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“There’s nothing mystical about the idea

Matt Johnson, “There’s Nothing Mystical About the Idea that Ideas Change History”, Quillette, 1 December 2023

An interview with Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker, Harvard University, 2023. Photo by Christopher Michel, Flickr.

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and professor at Harvard, a prolific bestselling author, and one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals. He has written on subjects as diverse as language and cognition, violence and war, and the study of human progress. He draws upon his investigations of the human mind to help readers and audiences better understand the world those minds have built.

He has written a shelf of books, including How the Mind Works (1997), Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), and most recently, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021). A recurrent theme of his books and research is that a richer understanding of human nature can help us live better lives.

I spoke to Pinker for Quillette and our lengthy discussion covers international politics, artificial intelligence, religion and secularism, the October 7th atrocities in Israel, the power of beliefs, meritocracy, college admissions, identity politics, Effective Altruism, the state of democracy around the world, and many other topics.


Quillette: In Enlightenment Now, you discuss the importance of “norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits.” Jonathan Haidt says the nation is the largest unit that activates the tribal mind, whereas Peter Singer says we are on an “escalator of reason” that allows our circle of moral concern to keep expanding. What would you say are the limits of human solidarity?

Steven Pinker: I agree that the moral imperative to treat all lives as equally valuable has to pull outward against our natural tendency to favor kin, clan, and tribe. So we may never see the day when people’s primary loyalty will be to all of Homo sapiens, let alone all sentient beings. But it’s not clear that the nation-state, which is a historical construction, is the most natural resting place for Singer’s expanding circle. The United States, in particular, was consecrated by a social contract rather than as an ethnostate, and it seems to command a lot of patriotism.

And while there surely is a centripetal force of tribalism, there are two forces pushing outward against it. One is the moral fact that it’s awkward, to say the least, to insist that some lives are more valuable than others, particularly when you’re face-to-face with those others. The other is the pragmatic fact that our fate is increasingly aligned with that of the rest of the planet. Some of our parochial priorities can only be solved at a global scale, like climate, trade, piracy, terrorism, and cybercrime. As the world becomes more interconnected, which is inexorable, our interests become more tied up with those in the rest of the world. That will push in the same direction as the moral concern for universal human welfare.

And in fact, we have seen progress in global cooperation. The world’s nations have committed themselves to the Sustainable Development Goals, and before that to the Millennium Development Goals. There have been global treaties on human rights, atmospheric nuclear testing, chlorofluorocarbons, whaling, child labor, and many others. So a species-wide moral concern is possible, even though it always faces a headwind.

Q: I know you’re hostile to the idea of a world government, but do you think we’re prioritizing global institution-building enough?

SP: No, not enough. Now, a true world government, in the classic sense of “government,” would have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It’s hard to imagine the whole planet agreeing to a single set of laws enforced by global police. Who knows what could happen in a century, but for now, there’s just too much, let us say, diversity. The other disadvantage of a world government is that any institution is implicitly held in check by the power of its citizens to exit—to move their capital or their bodies someplace else. With a world government, there is no someplace else, and that means there’s one less brake on the temptation to become totalitarian.

Q: The EU was once considered a radical project—Orwell dreamed of a Socialist United States of Europe, for instance. In his book Nonzero, Robert Wright noted that if you told someone 60 years ago that France and Germany would one day use the same currency, they would have asked, “Who invaded who?” Now the prospect of war in Western Europe is almost unthinkable. Why don’t we appreciate the magnitude of this achievement? And how can we make Enlightenment values and the institutions they created more politically inspiring?

SP: A great question. Partly it’s a negativity bias baked into journalism: things that happen, like wars, are news; things that don’t happen, like an absence of war, that is to say peace, aren’t. For the same reason, it’s harder to valorize and commemorate the fact that something no longer happens, like great-power war.

Occasionally there have been efforts to arouse quasi-patriotic feelings for transnational organizations, like public performances of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy presented as the EU anthem. When I was a child, there were efforts like the “Family of Man” photo project and the Expo ’67 World’s Fair in Montreal which celebrated the unity of the human species. Admittedly, not many people get a warm glow when they see the United Nations flag, though I do—my visit to UN headquarters as a child was a moving experience, and it was again when I returned to speak there as an adult, despite knowing about the many follies of the UN.

