We seem to be living in a time of perpetual crisis. It feels like the whole world is going off the rails.
Everything decent seems to be under attack. We’re bombarded daily by reports of mass shootings and terrorist bombings. Large parts of the world are run by vicious idiots. Here in the US, during the Presidency of Donald Trump, respectful political discourse has become a distant memory. Talking heads bellow at each other on television, on social media and in our legislatures.
Around the world, democracy itself is under threat with a growing list of counties electing populist, authoritarian leaders. World peace is endangered by endless conflicts in the Middle East and the looming possibility of a nuclear conflict with North Korea. Horrific diseases like Ebola and AIDS threaten us.
Globalization, which promised to raise everyone’s standard of living, seems to have delivered nothing but inequality and unemployment. And anyone who hasn’t lost their job to globalization will soon be put out of work by technology.
Finally, climate change and environmental degradation are poised to make our world unsuitable for human life.
Facing intractable problems, divided against each other, we live in tense, anxious times.
The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking, New York, 2018
Steven Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, calls a hearty bullshit! on all this pessimism. In his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science Humanism and Progress, he sets out to prove that this “bleak assessment” is “wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong.” He makes two central arguments in Enlightenment Now: First, since the Enlightenment, humanity has made astonishing progress on just about every measure of well-being. And second, the ideals that form the basis of the Enlightenment – reason, science and humanism – are under attack and are worth defending.
The Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, was a European philosophical movement that began in the early 1700’s and lasted until the start of the French Revolution in 1789. Its main idea is that we can “apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.” [p. 4] Reason — not God, not religion or faith, not hereditary monarchy — reason is the ultimate source of authority and legitimacy.
Enlightenment thinkers like Kant, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Adam Smith, taught that we should question authority and received knowledge; that we should “dare to know.” The Enlightenment challenged the authority of monarchs and the Church, espousing instead individual liberty and religious tolerance. In the US, Enlightenment ideals influenced Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and are reflected in both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
Through the application of reason and the scientific method, we can solve problem, improve our lives and make progress. The Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution that arose from it, led to humanity’s “Great Escape from poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and premature death.” [p. 24]
Is humanity really making progress? Are things getting better or worse? And what are the “things” by which we should measure progress?
Although people might have different values, and thus measure progress with different yardsticks, Pinker argues that the world has largely come to agreement on the most important measures of progress. Most of us, he says, value life, health, sustenance, abundance, peace and safety over death, sickness, hunger, poverty, war and danger. If we’re getting more of the former and less of the latter, that’s progress. These values are reflected in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, targets unanimously adopted in 2000 by the United Nations for the year 2015.
“And here’s a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress on every single measure of human well-being. Here’s a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.” [p. 52]
Pinker takes us through a frankly joyous survey of human progress roughly following the outline of the Millennium Development Goals, backed by solid publicly-available data. Here are some highlights.
Life: Average life expectancy around the world has doubled from about 35 in the mid-1700’s to 71.4 in 2015. Equally important, inequality in life expectancy had narrowed dramatically: even in Africa life expectancy is above 60 years and would be higher still were it not for the AIDS epidemic there. Child mortality rates – the percentage of children who die before their fifth birthday – has plunged from about 18% in the mid-1960’s to 4% today. 4% is still way too high, but it’s an amazing improvement.
Health: Infections diseases have been eradicated (smallpox), nearly eradicated (polio), or brought under control (malaria, measles, rubella, HIV/AIDS). Child mortality from all these diseases has fallen sharply since 1990.
Sustenance: We’re doing a better job of feeding the hungry. The fraction of undernourished people in developing regions was cut nearly in half from 1990 to 2015. This means that even as their populations were rising, a larger percentage were receiving adequate nutrition. Famine has been virtually eliminated outside of Africa.
Wealth: Extreme poverty is being eradicated and the world is becoming middle class. The number of people living on less than a dollar a day has fallen below one billion (still too high), but billions more in China, India and other parts of the world have been lifted out of poverty and into the middle class by globalization, technology, the decline of communism and the end of the Cold War.
