Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker was first published this year. It is essentially Pinker’s assessment of the world we live in and how we got here. The book is a defense of enlightenment ideals and an argument that the world is getting better because of them. The author is known as an optimist. He describes the brand of optimism that he practices as “rational optimism.”

The gist of this book is that human civilization has been improving in numerous ways. This improvement has been accelerating. It is being driven by what Pinker describes as enlightenment ideals. The author covers a lot of ground in this work. He explores subjects as diverse as war, violent crime, poverty, famine, epidemics, literacy, human rights, the spread of democracy, access to knowledge, culture and the arts, as well as many other issues. He devotes many pages to both the already developed and the still developing worlds. Pinker uses a lot of statistics to back up his points. I have more to say about this below.

Pinker attempts to ascertain why humanity is improving.  He attributes these advances to reason, science and what he calls “humanism.” I put what he calls “humanism” in quotation marks because there are so many definitions of humanism around. Pinker defines humanism as,

“The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience”

He attributes the advances in these areas to enlightenment philosophy. He does touch upon various enlightenment philosophers. However, this is a light touch. I would have preferred if the author had explored the various philosophers and their beliefs in greater depth.

Pinker talks a lot about pervasive pessimism that he argues is all over the place. The author writes,

“And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

As the above quotation illustrates, Pinker argues that due to the nature of the modern world, communication technology, the structure of the media, the fact that we care more about people who are different from us, etc., leads many to believe that things are getting worse at a time when they are getting better.
Pinker does address existentialist dangers like climate change and nuclear weapons. He recognizes the reality of these risks. Once again, his optimism prevails, while he acknowledges that although these perils could destroy human civilization, he believes that humanity can overcome them. When it comes to other threats that folks deem as risks to the survival of human civilization, such as the dangers of artificial intelligence, overpopulation, pandemics, etc., Pinker argues that they are not as serious as many are contending.

Pinker is highly critical of what he identifies as past and modern anti-enlightenment, anti-science and anti-humanist movements. His criticism extends to both the right and the left. He delves into Donald Trump as well as nationalistic trends in Europe. The philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand are tied to these movements.

The author is also critical of illiberalism emanating from the left, in particular, the latest rounds of censorship on college campuses, an intolerance of dissenting viewpoints, the attempts to destroy the careers of individuals who dissent from left wing orthodoxy, left wing anti-science and anti-reason trends, demonization of all things Western, etc. He is highly critical of post modernism. As he does on the right, he concludes that many issues on the left originate with anti-enlightenment philosophers. Here he identifies Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as such. The ever optimistic Pinker, of course, believes that in the end, reason and moderation will win out over extremists on both sides.

Pinker is also generally critical of religion and particularly critical of conservative interpretations of religion. He talks a about  conservative interpretations of Christianity and Islam. However he acknowledges  that moderate versions of these and other religions are comparable and sometimes even champion enlightenment values. 

There is so much here that it is difficult to encompass in a single blog post, but just a few examples of ills in the world that have been on the downswing over time include poverty, famine, epidemics and violence.  Yet these facts are so rarely talked about. For a more specific example, violent crime in the developed world has been declining dramatically over the last 25 years or so. Yet, the majority of people believe that it is increasing. As another example, in 1984, there existed 54,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and now there are less than 11,000, and there are good prospects that in the coming decades, this number will be substantially reduced.

As mentioned above, Pinker uses a lot of statistics to back up his points. I have been careful to use examples of things that are not only backed up by statistics,  but that match my understanding of the world based upon sources that I have read as well as my basic understanding of the world and of history.

 Some of My Thoughts

A lot of commentary has already been written about this book. Reviews as well as opinion pieces abound all over the internet. Pinker is garnering both praise and criticism. In terms of criticism, it is coming from both the right and the left. Personally, I think that this book illustrates truths about the world that are rarely talked about. Thus, I am devoting a few paragraphs where I share some of my personal observations below.

I have strong opinions on Pinker’s ideas as well as on the issues that he addresses. I have read and thought a lot about these topics over the years.   In an effort to be balanced, I have listened to and read a fair number of these critics. My commentary has been partially influenced by some of Pinker’s detractors.

