Steven Pinker lauds reason, but people need freedom – this might not end well

Pinker is touring his new book ‘Enlightenment Now’. G ambrus/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The dictates of reason tell us what we ought to do to survive and flourish. But we neither have to like them nor obey them. As Oscar Wilde put it, we are rational animals that always lose their temper when called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason. We rebel.

We do so because we can hold something dearer to us than reason. As the former Harvard psychologist, now spiritual teacher, Ram Dass noted, we may rather be free than right. Freedom continually threatens a revolt against dictatorial reason. The waves of Romanticism constantly crash against the walls of the Enlightenment. They threaten to cause calamity. In the era of Trump and Brexit, they may already have.

An excellent new book published this week by another Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, argues the solutions to the formidable problems we face lie in reason. This is consistent with the Enlightenment principle that reason must be used to understand our world and overcome human folly. After dismissing faith, authority, and gut feelings as “generators of delusions”, Pinker argues that the use of reason when making decisions is “non-negotiable”.

Pinker’s latest. Penguin Random House

Unfortunately, trying to tell people they must do something can backfire. In a classic 1963 study by Stanley Milgram, participants were instructed by a scientist to give increasingly severe electric shocks to a fellow human being in another room. You can get a feel for the study, based on a modern version, here.

A staggering 65% of participants continued to administer shocks all the way up to the maximum possible 450 volts. However, when the study was partially reproduced in 2009 something interesting happened. When participants wavering about obeying their instructions were told, “You have no other choice, you must go on”, all chose to disobey.

One explanation for this starts with self-determination theory. This proposes that we have a basic psychological need for autonomy; a need to feel in control of our fate; a need to have “a feeling of choice”.

Psychological reactance is a measure of how strongly you are motivated by this need for autonomy. Its levels can vary from person to person and across the life span – being greatest in the “terrible twos”, adolescence and the senior years. It reaches its zenith in the famous statement of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death”.

If this feeling is threatened, you may take steps to regain it, such as by doing what has been prohibited, or believing less strongly what you are told must be the case. Indeed, higher levels of reactance are associated with greater rates of smoking and drinking in adolescents.

It is not just people who can take away our feeling of choice by constraining us. The dictates of reason can be experienced as threatening it too. The Enlightenment has encouraged us to view reason and freedom as brothers in arms. However, under certain conditions, they may have their hands round each other’s throats.

Two plus two is four?

In totalitarian states, reason can be a tool of liberation. For example, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith is tortured by an agent of the state to make him say, believe and even perceive that two plus two equals five. As Mihajlo Mihajlov has noted:

When Orwell’s hero is fighting for ‘two plus two is four’, when he repeats this over and over again as a secret formula for life and freedom – we have to realize that for him ‘two plus two is four’ is the symbol of freedom, freedom from manipulation by the omnipotent party.

As countries throw off their tyrants, new ones emerge. The very laws of nature itself and the dictates of reason can now be experienced as tyrannical. Even “two plus two is four” can be experienced as oppressive.

This idea was portrayed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novella, Notes from the Underground. Here, the character of the Underground Man explains how:

Two times two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Two times two makes four is a fop standing with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that two times two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are going to praise everything, two times two makes five is also a very charming little thing … man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves only the process of the game, not the end of it.

This simple sum has now become, to quote Mihajlov again, a “symbol of human unfreedom in relation to the laws of nature”. The Underground Man’s revolt against this is his fight for self-determination. He values freedom over everything else, including reason and his own interests:

What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply INDEPENDENT choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.

Balancing reason with freedom

The dictates of reason can hence be overthrown by our need for freedom. If this merely produced stroppy two-year-olds and rebellious teens, this would be (just about) bearable. However, much more significant consequences are possible.

For example, imagine there is a political candidate or option being widely portrayed as the obvious and perhaps only sane choice. Could this drive some voters to vote for the alternative (potentially even against their own rational self-interests) in order to feel they are choosing freely? Could this have played a small but significant role in the 2016 US presidential election? What about Brexit?

Steven Pinker’s argument that the use of reason is crucial to continuing the progress we see in so many aspects of our society is undoubtedly correct. The use of reason and the scientific method have freed us in ways previous generations could not have imagined. But unless we take into account the buried threat to reason posed by our intrinsic need to feel free, we may find ourselves slipping off the rails of progress.