Peace: Pinker’s earlier book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, made the case that in the 21xst Century, every objective measure of violence, including war, is in decline. He does not claim that war has ceased altogether or that Great Powers don’t fight each other through proxies. But the number of wars and the number of deaths due to war have fallen substantially since the end of World War II. War is no longer considered worthy, noble, or glorious. In fact war is illegal; it must be justified morally as well as politically. Consequently there is much less of it.
The Environment: Pinker rejects the radical environmentalist viewpoint that “humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers” and instead takes the Enlightenment position that environmental protection is a problem we can solve. Even here, he claims, we’ve made more progress than we think. As technology advances, it allows us to make more stuff with less raw material and less energy. As a result global carbon intensity – the amount of CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP — has been declining for half a century. Even so, we still need to ‘deeply decarbonize” through dramatic changes in policy and technology.
None of this progress is linear, nor is it inevitable since “… progress is not an outcome of magic, but of problem-solving.” [p.55] There will always be ups and downs from one year to the next, and there will be occasional setbacks against historical trends. But Pinker takes the long view and argues that despite present-day turmoil, the long-term progress we have experienced since the Enlightenment is unlikely to be reversed.
Reason, Science & Humanism
In the last few chapters of the book, Pinker mounts a vigorous defense of the ideals of the Enlightenment — reason, science and humanism — which are under attack from both the left and the right. I won’t attempt to summarize his arguments, but here are a few highlights that I found striking.
Reason: In the last few decades there’s been a lot of research in cognitive neuroscience that shows how fallible reason is, or at least how easily humans make errors. People often become more committed to an idea when they are presented with contrary evidence. In many cases holding patently irrational positions, such as belief in conspiracy theories, becomes less about the facts in question and more about the believer’s identity. How can we make reason the foundation of society when we are so error-prone? Pinker responds that just because we’re vulnerable to irrationality, it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of reason. Eventually, he says, reason becomes self-correcting because as contrary evidence builds up, a tipping point is reached. After all,
“We are a cognitive species that depends on explanations of the world. Since the world is the way it is regardless of what people believe about it, there is a strong selection pressure for an ability to develop explanations that are true.” [p. 353]
Science: What distinguishes science from ordinary reason are two principles. First that the world is intelligible: the phenomena we experience in the world can be explained by deeper principles and do not depend on deities or supernatural agents. The second is that “we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct.” In other words, ideas about the world must be tested both for their fit with existing knowledge and for their ability to make correct new predictions about the world. (Side note: Pinker points out that while most scientists would point to Popper for an explanation of how science works, the way science is actually done owes more to Bayes.)
Despite its many triumphs (e.g. the eradication of smallpox mentioned earlier), science is often attacked because it undermines traditional moral and religious teachings. Pinker refutes this, arguing that in fact science forms the basis of morality.
“By exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, science forces us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. … scientific facts militate towards a defensible morality, namely principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” [pp. 394-5]
Humanism. I haven’t found a single crisp definition of humanism but it’s usually said to be a philosophy based on reason and compassion that emphasizes human agency and responsibility for leading meaningful, ethical lives that contribute to improved human flourishing. Pinker describes it as “a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.” He tackles head-on the two main systems of belief that stand in opposition to humanism; traditional religious or theistic morality, and the ideology underlying authoritarianism, populism and nationalism which is often inspired by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Of theistic morality he says (among many other things),
“… even if there were a God, his divine decrees, as conveyed to us through religion, cannot be the source of morality. … Socrates points out that if the gods have good reasons to deem certain acts moral, we can appeal to those reasons directly, skipping the middleman. If they don’t, we should not take their dictates seriously.” [p. 428]
Pinker is unsparing in his criticism of resurgent authoritarianism, populism, and Romantic nationalism. He clearly despises “theoconservatives” who think we need to revert to some glorious past age in which primary allegiance was given to tribe or nation and to supposedly heroic leaders.
