Just when we seem of have needed it most Steven Pinker has written a wonderful book that reminds us that, overall, big picture, things are not anywhere near as bad as they sometimes seem. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress dives deep into the available data of civilization to prove that, thanks to the idea of “progress” hatched during the Age of Enlightenment, “…there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”
Bill Gates calls Enlightenment Now “My new favorite book of all time” and it is easy to see why. Pinker makes the case for the continued application of human reason to every aspect of our culture, society and individual lives. He does so without denying the challenges facing humanity such as climate change, nuclear weapons, terrorism, etc. But Pinker sees every issue facing humanity as an intelligible problem, not a crisis. Reason solves problems. Pinker says reason is “non-negotiable” and that pretty much serves as the cornerstone of the whole book.
Out of reasoned objective knowledge humanity has thrived like never before. The list of reason’s accomplishments, when combined with science and humanism, unveils a world improving in almost every progressive measure. The fundamental optimism here is refreshing and inspiring. Pinker realizes the word “progress” has become a cliché, but he insists that it still applies.
Pinker smothers the reader with scientific data. Life expectancy is way up all across the globe, at a now accelerating rate since 1940. What’s more, most of those added years are productive years, not years as an invalid. Undernourishment is still high in Sub-Sahara Africa and Southeast Asia, but it is dropping dramatically everywhere. The number of famine deaths worldwide is at an all-time low, minuscule compared to how many died of starvation as recently as the 1960’s.
The wealth generated by capitalism, another aspect of reason and applied science, is now distributed to more people on the planet than ever before. Pinker acknowledges the issue of income inequality but he generally thinks that is a natural expression given the fact that some people are going to be more motivated and more capable than others. Beyond that, the wealth of most of Africa and Asia is growing exponentially and in Europe and the Americas vast majorities of the populations live comfortably.
With the generation of wealth, social spending has actually risen everywhere in the world since 1940. More people are cared for through various welfare programs than ever before in human history, in America as well, addressing issues that arise from inequality. The poverty level in the United States is at an all-time low. People worldwide living in what is considered “extreme poverty” have been escaping that level of poverty at the rate of 137,000 people per day for the last twenty years. Read that once again.
The global population growth rate is declining, though the number of humans on the planet continues to increase every day. Since virtually everyone has improved sustenance and we are fed better than ever before, better education and understanding is possible through all societies. Which is a good thing because humanity can apply that knowledge toward addressing problems such as pollution. Deforestation, the denuding of the planet of its temperate and tropical forests, has been reined in significantly since 1975. The world as a whole is generating fewer CO2 emissions today than it was ten years ago. Reason can be applied to problems.
Pinker writes: “Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. The fear of resource shortages is misconceived. So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet. An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consigned them.” (page 154)
All this prosperity and education has manifested itself in various ways. War between great powers, for example, is at an all-time low. No major nation is at war with any other major nation. All the wars on the earth are currently taking place inside countries rather than between them. While battle deaths have risen a bit in recent years, overall, only a small fraction of deaths occur in combat globally compared to as recently as 1985. Likewise, genocide deaths, so common in the 20th century, have virtually vanished from the face to the earth, measuring in the tens of thousands today as opposed to the millions dying from 1965 to 1975. There was a recent blip in genocides confined to Africa in the mid-1990’s but nothing like that since.
Homicidal deaths worldwide are at an all-time low, though they have risen recently in Mexico and America. While deaths from poisoning have been rising since 1995, accidental pedestrian death, deaths from falls, fire, or drowning are all at record lows in America and Europe and are falling elsewhere. Occupational accident deaths in the US fell from over 60 per 100,000 in 1910 to about 3 per 100,000 in 2016. Most of this happened through the application of human reason.
Terrorism deaths are not at all-time lows, they are, in fact, about the same as they were in 1995. These deaths are a recent phenomenon. There were far fewer deaths by terrorism in 1970, but terrorism still only kills about 0.1 per 100,000. Nevertheless, it seems that this is one area where “progress” isn't happening. But, Pinker cautions: “Though terrorism poses a miniscule danger compared with other risks, it creates outsize panic and hysteria because that is what it is designed to do. Modern terrorism is a by-product of the vast reach of the media.” (page 195) In short, while the threat is real, it is small. Very small, largely thanks to the progressive influence of human reason.
