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← Three articles by Steven Pinker, Russell Blackford and John Gray

Three articles by Steven Pinker, Russell Blackford and John Gray - Comments

vilenkin's Avatar Comment 1 by vilenkin

Good article by John Gray. I would like to hear a reply to this:

\"Like other latter-day partisans of \"Enlightenment values,\" Pinker prefers to ignore the fact that many Enlightenment thinkers have been doctrinally anti-liberal, while quite a few have favoured the large-scale use of political violence, from the Jacobins who insisted on the necessity of terror during the French revolution, to Engels who welcomed a world war in which the Slavs - \"aborigines in the heart of Europe\" - would be wiped out.

The idea that a new world can be constructed through the rational application of force is peculiarly modern, animating ideas of revolutionary war and pedagogic terror that feature in an influential tradition of radical Enlightenment thinking. Downplaying this tradition is extremely important for Pinker. Along with liberal humanists everywhere, he regards the core of the Enlightenment as a commitment to rationality. The fact that prominent Enlightenment figures have favoured violence as an instrument of social transformation is - to put it mildly - inconvenient.\"

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 13:45:32 UTC | #930926

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 2 by Jos Gibbons

I would like to offer a response to Gray’s views. Unlike vilenkin, I don't think highly of Gray's piece. vilenkin has called for a reply to the discussion of the worst ideas of Enlightenment-era thinkers. I cannot guarantee he will like my reply to it (which is buried in the midst of my response to all of the things Gray said with which I take issue), but I am offering a reply of the sort vilenkin requested, as part of my full analysis.

A sceptical reader might wonder whether the outbreak of peace in developed countries and endemic conflict in less fortunate lands might not be somehow connected. Was the immense violence that ravaged southeast Asia after 1945 a result of immemorial backwardness in the region? Or was a subtle and refined civilisation wrecked by world war and the aftermath of decades of neo-colonial conflict - as Norman Lewis intimated would happen in his prophetic account of his travels in the region, A Dragon Apparent (1951)?

If enough people make disparate predictions, someone will be right coincidentally. Even if some regions become more violent as time passes, that doesn’t mean violence on the whole hasn’t declined.

there was no peace between the powers that had emerged as rivals from the global conflict

This is disingenuous because, for all the mean feelings in people’s minds during the “Cold War”, Pinker’s thesis is that “violence” has declined, “not war”. There were some deaths at the hands of the US and the USSR, of course, e.g. in Vietnam. But what is often overlooked is that the USSR lost far, far more soldiers to a simultaneous war with China.

(Huge list of wars)

Either you do or don’t accept Pinker’s claim that per capita violence has fallen. Unlike Gray, Pinker bothered tallying the numbers to test this. The number of individual wars Gray looked up on Wikipedia isn’t pertinent, because it doesn’t refute Pinker’s claim.

Taken together these conflicts add up to a formidable sum of violence. For Pinker they are minor, peripheral and hardly worth mentioning. The real story, for him, is the outbreak of peace in advanced societies, a shift that augurs an unprecedented transformation in human affairs.

That summary of Pinker isn’t correct. Pinker’s thesis is a long decline in per capita violence. “Formidable” is an adjective, but not a comparative adjective. Pinker doesn’t trivialise the post-1945 violence; he quantitatively contextualises it. Gray’s effort to explain it in terms of what effects developed nations had on others, even if valid, simply provides a different form of contextualisation that doesn’t undermine Pinker’s actual thesis. Pinker’s suggestion that the nonexistence of certain types of warfare and the relegation of others to more desperate powers is a large part of the basis for the trend from 1945 to 2012, whether or not it is correct, must not be mistaken for his main thesis. Even if Gray’s historical knowledge is more pointed here, he can’t see the word for the trees.

his argument that violence is on the way out does not, in the end, rest on scientific investigation

Pinker explicitly states his thesis is not that violence is on the way out, for he is discussing what had happened from the past to the present, not what will happen in the future. Gray even admits this at one point if you read him closely. In any case, if Gray wants to demonstrate a book’s scientific invalidity in a piece 1 % of his length, he may be my guest.

these are highly disparate thinkers, and it is far from clear that any coherent philosophy could have "coalesced" from their often incompatible ideas. The difficulty would be magnified if Pinker included Marx, Bakunin and Lenin, who undeniably belong within the extended family of intellectual movements that comprised the Enlightenment, but are left off the list.

Is it undeniable? When I think “Enlightenment”, I don’t think of anyone as late as Marx or Lenin, or anyone with such naïve views about economics or politics. Since I haven’t heard of Bakunin, Gray might accuse me of not knowing enough about this to comment on it. What this misses is what is also missed in his noticing contradictions between the joint works of the thinkers Pinker cites. A society is influenced by those ideas it best remembers. I would like to see Gray show that the Enlightenment ideas that best propagated into people’s thoughts after being authored still contain too many contradictions for the basic “settle your differences with non-violent tactics” thrust to lack force. If he did that, he may have a point. But it would be a point undermining Pinker’s attempted explanation of a trend, not the trend itself; and Gray makes it quite clear later that he is also confident the trend is meaningless and will end. (In doing so he makes predictions where Pinker does not.) Also, since Pinker didn’t include those other thinkers, isn’t acting as if what matters is the consistency of the expanded list Gray proposes a subtle straw man fallacy?

Pinker prefers to ignore the fact that many Enlightenment thinkers have been doctrinally anti-liberal

See my paragraph above.

The idea that a new world can be constructed through the rational application of force is peculiarly modern, animating ideas of revolutionary war and pedagogic terror that feature in an influential tradition of radical Enlightenment thinking. Downplaying this tradition is extremely important for Pinker.

There are three periods in which Pinker has detected a decline in per capita violence, namely before, during and after the period in which such ideas arose. Since Gray doesn’t even try to explain why the declines in these three eras are illusions in the data Pinker marshals, I will move on to the question of what causative effects should be expected. While the “during” era introduced new pretexts for violence (many already existed), the “after” period saw them lose favour, and the “before” period’s pretexts apparently encouraged greater violence than the later ones Gray mentions.

Along with liberal humanists everywhere, he regards the core of the Enlightenment as a commitment to rationality. The fact that prominent Enlightenment figures have favoured violence as an instrument of social transformation is - to put it mildly - inconvenient.

Whenever we look at a period in the history of thought in a field, be it philosophy or science, we find plenty of wrongheaded ideas. Does this mean the core of what that era gave us is not reducible to those successes we have maintained from it and built upon? Imagine if Pinker’s thesis was a long-term rise in technological abilities, his explanation was the best ideas of some era in the history of natural philosophy, science or the philosophy thereof, and Gray’s song and dance was about such false starts as simplistic inductivist or positivist views or now outdated scientific theories. The fallacy would be the same.

it's extremely curious - though entirely typical of current thinking - that science should be linked with humanism in this way. A method of inquiry rather than a settled view of the world, there can be no guarantee that science will vindicate Enlightenment ideals of human rationality. Science could just as well end up showing them to be unrealisable.

When it does, maybe we will care about Gray’s fear that it may. But if Pinker wants to claim a trend has historically occurred because science has led us to specific new attitudes, it is the science of the past and present that matters, and not whether in principle science could have led us elsewhere or could do so one day.

Admittedly, this was not a conflict that faced any of the thinkers Pinker cites.

How wise, then, is it to bring it up anyway? I’ve yet to see a quotation of Pinker proving Gray isn’t putting words in his mouth.

Although Mill wrote extensively on the need for "moral science," his view of human beings was a mix of classical philosophy (especially Aristotle) and the ideas of personal development he imbibed from the Romantics. Mill never considered the possibility that his view of human beings could be falsified by scientific investigation.

Mill lived before Popper defined science in terms of falsification. In Mill’s day, science was usually viewed as inductive by both its adherents and its critics, and I’ve yet to see any reason to think Mill was in this regard exceptional. But if someone says we should rely on science to answer questions about an issue, that recommendation’s force isn’t reduced by that science then showing other opinions of that person on the issue to be misguided. Far from it; we need science to correct us.

There have been countless attempts to apply evolutionary theory to social life but … they have produced … misleading metaphors, in which social systems are mistakenly viewed as living organisms.

Group selectionist thinking is now mostly extinct in evolutionary psychology & evolutionary sociology, as it is in evolutionary biology in general.

if there is anything of substance to be derived from an evolutionary view of the human mind, it must be the persistence of unreason.

Biology shows we are finitely reasonable, although it doesn’t guarantee we cannot improve on our genetic tabula rasa; if we couldn’t, we wouldn’t have any tolerance for ideas beyond Newtonian physics. The relevant facts, such as our cognitive biases, are discoverable with or without an evolutionary explanation in mind. In any case, we never expected to be perfectly rational. But we now know how to make ourselves, or at least our discourse, more rational. As Gray continues, he describes some default properties evolution has programmed into us. In doing so he reminds us of the difficulty of some tasks, such as being nonviolent or being rational. But since Gray is unconvinced of a meaningful historical decline in violence and is convinced of a future resurgence in violence, he would be as sensible to be unconvinced of a meaningful historical rise in rationally obtained knowledge and convinced of a future decline in it.

