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What We’re Reading: Pinker’s Free Will Blind Spot

The title of Steven Pinker’s new book is a bold proclamation: Enlightenment Now. In the preface, he promises to show how Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism, and progress are “stirring, inspiring, noble” and “offer a reason to live.” Stated in the abstract, at least, these are values I stand for, and so I’ve begun reading Enlightenment Now with great interest, and will have more to say about it in future writing.

However, I think that his project of promoting Enlightenment values (as described in the preface and in several of his recent pieces) has at least one Achilles heel. Pinker has a growing audience among secular, scientifically-minded people who are skeptical about all forms of the supernatural, whether a belief in God, freedom of the will, or immortality (to use Kant’s famous triad). But of these three, I will argue that one is a natural fact indispensable to the Enlightenment project: freedom of the will. Here I will illustrate why denying it undermines that project by relaying some observations I recently made while reading some of Pinker’s earlier work.

Recently I have been reading Pinker’s The Blank Slate as part of the curriculum in the third-year of the Objectivist Academic Center program, which I help teach with my colleagues Onkar Ghate and Aaron Smith. (The OAC’s third year features a seminar in which students use the philosophical tools of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism to analyze books written by prominent thinkers.) The Blank Slate is an extensive survey of findings in the “sciences of human nature” (psychology, neuroscience, genetics, evolutionary biology, etc.) that Pinker thinks should influence our understanding of controversies in politics, economics, and culture more generally.

The Blank Slate is also a polemic against those who would ignore these findings. It urges that we acknowledge the fact that human beings have an innate genetic endowment, a fact that is too often evaded by academic egalitarians. He suggests, for instance, that people have different levels of innate intelligence and may even have an innate drive to violence. But he argues that acknowledging these facts about our genetics by itself has no implication for how we should treat people: it does not imply, for instance, that we ought to assign different rights to people with different levels of intelligence or that we should act on our violent urges. The mere scientific facts do not imply any normative conclusions all by themselves. Why not?

Consider, for example, how Pinker deals with questions about whether disparities in IQ among the races would justify racial discrimination:

So could discoveries in biology turn out to justify racism and sexism? Absolutely not! The case against bigotry is not a factual claim that humans are biologically indistinguishable. It is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups to which the individual belongs. Enlightened societies choose to ignore race, sex, and ethnicity in hiring, promotion, salary, school admissions, and the criminal justice system because the alternative is morally repugnant. Discriminating against people on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity would be unfair, penalizing them for traits over which they have no control.1

Note especially Pinker’s contention that it is unfair to penalize people for traits they do not choose, and that enlightened societies can choose to avoid such penalties. These enlightened societies are presumably the ones Pinker celebrates and encourages us to emulate in Enlightenment Now. I think that the essence of what he’s saying here is correct: rational people make just choices when they reward and punish people for their choices, not for factors over which they have no control.

With all this emphasis on the relevance of our choices and the role they play in distinguishing scientific from normative questions, it may be surprising to note that Pinker also thinks that the sciences of human nature support a case for determinism and against free will. He thinks that the same science that demonstrates our genetic inequality is also “eroding the concept of free will and personal responsibility” (177). (You can watch him explain his case briefly in this video, and at greater length in this one.) Being skeptical about free will means seriously doubting that we are the author of our own choices, our own thoughts, and our paths in life: it means that all of these are ultimately at the mercy of forces beyond our control.

Notably, Pinker thinks free will would make sense only if there were a “ghost in the machine, a spirit or soul that somehow reads the TV screen of the senses and pushes buttons and pulls levers of behavior,” as he puts it in the first video. This is in keeping with the common secular assumption that free will is a province of the supernatural, a magical faculty of a disembodied immortal soul. But can scientific thinkers afford to abandon the conviction of their own agency?

In a revealing passage (one frequently highlighted in Kindle editions of The Blank Slate), Pinker reveals just how little control he thinks even the most rational among us have over our lives:

The conscious mind—the self or soul—is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief. Sigmund Freud immodestly wrote that “humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its naïve self-love”: the discovery that our world is not the center of the celestial spheres but rather a speck in a vast universe, the discovery that we were not specially created but instead descended from animals, and the discovery that often our conscious minds do not control how we act but merely tell us a story about our actions.2

Granted, Pinker implies here that our conscious minds are sometimes in control. But if much of what they do is to project an illusion of control, how are we to tell the difference between when we’re in control and when we’re not? How can we ever have any control if we can’t tell that difference? How, in particular, can we have control over our own scientific thinking, sufficient to know that it is rational and not prejudiced? And if we cannot, in what sense can “enlightened societies” meaningfully choose just vs. unjust courses of behavior?

Pinker himself is sensitive to cases in which theorists arbitrarily exempt themselves from the same deterministic laws they think rule the behavior of everyone else. In The Blank Slate he notes such an incongruity in the approach taken by environmental determinists like the behaviorist B. F. Skinner. Here he remarks on the difficulty these “radical scientists” have in reconciling their determinism with their advocacy of social engineering:

The radical scientists are thoroughgoing materialists and could hardly believe in an immaterial soul. But they are equally uncomfortable with any clearly stated alternative, because it would cramp their political belief that we can collectively implement any social arrangement we choose. . . . But [they] never [explain] who the “we” is, if not highly structured neural circuits, which must get that structure in part from genes and evolution. We can call this doctrine the Pronoun in the Machine. . . . If the “we” is truly unfettered by biology, then once “we” see the light we can carry out the vision of radical change that we deem correct.3

