Cover image for Enlightenment now : the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress
Title:
Enlightenment now : the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress
Author:
Pinker, Steven, 1954- author.
ISBN:
9780525427575

9780525559023
Physical Description:
xix, 556 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Contents:
Dare to understand! -- Entro, evo, info -- Counter-enlightenments -- Progressophobia -- Life -- Health -- Sustenance -- Wealth -- Inequality -- The environment -- Peace -- Safety -- Terrorism -- Democracy -- Equal rights -- Knowledge -- Quality of life -- Happiness -- Existential threats -- The future of progress -- Reason -- Science -- Humanism.
Abstract:
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the headlines and prophecies of doom and instead follow the data. In seventy-five graphs, he posits that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing. Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, Pinker believes, has worked.

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Summary

Summary

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2018
ONE OF THE ECONOMIST'S BOOKS OF THE YEAR

"My new favorite book of all time." --Bill Gates

If you think the world is coming to an end, think again: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science.

Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium, cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, which play to our psychological biases. Instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.

Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, we now know, has worked. But more than ever, it needs a vigorous defense. The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature--tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking--which demagogues are all too willing to exploit. Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation.

With intellectual depth and literary flair, Enlightenment Now makes the case for reason, science, and humanism: the ideals we need to confront our problems and continue our progress.


Author Notes

Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers.


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Prolific writer, psychologist, and public-intellectual Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011) is a highly regarded, albeit sometimes controversial, observer of humanity. In his latest tome, which weighs in at more than 500 densely packed pages, he takes on the idea of progress, elegantly arguing that in various ways humanity has every reason to be optimistic over life in the twenty-first century. Reaching back and forth in time with ease (he name checks the Hebrew Bible and Chris Rock within 2 pages while writing of sustenance), Pinker tackles a wide range of topics as he presents substantial evidence (including his trademark graphs) to argue that life is far better for people now than it has ever been. Some of these comparisons fall a bit flat obviously, traffic safety was less assured in the era before crosswalks and traffic lights and his seemingly casual dismissal of ethics concerns surrounding the Tuskegee experiment is troubling to say the least, but Pinker certainly crafts a defense of progress that will provoke deep thinking and thoughtful discourse among his many fans.--Mondor, Colleen Copyright 2018 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

Harvard psychology professor Pinker (The Sense of Style) defends progressive ideals against contemporary critics, pundits, cantankerous philosophers, and populist politicians to demonstrate how far humanity has come since the Enlightenment. These ideals, as well as progress, science, reason, and humanism, are explored through the lenses of evolutionary biology, physics, sociology, anthropology, and, of course, history. Pinker explores the fallacies that critics of progressive ideals employ and presents graphs and statistics to demonstrate that issues such as income inequality, terrorism, and racial intolerance are not at the crisis levels the hysterical media commonly suggests. He astutely captures the deceptive techniques of the naysayers whose opinions alter those of the wider public, describing "the social critic's standard formula for sowing panic: Here's an anecdote, therefore it's a trend, therefore it's a crisis." In the book's final section, Pinker explores how political discourse exploits cognitive biases, exacerbating polarization and partisanship, and how humanism is a preferable ideology to its main rivals, theism and nationalism. In an era of increasingly "dystopian rhetoric," Pinker's sober, lucid, and meticulously researched vision of human progress is heartening and important. Agent: David Brockman, Brockman Inc. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal Review

In this fascinating yet frustrating work, Pinker (The Stuff of Thought) argues that as bleak as they may seem, modern times are not as dark as they appear. The values and techniques that arose from the Enlightenment have guided humanity into a better world at an uneven pace, which can be verified through statistical analysis guided by those same values. The material produced is a wide-ranging and deeply interesting examination of many aspects of culture over time, from agriculture to gun ownership. This exploration is a bit marred by the reliance on long lists and digital charts; though they are included as PDFs, listeners not sitting at a computer may struggle to follow along. The breadth of the material covered is commendable, but small errors, omissions, and a tendency to dip into the irrational techniques the author decries are noticeable to a listener in the know, and that tends to undercut the author's credibility, e.g., the author failed to address the Deepwater Horizon tragedy while discussing oil spills. Emphasizing the potential problems of a successful white male academic explaining why the world isn't so bad, the author has the poor taste to include extensive quotes from Louie C.K. and Woody Allen without commentary on their actions. He also fails to speak to the problems of underreported statistics such as sexual abuse and harassment. Both the author and narrator Arthur Morey frequently come across as talking down to the listener, which can make for an unpleasant experience. VERDICT Flawed yet interesting, this book has a powerful message degraded by the telling. Recommended for fans of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.-Tristan Boyd, Austin, TX © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Choice Review