The end result of scientific inquiry may well be that irrational beliefs are humanly indispensable.

Go talk about that to a transhumanist with expertise in current AI research and possible ways technology can augment human brains.

Science and humanism are at odds more often than they are at one. For a devoted Darwinist like Pinker to maintain that the world is being pacified by the spread of a particular world view is deeply ironic. There is nothing in Darwinism to suggest that ideas and beliefs can transform human life.

Apparently Gray is unfamiliar with memetics. (Of course, even if Darwinian evolution did not cause ideas and beliefs to transform human life, we know they do, and that is all that is needed for long-term trends to have their origins in ideas and beliefs.) In any case, the only sense in which the value of humanist behaviour is “at odds with” evolution is in the sense that what we should do may not be what we “naturally” do. By that logic, germ theory is “at odds with” fighting infection. On the contrary; in both cases, knowledge of the causes of problems can only enhance our powers to do something about them. And note in particular that Gray must be discussing how evolution might subtract credence from humanist preferences, since merely saying evolution gives us a bad starting point doesn’t imply the future will be worse than the present, or that throughout our societal past our best efforts haven’t made us less like cavemen. Does Gray think none of the ways we differ from cavemen are long-term trends?

memes - vaguely defined concepts or units of meaning

The definition of a meme is a self-replicating unit of cultural information. That is not a vague definition. For starters, we automatically know words and computer files fit the definition.

[memes] are held to be in some ways akin to genes

All self-replicating units are akin to being genes in being self-replicating units and therefore amenable to natural selection, provided discrete mutation is applicable too (and we know it is in the case of a gene-meme comparison).

Even if there were such things as memes

Either admit words are memes, or present an alternative definition of memes that doesn’t make it obvious words are memes.

there is nothing to say that benign memes would be the winners. Quite to the contrary, if history is any guide.

During the periods of long-term decline in violence, what trends have occurred in our ideas? We have all but abandoned slavery, witchcraft and racist and sexist laws in well-educated parts of the world, where discussion is far more prevalent than elsewhere. We are gradually doing the same with laws that discriminate on other fronts, such as sexuality. Gray cannot seriously contend these trends are noise in the signal, and the sorts of idea embarrassments in history he is liable to be thinking of in his “guide” comment, such as Aryan supremacy, are surely such noise in the signal. They are, for example, more analogous to peaks and troughs on a sinusoidal wave than a linear trend going against what Pinker asserts.

The recurrent appearance of these memes suggests that outside of some fairly narrowly defined areas of scientific investigation, progress is at best fitful and elusive. Science may be the cumulative elimination of error, but the human fondness for toxic ideas is remarkably constant.

Gray misses the fact that a long-term trend with sinusoidal noise added to it has plenty of periods that go against the trend. This is how climate sceptics can cherry-pick to pretend that warming has stopped in [insert quickly refuted suggested year here].

Pinker achieved notoriety through his attempt to reinstate the idea that the human mind is fixed and limited. His bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), an assault on the idea that human behaviour is indefinitely malleable, was controversial for several reasons - not least for its attack on the belief that pre-agricultural cultures were inherently peaceable. The book provoked a storm of criticism from liberal humanists who sensed - rightly - that this emphasis on the constancy of human nature limited the scope of future human advance.

I haven’t read TBS:TMDoHN, so I don’t know whether therein Pinker displayed a good understanding of the crucial point that finitely malleable human minds may still be quite malleable, and therefore don’t know whether the critics to whom Gray refers highlighted how Pinker erred or erred themselves in this regard. However, it doesn’t matter to the fact that Gray is$ making this mistake himself now; he tries to use the incompatibility of two claims to argue against one of them, but the incompatibility isn’t there.

$ In an earlier version of the paragraph above, I said “appears to be”, but Gray later explicitly refers to such a “contradiction” in which Pinker is caught, so Gray is in fact making this mistake.

The decline of violence posited in The Better Angels of Our Nature

I don’t think spotting trends in mountains of data is an example of positing.

a progressive transformation of precisely the kind his earlier book seemed to preclude

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument TBS really did seek to place such bounds on our mental malleability that said bounds would preclude what Pinker thinks he has proven to have happened in TBAooN. We can then say Pinker has changed his mind, but we can’t say he is wrong now (instead of right now) without going into evidentiary details of the kind Gray avoids throughout. He’s not even bothered quoting/summarising TBS back to Pinker, even though on the for-the-sake supposition doing so would be fruitful.

It afflicts anyone who tries to combine rigorous Darwinism with a belief in moral progress.

To repeat a comparison (I apologise for my repetition as it smacks of verbosity), “It afflicts anyone who tries to combine rigorous germ theory with a belief in medical progress”.

Darwinism is unlikely to be the last word on evolution

Let’s suppose an important update came from Mendel or Dawkins. Is anything of relevance in Pinker’s work or Gray’s review of it thereby affected? What important update in the future might matter?

rather than identifying universal laws of natural selection, it may only apply in our corner of the universe

Name one astrobiologist who thinks that’s remotely plausible. Universal Darwinism is just about the only thing astrobiologists agree will be applicable to all extra-terrestrial life.

there can be no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour

Then why do we use mass-produced goods, or refrigerate anything, or garden? Remember that, even if we grant the possibility of all that going down the spout in the future (as with the Eloi & the Morlocks), Pinker’s “this is what has happened so far” assertion is unaffected.

It can be avoided only by pointing to some kind of ongoing evolution in humans

A memetic evolution, perhaps? Bear in mind Gray’s suspicion that evolutionary biology isn’t complete yet doesn’t reduce his hostility to the possible memetic example of how it may be so incomplete.

Social violence is coeval with the human species.

Actually, it’s older than that. Yet so is reciprocal altruism.

In order to show that conflicts between the two will in future increasingly be settled in favour of peace, Pinker needs to be able to identify some very powerful trends.

Here, Pinker is explicitly misrepresented as claiming the trend he has identified will continue. He has repeatedly made clear the fact that we do not know that will happen.

there is no reason to think the increase of wealth can go on indefinitely - and when it falters violence will surely return.

Why is Gray confident a levelling off of wealth, in which we don’t actually become poorer, will lead to violence growing? In general, people don’t become more violent in periods where change arrests, although they may in periods where it reverses.

attacks on minorities and immigrants by neo-fascists in Europe, the popular demonstrations against austerity in Greece and the English riots last year show the disruptive and dangerous impact of sudden economic slowdown on social peace. All the trends that supposedly lie behind the Long Peace are contingent and reversible.

Sudden economic slowdown is the kind of brief thing that leads, it seems, to even briefer surges in violence. But again, even if Gray is right that the future may (or, as Gray says, will) see a resurgence in violence, Pinker has never contradicted that.

[Pinker] misses Hobbes's most important insight: that even if humans were not moved by the pursuit of power and glory, scarcity and uncertainty would drive them repeatedly into conflict with one another. Recurrent violence is a result of the normal disorder of human life.

But why assume scarcity will return? It may well, but we have enormous error bounds on the future size of the human population, and we may know even less about what technology holds in its future.

Humans use violence for many reasons, and everything points to their doing so for the foreseeable future.

But on the same scale? Pinker’s facts, if left unrefuted (Gray doesn’t attempt a refutation of them), have historically refuted an “on the same scale” extension of Gray’s logic. If such a comment, which is what Gray holds to, was invalid in (say) 1960, why is it right in 2012?

it is easy for liberal humanists to pass over the respects in which civilisation has retreated.

I would appreciate examples so we can better inform ourselves regarding whether they are more likely to be the signal or the noise.

Just as he writes off mass-killing in developing countries as evidence of backwardness without enquiring whether it might be linked in some way to peace in the developed world, he celebrates "recivilisation" in America without much concern for those who pay the price of the recivilising process.

This recalls an interesting suggestion of Gray’s earlier that the successes of the waste may have been parasitic. It’s hard to say if he’s right. But the specific question of what this meant for the overall levels of violence on Earth is much more easily answered, with the data. That is what Pinker did.

his analysis has a tabloid flavour, not improved by his repeated recourse to not always very illuminating statistics.

I’ll admit every hypothesis concerning why changes occurred is much less reliable than the claim they did occur, based on the data. It’s interesting Gray dismisses much of the data as unilluminating, without giving examples to demonstrate that (or why that) is so.

The possibility that mass incarceration of young males may be in some way linked with family breakdown is not considered.

Should it be in a book about the decline of violence?

Highly uneven access to education, disappearing low-skill jobs, cuts in welfare and greatly increased economic inequality are also disregarded, even though these factors go a long way in explaining why there are so many poor blacks and so few affluent whites in prison in America today.

Again, what does this have to do with whether violence has declined (or whether it will keep doing so, which isn’t a matter on which Pinker has weighed, contra Gray)? Perhaps Gray seeks to classify incarceration in the US “barbaric justice system” as a form of violence. He won’t find my semantic support for that.

Pinker's attempt to ground the hope of peace in science is profoundly instructive, for it testifies to our enduring need for faith. We don't need science to tell us that humans are violent animals. History and contemporary experience provide more than sufficient evidence. For liberal humanists, the role of science is, in effect, to explain away this evidence. They look to science to show that, over the long run, violence will decline - hence the panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts. The result is no more credible than the efforts of Marxists to show the scientific necessity of socialism, or free-market economists to demonstrate the permanence of what was until quite recently hailed as the Long Boom. The Long Peace is another such delusion, and just as ephemeral.