And for all its fiascoes, the UN has accomplished a lot. Its peacekeeping forces really do lower the chance of a return to war—not in every case, but on average. And members of the UN are signatories to an agreement that war is illegal, except for self-defense or with the authorization of the Security Council. Even though that’s sometimes breached, most flagrantly with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have to remember that whenever there are laws there are scofflaws, but that doesn’t mean the laws are useless. The legal scholars Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro have argued that even though the outlawry of war did not eliminate war, it reduced it by making conquests no longer recognized by the community of nations. That is, if Russia holds onto territory taken from Ukraine, it cannot count on other nations recognizing the conquest—which is a big change from the practice of millennia, when the policy was “to the victor go the spoils.”

And the Millennium Development Goals, completed ahead of schedule, were just one of many UN efforts to measure and address problems on a global scale. It’s easy to be blasé about these aspirations, but as the civilization-spanning historian Arnold Toynbee observed, “The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered in future centuries not as an age of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.”

Steven Pinker, Harvard University, 2023. Photo by Christopher Michel, Flickr.

Q: The international-relations theory of Realism assumes that human progress (at least when it comes to the relations between states) is impossible. This is why Francis Fukuyama criticized it as the “billiard ball” theory of international relations—it assumes that state behavior will always be dictated by mindless, mechanistic forces like the distribution of power in the international system. What’s your take on Realism?

SP: As it happens, I recently debated John Mearsheimer, the foremost Realist theorist. “Realism” is a misnomer—it’s a highly unrealistic idealization of the relationships among states, barely more sophisticated than the board game Risk. It assumes that countries seek nothing but power and expansion, because the only defense against being invaded is to go on offense first. But this ignores the other ways nations can protect themselves—like Switzerland, the porcupine of Europe. It’s also unrealistic about the psychology of leaders. It attributes to all leaders all the time a motive that some leaders have some of the time, namely, territorial aggrandizement. It’s a theory of Putin now, but not all leaders are Putin. Many countries are perfectly content to stay within their borders and get rich through trade. The Netherlands once had an empire, but the Dutch are not seething to rectify this historic humiliation and annex Belgium or reconquer Indonesia. Likewise, Germany could probably conquer Austria or Slovakia or Poland, but in today’s world, why would it want to? What would it do with them? Why not just trade goods and tourists? Who cares about the number of square inches of your color on a map? So expansion is not a constant thirst of all leaders.

And as Christopher Fettweiss and others have pointed out, the theory of Realism was falsified by events since the end of the Cold War. So-called Realism predicted that large states always seek to maximize their power and aggrandize their preeminence, but the Soviet Union voluntarily went out of existence. Realists predicted that a hegemon would inevitably rise up to balance the United States, so that by the beginning of the 21st century, some other country, probably Germany, would arm itself to become as powerful as the United States. Realists not-so-realistically predicted there would be a proliferation of nuclear-weapon states across Europe, starting with Germany. That didn’t happen either. They said NATO would go out of existence because it had been held together only by the common threat of the Soviet bloc. Again, false. They predicted there would be a rise in the number of wars and war deaths in the decades following the Soviet collapse. The opposite happened.

To the credit of the Realists, they did make empirical predictions, as a good scientific theory should. So they should now concede that the predictions have been falsified and we should move on to a more sophisticated theory of leaders’ motivations.

Q: Mearsheimer was especially concerned about Germany in his 1990 essay for the Atlantic, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” He thought it might invade Eastern European states to create a buffer between itself and Russia. And he has recently said that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was motivated by legitimate security concerns.

SP: In Putin’s fever dreams, conceivably he fears a Napoleon- or Hitler-style invasion. But this seems hard to credit, if for no other reason than that Russia is a nuclear-armed state. The idea that NATO would invade Russia seems nothing short of hallucinatory. Who would want to own Russia? What would NATO do with it if it did conquer it? Now, there may be an “existential threat” to Putin’s own rule as Russians look to a successful Westernized Ukraine and say, “Hey, that doesn’t look so bad.” But that’s different from the nation-state of Russia being wiped off the map.

Q: Do you think there’s a reluctance to credit beliefs, ideas, personalities, and ideologies with state behavior (like Russian aggression) and the behavior of organizations like Hamas?

SP: Absolutely. This may be the biggest appeal of so-called Realism. Among people who consider themselves hardheaded—and we’re tempted to complete that phrase with “realist,” in the small-r sense—there’s a reluctance to credit something as wispy and ethereal as an “idea” with causal power. It seems almost mystical—how could something as airy-fairy as an idea cause tanks to cross a national border?