A renowned scientist and popularizer of science, Pinker (psychology, Harvard) makes a moral, political, and philosophic case for the values and practices of the Enlightenment. He sees enemies on both the Right and the Left; they include traditional religion, populist tribalism, and Nietzschean postmodernism. Pinker begins with the good news. Graph after graph shows that humans are living longer, healthier, and happier lives and that violence and loneliness are down. The optimistic 18th-century philosophes have been vindicated, the fears of the Romantic pessimists falsified. True, the planet faces serious threats like global warming and nuclear arms, but pragmatic solutions are available. Pinker concludes with a philosophical defense of science, which he contends is entirely in harmony with humanistic values. The future is bright, if religion, tribalism, and "second culture" pessimism can be kept at bay. As a polemic the book is effective, and its unashamed, old-fashioned scientism is refreshing and probably currently useful. But perhaps the picture is a little too perfect. Historians may cavil at Pinker's traditional account of the Enlightenment; philosophers may think his scorn for alternatives overdone. But Pinker's lively prose and persuasive use of examples give his argument considerable impact. Summing Up: Recommended. All readers. --Fred E. Baumann, Kenyon College


Excerpts

Excerpts

Part I  Enlightenment The common sense of the eighteenth century, its grasp ofthe obvious facts of human suffering, and of the obvious demands of humannature, acted on the world like a bath of moral cleansing. --Alfred North Whitehead   In the course of several decades giving public lectureson language, mind, and human nature, I have been asked some mighty strangequestions. Which is the best language? Are clams and oysters conscious? Whenwill I be able to upload my mind to the Internet? Is obesity a form ofviolence?  But the most arresting question I have ever fieldedfollowed a talk in which I explained the commonplace among scientists thatmental life consists of patterns of activity in the tissues of the brain. Astudent in the audience raised her hand and asked me:  "Why should I live?" The student's ingenuous tone made it clear that she wasneither suicidal nor sarcastic but genuinely curious about how to find meaningand purpose if traditional religious beliefs about an immortal soul are underminedby our best science. My policy is that there is no such thing as a stupidquestion, and to the surprise of the student, the audience, and most of allmyself, I mustered a reasonably creditable answer. What I recallsaying--embellished, to be sure, by the distortions of memory and l'esprit del'escalier, the wit of the staircase--went something like this: In the very act of asking that question, you are seekingreasons for your convictions, and so you are committed to reason as the meansto discover and justify what is important to you. And there are so many reasonsto live! As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish.You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You canseek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into thehuman condition through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of yourcapacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thriveand thereby allowed you to exist. You can appreciate the beauty and richness ofthe natural and cultural world. As the heir to billions of years of lifeperpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn. You have been endowedwith a sense of sympathy--the ability to like, love, respect, help, and showkindness--and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family,and colleagues. And because reason tells you that none of this isparticular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what youexpect for yourself. You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings byenhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, andpeace. History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply ouringenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so,and you can help to continue that progress. Explaining the meaning of life is not in the usual jobdescription of a professor of cognitive science, and I would not have had thegall to take up her question if the answer depended on my arcane technicalknowledge or my dubious personal wisdom. But I knew I was channeling a body ofbeliefs and values that had taken shape more than two centuries before me andthat are now more relevant than ever: the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason andsympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. Iwrote this book because I have come to realize that it is not. More than ever,the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense.We take its gifts for granted: newborns who will live more than eight decades,markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of afinger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painfulinfection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streetsin safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world'sknowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket. But these are humanaccomplishments, not cosmic birthrights. In the memories of many readers ofthis book--and in the experience of those in less fortunate parts of theworld--war, scarcity, disease, ignorance, and lethal menace are a natural partof existence. We know that countries can slide back into these primitive conditions,and so we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril. In the years since I took the young woman's question, Ihave often been