The Skeptic’s Peace
Pinker warns the reader upfront that the book is huge, and with more than 800 dense pages there is no question about it. It is so wide-ranging that it is fortunate it has such a memorable title – the reader might have easily lost track of where it is all supposed to be heading. Individually, any section of the book is a throughly entertaining masterpiece, but as a whole, in terms of coherence, and on how the thesis and the direction of the arguments hold together, the book is not as much of a delight.
But it is an ambitious book and is in some respects a new sort of history – almost a moral history of the world, and Pinker deserves praise for the attempt. The next such historian to come along has been given much to work with.
Pinker is very convincing about the fact that violence has indeed declined; he is even persuasive on why it was but bound to happen. But when it comes to explaining the phenomenon (which he spends most of the book convincing us is real) based on his strength (psychology and evolutionary biology), he comes up slightly short. Pinker says all the right things and spares no punches and doesn’t flinch from taking on the worst arguments the critics might throw at him but his arguments still seem to lack that knockout blow.
This is not to say that the arguments are weak. Pinker does a remarkable job in his survey of history, of stats and of a multitude of ideas. The scholarship is immaculate, the intentions are noble and the conclusions are plausible but I would still wager that Pinker would fail to convince the majority of his readers.
Why? Because he ignores the contingent nature of history and he forgets that the ‘better angels’ has not only made us a more moral society but has also made us a more skeptical society. I was disappointed that Pinker does not explore the preventive powers of sheer skepticism.
My own thesis, which was evolving as I read Pinker’s, is ultimately that the skeptical mentality is what the ‘civilizing process’ (and the years of bloody wars) has ultimately given us – a conviction that there are no easy answers, no ‘final solutions’. And that is a powerful deterrent to most forms of drastic action, since now it is harder to justify them. This to me is the real cause for optimism (of the measured and skeptical sort, as is our wont now).
- Steven Pinker and the Scientific Worldview (bigthink.com)
- Steven Pinker At The New Republic: ‘Science Is Not Your Enemy’ (chrisnavin.com)
- Steven Pinker on Feminism (jrbenjamin.com)
- Steven Pinker on Human Nature (useofknowledge.wordpress.com)
- Don’t Caricature the Humanities (chronicle.com)
- Howard Gardner & Steven Pinker: Lives of the Mind (secularnewsdaily.com)