Since the OAC third-year seminar students are asked to analyze the books we read from the perspective of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, I asked students to read Rand’s essay “The Stimulus and the Response,” her own analysis of B. F. Skinner. She makes a criticism of Skinner that is similar to Pinker’s in at least one respect: a determinist like Skinner cannot coherently speak of how “we” can freely engineer society without invoking his own secular version of a disembodied soul that is exempt from environmental influence:

Mr. Skinner stresses repeatedly that the survival of a culture is a value different from, and superior to, the survival of its members, of oneself or of others—a value one ought to live and die for. . . . A “culture,” in Mr. Skinner’s own terms, is not a thing, not an idea, not even people, but a collection of practices, a “behavior,” a disembodied behavior that supersedes those who behave—i.e., a way of acting to which the actors must be sacrificed. This is mysticism of a kind that makes God or society seem sensibly realistic rulers by comparison. . . . Thus Mr. Skinner, the arch-materialist, ends up a worshipper of disembodied motions . . . . Who will be the “designers” of his proposed global culture and the rulers of mankind? He answers unequivocally: the “technologists of behavior.” What qualifies them for such a job? . . .  Since man, according to Skinner, is biologically unable to project a time span of three months—from spring planting to fall harvest—how are these technologists able to see the course and plan the future of a global culture?4

Whereas Pinker thinks that the behaviorist’s particular social engineering norms are undermined by biological determinism, Rand thinks it is not just these norms, but any and all norms that lose their meaning in the absence of free will.  She makes clear that her target is not just behaviorism but all forms of determinism, and here she points to the central contradiction in Skinner’s case for redesigning society in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity:

In reason, one would expect that so thoroughgoing a determinist as Mr. Skinner would not deal with questions of morality; but his abolition of reason frees him from concern with contradictions. Beyond Freedom and Dignity is a normative tract, prescribing the actions men ought to take (even though they have no volition), and the motives and beliefs they ought to adopt (even though there are no such things).5

Rand was a champion of many of the Enlightenment values Pinker upholds—preeminently, an advocate of reason as “one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.” Because she embraced reason as a norm, a faculty we should strive to use to guide our action, she would say we should choose to accept this norm. She believed in free will and thought we should choose to reject any claim that denies its presuppositions, especially determinism.

But Pinker claims to accept reason, science, humanism, and progress as norms as well. Enlightenment values are supposedly “stirring, inspiring, noble” and “offer a reason to live.” If Rand is right and it is determinism as such that undermines normativity as such, then Pinker’s own determinism threatens his support for Enlightenment values. When he speaks of how “we” as members of an enlightened society are able to choose values that discourage racial discrimination, cruel and unusual punishment, or rape, is he not invoking his own “Pronoun in the Machine”? And don’t scientists need to think they can rise above prejudice to judge the objectivity of their own work? If so, he would be arbitrarily exempting his own theorizing from the deterministic laws to which he thinks others are subject.

Notably, Rand condemned racism precisely because she saw it as a form of determinism. Not only do we need to presuppose free will to condemn anything, but we should condemn racism in particular because it unjustifiably claims that one’s moral character is a product of one’s genetics. Not every genetic determinist is a racist, and notably Pinker insists that non-genetic factors play a role in determining one’s character (380–81). But his denial of free will in the name of genetics does provide aid and comfort to the racist.

Pinker’s own embrace of Enlightenment values along with skepticism about free will is, unfortunately, itself a legacy of Enlightenment philosophy. Try as they might, philosophers of the period (with a few possible exceptions) assumed that robust freedom of the will was incompatible with a scientific reliance on laws of cause and effect. This was a most vulnerable Achilles heel for thinkers who celebrated the achievements and requirements of the unfettered human mind.

It’s far beyond the scope of this essay to make the case for why free will is not only a scientifically respectable concept, but a prerequisite of the very notion of scientific objectivity.6 For the time being, here are two useful resources. One is a recent book by the philosopher Al Mele, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (Oxford, 2014), a slim, accessible volume that surveys a variety of issues in neuroscience, social psychology, and other contemporary fields that are often thought to threaten the concept of free will. He systematically dismantles these worries, showing that skeptical conclusions simply do not follow from the data. I’d also like to recommend my colleague Onkar Ghate’s recent talk on Rand’s theory of free will, “Seize the Reins of Your Mind: The Objectivist Theory of Free Will,” which has recently been featured in the pages of New Ideal. Ghate emphasizes in particular that free will is not a feature of a supernatural “ghost in the machine,” but of the natural, biological faculty of human consciousness. If this is correct, then one can coherently maintain the possibility of scientific objectivity that freely rises above prejudice.

To embrace a thoroughgoing Enlightenment celebration of the unfettered mind, Pinker and those who are inspired by his work should revisit their assumptions about free will. Pinker has often been an excellent gadfly, challenging the prejudices of academic orthodoxy. Unfortunately, skepticism about free will is a blind spot he seems to share with the orthodoxy. I urge him to shed the light of reason on every such blind spot.

The author would like to acknowledge the useful editorial feedback of Onkar Ghate in improving this article.

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  1. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Penguin, 2016), emphasis added, p. 145.
  2. Ibid., emphasis added, pp. 43–44.
  3. Ibid., emphasis added, pp. 126–28.
  4. Ayn Rand, “The Stimulus and the Response,” Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Objectivist thinkers have developed the traditional argument that determinism is self-refuting to show why accepting free will is a presupposition of the possibility of objectivity. See Nathaniel Branden, “The Contradiction of Determinism,” in The Objectivist Newsletter (May 1963), and Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), pp. 69–72. See also Edwin A. Locke, The Illusion of Determinism (2017), pp. 77–82.

Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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