Enlightenment Now. Steven Pinker.

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now. Penguin Random House New York, 2018. NF;3/18.

This is a long but mercifully easy-reading treatise on the Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism, and progress. Pinker is an impressive renaissance-style academic (a psychologist but also a linguist and so one foot in science – sort of – and one in the humanities or arts – sort of. He’s a full professor both at Harvard and MIT) whose other writing has also impressed me. This book is academic, atheistic, and pragmatic but above all aggressively optimistic.

Here’s some of what he tells us:

We do live in a better world than that of pretty well every past time. John Rawls’s thought experiment of asking yourself whether you would be willing to be born into any economic level at a particular time suggests the lottery would make more sense now (in the first world anyway) than ever before. Many dozen statistical “scientific” graphs presented in the book allegedly bear this out. Technologies get safer, not more dangerous, over time.

The very fact that so many dimensions of well-being are correlated across countries and decades suggests there may be a coherent phenomenon lurking beneath them—what statisticians call a general factor, a principal component, or a hidden, latent, or intervening variable. We even have a name for that factor: progress.

Free-market capitalism, and wealth, are good. “Those who condemn modern capitalist societies for callousness toward the poor are probably unaware of how little the pre-capitalist societies of the past spent on poor relief.” Wealth buys “peace, freedom, human rights, happiness, environmental protection, and other transcendent values” as well as laptops and Maseratis.

He absolutely is no fan of Donald Trump, but dealing just as harshly with the far left as the far right, Pinker agrees with Jordan Peterson that “it’s time to retire the morality play in which modern humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers.” Global climate change is a problem all right but thinking humans will solve it. “Thanks to the 1987 ban on chlorofluorocarbons ratified by 197 countries, the ozone layer is expected to heal by the middle of the 21st century” and “nuclear power is the world’s most abundant and scalable carbon-free energy source.” No question in my mind he’s right about nuclear power.

Reason is fundamental. “We don’t believe in reason; we use reason (just as we don’t program our computers to have a CPU; a program is a sequence of operations made available by the CPU)” and “(if) the act of considering the validity of reason presupposes the validity of reason—then surely it presupposes the existence of reasoners.” (and, I think he would agree, its substrate — a physical world exhibiting cause and effect — but not due to this stated premise, preexisted them.) Like pretty well everyone now Pinker is conversant with evolutionary psychology. Reason, he says, is evolved, since “there is a strong selection pressure for an ability to develop explanations that are true.” I sense he sees that as a breakthrough, but I guess that seems to me to have been obvious ever since we started to understand the evolved brain around 1970.

Romanticism as a reaction to the enlightenment was a scourge. The pessimistic heroism of people like Nietzsche (probably Pinker’s least-favourite thinker; here he disagrees radically with Jordan Peterson) gave us the 20th century which we should be doing our best to forget.

Bias is everywhere (except apparently in pure science). We need to argue the side of questions we oppose more frequently, as practice. “A rational society should seek the answers by consulting the world rather than assuming the omniscience of a bloc of opinionators…” and “The discovery that political tribalism is the most insidious form of irrationality today is still fresh and mostly unknown.” (although that one seems to have been bothering me for quite awhile).

Let’s get rid of religion. “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism— requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.” Well, I don’t completely agree with that. I prefer Alain de Botton on that subject who takes I think a more sophisticated and more humanist view than Pinker’s tedious tendency to see beneficially obscure things as eventually black or white. But near the end of the book Pinker says “Religious organizations can … provide a sense of communal solidarity and mutual support … thanks to their millennia-long head start.” Seems the enlightenment has some catching up to do.

In company with Daniel Dennett Pinker appears to ignore, or is unaware of, the problems with science as it is practiced. Without stumbling into scientific deconstructionism (everything is, after all, subjective…(not)) I think one has to be realistic about cultural and personal influences on a terribly powerful but eventually limited worldview. Reason seems to me a better idea for framing a way forward than what we understand as “science”. They aren’t exactly the same.

Running up against the mind-body problem a.k.a. consciousness, Dr. Pinker sees it as a “gap”, soon to be closed. But then he says ”that it subjectively feels like something to be (brain) circuitry—may have to be stipulated as a fact about reality where explanation stops. (italics mine)” Yup, I go along with that. But I’d say it’s also where the terribly important world of consciousness and experience begins.

There’s something mechanistically sunshiny about bright-style thinkers like Pinker and Dennett. I feel like asking Where’s the mystery? Where’s the darkness? Where’s the forest and the snakes? because whether uncertainty and evil are in front of or behind our eyeballs, or both, they are real for every one of us.

I love the optimism and the pragmatism of this important essay, but for me there’s something about Stephen Pinker that’s just a wee bit too good to be true. Professor of Everything. Take a look at a picture of him online. Still he puts it all together in an impressive accessible package. And towards the end he does tell us, about the “art, ritual, and architecture of great beauty and historical resonance” of religion “I partake of these myself, with much enjoyment” he says.

So what, really, is that all about? Is there more to humanism than a reasoned, scientifically measurable greatest good for the greatest number? I’ll take that at face value and imagine we can agree.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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