“The claim that ethnic uniformity leads to cultural excellence is as wrong as an idea can be. There’s a reason we refer to unsophisticated things as provincial, parochial, and insular, and to sophisticated ones as urbane and cosmopolitan. No one is brilliant enough to dream up anything of value by himself. Individuals and cultures of genius are aggregators, appropriators, greatest-hits collectors. Vibrant cultures sit in vast catchment areas in which people and innovations flow from far and wide. This explains why Eurasia, rather than Australia, Africa or the Americas, was the first continent to give birth to expansive civilizations … It explains why the fountains of culture have always been trading cities on major crossroads and waterways. And it explains why human beings have always been peripatetic, moving to wherever they can make the best lives. Roots are for trees; people have feet.” [pp. 450-1]
That passage made me want to jump up and cheer!
Enlightenment Now made me feel both reassured and vindicated. Reassured because despite our very serious problems, humanity has made a great deal of progress. It might seem heartless to talk about improvements in life expectancy and child mortality when too many people are still dying. But rather than taking a snapshot view of a single moment in time, Pinker shows us how the long term picture has developed over centuries. That picture is much brighter. We have come a long way. Life is getting better for most people. This should not obscure the fact that millions are still suffering, nor does past progress absolve us from the responsibility to continue working. But it should encourage us to know that our efforts can and do have positive results.
I also found it reassuring that these trends have been operating for a long time. They’ve persisted in the face of obstacles and setbacks. Yes, we face serious problems, but they are solvable. Decline and catastrophe are not inevitable. While extrapolation is always chancy, the most likely scenario is that present trends will continue.
Enlightenment Now also made me feel vindicated. I wouldn’t call myself a scientist, but I do work in a technical field. My career has been in software and I work at a tech company. I can say that I’m scientifically-minded. So, for example, when I see climate change deniers occupying the White House or destroying the Environmental Protection Agency from within, I’m horrified and disgusted. I was delighted by Pinker’s robust defense of reason and science.
I’m also an atheist, and I’m tired of sanctimonious religious leaders attempting to force their particular brand of morality on the rest of us while at the same time engaging in ludicrous moral contortions to excuse the flagrantly immoral behavior of Donald Trump. So I was gratified to read Pinker’s argument that reason and science form the valid basis for humanistic morality. Yes, you can be good without God.
I’m a city-dweller, and have been all my life. Sure, I love a nice day in the country or a walk along a deserted beach, but my place is in the city. I love how people and ideas come together in cities to create and invent. I’m also an immigrant to this country. I have the great fortune to work with people who, like me, have come from all over the world and I truly love that diversity. I guess I have a cosmopolitan outlook. I find the nationalistic, anti-immigration, and frankly racist views of the American right wing to be abhorrent. Pinker’s critique of those views and their philosophical foundations was thorough and compelling.
I admit, I may be guilty of a huge error of confirmation bias here, but the bulk of what Pinker has written in Enlightenment Now is backed by solid data. And the more philosophical parts of the book are a much needed counterweight to the torrent of “alternative facts” in this “post-truth” era.
Still this book will not please everyone. Pinker aims most of his criticism at the right, but the left doesn’t escape unscathed. On the environment, for example, he thinks we have no chance of restricting global warming to within 2°C without significant adoption of nuclear power. He says that organic farming is neither green nor sustainable because it consumes more land to produce a kilogram of food than conventional farming. He’s contemptuous of opponents of genetically modified crops, essentially accusing them of being indifferent to starvation.
I think he misses the mark in some places too. For example, he reports that poverty and income inequality have been dramatically reduced, which is supported by the available data. But he conflates income, what people earn, with wealth, what assets they own. It’s not clear how the distribution of actual wealth has changed over time. Pinker doesn’t address this at all and his imprecise use of the word “wealth” confuses matters.
Overall though, I hugely enjoyed Enlightenment Now. It is packed full of data and ideas that we just don’t see in our daily news.
Early in the book, Pinker says that the antidote to pessimism, to over-dramatization in the media, and to our own biases is counting. Simply count. Look at the data. Take the long view. Far from turning human beings into dry statistics,
“A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one, because it treats every human life as having equal value rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic.” [p. 43]
And it makes us realize that we have both the responsibility and the capability to look after ourselves, each other and the world.
United Nations Millennium Development Goals
Bill Gates’ review of Enlightenment Now
Web sites providing great statistical data:
- Gapminder (Hans Rosling)
- Our World in Data (University of Oxford)
- HumanProgress (Cato Institute)
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