Pinker uses a lot of statistics. While statistics can be cherry picked and used to distort reality, in my opinion, the author uses them to support logical and common-sense arguments. The statistics presented in this book also match my understanding of history and current events. For instance, his statistics on war and violent crime fit what is happening in the world based upon many sources.  The fact that, as terrible as today’s wars are, they do not come close to matching the frequency and loss of life that conflicts in the past have. The same is true on the subject of crime. Pinker’s statistics generally just quantify what I know to be fairly clear historical trends.

Many folks who criticize Pinker, and people who I have discussed these issues with, bring up many of today’s horrors. One example is the war in Syria. There has been terrible suffering and death as result of this conflict. Upper estimates put the death toll as approaching 500,000. There are several other conflicts going on in the world that are also causing mass losses of life and suffering. However, as Pinker points out, in almost every time in the past, there were many more conflicts going on. Many of these conflicts were much worse in terms of deaths than what is occurring in Syria. Pinker writes of this kind of critique,

“they forget the many civil wars that ended without fanfare after 2009 (in Angola, Chad, India, Iran, Peru, and Sri Lanka) and also forget earlier ones with massive death tolls, such as the wars in Indochina (1946–54, 500,000 deaths), India (1946–48, a million deaths), China (1946–50, a million deaths), Sudan (1956–72, 500,000 deaths, and 1983–2002, a million deaths), Uganda (1971–78, 500,000 deaths), Ethiopia (1974–91, 750,000 deaths), Angola (1975–2002, a million deaths), and Mozambique (1981–92, 500,000 deaths)”

Pinker goes on and uses charts and graphs, among other things, to show that deaths from war have been progressively coming down. As I mentioned above, these statistics match my understanding of history. This is just one example. Pinker makes dozens of rational, historical and statistical arguments as per above on many topics, such as poverty, literacy, epidemics, famine, etc.

There is another point that bears some discussion. Some critics have implied that being optimistic about these issues shows a callousness to present day human suffering and death. Often, individual or group examples of suffering, violence or oppression are brought up as counterarguments when discussing improvements in the world.

Granted, for the relatives of a murdered person, a rape survivor, or a child dying of hunger, a person living in a war zone, etc. the fact that these things are becoming less common is no solace. We should never forget about, and more importantly, we should never stop trying to reduce and ameliorate these ills. However, if these evils have been progressively becoming less common and less severe, it is vital that we understand to what extent this is happening and why this is happening. This understanding is important if we want to sustain and perhaps accelerate the improvement. Recognizing and trying to understand what is going on does not diminish the suffering of those who are still exposed to these terrible things.  On the contrary, understanding what is going on help us to reduce suffering in the future. In addition, the pursuit of truth is in itself important.

Pinker writes,

“The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”
Pinker does talk about the terrible things in the world, including the situation with refugees, declining incomes and declining life expectancies in some segments of the population in developed countries, climate change as well as many more issues that are addressed in the book. He makes a strong case that, based on historical trends, we will see improvements in these areas over time.

While he does acknowledge that climate change might destroy human civilization, he makes a case that human civilization can survive it and eventually ameliorate it. He seems more optimistic than pessimistic here.  I am not as optimistic as Pinker seems to be on this front, though I do think that it can go either way.  Pinker makes the case that there is a good chance that humanity will find ways to cope with this challenge. I acknowledge that we might overcome this threat, but I think that that it is so pressing and potentially destructive to human civilization that Pinker would have done better to integrate its negative affects upon his future prognostications.

I generally like Pinker’s politics and views on social issues. He clearly recognizes the benefits that moderate liberalism has brought to the world while recognizing a growing illiberalism growing out of the left. He is also not hesitant to take conservative positions when reason leads him to them.  In some ways, this entire book is a call to moderation, with a slight tilt to the left. It seems that Pinker and I are mostly on the same the same page here.  

I agree with the message of this book: that the plight of humanity is improving in multiple ways and, for the most part, modernity is enormously beneficial.  The ideas of the enlightenment, science and reason are driving this progress. I believe that there are downsides to modernity, and Pinker does mention them, but I would have preferred that he written about them more. However, I agree with him that the constant drumbeat that modernity is detrimental to humanity and things were better in the past, is erroneous. Thus, when all is said and done, I find myself mostly in agreement with Pinker on a whole host of issues.