The flourishing of education and knowledge has led to the emergence of more democracies than autocracies today than any time since 1800. Human rights protection is steadily increasing throughout the world. More countries have outlawed the death penalty than ever before. Executions in general are at record lows and have been since 1970. The number of racist, sexist, and homophobic web searches is significantly down since 2004. Hate crimes have been slowly but steadily becoming less frequent since 1996. Instances of rape and domestic violence in the US are one-fourth of what they were in 1995. There is a pattern here clearly made possible by human reason.
As I mentioned, education is a huge part of Pinker’s factual optimism. “Studies of the effects of education confirm that educated people really are more enlightened. They are less, racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian. They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech. They are more likely to vote, volunteer, express political views, and belong to civic associations such as unions, political parties, and religious and community organizations.” (page 235)
Worldwide, literacy is at an all-time high. More human beings receive basic education today than ever before. The years of schooling are extended in most parts of the world, allowing for truly higher education. Remarkably, IQ is rising thanks to all this exposure to knowledge. “(IQ) scores have been rising for more than a century, in every part of the world, at a rate of about three IQ points per decade.…we know that intelligence is highly inheritable, and the world is not engaged in a massive eugenics project in which smarter people have had more babies generation after generation. Nor have people been marrying outside their clan and tribe in great enough numbers for a long enough time to explain the rise.” (page 240) Reason ultimately feeds on itself within modern human evolution.
Collectively and individually, we are smarter than we have ever been before. This has led to a variety of quality of life improvements including: fewer hours worked each week, widespread retirement benefits, and a vast array of consumer goods that virtually everyone rich or poor has access to such as stoves, washing machines, and refrigerators. The cost of lighting indoors has dropped precipitously and spending on necessities requires less of our income than ever before. Consequently, leisure time has increased throughout the developed world for both men and women. Air travel is cheaper than ever and the number of tourists worldwide is at a record. Never before has humanity interacted with itself across the globe the way it does today.
By all these measures and more human reason is leading to the betterment of humankind. The data seems overwhelming that humanity as a whole is moving in the right direction. Progress is anything but guaranteed, however. Reason is threatened, for example, by politics and, ironically, by academia. Political conservatism has given us Trumpism, a most irrational turn of events. But the academic Left, too, “…has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism. Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st.” (page 364)
Pinker attacks a host of other threats to the continued benefits of reason, science and humanism including a wide variety of forces, generally resulting from a misapplication of reason: romanticism, cultural pessimism, seeing progress as a dialectical struggle, authoritarian modernism, postmodernism, relativism, religion and its resulting theistic morality, superstition, romantic heroism (as demonstrated in thinkers such as Nietzsche), nationalism and exceptionalism, the philosophical approaches of objectivism (Rand), existentialism (Sartre), critical theory (Habermas), post-structuralism, and deconstructionism (Derrida). According to Pinker, there is a long list of ‘isms’ that simply defy scientific knowledge in favor of whimsical and non-objective contentions of truth. He finds all of these inadequate, misguided, and antiquated compared with how reason, science, and humanism have positively impacted civilization.
Then there is what Pinker calls ‘progressophobia,’ about which Pinker flatly proclaims: “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress…It’s the idea that rankles the chattering class – the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.” (page 39)
Pinker claims that intellectual progressophobia, like many of the other anti-rational forces mentioned above, is fundamentally driven by two cultural mechanics. First, there is the “Availability heuristic” which drives “people to estimate the probability of an event or frequency of a kind of things with the ease with which instances come to mind….Frequent events leave stringer memory traces….But whenever a memory turns up high in the result of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency – because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting – people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.” (page 41)
The damage of the Availability heuristic comes predominantly through social media and the news media. Access to information (and particularly to disinformation) artificially heightens human awareness of all manner of ills such as terrorism, domestic violence, economic woes, pollution, corruption, to the degree that these things overwhelm all the positive attributes previously mentioned in this post.
This plays into the second mechanic. “…the psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper. The deepest is a bias that has been summarized by the slogan ‘Bad is stronger than good.’” (page 47) This is the Negativity bias. “The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise.” (page 48)
The end result of the Availability heuristic and the Negativity bias is that intellectualism (as many other things including religion and politics) tends to discount the factual effects of progress in favor of mis-perceived notions of dystopia, decline, disenfranchisement, and general malaise. Progress is seen as an illusion or as a passé concept. Every measure of human betterment previously mentioned is trivialized compared with the realm of perceived global threats and personal dissatisfaction.