But people should get over this squeamishness. Ideas are causal forces in history. There’s nothing mystical about this claim. This comes right out of my home field of cognitive science. Ideas aren’t phantoms; they’re patterns of activity in the brains of human beings, shared among them by the physical signals we call language. Some of those human beings have their fingers on the buttons of massive destructive power, and what they believe could very well have causal effects. And in fact they do have causal effects. As Richard Ned Lebow, Barry O’Neill, and other political scientists have shown, wars are fought not just for land and minerals but for honor and prestige, divine mandates, utopian visions, historical destiny, revenge for injustices and humiliations, and other fancies and obsessions.

Even the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was driven by an idea (it almost certainly wasn’t driven by a desire for oil, given that the United States had plenty of it at the time). According to a popular neoconservative theory, deposing Saddam would create a benign domino effect and turn the Middle East into a chain of liberal democracies, like eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In retrospect it seems mad, but it circulated in right-wing circles at the time, and had a big role in motivating Bush’s decision to invade. Getting back to Putin, in the summer before the invasion he actually wrote down his driving motivation for the world to see: bringing into reality the historical unity of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.

Q: Do you think people are actually capable of becoming more secular? Or will they simply channel their religious impulses into new forms of worship (wokeness, conspiracism, astrology, and so on)?

SP: They must be capable of it, because it has happened. There’s a massive wave of secularization in the world, particularly in developed countries. For a while the United States was a laggard, but it’s catching up, with religious belief dramatically declining. China and most of the former communist countries, by and large, never regained their taste for religion after the communist regimes drove it underground.

To be sure, people are always vulnerable to paranormal woo-woo, conspiracy theories, and other popular delusions, though not to fill a gap left by religion—it’s often the religious who are most credulous about other nonverifiable beliefs. A vulnerability to weird beliefs is not the same as a need for them. Religious belief does not seem to be a homeostatic drive, like food or air or sex, where if people don’t have enough, they’ll start to crave more. A lot of people in secular Western European and Commonwealth democracies seem to do just fine without any form of religion or substitute raptures.

Q: The headlines are always telling us that democracy is “in retreat,” but the past few years have also exposed the structural weaknesses of authoritarianism—from China’s disastrous zero-COVID policy and economic troubles to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Why are we always so eager to talk up the strengths of authoritarianism and the weaknesses of democracy?

SP: This goes back to your first question—are modern institutions foreign to our intuitions? Jon Haidt has pointed out that tribal solidarity and deference to authority come easily to us, so it’s natural for people to welcome the strong and powerful leader of populist authoritarian movements. Unfortunately for democracy, it’s a more abstract concept. Democracy is an intellectualization, articulated by, among others, the American framers of the Constitution. It requires some intellectual gymnastics, like appreciating the benefits of the free flow of information, of feedback to leaders about the consequences of their policies, and of distributed control among agents that keep each other in balance. All this is more abstract than empowering a charismatic leader, so our intuitions tend to regress toward the authoritarianism and tribalism of populist ideology, namely, that we are a people with an essence and the leader embodies our purity and goodness.

At the same time, people certainly are capable of anti-authoritarian impulses which can be the intuitive seeds of democracy. Most traditional societies, even tribal ones, had some degree of democracy, in which lower-ranking people could resent and sometimes collectively rebel against the chief. Tribal Big Men weren’t totalitarians—they couldn’t be, because they didn’t have the means of enforcing complete control. So there may be a kernel of democratic sentiment in us, but it has to be married to the governing apparatus of a modern nation-state, and that is a cognitive leap.

Q: With the eruption of moral confusion on campus after the October 7th atrocities in southern Israel, what do you think are some of the political and cultural implications? Identitarianism that devolves into “Queers for Palestine” probably doesn’t have much political purchase—it seems like an “abolish the police” moment that might actually work against the tide of wokeness.

SP: It’s hard to predict, but it’s certainly possible. 10/7 exposed the moral confusion—a charitable way of putting it—of the identitarian/critical-theory/social-justice/intersectional ideology which divides the world into victims and oppressors based on screwball notions of race, sex, and history. This provides the bizarre taxonomy in which Arabs are lumped with Sub-Saharan Africans and gay Westerners and Israelis with Victorian colonialists. If academia ran by the rules of logic, this would be a reductio ad absurdum. The absurd conclusion is that a movement of misogynistic, homophobic, totalitarian, theocratic, genocidal fanatics is a form of liberation and resistance to oppression. Something must be deeply defective in any set of assumptions that would lead to this wacko conclusion. “Queers for Palestine” should have been a bit of mordant black humor from the Onion or Titania McGrath, but it’s all too real.