I think that this book, along with the author’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, are two of the most important works written in recent years. Even if one disagrees with many of Pinker’s points, he is an intriguing thinker who raises all kinds of compelling issues. I personally believe that Pinker is one of the most important thinkers of our time. I highly recommend this book.


CyberKitten said...

I was looking forward to your review on this book and have not been disappointed. As you know I am not optimistic about humanities future. We have great potential to make a better world but there is so much that stands in our way - needlessly I think! I'll put this on my 'to be thought about' list.

Mudpuddle said...

thoughtful and acute analyses... mrs. m read 'Angels.." and liked it a lot. i have yet to read Pinker, but he sounds, as one would expect, him being a Harvard psychologist, like he knows whereof he speaks... i, also, am, like CK, more pessimistic about the future, but it's good to know about experts who aren't... is P referring to enlightenment in the Zen sense, or from a humanistic pov? probably the latter,i surmise, as the former has not so much to do with political/cultural conditions or the state of nations... anyway, great post... and encouraging....

Stephen said...

I've been curious about this book, too -- I respect Pinker, especially given his book "The Blank Slate", which unloaded both barrels at all ideologies near and far, left and right. This sounds like it's in keeping with his usual balance. I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic, as I think "enlightenment" is an over characterization. One person can be enlightened, but a society -- never. People are people, and while our superficial beliefs and attitudes may vary by culture, beneath the cloud of learning we're still tribal creatures -- empathetic and hostile, tender and violent, contradictions on two legs.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I was hoping you would review this book and if you feel its worthwhile that's all the convincing I need. Is the world getting better? In nany ways yes but we are only at the beginning of the 21st century who knows what could happen in the decades ahead. But Pinker's statistic that nuclear weapons have been reduced to 11,000 a great achievement considering the totals they were before.

Suko said...

This sounds like an interesting book about ideas, which actually has some good news for us for a change(as opposed to bad news, or fake news). Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph. You've written an insightful essay about Pinker's book. I will keep this book in mind, most definitely.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks CK. I tend to be optimistic about s lot of things that Pinker is. But I acknowledge that climate change and a few other perils could bring it all down.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - Pinker is referring to Enlightenment in the Western sense.

I thought that The Better Angels was even better then this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen- Pinker is talking about the Enlightenment is a Western sense. Our societies are indeed tribal and have problem, but in The Better Angels of our Nature and in this book, Pinker argues that they are getting Better.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. Things can indeed get bad.,Though he does not get into it in this book, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, as violence declines in the long run, there are some nasty, temporary setbacks. The last big setback was essentially the World Wars. Woe to folks who get caught in one of these setbacks.

The nuclear weapons statistics are doubly impressive as almost no one knows about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko- I agree, we could really use some good news for a change. I

Sharon Wilfong said...

Excellent review, Brian. I'm not sure I'll ever read Pinker. I may agree with his observations about particular issues but I do not agree with his conclusions. He ignores the great contribution Christianity has provided in improving societies. It was the church that started schools, hospitals, orphanages, universities and the basic concepts of human dignity and rights (murder is evil because man is made in the image of God.)

In my opinion, the enlightenment philosophers are in some ways usurpers because they claim ownership to ideas and morals they did not invent. One needs to look at Europe before the arrival of Christianity. It was as barbaric as it was primitive.

I would also argue that some pretty bloody revolutions came out of the enlightenment such as the French revolution, not to mention Nietzsche-an ideals that led to the concept of "supermen" and WWI and II. I would like to see his statistics on the quality of life in Africa where whole generations have been obliterated by AIDS.

Well, obviously I don't agree with his premise but I appreciate the way you gave a good summary and critique of it. People like him (and you) make me think. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. Pinker really covers a lot of issues that it is hard to cover them all. While he is often critical of religion he does mention how Christianity and religion contributed to the betterment of humanity in the ways that you mention. He contends that like many other factors, religion was a fairly slow and minor force until the enlightenment accelerated everything.

He is extremely critical of Nietzsche and considers him as one of the biggest anti - enlightenment thinkers.

Aides was terrible. Pinker points out that in historical terms it was essentially cured in an incredibly short period of time due to science.

I am not saying that Pinker is right about everything, but between this book and The Better Angels of Our Nature, he covers so much ground.

Have a great week!

CyberKitten said...

