Enlightenment now

(Reading Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)

pinkerI am totally down with this book. Its main thesis is that the core values of the Enlightenment – Reason, Science, and Humanism – have resulted in human life being better in every measurable way. And if anyone wishes to deny this, they will have a big job in front of them, as Pinker provides 70+ charts over 16 chapters documenting the decline of social, medical, and economic evils and the growth of corresponding goods over the last three centuries. It turns out that, over time, a general trend in the direction of building science and more responsible social institutions, and setting to the side Iron Age religious ideologies, can do a lot for a species.

Pinker is not blind to human weaknesses, nor to the real evils that accompanied the Enlightenment, like slavery and colonialism. But to say that the Enlightenment was only about slavery and colonialism, or that these twin evils and others are necessarily bound up with the essence of science, is to leave unexplained the rather astounding improvements of life that have coincided with the Enlightenment – and not just for wealthy capitalists, but for for people generally across the globe. As Pinker notes, we usually take these astounding improvements for granted:

… newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with the flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket. (4)

And, yes, there are still too many tragic cases where these benefits are wholly absent – but many, many fewer than ever before in human history. That’s Pinker’s point. The chief causes of human misery that have dogged our steps through history – plague, war, and starvation – are not really chief anymore. One could try to claim that all of these improvements have happened despite the work done by humans under the banners of Enlightenment ideals – but really? by whom? Faith healers? Existentialist Marxists? God? Faeries? And when your child has a serious infection, or when you try to broker a peace deal, or when you decide what crops to plant next year, it is to these entities you turn for guidance?

So Pinker’s case is powerful. The majority of his book is spent on gathering and displaying evidence for his overarching claim that human life is continuously getting better, and pointing out the likely causes for these improvements – which, in general, comes down to humans using their science and reason to make life better. A smaller portion of the book is devoted to explaining why some intelligent people resist the conclusion that the Enlightenment is on the whole a good thing. Part of the explanation is that news of calamity sells better the news of goods we take for granted. We won’t be seeing headlines celebrating the eradication of smallpox in the natural world anytime soon, despite the fact that every morning we should wake up and cry tears of joy over that fact. (In the 20th century, something like 70 million people died in the two world wars; in the same century, over 300 million died from smallpox. And smallpox only had three quarters of that century to do that much.)

The other part of the explanation for under-appreciating the Enlightenment has to do with humanist scholars like me. Granted, a big part of our job is to explore the shadows, and provide alternative narratives, and challenge prevailing orthodoxies. The fact that Pinker knows that individuals and societies, while doing their best to be rational, can nevertheless get swept up into all sorts of cruel and evil projects is at least in part the consequence of thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault, who went ahead and challenged a prevailing blind optimism in progress and science. But Pinker is right that this humanist challenge to orthodox opinion has itself become an orthodox opinion in the academy, and it is time to temper the denouncements of the Enlightenment with some close attention paid to real data. It is time to challenge those who challenge Enlightenment ideals.

This is a critical discussion that I hope the humanists themselves will begin to undertake (though I rather doubt they will, for tribal reasons). For Pinker is clearly not the guy to do it. In his final pages, he launches pretty stupid invectives against Nietzsche and undergraduate philosophy classes which demonstrate only the limits of his own studies. His criticisms of religion probably are apt for the bulk of believers, particularly in the U.S., but he shows no awareness of more sophisticated theologies. These lapses at the end are a bit surprising, as I generally admire Pinker’s intellectual demeanor, and his efforts to be fair and square in his conclusions. But some sort of anti-humanist demon gets hold of him in the final chapters, and like many other scientists he gives in to the temptation to believe that he really does know better, even without much study. Alas. Enlightenment ideals are good ones we all fail to live up to. But that doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t try.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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