Q: There’s a connection here to our conversation about how people can’t believe that beliefs motivate behavior. Hamas’s charter is online and its leaders will say on camera: “We seek the annihilation of Israel, we seek the complete obliteration of the country.” And yet there’s this unwillingness to listen to them when they tell us exactly who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

SP: And there’s the track record of how they have actually ruled Gaza and what sister movements like ISIS and Boko Haram have done in the territories they control. So yes, if the laws of logic applied to the intersectional social justice mindset, this would be a turning point which exposes its moral absurdity, like the “abolish the police” moment, which did lead to a recoil. Unfortunately that’s a big “if.”

Q: I know you’ve criticized members of the AI-safety movement who are concerned about existential risk. What do you think they get wrong about the nature of intelligence?

SP: One is the unstated assumption that intelligence is bundled with a desire to dominate, so that if a system is super-smart, it will use its intelligence to annihilate us. Those two traits do come bundled in Homo sapiens, because we’re products of an inherently competitive process, natural selection, and it’s easy to project human flaws onto other intelligent systems. But logically speaking, motivation is independent of calculation. An intelligent system will pursue whatever goals are programmed into it, and keeping itself in power or even alive indefinitely need not be among them.

Then there are the collateral-damage scenarios, like a literal-minded AI that is given the goal of eliminating cancer or war and so exterminates the human race, or one that is given the goal of maximizing the manufacture of paperclips and mines our bodies for the raw materials. And in these doomer scenarios, the AIs have become so smart so fast that they have figured out how to prevent us from pulling the plug.

The first problem with this way of thinking is an unwillingness to multiply out the improbabilities of a scenario in which artificial intelligence would not only be omniscient, with the power to solve any problem, but omnipotent, controlling the planet down to the last molecule. Another is thinking of intelligence as a magical power rather than a gadget. Intelligence is a set of algorithms which deploy knowledge to attain goals. Any such knowledge is limited by data on how the world works. No system can deduce from first principles how to cure cancer, let alone bring about world peace or achieve world domination or outsmart eight billion humans.

Intelligence doesn’t consist of working out calculations like Laplace’s Demon from data on every particle in the universe. It depends on empirical testing, on gathering data and running experiments to test causality, with a time course determined by the world. The fear that a system would recursively improve its own intelligence and achieve omnipotence and omniscience in infinitesimal time, so quickly that we would have no way to control it, is a fantasy. Nothing in the theory of knowledge or computation or real-life experience with AI suggests it.

Q: Do AI doomers make the mistake of thinking intelligence is a discrete quantity that you can just multiply over and over and over again?

SP: There’s a lot of that. It’s a misunderstanding of the psychometric concept of “general intelligence,” which is just an intercorrelation in performance among all the subtests in an IQ test. General intelligence in this sense comes from the finding that if you’re smart with words, you’re probably smarter than average with numbers and shapes too. With a bit of linear algebra, you can pull out a number that captures the shared performance across all these subtests. But this measure of individual differences among people can’t be equated with some problem-solving elixir whose power can be extrapolated. That leads to loose talk about an AI system that is 100 times smarter than Einstein—we have no idea what that even means.

There’s another shortcoming in these scenarios, and that is to take the current fad in AI research as the definition of intelligence itself. This is so-called deep learning, which means giving a goal to an artificial neural network and training it to reduce the error signal between the goal state and its current state, via propagation of the error signals backwards through a network of connected layers. This leads to an utterly opaque system—the means it has settled on to attain its goal are smeared across billions of connection weights, and no human can make sense of them. Hence the worry that the system will solve problems in unforeseen ways that harm human interests, like the paperclip maximizer or genocidal cancer cure.

A natural reaction upon hearing about such systems is that they aren’t artificially intelligent; they’re artificially stupid. Intelligence consists of satisfying multiple goals, not just one at all costs. But it’s the kind of stupidity you might have in a single network that is given a goal and trained to achieve it, which is the style of AI in deep-learning networks. That can be contrasted with a system that has explicit representations of multiple goals and constraints—the symbol-processing style of artificial intelligence that is now out of fashion.

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