Philosophy, Politics, Top Stories

The Wizard and the Prophet: On Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari

In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet.

At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . . . .” Pinker reminds us of what we in the chattering classes too often forget: namely, that modernity has for the most part been a major upgrade for humanity: “The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious . . . We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

Like most Wizards, Pinker thinks that our ancestors were for the most part benighted idiots: “an average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards, while if Joe and Jane Average made the reverse journey, they would outsmart 98 percent of the befrocked and bewhiskered Edwardians who greeted them as they emerged.”

Like most Prophets, Harari assumes that our ancestors were in certain respects better than us: “Twenty thousand years ago, the average Sapiens probably had higher intelligence and better toolmaking skills than the average Sapiens of today. Modern schools and employers may test our aptitudes from time to time but, no matter how badly we do, the welfare state always guarantees our basic needs. In the Stone Age natural selection tested you every single moment of every single day, and if you flunked any of its numerous tests you were pushing up the daisies in no time.”

For all of the most obvious reasons, religious people are going to hate Enlightenment Now. But political people won’t like it much either. Pinker has harsh words for ideologues of all stripes (e.g., progressives, conservatives, communists, socialists, and the alt-right). Although Pinker seems most partial, on balance, to libertarianism, he’s nevertheless quite critical of doctrinaire libertarians: “tellingly, the number of libertarian paradises in the world—developed countries without substantial social spending—is zero. . . . a free market can coexist with regulations on safety, labor, and the environment, just as a free country can coexist with criminal laws. And a free market can coexist with high levels of spending on health, education, and welfare . . . indeed, some of the countries with the greatest amount of social spending also have the greatest amount of economic freedom.”

Pinker’s criticism of Piketty-loving, Occupy-Wall-Street types who prate on and on about inequality is equally harsh: “Among the world’s billionaires is J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, which have sold more than 400 million copies and have been adapted into a series of films seen by a similar number of people. Suppose that a billion people have handed over $10 each for the pleasure of a Harry Potter paperback or movie ticket, with a tenth of the proceeds going to Rowling. She has become a billionaire, increasing inequality, but she has made people better off, not worse off . . . . Her wealth arose as a by-product of the voluntary decisions of billions of book buyers and moviegoers.”

With a sly smile, Joseph Campbell once defined “mythology” as “other people’s religion.” Thinking along similar lines, Harari maintains that we should be careful not to drink the Enlightenment Kool-Aid. Humanism didn’t heroically replace religion with rationality; it heroically replaced an old religion with a new one. Humanism is, for Harari, just another religion: “The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam. . . . Humanism shared the fate of every successful religion, such as Christianity and Buddhism. As it spread and evolved, it fragmented into several conflicting sects.” The three main branches of humanism are: (1) liberal humanism, the orthodox branch, which believes that “the voter knows best”, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and “the customer is always right”; (2) socialist humanism, “which encompassed a plethora of socialist and communist movements”; and (3) evolutionary humanism, “whose most famous advocates were the Nazis.”

“Initially,” avers Harari, “the differences between liberal humanism, socialist humanism and evolutionary humanism seemed rather frivolous. Set against the enormous gap separating all humanist sects from Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, the arguments between different versions of humanism were trifling. As long as we all agree that God is dead and that only the human experience gives meaning to the universe, does it really matter whether we think that all human experiences are equal or that some are superior to others? Yet as humanism conquered the world, these internal schisms widened, and eventually flared up into the deadliest war of religion in history.” Just as the 16th and 17th centuries were defined by the Wars of Religion between different sects of Christianity, Harari argues that the 20th century was defined by the Humanist Wars of Religion between different sects of Humanism.

The smart money wasn’t on liberal humanism. As Harari makes clear, for most of the 20th century, the best and brightest believed that liberal democracy’s days were numbered. And yet, against all odds, it prevailed against its rivals:

In the early twenty-first century, this is the only show in town. . . . As of 2016, there is no serious alternative to the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and a free market. The social protests that swept the Western world in 2011—such as Occupy Wall Street and the Spanish 15-M movement—have absolutely nothing against democracy, individualism and human rights, or even against the basic principles of free-market economics. Just the opposite: they take governments to task for not living up to these liberal ideals. They demand that the market be really free, instead of being controlled and manipulated by corporations and banks ‘too big to fail’. They call for truly representative democratic institutions, which will serve the interests of ordinary citizens rather than of moneyed lobbyists and powerful interest groups. Even those blasting stock exchanges and parliaments with the harshest criticism don’t have a viable alternative model for running the world. While it is a favorite pastime of Western academics and activists to find fault with the liberal package, they have so far failed to come up with anything better.