There are several problems with this.
(1) Pinker claims science shows, when it looks at the numbers carefully, that the evidence Gray thinks proves us to be violent (and which leads him to think that violence will grow) is in some ways anecdotal, and that a proper analysis has some counter-intuitive findings. We always need science, because it can always prove we are wrong in counter-intuitive ways. Perhaps Pinker’s analysis is flawed, but Gray hasn’t even tried to show it is.
(2) Again, Pinker is misrepresented as predicting the historical trend will continue.
(3) It seems extraordinary Gray thinks it is Pinker et al who are trying to explain away the evidence. They roll up their sleeves far more with it than Gray does.
(4) The comparison to Marxists misses the latter’s is-ought conflations, while the comparison to FME misses the latter’s making a prediction, which was inevitable given the mischaracteristaion of Pinker (see (2) above).

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 14:07:51 UTC | #930934

vilenkin's Avatar Comment 3 by vilenkin

@Jos Gibbons I think you gave an uncharitable reading of his article. For example: \"The number of individual wars Gray looked up on Wikipedia isn’t pertinent.\" You say that he is unfamiliar with memetics but in the next quote he explicitly mentions memetics to counter that objection. Obviously he is not unfamiliar with memetics. That\'s ironic because Pinker is sceptical about memetics and opposes the idea. So it unnecessary to use that point against Gray. You should use it against Pinker with his naive progressivist views about history.

When I think “Enlightenment”, I don’t think of anyone as late as Marx or Lenin, or anyone with such naïve views about economics or politics.

That is exactly the problem Gray is talking about. There is no reason to do that except to give a one-sided view of history of the Enlightenment. Of course, you can forget about Marx but you still have the French revolution. Or you can cherry-pick from history the bits you like and say that you are on the path of progress.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 15:00:28 UTC | #930942

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 4 by AtheistEgbert

Our most important concern ought to be is with truth, not wishful thinking. I question whether violence can ever be historically analyzed properly, and such conclusions reached, and so I side with Gray's scepticism or cynicism. I don't agree with Gray's accommodationism, but that doesn't matter. All that matters is that there is plenty of good reason to be sceptical.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 15:17:15 UTC | #930946

rod-the-farmer's Avatar Comment 5 by rod-the-farmer

I agree with Jos.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 15:42:33 UTC | #930949

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 6 by Neodarwinian

" Darwinism is unlikely to be the last word on evolution "

Darwinism is the title of a book by Alfred Russel Wallace and does not have much to do with modern evolutionary theory. Darwinian/Wallace thinking on evolution was the first thought not on evolution but on the mechanism that drives much of it.

Jacobins were enlightened?!?!?

Jos did in John Gray well enough that I only need add that Pinker's book seemed rather well supported statistically at least.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 17:14:29 UTC | #930967

TeraBrat's Avatar Comment 7 by TeraBrat

Christian violence is down, Muslim violence is up. Since there are more Christians than Muslims overall violence is down. I'm worried that Christian violence will make a comeback.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 17:22:23 UTC | #930970

The Notorious B.I.N.G's Avatar Comment 8 by The Notorious B.I.N.G

John Gray used to be something of a progressive liberal in the 19th century sense. He was an enthusiastic Thatcherite for a while. But he kept changing his mind, and in the noughties he decided that if Darwin was right and we are animals, then there can be no such thing as 'progress' - it is an arrogant illusion of an arrogant animal. After all, we don't talk of other species 'progressing', do we? Since he had this startling revelation, he has spent his time carping at science from the sidelines and sneering at what he sees as the naivety of those who cling to the Enlightenment tradition. He's always arguing that people like Dawkins and Hitchens believe man can transcend his animal self and attain perfection (they don't) and that this atheist 'faith' is itself a Christian inheritance (because of course atheism = Christianity). In other words, he is the kind of pseudo-intellectual who wastes his mouth arguing that there is no discernible difference between man and a nematode worm, that black is white, and that science is wrong because of Darwin (conveniently forgetting that Darwin IS science. You can't have it both ways). As he is so emotionally invested in this thesis of his, I knew exactly what he would say about Better Angels... before the book had even been released

Needles to say, almost everything Gray writes about Pinker's work in this piece is wrong. Anyone who has made the effort to actually read Pinker's books, rather than scan the Amazon reviews like I suspect Gray of having doing, will know this. Gray's attacks on science and scientists sound an awful lot like the panic-induced defensive manoeuvres of a man out-of-time, who knows that his own discipline (philosophy) has lost large amounts of ground to a more rigorous one (science). When was the last time a philosopher made as big a contribution to the sum of human understanding as, say, Darwin or Einstein? The simple fact is science has made more progress in answering the fundamental questions of existence than philosophy has in the last 3000 years (I say this as someone who reveres philosophy nonetheless). I know it. You know it. And Gray knows it and it shows.

In sum:

John Gray and science: not even wrong.

John Gray and Steven Pinker: an intellectual newt nibbling at the toes of a giant.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 18:37:46 UTC | #930988

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 9 by Jos Gibbons

Why does rod-the-farmer agree with me? Why does Neodarwinian think I "did in" Gray? Probably not for reasons that speak to vilenkin. He deserves a response from me to his objections to my analysis of Gray. Before I begin my line by line response, I’d like to point out that just as only a handful of the many ideas Pinker espoused was tackled by Gray – and the choice was pretty poor – only a handful of my points against Gray have been tackled by vilenkin; again, the choice is sub-par. What do I mean by this? That in both cases from the most serious points in favour of the author’s thesis (mine of Pinker’s) receive even a brief attempt at explaining why they are wrong. Gray steers clear of Pinker’s data; vilenden stears clear of replying to my examples of fallacies in the reasoning that Gray used.

you gave an uncharitable reading of his article. For example: \"The number of individual wars Gray looked up on Wikipedia isn’t pertinent.\"

Would it have been nicer if I’d attributed his research to a book someone wrote? This is exactly the sort of “can’t see the word for the trees” analysis I’ve warned about before. My case against Gray’s criticism of Pinker isn’t dealt with here at all.

You say that he is unfamiliar with memetics but in the next quote he explicitly mentions memetics to counter that objection.

So if he says something that he should know is wrong given what else he knows I’m wrong to critique an example of him not knowing something?

he is not unfamiliar with memetics.

He is insufficiently familiar with it, including the case for it.

That\'s ironic because Pinker is sceptical about memetics and opposes the idea. So it unnecessary to use that point against Gray. You should use it against Pinker with his naive progressivist views about history.

(1) Pinker’s view is based on far too much evidence to be “naïve”, whatever else is true of it.
(2) it’s precisely because it is a view of history that Gray is wrong to fuss about whether the trend will continue in his analysis of Pinker’s case. I see you don’t bother denying this.
(3) even if Pinker is sceptical about the prospects of working things out using a focus on memes, Gray went so far as to deny we knew memes exist, which (as I pointed out) is silly because words are memes.
(4) it is necessary to discuss Gray’s ignorance of the implications of memes in this context because they undermine his … what shall I call it … evolutionary genetic fatalism. In dismissing as unnecessary my discussion of how little Gray knows about memetics, you are doing a pretty good job of sidestepping the points I’m making about the flaws in his analysis.

When I think “Enlightenment”, I don’t think of anyone as late as Marx or Lenin, or anyone with such naïve views about economics or politics. That is exactly the problem Gray is talking about. There is no reason to do that except to give a one-sided view of history of the Enlightenment. Of course, you can forget about Marx but you still have the French revolution. Or you can cherry-pick from history the bits you like and say that you are on the path of progress.

You clearly didn’t understand the point I was making. The point is not that there is a logical basis for obeying one specific subset of the mutually inconsistent recommendations of Enlightenment thinkers while eschewing the others. (By “obeying” I mean “obeying because they said so”; if you use some external basis for assessing each recommendation one by one, then of course there can be some logic behind whatever the “those are right” subset you get is. One mustn’t confuse Christian cherry-picking of the Bible with an atheist conceding some biblical advice is good.) The point is that historically some of their ideas have sunk in far more than others have, and we are most influenced by those that have sunk in best, and can only have been influenced at all by those ideas that were more than very briefly even remembered to have existed. Even the question of who counts as an Enlightenment thinker is, as I pointed out before, based on these contingencies of history. Am I claiming human civilisation made “sensible” choices in these regard? Not at all (unless by “sensible” I mean “good for external reasons as suggested above”). But insofar as we care to try to work out why this anti-violence trend has held sway, we can suggest Enlightenment ideas that people bore in mind well may have been influential, and in doing so must bear in mind the relative weight people attached to these ideas rather than the relative weight they should have, since only the former is historically causative.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 18:48:45 UTC | #930990

Misfire's Avatar Comment 10 by Misfire

Science and humanism are at odds more often than they are at one. For a devoted Darwinist like Pinker to maintain that the world is being pacified by the spread of a particular world view is deeply ironic. There is nothing in Darwinism to suggest that ideas and beliefs can transform human life.

