Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

"My new favorite book of all time." --Bill Gates "A terrific book...[Pinker] recounts the progress across a broad array of metrics, from health to wars, the environment to happiness, equal rights to quality of life." --The New York TimesThe follow-up to Pinker's groundbreaking The Better Angels of Our Nature presents the big picture of human progress: people are living lon...

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Title:Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Author:Steven Pinker
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Edition Language:English

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress Reviews

  • Jillian Doherty

    Ever since Bill Gates tweeted his endorsement for Pinker's Better Angels, fans have rushed to support his writing of big ideas by big thinkers!

    Enlightenment Now illustrates Pinker's practical yet tangible style, but is freshly positive as well. His explosive understanding toward social science and political empathy will appeal to all big thinkers and affirmative readers alike.

  • Mark

    As in

    , Steven Pinker shows us why we have to look beyond the news cycle and our own biases to examine the forces that have continuously improved conditions for the bulk of humanity. And Pinker provides the data to back his arguments up. There's no doubt that Pinker will be accused of being a Pollyanna, but he acknowledges that mankind has hard work ahead - including dealing with global climate change. His argument is simply that if we stand a chance at confronting

    As in

    , Steven Pinker shows us why we have to look beyond the news cycle and our own biases to examine the forces that have continuously improved conditions for the bulk of humanity. And Pinker provides the data to back his arguments up. There's no doubt that Pinker will be accused of being a Pollyanna, but he acknowledges that mankind has hard work ahead - including dealing with global climate change. His argument is simply that if we stand a chance at confronting these challenges, we must stick with the enlightenment values of Reason, Science and Humanism that have achieved progress in the past.

    Agree or disagree (everyone will have quibbles, and many will accuse Pinker of outright sophistry), this is an essential read that will be talked about (Bill Gates just named it his "new favorite book of all time"). As for myself, my puzzlement is over why Pinker's arguments seem so contrarian when they should be part of the mainstream.

    I had the privilege of reading an Advance Release Copy. This book is worth picking up on the publication date, so you can be part of the media conversation that will follow. There is currently an intense interest among readers in books that describe our current political moment.

    should provoke great interest among these readers because it is both an important analysis of our times and a big-picture complement to the recent bestsellers that will soon be last years news.

  • Gary Moreau

    This is a magnificent book written by a brilliant author who happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on language and the mind. (Yes, he’s a psycholinguist.)

    Thankfully, I fully agree with 99% of everything he says. The case for humanism and for progress has never been stronger and he makes that case clearly and strongly. The problem with reality, however, is that it always exists in context, so when it comes to graphs and statistics, there’s a lot of wiggle room if you have the time an

    This is a magnificent book written by a brilliant author who happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on language and the mind. (Yes, he’s a psycholinguist.)

    Thankfully, I fully agree with 99% of everything he says. The case for humanism and for progress has never been stronger and he makes that case clearly and strongly. The problem with reality, however, is that it always exists in context, so when it comes to graphs and statistics, there’s a lot of wiggle room if you have the time and the research staff. Having said that, I nonetheless believe that this is a very disciplined and sincere attempt to tell an accurate and complete story.

    If there is a but for me it is the fact that Enlightenment reason is often interpreted to be deductive reason. It is the reason behind the scientific method that moves from left to right conceptually – the logic behind cause and effect. It is the gift of the Enlightenment and, as Pinker notes, is so far ahead of our prior knowledge that it is almost ridiculous to compare. But—and it’s a but he accepts—it’s not infallible.

    Said differently, science is often more about probabilities than truths. Initial scientific conclusions are often wrong, although “wrong” is the wrong word. Technology and science don’t determine truth so much as they reveal the truth that has always been there. Which is why it sometimes takes a few attempts and no one should ever wish to turn back the clock of technology. It won’t happen and we shouldn’t want it to.