Liberal humanism has had a good run. But Harari suggests that the party may soon be over. Will liberal humanism be taken down by reactionaries like Putin and Trump? Nope. Like Pinker, Harari believes that the forces of reaction have no future. These are geriatric movements that appeal primarily to the elderly. Young people, regardless of their politics, have overwhelmingly rejected the world these grumpy old men wish to return to. All of this reactionary ranting and raving is little more than the bellowing of a dying beast.

Will liberal humanism be taken down by religion? Nope. Like Pinker, Harari maintains that religion has no future: “More than a century after Nietzsche pronounced Him dead, God seems to be making a comeback. But this is a mirage. God is dead—it just takes a while to get rid of the body. Radical Islam poses no serious threat to the liberal package, because for all their fervor, the zealots don’t really understand the world of the twenty-first century, and have nothing relevant to say about the novel dangers and opportunities that new technologies are generating all around us.”

If Harari is to be believed, liberal humanism is going to be undermined in a decade or two by the very same scientific progress that Pinker extols at length in Enlightenment Now. Just as scientific study of the Bible inadvertently undermined faith in the Christian God, scientific study of the mind is inadvertently undermining faith in the liberal humanist God: the freely-choosing individual. The algorithms used by Facebook and Google already know you better than your friends and family do. But the algorithms of the future will know you better than you know yourself.

Harari inadvertently predicted our response to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal three years ago in Homo Deus. He said that exposés of the burgeoning algorithm industry would probably be rejected for the same reason that exposés of the public relations industry are habitually rejected: namely, because we don’t want to believe that we’re so easily manipulated. Like all liberal humanists, we place our faith in the freely-choosing individual. As such, exposés such as this one are an existential threat. Alas, I now suspect that my own view of Hillary Clinton was shaped to some extent by these manipulations. I also suspect that some of my Facebook friends were inadvertently getting their “facts” from fake accounts set up by troll farms in St. Petersburg. Human nature being what it is, I imagine that most of them will double-down now. Because it’s hard to admit that you were duped, and that you’re not as smart as you think you are.

Whoever controls these algorithms will wield a truly godly power. They’ll be able to influence or even decide elections without stuffing the ballot box, gerrymandering the district, or rigging the election. And they’ll be able to get you to buy things you don’t need in ways that’ll make the Don Drapers of the advertising world green with envy. In short, they will be able to manipulate you in ways that Orwell could scarcely imagine. Paranoid media studies gurus like Chomsky have been telling us how consent is manufactured for decades. But what will become of our democratic faith in the wisdom of the electorate when the algorithms of the future prove them right? Harari seems haunted by questions of this kind.

Filmmakers were still allowed to depict adulterers, criminals, and femme fatales in Hays-Era Hollywood, so long as the bad people were eventually brought to justice or otherwise punished for their sins. In the same way, although it’s somewhat frowned upon, right-thinking intellectuals in the 21st-century West are still allowed to say some nice things about progress, technology, modernity, science, and capitalism, so long as they make it clear that a great reckoning is on the horizon, and we shall all pay dearly for our hubris. How else to explain the wildly divergent receptions of Harari’s Homo Deus and Pinker’s Enlightenment Now?

In the lengthy first chapter of Homo Deus, Harari recounts the very same progress narrative that reviewers love to hate in Pinker’s new book; and yet, to the best of my knowledge, nobody dismissed Harari as a simpleminded apologist, or a Panglossian proponent of scientism. On the contrary, the chattering classes produced a veritable deluge of fawning reviews of Harari’s book. What explains the difference? I think it is this: Pinker is a Wizard who doesn’t make the bad girl pay for her sins at the end of his story. He dares to suggest that she might find happiness and live happily ever after. My God! It’s high school all over again. The happy and healthy jocks who listen to pop music and smile too much must be shallow, whilst the moody kids in the corner listening to The Smiths and moping must be the bearers of profound insight.

