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Review of Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”

Mar 8, 2018 | Uncategorized

Montreal-born, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is attracting attention.  It has come in for abundant criticism from those on both the Left and Right for several reasons, including claims he gets the Enlightenment wrong, ignores the value of religion, favours groups over the individual, or puts too much faith in reason and fact.  No doubt influencing these critiques is the residual antipathy to Pinker’s 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he argued – by statistics, but contrary to our intuitions and impressions – that the world has never been more peaceful and safe.

Enlightenment Now reaffirms findings in his earlier controversial book – and creates new controversies along the way.

But is it really so controversial – or should it be?  After all, look at Pinker’s core message upfront in the preface. Having criticized widespread intellectual pessimism and cynicism, he writes:

I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress.  Enlightenment ideals, I hope to show, are timeless, but they have never been more relevant than they are right now. 

In more than 500 pages (including copious footnotes) Pinker marshals a huge body of facts to prove, by key indices measuring well-being (health, longevity, base income, global GDP, steep decline of death from wars, vastly increased literacy rates, etc.), the world has never been better off and continues to make progress. (Global warming remains a major worry; though, even here, not one that cannot be addressed.)  The region he singles out as lagging – and he’s blunt about this – is much of the Islamic world, especially Arab countries.

NYT reviewer Jennifer Szalai, quoting Pinker, is among those unimpressed by his statistics and inability (in their view) to change minds:

‘I had thought that a parade of graphs with time on the horizontal axis, body counts or other measures of violence on the vertical, and a line that meandered from the top left to the bottom right would cure audiences’ of their delusions and ‘persuade them that at least in this sphere of well-being the world has made progress,’ he recalls near the beginning of Enlightenment Now. But Pinker’s inability to ‘cure audiences’ and ‘persuade them’ doesn’t mean he has reconsidered his rhetorical approach; 300 pages after bemoaning those poor souls who read ‘Better Angels’ and weren’t bowled over by his panoply of statistics, Pinker doubles down with still more data. ‘We have seen six dozen graphs that have vindicated the hope for progress by charting the ways in which the world has been getting better,’ he writes.

Yet Pinker, it turns out, is not entirely naive about persuasion.  As he writes later:

To begin with, no Enlightenment thinker ever claimed that humans were consistently rational [his emphasis]. Certainly not the uber-rational Kant, who wrote that ‘from the crooked timbre of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,’ nor Spinoza, Hume, Smith, or the Encyclopedistes, who were cognitive and social psychologists ahead of their time. What they argued is that we ought to be rational, by learning to repress the fallacies and dogmas that so readily seduce us…”

After all, Pinker cites authors such as Israeli Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman who showed (in Thinking, Fast and Slow) that our usual intuitive (“System I”) thinking is prone to fallacies and errors.  What Pinker advocates is more attention to Kahneman’s slower, more deliberative (“System II”) thinking that requires concentrated attention to help avoid fallacies and dogmas – in short: adhering to reason, evidence, and logic.

As noted, Pinker is critical of thinkers on the Left (like Naomi Klein) and the Right (Trump and the growing populist movement) as both pose challenges to Enlightenment ideals.

Starting mainly in the 1970s, but gaining steam in succeeding decades, many leftist academics argued that “objective reality” is a myth perpetrated by power structures. In its place are only “narratives.”  This “post-modern” attitude was compounded by “post-colonial” studies, advanced especially by U.S.-based Palestinian intellectual Edward Said who almost single-handedly created a pervasive movement on Western campuses whose ill-effects are still felt today in such anti-Israel activism as BDS.  (Pinker doesn’t go into these details but his broad strokes underlie them.)

Currently, major elements of the Right which, in the past, opposed leftist post-modernism, now agree, in effect, that we’re in a “post-fact” / “post-truth” world where “alt-facts” prevail against the “fake news” manufactured by “liberal elites.”  Trump best illustrates this anti-Enlightenment (i.e. fact- and evidence-free, conspiracy-minded) attitude.  But he’s joined by many like-minded people on the Right who support what Pinker terms “authoritarian populism.”  All told, this movement constitutes a “Counter-Enlightenment” of emotion, nativism, tribalism, and even irrationality that somewhat mirrors the original Counter-Enlightenment movement in Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

What goes around comes around.

Ironically, advances in science and math (quintessentially Enlightenment achievements) have led to major technological developments, some of which, like social media, reach billions but rely on emotional, not rational, appeal.  All too often this results in the anti-Enlightenment promotion of “post-truth” radical relativism where everyone’s opinion is as valid as the next person’s and remains marooned in its own echo-chamber to the point that rational discussion or debate with people holding different perspectives is, at first, discouraged, then impossible.  This resulting tribalism is the antithesis of the Enlightenment ideal that Pinker believes will prevail.

Pinker only touches upon the claim that electronic media and the Internet threaten human relations by being “a poor substitute for face-to-face contact with flesh-and-blood companions.”  The optimist in Pinker doesn’t buy this assessment, arguing instead that “overall, electronic technology has been a priceless gift to human closeness.”  He defends that position, once again by citing statistics (in keeping with his “quantitative analysis”):

Today, almost half the world’s population has Internet access, and three-quarters have access to a mobile phone. The marginal cost of a long-distance conversation is essentially zero, and the conversants can now see as well a hear each other.

The qualitative nature of those connections doesn’t figure into his analysis, and so he ignores even widely reported claims as the growth in anxiety and depression attributed to immersion in social media.

Although it’s unfortunate that Pinker didn’t devote attention to how rapidly changing technology, especially the growth of social media, might impact his confidence in our capacity to adhere to reason and fact – the bedrock of the Enlightenment — overall, Enlightenment Now is an important addition to current debate about whether we do indeed have an antidote to what many believe is already a “post-truth” world.

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