But Kurzweil is always talking bullshit

I’m not the only one who thinks Ray Kurzweil is an ignorant buffoon — here’s a post dissecting his latest foolishness:

People think the world’s getting worse, and we see that on the left and the right, and we see that in other countries. People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception. What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.

The big problem with this? It’s not true. Like, at all.

Let’s start with the time period he’s talking about: A century ago. One hundred years. That would put us smack dab in the middle of 1916.

Do you know what was going on in 1916? The world was tearing itself to bits with destructive technology. The United States wouldn’t enter the war until the following year, but World War I was the war that would see men being annihilated with tanks, machine guns, mustard gas, the works. And everybody knew about it. How do I know this, sitting here in 2016? I just walked three feet behind me to a bookshelf and looked for some of my magazines from World War I.

The author is pointing out that one problem with Kurzweil’s claim is that it is simply false; Kurzweil wants to argue that we think the world might be getting worse is that we’re just aware of what’s going on, but clearly, almost everyone had a crystal clear idea of the horrors that were going on a century ago.

But I think there are other problems, as well. The world might be getting worse, it might be getting better, but this is a question about people’s perception of the world, and I suspect most of us think we’re better off than we were a century ago (with significant exceptions for bombed-out nations in the Middle East, or people victimized by terrorist groups, like ISIS or Boko Haram). I know I’d rather live in the 21st century than the 19th or earlier. So his initial premise is wrong, or at least misleading.

Another problem: when was this mythical time that a village could get wiped out and one a few miles away wouldn’t know about it? Communication was slower, but the information would get there eventually. Europe had a series of continent-wide wars in the 17th century; Rome controlled everything from Syria to Britain. Information might have flowed via boat or horseback rather than fiber optic cables, but it’s simply not true that people in the Middle Ages or the ancient world were sitting about only aware of the local dungheap.

It is also egregiously absurd to claim that we not only hear about it, we experience events around the world. We don’t. For instance, the latest news from Nigeria is that Boko Haram is still holding 200 girls captive. Are you experiencing it? Have you felt even a tiny fraction of the pain the families of those girls have felt over the last two years?

And finally, I have to point out that his definition of ‘better’ is unstated and implicit — he assumes that a better world is one where people have more and faster information about events in the next village or the next continent. Why? In particular, if we do nothing with the information we have about the next town over, how does that improve the planet?

But then, this is Kurzweil all over: ignorant of history, ignorant of science, but mumbling words of technological wish-fulfillment and making his fans happy.

The Kurzweil delusion

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Spare me the Kurzweil acolytes.

Google’s chief futurist, Ray Kurzweil, is known for his wildly-accurate predictions — back in the 1980s, when all of our current technological advancements seemed like sci-fi fantasies, he predicted self-driving cars, prosthetic legs for paraplegics, and wirelessly accessing information via the internet, among many other spot-on forecasts.

Now, his latest prediction is that humans are going to live forever, and he thinks it’s going to happen as soon as 2029.

He’s like the Amazing Criswell, isn’t he?

I lived through the 1980s, too, and those predictions were so mundane I could have made them. That’s the thing: he says a lot of trivial stuff that is already accepted knowledge (“Computers will get faster! Medicine will treat diseases in new ways! I will get older!”) that allows him to build a baseline of success that encourages people to think his other, wilder predictions will also come true. They won’t. Like Criswell, he says a lot of vague bunk, and his failures are just ignored…like those of any common ‘psychic’.

His prediction that we’ll live forever if we can just make it to 2029 are simply laughable. Modern medicine shows no such trend at work. The basis for his claim is aburd:

“By the 2020s we’ll start using nanobots to complete the job of the immune system,” he said. “Our immune system is great, but it evolved thousands of years ago when conditions were different.”

thousands of years ago? What did our ancestors do a hundred thousand years ago?

He believes that nanobots — microscopic, self-propelled robots — will act as T cells, which are blood cells involved in our immune responses. Using T cells to attack cancer cells is already an idea that researchers are using in some cancer immunotherapy, but Kurzweil wants to take it a step further. Instead of harnessing the body’s own T cells, he wants to send in nanobots to do the job.

“They’re the size of a blood cell and are quite intelligent,” he told Hochman. “I actually watched one of my T cells attack bacteria on a microscope slide. We could have one programmed to deal with all pathogens and could download new software from the internet if a new type of enemy such as a new biological virus emerged.”