If Pinker and Harari debated each other, I’ve no doubt that Pinker would win. Because Harari argues like a self-doubting intellectual, whilst Pinker argues like a ruthless debate club president. His certainty is at times annoying, as is his preachy style. You want an argument but feel like you’re getting a sermon. I doubt that he’s actually an ideologue (in real life); but he sure does write like one. Be that as it may, I suspect that these men agree on most matters and want the same things of the future. If Pinker paints a rosy picture of human progress and its achievements in the hope that both will continue, Harari sketches a dystopian future in the hopes that doing so will prevent it. Like all prophets, he prophesies to prevent the prophecy, not to predict it.

 

John Faithful Hamer is a teacher of the Humanities at John Abbott College and host of the Likeville podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @john_f_hamer

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47 Comments

  1. Matt says

    Count me among “Team Neither.” NN Taleb’s old world sensibility destroys both of these know-nothing, pedestrian, paper pushing, no-vitamin-D having, academista frauds. Let someone of his stature debate both these losers. At the same time. Be sure to have two body bags handy.

    • I confess I laughed.
      Can’t understand either why Pinker and Harari are so overrated. I suggest they have huge fan base because they are highly readable and understandable. Taleb is not. Reading and understanding Taleb is a perpetual challenge, his ideas are really new and risky.
      Really interested in what you suggest about old world sensibility.

      • Michael pye says

        I thought many criticisms of Taken centred on the fact that his ideas are not revolutionary and are well understood in the field of economics.

    • Dear Matt: Taleb is a friend and mentor. As such, I’m pretty sure I know how he’d respond to Pinker and Harari. It would be something along the lines of this: (1) Religion isn’t going anywhere. It’s the most successful form of popular culture in human history for a reason. (2) The appeal of people like Putin and Trump isn’t going anywhere. If history teaches us anything, it’s that tumultuous times invariably give rise to authoritarian leaders who promise to impose order on the chaos. (3) Powerful algorithms will provide those who wield them with nothing but a temporary advantage. The study of nature teaches us that predators and prey co-evolve. If the predators get faster, the prey get faster. In other words, the stress of these new tools will provoke an antifragile response in the body politic. (4) Predicting the future based on the recent past isn’t wise. Because we know practically nothing about well over 95% of human history. People like Pinker and Harari regularly come to conclusions about who we are based on a ridiculously small slice of our evolutionary past. “So-called world history is,” as Nietzsche rightly observes in Daybreak (1881), “at bottom merely much ado about the latest news.” (5) “Be sure to have those body bags handy.”—Fat Tony

    • KDM says

      Haha! I could not agree more with this sentiment. It’ll just take one Black Swan event to destroy both theories!
      Besides Pinker’s a Social Psychologist and his own field is going through a severe crisis of legitimacy (what with less than 30% of “science” being able to reproduce itself and the incredible extreme bias of academia in that field, ect…).

      On the other hand, Harari, while interesting and original has never said anything of predictive value whatsoever. His thesis is so extremely abstract that it becomes almost disconnected to real human life.

      Both of these intellectuals remind me of the slew of books that came out in the early 90’s after the fall of the wall. We have The End of History redux and books about how Japan will be the downfall of America, blah blah yadayada.

      These armchair academistas and pundants can go on and on getting everything completely wrong with absolutely no professional reprocussions at all. Evolution in intellectual life is dead because the really bad ones are not taken out of the gene pool like they should be.

      • KDM says

        My original reply was to the first poster, Matt. This reply / comment section needs to be improved.

        • augustine says

          I got more out of Mr. Hamer’s response to Matt than I did from the article. I wonder what would Pinker or Harari say to these hypothetical positions of Taleb?

          • Dear Augustine: That’s high praise! I’m glad you profited from my response. As for your question: What might Pinker say in response? I suspect that he’d change the subject or show you a pretty graph on his PowerPoint presentation that (supposedly) proves that he’s right and Taleb’s wrong. What might Harari say in response? I suspect that he’d first steel-man each one of these hypothetical positions aloud, searching his memory for every possible fact or trend that might support them. Then he’d tell us why he’s more likely to be right.

  2. From what I’ve seen, it is basically impossible to change a person’s views via ads or whatnot. The scientific literature backs that up. People are what they are, and believe what they believe. Higher technological powers changing individuals’ minds and human nature in general is not a real threat. Only coercion is a threat, as has always been the case. And, as Pinker correctly points out again and again, there is less and less violent force being administered around the world.