    One of the unintended consequences of the Enlightenment focus on deduction, however, is that we tend to see the world in binary terms of either/or. We tend to see the only alternative to humanism or liberal democracy, in other words, to be authoritarianism, or, as Pinker puts it, “a strong leader who wrenches the country backward to make it ‘great again’.”

    The implication, I think, is that liberalism must be built on individualism. And I’m not convinced it has to be. Why can’t liberalism exist for the collective good? Are not the purpose of power and the structure of power two different things?

    Pinker uses Adam Smith’s famous example of the pin maker, as an example, to echo Smith’s individualistic sentiment that in a free market “each gets back something that is more valuable to him than what he gives up.” And for much of the post-Enlightenment era that truth has held.

    It is, however, predicated on the ideal of “efficient" markets and “fully informed” consumers and labor. And do those really exist in our current technologically connected world? Is the single mother working for minimum wage really getting back more than she gives up when we consider that in modern society we have made money not just a luxury flowing from the division of labor but a necessity for bare survival? To put it in Pinker’s own terms of progress, the destitute poor today are arguably worse off—relatively speaking—than the destitute poor during Smith’s time. Yes, they lived hard lives back then, but, as Pinker would point out, nobody lived very long, health and safety standards were low for everyone, and there was little in the way of meaningful convenience that even money could buy. And where will the single mother’s kids be without access to good education and technology – both of which now cost money?

    Early in the book, in the chapter aptly named “Progressophobia,” Pinker notes, “Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.” At one level, it’s spot on. At another level, however, a count is one-dimensional. (It’s binary) In my experience, however, reality is full of dualities. My count is someone else’s ‘don’t have.’ He notes this himself. The denial of duality is a simple strategy for winning an argument but doesn’t always do the subject justice.

    Which brings me to my last point. And I suppose it’s another version of the binary challenge. Pinker notes, for example, “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress … It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class …” I won’t take it personally because he doesn’t know me from a bag of elbows. Hate is an awfully binary word, however.

    A truly great book. Perhaps book of the year. You need to read it.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    I really enjoy Pinker's books. I think I have read all of them. I enjoyed this one as well despite some of my political differences with Pinker. I laud his hailing of the enlightenment. I am with him this maligned movement should get more respect than it does. I am a big believer in modernity. I agree science and reason even when done by flawed bipeds like ourselves is the best guide in our mental toolbox. Pinker recognizes that our modern politics is tribal and this clouds our judgment turning

    I really enjoy Pinker's books. I think I have read all of them. I enjoyed this one as well despite some of my political differences with Pinker. I laud his hailing of the enlightenment. I am with him this maligned movement should get more respect than it does. I am a big believer in modernity. I agree science and reason even when done by flawed bipeds like ourselves is the best guide in our mental toolbox. Pinker recognizes that our modern politics is tribal and this clouds our judgment turning partisans into rah rah cheerleaders ignoring valid points by the opposition. And I would love if everyone fact checked and powerful people and interests bowed to reasoned argument and were willing to eat there profits, put up with regulation, and sacrificed shareholder value for the long term benefit of all based on calm rational inquiry and argument but that isn't how the all too human political arena works.Reason and enlightenment values like the philosopher king of Plato should rule the roost but it never seems to get voted in. Reason for citizens is important and should be taught and preached but it doesn't move the powerful. Popular pressure can and has throughout the enlightenment era. I like Pinker's book I would want it to be on a philosopher kings shelf but reason by itself can't move entrenched power. Pinker seems to think inequality isn't really a problem because everyone is materially better off than in the past the problem is even if everyone is comfortable high levels of inequality are corrosive to democracy and like a bad positive feedback loop concentrate political power undoing much of the benefits of democracy and undoing republics. I don't care if the Koch brothers have billions, I do care if they want to buy every politician in congress and force their kooky libertarian ideas on the rest of us. That is why inequality matters. And you don't stop people like the Kochs without popular pressure.

