In Search of a Rational Explanation of Human Rationality

Steven Pinker, Harvard University cognitive psychology professor and best selling author, beats a familiar drum in his most recent book “Rationality: What Is It, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.” The book continues many themes from Pinker’s last book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” I would not for a moment disparage the importance of rational inquiry, I would question, however, if Pinker can give a rational explanation of rationality.

“How should we think of human rationality? The cognitive wherewithal to understand the world and bend it to our advantage is not a trophy of Western civilization; it’s the patrimony of our species,” Pinker writes. He illustrates his point with the example of what’s thought to be one of the world’s oldest people groups, a group who has survived the San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa because of their “intuitive grasp of logic, critical thinking, statistical reasoning, correlation and causation, and game theory.” As his lead example in pointing to an account of rationalism, the discerning reader should ask if traits that benefit survival are sufficient to establish the level of confidence we place in our cognitive faculties — our brain or mind — whatever you prefer to call it.

At best, Pinker’s example demonstrates a certain kind of evolutionary advantage experienced by the people group from the Kalahari Desert. Yet, survival and truth are not synonymous. False beliefs can have positive outcomes. A kid who thinks he is the world’s greatest baseball player may perform better in his little league because of this confidence. The advantage would have nothing to do with the truthfulness of the belief. Another example can be seen in the fact that psychiatrists still prescribe sugar pills. The placebo effect is real. False beliefs and true beliefs can both have beneficial results.

I’m reminded of the Oxford University Press book “Mind and Cosmos” by another well-known skeptic, Thomas Nagel. Like Pinker, Nagel is an academic. He is emeritus professor of philosophy and law at NYU. Unlike Pinker, however, Thomas Nagel doesn’t believe that an atheistic understanding of reality can give us sufficient warrant for trusting our rationality. “Evolutionary naturalism implies,” Nagel writes, “that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.” The subtitle of Nagel’s book makes it clear, “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.”

This concern about whether or not an atheistic world can offer a sufficient foundation for human rationality has been around for a long time. Arthur Balfour, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the turn of the twentieth century, made this a focal point in his writing career with books like “Theism and Humanism”, “Theism and Thought”, and “Philosophical Doubt.” C.S. Lewis gave a popular treatment of this problem in his book “Miracles.” And in modern day, University of Notre Dame philosophy professor, Alvin Plantinga, has published numerous books and articles unpacking the problem that atheists face in seeking to give a proper warrant for human rationality (see video above).

“I would put faith in that same category because faith is believing something without a good reason to believe it. I would put it in the same category as astrology and alchemy,” Steven Pinker said as reported in an article in Discover Magazine. To use Pinker’s own words, does he have good reason to believe in reason itself? He can explain survival advantages, but this is far from getting to truth. It seems the confidence Pinker places in human reason is itself an act of faith.