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Pinker, Foucault and Progress

Rick Searle

Ethical Technology

January 15, 2013

Pinker’s book is copiously researched and argued, but it leaves one with a host of questions. It is not merely that tragic incidents of violence that we see all around us seem to fly in the face of his argument, it is that his viewpoint, at least for me, always seems to be missing something, to have skipped over some important element that would challenge its premise or undermine its argument, a criticism that Pinker has by some sleight of hand skillfully managed to keep hidden from us.


Complete entry


Posted by Intomorrow  on  01/15  at  09:38 PM

Sure, nukes are a big reason another world war hasn’t come since 1945.
But let’s take another—at random—small, discrete reason: the Soviet Union decided during WWII it would not be invaded again and Russia gaining nukes since 1949 was one result of that thinking.

IMO though thinking has not become better (more altruistic) it has become incrementally more pragmatic. Can’t say for sure we are more humane.

Posted by Rick Searle  on  01/15  at  10:53 PM

There was a fascinating discussion between Pinker and Robert D. Kaplan in which Kaplan makes exactly your point- though he uses other examples. It’s fun to watch because Pinker seems to think Kaplan intends to argue against his thesis in Better Angels- instead he agrees with it and gives much of the credit to hard nosed realist politics.

Posted by Intomorrow  on  01/15  at  11:35 PM

What I attempt (these are awfully large issues) to say to Henry Bower and other educated theists is: their expectations are excessively high and thus they blow issues out of proportion. They expect too much: as a Marxist holds on to a notion of unspecified revolution leading to proletarian dictatorship leading to classlessness, the religionist tilts at spiritual windmills.

They could learn something from Buddhist nonattachment.

At any rate, in a vague, globalistic, way, the world has become more humane; it would appear that organised warfare is being replaced by random violence; that war-violence is slowly being replaced by economic-violence.

Posted by Intomorrow  on  01/16  at  12:02 AM

“vague, globalistic” is redundant—globalism is vagueness, often considered ‘globaloney’.

But all the same, if you examine recent history it does seem the world is slowly becoming more humane. The Vietnam war involved collateral damage including the mass napalming of civilians—whereas America and the West cannot afford large-scale atrocities (the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam comes immediately to mind) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Way back when, burning a civilian with napalm was almost acceptable; today, burning so much as a Koran will get one into trouble.

Just say—to throw out a number—the world is becoming 1 percent less violent every year: after fifty years the world is hypothetically 50 percent less violent. Projections cannot be based on peer-reviewed statistics.. however it is plausible.

Posted by Rick Searle  on  01/16  at  02:18 PM

In Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants he has this idea of incremental progress- the world needs to only have a little bit more good than bad in it which steady grows over time to have a big impact on human well being.

The problem I think, is that given our destructive capacities we could make irrelevant all the good statistics overnight. A WMD attack in the major city, nuclear war etc aren’t probable, but possible, and only when these things are no longer possible and we’ve reached the end of this particular period of human history will we know exactly what our age has meant in terms of violence.

Posted by Intomorrow  on  01/16  at  05:20 PM

To be optimistic, one might write we have a 51 percent chance of becoming civilised, rather than 50 percent.

Posted by Rick Searle  on  01/16  at  07:49 PM

With your numbers- and thanks to the miracle of compound interest- we might just have a chance.

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