  • David Wineberg

    You’ve never had it so good, and Steven Pinker has the stats and charts (over 70!) to prove it. Wars are fewer and less severe, homicides are down, racism is in decline, terrorism is a fading fad, democracy rules, communicable diseases and poverty are on their way out. Life expectancy is up, and police are killing fewer people, both black and white. Even the poor have refrigerators. Inequality is a requisite sign of success. So appreciate the wonderful state of affairs you find yourself in. This

    You’ve never had it so good, and Steven Pinker has the stats and charts (over 70!) to prove it. Wars are fewer and less severe, homicides are down, racism is in decline, terrorism is a fading fad, democracy rules, communicable diseases and poverty are on their way out. Life expectancy is up, and police are killing fewer people, both black and white. Even the poor have refrigerators. Inequality is a requisite sign of success. So appreciate the wonderful state of affairs you find yourself in. This is the message of Enlightenment Now, with a title that sounds like a protest placard, but which is actually a survey of the world by the statistics that states collect.

    We’re so “progressive”, we’re beating back entropy itself. Steven Pinker takes 500 pages to create a world where everything is so fabulously much better than it ever has been, that anyone who says different is perpetuating an intellectual lie. This is why it is your enlightenment. The book is an endless, uplifting editorial. If you’re buying.

    He’s at his best criticizing politics and science. He shows precisely how our biases prejudice our most thoughtful conclusions, and bemoans the lack of respect for science and the humanities. He says science is presented in some schools as “just another narrative, or myth”. Humanities are in danger of extinction, and they are critical to progress.

    Pinker has a nice tendency to support his arguments with examples and charts. Unfortunately, he balances this with a tendency to ignore states or countries that don’t conform to his claims, and he swings numbers around to make them look better. He claims when he measures what people consume as opposed to what they earn, the poverty rate in the USA is 3%. So really, everyone is thriving. Even if they’re visibly not.

    I fully realize Pinker is untouchable and slated for sainthood, but many things he says don’t add up, and a lot of it is just outrageous on its face. Let him speak for himself:

    -On war: “Virtually every acre of land that was conquered after 1928 has been returned to the state that lost it.” (Something must have happened in 1927 for him to pick 1928, but he doesn’t say). Where do you even begin to refute this? Kaliningrad? Mauritania? The South China Sea? Crimea? Dombass? Palestine?

    -He defends the demolition of the middle classes in the West. Yes, a hundred million Americans are worse off. But a billion Chinese are better off. “The tradeoff is worth it,” he says. That the extremely rich got fabulously more rich is fine with him, too.

    -On terrorism’s “decline”, Pinker points to recently low numbers of victim deaths to show how safe we really are. He doesn’t mention all the freedom of movement, assembly and privacy we have lost to the terrorists. He’s satisfied they don’t kill that much, and that they will eventually fade away.

    -On the mellowing of war: “Weapons don’t come into existence just because they are conceivable or physically possible.” Yes, they do. And worse, everything can be weaponized, from food to mouseclicks. Pinker goes even further, claiming “most historians” don’t think the atomic bombings caused Japan to surrender in three days, but rather it was the potential of Russia turning its attention from west to east.

    -There is a great deal of nonsense about how much cheaper life is today. The provision of a light indoors would have cost the equivalent of £40,000 in the middle ages (if anyone could read), while today, lights cost fractions of pennies. And 100 years ago it took 1800 hours’ work to afford a refrigerator (among too many more such examples). But Pinker never bothers with the other side of the coin. That today, everyone must spend $150 a month on cable, $125 on phone (after purchasing a phone every two years, with each costing more than the fridge), a $20,000 car, a mortgage, and $50,000 in school debt (none of which were factors in the cost of living in the middle ages ) or be unable to function in society. His endless comparisons are pointless.

    -He keeps repeating that because even the poor have flush toilets and refrigerators, they are much better off today than ever. He says even the fabulously wealthy Rothschilds didn’t have a washing machine like nearly everyone (80%) now supposedly has.

