There is no force in the Universe called progress. But there are plenty of natural forces that only seem to make it harder for us to make progress as a species, such as disease, the laws of entropy, and the dark sides of human nature.
So, what pushes humanity forward in the face of all these obstacles? To psychologist Steven Pinker, the answer is rationality. When people use their reasoning skills and other cognitive abilities to help improve the lives of others, the result is progress.
From pseudoscience to religious extremism, irrational beliefs can cause real harm. That’s why Pinker argues that society would be better off if more people learned to be more rational.
STEVEN PINKER: A question that I often get is: Do you believe in progress? Well, I don't believe in progress, at least not as a force in the Universe. To quote Fran Lebowitz, "I don't believe in anything you have to believe in." Because there isn't any arc bending toward justice. There is no force that's lifting us ever upward. Quite the contrary. The Universe often seems to be out to get us. There are parasites that want to eat us from the inside. There's the laws of entropy: there are more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. There's human nature: we were not selected by the processes of evolution to be particularly nice. We have the capacity for revenge and exploitation. So that's what's lined up against us. But nonetheless, progress has happened. How do we explain that? What might seem like a miracle? The answer is 'rationality.' If people deploy their rationality, their cognition, their language_with the goal of making other people better off- then the result, over time, is what we call 'progress.' Can we become more rational? It's a pressing question because irrational beliefs lead to public health disasters. They can lead to wars and genocides. We'd really be better off if more of us were more rational.
My name is Steve Pinker. I am a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. My most recent book is called "Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters."
There is a capacity in us to become collectively more rational- we can just see it looking backwards. The three great things people desire is to be healthy, wealthy, and wise- and so we can start with those three. Health: meaning in life, is to be alive rather than dead, and longevity has vastly increased. We live more than twice as long as our ancestors. So we have not just extra life, but as if we've been granted an extra life. Wealthy: 200 years ago, 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Today, about 9% of the world lives in extreme poverty, and that proportion falls every day. Wise: our natural state is illiteracy and ignorance. And until pretty recently, a small, aristocratic minority was able to read and write. Now it's a majority; 90% of the world's population under the age of 25. As Barack Obama said a decade ago, "If you had to choose a period of history to live in, you'd pick now." When people see my argument that many things have, on average, gotten better: the reaction is often, "Oh, it's so nice. You're an optimist." And I always resist that. I don't really consider myself an optimist, I just consider myself someone who looks at data rather than headlines.
Headlines are guaranteed to make you pessimistic, even cynical, or fatalistic because headlines are a non-random sample, of the worst things happening on Earth, at any given time. It's when you plot data-and that includes gradual trends- you see with your own eyes how things have gotten better, as a fact about human history. Raising the question of how rational our species is, bumps you immediately up against a kind of paradox: By some measures, we've never been more rational. We have evidence-based medicine, we've got 3D printing, we've got robotics, we've got artificial intelligence. That's at the high end, but we are also seeing an awful lot of what you might call 'Rationality Inequality.' That is at the other end, there's an awful lot of fallacies and irrationalities. There are conspiracy theories such as that, the Covid vaccines are actually a plot by Bill Gates to inject microchips to surveil us. There's the big lie that the American Election of 2020 was stolen in defiance of all evidence. How do you explain, or how do I explain- as someone who claims to know a thing or two about rationality- how the same species could indulge in both? Part of the answer is that we are storytelling animals. We spin narratives. That's one of the ways that we make sense of the world.
But we do have a habit to fall back on narratives, when it comes to big important questions, like: 'How did the world come into being?' 'What really happens in the White House?' Most people, it's like, you can't find out, and so you might as well believe the best story. The ones that make you and your tribe look great, that make your enemies look evil and stupid; that convey the right moral message. We often aren't so committed to the factual voracity of beliefs that are more in the realm of mythology. We don't care whether they're true or false- they're good things to believe, in that moral community. Now, if you're a a scientist, if you're a historian, if you're a journalist, you say, "Well, we could find the answers to those questions." Cosmology tells us how old the Universe is, and government transcripts of conversations among leaders tell us what actually happened in the White House. Our feats of rationality come from institutions, in scientific societies, in government recordkeeping agencies, in responsible journalistic outlets. With this complicated apparatus, we can be, collectively, much more rational than any of us is individually. But it crucially depends on the rules of the game. Such as, admit you're wrong when you're wrong. If you have a claim, you got to prove it- you can't just jam it down people's throats by authority, or power, or prestige. You got to test your ideas with experiments or data. All of these rules and norms are what allow networks of us to blunder our way toward rationality and truth.
Can more people become more rational? A common answer among, you know, my people is "education!" We've got to teach kids critical thinking, but education can't be the only part of the answer. And the reason is all too familiar: Students take a course, they cram for the exam. The exam is over, by the time the ink is dry, they forgot most of what they crammed for in the exam. It can't just be you take a course in critical thinking. It's got to be that the principles of critical thinking are just part of what it means to be a decent, thinking, respectable person. So if you're writing an op-ed, or a blog post, or commenting on a tweet, or even having an argument in a bar, you got to keep those principles of critical thinking. It's got to be part of our norms. It's got to be, like, not going out naked in public. Several hundred years ago people believed in the existence of werewolves and unicorns. People believed that you could placate angry gods by sacrificing innocent people. People would take the whole family out to laugh at the insane in an asylum for entertainment on a Sunday afternoon. So there is hope. It doesn't happen instantly. It doesn't happen to everyone. They'll always be pockets of irrationality. But we can try to kind of steer the ocean liner, slowly and gradually, in the direction of greater rationality.