reminded of the need to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment(also called humanism, the open society, and cosmopolitan or classicalliberalism). It's not just that questions like hers regularly appear in myinbox. ("Dear Professor Pinker, What advice do you have for someone who hastaken ideas in your books and science to heart, and sees himself as a collectionof atoms? A machine with a limited scope of intelligence, sprung out of selfishgenes, inhabiting spacetime?") It's also that an obliviousness to the scope ofhuman progress can lead to symptoms that are worse than existential angst. Itcan make people cynical about the Enlightenment-inspired institutions that aresecuring this progress, such as liberal democracy and organizations ofinternational cooperation, and turn them toward atavistic alternatives. The ideals of the Enlightenment are products of humanreason, but they always struggle with other strands of human nature: loyalty totribe, deference to authority, magical thinking, the blaming of misfortune onevildoers. The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of politicalmovements that depict their countries as being pulled into a hellish dystopiaby malign factions that can be resisted only by a strong leader who wrenchesthe country backward to make it "great again." These movements have beenabetted by a narrative shared by many of their fiercest opponents, in which theinstitutions of modernity have failed and every aspect of life is in deepeningcrisis--the two sides in macabre agreement that wrecking those institutions willmake the world a better place. Harder to find is a positive vision that seesthe world's problems against a background of progress that it seeks to buildupon by solving those problems in their turn. If you still are unsure whether the ideals ofEnlightenment humanism need a vigorous defense, consider the diagnosis ofShiraz Maher, an analyst of radical Islamist movements. "The West is shy of itsvalues--it doesn't speak up for classical liberalism," he says. "We are unsureof them. They make us feel uneasy." Contrast that with the Islamic State, which"knows exactly what it stands for," a certainty that is "incrediblyseductive"--and he should know, having once been a regional director of thejihadist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.1 Reflecting on liberal ideals in 1960, not long after theyhad withstood their greatest trial, the economist Friedrich Hayek observed, "Ifold truths are to retain their hold on men's minds, they must be restated inthe language and concepts of successive generations" (inadvertently proving hispoint with the expression men's minds). "What at one time are their mosteffective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease tocarry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but thewords, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer conveythe same conviction."2 This book is my attempt to restate the ideals of theEnlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century. I will firstlay out a framework for understanding the human condition informed by modernscience--who we are, where we came from, what our challenges are, and how we canmeet them. The bulk of the book is devoted to defending those ideals in adistinctively 21st-century way: with data. This evidence-based take on theEnlightenment project reveals that it was not a naïve hope. The Enlightenmenthas worked--perhaps the greatest story seldom told. And because this triumph isso unsung, the underlying ideals of reason, science, and humanism areunappreciated as well. Far from being an insipid consensus, these ideals are treatedby today's intellectuals with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt.When properly appreciated, I will suggest, the ideals of the Enlightenment arein fact stirring, inspiring, noble--a reason to live.   Chapter 1 Dare to Understand!   What is enlightenment? In a 1784 essay with that questionas its title, Immanuel Kant answered that it consists of "humankind's emergencefrom its self-incurred immaturity," its "lazy and cowardly" submission to the"dogmas and formulas" of religious or political authority.1 Enlightenment'smotto, he proclaimed, is "Dare to understand!" and its foundational demand isfreedom of thought and speech. "One age cannot conclude a pact that wouldprevent succeeding ages from extending their insights, increasing their knowledge,and purging their errors. That would be a crime against human nature, whoseproper destiny lies precisely in such progress."2 A 21st-century statement of the same idea may be found inthe physicist David Deutsch's defense of enlightenment, The Beginning ofInfinity. Deutsch argues that if we dare to understand, progress is possible inall fields, scientific, political, and moral: Optimism (in the sense that I have advocated) is thetheory that all failures--all evils--are due to insufficient knowledge. . . .Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely farfrom complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hardproblems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and eachparticular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization isopen and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Itsinstitutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embodyis knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.3 What is the Enlightenment?4 There is no official answer,because the era named by Kant's essay was never demarcated by opening andclosing ceremonies like the Olympics, nor are its tenets stipulated in an oathor creed. The Enlightenment is conventionally placed in the last two-thirds ofthe 18th century, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revolution and the Ageof Reason in the 17th century and spilled into the heyday of classicalliberalism of the first half of the 19th. Provoked by challenges toconventional wisdom from science and exploration, mindful of the bloodshed ofrecent wars of religion, and abetted by the easy movement of ideas and people,the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought a new understanding of the humancondition. The era was a cornucopia of ideas, some of them contradictory, butfour themes tie them together: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Foremost is reason. Reason is nonnegotiable. As soon asyou show up to discuss the question of what we should live for (or any otherquestion), as long as you insist that your answers, whatever they are, arereasonable or justified or true and that therefore other people ought tobelieve them too, then you have committed yourself to reason, and to holdingyour beliefs accountable to objective standards.5 If there's anything theEnlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that weenergetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and notfall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority,charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneuticparsing of sacred texts. It was reason that led most of the Enlightenment thinkersto repudiate a belief in an anthropomorphic God who took an interest in humanaffairs.6 The application of reason revealed that reports of miracles weredubious, that the authors of holy books were all too human, that natural eventsunfolded with no regard to human welfare, and that different cultures believedin mutually incompatible deities, none of them less likely than the others tobe products of the imagination. (As Montesquieu wrote, "If triangles had a godthey would give him three sides.") For all that, not all of the Enlightenmentthinkers were atheists. Some were deists (as opposed to theists): they thoughtthat God set the universe in motion and then stepped back, allowing it tounfold according to the laws of nature. Others were pantheists, who used "God"as a synonym for the laws of nature. But few appealed to the law-giving,miracle-conjuring, son-begetting God of scripture. Many writers today confuse the Enlightenment endorsementof reason with the implausible claim that humans are perfectly rational agents.Nothing could be further from historical reality. Thinkers such as Kant, BaruchSpinoza, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Adam Smith were inquisitivepsychologists and all too aware of our irrational passions and foibles. Theyinsisted that it was only by calling out the common sources of folly that wecould hope to overcome them. The deliberate application of reason was necessaryprecisely because our common habits of thought are not particularly reasonable. That leads to the second ideal, science, the refining ofreason to understand the world. The Scientific Revolution was revolutionary ina way that is hard to appreciate today, now that its discoveries have becomesecond nature to most of us. The historian David Wootton reminds us of theunderstanding of an educated Englishman on the eve of the Revolution in 1600: He believes witches can summon up storms that sink shipsat sea. . . . He believes in werewolves, although there happen not to be any inEngland--he knows they are to be found in Belgium. . . . He believes Circereally did turn Odysseus's crew into pigs. He believes mice are spontaneouslygenerated in piles of straw. He believes in contemporary magicians. . . . Hehas seen a unicorn's horn, but not a unicorn. He believes that a murdered body will bleed in thepresence of the murderer. He believes that there is an ointment which, ifrubbed on a dagger which has caused a wound, will cure the wound. He believesthat the shape, colour and texture of a plant can be a clue to how it will workas a medicine because God designed nature to be interpreted by mankind. Hebelieves that it is possible to turn base metal into gold, although he doubtsthat anyone knows how to do it. He believes that nature abhors a vacuum. Hebelieves the rainbow is a sign from God and that comets portend evil. Hebelieves that dreams predict the future, if we know how to interpret them. Hebelieves, of course, that the earth stands still and the sun and stars turnaround the earth once every twenty-four hours.7 A century and a third later, an educated descendant ofthis Englishman would believe none of these things. It was an escape not justfrom ignorance but from terror. The sociologist Robert Scott notes that in theMiddle Ages "the belief that an external force controlled daily lifecontributed to a kind of collective paranoia": Rainstorms, thunder, lightning, wind gusts, solar orlunar eclipses, cold snaps, heat waves, dry spells, and earthquakes alike wereconsidered signs and signals of God's displeasure. As a result, the "hobgoblinsof fear" inhabited every realm of life. The sea became a satanic realm, andforests were populated with beasts of prey, ogres, witches, demons, and veryreal thieves and cutthroats. . . . After dark, too, the world was filled withomens portending dangers of every sort: comets, meteors, shooting stars, lunareclipses, the howls of wild animals.8 To the Enlightenment thinkers the escape from ignoranceand superstition showed how mistaken our conventional wisdom could be, and howthe methods of science--skepticism, fallibilism, open debate, and empiricaltesting--are a paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge. Excerpted from Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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