    Pinker dismisses ecology as a pastime of the affluent. The more educated and wealthy we become, the more eco-conscious we become, so everything works out. He completely ignores the fact we have crossed the red line. That the oceans are toxic, that there is trash and plastic everywhere, that the carbon levels are at unseemly record levels. That the Paris Accord has not dented the damage one bit. But, he says, the air over London is no longer purple every day.

    The book ends with an interminable bashing of religion, which Pinker considers “intellectually bankrupt”. He cites all the usual contradictions and hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and longing for a cleaner era that never existed. Basically, religion and enlightenment are oil and water.

    So you can look at Enlightenment Now in two ways, according to your own various biases. Either the greater message of positivism is too important (and correct) to criticize Pinker’s maddening claims, or the maddening claims make the whole exercise suspect.

    David Wineberg

  • Charles

    As with Steven Pinker’s earlier "The Better Angels of Our Nature," of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extr

    As with Steven Pinker’s earlier "The Better Angels of Our Nature," of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting. On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.

    I like Pinker for his clarity of mind. And since I have been reading a steady diet of books whose central claim is that the Enlightenment was a mistake, and moreover I am personally enamored of Reaction, the idea of creating a new thing by reference to the old, it is only fair that I consider the opposite ideas presented as well as possible. Moreover, this book claims to answer exactly a current question of mine—is the material marvel that is the modern world the child of the Enlightenment? I was not disappointed; this book is just what the doctor ordered, at least to clarify my own thoughts, though probably not with the result Pinker intended. He wants to prove the Enlightenment is responsible for everything that is good in the modern world, and every good thing that will be in the future, but he ends up, for the most part, refuting himself on all his key claims. Still, the ride is interesting enough and that alone makes his book worth reading.

    On the second page of his book, Pinker enunciates the core of his argument, by referring to “the Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.” The next sentence, by implication, defines the Enlightenment further as “the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress.” The following paragraph says the Enlightenment is “also called humanism, the open society, and cosmopolitan or classical liberalism.” All this creates a somewhat confused definition, but once you read the whole book, it’s evident that to Pinker, the middle sentence is the key—the Enlightenment consists in the primacy to human societies of “reason, science, humanism, and progress.” His book revolves around these four concepts, and we will return to each of these concepts in turn.

    Pinker divides his book into three parts. The first, shortest, part expands on what Pinker means by “the Enlightenment.” Here, Pinker begins by turning to the driver of all the progress that he details at great length later in the book, namely, the Scientific Revolution. “The Enlightenment is conventionally placed in the last two-thirds of the 18th century, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason in the 17th century.” Given that the term “Age of Reason” is only used in one other place in this book, at the very end in a similar context, while the terms “Enlightenment” and “Scientific Revolution” are used continuously, it seems fair to conclude that Pinker believes that the Scientific Revolution (actually beginning in the 1500s, and possibly earlier, not “in the 17th century”) was the necessary first step that combined with the Enlightenment to produce the benefits of the modern world. Pinker reinforces this conclusion by summarizing the modern understanding of scientific progress to include entropy, evolution, and information. Grasping these three underlying drivers of scientific progress, Pinker tells us, allows a more complete approach to scientific understanding, and thus of the Enlightenment.

    All this is true. The problem with this definition of the Enlightenment, though, is that it is all about the Scientific Revolution, from its inception to today, and when you look closely at it, has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution led to technology, which ultimately (with some other drivers that are endlessly debated) led to the Industrial Revolution, which created nearly all the progress Pinker spends the second part of his book documenting. But this eliding of the Enlightenment with the Scientific Revolution is the fatal error of Pinker’s entire book—every chapter, and practically every page, is shot through with it. Pinker claims for the Enlightenment, a system of political and philosophical principles with a nearly exclusive focus on increasing liberty, the advantages of created by the Scientific Revolution, a pre-Enlightenment happening whose success, and whose single-handed creation of the modern world, had essentially nothing to do with the Enlightenment. Pinker does this because he wishes to advocate for Enlightenment principles (in particular, emancipation and atheism), but justify those principles almost wholly by reference to the achievements of the Scientific Revolution. This is a neat parlor trick, but intellectually dishonest. I cannot tell whether Pinker realizes the dishonesty, or merely has wandered so far into the weeds he cannot think clearly. In either case, the effect is to make some parts of the book fascinating, and others risible.