But, like everything else in the universe, Pinker argues that Availability and Negativity are intelligible problems that can be addressed and solved by sufficient application of reason, science, and humanism. “Most people would agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery.” (page 51)
As the facts show, worldwide every one of these human betterments is occurring right now and virtually all of them are occurring at an accelerated pace. For Pinker, a more relevant and accurate appraisal of human progress is a matter of recognizing the confusing and destructive consequences of Availability and Negativity as revealed in intelligentsia, social media, and the news media.
Which is all well and good from the perspective of reason. I have no qualms with Pinker’s data-driven optimism. As a whole, humanity is flourishing and immensely better off today than in any other time in human history. But, unfortunately, Pinker tries to make reason the core of human being, which it is not. He wishes to discard a lot of concepts that are not necessarily completely rational like existentialism and critical theory that I have found useful in my own life.
Of course, like most worldviews, Pinker’s reason project has built-in mechanisms for dealing with facts that are outliers to his concept of progress. There are additional facts related to progress that he would likely explain away as being the result of Availability and Negativity. Suicide rates are rising sharply in the United States. Pollution is getting much worse in many parts of the world, causing a rise in many diseases including asthma. Anxiety and depression have been steadily worsening among young people in America for over 80 years and there is no reasonable answer as to why. And it isn’t just in the US where intellectuals and media hold full sway. Depression is now the top cause of human disability worldwide, regardless of a given society’s level of affluence and education.
This is more than a bias, this is as real as any gains in human rights or peace between nations or the great strides in human health. Nuclear weapons and climate change, two problems Pinker doesn’t shy away from, are both products of reason. You can’t seriously argue that capitalism has brought wealth to the many without also acknowledging that it has caused climate change, pollution, and a certain amount of functionalization of humanity. You can’t have it both ways. Progress does not come without a price and Pinker wished to dismiss this with an “all glory is real, all evil is a problem to be solved” perspective. There’s no guarantee reason can solve any of these problems; in fact, it is possible to see how reason is the cause of many of them.
Terrorism is a reaction to reason and science and humanism. It is a recent phenomena as Karen Armstrong pointed out in The Battle for God. To a large degree, reason created fundamentalism. Even more pervasive and affecting than fundamentalism is the force of consumerist marketing. Marketing is a completely reasonable force in society. It analyzes data on purchasing habits and demographics and uses creativity to affect buying choice and drive demand for more consumer goods. This is a wonderful thing compared with extreme poverty but it is also one of the most destructive forces at work on the planet currently in terms of affecting the human psyche and the environment as a whole. Our absolute submissiveness to marketing as a force in society is the source of untold materialism and its associated ills. Marketing transposes human meaning on a daily basis and galvanizes our attachment to objects that are essentially empty in and of themselves.
My bottom line hesitation with Enlightenment Now is that, while reason has accomplished much, it is nevertheless not the whole (nor perhaps even the key) to human experience and understanding. There is no inherent reason why human beings will be, or should be, reasonable. By nature I am a relativist and multidisciplinary so I grow immediately skeptical of any concept that thinks everything can be distilled down to a few basic universal ideas. Based upon an avalanche of data, Steven Pinker worships reason and science and humanism as his own intellectual religion. He makes a strong case and, generally speaking, I find far more about Enlightenment Now that I agree with than I am skeptical about. But, try as he might, Pinker has not given us the key to human experience. He has given us the key to progress, to be sure. But there is a lot of collateral damage to progress which he wishes to minimize, or fails to mention at all, because it doesn’t fit into his expansive but nevertheless limited worldview.
That is more of a qualification than a knock against his achievement. Enlightenment Now will give every serious reader cause for optimism and it is a powerful antidote to many of problems facing humanity. Yes, life is intelligible and problems can be solved. But there is nevertheless much absurdity in the world, reason has created many systems that run themselves outside of direct human control (stock markets, technological development, the decline in human privacy in favor of various forms of surveillance, the emergence of the anthropocene, to name a few). These forces were founded upon reason but almost always follow influences created by the various systems themselves beyond human control to affect human experience. This is something Pinker fails to address in the book. Human reason often develops systems beyond human control. This doesn’t collapse his splendid logic and factual presentation in this highly recommended book, but it does put feeling good about what he contends into a broader context than he would wish.
If you don't have time to plow through 500 pages of Pinker's book, you can see his 16-minute TED talk covering the book here and a second lecture by Pinker on why the world is getting better here.
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