I think the Enlightenment definitely put western cultures in the fast lane. Obviously it emerged from a Christian culture - that's just a historical fact - but I think it was a big improvement on what went before.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CK - You said that so well. I completely agree.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hello Brian and Cyberkitten. I don't mean to haggle over the points you make but the enlightenment did not fast track what the Christian church accomplished. Name me one university, hospital or orphanage named after an atheist.

Christian missionaries helped outlaw widow burning in India and foot binding in China. The abolitionists against slavery in America were primarily Christian.

William Wilberforce a devout Christian, helped get the slave trade outlawed in England and then went on to attack the plight of the poor there.

It was Christians that started the idea that education should be accessible to all and were the primary movers in raising literacy rates among the poor.

It's not so simple as you state it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- I agreed with CK that the enlightenment emerged from Christian culture so I acknowledge the contributions made by Christianity. I think that the acceleration caused by the enlightenment is very important though. Those hospitals were made possible because capital and infrastructure was made available as a result advances in civilization spurred by the enlightenment. Advances in medicine resulting from scientific advances made the treatment administered by those hospitals meaningful. Also, the great causes the Christians advocates for mostly came after the enlightenment started. Christianity was around a long time before and It advocated and encouraged great causes like charity before. But Christianity’s advocacy of things like abolition and universal education really were only successful after enlightenment ideas started to spread.. I think Christianity did enhance the enlightenment in some ways. But I also think that the enlightenment enhanced Christianity, as well as other religions, too.

Sheree said...

What a fascinating perspective! I've not read the book, so forgive me if some of my questions/thoughts have already been covered by Pinker (I'm reacting entirely to your review here, hope that's okay).

I'm completely on board with the notion of the position of humanity having net improvement with modernity - you've cited a number of Pinkers arguments in favour of that here, and the ones that spring immediately to my mind are sanitation and access to food. On the whole, things are getting better on those fronts. I'm curious, though, with regards to his commentary on deaths due to military conflict - when citing death tolls (India, China, etc.) does he contextualise those numbers at all? As a % of the population, the resilience of the economy/cultures, the generational impacts? To focus simply on the number (500,000 dead, 1 million dead, and so on) seems to me to be a convenient shorthand that obfuscates much of the actual impact.

I'd be particularly interested to read Pinker's thoughts on the risk posed by pandemics (a point of curiosity for me personally of late), so I'll look into his work further. Thank you so much for sharing this, so much food for thought! :)

CyberKitten said...

Before the Enlightenment the pace of change/progress was slow at best. Whole generations lived and died pretty much as their parents and even grandparents did. After the Enlightenment everything began to accelerate - slowly at first but as progress built on progress everything moved faster and faster. I think that's essentially beyond argument. Now our children live in a very different world than we grew up in. By far the vast majority of that is due to Enlightenment thinking. Without the Enlightenment the modern world as we know it - faults as well as high achievements - simply would not exist. Personally I'd rather live in *this* world much more than the pre-Enlightenment one.

James said...

Thanks for a great review of this thought-provoking book. I am skeptical of some of the broader claims of Pinker and find it interesting that much of the discussion has focused on the relative importance of enlightenment thought. In a world where the fruits of the enlightenment and the culture that emerged from it in the West are under attack by terrorists claiming the support of Islam on one hand while much of the Western world seems adrift in the face of the developing Chinese megalith, I believe some skepticism is warranted.
On another note I was disappointed that Pinker equates Nationalist movements with the anti-nationalistic thought of Ayn Rand - those who claim her ideas in support of Nationalism or Racism do not understand her thought.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sheree - You raise a good point about wars affecting a society in many ways. Pinker does not really go there. I do think deaths are the must objective ways to talk about the issue. I also suspect that wars have always had terrible impacts on societies but that we rightfully pay more attention to these things in our day and age.

I wish that he spent more time writing about pandemics, but he found that they are becoming less frequent and less severe. With that, I am less confident that there will not be a severe worldwide pandemic in the future then Pinker is.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CK - Indeed, though I often lose cite of it myself, for most people, maybe not everyone, it is the best time to be alive.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - You raise a good point. Rand was anti - racist and anti - nationalist. It is interesting that several critics have Expressed Pinker’s take on Foucault and Derrida philosophies are inaccurate.

Pinker believes that humanistic values will diffuse through the Islamic world, he cites evidence that it already on its way. As I recall he does not talk a lot about the future of China, but I suspect that he would say some things that are similar.

