot and refute them’ (92).

Moreover, the book makes clear, the ability to think critically is crucial in public policy. Being able to set aside first impressions about statistics for instance and ‘do the math.’ (293), and to tell the difference between correlation and causation, affects everything from the laws on gun control, to whether a criminal defendant will skip bail and whether ‘a business will succeed or go belly-up’ (279). This indeed is a far-reaching book, for everything we do is affected by our ability, or otherwise, to reason correctly. There will be few readers who do not stand a bit taller for placing themselves under the tutelage of this extremely capable mind.

Some areas for disagreement

If, however, the present reader were to pick out some areas for disagreement, I would begin by using Pinker’s dictum that the more people there are to disagree over an issue the more likelihood there is that one of us will be right. I would also refer to the point where Pinker, citing the example of Einstein being wrong about the necessity of a world government (86), allows that brilliant experts in their field may not be right about matters where they are less expert. Our writer, brilliant as he is across a number of fields, makes questionable assumptions and conclusions at several points. This is particularly evident when it comes to matters of religion, which he treats with scant respect as an intellectually credible worldview and with only partial understanding.  

Pinker assumes the universe is a closed system

Pinker has a high regard for David Hume (‘that hero of reason’, 158), the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and sceptic whom he quotes at length more than once. Hume is widely regarded as having produced the line of thought which brought about the cessation of belief in anything miraculous. But his argument about the ‘infinite improbability’ of miracles has been repeatedly shown to be flawed, not least by C.S. Lewis.2 In following Hume, Pinker assumes the universe to be a closed system, that ‘humans are apes’ (109), ‘religious belief is safely parked in the mythology zone’ (302), and that accounts of miracles in scriptures are nothing but ‘fake news about paranormal phenomena’ (287). He begins his chapter on ‘Beliefs and Evidence’ with Carl Sagan’s statement that ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ (149).

Readers of this review will not need to be reminded that it is just as extraordinary to claim that the world is a product of accident as it is to claim it is the product of design or intention. Neither position can be proved by evidence though the self-contradiction of the naturalist/materialist position (which Lewis exposed) is one that theists may find compelling in support of their view. Pinker of course does not attempt to prove that his assumptions about the undesigned origins of the universe are true and the result is that this brilliant and engaging book gives an inevitably incomplete picture of human rationality. His belief is that the ‘central mystery’ is ‘how a rational species can be so irrational’ (228). His solution to the problem is partly found he says, in game theory, ‘the analysis of how to make rational choices when the payoffs depend on someone else’s rational choices’ (228). Pinker’s explanation of what he means makes sense but is woefully inadequate as a complete theory of the human condition.

Pinker ignores the problem of evil

What Pinker simply does not touch on is the problem of evil. To my recollection (and the Index) he does not even mention the word, let alone explore the concept. His picture of human strength and weakness, while fascinating, gives us no real insight as to why individuals sometimes pursue evil so relentlessly, for example in child murder, the torture of the vulnerable, the deliberate destruction of lives and livelihoods. Nor does it explain, in a post-Enlightenment world which has made such ‘progress’ in material wealth, the more recent acts of genocide and people degradation on a national scale. Not only is there no explanation or discussion of these things, but a worldview without this cannot develop a strategy for dealing with them – essentially because it underestimates the power of evil in a world that’s trying to go it alone without its creator. Improving our critical thinking is useful but a long way off the radical help the whole Earth needs.

Pinker’s explanation makes sense but is woefully inadequate as a complete theory of the human condition

When Pinker finally gets to Chapter 10, What’s Wrong with People? he begins by correctly suggesting, ‘This is the chapter you’ve all been waiting for’ (283). It’s true – we all want to know the answer to that seemingly simple question.

At this point UK readers may take particular pleasure in reading Pinker’s collection of the more alarmingly irrational ideas that Americans hold, but we should remember that where the US goes we often follow. Covid quackery, climate denial, fake news, conspiracy theories, ‘Trump himself’ are all included in the ‘pandemic of poppycock’ (286) which Pinker fears ‘show[s] few signs of decreasing over the decades’, with younger generations being no more sceptical than their elders. All those who peddle such nonsense threaten the well-being of billions. These corrosions of standards of truth ‘incite terrorism, pogroms, wars, genocide’ and ‘clears the ground for tyranny’ (309).

