Oct 1, 2021 • 57M

Steven Pinker: let's talk about Rationality

How to think more clearly, for fun and utility

Razib Khan
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In this week’s Unsupervised Learning Podcast, Razib is joined by author and psycholinguist Steven Pinker to discuss his new book Rationality: what is it, why it seems scarce, and why it matters. Pinker makes the case the humans are fundamentally rational beings, and that it’s this capacity that has allowed Homo sapiens to spread across the planet and occupy virtually every niche available to us. Our intuitive ability to understand how physical objects, other creatures and other humans think and behave, combined with our cultural innovativeness, has allowed us to become the apex species of planet earth. Our natural logical abilities allow us to remain one step ahead in the evolutionary arms race.

Next, they delve into the history of academic discourse on thinking and rationality, from Aristotle to artificial intelligence, and try to probe and characterize the differences between logic and critical thinking, correlation and causation, and domain-specific versus general intelligence.


Then they discuss Bayes’ theorem and the spread of Bayesian thinking and discourse across the broad population in the 21st century.  Pinker suggests that the Bayesian framework can actually be observed quite widely even in hunter-gatherer populations like the San Bushmen of the Kalahari. He argues we are all Bayesians – we just might not consciously realize that when we are applying it to our problem-solving. Pinker believes that having a better understanding of the whole process may aid our decision-making and help us avoid common pitfalls, like ignoring the base rate, which is usually given the spotlight in the heuristics and biases literature.

Finally, the discussion then veers into tackling the interplay between rationality and morality, and how the former can aid progress in the latter. They conclude with a discussion on our current cultural climate, and the discourse on sex, race and wokeness.

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