HKatz said...

“The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”

I like this quote. This also sounds like a book I should read just to balance out the frequent pessimism. (That's also a reason I started watching episodes from different series of Star Trek a few years ago, because look, it's a future that isn't a dystopia filled with the total misuse of technology, and people can successfully struggle to come up with solutions based on reason and good faith...) Anyway, a lot of times I see people embrace the worst about themselves, deliberately, maybe because it's easier or because there's something intoxicating about giving up... I'd like to focus on the potential for good and to remind myself of the progress too (even if it's important to never be complacent).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Pessimism is indeed very popular these days. Pinker does try to delve into the causes of it a bit. I also love Star Trek for its optimism.

CyberKitten said...

I might be wrong but I am noticing an increasing number of books with an optimistic outlook on our future. Even I have picked up a few to see what they're like. It'll be good to see more rationally argued optimism for a change. Humans have GREAT potential. I mean, just look at our accomplishments over the last 1,000 years. When we put our minds and energy towards something it's pretty amazing what we can do. Remember - the time between the Wright Brothers first flight and man on the Moon was only 66 years!!!! It hardly gets more amazing than that I feel. Facts like that are still breathtaking. I do firmly believe that hard times are ahead but that doesn't mean we can't come out the other side better and stronger than before. We have the capacity. We just need to USE it properly!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CK - I know that Pinker himself came out with a list of optimistic but realistic books.


Things are indeed changing fast. It is not just technology. For instance, Laws and views on same sex marriage have changed so quickly.

Of course there are accompanying problems related to s lot of the change. I think that a lot of people are a bit overwhelmed.

Whispering Gums said...

A great write-up Brian. As an optimist - and as one who's heard some of these stats before - I'm inclined to agree with you that Pinker has some valid things to say.

Like you, though, I'm not sure about the climate change issue though I'd like to think we will be able to manage it.

I liked you enclosing "humanism" in quotation marks. It and "realism" (to a lesser extent) are terms I often want to use in reviews but I do I use quotation marks because of the ambiguity surrounding their use.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks WG. Indeed, climate change has the potential to unravel it all. Hopefully humanity will manage it. Pinker has at least convinced me that a better outcome is possible.

thecuecard said...

I know Bill Gates has been raving about this book every chance he can. While I think it's nice to be optimistic and acknowledge that stats do bear out some of Pinker's points (such as in technology & healthcare) --- I am not as cheery or as overly optimistic as he is that the world's problems can or will be overcome. Whether it be wildlife or species disappearing, a mass of plastic & trash in the ocean the size of Texas & growing, overpopulation, or climate or nuclear annihilation -- I'm sadly not too believing in human kind. Doesn't it take just one crazy Osama bin Laden to set off a uranium dirty bomb or several? I don't see constructive aims by heads of state to address the worlds ills: whether from pollution or climate, or overpopulation, or getting rid of nukes ... I'm not a pessimist but I remain skeptical.

Violet said...

I think your post on a rather polemical book is very fair and balanced. :) I agree with Pinker's basic premise, but his tone and style of writing really annoyed me. I posted my thoughts on my blog. I couldn't get along with the book and I didn't finish it. I would have liked a lot more academic rigor when it came to his analysis, and a lot less of the railing against Nietzsche and other thinkers with whom he disagrees. I'm not sure that most people are ready for optimism right now when it comes to world events, because it feels as though we're in a "moment", when things could go very badly, indeed. However, as Pinker points out, compared with circumstances in the past, we're actually doing quite well on a global scale. On an individual level, though, for people in many Western countries, it feels as though we're going backwards, rather than progressing. If nothing else, Pinker's book opens up many issues for discussion, which is always a good thing.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Violet. Based on what I have read in both commentary as well as from my comments section, Pinker’s criticism of various philosophers and writers is very controversial. While this book was written for the general public and not necessarily academics, I thought that his Our Better Angels was more academically rigerours.

Things do seem dark now, especially in the age of Trump. Let’s see if Pinker’s optimism plays out though.

I will check out your post on this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I think that environmental catastrophe is the weakest link in Pinker’s argument. It can derail everything.

Detonation of a dirty bomb would be horrendous. With that I do not think that it would change the general arc of the World getting more peaceful and safe.

baili said...