I wish Gray had put that first so I would have known when to stop reading. (I actually quit well before that, but came across it in Jos Gibbons' rebuttal.) Deeply ironic for me as a committed progressive, as there's nothing in liberalism to suggest that I should stop reading silly articles.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 21:39:47 UTC | #931028

vilenkin's Avatar Comment 11 by vilenkin

@Jos Gibbons I\'m sorry for not giving a more detailed reply. I don\'t have enough free time.

So if he says something that he should know is wrong given what else he knows I’m wrong to critique an example of him not knowing something?

But you haven\'t shown that he doesn\'t understand memetics. You only said that he doesn\'t understand it but you didn\'t give any reasons. But that is irrelevant because Pinker rejects memetics. Defending Pinker\'s thesis with the idea of memetics is therefore irrelevant.

even if Pinker is sceptical about the prospects of working things out using a focus on memes, Gray went so far as to deny we knew memes exist, which (as I pointed out) is silly because words are memes.

You can say the same thing about Pinker. And it is not silly to deny that memes exist. If you agree that they exist then it is probably true that words are memes. But if you don\'t then you are not commited to saying that words are memes. You are taking your presuppositions as though they were Gray\'s.

Pinker’s view is based on far too much evidence to be “naïve”, whatever else is true of it.

Well, historians disagree. See Timothy Synder\'s review http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136957/timothy-snyder/war-no-more?page=show

The point is that historically some of their ideas have sunk in far more than others have, and we are most influenced by those that have sunk in best, and can only have been influenced at all by those ideas that were more than very briefly even remembered to have existed.

That\'s not true. The claim that we are most influenced by those ideas that have \"sunk in best\" is false. Most ideas that we are most influenced by we aren\'t even aware of. The history is a very complicated subject. And who are \"we\"? It depends on many things.

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 23:06:02 UTC | #931053

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 12 by AtheistEgbert

Hate to open a can of worms but do genes actually exist? I know that people might immediately reply of course they do, but is a gene only a molecule or is it code?

Wed, 28 Mar 2012 23:45:14 UTC | #931065

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 13 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #931053 by vilenkin

Thanks for making your responses ever less complete; at this rate, there will be no necessarily lengthy rebuttals on my part after the next few.

you haven\'t shown that he doesn\'t understand memetics. You only said that he doesn\'t understand it but you didn\'t give any reasons.

If my reasons weren’t clear enough, here’s what they are. When a single self-replicator type exists, the Price equation of evolutionary biology places an upper bound on such qualities as altruism or rationality that only indirectly serve genetic interests, but this upper bound is no longer provable if distinct self-replicator types exist, as is true when memes are introduced. This allows for a gene-meme interaction that non-trivially alters the mathematics. Gray does not appreciate this invalidates his beliefs regarding what implications Darwinism has or what it’s compatible with. Nor does he understand the certainty that memes exist.

that is irrelevant because Pinker rejects memetics. Defending Pinker\'s thesis with the idea of memetics is therefore irrelevant.

No. Pinker may think memetic analysis won’t tell us much of interest, but that doesn’t mean its findings don’t include refutations of Gray’s arguments against Pinker.

it is not silly to deny that memes exist. If you agree that they exist then it is probably true that words are memes. But if you don\'t then you are not commited to saying that words are memes. You are taking your presuppositions as though they were Gray\'s.

No I’m not. I explicitly stated in comment 2 the definition of a meme. Words qualify because they replicate discretely and are cultural information. Rigorous information theory makes this fact undeniable. So yes, denying the existence of memes is silly.

Well, historians disagree. See Timothy Synder\'s review http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136957/timothy-snyder/war-no-more?page=show

Synder doesn’t call Pinker naïve or disagree its definition precludes applicability to such a thoroughly exhaustive analysis as Pinker’s, and Synder presents no historical evidence the trend Pinker describes is erroneous and doesn’t refute any of the uses of evidence Pinker relies on for his case. In any case, “Synder” is hardly “historians” (plural).

That\'s not true. The claim that we are most influenced by those ideas that have \"sunk in best\" is false. Most ideas that we are most influenced by we aren\'t even aware of. The history is a very complicated subject. And who are \"we\"? It depends on many things.

Do you think any of those vague sentences make the view of Bakunin the least bit influential or relevant? Without looking them up, can you even name one of them? I can’t. How then do they influence me? Who are we? We’re the statistical aggregate of us; what is truest of us is what is true of the largest number of us.

I have an open question to the forum, to anyone who may be passing. Does anyone, in any of the details we have so far discussed, sympathise more with vilendin’s position(s) than with my own? If so, where have I been insufficiently clear in my thinking?

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 00:10:57 UTC | #931068

vilenkin's Avatar Comment 14 by vilenkin

@Jos Gibbons I think you have very confused views about science. I am a mathematician and I sure know that information theory doesn\'t prove anything about memetics. Even if it did (but it doesn\'t) all your pseudoscientific nonsense about \"gene-meme interaction that non-trivially alters the mathematics\" doesn\'t prove your claim that Gray is unfamiliar with the idea of memes. Therefore, it is irrelevant.

The relevant question isn\'t whether memes exist but whether they are adequate to explain cultural phenomena. Gray didn\'t say anything about their existence or their ontological status.

No I’m not. I explicitly stated in comment 2 the definition of a meme. Words qualify because they replicate discretely and are cultural information. Rigorous information theory makes this fact undeniable. So yes, denying the existence of memes is silly.

Do you know any books on information theory that deal with memes? Rigorously, of course. Again, criticism of memes isn\'t based on their ontological status but on their adequacy to explain cultural phenomena. You have to give an account why memetics isn\'t generally accepted in the scientific community. Oh, yes, scientists are silly and irrational. Let\'s organise a reason rally for them.

Synder doesn’t call Pinker naïve or disagree its definition precludes applicability to such a thoroughly exhaustive analysis as Pinker’s, and Synder presents no historical evidence the trend Pinker describes is erroneous and doesn’t refute any of the uses of evidence Pinker relies on for his case.

You are right, he didn\\'t use the term \\"naive\\", he only said that the book is unscientific. Snyder cannot present historical evidence in a book review. But his authority as a historian should be sufficient to doubt that Pinker has sufficent understanding of history to make the bold claims he does. The question isn\\'t whether the evidence exists or not but whether it proves Pinker\\'s point. A distinguished historian says that it doesn\\'t. Of course, the evidence is also lacking: \\"But the sources Pinker cites for the numbers of dead are themselves just aggregates of other estimates, the vast majority of which, if one follows the thread of sources to the end, turn out to be more or less informed guesses. \\"

Do you think any of those vague sentences make the view of Bakunin the least bit influential or relevant? Without looking them up, can you even name one of them? I can’t. How then do they influence me? Who are we? We’re the statistical aggregate of us; what is truest of us is what is true of the largest number of us.

Actually, I know few things about Bakunin and they are relevant to some anarchists. If \"we\" you are refering to are anarchists then they are influential and relevant. Of course, you can take statistical aggregates, but then you would also take \"we\" to refer mostly to Christian or Muslim population. A lot of them don\'t have enough food to feed their children and most of them haven\'t heard about the Enlightenment. Voltaire and Hobbes are relevant to them about the same as Bakunin is relevant to you.

have an open question to the forum, to anyone who may be passing. Does anyone, in any of the details we have so far discussed, sympathise more with vilendin’s position(s) than with my own? If so, where have I been insufficiently clear in my thinking?

I\'m not trying to earn sympathies. I\'m reluctantly debating you because I don\'t think that it is worth it. You don\'t have the ability read Gray\'s text without misrepresenting his views. And the way you criticise his article (sentence by sentence) indicates that you\'re not very good at understanding other people\'s views and that you don\'t know how to refute them.

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 00:54:05 UTC | #931075

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 15 by AtheistEgbert

I have an open question to the forum, to anyone who may be passing. Does anyone, in any of the details we have so far discussed, sympathise more with vilendin’s position(s) than with my own? If so, where have I been insufficiently clear in my thinking?

You did ask, and so I'll say that I sympathize more with vilenkin. I don't find your reasoning clear at all, but we've disagreed before about this, and you seemed certain in your position.

When a single self-replicator type exists, the Price equation of evolutionary biology places an upper bound on such qualities as altruism or rationality that only indirectly serve genetic interests, but this upper bound is no longer provable if distinct self-replicator types exist, as is true when memes are introduced. This allows for a gene-meme interaction that non-trivially alters the mathematics. Gray does not appreciate this invalidates his beliefs regarding what implications Darwinism has or what it’s compatible with. Nor does he understand the certainty that memes exist.

None of that is clear to me at all.

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 00:59:16 UTC | #931079

dilated_in_disbelief's Avatar Comment 16 by dilated_in_disbelief

@ Jos

I've read this entire discussion so far, and though I can't competently engage in a conversation about memes or information theory (I would have to sit and listen/read), I have no dispute with your methods. The way I see it, you refuted Gray's conception of memes and provided a more coherent conception of memes, which vilenkin thinks you didn't do. What I mean by refuting is that you actually provided a definition that doesn't include one's disapproval of the theory, which is all that Gray's is. I can't understand why vilenkin thinks that you're misrepresenting Gray, seeing as you outlined Gray's view perfectly in your first refutation and then offered your view. There appears to be a difference of opinion over memes, and while I would need a more erudite explanation of how memes supposedly "work" in order for me to understand the nature of this argument between the two of you, I don't think it would validate Gray's review more if his position on memes proved to be correct. It has almost nothing to do with what Pinker is talking about.