    Google knows what we like, but it doesn’t know how to make us think what it wants us to think. They don’t control our opinions, preferences, or actions. They just cater to them and spread information. If you really think about it, confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are kinds of safeguards against mind control. And those who are adept at battling their own psychological flaws are even harder to brainwash.

    Humanism is winning. The individual is becoming more powerful and more of a standard-bearer for how rights and liberties should be conceived. Despite the radical leftists and feminists and the alt-right reactionaries and identitarians, the world is liberalizing and growing more prosperous and freer for the average Joe.

  3. ga gamba says

    Harari inadvertently predicted our response to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal three years ago in Homo Deus.

    Really? What “scandal” is this?

    Let’s step back a few years to Obama’s 2012 campaign.

    the Obama team had a solution in place: a Facebook application that will transform the way campaigns are conducted in the future. For supporters, the app appeared to be just another way to digitally connect to the campaign. But to the Windy City number crunchers, it was a game changer. “I think this will wind up being the most groundbreaking piece of technology developed for this campaign,” says Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s digital director.

    That’s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists. In an instant, the campaign had a way to see the hidden young voters. Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists. What’s more, Facebook offered an ideal way to reach them. […]Early tests of the system found statistically significant changes in voter behavior. […] created models from vast data sets to find the best approaches for each potential voter.

    It wasn’t just Time wowed by Obama’s data collecting app. The Guardian, AdWeek, MIT Technology Review, and Wired were amongst the many MSM that were amazed by Obama’s clever team.

    This enthusiasm by the MSM for “targeted sharing” (when done by Democrats) carried on to Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Politico reported: “Hillary Clinton’s campaign has recreated it [Obama’s app], allowing her volunteers to contact vast numbers of people they know on the social network — and giving her what her backers consider a key advantage over Donald Trump just weeks before the election. […] Now the Clinton campaign has restored some of that ability with a tweak of the Apple iOS version of its mobile app. The update lets the campaign, with the permission of Facebook users, tap into their friend lists that have been synced with their iPhone’s address book.

    Facebook had no comment on the Clinton campaign’s tactic, which relies on specific features in how the company’s iPhone apps interact with users’ contact lists. The new tool, which Clinton’s team debuted Thursday, is yet another example of the way political campaigns have sought to reach Americans who have all but given up on landlines but are constantly tied to their mobile phones.”

    Trump’s Cambridge Analytica app was the same type of tool. A user with a FB account installed it and, of course, failed to read the TOS. The TOS allowed the app developer to collect data about the users’ friends. This data was used for analytics to determine the receptiveness of certain tailored messages, i.e. targeted adverts, and these were sent to the friends. Trump’s app isn’t scandalous because of what it did, it’s scandalous because it did it successfully for Trump.

    The flaw isn’t due to algorithms’ power, it’s due to FB users’ failure to understand the social networking service is a public one by design – it’s called social networking for a genuine reason. Not public in the way it’s available to all like a library book or a city bus, it’s public in a way that the user shared info to the entire FB community and even those without user accounts could view info posted too. FB was like Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner except that patch in the park was the online world. A FB user was no different from a broadcaster, newspaper publisher, blogger, or even a public figure like politicians and celebrities, yet the user still believed s/he was a private individual and a FB account was enhanced private email. It isn’t.

    Talk about prophets and wizards all you like, but there is another group who has a more profound affect on our society: the moocher. Since the advent of Hotmail and ISPs like Net Zero people have come to expect an ever growing number of online tools and services for no monetary cost. FB is not a $540 billion company because it gives away services for free. Of course the moocher predates the online world. It’s the person who demands “free” health care, “free” university, “free” whatever – they’re enchanted by UBI. Yes, they may kinda sorta understand it’s the taxpayer who pays for it, but really this act is so far removed from the moocher’s wallet and mind because it’s “the other guy” who will be squeezed – often the other guy is a disliked multi-billionaire who “didn’t work hard” for his money. The moocher doesn’t care to know than 92% of Americans earn less than $100,000 per annum and about 2% of households earn more than $250,000, so the group of “obscenely rich” birds to pluck is small. The moocher is also the businessman who wants tax breaks to locate his factory in a state or city – see Jeff Bezos. S/he wants subsidies. Build him a stadium for his sports ball team or it’ll be relocated. Bail out their failed banks after government guaranteed mortgages are dished out like candy. Disregard moral hazard.