He could hardly have made the stakes higher. And yet there is a yawning gulf in the picture that the author draws for us. As the fundamental causes of human wrongdoing he sets aside things he has discussed such as fallacies in thinking, social media influence and the need for finding solace in irrational beliefs. He chooses instead three others: (1) ‘motivated reasoning’ – using rhetoric ‘to drive an argument toward a favoured conclusion’ (290), (2) ‘myside bias’ which exhibits itself when politics directs a belief such as when right wing views direct a disbelief in, say, climate change, and (3) ‘Two Kinds of Belief: Reality and Mythology’. Apparently, ‘universal realism’ is not the natural human way of believing (301) for our minds are adapted ‘to understanding remote spheres of existence through a mythology mindset’ (301) and the obvious example of this, Pinker believes, is religion.

Pinker comes unstuck when he accepts simplistic and populist versions of theological and historical ideas

It is here that Pinker comes badly unstuck. His picture of ‘what’s wrong’ is skewed not only by his failure to examine the problem of evil, but also by his misrepresentation of the world’s dominant religious belief, both past and present, Christianity. Pinker himself accepts that ‘smart people can be closed-minded’ (311) and it is important that readers should see where he exhibits this himself by accepting highly simplistic and populist versions of theological and historical ideas.

‘More than two billion people believe that if one doesn’t accept Jesus as one’s savior one will be damned to eternal torment in hell’ (301). If this is not the use of rhetoric in his condemned ‘motivated reasoning’ it is hard to see what is. Not only does this not account for the fact that beliefs about hell vary widely between (and within) different Christian traditions, it also encompasses every nominal believer who may not hold any particular beliefs about hell. ‘Mythological’ is not the term I would use to describe a set of beliefs which is capable of such wide variation – irrespective of the fact that Christianity is universally accepted to stand or fall by its historicity. ‘No Christ’ means ‘no Cross’ and ‘no Cross’ means the end of what makes this religion unique among the others: grace for sinners. As Tom Wright says, though the Resurrection ‘may in some senses burst the boundaries of history, [it] also remains within them; that is precisely why it is so important’.3

Historically Pinker goes astray too. In the past, he suggests, ‘when Christian belief fell into the reality zone many Crusaders, Inquisitors, conquistadors and soldiers ‘(302) tried to convert people to Christianity at swordpoint for their own good. Though there is some truth in this which Christians have to accept, it is the sort of simplification that Pinker deplores whereby a single causation is substituted for multiple causations leading to a dangerously misleading or unbalanced conclusion. One wonders whether he has read any modern analyses of the Crusades as politically rather than primarily religiously motivated wars,4 of Inquisitors whose actions were at least no worse than the secular courts of the time5 (and the result of state security as much or more than religious purity), or of the conquistadors as greedy brutal adventurers not giving a curse about indigenous peoples (and opposed by Catholic missionaries6), oblivious of any genuine religious motive. 

Miracles: a false dichotomy

There are other points too at which Pinker seems hardly to obey his own rules of intellectual enquiry. He warns us against false dichotomies but occasionally produces one himself. In discussing miracles, he writes: ‘Which is more likely – that the laws of the universe as we understand them are false, or that some guy got something wrong?’ (159 – don’t miss the rhetoric). But these are not the alternatives. The alternatives are whether or not God, if he exists, might choose to momentarily suspend normative laws for a rational purpose. Hume wrote that it would be a miracle if a dead man should come to life because such a thing has never been observed. Our experience against miracles, he claimed, is uniform. Unfortunately for Hume’s argument, as Lewis showed, we know that experience to be uniform only if we can know that all the reportage of them is false. And we can only know that if we already know that miracles have never happened.

it seems that Pinker believes some things before he looks properly at the evidence   

Pinker, it would seem then, is believing some things before he looks properly at the evidence – a cardinal mistake of imperfect human rationality. If a reader wanted to consider an alternative approach, Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope powerfully makes the historical case for believing that the Resurrection of Christ, in terms of sheer probability, was accurately reported. Wright argues that the alternatives are in fact counter-intuitively less probable.