As for vilenkin providing a justification for why an intellectual like Bakunin is relevant (for the purpose of demonstrating that Gray's view of the historical influence of disparate thinkers from the Enlightenment is valid), it doesn't make your idea of aggregate human knowledge (and which thinkers from the Enlightenment has had the most influence on it) as it currently stands invalid. Vilenkin could only offer anarchists as an example of where Bakunin has influence. Anarchists hardly compete with the majority of intellectual development and influence in the last century, and that's before you get into the varying types of anarchists.

In regards to Synder's review, it is definitely the best critical one I read during my reading of TBAOON, but it doesn't necessarily refute Pinker's entire thesis. Snyder provides interesting examples from the WW2 period that conflict with Pinker's analysis of the power distribution law and social conditions that fostered totalitarianism, but it merely made me desire a more thorough analysis of that period. Prior to that, he makes a case against Pinker's statistical method, which avoids the other side of Pinker's method, which is that in a society where less people are affected violently, more people ARE NOT. Snyder also misrepresents Pinker by suggesting that Pinker's alleged libertarianism is affecting the hypothesis. I don't know if Pinker is a political libertarian, but he is documenting a historical trend that he would likely support even if he wasn't a political libertarian, seeing as he is demonstrably apolitical throughout the book.

The dispute the two of you are having isn't really about the overall accuracy of Gray's review. If anything, it's a distraction from the real essence of Gray's review. You're charitably taking on vilenkin's claims, but perhaps it would be better to ask vilenkin to focus on what the review is really about instead of focusing on minor disagreements. Although, vilenkin is taking Gray's side, arguing for at least two views proposed by Gray (anti-meme and the historical influence of many Enlightenment thinkers, even ones that had influence near the end of the 19th century).

I find Gray to be very interesting, but ultimately a professional contrarian that misrepresents the people he criticizes. I read his book Straw Dogs and was fairly disappointed by it. Anybody who claims that atheists aren't atheists because the very name refutes itself is desperate, to say the least.

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 04:14:29 UTC | #931108

NakedCelt's Avatar Comment 17 by NakedCelt

Comment 7 by TeraBrat :

Christian violence is down, Muslim violence is up. Since there are more Christians than Muslims overall violence is down. I'm worried that Christian violence will make a comeback.

Not according to Pinker -- Christian (and most other) violence is down, Muslim violence is plateauing.

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 05:18:23 UTC | #931111

justinesaracen's Avatar Comment 18 by justinesaracen

A society is influenced by those ideas it best remembers.<

In all the lengthy discussions above, this idea stood out. A good point, Jos.

It seems me that one can make judgements on historical trends only on average, and on observation of social, and intellectual 'drifts'.

If the Enlightenment is almost universally remembered as a leap in rationality in the creation of social and political institutions, then de facto, that is what it is, irrespective of a minority of thinkers writing at the time who were non-rational or non-humanist.

One could as easily point to current American politics where there is a resurgence of right-wing religion and social ultra-conservatism. These currents highlight, but do not undercut the overall advance in American attitudes toward women, gays, and racial minorities. To identify the early 21st century in America as reactionary would be wrong, since the reactionaries are a minority, and the social drift is toward egalitarianism.

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 07:24:22 UTC | #931121

Jonathan Dore's Avatar Comment 19 by Jonathan Dore

John Gray is one of the tedious legions of contemporary Jeremiahs who start whining when their professional pessimism is affronted by some actual data. An exchange of ideas with Pinker might be characterized thus:

Pinker: Violence has declined over the past several thousands years on a per-capita basis. Here are the numbers.

Gray: I don't do numbers. Weren't the last couple of centuries just awful?

Did I miss anything?

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 07:48:08 UTC | #931125

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 20 by Jos Gibbons

When I went to bed last night, after posting my previous comment, I thought to myself, “next time, ask vilenkin about more important specifics than what he’s bringing to the table”. Thus, dilated_in_disbelief, you will be glad to see I’m taking your advice:

The dispute the two of you are having isn't really about the overall accuracy of Gray's review. If anything, it's a distraction from the real essence of Gray's review. You're charitably taking on vilenkin's claims, but perhaps it would be better to ask vilenkin to focus on what the review is really about instead of focusing on minor disagreements.

You’re right! While my first comment on this thread covered the gamut of my objections to Gray and therefore in principle gave me a basis for a good discussion of the issue later, what happened in practice is I have limited myself to responding to vilenkin’s arguments against my views rather than challenging him with any queries of my own. I’ll remind us of the many points in my original response to Gray that have been left without a reply.

However, having said all that, I will be replying to his specific points anyway, if only to show I have something to say in answer to them. So although I will take the better path we’ve both spotted is such, it won’t be the majority of this post (although it will be where it starts). In particular, I think I owe vilenkin and AtheistEgbert a more accessible explanation of what I meant in the “When a … memes exist” paragraph.

First, let me review my first comment on Gray. These are those errors of Gray I noticed therein (many of them he repeates ad nauseum):
1. He thinks individual events undermine trends in a way that confuses the noise with the signal.
2. He incorrectly characterises Pinker’s position in the following ways:
a) He conflates violence with war, so as to claim any “war” runs against the grain of non-violence, even where it had little violence (e.g. the Cold War), or even with injustice, so as to claim the US judicial system runs against the grain of the non-violence.
b) He pretends Pinker thinks the trend will continue.
c) He conflates Pinker’s past identification of finite limits on the malleability of the human mind with a very low estimate of that malleability.
3. He doesn’t even try to refute Pinker’s empirical case for his actual position, instead focusing on whether Pinker’s hypothesis regarding why the trend occurred historically are plausible.
4. He conflates the academic content of thinkers with the influence that they have.
5. He thinks the role of science in the study of a topic is undermined if the proponents of such a role have views on that topic which science subsequently undermines.
6. Related to this, in choosing for his examples of such proponents people who predate our modern view of science as in the business of falsification, he reads too much into Mill not expecting science to falsify his views.
7. He exaggerates the role of group selectionism in modern evolutionary psychology and evolutionary sociology, which have now all but abandoned group selectionism.
8. In order to predict violence will last, he overestimates how far our genetic baggage weighs down the fruits that our civilisation can yield by not appreciating how culture allows us to think beyond our default-state cognitive biases, a mistake he would not make (one hopes) in dealing with other ways that culture leads us to differ from our ancestors more than genetic evolution on that timescale can explain.
a) The mistake is especially clear if one considers his logic should also imply we shouldn’t even know about these evolved limitations on the quality of our thinking.
b) Incidentally, given Pinker’s preference not to rely on memetic considerations in understanding culture, it is Gray who chooses to frame these cultural issues he misunderstands in memetic terms; perhaps I should have returned the focus immediately in my response to him to the simple fact that culture influences us more than Gray lets on in his discussion of the implications of Darwinism, but in any case in discussing memes he says some flatly wrong things about them, e.g. that their existence is disputable.
9. His predictions about the future overlook the propensity for technological augmenting of our existing thought processes, and hence the scope for our tackling our cognitive biases even more directly.
10. He appears to mischaracterise the role of science in value judgements as one of giving deontological succour to what is natural, rather than as better informing us regarding what consequences our decisions have.
11. He postulates undiscovered aspects of evolution without any basis for doing so.
12. He claims social violence is coeval with humans, thus underestimating its age; this has the effect of unduly identifying social violence with what makes us human and not noticing how far we have moved beyond those levels of social violence we have inherited from ancestral primate species.
13. He inexplicably expects violence to resurge, rather than simply stop declining, when those ameliorations of human life that contribute to this decline level off, even if they don’t subside.
14. He has an undue confidence in the return of scarcity, when population experts admit they don’t even know whether it will return.
15. His arguments about what should happen in the future could have been made in the past, and would have turned out to be wrong if they were made, and Gray doesn’t explain why this time will be any different.
16. In claiming we don’t need science to answer certain questions for us, he forgets how counter-intuitive the truth often is.
17. He makes invalid comparisons between Pinker’s analysis and the analyses of Marxists and free market economists, e.g. Gray misses the former’s is-ought conflations and the latter’s predictions.

Of these, vilenkin, your comments have concentrated on 3, 4 and 8. So I have some questions for you:
(1) Of each of the other points, tell me whether you agree with my point about Gray and, if you don’t, explain why you don’t. Include the sub-points for 2.
(2) Why did you focus on 3, 4 and 8 so much, and not deal with my other replies to Gray?
(3) What empirical evidence is there that undermines Pinker’s claim that violence has historically declined as a trend?
(4) Other than the reliability of the figures in the oldest era (this you discuss in what I reply to below), do you have any further examples of ways Pinker’s evidence goes awry?
(5) Do you have any evidence that there are biases in Pinker’s data, systematically in such directions as to falsely suggest the trend he thinks he has detected?
(6) Why do you keep putting backward slashes in front of your apostrophes? You can skip that one if you like, but you owe us answers to my other questions.

