Monday, April 30, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“ENLIGHTENMENT NOW” by Steven Pinker (Penguin/Random House – Allen Lane, $NZ40)

After I had finished reading Steven Pinker’s new big polemic Enlightenment Now (453 pages of text followed by 100 pages of endnotes, bibliography and index), I went back and checked on this blog the review I wrote, seven years ago, of his last big polemic The Better Angels of Our Nature. I found that I approved and had reservations about that earlier book in more-or-less the same proportions, and for the same reasons, as I do with Pinker’s new book. Put simply, Enlightenment Now (subtitled “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”) makes a very good case for the notion that the human condition has been greatly improved thanks to Enlightenment thinking and applied science. “Progress” is a great thing. But Pinker over-eggs his pudding by a very selective and partisan reading of history; and he has the dire habit of dividing our intellectual forebears into neat heroes and villains, a Manichaean view of history as simple black-and-white. As a lesser irritant Pinker also tends to see America as the template for the world – the copious statistics he quotes focus most on America – and there is a very hortatory tone to the book as if Pinker is not only the apologist for the Enlightenment but also its cheer-leader, much as he is a cheer-leader for liberal capitalism

But it is very unfair to arraign a polemicist for his sins before first presenting clearly the case that he makes.

So here, as I read it, is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s case.

Nature of itself tends to entropy – the degeneration of things into disorder and confusion. Only the human intellect can avert this pending state. The finest flowering of the human intellect began with the movement – initiated approximately three centuries ago – generally known as the Enlightenment. From the Enlightenment come nearly all the measurable material improvements in human life that can loosely be called “progress”. Progress and its handmaid technology have their intellectual enemies (see Chapter 4, “Progressophobia”). But, says Pinker, the case for progress is overwhelming. Thus in sixteen chapters (Chapters 5 to 20), and using his favourite tool, the statistical graph, Pinker sets out to prove how everything has got better in the last three centuries. On average, we live longer, have better health and enjoy plentiful and more varied food than we did in the un-Enlightened ages (Chapters 5, 6 and 7). Wealth has generally increased and this is not compromised by the fact that there is still great inequality (Chapters 8 and 9). Despite ecological fears, our environment is cleaner and there are means of dealing with threats like anthropogenic global warming (Chapter 10). Despite the image created by alarmist mass media, wars are fewer than they once were, as is social violence, and the dangers of terrorism are vastly overrated (Chapters 11, 12 and 13). Real democracy is growing, human rights are more respected and a greater number of human beings have education and access to real information than in any earlier period of history (Chapters 14, 15 and 16). Our general quality of life has improved, as have all measurable standards of happiness (Chapters 17 and 18). Yes, there may possibly be huge existential threats that could obliterate the Earth; but we are better equipped to deal with them than we have ever been (Chapter 19) and “progress” is far from being exhausted (Chapter 20). All this is thanks to science, the secularism initiated by the Enlightenment and the decline of religious belief.

In a nutshell, this is Pinker’s case.

For ease of your reading, I will now divide this notice neatly into two parts, to wit, the strengths and shrewd points of Pinker’s thesis; and the weaknesses and short-sightedness of elements of Pinker’s thesis.


There is much in this book with which any reader, regardless of ideology, should be able to agree. First, that the Enlightenment was a major turning point in human history. Second, that many of the scientific and social changes it encouraged have benefitted humanity. Of course I am grateful that I consult a modern doctor rather than a shaman, that medicine is now so advanced, that I enjoy electricity and easy access to learning and entertainment, that on the whole human and civil rights are expected to be observed, that more of the world is better fed and many other things.

Certainly Pinker’s relentlessly positive tone can become oppressive and tend to the Pollyanna-ish, as when, following a graph charting “Global well-being, 1820-1915” there comes the statement “although the world remains highly unequal, every region has been improving, and the worst-off parts of the world today are better off than the best-off parts not long ago. (If we divide the world into the West and the Rest, we find that the Rest in 2007 had reached the level of the West in 1950.)”  (Chapter 16, p.246). This seems to me to underrate a lot of human misery.

Certainly Pinker can come up with arguments that seem controversial; but on reflection they are quite tenable. For example, in Chapter 9 (pp.98-99) he argues that poverty is the world’s problem, not inequality and he agrees with Harry Frankfurt that “If a person lives a long, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant.”  For Pinker, the important thing is that each has enough. His conclusion is that income inequality is not the same as lowering incomes and does not contradict his statistics on the general rise in standards of living. It is interesting to note, too, that Pinker is in favour of a universal basic income.