    There are many, many claimed reasons for why the Industrial Revolution occurred, and why it only occurred in the West. But no serious historian claims that it was the Enlightenment that caused the Industrial Revolution, which is no doubt why Pinker glosses over the supposed linkage and offers no citations tying the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution (or, for that matter, to the Scientific Revolution). For a man dedicated to carefully parsing the evidence and linking causal chains through reasoning, this is a glaring omission. Fortunately for the reader, though, these first philosophical musings, or ramblings, only take up the first thirty-five pages of the book. The next 300 are an endless, and endlessly fascinating, series of statistical analyses about various forms of (mostly material) progress. In the final sixty pages, the last third of the book, Pinker returns to philosophy, attempting to synthesize the progress he has demonstrated with his other claimed keystones of the modern world, reason, science, and humanism.

    Pinker’s basic point about progress is a broadening of his claims about peace in "The Better Angels of Our Nature"—that those who think the world is getting worse are wrong, not (mostly) from malice, but from various forms of psychological bias, such as the “Optimism Gap” (people see their own lives as better than other people’s); “Availability Bias” (we make decisions based on data easily available to us, which is often weighted toward the negative); and “Negativity Bias” (it’s easier to imagine how things could be dramatically worse than how they could be dramatically better). To prove this, Pinker offers fourteen separate chapters, each covering a totally different area of progress, demonstrating that since the Scientific Revolution human conditions have gotten better.

    Pinker starts with Life—he shows how life expectancy, both at birth and at later periods of life, has dramatically increased over time—or, rather, since the Industrial Revolution in the West, and since the early twentieth century in much of the rest of the world. Next is Health, to much the same effect. In both chapters, Pinker relies heavily on Nobel Prize-winner Angus Deaton’s "The Great Escape," a fascinating book. But Pinker’s philosophical confusion shows up every time he makes other than statistical claims—for example, he tells us that “Deaton notes that even the idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment—knowledge can make us better off—may come as a revelation” to some (i.e., the non-Western) parts of the world. There are two problems with this. First, that is not the “idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment,” it is in an idea that, in the West, far pre-dated the Enlightenment, as I discuss further below. More to the immediate point, that’s not what Deaton says (since I have a copy of his book, I checked). What Deaton actually says is that people in poor countries are often satisfied with their health, not knowing it can be better. He saying nothing about the Enlightenment, or knowledge in general. Unfortunately, such appeals to authority are common in Pinker’s book (surprising, since appeal to authority has been identified as a basic logical fallacy for millennia), and when the authority is mis-cited, it makes matters worse. (The reader’s suspicion is further exacerbated by Pinker’s frequent habit of not offering page cites, just footnotes to books as a whole, though he does give a page cite to Deaton’s book.)

    Anyway, Pinker next turns to food (Sustenance), where he again talks about the Scientific Revolution (including its modern continuation in Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution) feeding the world, and then tries to claim that it was an accomplishment of the Enlightenment, and failure to feed people as shown by Stalin’s terror famines was because (supposed) Enlightenment values weren’t honored. That’s a stretch. Next is wealth, where Pinker focuses on GDP per capita, showing the takeoff since the Industrial Revolution in the West and more recently in some Asian countries, and the reductions in extreme poverty in other countries that have not experienced the same kind of takeoff.