Now I’ll move on to my standard format for replying to comments.

Comment #931075 by vilenkin

I think you have very confused views about science.

Oh, this should be good.

information theory doesn\'t prove anything about memetics.

Actually, it does. Words have quantifiable information content; therefore, they are cultural units of information. The self-replication aspect is in even less need of formal justification.

all your pseudoscientific nonsense about \"gene-meme interaction that non-trivially alters the mathematics\" doesn\'t prove your claim that Gray is unfamiliar with the idea of memes. Therefore, it is irrelevant.

It’s not pseudoscientific. If richarddawkins.net let me type the algebra properly I’d discuss it in more detail. Gray’s idea that Darwinism renders us in principle violent, irrational beings is no more plausible, given our knowledge of how we have changed through culture, then any analogous idea that it renders us in principle (insert default-state property here).

The relevant question isn\'t whether memes exist but whether they are adequate to explain cultural phenomena. Gray didn\'t say anything about their existence or their ontological status.

The relevant question is whether culture complicates the causal question of what humans are like, and it does in ways Gray doesn’t concede. I formalised the discussion of this with memes because I like to put phenomena in a mathematical context where possible, however unpopular doing that in scientific explanations to laypeople usually is. But I would find it astonishing if you didn’t agree that culture has brought us away from our genetically default states in any number of respects, such as who we treat the same as others, how far we help the least fortunate in society, how reliant we are on technology (including clothes), etc.
Also, Gray did question the existence of memes, so that second sentence of yours is a lie.

Do you know any books on information theory that deal with memes? Rigorously, of course.

I don’t even know any books on information theory, but I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you of such concepts as Shannon entropy, and how to calculate these properties of words and thus verify they are calculable.

You have to give an account why memetics isn\'t generally accepted in the scientific community. Oh, yes, scientists are silly and irrational. Let\'s organise a reason rally for them.

Could you please provide evidence for the claim that “memetics isn’t generally accepted in the scientific community”? I ask for you to do this not because I doubt you have some such evidence in mind, but because the phrase is ambiguous, and I expect knowing what evidence you’re referring to would contextualise the claim in such a way as to disambiguate it. One of the meanings it may have is that scientists do not generally accept that memetic bases for analysing phenomena make many falsifiable predictions. Given the difficulty in getting the right Just So Stories in genetic evolutionary biology, my “account why” could simply be that they are right. I certainly don’t think scientists are silly or irrational, or that they are in need of a reason rally. But if you think you can show their peer-reviewed analyses have led them to the conclusion that neither memes nor culture as otherwise understood make us amenable to, as Dawkins has put it, “throwing off the tyranny” of genes, then be my guest.

Snyder cannot present historical evidence in a book review.

Sure he can. Or, if he really cannot, how convenient. Either way, surely there must be some evidence you could link to instead.

his authority as a historian should be sufficient to doubt that Pinker has sufficent understanding of history to make the bold claims he does. The question isn\'t whether the evidence exists or not but whether it proves Pinker\'s point. A distinguished historian says that it doesn\'t.

I won’t take one historian’s opinion about whether or not statistics identify a trend over the genuinely scientific analysis to which those statistics are amenable. History doesn’t get to “refute” scientific findings; it’s not a peer-reviewed phenomenon.

the evidence is also lacking: \"But the sources Pinker cites for the numbers of dead are themselves just aggregates of other estimates, the vast majority of which, if one follows the thread of sources to the end, turn out to be more or less informed guesses. \"

Pinker acknowledges the difficulties in estimating numbers of violent deaths in the past. But to say the entire trend is an illusion because of this makes no sense. Isn’t it a bit coincidental our best efforts to estimate the numbers see the same millennial and centennial trends we see also on decadal and annual timescales with genuinely trustworthy data? And what is the evidence violence has not had a downward trend?

Of course, you can take statistical aggregates, but … most of them haven\'t heard about the Enlightenment. Voltaire and Hobbes are relevant to them about the same as Bakunin is relevant to you.

No-one argues modern laypeople are pacified by their personal knowledge of Enlightenment thinkers. The argument is more along the following lines: In and immediately after their own time, Enlightenment thinkers’ arguments led to a comparatively pacifying shift in the aims of the literate and the powerful in Europe, whether or not this involved history giving some of their ideas a better hearing than others for “illogical” reasons. This shift influenced decisions made in the Western world for at least a while. This had a gradual knock-on effect, with most eras ending up at least as liberal as their predecessors. Some forces, such as the Nazis or the Fascists, spent a few years undermining this, but their ideas didn’t last much longer than that. Personally I don’t know or care why we have become less violent; what I care about is the fact that Pinker’s arguments for the view that we have don’t admit of any empirical refutation worthy of the name.

A comparison worth making is to the history of US politics. Most Americans couldn’t tell you which Founding Fathers proposed such ideas as the separation of powers, fair and speedy trials, the rules by which the US bicameral legislature operates or the separation of Church and State (that last one isn’t even all that widely acknowledged today, sadly), or what points the Founding Fathers made in the favour of such ideas. What is more, insofar as most modern Americans know anything about this, they tend to know even less about some other aspects of the Founding Fathers; for example, how extensive was the slavery the Founding Fathers practised or what far-from-sufficient measures they took to try to save face over it and reduce the scale of its horrors. Would we say, then, that the Founding Fathers’ ideas didn’t influence how the last 226 years of US history turned out?

My choice of the US as a comparison was made before I read esuther’s comment 18, but it seems longstanding richarddawkins.net minds think alike (if I said “great” that would bias the discussion against vilenkin’s side). Incidentally, esuther, in especially liking a point of mine, you’ve given perhaps a clearer summary of it than I did: “If the Enlightenment is almost universally remembered as a leap in rationality in the creation of social and political institutions, then de facto, that is what it is”. That’s how I should have put it!

You don\'t have the ability read [sic] Gray\'s text without misrepresenting his views.

Please give an example of a view of his I misrepresented in Comment 2. If you can’t, you have no proof I lack the ability in question.

the way you criticise his article (sentence by sentence) indicates that you\'re not very good at understanding other people\'s views and that you don\'t know how to refute them.

By that logic, hardly any of my posts on richarddawkins.net make for good refutations, even though the consensus here is that I give some of the best refutations on the site. There is nothing wrong with sentence-by-sentence (or, in Gray’s case, it’s more like paragraph-by-paragraph, and in any case not all paragraphs) refutations of ideas. Indeed, how else should I do it? Should I say, “Gray’s views on X suffer from Y” without even quoting him to prove what he thinks? That’s the style Gray usually uses in discussing Pinker, but it won’t wash. The idea I suck at understanding others’ views and don’t know how to refute them is as laughable given my track record as your view I’m confused about science. Of course, since this is the only thread you’ve ever commented on, you’re new here and perhaps don’t know who you’re judging. While Gray is confident of the future in ways Pinker is not, you make confident statements about me that embarrass you by turning out to be empirically wrong, so I have even less respect for you as a thinker than I do for Gray.

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 08:39:44 UTC | #931129

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 21 by AtheistEgbert

I think I owe vilenkin and AtheistEgbert a more accessible explanation of what I meant in the “When a … memes exist” paragraph.

Look, I appreciate the effort you put into your post, but it's not very readable to me. I think I gave up reading halfway through your list. I don't think the personal attacks on others are going to help them sympathize with you either.

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 10:02:30 UTC | #931137

vilenkin's Avatar Comment 22 by vilenkin

As for vilenkin providing a justification for why an intellectual like Bakunin is relevant (for the purpose of demonstrating that Gray\'s view of the historical influence of disparate thinkers from the Enlightenment is valid), it doesn\'t make your idea of aggregate human knowledge (and which thinkers from the Enlightenment has had the most influence on it) as it currently stands invalid.

I\\'m not trying to provide a justification for why Bakunin is relevant. That was not my point. The point is that who is relevant depends on what part of a society you are talking about. Jos Gibbons didn\'t talk about \"aggregate human knowledge\". He mentioned \"statistical aggregate of us\". Of course, his explanation of who is he refering to when he says that \"we\" are influenced by alleged great ideas of the Enlightenment is circular. If \"we\" is a \"statistical aggregate of us\", then who is us? If he is taking world population then Christianity and Islam are more relevant than the Enlightenment. In fact, in that case the Enlightenment is probably irrelevant.

Prior to that, he makes a case against Pinker\'s statistical method, which avoids the other side of Pinker\'s method, which is that in a society where less people are affected violently, more people ARE NOT.

Sure, but his point was that Pinker avoids the side he (Snyder) mentioned. The reason why he avoided the side you mentioned is that Pinker\'s account is incomplete and is probably a bad measure of violence. To prove that, he can acknowledge that there is some truth in measuring violence the way Pinker does. That is just irrelevant to his point. His point is that it is doubtful whether it is a good measure of violence when the population is high..