To Pinker’s great credit, however, he is not a utopian and he admits that he is dealing with averages rather than with absolutes. In the chapter called “The Future of Progress”, he quotes figures on the milions who still suffer from poverty, lethal diseases, war and autocratic states  and he states “progress is not utopia… and there is room – indeed, an imperative – for us to strive to continue… progress.” (Chapter 20, pp.325-326)

Like anybody who reads this book, I have to admit, too, that I warmed most to Pinker in those sections where he expresses views with which I am already in agreement.

            Pinker strikes many justifiable blows against various doomsayers. For example, in Chapter 7, and especially at pp.74-75, he shows how completely wrong Malthus, and alarmists like Paul Ehlich in his hysterical 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, were about growth of population outstripping food supply. Their predictions were, quite simply, wrong and they did not take account of the agricultural revolution which has vastly increased the yield of crops and made most of the world better fed than it was when total population was much smaller. Yet, as Pinker correctly says, there are still those who imagine, regardless of the evidence, that Malthus, Ehlich et al. have said the last word on the topic. In this same chapter, Pinker is – again justifiably - very hard on those environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering without recognising that human beings have practised it for millennia, and who thus show indifference to the alternative of mass starvation.

Chapter 10 tells us that the “Green apocalyse” has not yet happened. It argues that anthropogenic climate change is real but is capable of being reversed by wise policies and advanced technology. Hence Pinker argues strongly against Naomi Klein’s polemic This Changes Everything [reviewed on this blog in 2014], which said impending environmental doom called for the complete destruction of the capitalist system. Says Pinker:

Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. The fear of resource shortages is misconceived. So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet. An enlightened environmentalism recognises that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them. It seeks to do so with the least harm to the planet and the living world. History suggests that this modern, pragmatic and humanistic environmentalism can work.”  (Chapter 10, p.154)

It is important to note that, considering “clean” and cheap methods of power generation, Pinker says some favourable things about nuclear power.

I warm most to Pinker when he attacks malign intellectual trends, some of which have taken root in academe. Considering measurable intelligence he says, correctly: “The myth, still popular among leftist intellectuals, that IQ doesn’t exist or cannot be reliably measured was refuted decades ago.” (Chapter 16, p.243) He is aware that the comforts and conveniences of life in an advanced state lead people to over-estimate the troubles they face. He quotes with approval the psychologist Richard McNally, who said “Civilians who underwent the terror of World War II, especially Nazi death factories… would surely be puzzled to learn that having a wisdom tooth extracted, encountering obnoxious jokes at work, or giving birth to a healthy baby after an uncomplicated delivery can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”. Pinker himself goes on to say “By the same shift, the label ‘depression’ today may be applied to conditions that in the past were called grief, sorrow or sadness.” (Chapter 18, p.281)

Most malign intellectual trend of all, of course, is the nonsense of postmodernism. In the chapter entitled “Reason”, Pinker is mainly concerned with what he sees as the enemies of reason. He indicts “the postmodernist credo that reason is a pretext to exert power, reality is socially constructed, and all statements are trapped in a web of self-reference and collapse into paradox.” (Chapter 21, p.351) He also makes the interesting point that when it comes to many issues involving science – such as anthropogenic climate change – people who admit to its existence and people who deny its existence are not divided by how well they understand the science, but by their political ideology and whom they trust. (Chapter 21, p.357). In effect, he is admitting a point I tried to make somewhat clumsily a few years ago on this blog, in a posting I called SecularSuperstition. To hold an allegiance to science is not the same as being scientifically informed, meaning that a great mass of people respect “authority” just as they did in pre-Enlightenment days.

Naturally Pinker is very angry at those who blame science itself for the world’s woes, and again this allows him to take another mighty whack at the postmodernist school. Thus he speaks of:

a demonization campaign  which impugns science (together with reason and other Enlightenment values) for crimes that are as old as civilisation, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide. This was a major theme of the influential Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, the quasi-Marxist movement originated by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who proclaimed that ‘the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant’. It also figures in the works of postmodernist theorists such as Michel Foucault, who argued that the Holocaust was the inevitable culmination of a ‘bio-politics’ that began with the Enlightenment, when science and rational governance exerted increasing power over people’s lives. In a similar vein, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman blamed the Holocaust on the Enlightenment ideal to ‘remake the society, force it to conform to an overall, scientifically conceived plan.’ In this twisted narrative, the Nazis themselves are let off the hook (‘It’s modernity’s fault!’). So is the Nazis’ rabidly counter-Enlightenment ideology, which despised the degenerate liberal bourgeois worship of reason and progress and embraced an organic, pagan vitality which drove the struggle between races.”   (Chapter 22, pp. 396-397)

I could cite many other proof-texts to show where I agree with Pinker, but this process will become wearisome to you, so I will add one last one. Though he is clearly very uncomfortable in Donald Trump’s United States, and though he has absolutely no time for the nationalist and racist populism of the extreme right, Pinker has the intellectual honesty to note that populism is an ailment of both left and right:

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk-theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations of ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are not seen as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities and foreigners.”  (Chapter 20, p.334)

I hope this is enough to show that I have read Pinker’s book with an open mind and, on many issues, with a willingness to agree with him.