That is painfully naive. Does he even realize that there are multiple kinds of T cells, that they are part of an integrated network of cooperating cells, that they have to carry out a delicate balancing act of working against some antigens while not triggering on others? He seems to be imagining sending in a robot with a laser to kill ‘bad’ cells.

Plus, his tiny nanobots are going to be ‘programmed’ (how?) to deal with ‘all pathogens’ (is there a list somewhere?) and can ‘download new software from the internet’. The ignorance just makes me want to cry. But this is his schtick: he just borrows terms and ideas current in the culture right now, and claims we’ll be doing exactly the same thing, only with another tech buzzword, ‘nanobots’. He’s an idiot. He’s a clever idiot, though, who has fooled a lot of gullible people, and has even bamboozled Google.

He also claims this:

Kurzweil is 67 years old, but claims his “biological age” is in the late 40s, courtesy of his “Immortality Diet.”

Nope. He looks his age, just as I do. He’s had the advantage of the privileged life of a well-off office worker, which does help stave off the worst ravages, the product of a hard life, but there’s nothing especially young about his appearance. He looks to be of an age with Richard Dawkins, for instance, who is 75.

But then, religious leaders do get that kind of praise from their followers, no matter how decrepit they get. I’ve been in a room full of young Mormon women telling me how youthful and virile and sexy Ezra Taft Benson was…when he was in his 90s, feeble and vacant, and doomed to die a few years later. Same thing.

Extropians, Kurzweil, Libertarians, and the deluded immortality scam

The story should begin with the victim. This is Kim Suozzi, 23 years old, and diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer that was going to kill her within a few months. She’s doomed and she knows it, so she has gone to Alcor, signed over her life insurance money, and asked to have her head frozen after death in the unlikely hope that someday, someone will be able to revive her. I feel a deep sadness for her; for someone so young, for anyone, to be confronted with an awful mortality is tragic.

She did die too soon after this video was made. And now we learn about the bumbling corpse mutilation that occurred afterwards.

You might want to stop reading right here. It’s a hard story, especially after seeing the young woman alive.

[Read more…]

Kurzweil = Criswell

You all remember Criswell, right, the amazing prognosticator of Plan 9 From Outer Space? Ray Kurzweil fits the mold: vague predictions, slippery, fuzzy statements, backtracking and excuse-making. The only differences are that Kurzweil is cold-reading technology rather than people’s personalities, and like most mediums, he tends to make happy optimistic predictions that sell better than some of the wackier stuff Criswell talked about (there has been no cannibal apocalypse, and Criswell was one of the early kooks to leap on the end-of-the-world in 2012 bandwagon; Kurzweil just prattles about the rapture of the nerds).

Anyway, I’m not the only naysayer. John Rennie assesses Kurzweil’s predictions, which (surprise!) mainly turn out to be overhyped nonsense. I also learned something interesting:

To help spread the gospel of accelerating returns, Kurzweil and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis established the Singularity University, in California, which offers 9-day executive training sessions (for $15 000) and 10-week graduate studies (for $25 000) on how to understand and master exponentially advancing technologies.

Wow. There’s money in woo, isn’t there?


PZ PREDICTS! I see a flood of email in the near future from fervent followers of the Ray; I see Kurzweil looking cross and popping a few dozen more vitamin pills to reduce the aging effects of his irritation. But then, every time I criticize the Master of Technology Woo, that’s what I get, and he drowns himself in pills every day anyway.

Best summary of the Kurzweil nonsense so far

From John Pavlus:

How to make a Singularity

Step 1: “I wonder if brains are just like computers?”

Step 2: Add peta-thingies/giga-whatzits; say “Moore’s Law!” a lot at conferences

Step 3: ??????

Step 4: SINGULARITY!!!11!one

There are other, perhaps somewhat more serious, rebuttals at Rennie’s Last Nerve and A Fistful of Science.

Now run along, little obsessive Kurzweilians, there are many other blogs out there that regard your hero with derision, demanding your earnestly clueless rebuttals.

Kurzweil still doesn’t understand the brain

Ray Kurzweil has responded to my criticisim of futurist fortune-telling. It really just compounds the problems, though, and gullible people who love Ray will think he’s answered me, while skeptical people who see through his hocus-pocus will be unimpressed. It’s kind of pointless to reply again, but here goes.