    Following is Inequality, which Pinker acutely and subtly analyzes (channeling Thomas Sowell in some cases—you can tell that Pinker is, in many areas, broad-minded by the several times he cites Sowell for different propositions, since Sowell is anathema to doctrinaire leftists). Then Environment, noting that other than global warming, the environment is doing just fine and shows every sign of doing better in the future, on every metric. In particular, he notes how resource apocalypses, from Peak Oil to supposed shortages of rare earth elements, are invariably falsified, by technology in general and by hard work enabling us to produce better things with less material. He also covers Peace, updating his earlier book Better Angels, and Safety, noting the declines in homicides and accidents. He quickly dismisses Terrorism as a tempest in a teapot.

    It’s not just material progress that Pinker covers, although that’s the focus. It’s also moral progress—we are, among other things, nicer to people. Less torture, fewer executions, more value assigned to human life and happiness. True enough, but a necessary leg of Pinker’s entire argument is that there was no significant moral progress prior to the Enlightenment, since prior progress would disprove the causation he claims. But prior progress in the West was very great, as anyone with any grasp of history knows. Christianity immediately obviated many of the worst moral behaviors of the Ancient World (variants of which are still common in non-Christian cultures), from infanticide to the Roman practice of starving children to death in sight of a banquet, to distill their organs into love potions that would enhance desire. Christianity further led to the rule of law and was instrumental in the creation of the institutions that made possible the Scientific Revolution. All these moves forward, as Pinker documents while glossing over their cause, led to further moral gains. To hide his embarrassment at these pre-Enlightenment advances, Pinker chants, over and over again, the same trite phrases about “endless religious wars” and repeats boring anecdotes about witchcraft and bearbaiting.

    After these convincing chapters (convincing for their substance, at least), Pinker covers some softer topics, somewhat less successfully. Generally, the less harder-edged and susceptible to statistical analysis the topic, the worse Pinker does in showing that actual progress is being made. In fairness, though, it is true these softer topics, to the extent one agrees they constitute actual progress comparable to that covered in the earlier chapters, are more tied to actual Enlightenment ideas.

    First up is Democracy, which he claims is increasing, but Pinker helps himself over the finish line by defining democracy as basically any good government, one which “threads the needle, exerting just enough force to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself.” That, along with other definitional broadening from Karl Popper and John Mueller, means that democracy is redefined as any government with the rule of law and some responsiveness to public opinion. But in any case, there’s more democracy, however defined, and that’s Progress. Next is Equal Rights, where Pinker goes full Left, trumpeting all emancipation as good for what ails a society, and all failure to emancipate as evil incarnate (although he seems confused, since what is evil, anyway, to someone who denies the reality of moral abstractions other than utilitarian ones?) He does try to give a scientific gloss to his philosophical attachment to emancipation, ascribing it to more wealth means more people seek self-actualization, and want the same for others. This he then extrapolates to a claim that liberal values are spreading everywhere, with a lot of graphs (though we’re never told what “liberal values” are being measured, but by implication they overlap with “emancipative values”).

    Then Knowledge (we know more, and we’re getting smarter); Quality of Life (we work less and both the necessities and luxuries of life are cheaper); and Happiness (we are happier, largely because we’re richer, though Deaton covers this much better and more subtly). Along with Daniel T. Rodgers, Pinker huffily rejects Robert Putnam and others who point to the atomization of American lives as a problem, with the flip response that “Users of the Internet and social media have more contact with friends” and they “remain as satisfied with the number and quality of their friendships as in the decade of Gerald Ford and Happy Days.” But this is obtuse. Putnam’s claim wasn’t that people didn’t have friends anymore, it was that the intermediary institutions that were the entire basis of the success of any successful, and in particular, the successful American, society had been completely destroyed, resulting in the cascading baleful effects that Tocqueville and Robert Nisbet had earlier identified and feared. Pinker totally fails to make this connection, or more likely deliberately obfuscates it (which is probably why he refers to fears of social atomization as a “hysterical misconception”—that’s protesting too much). Not to mention that Putnam would have told him, too, that the problem was well under way by the time of Gerald Ford, so the 1970s are probably not the best comparison decade to today.

