The Unbridled Optimism of Steven Pinker?s Enlightenment

Mar 24th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Recently Bill Gates declared that Steven Pinker?s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is ?My new favorite book of all time.?  Steven Pinker is a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and is a passionate defender of the Enlightenment.  His recent book is intended to counter the doom and gloom pessimism of the 21st century, which is inundated with terrorism, barbaric civil wars (e.g., Syria) and the paralyzing fear of nuclear war.  One could summarize his thesis as, ?If you think the world is coming to an end, think again:  people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science.?

Pinker divides his 500+ page book into three segments:

  • Part One?a passionate case for the Enlightenment of the 18th century and its relevance for the 21st
  • Part Two (the longest)?Pinker offers 15 chapters detailing the astonishing progress in life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, environment, peace, safety, terrorism (where we see his only caveats), democracy, etc. Data, statistics and 75 graphs profusely pepper the text to buttress his argument.
  • Part Three?a defense of reason, science and humanism, all of which contain the resources necessary for the continued, unparalleled progress of the human race.

Based on reason, science and humanism, progress is the gift of the Enlightenment, and, if we continue to draw on these tools of the Enlightenment, they will enhance ?human flourishing.?  For Pinker, ?the Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature?tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking?which demagogues are all too willing to exploit.  Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it.  The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation.?  The world is getting better, Pinker maintains, and, although ?we will never have a perfect world . . . there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.?

Pinker:  ?The Enlightenment is working.  Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking.  They replaced superstition and magic with science.  And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.?  Here is a tiny sampling of the evidence Pinker provides to prove his thesis:  ?Due to breakthrough advances in science, agriculture, education, markets, the rule of law, and governance:

  • Over three decades, the homicide rate in America has decreased by ~40%
  • Over three decades, poverty in America has decreased from 11% to 3%
  • Over three decades, the number of wars around the world has decreased from 23 to 12
  • Over three decades, the number of nuclear weapons has decreased from ~60,000 to ~10,000
  • Over three decades, the number of people living in a democracy has increased from 2 billion to 4 billion
  • Over three decades, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty decreased from 37% to 9%
  • Over two centuries, the percentage of people who could read and write has increased from 12% to 85%.?

How should we think about this provocative book?  There is no doubt that reason and science have improved our lives.  There has been remarkable technological progress.  Pinker is certainly correct that the world has become safer, healthier and wealthier.  But, there are a few caveats to Pinker?s argument:

  1. As reviewer Jennifer Szalai has observed, Pinker ?has little patience for individual tragedy; it?s the aggregate that excites him. Even if manufacturing jobs have gone to China, ?and the world?s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of America?s lower middle class,? he still sees this as cause for celebration:  ?As citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the trade-off is worth it.??  However, life is not lived in the aggregate.  Pinker adopts a rather crude utilitarian ethic that the end justifies the means, no matter who gets hurt.  It is the aggregate result that only matters to Pinker.  Pinker?s Enlightenment is a ?chipper triumphalism and unfeeling sang-froid? that is jarring and wrong.  He is ?sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.?
  2. Ross Douthat is certainly correct in chastising Pinker for his ?propagandistic treatment of the past.? Pinker defends a selectively edited version of the Enlightenment ?that conforms to his style of liberal politics (stridently secular, mildly libertarians, anti-PC), and absolves his edited version of the modern project of all imperial and eugenic and centralizing cruelties, and all the genocides and persecutions justified in Reason?s name? (e.g., Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, American progressives? eugenics projects, etc.).
  3. Pinker?s book is filled with vitality and robust energy. I have viewed two interviews with him on television, and he is indeed a bundle of energy.  His basis for hope is reason, science and humanism, all of which are the key to progress.  Yet, he is a materialist, a naturalist, an atheist.  He would certainly embrace the position articulated by the famous 20th century atheist Bertrand Russell.   From his book, Why I am Not a Christian, Russell wrote:

?[Here then] is the world which science built for our belief:  That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man?s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins. . . Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul?s habitation henceforth be safely built? (p. 107).

It is difficult to see this gift of ?science? as the foundation for hope, purpose, meaning and fulfillment in life.  Thinking, reasoning people might raise reasonable, curious questions about this thoroughly secular, non-theistic understanding of the physical world.  Perhaps the Enlightenment curiosity that Pinker champions might actually lead to questioning the entire secular, humanistic worldview which forms the foundation of both Pinker and Russell?s worldview.  Ross Douthat chimes in with this challenge:  Perhaps ?they should consider the possibility that some of their own smug secular certainties might be part of the problem?that they might, indeed, be stifling the more comprehensive kind of curiosity upon which the scientific enterprise ultimately depends.?

  1. Finally, Pinker draws special comfort from the decline of faith. Worldwide, although 59% of people are religious, that share has fallen from nearly 100% a century ago.  As people grow richer, he argues, they abandon the crutch of belief and rely more on reasons.  But there is an elephant in the cathedral of reason Pinker has constructed.  His love for aggregate humanity, which is healthier, wealthier and safer, is made up of individuals who are ridden with guilt, living in increasingly dysfunctional families, flooded with addictive behaviors of all types?and still afraid of death.  Pinker?s construct of championing science, reason and humanism has not erased the despair of individual human beings facing the reality of life?s great equalizer?death.  ?Why have I lived for better health, more wealth and a safer house?,? they ask.  Death raises that ugly, uncomfortable question, one which Pinker declines to substantively address.  At the end of the day, pure materialism that trusts only in science, reason and humanism yields no hope for what follows death.  Blaise Pascal, a brilliant French thinker during the Scientific Revolution, posited his now famous ?Wager?:  ?If there is no God but I have believed that there is one, when I die I have really lost nothing.  But if I believe there is no God?and there is one?and I die, I have lost everything.  Which proposition are you willing to embrace??  [My paraphrase.]  I have been in an academic ministry virtually my entire adult life.  I am more convinced than ever that one?s worldview does matter:  What you believe about creation and the origin of all matter; whether there is indeed a God; and whether the condition of humanity requires a plan of salvation are critical issues.  They are important?indeed, they are eternally significant?and Steven Pinker has not provided satisfactory answers to these most penetrating questions.

See Pinker?s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress and his essay in the Wall Street Journal, ?The Enlightenment is Working? (10-11 February 2018); Jennifer Szalai?s review in the New York Times (1 March 2018); and Ross Douthat in the New York Times (25 February 2018). PRINT PDF

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