Alas, we now come to the second part of this review.


            There is something in the very tone of Pinker’s work that should put us on guard. He is so determined to tell us how well-off we now are, in contrast with earlier eras, that he frequently rebukes us for not being more grateful. He is offended that so many people do not genuflect in wonderment at the technologically-advanced, humane, Enlightenment-influenced world we live in. He is doubly offended that so many people cannot make Enlightenment ideas themselves the focus and centre of their being.

            Why should this so clearly offend Pinker? Partly, I think, because as a devout atheist (he happily speaks at “Freedom from Religion” meetings) he is very loath to acknowledge the “God-sized hole” in modern human consciousness (a term which, of course, he despises). I must use my words very carefully here. I accept fully the idea that people can have fulfilling, meaningful and satisfying lives without in any way being religious. Indeed I accept that reasoned atheism can be meaningful and satisfying, and become a goal in itself. Even so, when personal autonomy is posited as the essential goal of life (see Chapter 18, p.265), we have a disconnect from our fellow human beings and much alienation. Much as we are grateful for them, all the material comforts in the world cannot solve this problem. Indeed, I wonder if Pinker would have even written this polemic if he had not been jibed by the fact that greatly improved material progress has still left many in advanced countries with a sense of emptiness which he is unhappy to recognise and which, for his own ideological reasons, he is unwilling to acknowledge?

            Further to this, I think Pinker is annoyed at the phenomenon I have elsewhere called the “law of mundanity”. In the chapter called “Quality of Life”, Pinker tells us we should be happy for having more varied diets, more leisure time, more access to great literature. He continues:

What are the people doing with the extra time and money?Are they truly enriching their lives or are they just buying more golf clubs and designer handbags? Though it’s presumptuous to pass judgment on how people choose to spend their days, we can focus on the pursuits that almost everyone would agree are constituents of the good life: connecting with loved ones and friends, experiencing the richness of the natural and cultural world, and having access to the fruits of intellectual and artisitc creativity.” (Chapter 17, p. 255)

But here the “law of mundanity” kicks in. In any era, no matter how well off we are, the daily reality we live with becomes taken-for-granted normality. This is as true in wealthy, well-fed, violence-free societies as in any other. (I do not say this to deny the desirability of material well-being.) Hence we do not sigh each day in amazement and gratitude that we have flush-lavatories and excellent plumbing, reliable medicine, good food etc.etc. “Law of mundanity”. It is a feature of being human, and Steven Pinker can neither reason nor hector us out of it by telling us, like a careworn mother, to eat our food and be grateful.

Pinker has a very skewed and limited view of history and of how what he would call “progress” actually happens. This is bound up with his view of religion. For him, religion (along with the Romantic movement) is part of what he calls the “counter-Enlightenment”, and is characterised solely by obscurantism, crusades, inquisitions, wars of religion etc. Of all the opponents of Enlightenment, he says, “the most obvious is religious faith. To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” (Chapter 3, p.30) He is therefore bound to assume that religion cannot go with reason, and by extension that religious people are prone to being unreasonable. They therefore cannot be part of his version of Enlightenment.

            But he is then forced into some fancy footwork when having to face up to the fact that avowedly atheist regimes in our own times have been responsible for huge atrocities. So he claims “obviously atheism is not a moral system in the first place. It’s just the absence of supernatural belief… the moral alternative to theism is humanism.” (Chapter 23, p.430) (In passing one notes that he uses the term “humanism” is a very restricted sense, never once noting that the term was first used in the Renaissance – a term that never appears in this book – of mainly Christian thinkers like Erasmus and Thomas More.) The result appears to be that Pinker approves of no religious believers and only of those atheists who share all his world view. There is a great defensiveness to this argument, as there is in Chapter 22 (“Science”) when Pinker attempts to extricate science from such negative movements as eugenics.

Most obviously, however, the result of Pinker’s bias is to expunge from his record such religious believers as have contributed to what we would agree is the betterment of humanity. Here is Pinker on evolution:

 “Organisms are replete with improbable configurations of flesh like ears, eyes, hearts and stomachs which cry out for an explanation. Before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided one in 1859, it was reasonable to think that they were the handiwork of a divine designer – one of the reasons, I suspect, that so many Enlightenment thinkers were deists rather than outright atheists. Darwin and Wallace made the designer unnecessary.” (Chapter 2, p.18) As one who accepts evolution by natural selection as the best hypothesis we have for the development of species, I find this statement incomplete, quite apart from its assumption that evolution spells the end of God. Remember, when Darwin and Russell first presented their hypotheses, it was not only hidebound Biblical literalists who criticised them. There was also a cohort of genuine scientists who said that neither man had explained the mechanism of evolution sufficiently for it to be credible. Their doubts were answered only when that branch of science known as genetics began. But there is no mention of this, perhaps because – oops! – the founder of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was one of those pesky religious people – a Catholic monk no less. Well we can’t let him into our story of the triumph of science and Enlightenment.