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 10:37:56 UTC | #931139

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 23 by Jos Gibbons

AtheistEgbert

There's no personal attack there. Two people have stated there's no clarity in a point I make, which lends credence to that allegation. Therefore, I owe it to the people in question to explain myself better. I do not attribute the communication breakdown to anyone but myself. In any case, I'm not expecting you or vilenkin to sympathise with me; the best aim in a public debate is to make points likely to persuade other onlookers.

As for the readability of my last post, while I would welcome any views you had on how the same content could have been better displayed, I think a long post is inevitable given the number of points I have in my case. My case will be thorough, whatever else I might change about the way I make my points. But perhaps a list without blank lines was a bad idea.

However, if you felt you couldn't continue reading long before you reached the point where I gave the explanation you deserve for the aforesaid reasons, I recommend you Ctrl+F to "Actually, it does." At least then you needn't wade through the rest of my material.

By the way, of the questions I pose to Vilenkin (Ctrl+F to "I have some questions for you" to see them), I would appreciate knowing how you would answer 1, 3, 4 & 5, given that you are so much on Gray's side rather than Pinker's. It would help to move this discussion forward.

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 10:43:56 UTC | #931140

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 24 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #931140 by vilenkin

So, no answers for my questions then. I thought you'd still focus on a couple of minor details. Even with those you are avoiding what really matters.

who is relevant depends on what part of a society you are talking about. Jos Gibbons didn\'t talk about \"aggregate human knowledge\". He mentioned \"statistical aggregate of us\". Of course, his explanation of who is he refering to when he says that \"we\" are influenced by alleged great ideas of the Enlightenment is circular. If \"we\" is a \"statistical aggregate of us\", then who is us?

There's no circularity, the us in the saou comment is everyone.

If he is taking world population then Christianity and Islam are more relevant the the Enlightenment. In fact, in that case the Enlightenment is probably irrelevant.

If we want to explain changes in society what matters is the most prevalent changes, not the most prevalent properties. Christianity & Islam didn't give us renewed cause for violence in the era from the Enlightenment onwards. On the contrary; insofar as their views on violence changed, it was in a peaceful direction because of Enlightenment pressures, and insofar as their views became more or less common they became less common as religiosity began to wane.

his point was that Pinker avoids the side he (Snyder) mentioned. The reason why he avoided the side you mentioned is that Pinker\'s account is incomplete and is probably a bad measure of violence. To prove that, he can acknowledge that there is some truth in measuring violence the way Pinker does. That is just irrelevant to his point. His point is that it is doubtful whether it is a good measure of violence when the population is high..

You can argue "per capita" is a bad definition of violence if you want, even though it's a valid measure in general of causes and effects in human life, and is justified here because (a) more people means more potential victims and (b) more people means more potential perpretrators. But what you can't say is that any of this detracts from Pinker's empirical case for a per capita decline. Do you or do you not admit his case for that works?

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 10:53:09 UTC | #931141

dilated_in_disbelief's Avatar Comment 25 by dilated_in_disbelief

@ vilenkin

I admit, I was sloppy with my use of "aggregate human knowledge" instead of "statistical aggregate of us." Instead of quoting Jos, I merely came up with my own choice of words based on my memory of what he said, which was inaccurate. You're right to point that out (I'm not being sarcastic). However, Jos' comment 24 is a good response to your claim and I'll just refer you back to that reply instead doing any work myself!

I should have been more clear about what I meant by focusing on Bakunin. I used Bakunin as a guidepost to discuss your point about "...that who is relevant depends on what part of a society you are talking about." In terms of numbers, I think focusing on large statistics that indicate which Enlightenment thinkers had more influence is Pinker's approach, which is being promoted by Jos. Once again, Jos has replied to this in a much better way than I could in comment 24.

As for Pinker's statistical method, I'll let Pinker speak for himself:

"In absolute numbers, of course, civilized societies are matchless in the destruction they have wreaked. But should we look at absolute numbers, or at relative numbers, calculated as a proportion of the populations? The choice confronts us with the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of one hundred to be killed or 1 percent of a population of one billion. In one frame of mind, one could say that a person who is tortured or killed suffers to the same degree regardless of how many other people meet such a fate, so it is the sum of these sufferings that should engage our sympathy and our analytic attention. But in another frame of mind, one could reason that part of the bargain of being alive is that one takes a chance at dying a premature or painful death, be it from violence, accident, or disease. So the number of people in a given time and place who enjoy full lives has to be counted as a moral good, against which we calibrate the moral bad of the number who are victims of violence. Another way of expressing this frame of mind is to ask, "If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?" The reasoning in this second frame of mind, whether it appeals to the proportion of a population or the risk to an individual, ends in the conclusion that in comparing the harmfulness of violence across societies, we should focus on the rate, rather than the number, of violent acts." - page 47 of TBAOON

@ AtheistEgbert

I can sympathize with the fact that you don't want to read the entirety of Jos' response, but I think it is worth the effort. I had to re-read parts of it and there were a couple of statements that I didn't "completely" understand, but clearly he is working hard to make cogent points. He is also polite, which you seem to disagree with. You haven't cited the personal attacks he allegedly made, nor have I experienced them while reading every single letter he has posted. I really respect both vilenkin's and your posts, especially since I don't have knowledge to refute Pinker's thesis. I made sure to read every review of TBAOON while I read it, and only Snyder offered a reasonable rebuttal. I can't get behind Gray's review. He seems like (beware of my desire to read minds) he wants to do his best to disagree with Pinker, so he comes up with uninteresting contradictory statements (Jos has gone through them). Perhaps Gray needs to retain his hold in the marketplace of ideas and needs the same people who bought Straw Dogs to come back for more, but I find his reviews and articles to be tiresome at this point, especially when he repeats statements he made a decade ago. That is a slightly tangential statement, but it reflects how unexcited many people are about Gray's ideas. I admit, he is very provocative and intelligent. Straw Dogs is a good book, but when I read Gray now it's for the purpose of comprehending a counter argument to ideas I identify with, even if he misrepresents them.

@ Jos Gibbons

I appreciate the amount of work you're putting into this discussion. I read TBAOON, yet I don't think I could tackle a review like Gray's or Snyder's to the degree you can. Perhaps you can give me some tips on studying, summarizing, and understanding a thesis in a book like TBAOON, or good methods for retaining the information. A year and a half ago I made my first discussion post on RFD asking visitors to the site for advice on how to go about learning science and which subjects would be interesting. I'm still a novice and expect to be one for a long time, but I need to be able to accurately represent the ideas in a book I read. Any advice would be incredibly helpful!

Thu, 29 Mar 2012 19:43:03 UTC | #931212

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 26 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #931212 by dilated_in_disbelief

After me and vilenkin you’ve put the most work into this discussion (I double-checked that by going through all the comments), and I appreciate your contributions as you appreciate mine. (I appreciate some others too, such as esuther’s for making some points clearer than I did.) You’ve asked a good question I shall endeavour to answer my best:

Perhaps you can give me some tips on studying, summarizing, and understanding a thesis in a book like TBAOON, or good methods for retaining the information. … I need to be able to accurately represent the ideas in a book I read.

(Well, I say “question”; it lacks a question mark, but I don’t know what else to call it.)

My answer is an attempt to formalise what is ultimately for me an unconscious process, so I don’t know how good an answer it is, whether by “good” I mean “accurate as a summary of what I do” or “helpful to others to use”. I hope it’ll help. It’s about 2,000 words; I don’t know if that’s enough detail.

It depends on the book you’re working with. Some books defend their thesis with evidence, a term which in this context I construe more broadly for philosophical theses than for scientific ones because the former are subject to a priori analyses in ways the latter aren’t. For example, however little an individual reader of TBAOON “got it”, they know Pinker is making claims about what has changed historically. (Common mistakes, as Gray demonstrates, are to tack on certain other things, such as Pinker expecting the trends to continue; but, for the moment, let’s focus on what every reader notices is being said.) The way I have put that is purposely vague, so (a) it’s not difficult to spot and (b) the crucial implication of this is that it’s a claim that stands or falls based on empirical data (something I sometimes wonder if historians even remember during their work). By contrast, if you are defending claims about what are good epistemic techniques in science, as Karl Popper did in most of his books, the analysis will be more a priori. Of course, one book can have several points, so there’s no reason they can’t have multiple defence techniques; for example, you may have noticed TGD is partly factual, partly philosophical. You’ll notice I said “some” books defend their thesis with evidence; if you have ever read a flea, you’ll notice the paucity of evidence for religious claims’ validity, as they concentrate mainly on how mean Dawkins is. Working out what kind of “evidence”, if any, is used in a book is the first step when reading it; it can even tell you a book isn’t worth defending, as happens with fleas.