I think we are not appropriate enough to declare that "enlightenment" arose from one group of people !

I disagree with sharon respectfully that human virtues only belonged to one certain religion as it sounds so childish to think like this!

If we really ponder upon the human history GOOD and BAD Characters were always present in each man made religious group.

what we are talking about that who had command over the people with the help of his "powerful" mind and got opportunities to influence the other cultures .

Yes christians were lucky to be well developed and civilized nation ,this is also agreeable that when the other religious group islam had leaders who were busy in creating the architecture and literature which presented only their love for fine arts , Unfortunately the power was in wrong hands . It does not
mean that islam or buddhism did not have the ENLIGHTENED MINDS ,they
did but those well groomed and civilized minds were very far from
the POWER which could employ their ideas in society!

meanwhile christians built educational academies and universities which means FINE BRAINS were involve in the progress of advancement .

I believe through my observations that good and evil exists since the beginning of this world and will last till it comes to it's end because it has purpose and reason given by Creator1

crimes and decent deeds are equally coming along ,only difference is today we can know everything very fastly and this "KNOWING" is effecting our mind in either ways
1 we get depressed and afraid !
2 we try to be better person so no one can count us as inhuman !

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - Pinker does credit both Islamic society and Christianity with creating positive humanistic concepts, institutions, traditions, etc. One of his points is , something caused human progress. both technological and ethical, accelerated over the last few centuries. He attributes the acceleration to Enlightenment ideas.

I do agree that evil is a useful concept and I also use it. Evil has been with us since the dawn of humanity. With that, I would not call every person and concept that has worked against humanistic principles evil. I do think that such people and trends have slowed human progress.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Balli: Tell me about the concepts of human rights espoused by Islam. Saudi Arabia prior to the advent of Islam advanced many aspects of higher learning. This was when Christianity was spreading across the middle east (where it originated). Please don't call me childish when I am laying down facts of history.

Name a hospital or any kind of higher education named after an atheist or Muslim. Christians started many universities and schools in the middle east. In Muslim and atheist countries it is Christians creating orphanages and caring for the poorest, the "untouchables", the rejects. It is Christians adopting these children.

And the enlightenment did not accelerate anything that was not already advancing with the help of Christians. I don't want to repeat myself but it was Christians that advanced the concept that all men are equal and slavery is wrong. Not Voltaire. The French Revolution was a direct result of many enlightenment philosophies. Pinker may be again Nietzsche, but his ideas came directly from the enlightenment.

Something isn't true just because you want it to be true.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think the that hospitals and orphanages are often named after Christians in America and Europe for two reasons. First many Christians do have a great record of contributing to charitable endeavors in the name of Christianity. But second, Christianity has been a dominant belief system. Until recently, there were so few people who would call themselves atheists, I would even imagine that not long ago if someone tried to name an American hospital after an atheist or a Muslim, there would likely have been s public uproar. There are lots of good charitable Christians, Muslims and atheists. In Cuba there is a Vladimir Lenin Hospital. I believe in Communist Nations there have been many institutions named after atheists. This has a lot to do with dominant belief systems. I do not know how naming systems generally work in the Islamic world. But there are many Muslims who should have charitable institutions named after them.

I would quibble with Nietzsche being an Enlightenment thinker. He railed was against democracy, much of science as well as the liberalism of his time. Though Pinker does not agree, I do think the French Revolution as well as some other bad political movements, such as Communism had origins in the enlightenment. Thus, I think that most big thought systems, enlightenment thinking, Christianity, Islam, etc. produce some good and bad outcomes. Baili is on to something when she talks about it being the result of the character of the people involved.

With all that, I guess our disagreement is in the relative benefits and drawbacks of that Christianity, Islam and the Enlightenment have had on the world.

The Bookworm said...

Enlightenment Now sounds like an interesting read and food for thought. It's good to see both the good and the bad. It's fascinating to think about the way social media and the media itself have such an impact and an effect on people.

I like that he uses statistics to back up what he is saying. I agree, having an understanding on what is going on currently can hopefully help stop it from happening again as opposed to meaning that we are downplaying people's sufferings.
Wonderful commentary as always.

So many books, so little time said...