    Finally, Pinker points out that Existential Threats, from Y2K to bioterror, are grossly exaggerated. Sure, we can’t know the future, but on balance, we’re not all likely to wink out of existence next week, or next millennium. Of the supposed threat from artificial intelligence, he says “the scenario makes about as much sense as the worry that since jet planes have surpassed the flying ability of eagles, someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle.” Ha ha. He’s also heinously sexist. “There is no law of complex systems that says that intelligent agents must turn into ruthless conquistadors. Indeed, we know of one highly advanced form of intelligence that evolved without this defect. They’re called women.”

    I like all this, and agree with much of it (although I could do without the constant references to Mama Cass and the Beatles, reminding me Pinker is stuck, in many ways, in the 1960s). I am mostly a techno-optimist myself. However, Pinker’s greatest technical error, as opposed to failure of vision, is to believe (like Joseph Tainter) that if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist. I’m a quantitative guy, personally—I have an MBA with finance and accounting concentrations from the Booth School of Business, and my wife correctly says I view the world as Neo does in the last scenes of "The Matrix"—as cascading columns of numbers underlying the perceived, but merely surface, reality of things. Certainly, non-quantifiable views of human flourishing are subject to errors of perception, which is probably why Pinker repeatedly excoriates the Romantics. But Pinker is too quick to reject that humans seek transcendence, and all the new flavors of Doritos and life extension in the world isn’t going to change that. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Pinker is fond of quoting Jesus, always with a sneer, but he does not offer us that truth, because it scares him, since it cannot be quantified.

    But the unquantifiable aspects of progress are a topic too long to get into in this review. Pinker wraps up Progress by talking about its future. He does this by making totally unsupported claims about the origin of Progress. “Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81.” “The Enlightenment is working: for two and a half centuries, people have used knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” Therefore, it’s going to continue, don’t you know? No logic is offered, just repetition of the mantra of “knowledge” and trying to tie the Enlightenment to the Scientific Revolution by repeatedly mentioning them in the same breath. It’s not convincing; in fact, it comes across as desperate.

    Embedded within all this proof of progress (for proof is what it is—we can quibble, or call it incomplete, but only a fool would say that material progress since the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution has not been immense), is the truth, difficult for some to accept, that all this progress was caused purely by, and until recently only affected, the West. It is the Western world has gotten better—and finally, after 400 years, some of those benefits have been adopted by others. That’s it. This is not a global phenomenon in cause, and it may not be a global phenomenon in effect, if the inferior cultures of the world, for whatever reason, refuse to accept the gifts offered by the Western Scientific Revolution. Pinker doesn’t make this point, either, though I can see why—it’s inflammatory and distracts from his argument. (He does admit that his first love, the Enlightenment, was a wholly Western phenomenon, a topic he shuffles away from quickly, mumbling about how ideas have no home, which may be true, but they do have a birthplace.)

    [Review continues as first comment.]

  • Gary

    When this book was not boring me it was irritating me.

    All of the author’s anecdotes I had read elsewhere. Science is good. I don’t need convincing. Vaccines work. Poverty is bad and is getting better throughout the world. Everyone who wants to know this stuff already knows it.

    Why equate Al Gore with Theodore Kaczynski (The Unabomber) as the author seems to do regarding the environment? Is Fox News really right when they said the poor can’t be poor because they have cell phones and air condition

    When this book was not boring me it was irritating me.

    All of the author’s anecdotes I had read elsewhere. Science is good. I don’t need convincing. Vaccines work. Poverty is bad and is getting better throughout the world. Everyone who wants to know this stuff already knows it.

    Why equate Al Gore with Theodore Kaczynski (The Unabomber) as the author seems to do regarding the environment? Is Fox News really right when they said the poor can’t be poor because they have cell phones and air conditioning today? The author defended that absurdity though he doesn’t mention that Fox used to argue that when Obama was president.