 On p.162, Pinker lists the major voices of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment who opposed slavery. The names he gives are Pascal, Swift, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson and the Quakers. With the exception of the deist Voltaire, all of these people were religious believers. [I noted this in my review of The Better Angels of Our Nature, where Pinker cited the same names in the same context]. Even more interesting, if you read James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (perhaps Pinker hasn’t), you will discover that it is the free-thinking man of the Enlightenment, James Boswell, who finds all manner of ingenious arguments for slavery, while it is the conservative Anglican Tory Sam Johnson who argues passionately against slavery. I definitely do NOT say this to absolve religious believers of all their many gross and manifest sins, but simply to show that one cannot attribute all the betterment of the world to one selected tribe.

I am wholly in agreement with Pinker when he damns the destructive philosophy of Friedrich Nietszche, with its Ubermensch fantasies and it thuggish “Will to Power”; but I do find it interesting that Pinker manages to discuss Nietzsche without once mentioning his militant atheism (“God is dead”). Let us be clear that Nietzsche was the first big-note atheist of the modern era. With similar selective delicacy (or amnesia), Pinker lists all the intellectuals who, following Nietzsche’s lead, have worshipped tyrants like Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Castro etc. , but he manages not to mention that the great majority of them [there were very few exceptions] were secular humanists and not religious believers (see Chapter 23, pp.446-447). Indeed most of these listed intellectuals would have regarded themselves as children of the Enlightenment. Don’t worry though. Within a few pages, Pinker is having a well-deserved go at the “theocons” (mainly fundmentalist and evangelical Protestants) who have exerted populist pressure on recent US elections, so he can console himself that only religious people do this bad stuff. His justified polemics against anti-Enlightenment, retrogressive Islam must have helped him affirm his anti-religion views.

My chief complaint here, then, is that Pinker is too prone to divide the history of the betterment of humanity into two teams, basically the saved and the damned. On this side there are all those good secular humanists who embrace humane values, love and understand science and use reason. On that side there are all those horrible religious people who are incapable of reasoning, contribute nothing to science and devote themselves to various forms of “counter-Enlightenment”. Oh yeah, and there are a few nasty atheists too (Marxists, postmodernists etc.)

To give one last example of Pinker’s tendency to create teams, take this statement, with which, in the main, I heartily agree. Pinker condemns “a long tradition of cultural and religious elites sneering at the supposedly empty lives of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Cultural criticism can be a thinly disguised snobbery that shades into misanthropy. In The Intellectuals and the Masses, the critic John Carey shows how the British literary intelligentsia in the first decades of the 20th century harboured a contempt for the common person which bordered on the genocidal.” (Chapter 17, p.247) True, but if you take the trouble to read Carey’s book, you will find that the people Carey most decries are the Bloomsberries, all of whom would all have (like those admirers of modern tyrants) regarded themselves as children of the Enlightenment opposing religion, tradition and so forth just as Pinker does.

But enough. You are weary of this by now, and my arguments are becoming as repetitive as Pinker’s own. I reaffirm that I find much to agree with in Enlightenment Now. Yes, material progress is beneficial, science and reason are good things and [probably] the mass of humanity are better off now than they have ever been, while admitting that there is still much poverty and strife in the world. Further, I enjoyed many of the swipes Pinker takes at postmodernism, hysterical doomsayers, Nietzsche and various other people who have exerted a malign influence. But by his own partiality and biases, Pinker paints a very limited picture of how progress and material betterment happen, assumes that everything beneficial in the last three hundred years has been achieved by secular humanists like himself, ignores anything beneficial in history before the Enlightenment, and divides humanity into neatly-competing teams of the enlightened and the unenlightened.

I hope I have enlightened you.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for an insightful read.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed Pinker’s past works but thought Enlightenment Now didn’t quite reach the brilliance of his previous arguments. In particular, I noted, in accordance with your ‘saved and the damned’ observations, a persistent habit of playing things a little too fast and convenient.

    If you have any inclination, I would love to see your thoughts on what I would argue is his strongest work - The Blank Slate. The book is an effort to lay out an assessment of the intellectual/political lineage of the nature/nurture debate informed by a scientific understandings of human nature. If it’s not baiting the hook too much, I would suggest that you’ll struggle to find a sharper and more reasonable dissection of faddish intellectual nonsense.

    Anyway, thank you for your work. Happy reading.