His first point is silly.

For starters, I said that we would be able to reverse-engineer the brain sufficiently to understand its basic principles of operation within two decades, not one decade, as Myers reports.

I don’t care.

I didn’t make an issue of his timescale in the first place; in fact, I said it made no difference. The problem is that he has provided no reason to specify a date, other than his vague mantra of “exponential growth”. Why not say 5 years? Why not 50? The heart of the Kurzweil method is to simply pick a date far enough in the future that we cannot predict what technological advances will occur, and also far enough forward that he isn’t likely to be confronted with his failure by people who remember what he said, and all is good. My complaint isn’t that he has set a date by which we’ll understand the brain, but that he has provided no baseline value for his exponential growth claim, and has no way to measure how much we know now, how much we need to know, and how rapidly we will acquire that knowledge. “Really fast” or “exponentially increasing” are not informative.

I mentioned the genome in a completely different context. I presented a number of arguments as to why the design of the brain is not as complex as some theorists have advocated. This is to respond to the notion that it would require trillions of lines of code to create a comparable system. The argument from the amount of information in the genome is one of several such arguments. It is not a proposed strategy for accomplishing reverse-engineering. It is an argument from information theory, which Myers obviously does not understand.

I think I understand it better than Kurzweil. If we have a seed of information that initiates a process, followed by many activities and interactions that add progressively more information to the process, you can’t use information theory to measure the amount of information in the seed and then announce that you’ve put an upper bound on the amount of complexity in the process.

For instance, you can’t measure the number of transistors in an Intel CPU and then announce, “A-ha! We now understand what a small amount of information is actually required to create all those operating systems and computer games and Microsoft Word, and it is much, much smaller than everyone is assuming.” Put it in those terms, and the Kurzweil fanboys would laugh at him; put it in terms of something they don’t understand at all, like the development and function of the brain, and they’re willing to go along with the pretense that the genome tells us that the whole organism is simpler than they thought.

I presume they understand that if you program a perfect Intel emulator, you don’t suddenly get Halo: Reach for free, as an emergent property of the system. You can buy the code and add it to the system, sure, but in this case, we can’t run down to GameStop and buy a DVD with the human OS in it and install it on our artificial brain. You’re going to have to do the hard work of figuring out how that works and reverse engineering it, as well. And understanding how the processor works is necessary to do that, but not sufficient.

Kurzweil does add another piece to his argument, although it doesn’t help: the modularity and repetitive organization of the human brain.

For example, the cerebellum (which has been modeled, simulated and tested) — the region responsible for part of our skill formation, like catching a fly ball — contains a module of four types of neurons. That module is repeated about ten billion times. The cortex, a region that only mammals have and that is responsible for our ability to think symbolically and in hierarchies of ideas, also has massive redundancy. It has a basic pattern-recognition module that is considerably more complex than the repeated module in the cerebellum, but that cortex module is repeated about a billion times. There is also information in the interconnections, but there is massive redundancy in the connection pattern as well.

This is true — the cortex is a layered structure with similar elements repeated over and over again, in broad arrays. Pyramidal neurons, for instance, are instantly recognizable and and share a whole suite of common morphological elements between each other — but each one is also as unique as a snowflake. Those differences matter, and they are not specified in the genome. (For that matter, you won’t find any blueprint in the genome for the dendrite pattern of pyramidal neurons, either). If you want to recreate a generic human brain, it won’t work if you just make every pyramidal neuron exactly identical; there have to be spatial differences and differences in connectivity. You especially won’t be able to carry out something far more specific, such as emulate Ray Kurzweil’s brain, if you decide to simplify and make his cortex a uniform array of identical modules.

In short, here’s Kurzweil’s claim: the brain is simpler than we think, and thanks to the accelerating rate of technological change, we will understand it’s basic principles of operation completely within a few decades. My counterargument, which he hasn’t addressed at all, is that 1) his argument for that simplicity is deeply flawed and irrelevant, 2) he has made no quantifiable argument about how much we know about the brain right now, and I argue that we’ve only scratched the surface in the last several decades of research, 3) “exponential” is not a magic word that solves all problems (if I put a penny in the bank today, it does not mean I will have a million dollars in my retirement fund in 20 years), and 4) Kurzweil has provided no explanation for how we’ll be ‘reverse engineering’ the human brain. He’s now at least clearly stating that decoding the genome does not generate the necessary information — it’s just an argument that the brain isn’t as complex as we thought, which I’ve already said is bogus — but left dangling is the question of methodology. I suggest that we need to have a combined strategy of digging into the brain from the perspectives of physiology, molecular biology, genetics, and development, and in all of those fields I see a long hard slog ahead. I also don’t see that noisemakers like Kurzweil, who know nothing of those fields, will be making any contribution at all.