    And why did the author make a false equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Trump? Sanders didn’t believe ‘climate change is a Chinese Hoax’, or pick someone in his cabinet who thinks vaccines cause autism, or wanted to build a wall and claim Mexico will pay for it, or feed our hate against Muslims, Browns, Asians or anyone who strikes his fancy for the day even kneeling football players.

    This author always seemed to have some pie in the sky anti-humanist post-modernist Strawman he was easily demolishing for some reason I couldn’t figure out. He mentioned the in-gratitude were in the 9th circle of hell and implied Dante had a point and people most of us have never heard of such as Heidegger, Adorno, and Neitzsche, and I think he also mentioned Marcuse belonged there for their in-gratitude. (I’m going to venture a guess, since I didn’t read all of the book: the author doesn’t like ‘identity politics’ and gets bothered by ‘political correctness’ and thinks ‘both sides’ are to blame. I don’t know if that’s where he was going, but I wasn’t going to find out by wading thru a familiar story I’ve read better told in other books).

    The author is completely out of his depth on economics and inequality. I suggest you read Piketty’s book instead of this author’s poorly constructed deconstruction of Piketty’s wonderful book, and then tell me again why inequality is not real or not a big deal! His Enlightenment and Romanticism knowledge seemed superficial. Of the 8 or so Voltaire quips he provided, I had heard them all elsewhere.

    I stopped this book after 5 hours. I got my credit back from Audible. I seldom do that. This author was teaching me nothing I didn’t already know, and worse than that seemed to have a disregard for the truth by trying to defend his own thesis beyond what the facts would take a reasonable person.

  • Owlseyes

    Koreas united now!!

    No more mass-shootings now!!

    Forever young now!!!

    Fair elections in Russia now!!

    A free Tibet now!!

    Etc, all you need is to say it....now.

    And then things look as if they are, as it's said; but in fact...

  • Richard

    Pinker’s latest is getting a lot of press, of course.

    Here are a few links:

    His own synopsis at the Wall Street Journal:

    (paywall; try Googling

    and clicking through from Google, maybe into “private browsing mode”. Works sometimes.)

    Ezra Klein of Vox is a pretty good interviewer, and he hooked up with Pinker

    I

    liked that they both name-dropped Dan Kahan's work at his

    at Yale Law School

    Pinker’s latest is getting a lot of press, of course.

    Here are a few links:

    His own synopsis at the Wall Street Journal:

    (paywall; try Googling

    and clicking through from Google, maybe into “private browsing mode”. Works sometimes.)

    Ezra Klein of Vox is a pretty good interviewer, and he hooked up with Pinker

    I

    liked that they both name-dropped Dan Kahan's work at his

    at Yale Law School. Even though Kahan's research has a slightly skewed focus on risk, that he points to "identity-protective cognition" is central how I perceive the tribal partisanship our country is in. The compound adjective is key; many folks now believe that

    can create an intrinsic cogntive bias, but far fewer realize how it is typically used: subconsciously, in protection of part of a person's

    .

    It's also kinda cool that this is now officially Bill Gate's "

    ". I'm ambivalent about Gates. On the negative side, I still despise how Microsoft, under his control, violated so many norms of fair play in pursuit of monopoly. And I know he's just doing that thing that plutocrats always do once making more money seems fruitless:

    . Oh, sorry that was the similarly amoral robber baron Andrew Carnegie. Same difference, right? But then I recall that Gates seems to be doing good things (as did Carnegie), while some

    use their wealth in ways I mostly dislike. So: ambivalence.

    Will I read it? Dunno. I really liked his

    , but my gut reaction is that his argument is facile: technically correct, but overlooks too much. For example, there's

    , which is scary even before that whole identity-protective motivated reasoning thing is added in. Maybe Pinker addresses that, though.

    And frankly, there’s just so much more to read out there. I know I'll be reading

    before Pinker.

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