The heart of the human problem or a pointer to a solution?

Pinker believes our problem is that we are intuitive ‘dualists’, ‘essentialists’ and ‘teleologists’. By this he means that we sense (mistakenly for him) that minds can exist apart from bodies, that the invisible can give living things their powers, and that we are apt to credit the non-living world with purpose. This in essence, for Pinker, appears to be the heart of the human problem giving rise to irrationality and destructive tendencies. To the present reader this seems not only rather weak and not up the job of heavy lifting which our knowledge of our human predicament requires but curiously wrong-headed, closed-minded. When an individual nation can produce Beethoven and Belsen, or apartheid and Nelson Mandela, will this be sufficient explanation? It is certainly a pale and shrunken story when placed alongside the Christian one.

Should not a cognitive scientist explore whether this is ‘simply’ the result of evolutionary forces or whether, in the light of the totality of human experience – our loves, fears, hopes and hatreds, these three intuitions are in fact signposts ‘trailing clouds of glory’ as Wordsworth put it, ‘from God, who is our home’? Perhaps our tendency to ‘teleology’ points to a significance beyond our material existence. Moreover, is it not demonstrable that the absence of any sense of these three intuitions is at least equally responsible for human degradation? The atheist/materialist regimes of the twentieth century (Communism and Nazism) were the most murderous we have known.

Paul in Athens: a ‘reasoned argument’

Pinker has written a really important book. He is right that rationality matters enormously and the fact that a book by an intellectual of this standing is required to remind us of that is shocking evidence of how far our society has regressed in this area. In personal finance, in health, in travel, in economics, in law, in politics, in wars and in countless other areas, failures in rationality have severe consequences for our world. As the author says, ‘the fewer the fallacies in reasoning the fewer debacles in life’ (323). It was a surprise to him he admits, ‘in making sense of moral progress…how many times in history the first domino was a reasoned argument’ (329).

This is a really important book – Pinker is right that rationality matters enormously

This, however, should not be a surprise to Christians who are familiar with Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-35) or Paul’s address to the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-31). Both are reasoned arguments about how we should behave now that God has revealed his unconditional love for his people. As the apostle John says, ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). That understanding brought about perhaps the biggest shift in social behaviour the world has ever seen. If you doubt that, take a look at Tom Holland’s recent masterpiece, Dominion.  

A more radical shift in thinking is needed

In relation to such an achievement in the reshaping of human behaviour, Pinker’s recommendations do look rather thin. He suggests in conclusion that we can all be less dogmatic, can frown on irrational habits, avoid fallacies in our thinking, promote genuine science and get scientists into key positions requiring objectivity; ensure that universities, schools and the press are committed to free enquiry, critical thinking and viewpoint diversity. These are all laudable aims but how does he think he can change human nature to achieve them when everything he has said suggests such virtues are in short supply?  

If we need radical change we had better look to the most radical teaching

It has been well said that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart and a more radical shift than this book can provide is needed if our species is to thrive and find ways of living at peace with our neighbours in a world increasingly competing for its limited resources. If we need radical change we had better look to the most radical teaching. Words like ‘new wineskins’, ‘new hearts’ even ‘new birth’ spring to mind.    

Steven Pinker, Rationality: What it is, Why it seems Scarce, Why it Matters (Allen Lane, 2021)


[1] Hamlet, Act IV, scene iv.

[2] See Miracles, Bles, 1947, p121-5

[3] Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (SPCK, 2007) p80

[4] Peter Frankopan, Director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford, has suggested this about the First Crusade

[5] See Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (Phoenix, 1998) and also Contreras and Henningsen in The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe (Northern Illinois University Press, 1986)

[6] E.g. Bartholeme de Las Casas (1484–1566)