    It doesn’t take a prophet to prophesy what happens to a society dominated by me me me and the gimme gimmes.

    • Kurt says

      Note: the following response is one eighth tongue in cheek, while attempting to make a serious point.

      It’s time to delete your Facebook accounts, people. You can catch up with high school classmates at the reunion and get back your incentive to lose weight every 5 years.

      Twitter too. Delete. How many lives have been ruined by 1 thoughtless thought? #hasjustinelandedyet?

      Just do it – for our kids’ futures. Stop this madness and stupidity. Stop offering yourself up as a product to be sold. Don’t be a cheap whore offering up your intimates for a fix. Get some self respect.

      Nobody can accuse you of being an idiot controlled by Russian Facebook ads if you never see facebook ads or Facebook anything.

      Plus, think of all the time you will stop wasting and the satisfaction you will get watching these pernicious enterprises whither away and die well deserved deaths.

      The time for social media ludditism is at hand. Join us.

  4. DiscoveredJoys says

    What a shame that the article, interesting in itself, didn’t mention that the Wizard and Prophet in Charles Mann’s book are Norman Borlaug and William Vogt and that the main thrust was about climate change.

    • A missed opportunity indeed! I love Mann’s book. This review was initially conceived of as a review of the three books. But alas, that proved way too long, so I cut it down to Pinker and Harari. Mann’s brilliant split between Wizards and Prophets applies to far more than just climate change. Regardless, I left any mention of Borlaug and Vogt out of this review, as I figured it would merely muddy the waters. Thanks for your comment. Take care. Bye for now.

  5. Michael pye says

    I found the central premise that Pinker is a wizard and Harari a prophet weak and unsupported even by the text. Though once past the first few paragraphs I enjoyed the text. Pinker is far more established then Harari though they seem to use and make the simaler arguments.

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed the second half of the piece, Michael. As for the similarities between Pinker and Harari: you’re right, they are indeed striking.

  6. George Barker says

    The Chomsky view of advertising is trite. Somehow if I am persuaded by advertising I’m a victim, but if I’m persuaded by Chomsky I am enlightened? I do not grant the academy it’s presumption of superiority over commerce. They are advertisers themselves, these days almost exclusively hawking toxic waste.

    • Dear George: I totally agree! Chomsky’s view of advertising is incredibly annoying. Reflective lefties like Chomsky have found ways, often ingenious ways, to reconcile a theoretical love of the people with an actual contempt for the people. None has proven more adaptable than Marx’s notion of false consciousness, though Freud’s idea of denial will do in a pinch, same is true of Gramsci’s equally circular concept of hegemony. Regardless, positions of this stamp invariably lead to some species of Leninism. The people are, according to this view, deluded idiots; and, as a consequence, all social progress depends upon some sort of a vanguard party, a small minority of enlightened experts—who see things clearly, unlike the rest of us. We should, if we know what’s good for us, defer to their superior wisdom. If we fail to do so, well, then, either we’re doomed or they’ll just have to seize power and (to borrow Rousseau’s phrase) force us to be free. And they wonder why the working class no longer votes for them!

      • DeWitt says

        Marx did not coin or use the notion of false consciousness, Engels did. The tactic of evaluating all criticism of one’s own position as validation of it is used by pretty much every ideologue across the entire political spectrum. The right’s perpetually self-fostered freedom paranoia is certainly no exception to this rule, and neither are leftist lunacies such as patriarchy, white privilege, and rape culture.

        Just out of curiosity, since I haven’t read much (political) Chomsky, where exactly has Chomsky advocated for a “vanguard party” of “enlightened experts” to lead us to the promised land? And more specifically, where does he argue in favor of these experts “seizing power” from “us” if “we” don’t comply with their recommendations? (Don’t tell me it’s implied in the subtext. No pomo BS please.)

        • You’re absolutely right about the Marx thing. I misspoke (or miss-typed). What I meant to say, what I should have said, is: the “Marxist” (as opposed to “Marx’s”) notion of false consciousness. Thanks for spotting the error and taking the time to point it out. As for the Chomsky reference, I’d have to go back to my Chomsky’s books to find the chapter and verse (it’s been awhile since I read him and I’m at work at the moment).