So what exactly is the basis of Kurzweil’s expected magic great leap forward? And no, the miracle of exponential growth is not an answer. If all a futurist has to do is wave his hands and say things will change more rapidly than we expect, then futurists like Kurzweil are nothing but techno-gimmicky Criswells. Utterly useless.

Ray Kurzweil does not understand the brain

There he goes again, making up nonsense and making ridiculous claims that have no relationship to reality. Ray Kurzweil must be able to spin out a good line of bafflegab, because he seems to have the tech media convinced that he’s a genius, when he’s actually just another Deepak Chopra for the computer science cognoscenti.

His latest claim is that we’ll be able to reverse engineer the human brain within a decade. By reverse engineer, he means that we’ll be able to write software that simulates all the functions of the human brain. He’s not just speculating optimistically, though: he’s building his case on such awfully bad logic that I’m surprised anyone still pays attention to that kook.

Sejnowski says he agrees with Kurzweil’s assessment that about a million lines of code may be enough to simulate the human brain.

Here’s how that math works, Kurzweil explains: The design of the brain is in the genome. The human genome has three billion base pairs or six billion bits, which is about 800 million bytes before compression, he says. Eliminating redundancies and applying loss-less compression, that information can be compressed into about 50 million bytes, according to Kurzweil.

About half of that is the brain, which comes down to 25 million bytes, or a million lines of code.

I’m very disappointed in Terence Sejnowski for going along with that nonsense.

See that sentence I put in red up there? That’s his fundamental premise, and it is utterly false. Kurzweil knows nothing about how the brain works. It’s design is not encoded in the genome: what’s in the genome is a collection of molecular tools wrapped up in bits of conditional logic, the regulatory part of the genome, that makes cells responsive to interactions with a complex environment. The brain unfolds during development, by means of essential cell:cell interactions, of which we understand only a tiny fraction. The end result is a brain that is much, much more than simply the sum of the nucleotides that encode a few thousand proteins. He has to simulate all of development from his codebase in order to generate a brain simulator, and he isn’t even aware of the magnitude of that problem.

We cannot derive the brain from the protein sequences underlying it; the sequences are insufficient, as well, because the nature of their expression is dependent on the environment and the history of a few hundred billion cells, each plugging along interdependently. We haven’t even solved the sequence-to-protein-folding problem, which is an essential first step to executing Kurzweil’s clueless algorithm. And we have absolutely no way to calculate in principle all the possible interactions and functions of a single protein with the tens of thousands of other proteins in the cell!

Let me give you a few specific examples of just how wrong Kurzweil’s calculations are. Here are a few proteins that I plucked at random from the NIH database; all play a role in the human brain.

First up is RHEB (Ras Homolog Enriched in Brain). It’s a small protein, only 184 amino acids, which Kurzweil pretends can be reduced to about 12 bytes of code in his simulation. Here’s the short description.

MTOR (FRAP1; 601231) integrates protein translation with cellular nutrient status and growth signals through its participation in 2 biochemically and functionally distinct protein complexes, MTORC1 and MTORC2. MTORC1 is sensitive to rapamycin and signals downstream to activate protein translation, whereas MTORC2 is resistant to rapamycin and signals upstream to activate AKT (see 164730). The GTPase RHEB is a proximal activator of MTORC1 and translation initiation. It has the opposite effect on MTORC2, producing inhibition of the upstream AKT pathway (Mavrakis et al., 2008).

Got that? You can’t understand RHEB until you understand how it interacts with three other proteins, and how it fits into a complex regulatory pathway. Is that trivially deducible from the structure of the protein? No. It had to be worked out operationally, by doing experiments to modulate one protein and measure what happened to others. If you read deeper into the description, you discover that the overall effect of RHEB is to modulate cell proliferation in a tightly controlled quantitative way. You aren’t going to be able to simulate a whole brain until you know precisely and in complete detail exactly how this one protein works.

