What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters


A note on word usage: “Rationality” and “critical thinking” are used synonymously. If you have ever found yourself wondering, “What exactly is ‘critical thinking’?” Then this book and post are for you.

tldr; Everyone should read this book. Twice. It should be required reading for all high schoolers and college students.

Perhaps the most important thing anyone can learn is how to be a critical thinker. So it’s somewhat shocking to stop and consider how challenging it is to find a book that succinctly curates, explains, and makes intuitive the (starting) tools most essential to critical thinking and rationality1. As the title suggests, Pinker walks the reader through critical thinking and rationality from the vantagepoints of what it is, why it seems scarce, and why it matters.

What It Is 🐝

What is rationality anyway? One major component, in extreme brevity, is the ability to understand cause and effect. For a large portion of the book Pinker walks the reader through the basics of logic, probability, statistics, and game theory, which combined answer this fundamental question. His witty conversational-style is a sorely needed colloquial alternative to the dry stack of textbooks many have trudged through over the years.

It is also a refreshing shift from recent popular sentiment that human irrationality signifies we are fundamentally broken and unreliable. Pinker points out that some of the popular interpretations of “human failings” (Bugs…) are often human tooling (…or features?) utilized in mismatched contexts. It is, finally, a cognitive science book that lays out how people can think more rationally, rather than endlessly point out their flaws. I can travel much further on a trail, or in life, when someone says “go that way” rather than “not that way” over and over again.

Why It Seems Scarce 🐝

Some of the mainstream hypotheses about what’s causing the latest wave of irrationality are discussed, but Pinker cites an insightful alternative: That rationality is a public good, and when individuals “defect” and promulgate (group) narrative rather than pursue actual reality, then a sort of “Tragedy of The Rationality Commons” ensues. For every lie, a truth is stolen. For every tall tale, some understanding of reality is distorted. And thus the foundation of trust society is built on is chipped away at brick by brick until all that’s left are confusion, “weird beliefs”, suspicion, and hatred for some “other”.2

Pinker also posits that conspiracies and fake news are “adapted to be spread” and thus lend themselves to virality. He proposes that it is risky to completely ignore costly dangers like betrayal and that we are easily drawn in by captivating stories. Between these and other factors, we feel compelled to give our attention to and share these narratives. Further, as institutions continually choose to undermine trust in pursuit of their own personal incentives, they simultaneously raise the likelihood that citizens will look elsewhere, like conspiracy theories, over trusting the institution. Trust is fundamentally intertwined with rationality in society and especially in its large-scale systems.

Why It Matters 🐝

If you try to claim these tools don’t matter, you will run up against a unique characteristic of rationality: The second you employ the tools of argumentation, you are tacitly acknowledging that rationality matters. Because if everything were subjective, why would I give credence to your reality over mine?

In our personal lives, the tools of rationality will increase the likelihood our actions cause effects that end at some desired goal state, rather than in catastrophe. In society, Pinker puts forth that rationality facilitates two forms of progress: The material and the moral.

Materially, or technologically, it is plainly obvious that being more rational leads to success. Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now is a testament to this progress and he essentially lists some of the points from that book. But really we need look no further than the computer, which is literally rationality reified.

With regard to moral progress, Pinker believes if we start from the golden rule, “Treat others how you want to be treated,” we can flesh out a full-bodied structure of morality because rationality is recursive – which is to say, that reason can reason about itself. If we were to imagine this visually, we would start from the original premise of the golden rule and a complex order of morality would form fractally. This interpretation is mathematically beautiful and very much worth mulling over.

Myth and Means 🐝

While this book is a priceless addition to human knowledge and a copy should sit in every home-library, it did leave me with some gripes with regard to myth and meaning.

Pinker describes the “mythology mindset”, which are beliefs about what we cannot directly verify, and the “reality mindset”, which are beliefs about what we can directly verify. He suggests we simply replace the former with the latter; less folk tale, more fact. But as Pinker states:

“The psychologist David Myers has said that the essence of monotheistic belief is: (1) There is a God and (2) it’s not me (and it’s also not you). The secular equivalent is: (1) There is objective truth and (2) I don’t know it (and neither do you)…Perfect rationality and objective truth are aspirations that no mortal can ever claim to have attained.”

So if we can never attain perfect objective understanding, then how do we address the missing pieces, small as they may be in modernity? If we can never completely expel lack of understanding in some form from our everyday lives, then what logically follows for the remaining mysteries if not the mythology mindset?

Besides myth, I am disappointed that Pinker does not take meaning (as in the “meaning of life”) seriously. When discussing humans as “intuitive teleologists” he claims that seeing meaning and purpose in the universe is (always?) an illusion. With hunger for meaning gripping large swathes of the population, I think this deserves more attention. I suspect a terse “Well, just be more rational” is not going to convince anyone to work to be more rational, much less help people get through their lives.3

Just Do It 🐝

At the end of the day, we have to do something and generally that something is to pursue some goal. Honing our personal sense of rationality will increase the accuracy of our aim in that pursuit.

This book is absolutely an essential read for that honing process in content as well as form. Pinker sprinkles in political jabs which will likely sting regardless of your particular leanings. But I think it’s an important exercise for everyone in what should be the accepted cultural norm: To have someone say to you, “I’ll be honest with you, I think that belief you hold is pretty dumb. But I respect and care about you as a person, and I want you to have the tools you need to survive in this confusing world.”

  1. There will likely be people who loudly disagree with this. If other titles have been recommended to you, just try searching for terms like “Bayes’ rule”, “probability”, or “multiple regression” and see if those books explain what those are to you. Pinker is not just talking about these topics, he is literally teaching them to you. 

  2. This seems to be part of a more general trend in fallacious “too big to fail” thinking leading to tragedy of the commons. 

  3. This point of contention really is beyond the scope of this book though. After all, it is a book about “rationality”, not “meaning” or “what makes us tick”.