  7. Howard Slobodin says

    I would be interested in listening to Pinker explaining his views to the citizens of Damascus, Banda Ache, The Gaza Strip, and Nigeria.

    • That would indeed be interesting. If you think Peterson has trouble getting through a public talk on a college campus, imagine how hard it would be for Pinker to get through a presentation in Damascus!

    • Chester Draws says

      Actually, people in those places live better than their equivalents a few centuries ago. Gaza has solid houses, not huts, and access to medicine, water and electricity that were not available even in the West that long ago.

      Compare like with like. Gaza today with Gaza of 200 years ago, say.

  8. Kyler says

    Having read both Pinker’s EN and Harari’s works, both authors Grade A, what a messy/sloppy and ridiculously loose and vague this piece was. A waste of time. Usually I read more interesting, insightful and aphoristic works here. 🙁

      • Kyler says

        John, on second thought, I was too severe in my post. I just think you could’ve been clearer at the outset that the two scientists on the cover of Mann’s book aren’t Pinker and Harari. Moreover, that his book’s central focus wasn’t THEIR dueling visions. Thanks.

  9. Ghik Saibin says

    Why not compare Pinker with John Gray (the Brit, not her American)? I would think that might be more of a contrast.

  10. Joe Bob says

    I really enjoyed this piece. I would love to read your essay contrasting the views of Taleb and Pinker…

    • It has yet to be written, Joe, though I’ve been delivering a lecture on the topic to my “Good and Evil” class for a couple of years now. If Claire and Jamie are interested in such a piece, I’d be happy to write it.

  11. Shu says

    OK John, managed to get this comment to work! My take:

    Having met Dr. Pinker and broken bread with him, I’ll tell you — there’s a great cloud over his intellectual prowess (much like a certain other U of T prof who seems to be daily descending further and further into an ideological battle wherein he is “doubling down” himself by choosing a side that is no longer willing to show respect or any kindness for the slightest deviation from his narrative). The cloud I speak of is a combination of hubris and perhaps a deep misconception about not only himself but of the reality around him. There is a delusion of grandeur there; a very public demonstration of “I’m an important person who does important things and says important statements, and I know it and you know it and we are going to pretend not to talk about it, but you are in the presence of a superior intellect and one of the shapers of the future.” It’s bizarre. I’ve never had any real reason to question my own intellect; I know it is limited by my experience and my neural capacity and I will strive to achieve its maximal potential, whatever that amounts to by the end of my days. I am neither less nor more than any other human striving the same. Dr. Pinker comes to the table having already claimed to have won the tournament; it’s a weird, ultimately disturbing experience. This is also what is so galling about his contemporary, the Torontonian getting all the free press right now. It’s precisely the same issue. The amount of self-importance this sort of scholar demonstrates is astonishing. The scholarship is done not in the pursuit of knowledge but in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement. One can debate if this is true, because the scholar himself (it’s almost always a “him” in these cases but not always) and his supporters continue to make the unflinching claim that there is intellectual ambivalence, an aloof intellectual interest, and absolutely no emotional attachment or motivation for the study of these subjects, nor any ulterior motives, goals, or aspirations save the Holy Grail that is “pursuit of truth.” Yet that’s disingenuous. The delight with which these individuals taunt and toy with anyone privy to less data than they is deeply problematic; they act like cats playing with mice, not knowing that in reality they have porcupines between their paws and that tigers lurk behind them watching them with bemusement. They cannot hide the fact that one of their goals is notoriety, otherwise they would not even bother with the activity (and the style in which they carry it out) in the first place. That’s not much of a goal. It’s fruitless, and at the time of the deathbed conversation, a terrible, appalling existential joke. It creates a false sense of accomplishment, cut off from everything that really matters. I found my conversations with Dr. Pinker very sad, actually. He can win the “head” argument, and heck, he even sometimes wins the “gut” argument. But he will never, ever be able to win the “heart” argument. Those who agree with him need to demonstrably leave heart aside; and he scoffs at what true heart is, anyway. His counterpart in Toronto fits the same profile. While Carl Sagan may someday have temples erected for him on Mars, Pinker and that other now-infamous prof will have a section of a future cosmonet where their ancient YouTube videos will keep playing in holographic time, for a population of incels to convince themselves they still have something to live for. They are giving an explanation for how we got here, and firmly believe they’ve “figured out the formula” about what “works” and “doesn’t work.” I’d posit that these scholars even have come up with their own fixed definitions of “wrong” and “right” and hence they keep making judgemental statements rather than truly neutral ones. They continue to mask their judgement with proclamations of “it’s just what the data are pointing to” or “we have ample evidence to suggest my analysis is robust.” Pinker is guilty of this sort of thing a lot; just as he did in our debate at McGill where I astonishingly took him to task with several scholars about inaccurate statements, pointing out some linguistic information he had completely ignored in arriving at a synthesis. He paused for a moment, and he brushed any concerns aside saying (not quite verbatim, but very close): “Well, that’s interesting if true, hm. But anyway, my conclusion still stands, and there is enough at the moment to indicate that we should focus our energy on that. I don’t think anyone has ever suggested we look into the topic you’re suggesting.” Yet there was a roomful of people, staring at him, suggesting exactly those things, citing sources he had ignored (inadvertently or deliberately, I’ll never know), and there he was dismissing two respected scholars in the same field sitting next to him on a panel (I was moderating). The implication, there as with other similar scholars, is that they’ve done way more work than anyone else and as the great gurus of all things imaginable, please don’t question them, but use their information as one would the findings of the CERN team about the Higgs-Boson. Now Harari, on the other hand, writes about events and analyses historical progression too, but purely with heart in hand. He’s more celebrated among those who review non-fiction because he’s concerned less with explanation and more with connection. It’s a subtle difference, but those who connect tap into something else. Harari is trying to bridge this gap. He’s in EO Wilson territory. He’s the non-fiction equivalent of Kim Stanley Robinson. I like your analogy of the Wizard and the Prophet; I’ll offer that wizards deal in recipes/lists; prophets deal in dreams and song. We still read the psalms, for comfort, John; we still read the Mahabharat, to guide our lives; we still read Rumi to get us through sorrow or celebrate love; we still read Heraclitus to lead us to wisdom. We read Cicero when it’s too cold for a walk; we read Toynbee when we’ve got a paper due; we read Juvayni when we want to fact-check Marco Polo.