And it’s not just the one. It’s all of the proteins. Here’s another: FABP7 (Fatty Acid Binding Protein 7). This one is only 132 amino acids long, so Kurzweil would compress it to 8 bytes. What does it do?

Anthony et al. (2005) identified a Cbf1 (147183)-binding site in the promoter of the mouse Blbp gene. They found that this binding site was essential for all Blbp transcription in radial glial cells during central nervous system (CNS) development. Blbp expression was also significantly reduced in the forebrains of mice lacking the Notch1 (190198) and Notch3 (600276) receptors. Anthony et al. (2005) concluded that Blbp is a CNS-specific Notch target gene and suggested that Blbp mediates some aspects of Notch signaling in radial glial cells during development.

Again, what we know of its function is experimentally determined, not calculated from the sequence. It would be wonderful to be able to take a sequence, plug it into a computer, and have it spit back a quantitative assessment of all of its interactions with other proteins, but we can’t do that, and even if we could, it wouldn’t answer all the questions we’d have about its function, because we’d also need to know the state of all of the proteins in the cell, and the state of all of the proteins in adjacent cells, and the state of global and local signaling proteins in the environment. It’s an insanely complicated situation, and Kurzweil thinks he can reduce it to a triviality.

To simplify it so a computer science guy can get it, Kurzweil has everything completely wrong. The genome is not the program; it’s the data. The program is the ontogeny of the organism, which is an emergent property of interactions between the regulatory components of the genome and the environment, which uses that data to build species-specific properties of the organism. He doesn’t even comprehend the nature of the problem, and here he is pontificating on magic solutions completely free of facts and reason.

I’ll make a prediction, too. We will not be able to plug a single unknown protein sequence into a computer and have it derive a complete description of all of its functions by 2020. Conceivably, we could replace this step with a complete, experimentally derived quantitative summary of all of the functions and interactions of every protein involved in brain development and function, but I guarantee you that won’t happen either. And that’s just the first step in building a simulation of the human brain derived from genomic data. It gets harder from there.

I’ll make one more prediction. The media will not end their infatuation with this pseudo-scientific dingbat, Kurzweil, no matter how uninformed and ridiculous his claims get.

(via Mo Constandi)


I’ve noticed an odd thing. Criticizing Ray Kurzweil brings out swarms of defenders, very few of whom demonstrate much ability to engage in critical thinking.

If you are complaining that I’ve claimed it will be impossible to build a computer with all the capabilities of the human brain, or that I’m arguing for dualism, look again. The brain is a computer of sorts, and I’m in the camp that says there is no problem in principle with replicating it artificially.

What I am saying is this:

Reverse engineering the human brain has complexities that are hugely underestimated by Kurzweil, because he demonstrates little understanding of how the brain works.

His timeline is absurd. I’m a developmental neuroscientist; I have a very good idea of the immensity of what we don’t understand about how the brain works. No one with any knowledge of the field is claiming that we’ll understand how the brain works within 10 years. And if we don’t understand all but a fraction of the functionality of the brain, that makes reverse engineering extremely difficult.

Kurzweil makes extravagant claims from an obviously extremely impoverished understanding of biology. His claim that “The design of the brain is in the genome”? That’s completely wrong. That makes him a walking talking demo of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Most of the functions of the genome, which Kurzweil himself uses as the starting point for his analysis, are not understood. I don’t expect a brain simulator to slavishly imitate every protein, but you will need to understand how the molecules work if you’re going to reverse engineer the whole.

If you’re an acolyte of Kurzweil, you’ve been bamboozled. He’s a kook.

By the way, this story was picked up by Slashdot and Gizmodo.

Ray Kurzweil is in a snit

I have heard that he is absolutely furious about that Newsweek article on him — he’s harrassing the editors and staff, is demanding that they print his full rebuttal, and is particularly upset that they would question his amazing powers of prognostication. He has put a letter online, in which he claims that all his wrong predictions were actually correct. Near as I can tell, he likes to make vague claims of the inevitable, and doesn’t like it when it’s pointed out that the details (which are the only testable parts of his predictions) turn out to be false.

Ray Kurzweil Wants to Be a Robot

I was pleasantly surprised by this Newsweek article on Ray Kurzweil: it’s critical of him! Usually, and especially from the technopress magazines, there’s this kind of fawning attitude towards him, because he really is a smart guy — they overlook the fact that he is also a bit of a kook. You know what I think of him, and the reporter interviewed me for a short comment, too.

