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.
“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.