Since TBAOON is a “here’s what’s true, here are loads of facts that say so” book, it’s similar to On the Origin of Species. In Origin, Darwin says the same thing, only of course all the details are different. You asked about studying, summarising and understanding, but not about memorising, and that’s a good thing since memorising isn’t the key. Books like these, frankly, use far more evidence than they need to (although in Darwin’s case he planned to use a lot more, but had to rush its publication because of Wallace). Therefore, recalling each and every detail of the case for the thesis isn’t what’s important. What was Darwin’s thesis? It was something along the following lines:
(1) Evolution happens
(2) gradually
(3) with adaptations due to natural selection (and possibly also Lamarckian evolution; Origin doesn’t insist on ruling it out)
(4) leading to diversity through speciation
(5) from a common ancestry.
Similarly, Pinker’s contention is something like this:
(1) Per-capita violence
(2) has declined
(3) over the past few thousand years
(4) on every time scale
(5) in many respects.
Now, it’s no good me just telling you what the summary is, because it doesn’t help you do it for yourself, which is what you asked me to do. But here’s the crux of the method: the author will say what the purpose of their evidence is, and will clarify how their views are liable to be misunderstood, and you should start by noting those details. (If you’ve previously read an article in which the author summarises his or her book, that serves as a primer for trying to spot those ideas in context; if those in the full book are subtly different, or include some extra ideas, hopefully you will even spot that, by noting the contrast.) Doing these things is the right approach for a priori defences too; if you have ever read any of Popper’s books about science other than the first one, you may have noticed how much moaning he does about misunderstandings that happened and, in his later books, clearly kept happening. And every time I read those books I thought, how did people make those mistakes? His meaning was obvious to me!

There are differences between how to process empirical and logical cases. Indeed, one should make a note of what form the case for a claim ought to take, and what form the case in fact made took. Actually, the empirical-logical distinction isn’t quite detailed enough. How would Pinker defend a decline claim, if he did it well? With numbers, of course. How would Darwin defend claims about what processes explain observed phenomena? It would be something a little subtler; “X makes prediction Y, which is right as seen in Z”. How would Popper make the case for doing science a certain way? By exploring the strengths & weaknesses of various ways of reasoning. The case against induction contains a mix of ideas from Hume, Goodman and Popper, while the case for it contains a mix of ideas from Ayer, Russell and Carnap. In each case, the argument’s type is right, whatever else might be true regarding its quality. How would Dawkins debunk traditional & popular arguments for the existence of a god? He would go through them, 1 by 1, and object to their premises and logical structure. If you anticipate what case a claim needs to be demonstrated, you can better remember whether it was done properly, and hence how it was done.

Let’s say you’ve gone through a book, noticed what views the author does and doesn’t want you to attribute to him or her (watch out for the subtlest of distinctions that are drawn), you gave some thought to the case each claim needs, and you’ve assessed how well it was done. It may be worth thinking about what form counter-arguments should take to be done properly too, both arguments against the claims and criticisms of the defences made for the claims. The author will probably have anticipated some of those and will have tried to defuse them. This gives you another opportunity to think, “What is being said and what isn’t being said? It needs what kind of a defence, and is it getting it?” People of some contrary opinion, be they named or hypothetical, can have their ideas assessed in the same way, although remembering names will not be the most important thing, because you’re trying to weigh pro and con for a case.

I’ve not said much about the evidence (perhaps broadly construed) that the author uses. In the case of Pinker, it’s along the lines of, “I’ve gone through just about every type of violence I can think of, seen when and where it has a per capita decline, and to be honest the answer is pretty much always the same”. If you do want to try to remember specific examples, focus on those with the best sources, those whose findings are the most counter-intuitive (thought is at its most informative in this area), and some which show the least and the most pernickety of considerations, just to show the range involved.

You’re now more or less at the end of the book and have studied and understood it. The way I have described the process sounds like something you’d do by making bullet-pointed notes as you go through it, with a pen and paper. Whether or not you physically do that, the fact that it is the obvious imagery to go with the method I’ve described has one important implication: it also summarises the work for your own benefit; and you did ask about summarising. But now you need to summarise it for others. Luckily, you have one trick on your side already: as you said, you read the reviews. So now you get to compare your comprehension with theirs, and ask yourself: what pitfalls have they fallen in to? By the time you’ve finished TBAOON, if you’ve read it the way I described (if you don’t feel like going through a book that size again, at least the tricks will work for future ones), you’ll know its case looks solid and deserves to be refuted only by equally good techniques. It’s defended with facts, so let’s see if it’s refuted with facts, or at least with question marks over whether its facts were valid or properly used. And as you said, of all the critical reviews you have read, almost none of them seemed to do it right.

In the case of Gray’s review (unlike you I’ve not read many, but at least we have this one in common), his misunderstandings of Pinker’s ideas and what should defend them seem to be numerous. Of course, Pinker seeks to explain what he has seen as well as to show others it is there, and assessing his explanations is a bit trickier. But at least it contextualised for me what kind of response Gray’s Enlightenment complaints deserved: firstly, at best he’s undermined Pinker’s explanatory attempt rather than his evidential demonstrations; secondly, in fleshing out why he found the explanation implausible, Gray showed me how he was thinking, and I could assess him in much the same way. How should you assess how Enlightenment thinkers would affect society? By the sum total of the ideas they had, or by what happened next? As I noticed, Gray focused on the former when the latter is what counts; too often, philosophers forget the world doesn’t have many philosophers in it, which has some bizarre effects on the sociological causal effects of the philosophy that has been done. It helps to get the historical order right, too; that’s how I spotted his mistake with Mill. And vilenkin’s “Christians and Muslims” argument conflated sizes with sizes of changes. How did I know to look for that distinction? It’s partly because scientists like me use so much calculus, but it’s also because Pinker’s topic is changes, and the explanation of changes should focus on changes.

In practice, when you wish to summarise a set of ideas (or their defence) for others, it’s often because you’re trying to explain where the original or a critical review thereof went astray, depending on whether you found the original unconvincing or convincing. So not only does it depend on the book, but also on to whom you are replying. Although people who are wrong about an issue tend to use the same handful of arguments ad nauseum, which might allow me to recycle points I’ve made against one piece of a view when I reply to another one later, the reply to each one essentially has to be original. Unless, of course, you have a classification of the arguments with refutations, like the Talk.Origins archive’s Index to Creationist Claims or Skeptical Science’s similar arguments hierarchy. Then you could in principle say, “Standard errors 14, 26, 32, 94 & 113 were made, and here are links to their refutations”. (Don’t worry: I think with TBAOON the number of them will be much lower than 113!) But however you get your arguments together, be ruthless in spotting all the points you can. I didn’t quantify how many objections I had to Gray in my original post until much later, with my numbered list, and frankly I hadn’t realised there were that many issues I had noticed with it.

I think this is a skill that comes with practice, both in the sense that replies on one example (such as the topic of how well TBAOON makes its case) come with practice and that first-time tries get better with practising multiple examples (this is, of course, far from the first topic I’ve weighed in on). I also think the skill of debunking that which you disagree with, for reasons you know are good and which you know you can articulate, takes pretty much the same form whether the topic is a book or something else entirely. I’m not reviewing a book or a review thereof when I defend atheism or climatology, for example. But the one thing that unites all these cases is that I can only say what I do because of my knowledge of the subject at hand. What techniques am I unconsciously using for accruing a general understanding of a topic? Ah well, presumably that’s another story…

Fri, 30 Mar 2012 08:16:02 UTC | #931313

foundationist's Avatar Comment 27 by foundationist

Very interesting article by Pinker. I´m gonna buy that book for sure. Have any of you actually read it? Do you know wether Pinker took the warrior age effect into account? That means, since serious violence is almost exclusively done by men between 13 and 30 you have to divide the relative violence in a society by the relative size of that group to see wether the trend is not just due to the fact that thanks to advances in medicine we now have more people who are just not good with a baseball bat. This should have a considerable effect in particular over the last two or three centuries, during Pinkers third significant decrease in violence? Has he corrected for this?

Fri, 30 Mar 2012 09:26:12 UTC | #931319

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 28 by AtheistEgbert

John Gray wrote a detailed polemic against modern atheism in the Guardian a few weeks ago with the predictable title "The Atheist Delusion"

Although I think Gray is a brilliant historian of ideas, his argument is by his own standards incoherent and self-defeating. He knows this, but continues anyway, because he follows immanent criticism religiously as some moral and aesthetic duty.

His argument is basically that our passionate anti-religiosity is itself religious, and we're not much different to Communism and Nazism, but that only makes him as anti-religious as us, only incoherently anti-religious.

For those who are unfamiliar with Gray, he's worth reading and it is worth understanding where he's coming from. I am as much against dictatorship and insane forms of state oppression than he is, but I think the modern atheist and secular movements are coherent and rational, while his pessimistic form of scepticism is actually religiously driven.

I hope he appreciates the irony.

Sat, 31 Mar 2012 10:38:36 UTC | #931511

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 29 by Jos Gibbons

For those who are unfamiliar with Gray, he's worth reading and it is worth understanding where he's coming from.

Why?

Sat, 31 Mar 2012 11:43:39 UTC | #931516

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 30 by AtheistEgbert

Comment 29 by Jos Gibbons :

Why?

Because that's good critical thinking. There is a principle called the principle of charity, whereby you attempt to get at the truth of the argument, rather than seek to win arguments.

John Gray's expertise is in the history of ideas, of which he's extremely knowledgeable, in particular that of liberalism. His book Enlightenment's Wake, contains a great deal of interesting material and analysis.

If we want to defend a robust form of reason or secularism (liberalism) then we need to understand the arguments against us. John Gray goes to the trouble of doing just that by reading the new atheists.

Sat, 31 Mar 2012 12:25:39 UTC | #931521