I think this sounds like one of those books you will be thinking about after you finish it. As always Brian it is lovely to hear your thoughts and often it is your review that sells the book rather than if I came across (and a lot of the time I would dismiss them). I think this is one I would absolutely read xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - At the very least this book will make you think. Pinker uses statistics rationally. It is a key piece of his argument.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy. I think that this book is accessible and interesting. If you read this I would love to know what you thought.

Stefanie said...

Pinker is such an interesting thinker. I agree things are better overall in the world than they were 100 years ago, even 50 years ago. But Pinker's relentless optimism gets my hackles up. I am optimistic about most things, but like you, not so much about climate change. From what you say it sounds like Pinker is almost dismissive of it in a "oh don't you worry we'll figure something out" kind of way when we already know what the solution is and there is no whiz-bang technological fix in the works to save us all.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie- Indeed, I agree, Pinker is weakest when he discusses climate change. He does spend a fair amount of words discussing solutions though. He also raises the issue of nuclear energy being s big part of the solution, something that many environmentalists dismiss.

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT commentary, Brian!! I greatly enjoyed reading this post!! :)

From what you've stated here, Pinker is indeed one of the most important thinkers of the present time. Like you, I am attracted to his moderate outlook. I have always thought that the moderate position was much closer to the truth, and reality, than either the left or the right extremes. It's WONDERFUL that Pinker criticizes both the left and the right, and uses reason to validate either conservative or liberal positions. I am ESPECIALLY glad that he criticizes both Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzche, as I can't stand either one! Although I have not read the latter, I do know whet his philosophical stance is all about, thanks to Wikipedia. As for Raynd, I started reading "The Fountainhead" some years back, and could not finish it. Her extreme contempt for social workers really galled me. Not surprisingly, Paul Ryan is an ardent fan of her work, which is yet another reason to dislike it, and her!

I must confess to not knowing much about Enlightenment philosophers.... :( The only one that comes to mind is Voltaire. I must do something about that!

It's great that Pinker includes a lot of statistics in this book! Although it's true that statistics can be skewed in favor of a writer's political stance, I can see that Pinker is objective enough not to do that.

There is one major point of disagreement I have with Pinker's optimism, and I must respectfully point it out, even though I know you don't agree. It's the subject of abortion. I think this is a great tragedy, as well as a denial of the rights of unborn women.

Aside from this, I think that Pinker may very well be right in stating that the human condition is improving in terms of lower incidences of violence. On the other hand, there's the very depressing reality of the NRA's hold on American politics. At this point in time, the U.S. should ALREADY have rational gun reform laws on the books. And the fact that the current president has opted to take the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement is alarming. Like many, or most, conservatives, Trump denies the existence of climate change in the very face of scientific evidence for it. He has also de-regulated many corporate activities. This action will, of course, affect the quality of life in this country, not only from an environmental standpoint, but also from the economic standpoint. These things do not bode well for our future, unless, of course, we can effect some measure of restraint on these policies through the coming midterm elections.

In regards to Trump, another alarming fact is that he is supported by extremist white supremacist organizations like the KKK. Racism is far from dead in this country! And, in regards to women, Trump has also recently struck down laws that favored women in the workplace, which were put in place by Obama.

I do wonder what Pinker would say about Trump's very negative effect on the world, not just the U.S. Or maybe he has already stated something to that effect in this book.

As you know, I am a very eclectic reader, and it has just happened that I became obsessed with the Young Adult genre some time back. But I really do need to get back to more intellectual types of reading. This book by Pinker, as well as the other one you've mentioned in this post -- "The Better Angels of Our Nature" -- are definitely a good place to start!

Thanks for your always insightful reviews!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Pinker does write a lot about Trump. He sees him as a threat to democracy, peace, enlightenment principles, etc. He mentions many of the issues that you do. Pinker seems optimistic that we will overcome him.

Though I have read some of them I also need to become better versed in the Enlightenment thinkers.

I actually thought that The Better Angels of Our Nature was a slightly better book. But it was longer.

Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks said...

Sounds like something that could cheer me up! Because I often think that we're NOT improving, it would be good to hear good arguments on how improvement has been happening faster. There is a lot of negativity in the media, so I guess all the 'good' parts don't really reach us.

Amazing review, Brian, and I think I will go look for this book now :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Evelina. One of Pinker’s points is how the good stuff is barely ever talked about. If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.