Still, a lot of people think Kurzweil is completely bonkers and/or full of a certain messy byproduct of ordinary biological functions. They include P. Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who has used his blog to poke fun at Kurzweil and other armchair futurists who, according to Myers, rely on junk science and don’t understand basic biology. “I am completely baffled by Kurzweil’s popularity, and in particular the respect he gets in some circles, since his claims simply do not hold up to even casually critical examination,” writes Myers. He says Kurzweil’s Singularity theories are closer to a deluded religious movement than they are to science. “It’s a New Age spiritualism—that’s all it is,” Myers says. “Even geeks want to find God somewhere, and Kurzweil provides it for them.”

There’s another point of similarity to New Age religious figures, too. Every time I criticize these guys, I have to brace myself for another flood of hate mail. The Kurzweil Kult members are going to read this Newsweek article, see my name on the first page, and send me little disquisitions on how I’ll be sorry when the nanobots dismantle me and upload my brain into the cosmic computer. I should have warned the writer, Daniel Lyons, that he can expect some earnest dissenting technobabble to be coming his way.

I guess I just can’t be happy with bad data

I used to be a fan of Steven Pinker’s work. He speaks fluent academese, he just sounds so reasonable, and his message of optimism is something I want to be true. I’d love to be able to go to my grave thinking the world was going to be a better place for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all the children of the world. I wanted to believe.

O sweet irony, that an atheist could be tempted by hope and faith.

But as I read more, I became disenchanted. Hope is great, but it has to be backed by reason and evidence, and as I read more, it became obvious that Pinker is kind of the Norman Vincent Peale of atheism, and that there wasn’t any substance to him — he starts with a happy belief and works to fill in the gaps in the evidence with cherry-picked data and his own indefensible interpretations.

So now he’s written a book about the Enlightenment, reviewed by Peter Harrison. It is not a good review.

The Enlightenment may seem an ambitious topic for a cognitive psychologist to take up from scratch. Numerous historians have dedicated entire careers to it, and there remains a considerable diversity of opinion about what it was and what its impact has been. But from this and previous work we get intimations of why Pinker thinks he is the person for the job. Historians have laboured under the misapprehension that the key figures of the Enlightenment were mostly philosophers of one stripe or another. Pinker has made the anachronistic determination that, in fact, they were all really scientists – indeed, “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists.”

In short, he thinks that they are people like him and that he is thus possessed of privileged insights into their thought denied to mere historians. The latter must resort to careful reading and fraught interpretation in lieu of being able directly to channel what Enlightenment thinkers really thought.

Uh-oh. This reminds me of that ghastly essay Pinker wrote that made me recoil in horror, it was so bad, so egocentric, so ignorant of the humanities and social sciences, I bet it was the foundation of his new book. The book that gets this summary:

For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don’t be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers – just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction. If challenged at any point, do not mount a counter-argument that appeals to actual history, but choose one of the following labels for your critic: religious reactionary, delusional romantic, relativist, postmodernist, paid up member of the Foucault fan club.

For their part, historians have found the task of tracing the legacy of the Enlightenment more difficult, not least because even characterising what the Enlightenment was has proven challenging. It is now commonplace to speak of multiple Enlightenments and hence multiple and sometime conflicting legacies. Obviously, moreover, not everything that came after the Enlightenment has been sweetness and, well, light. Edmund Burke and G.W.F. Hegel, for example, drew direct connexions between the French Enlightenment and the reign of terror. In the twentieth century the German-Jewish philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described what they called “the dialectic of the Enlightenment” – a mixed inheritance that included the technical mastery of nature along with a conspicuous absence of the moral insights that would prevent that mastery being turned to barbarous ends. In their view, this led ultimately to the horrors of Nazism.

That bit about picking things you like and stuffing them into graphs reminds me of someone else: maybe Pinker is actually the hybridized clone of Norman Vincent Peale and Ray Kurzweil.

I think, to be a good honest atheist and scientist, I have to respect the work of philosophers and historians and all those people who have deep domains of expertise that I lack, and recognize that when people who say things I wish were true, yet disrespect and don’t even acknowledge the historical breadth of humanity’s thought, they are probably full of shit. Or at least the living personification of the Alexander Pope poem:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

A little humility would help, and you don’t approach the Pierian spring with a sippy straw.