    • Kurt says

      “…you are in the presence of a superior intellect and one of the shapers of the future.”

      And hair. Without the hair nobody off campus would have ever heard if him. Very good packaging.

    • Andrej says

      Shu, I enjoyed reading what you had to say, but can I suggest implementing spacing in your writing so that it’s easier to follow. Thanks.

    • Sam says

      @shu, thanks for thoughtful and well-written commentary. Could you share who are the ones who “review non-fiction” and why would prefer connection to explanation?

  12. Preachy?! I think you’re mistaking the message for the messenger.

    Pinker is perhaps one of the least preachy pontificators I know. His Good News message really is good news, and he bends over backwards to prove it, unlike actual preachers.

    His attempts to identify the cause of the good news is likewise humble. Likewise unlike actual preachers. If his analysis is based upon monumentally wide, monumentally deep (e.g. in the sciences, and far beyond that of his extreme expertise of cognitive science) understanding, we should be on our guard against our post-hoc disliking of a “style”.

    Yours,
    A Disciple

  13. dirk zoebl, utrecht says

    ” Free markets….with high levels of spending on health….prosperity, pleasures, education, blablabla,….. will some day encompass the world” (and not only the USA , Japan and Europe??). Whizzards and prophets are not only always children of their time, but also children of their geographic region. Pinker is an American, Harari an Israëli. The US won the last great war and now even China and Arabia dance to their tune (in their consumption patterns and lifestyle), Israel is fighting more than 3000 yrs with their neigbours, and their victories are by no means convincing and decisive. So, the US have the luxury to preach a naive message of spending and prosperity for the whole world, at a time that it becomes clear that this world cannot support so many spenders and consumers. The Enligthenment of Voltaire and Rousseau is by no means that of Pinker, Oh no, not by far, it’s more the enlightenment of McDonald and Coca Cola.

  14. JAIMIN GANDHI says

    We need Wizard as well as Prophet both in this world, there is no winning vs loosing. Both have different perspective but followers will have same end result – a guide to live present better.

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